By Mary Alice Kellogg
As one who loves to go down to the sea in ships – any ship, as long as I don’t have to steer it and there is a cocktail lounge – this is a Golden Age, indeed. So many new vessels … so little time! Do I want the small luxury option, or the behemoth with bells and whistles never dreamed of in the great ships of yore?
Having recently sampled the maiden voyages of the 450-passenger Seabourn Sojourn and the 5,000-passenger Allure of the Seas in the same week, I had the basic concerns: Are big ships impersonal/intimidating? Are small ships stuffy/ boring? Happily, I found lots to love about each. To wit:
SMALL SHIPS ARE EXCLUSIVE
Yes they are. That’s the point. The ne plus ultra in small luxury vessels, Seabourn’s Sojourn has everything sophisticated moi would want: white-glove service, 225 expansive suites (90% with verandas) including a mini-bar stocked with your favorites, stationery with your name on it, sleek décor and an elegant 11,400-square-foot spa with all the latest treatments and thermal rooms.
As befits the yacht-you-wish-you-had ambiance, all anytime-you-want dining venues are complimentary (including house wines), tipping is not required, and everybody knows your name and favorite drink from the get-go. Fine dining is a given, as award-winning Charlie Palmer is executive chef to the company. The main dining room is gorgeous, good for discreetly eyeballing the swells at dinner, but there are surprises: the intimate, contemporary Restaurant 2 promises – and delivers – an avant-garde dining experience with a set menu of six complex small-plate courses that could rival any boldface eatery on land.
Stuffy? That concern was banished upon boarding, when the nice man in a white suit to took my bags and showed me to my suite turned out to be one of the Sojourn’s officers. I was immediately at home as a resident of a small village where everyone is beautifully dressed, and aside from the various lively bars and lounges, found that the best place to meet other passengers was Seaborn Square, an area with lots of free computers, a library, a coffee bar, nicely edited mini-boutiques and resident Concierge to answer questions and make arrangements.
Grownups won’t be bored as there are myriad teas, wine-tastings, dance classes, lectures, live entertainment and first-run ensuite movies. ( Any child onboard will instantly be adopted by the village and spoiled rotten by the staff, but at this price point said child is probably already spoiled). Sojourn = Nirvana as as I left the yacht where everybody knew my name, cossetted by a world to which I intend to be accustomed. Forever.
BIG SHIPS HAVE LOTS OF STUFF
From the sublime to … the overwhelming? My first thought at seeing Royal Caribbean’s new Allure of the Seas, the largest passenger ship afloat and big enough at the dock to block out the sun. I was indeed overwhelmed that I – and 5,400 other guests – were whisked aboard in less than 15 minutes each. Bravo! My cabin, one of 2,700, was narrow yet restfully and modernly designed, with a tiny veranda and lots of storage.
The activities list was enough to make me take to my fainting couch: a zip line, surfing area, rock-climbing wall, ice rink, a road company of Chicago, 3-D movies, almost 30 dining venues and many more bars/lounges, several swimming pools, a casino as large as my apartment building, a blues club, Coach and Guess and myriad other mall shopping favorites, a parade by Dreamworks characters … and the first Starbucks at sea. Which I was going to need a lot. A full list of fun available would rival Wikipedia.This is a ship where crew members speak of “commuting” to their posts.
After the initial shock of the big, I felt more comfortable. Allure of the Seas is a city afloat, with a Main Street, easy signage for onboard travels, and an astounding collection of original curated art throughout. As in any city, you find your favorite places. While families went to dedicated parts of the ship (and their kids to a plethora of youth programs for all ages), I hung out in Central Park, as big as a football field and chockablock with real plants fringed by fine dining venues and upscale boutiques. A true oasis where I would go for quiet … and to watch Rise, the bar that does just that up three decks and down in a 45-minute trip, get to its highest point.
I could be as alone as I wanted, but got swept up in the fun, doing my first zip line ever, seeing Chicago yet again, appreciating the showmanship in the Dreamworks parade, watching a late-night water show featuring Olympic swimmers and high-divers which left me gasping and cheering. While families galore were taking in hot dogs and other family fare, I’d repair to the main dining room for lunch where a Bistro section featured the best salad bar I have experienced, hands down. Most memorable meal: the Samba Grill, where the ship’s solarium by day converts to a true Brazilian churrascaria at night … with samba dancers between courses. (While samba dancers haven’t been a feature of churrascarias I’ve been to in Rio and New York, the food was spot-on authentic.)
I learned two key things from Allure of the Seas: 1) Royal Caribbean doesn’t do big-ship “industrial feeding;” each dining venue featured food that was fresh, well-prepared and surprisingly good. Which leads me to 2) The service. With 2,400 crew (representing 80 countries), I was gobsmacked at the professionalism, warmth and concern of each one I enountered, from cabin steward to waiter to all those who would stop and answer questions with a smile no matter which part of the ship they were going; one I met had a 20-minute commute from cabin to job. If the staff is happy, the ship is happy; Royal Caribbean has made great strides recently in that regard, and it showed.
Yes, tipping is the norm, you sign for cocktails and reservations at specialty dining spots have an extra charge. This is not an all-inclusive ship, but guests can plot their activities and budgets just as they would in a visit to any city … which this ship is.
Assumptions about life aboard a large ship banished, on Allure of the Seas I found myself relaxed, elegant when I wanted to be, private and/or entertained when I needed to be. Dare I say I had fun? I do.
Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com