Seabourn Ovation's Maiden Voyage On The Adriatic Sea From Venice to Valletta

Charis Perkins
The Australian Financial Review – July 31, 2018

OK, here goes (deep breath): if you are left-handed, you will have to suck it up and learn to use your right hand real quick to drink the freshly ground coffee in the capacious but cosy passengers' living room on the Seabourn Ovation, the cruise line's new 300-suite ship. The handles of the white porcelain cups swirl elegantly like ribbons, but in entirely the wrong shape for southpaws.

That's it, dear reader – the one and only issue to report from seven days on the inaugural voyage of the fifth ship in the Seabourn fleet. (Unless you want to count as a potential issue the number of times it's wise to decline the limoncello martinis proffered by staff circling the various pool and whirlpool decks in the Mediterranean sunshine.)

Who knew it was possible to feel pleased to leave Venice when you've been there for just one fleeting night, but setting sail from the city's cruise port through the Giudecca Canal, into the San Marco basin and east out to sea turns out to be utterly thrilling. The basilicas, bell towers and palazzos along the waterfront make for a majestic backdrop below us, all set against a pink evening sky.

"This is what it must be like to be a seagull," my husband comments, lolling against a railing on deck 10, champagne in hand.

A low-flying seagull in a Venetian mask, perhaps. Many of the 550 guests on board Ovation are wearing the ornate masks provided in our suites for the masquerade sailaway party. Hundreds of deep-red roses are entwined around every pole, and bunched in copper vases dotted around the pool. Best of all, 24-year-old Australian tenor Mark Vincent is leading the Seabourn Singers in a serenade. It's cheesy, but spine tingling.

As with high-end cruise lines generally, Seabourn has a steady roll call of loyal passengers – among them on this voyage, a dozen who have been on every inaugural sailing in the company's 30-year history. But chatting to fellow passengers – mostly Americans aged 50-plus, but Germans, Australians and English, too – it seems even the most blasé of them agree that Seabourn has outdone itself with this send-off.

I'd contend it's outdone itself with the crew, too, under the unflappable Norwegian captain Stig Betten.

There are 420 staff on board, from every corner of the globe, including a large contingent from South Africa led by the irrepressible Handré Potgieter – cruise director, natty dresser and unflagging dance companion at the after-dinner parties on the main pool deck. To overhear him exhorting passengers in The Club on deck 5 to play nice at trivia ("Remember, people, it's only a game") in a South African accent you could cut with a knife is enough to set my Durban-bred husband chortling all the way back to our verandah suite on deck 11.

Sparkling new

Maiden voyages are always fun. Partly it's simply because the ship is so new. The corridors gleam, the teak decks are pristine, the carpets and leather furniture smell luxuriously new. The floor-to-ceiling glass in the beauty salon and the fitness centre sparkles. Everything opens and closes smoothly. Pages crackle as they're turned for the first time in the books scattered on coffee tables in the public living room, known as Seabourn Square.

Even the mooring ropes are dazzlingly white, I note, examining them from the waterfront in the buzzing Croatian town of Zadar, the ship's first port of call.

Families taking a Sunday stroll and runners warming up for the local leg of the Wings for Life World Run stop to take pictures, but it's impossible to get all the ship into a mobile camera's viewfinder from so close, despite the fact Ovation is relatively small at just over 40,300 gross tonnage.

Over the week I'm on board, Ovation feels big enough to imagine I have it all to myself at times – sitting with my husband in the whirlpool on an empty deck 7, say, or wandering the corridors admiring the extensive art collection.

It's also small enough to feel the world is your own private oyster, especially when a steward wakes you in the morning with a silver tray of tea, you open the curtains and step out on the balcony to find you're docked in yet another sun-drenched destination.

In our second port of call, Dubrovnik, Seabourn has booked out the Revelin Fortress for the next event in its inauguration celebrations – "drinks, light desserts and entertainment" after an early dinner on board the ship. The 15th-century fort, which overlooks the old town, is used as a nightclub, we've learnt earlier in the day.

Some locals disapprove of this frivolous use of a historical treasure, but the advantage is the walls are so thick you can't hear the music from outside.

More disturbing to our Dubrovnik guide – who was a little girl when the Yugoslav People's Army lobbed some 2000 shells on the World Heritage old town during an eight-month siege in 1991-1992 – most of the tourists flooding in couldn't give a toss about the history of this city, a vital trading centre since the late 12th century. All they want to see are the locations where Game of Thrones was filmed.

