Seven Days at Sea

14 Jan 2018
6 min read
A culinary and culturally-rich programme, complete with caviar and champagne on tap, makes touring Vietnam via the South China Sea all the more charming on board Seabourn’s Sojourn, writes Kerry Spencer.

Leaving Hong Kong’s hazy skyline behind is never easy. But as I sipped on a champagne cocktail, topped with a lemon twist, it didn’t feel all that difficult, either. I was sitting inSeabournSojourn’s Observation Loungeembarking on my first sailing experience.

My journey would take me down the coast of Vietnam, calling at Da Nang, Halong Bay and Ho Chi Minh City. The voyage continued for most passengers to Cambodia and Thailand, before coming to an end two weeks after it began in Singapore. The occasion was Seabourn’sfirstTaste of Asia Food and Winecruise.

From the off, the food on board Sojourn was exceptional. For a cruise line that is arguably regarded as the most luxurious in the world, their food and drink offerings usually rate among the best of the best at sea.

But this was my first time at sea (not counting crossing the English Channel on a ferry or one particularly rough experience on board a trawler off the Cornish coast) and I had reservations. Is it really possible to immerse oneself in a foreign culture while on a ship? The answer, I soon discovered, is yes. Not only that but, Sojourn, captained by Karlo Buer, allows guests to lead a 24-7 life of luxury. And who could ask for more from their precious vacation time?

First-timers were invited to attend welcome drinks with the cruise director—on our ship this was led by David E. Green—who greeted and chatted to the ship’s new guests over cocktails. This was my opportunity to find out more about the ship and its rich food and wine programme. One thing that was clear from the beginning was that Seabourn goes all out to bring the very best of local cuisines to the ship. Various top chefs board the ship to offer special lunches and cooking demonstrations and one particular shore excursion, Shopping with the Chefs, became one of the highlights of my trip.

Operating suite-only ships, Seabourn has luxury cruising down to a fine art. All suites have ocean views and many with their own private verandas. Inside, they are spacious, with a separate living and bedroom area. There’s a sofa, table and vanity space in the living area, with large beds and bedside tables in the bedroom. The marble-finished bathrooms are filled with Molton Brown toiletries and a power shower. There’s little art reference inside the suites, but the ship’s hallways are decorated with interesting and contemporary pieces.

The big news for Seabourn, in addition to the launch of Seabourn Encore in December 2016, is their collaboration with three-star US chef Thomas Keller. Unveiled this spring on board Seabourn Quest, Keller will advise on aspects of the line’s culinary operations, rolling out onto all ships in the fleet throughout the year.

I made sure to sample cuisine in every restaurant on board, including The Restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, which featured guest chef Bernd Siener’s dinner one evening; The Colonnade, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner (dinner by reservation only); Restaurant 2, serving reservation-only dinner; the Patio Grill, serving lunch and dinner and Seabourn Square, serving coffee and snacks throughout the day. In addition, bars on board include the Observation Bar; Sky Bar; Patio Grill; Grand Salon and The Club.

Although all of the dining options were faultless, Restaurant 2 stands out as being that little bit extra special. Dining there one evening, I tucked into an eight-course menu by Restaurant 2 executive sous chef Zaldy Ladroma. The menu features luxurious ingredients—caviar, foie gras, lobster and beef tenderloin, among others—andwell-balanced flavours. In contrast to the fine dining of Restaurant 2, the Patio Grill is informal, but charming, serving fresh, seasonal dishes in the open air.

One lunchtime I struck up a conversation with two passengers sat in the Patio Grill who were delighting in their caviar and champagne. Apparently they’d ordered the same yesterday, only at breakfast. It’s not on the menu, but if passengers want it, they get it.

Staff get the balance of service just right. They’re not intrusive or pushy, but they’re intuitive. The wait staff seem to know what you want even before you know yourself.

Arriving for breakfast in The Colonnade one day, the waiter asked: “Can I get you your usual latte and grapefruit juice?” It was only the second day at sea and I hadn’t even had a chance to think about morning coffee yet, but the waiter had.

Of course, Sojourn has a lot more to offer than its food. What was perhaps most thrilling was the time I spent relaxing in my private veranda, watching the world go by, often with my book in one hand and a chilled glass of wine in the other. One morning I woke early to realise I’d risen in time to watch sunrise as we sailed into Halong Bay. Passing the thousands of monkey-occupied islands as the sun rose in the background—all from the comfort of my privateverandalounger—was one of the most mesmerising sights I’ve ever see.

Equally blissful is the ship’s spa, which includes the Serene Area, heated benches, a steam room with salt inhalation, herbal sauna and indoor and outdoor relaxation areas for pre- and post-treatment snoozes. Use of the spa is not included in a cruise package, but passes are available at $181 for a single pass or $302 for a couples’ pass.

