Kathryn Thomas: My maiden voyage as a cruise virgin
I have always put cruising and golfing in the same category; there would eventually come a time when I would try the two and possibly enjoy both.
It would happen at a crossroads in my life when I would need to tread a different path; a whole new one as opposed to a hole in one, if you get my drift. But it struck me recently; I have a mortgage,a herb bed, (doing very well, by the way), a knowledge of jam- making, two dogs and a regular book club, that maybe the time had already arrived, I just hadn't realised it.
Though I have yet to play 18 holes, I recently completed my maiden voyage and am no longer a cruising virgin. Mind you, some would consider that debatable, as Seadream, the company I chose, has a mantra which states, "it's yachting, not cruising".
Either way, what appealed to me was that this high-end luxury product seemed to offer a more intimate, more active experience. The Seadream company is made up of two privately owned Norwegian boats (Seadream I and II) and each has a capacity for 112 passengers, with a crew of 95.
This is minuscule compared to some of the larger cruise ships that can take up to 6,000 passengers. Both mega-yachts have retractable water sports marinas, where, in calm waters, the anchor can be lowered and the toys brought out; Hobie Cat catamarans, Zodiac rides, waterskis, banana boats, water trampolines. Also on board are mountain bikes from which to explore the different ports you arrive at. The average age of Seadream passengers is 45, which is slightly younger than the average cruising age, so it promised to be more rock 'n'roll than roll over and lie down, and with the two top ratings in the 'boutique ships' category awarded by the 2013 Berlitz Guide, as well as awards from Conde Naste Traveller and Frommers, it certainly provoked enough interest on my part to arrive, minus my cynicism and full of enthusiasm.
We boarded Seadream II in the port of Civitavecchia, Rome, where she was dwarfed by the three huge cruise liners where thousands of passengers were queuing up like ants to get on board their vessels. I walked up the gang plank on to the teak deck, was handed a glass of champagne and a cold towel, got chatting to a great bunch with whom I had lunch on deck and completely forgot about checking into my cabin until 5pm, where I eventually found all my luggage waiting for me.
There was no panic, no stress, no set times to be anywhere in particular.
The only thing that did require concentration and assembly was the safety drill, which was expertly carried out so that every passenger on board knew where they had to go in an emergency.
The boat is comprised of six decks. The standard cabins, or staterooms as they are called, are spread over decks two, three and four. Small as you would expect, but perfectly formed. The cabins don't have balconies, as the ethos is get out and enjoy the luxury of the yacht while you can. Deck four is where you'll find the gym, the spa, the piano bar and a casino the size of a cupboard, and my favourite part of the ship, deck six where the Top of the Yacht Bar is flanked on both sides by Balinese beds to relax on during the day or sleep on under the stars at night, if you so desire.
Because of Seadream's size, you venture into smaller, quieter ports where the bigger vessels are restricted entry. Our first port of call the following morning was Bonafacio, Corsica. Organised land excursions can be booked, but do cost extra and are pricey. But grabbing a mountain bike and touring around is free of charge. I found a gorgeous beach a couple of miles from the harbour, which I had to myself and languished there for the day before cycling back to the boat.
I had heard it's not uncommon to pile on the pounds when you are cruising. Like a Cavan man at an all-you-can- eat buffet, one can over- indulge, and on Seadream II, I understood why. As this is an all-inclusive package, you can eat and drink what you like, when you like (unless you're ordering vintage Champagne and specialised wines, which are extra). You can order any time throughout the day to your cabin, to the pool, to your sun lounger on the top deck. Pre-dinner drinks, served every evening, were accompanied by a huge selection of sushi and seafood one night, tapas the next... and this was before sitting down to a five- course dinner! You choose where you want to sit and with whom and there's no need for black tie evening wear or tuxedos, even for the captain's dinner.
One of the best things about the Seadream II experience is the staff. As well as impeccable professionalism right across the board, there is a genuine warmth and enthusiasm in their service; you are made to feel special from the moment you board the ship. By the end of the first day, the staff seemed to know everyone by their first name. It's fun and relaxed, everyone is at ease with each other.
Our captain Terje Willassen, who looked a vision in his whites at the captain's dinner, could also be spotted most mornings smiling in his shorts and sunnies setting off on his mountain bike with some of the guests.
I assumed I would take off like a shot every morning to explore and to get some time on my own before returning on board. But throughout the week I found some days I was more than happy to stay on board and just chill out, enjoying the quiet luxury of my surroundings, interrupted only by a pleasant inquiry from one of the staff as to whether I needed anything.
From Rome, we sailed to the islands of Corsica and Elba, then up to Portofino, and from there into the French waters of St Tropez and Antibes finishing up in Nice. Each stop was magical and distinctive in its own right.
My favourite was Portoferrario in Elba, where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled in 1814. Wandering through the ancient streets, to nowhere in particular, you can feel the weight of the island's history. The calendar year sees the two Seadream mega-yachts move from Europe to transatlantic voyages, the Caribbean, the Amazon and, most recently, the company has announced it is extending its itinerary in 2013 to include South East Asia.
So were there any downsides to the trip? Only the fact that when the voyage is over, you have to come back down to reality with a bang. I got quite used to having someone spritz my sunglasses by the pool, hand me iced water before I knew I wanted it and surviving without cash on a day- to-day basis, so much so that on Elba, I went to buy an ice cream and almost walked off without paying for it.
By the end of my week, I felt that I'd experienced something special. This is a high- end service that manages to combine luxury and relaxation perfectly without the whole thing being too fussy, which on a boat its size, with almost one staff member per passenger could easily happen.
For cruising veterans, some might find it too small and it's definitely not suitable for kids.
But for a non-golf playing, cruising virgin who has discovered she could get used to the finer things in life, it was as good as perfect.
Now I must go and put out the bins...
For the ultimate award-winning yachting experience, contact the official Irish representative Aereps Travel Management in Dublin on 01 631-9604. To learn more about SeaDream Yacht Club, see www. seadream.com
Sunday Indo Living