Torches flame against the fortress's rooftop battlements as the sky darkens over the old town, but rain soon sends us and the troop of folk dancers and musicians indoors, despite the Seabourn umbrellas that have appeared from nowhere.

"Look, there's Elaine Paige and Sir Tim Rice," a fellow passenger points out. And so it is. Have they been on the ship all along? I'm not sure, but it's exciting that they're here, under the purple chandeliers of the Revelin's vaulted hall.

Britain's first lady of musical theatre, who coincidentally is heading to Australia in October for a five-city tour, has been chosen as Ovation's godmother.

Sir Tim, who penned the lyrics of many of the musical hits that stud Paige's career, has written the ship's anthem, which begins "We sail to see the lives of others", due to be performed for the first time at the ship's dedication ceremony when we finally arrive in Valletta, Malta.

He also presents the next night's entertainment in the Grand Salon, a musical trip through some of his best-known works, as we steam south from the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro to the Greek island of Corfu.

Inexplicably, we manage to miss this show. Perhaps we are too weary from climbing the 1200 steps above the medieval town of Kotor to take in the views of the mountains, the bay and the ship docked next to the town walls.

So much to do

The trouble with a ship like Ovation (file this with the coffee cups quibble) is that there's so much to do, to eat and to see. On the second-last day of our voyage, I have to forgo the afternoon's New World/Old World wine tasting (Chablis, Champagne, Bordeaux, the Napa Valley) for the Quartz and Amber Mindful Facial I've booked at the spa.

Perhaps this is a good thing, considering our morning has been spent drinking champagne in one of the 15 cabanas high up in The Retreat on deck 12. This pay-only sanctuary – with its raised whirlpool and private staff – admits only 28 guests, not counting a feathered stowaway, a small bird that's left its home in Corfu for a life at sea.

By the time Ovation arrives in Valletta, the 2018 European Capital of Culture, I'm wondering where I too could stow away.

It's going to be a sorry business fending for ourselves for breakfast, lunch and dinner back on dry land when we've been eating cured wild boar fed exclusively on acorns (in The Colonnade), black winter truffles and julienned crepes (in The Grill by Thomas Keller) and barbecued quail with chipotle glaze, apple onion soubise and forest mushrooms (The Restaurant).

But before we wheel our luggage down the gangplank back to reality, there's one more grand inaugural hoorah: the dedication ceremony, gala dinner, fireworks and after-party. Dress code: strictly formal.

The main deck is cleared of passengers to make way for towers of sound equipment shipped in from Britain, truckloads of fresh flowers, champagne, a bridge built across the pool, an orchestra and rows of chairs for the special guests.

There are violins, speeches and Sir Tim's anthem, which is even cheesier than the Venice sailaway serenade. Elaine Paige sings her classic love song I Know Him So Well, delivers a short speech, and cuts a ribbon. On the giant screen above her, a bottle of bubbly swings and breaks against the hull. And with that, Seabourn Ovation is christened.

The writer travelled as a guest of Seabourn.

Seabourn Ovation - At A Glance

  • The ship Seabourn Ovation carries 600 passengers in 300 suites that range from 28 square metres to 92 square metres. All have balconies, walk-in wardrobes and living areas.
  • The experience Smart-casual days and elegant-casual or formal nights.
  • On board Five restaurants, the Retreat (a canopied enclave with private cabanas), Observation Bar, Sky Bar and Patio Bar, two pools and six outdoor whirlpools, day spa and salon (with saunas and steam room) and fitness centre.
  • Best public space The pool and two whirlpools aft on deck 5 with a showpiece bar and small dance floor.
  • Not so sure about The too-low ceiling in the yoga/pilates studio.
  • Pack She'll need a couple of cocktail dresses and maybe even a ballgown. He'll want a jacket, tie and slacks at the least, plus a tuxedo if he's going large. A sleek swimming costume (or three) is mandatory, as are walking shoes for shore visits.
  • Read Empires of the Sea, by historian Roger Crowley, about the 1565 siege of Malta and the battle between the Ottoman Empire and Christendom for the heart of Europe.
  • Don't miss The climb to St Ivan's Fortress above the walled city of Kotor in Montenegro.
  • Good to know Seabourn Encore, Ovation's older sister by a year, arrives in Sydney on December 20 from Bali via Darwin and Cairns. It sets sail the next day on a 16-day voyage via Melbourne up the east coast of New Zealand to Auckland. From $9999 per person for a verandah suite.