“You don’t have to be a millionaire to take a SeaDream Yacht Club cruise, but you will be made to feel like one.”
It is a meeting across the generations. On one side of Singapore Cruise Centre is the SeaDream II, a five-star luxury small ship described by that bible of the cruise world, Berlitz, as “like having you own mega yacht”.
On the other is the gleaming white Europa 2. Some say the Germanic Europa, an all-suite, all-balcony floating palace, is the most luxurious ship afloat.
Europa 2 guests are greeted with Champagne and canapes to ease the burden of those pesky registration documents, while on SeaDream II we are served Singapore Slings.
But apart from their 28-year age difference – and, one would have to admit, a whole lot of modern technology on the Europa 2 – both ships are at the top of the luxury market.
As the Europa purrs away from the wharf like a Bentley, the barked commands over the intercom in several languages seem at odds with the setting.
Meanwhile, on the SeaDream II, it is cocktail time. And even the mandatory lifeboat drill seems a whole lot more chummy.
Welcome to a company whose catch-cry sums up its point of difference: “It’s yachting, not cruising.”
You don’t go on a SeaDream cruise because you like fancy gadgets such as dodgem cars or rock climbing. It’s all about great food, fantastic service and, well, imagining you’re a millionaire and it all belongs to you.
Talking of millionaires, there are a few on board. John B. Fairfax of the Fairfax publishing empire, for instance, and a British Lord who doesn’t want to talk about his wealth – or anything else, for that matter.
John B. Fairfax and his wife, Libby, two of the 10 Australians on board, tell us this is their third cruise. They have been on Seabourn to the Baltic and experienced the Kimberley with a group of 12 friends on board True North.
“We had a free week as our children decided to spend Christmas with their own families, so we thought why not have an adventure and signed up for this cruise,” John says.
What sets SeaDream apart from rival cruise lines such as Silversea and Seabourn is its size – the payload on this Christmas journey into Asia is 117 passengers, the ship’s maximum capacity.
And there is almost one crew member per passenger. As executive hotel manager Christophe Cornu says: “If a guest has to raise his hand to catch the attention of a waiter, then we have failed.
“All the crew have been trained to be observant, consistent but non-intrusive.”
The ship prides itself on another statistic – 75 per cent of its guests are repeat passengers. One British couple on board have spent 566 days a SeaDream ship – longer than Torbjorn Lund, our captain on this trip, has worked for the company.
On this cruise, the Nassau-registered ship is making one of its first forays into Asia – seven days from Singapore to Phuket in Thailand – and is expected to stay in the region until April 2014. The move, according to SeaDream, is at the behest of regular passengers looking for new destinations rather than an attempt to carve out a niche in the burgeoning Asian region.
But, as the crew of SeaDream II admits, the 11-year-old line still has its L-plates on when it comes to Asia.
The journey from Singapore to Malacca is made all the easier thanks to SeaDream’s passion for courteous service and fine dining.
Readers may recall our review of Sudesh Kishore’s “raw cuisine” from our spring issue. But there’s much more than raw food on the menu, and dining out on the decks (best to book – everyone wants to do it!) is a great experience.
In Malacca, the home of Peranakan culture and cooking (a happy cross between Chinese and Malay), there’s the choice of a four-hour historical walking tour (US$98 per person) or a round of golf at Tiara Melaka golf course (US$248).
However, we opt for our own tour of the best local food haunts. Lunch at a local restaurant for Peranakan food is an exotic mix of spicy chicken curry, steamed fish, water spinach with belacan (shrimp paste), tofu topped with ikan bilis (fried anchovy) and duck with preserved vegetable soup.
We also spend a very pleasant time exploring the Straits Chinese jewellery museum with its amazing collection of turn-of-the-century pieces.
But our next stop is a puzzle. Instead of dropping anchor by the beautiful beaches of Pangkor Island – perfect for a vessel known for its water sports, we dock just around the corner in front of a desolate pier at the town of Lumut.
No offence, but Lumut is home to the Royal Malaysian Navy and very little else. Even the town’s residents are queuing at the ferry terminal to leave for Pangkor Island.
SeaDream II is one of two belonging to the Miami-based SeaDream Yacht Club. She has undergone extensive upgrades but, like a lady with a facelift, there are some things even the most skilled plastic surgeon can’t hide.
And before we left Australia, a Queenslander warned us: “Don’t expect to do somersaults in the bathroom.”
But on the upside, you can book Balinese day beds and sleep under the stars at the front of the ship. Try doing that on the Europa.
Our cabin on Deck 3 is comfortable with a large picture window by the bed, a living area with sofa, a built-in dresser and writing desk. While the bathroom has a powerful shower, it is tiny. However, the Bulgari toiletries help.
