Could the day get any better? We had spent the morning on WhiteBay on the British Virgin Island of Jost Van Dyke, where a stunning sandy beach stretched out below gentle tropical hills. Small sailboats tugged on their anchor chains while tanned yachtsmen drank cold beer at the nearby One Love Bar.
Offshore, the SeaDream II, looking more yacht than cruise ship, completed the idyllic backdrop for our elaborate onshore luncheon. Improvement seemed impossible, but our day was about to become even more absurdly sybaritic.
Two waiters from the ship grabbed a surfboard while the Hotel Manager and Executive Chef – both in full uniform – placed a large tin of caviar on top of it. As they began wading into the Caribbean water, more waiters quickly followed with bottles of champagne.
Naturally, we eagerly waded into the surf after them. As the corks started popping and the caviar was served in the sea, my fellow incredulous passengers toasted our good fortune.
While this ‘Champagne and Caviar Splash’ seems some quixotic whim of the super-wealthy, it is a weekly event for SeaDream in the Caribbean.
Designed to replicate the private yacht experience, SeaDream II was originally built in 1985 as Sea Goddess II. Along with her original sister, they pioneered the small-ship, ultra-luxury concept. Exceptional service, all-inclusive pricing – including unlimited caviar and champagne – and well-heeled passengers made them the most indulgent cruises available.
By the time Atle Brynestad bought the ships in 2001, they were no longer the novelty they had been. Several companies such as Seabourn and Silversea had emulated the Sea Goddess model, and new ships boasted more amenities and balcony cabins.
The Sea Goddesses, however, were much smaller than their competitors, which carried up to 400. With only 112 passengers, looked after by a crew of 95, Brynestad wanted the “smaller is better” ethos to be a fundamental distinction for his new company, which he called SeaDream Yacht Club.
His philosophy was simple: SeaDream was to be the next thing to a true yacht experience. Every staff member should know every passenger’s name and no request should seem far-fetched. Do you want dinner outdoors every night? No problem. Champagne in the hot-tub at midnight? Of course. Want to sleep outside and have your stewardess make up a bed for you on deck? Right away.
An extensive refit in 2002 gave the ships a new lease on life. As originally built, they could feel crowded when full. Following their refit, however, outdoor deck space was significantly expanded. An additional larger bar on top of the ship served as a second social hub, eliminating potential congestion. The outdoor café was enlarged to accommodate the entire ship; Balinese ‘Dream Beds’ (essentially large, overstuffed deck chairs) were added to the top deck; and a larger gym and spa were created.
Today, despite their 25-plus years, the ships are impeccably maintained, cosy and friendly. The layout is so easy and the ships so small you can be anywhere within two minutes. Forgot your sunscreen when at the gangway? Return to your cabin and be back at the gangway in less time than it takes to tender a load of passengers ashore.
Socially, SeaDream managed to please both extroverted and more reserved passengers. New-found friends are never far away and the complimentary wine and champagne ensures a relaxed, jolly atmosphere. Those seeking solitude, however, find nooks for quietly contemplating a slowly-setting sun or peaceful reading with a partner.
With an almost one-to-one ratio of passengers to guests, service was as impeccable as expected. Waiters managed to walk the line perfectly between being friendly, but not overly so; they knew when the table was in deep conversation and didn’t want to be disturbed, and faded into the background.
When I wanted to chat, though, they had all the time in the world to talk and joke with me. The entire crew seemed to genuinely enjoy their job and clearly possessed great loyalty to SeaDream (one waiter, affectionately referred to as “Papa” by the crew, has been on Sea Goddess II/SeaDream II since 1989!).
Throughout the week, they anticipated rather than reacted. When on deck watching islands glide past, a bartender would bring canapés or shrimp without my asking or offer to clean my sunglasses.
