Five-star service on the high seas

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There is a bathtub in my veranda suite on the Seabourn Ovation. A bath. To emphasize how stunned I am, I take pictures and send them to friends. A bath, I write. A real bath, in my room, on a boat which is about to circumnavigate Central America for two weeks.

I remember the lyrics to pop star Robbie William’s song Party like a Russian: “I put a bank inside a car inside a plane inside a boat.”

I mean, I’ve sailed on some of the bigger ships that sail the blue ocean, but mostly they have showers so compact you can poke yourself in the eye trying to pick up a soap grave.

So, find a bath, in my room, in a boat, on the high seas? Good to sail again.

We must undergo a supervised COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) at the ship’s terminal in Miami before being allowed on board, but in today’s world prevention is better than cure.

In fact, with the crew masked 24/7 and everyone tested RAT and PCR within an inch of their lives, it’s the ocean equivalent of the ship being injected with water of bleach, blown in ultraviolet light and smothered in ivermectin.

For Seabourn Ovation read SS Antiseptic.

We weigh anchor in the early evening and escape from a sensual Miami under a leaden sky. I watch the shimmering skyline of the city’s waterfront recede while gulping down clam chowder and cheesecake at Colonnade, the alfresco dining area at the blunt end of the ship.

It’s the start of the Seabourn Central America and Panama Canal Pathfinder cruise, a 14-day odyssey through every country that no one can find on a map (except maybe Mexico).

Other countries on our round-trip itinerary include (in order of visit) Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Guatemala.

Or as I like to call it, the Central American Suck-It-And-See Tour. You’ll never get a real feel for a country from a brief day trip, but you’ll definitely get a taste of the place – and maybe if it would be worth going there. return one day (I’m looking at you, Cozumel, tequila-soaked island).

There are a number of excursions that can be booked (at an additional cost) at each destination, from simple lazy days on a beach to longer trips to snorkel, visit a national park or dive into the local culture.

Apart from the excursions, the cruise is above all the boat, the entertainment, the food and the number of cocktails that it is possible to consume in an afternoon around the swimming pool. I suspect my DNA changed when we finally moved back to Miami and I’m now part pina colada.

The Seabourn Ovation, which first slipped on the slipway in 2018, is frighteningly luxurious and, it seems, almost every room has a tub (and here I thought I was special). For numbers lovers, it has 300 suites, can accommodate 600 guests, its cruising speed is 15 knots, has 13 decks, has a tonnage of 40,350, is 210 meters long and 28 meters wide, which the nests nicely among the small class cruise ships.

It has a restaurant called The Restaurant and a sushi bar called Sushi. The spa is called, wait for it, The Spa but, oddly enough, the lovely people who come to clean the rooms in the morning and turn them down in the evening are now known as Personal Suite Stewardesses.

There’s also a wood-panelled a la carte restaurant called The Grill by Thomas Keller where, in addition to steaks, lamb chops and lobster, they theatrically prepare a Caesar salad right at the table. Don’t skimp on the anchovies, man.

I don’t know about you, but to me a cruise ship is a cruise ship is a cruise ship (despite the bath) and the only big difference between them is size.

There are the usual shiny and expensive brass, glass and wood fixtures, and a central circular staircase that plunges through the many floors and has jaw-dropping Escher qualities if you stare at it for too long.

There’s a pool, a few hot tubs scattered around (including a secret at the pointy end of Deck 7 that no one seems to know about, so keep it to yourself), and mirrored elevators that wherever you look, show your baldness.

The Ovation avoids one of the most glaring flaws of some cruise liners, which is that carpeting in common areas doesn’t induce headaches.

But all this is material. Where the Ovation shines is in its software – aka the crew. On my first morning at sea, I walk down to the main breakfast room to be greeted by a crew member I’ve never met before.

“Hello, Mr. Austin,” she said.

This act of mental conjuring is then repeated frequently throughout the ship in the days to come, as many other passengers will later attest.

One of them, Andrew, explains that he has been on several Seabourn cruises and is a big fan of the staff: “If you decide to have champagne and caviar in your room at 3am, they will bring it to you. I don’t seem to know the word ‘no’. Give them a few days, they’ll all know your name and what you’re drinking.

John, another regular cruiser from Atlanta, Georgia, said: “Friends and I once watched the Australian Open on a Seabourn cruise and ordered popcorn at 2 a.m. Then we tried to find something they couldn’t do or deliver. We failed.”

As if to prove it, the next day I realize that I left a phone charging cable in my hotel room in Miami and a baseball cap in the taxi at the port. Both are happily replaced within 30 minutes.

One of my favorite moments comes at 6:15 a.m. when the Seabourn Square lounge/reception cafe opens.

I’m there every morning for a coffee and a hot croissant, served by the irrepressible Amra from Bosnia, a woman whose smile I can only guess thanks to the 24/7 mask rule.

I notice her hovering over the tray of freshly baked goods with tongs and wonder what she’s doing. She is, she laughs, “looking for the prettiest”.

That’s service.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE AND DO ON SEABOURN OVATION

TO TEND TO

Retreat to The Retreat on Deck 12 – a private adult-only space where nothing is too much trouble. Fifteen private cabanas are arranged around a central hot tub under a canopy. It’s like having your own luxury lounge in the sun, complete with champagne, fruit basket, lunch, fully stocked fridge, fluffy bathrobes, TV and Bluetooth-enabled headphones.

THE LIBRARY

It’s only a few libraries around the edge of Seabourn’s main square, but I’ve seen dedicated libraries without the thoughtfulness of this small collection. Think All the light we can’t see next to Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood The Wills side by side with Hanya Yanagihara A little life. There is even Carl Morathe new one from the creator of Hannibal Lecter but, really, don’t bother.

AFTERNOON TEA

There’s a tinkling piano in the Observation Bar at the front of the ship, the singer chirps the Beatles My beautiful Michelle and the waiter just pulled up a little hourglass so I could gauge the strength of my tea. There’s a crepe suzette and scones too. The only dilemma is jam or cream first?

POOL SIDE

There’s always something exciting going on around the pool, whether it’s cruise directors pushing a cart of gelato, country-themed hi-jinks and drinks, or games between crew and hotly contested guests. Just be quick on Caviar Day around the pool; this substance disappears faster than crops in an invasion of locusts.

ENTERTAINMENT

The Grand Salon is the venue for nightly shows ranging from solo performances to extravaganzas while singing and dancing. There is a lot of The seta bar or two of Charlie and the chocolate factoryan assortment of Tim Rice, a violin virtuoso from Ukraine and a magician who reads minds.

THE DETAILS

AFTER

traveller.com.au/cruises

CRUISE

Seabourn Cruise Line’s 14-day Central America and Panama Canal Pathfinder itinerary will depart in December 2023 on Seabourn Quest. It costs from $7999 for an Oceanview room and from $9999 for a Verandah, single, twin room. Tips are included, as is unlimited food and drinks. See seabourn.com

Keith Austin traveled as a guest of Seabourn Cruise Line.

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