“Food is a crucial part of the SeaDream experience, as is the way it is served.”
Food is a crucial part of the SeaDream experience, as is the way it is served… like a few vessels in this class, waiters love to do the “big reveal” for diners, whisking silver domes off plates with a dramatic “Ta da!”.
For lunch one day we dine on prawns, artichoke and dim sum chicken followed by a choice of hamburgers, grilled snapper, chicken cordon blue or zucchini quiche. Dinner in the main dining salon on Deck 2 typically starts with avocado shrimp, soup with crabmeat followed by a choice of steak, chicken or tuna. We quickly learn that if a dish is not to your liking, it is immediately changed for another.
Dinner at the ship’s Topside Restaurant on Deck 5 is amazing, with a great selection of tandoori chicken on skewers, spicy tomato and coriander soup, orange sorbet, grilled salmon, osso buco or chicken with spinach and mozzarella cheese.
The choice of French or Italian sauvignon blanc and shiraz is more than adequate. Champagne, wine and beer are free flowing but there’s an extra cost if you want something special – for example, a 2006 Insignia cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley will set you back US$198 a bottle.
Breakfast is a good time to test the service. By the second day, waiters Martiya, Goran and Emmanuel know exactly how we like our coffee and ginger tea. Goran claims copyright for a particularly strong mix of coffee. “Just ask for Goran coffee,” he says.
Despite the ship’s relatively small size, it is easy to find your own little spot on one of the sun beds on the upper deck or around the pool. And if you feel like company, there’s always someone to chat to at the bar.
Onboard activities include a golf simulator, a smallish swimming pool and a whirlpool, and there are yoga and Tai Chi classes every morning.
Evenings always start with cocktails followed by a relaxing dinner. While many would argue that the evening meal is by far the best onboard entertainment, other options include movies, karaoke with Sammy the pianist or a casino table. There are also games of the old-fashioned kind in the library.
While SeaDream II prides itself on offering a range of water sports, including two jet skis, we are disappointed that these are only available once on our trip – on the last day.
The crew explains that requests to swim and operate water craft off the boat are subject to approval by local port authorities. At other times, the water conditions are unsuitable.
Before arriving at Penang, Malaysia’s food paradise, we call ahead to arrange a tour of some of the island’s best food stalls and heritage sights, courtesy of the Penang State Tourism Bureau.
From the street art on Armenian Street to the recently restored Seven Terraces boutique hotel and an amazing array of culinary experiences, Penang never fails to surprise.
While there, SeaDream II guests are offered three tours – Penang Hill and temples, a heritage tour of George Town and a round of golf at Penang Golf Club.
It is Christmas Eve and everyone dresses up for a degustation dinner of caviar, lobster and crab terrine, and a main course of chateaubriand beef or pan-fried sea bass.
The next day we arrive on Langkawi Island and take the cable car to the top of Machincang Mountain for a panoramic view of Malaysia and Thailand.
Christmas dinner on board includes a homemade terrine of foie gras with pear compote, venison consommé, Waldorf salad, slow-roasted turkey, smoked Virginia ham, rib-eye steak or Malaysian spiced lobster tail with coconut rice.
On Boxing Day, when we arrive at Thailand’s Ko Lanta Yai beach, SeaDream II really hit its straps. After all, this is a ship that’s usually based in the Caribbean and beaches are its natural habitat.
On the beach we are treated to SeaDream’s famed Champagne and caviar in the surf. Standing in waist-deep water, the uniformed few serve this delicious combination from an upturned surfboard. It doesn’t get more decadent that this!
The Phi Phi Islands are our final port of call, where we are taken in Zodiacs to the strip of sand where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach. We arrive early after warnings that Russian tourists are on the way in a huge flotilla of motor launches. We leave as they arrive in a swarm.
From there we head to Patong Beach where guests swim from the floating platform at the ship’s stern and water sports are unleashed at last: sailboats, glass-bottomed kayaks and jet skis.
The final night’s dinner of chicken biryani, Peking duck with pancake, lobster tail curry and oven-baked duck breast is a lovely way to round off the voyage. By now, guests have made new friends, everywhere there is a party and final drinks by the Top of the Yacht bar are a must.
As we leave, one family with three young children is booking next year’s trip on SeaDream to the Caribbean. It will be their third.
Like a small nation, SeaDream II punches well above its weight in reputation and service. Now we know why.
There is a lot of affection for this extraordinary little ship. Perhaps it really is yachting, not cruising.
Pick up the Winter 2014 issue of Cruise Passenger magazine for your local newsagent for reviews on:
Emerald Sky Fiji Princess Mutiara Laut National Geographic Orion Assam Bengal Navigation SS Catherine Avalon Poetry II Viking Buri Amareina Queen Mary 2