When lunch was served on Jost Van Dyke on the last afternoon, some of the wonderful tapenade I had been devouring all week magically appeared in front of me. Not once were orders ever mixed up, nor were my water (or wine or champagne) glasses not topped off. Teamwork was evident, and tipping actively discouraged.
As on many SeaDream trips, ports were often only a few hours apart. With little distance to travel, we remained at anchor until well after dinner, allowing us to dine on deck without any wind (imagine a large ship staying in port longer just to reduce the wind – it wouldn’t happen!).
On Caribbean itineraries, the focus is on small islands with beautiful beaches, water sports and yachty beach bars. One or two organised shore excursions were offered each day, with the traditional ‘historical highlights’ coach tours nowhere to be seen. A rare disadvantage of SeaDream’s small size, however, is that tours will be cancelled if too few people sign up, as happened to our kayak excursion in St John.
My favorite tours were a series of complimentary excursions called ‘SeaDream Active.’ Consisting of hikes or bike trips led by the Captain or Club Director, they provided an intimate way to see the islands with a unique guide and only a few of your fellow guests.
Happily, the hikes were often a fair distance, providing both a good workout and dramatic views. Even on days when organised tours were not offered, eight bikes were available for complimentary use in port.
After a morning hiking or exploring, I often spent the afternoon engaging in water sports from the small platform at the stern. Kayaking, sailing, banana-boat rides, jet skis, water skiing, wake boards, a floating trampoline and swimming are all offered.
The logistics of getting into some of the boats can present a challenge and could be better organised, but the overall experience is outstanding. During my week on board, the platform was put to use every day, allowing plenty of opportunity to try out every toy.
On board, organised activities are minimal. Yoga and Tai-Chi take place outdoors in the morning (or occasionally on a beach ashore), and full Spa treatments are offered in the only ‘Thai-certified’ spa at sea, which features six therapists, three treatment rooms, a sauna and steam room.
In the evening, there may be a “movie under the stars” by the pool deck, complete with popcorn, or an outdoor dance party. After dinner, if you aren’t singing along in the intimate Piano Bar, gambling in the tiny casino, or socialising at the Top of the Yacht Bar or by the pool deck, you’re probably in your cabin.
Because SeaDream offers such an outdoor lifestyle, passengers tend to be active, fit couples in their late 40s and 50s, with Caribbean sailings attracting slightly younger folks than European itineraries. It is not uncommon to see a few couples in their 30s, often on honeymoon.
Unlike larger ships, SeaDream does not offer multiple dining venues. They more than make up for that by serving as many meals outdoors as possible. During the entire week, I had only three meals served in the indoor restaurant. There are no alternate restaurants, no assigned seating and never a need to dress up or even put on a jacket.
Dining was ambitious, and generally excellent. A few misses at the start of the week (including a poor room-service cheeseburger with a barely melted slab of American cheese) were isolated events. The small galley offered numerous choices: two particularly memorable presentations were a decadent, eight-course Menu Degustation, and a delectable five-course Indian meal featuring a Coconut Prawn Curry.
Following one memorable dinner when anchored off St Barths, I retired to bed not in my cabin, but on the very top of the ship, in a roped-off, private area. There, one of the Balinese Beds had been made up with sheets and blankets and I spent the night sleeping under the twinkling stars and island lights.
Waking up next morning as the sun peeked over the island’s hills, I realised the Eclipse, the world’s largest private yacht, was anchored nearby. I gazed with interest but felt no jealousy.
Yes, SeaDream may lack the balconies and 20,000sq ft spas of larger ships, but its intimate size, friendly ambience and active, outdoor spirit all combine to make them one of the most delightful seagoing experiences possible.
SEADREAM II FACTFILE
Built: 1985, refurbished 2002
Speed: 15 knots
Passenger Decks: 5
ITINERARIES: Summer, Mediterranean; winter, Caribbean and Amazon.
MORE INFO: in the UK, call 0800 783 1373; in the US, 1800 707 4911; or visit www.seadream.com.