Treatments are varied, with some really unique offerings available for those regular spa goers who are looking to try something new. Additional spa and fitness facilities include one-to-one personal training ($115 for 60 minutes), personalised yoga or Pilates sessions ($115 for 60 minutes) and Body Composition Analysis ($46 for one person or $68 for a couple), which includes a full health assessment. Complimentary health and fitness seminars take place daily, too, ranging in subject matter from Secrets to a Flatter Stomach to Powerful Posture.

Within the spa there’s also a hair salon and gym. The work out area is small, but the Technogym equipment was always available without having to wait. The row of treadmills face out to sea, making a daily run a little more bearable as we sailed the South China Sea. What’s more, chilled towels, water, a selection of fruit and headphones to tune into the TVs were available inside the gym.

Other on-board services include a small casino; a boutique featuring designer brands; Destination Services to help guests plan their journeys and excursions and a well-stocked library.

The ship’s daily scheduleof activities start‪at 9amand finish‪at 11pm. If you’re keen to cover as many of the items on the schedule as you can, spend time each morning familiarising yourself with the day’s itinerary. Many overlap and you’ll need to pre-book some items, such as the Galley Tour, which takes passengers on a behind-the-scenes tour of the kitchens. The day’s events often start with talks in the Grand Salon on the destinations ahead, and involve a number of different types of activities throughout the day including: dance classes, health seminars, afternoon tea and insightful conversations and talks.

Activities are often tailored to the region; for example, Fulton Armstrong held a talk titled: China – Influence Throughout South East Asia and Vietnam – From War to Transition—and I attended a cookery demonstration, which focused on dim sum-making with the Hong Kong Peninsula hotel’s dim sum chef Henry Fong. Another highlight was the wine tasting seminars. Hosted by the ship’s guest sommelier, Sebastian Pacheco, who explores a variety of wines during each session. Pacheco also hosted speciality drinks tastings in the Observation Lounge, such as the tea-inspired cocktails, Malbec and sake tastings.

Another highlight was the opportunity to go shopping with the ship’s chefs at a local food market in Ho Chi Minh City. Experiencing the bustle of the city’s markets with the chefs as they barter for fresh shrimps, other fish, fruit and vegetables, was unforgettable. Local women—the vendors were all female—tossed large fish on their counter, weighed and shouted a price in Vietnamese before a hustle for the right price began.

Shopping with the Chefs took place in Ho Chi Minh and Laem Chabang, Thailand, on our journey. Although the experience is complimentary, it is necessary to pre-book a place.

The programme of activities flows well from daytime to evening. After dark, entertainment tends to be relaxed and understated, with award-winning vocalists and other musicians featuring in the Grand Salon and Observation Lounge.

Concert pianist Tomono Kawamura from Japan made an appearance one evening, as did tenor Lee Bradley, a leading operatic tenor from the UK, whose onstage humour was almost as impressive as his vocals. On two evenings film screenings took place in the Grand Theatre, while shows and outside dance parties were also scheduled.

The first port I explored was Halong Bay, although not on foot. Kayaking the emerald waters of Halong Bay’s tiny islets was magical. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, each forest-covered island rises from the sea, forming a different shape and size.

The next stop along the coast, Da Nang, offers little to see, but it’s a good base from which to exploreHội An—another of Vietnam’s World Heritage Site’s. Visit Hội An’s colourful temples, Japanese Covered Bridge and mix of French colonial and ornate Vietnamese buildings. Make sure to include a stop at Hội An’sSilk Village, which still operates as a factory, and watch the silkworm turn fabric into beautiful scarves. As you enter and leave Hội An, look out for the traditional rice fields on the outskirts, too.

Unlike Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh is a city heaving with historical, cultural and culinary references. It is also home to what feels like millions of mopeds. Prepare to dodge the traffic and entire families travelling on one moped, as you explore this city on foot.

Seabourn’s excursions are not built into in the package and vary in price depending on length and distance of trip.

Culinary movies, trivia, themed lunches—such as Thai, Japanese and Chinese—and more mixology abound in different corners of the ship, but what is probably most enjoyable about being at sea with Seabourn is that, should you wish, you can sit and read, or just enjoy the sea view, in blissful silence. Finding a quiet space of the aft—towards the rear of the ship—with only the sound of the waves crashing around me and my book to finish, was another defining moment on board Sojourn.

The next Food and Wine Cruise takes place in Europe.A 16-night jaunt, Epicurean Quest of Western Europe, departs 15 April, 2017 fromBarcelona, visiting Gibraltar, Portimao (Algarve, Portugal), Lisbon, Gijon (Spain), Bilbao, Bordeaux (France, overnight), Cherbourg, Rouen (Paris, overnight), Zeebrugge (Bruges, Belgium), Dover. Fares start from£6,699pp.