How to Discover Mindfulness on the Ultimate Scandinavian Wellness Cruise
Independent – April 4, 2019
Forget all-you-can-eat buffets and wallowing on deck – a new breed of cruise is all about taking care of yourself, says Jo Fernandez.
If you’re seeking an active and mindful break, a cruise isn’t normally the first port of call. The opportunities for overindulgence are infinite – and how mindful can you really be among 3,000 passengers?
But Seabourn is attempting to change all that as the first cruise line to offer a fleet-wide healthy lifestyle programme, Mindful Living, created by alternative-health “guru” Dr Andrew Weil.
After a tough 12 months in which I lost my main job and, far worse, my mum, I felt in need of an all-round healthy break. Seabourn’s Ovation launched in May 2018 with just 600 passengers and new Mindful Ventures (its term for excursions). Combining top-level luxury with healthy living in a place of pure beauty seemed the perfect match, so I chose a trip following the western Norwegian fjords to the North Cape from Copenhagen armed with a friend, Kate.
Before we settled into a “good” routine, we drank as much champagne as we could to accompany a sun-drenched lunch at the poolside Grill Bar, which served bowl after bowl of fresh salads and juicy, chargrilled prawns before we’d even set sail.
We continued in our cabin, far smarter than your average, with a sizeable marble bathroom stocked with high-end brands such as L’Occitane and daily deliveries of fresh fruit (and booze). From our spare-room sized balcony we snapped Instagram-worthy sunset shots as the peaked horizon blackened against the fading sun.
The next day was sobering – the start of a healthy week, with a hangover. A day at sea tends to mean that spas, gyms and classes are full but I managed to secure a high-tech Elemis Biotec anti-ageing facial, which put a little life back into my skin. The streamlined, all-white spa and sea-facing gym area managed to be appealing rather than clinical, and daily visits are vital to sign up for the many free classes.
Docking at Flam, a tiny dot of a village in a truly spectacular setting beside Sognefjord, Norway’s deepest, I felt a little embarrassed that the ship was obscuring the view. This despite her streamlined design to make her more yacht-like than multi-passenger bunkers (a design which also meant we couldn’t take long walks on deck among the dramatic scenery of Norway’s jagged coast). But I wasn’t complaining when, during dinner one night in the over-vamped Thomas Keller restaurant, we left the table to watch the ship sail through the slender Trollfjord, its steep mountain sides so close you could almost touch them.
Heading inland towards the far northern port of Alesund, gateway to the western Norwegian fjords and famed for having some of the country’s finest examples of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture, our next excursion – sorry, Mindful Venture – was hiking up Sugarlump Mountain (Sukkertoppen) on the neighbouring island of Hessa. As we walked under sun-dappled trees almost touching overhead, gnarled tree roots snaked among shafts of granite on the forest floor. On the ridge proper, the trail broke out into several smaller paths and the air turned silky and pure.
About halfway up the challenging 1,000ft route Kate’s knees began hurting and she told me to go on without her. I protested (a little), then rushed to the top where I caught my breath and surveyed a 360-degree view worth the climb: blue sky and wispy ribbons of cloud; a scattering of islands; some lying like sleeping animals, others jutting into high peaks. I felt peaceful and satisfied; could this be the mindfulness I was supposed to be experiencing?
Back onboard it was time for a treatment we both regarded with a heavy dose of cynicism: a crystal sound bath, something I knew nothing about (which became clear when I asked if I needed a swimming costume). Fully clothed I lay on a heated mat while Dawid, the mindful living coach, played notes on a set of crystal bowls, “bathing” me in waves of sound. He “woke” me 25 minutes later; I didn’t feel like I’d slept, more like I’d finally cracked meditation.
The ship sped us north towards the Arctic Circle and the Lofoten Islands (docking at Svolvaer), a low-lying chain populated by fishing villages and their cheery red rorbuer cottages. Glacially carved gneiss and granite volcanic islands are actually the highly eroded tips of a partially submerged mountain range in a sea enriched by the warm Gulf Stream and the Arctic Ocean. The water was inky blue, the sky a lighter shade and distant peaks snowcapped even in summer.
We came to kayak. Kate was initially unimpressed with my splashy style – it soon became clear why the expedition crew mentioned the divorce rate of couples sharing kayaks. We got into a groove soon enough though, silently slipping through the water and spotting elaborate seaweed floating up to the surface, including spaghetti strands of the deadly lion’s mane jellyfish. Much like on the hiking trip, the remote, ethereal landscape brought peace to my normally busy brain.
In the spirit of onboard mindfulness, daily half-hour group meditation and yoga classes were complimentary alongside seminars based on Dr Weil’s books. I booked personal sessions with Dawid, who discussed different meditation methods including his personal favourite: kettle bell meditation. He chanted while I tried to chant, instead forgetting the words as my mind flitted around incessantly... but somehow it was still restful. An hour of yoga early one morning was slightly challenging (I practise it occasionally but am reasonably flexible and fit) and Dawid combined different types to suit my level.
I also signed up for stretch and relax classes, ran on the treadmill and took the fancy Adam D Tihany-designed spiral stairs at all times. I ate healthily (salads, sushi, fish and steak with not too many desserts) and even attended lectures on salmon and cod. The combination of activities onboard and deep in nature was physically and mentally rewarding and, despite the slightly cosseted existence, the excursions ensured we never felt too cooped up.
Back on dry land, I’m now planning a 51km hiking, kayaking and canoeing challenge in the Scottish Highlands, so something must have sunk in...
A 14-day Majestic Fjords and North Cape itinerary on Seabourn Ovation departing/returning Copenhagen costs from £8,499pp full board, including all drinks (except premium wine and spirits) and gratuities, sharing a veranda suite.
Meandering through Asia for five weeks, I'm now on a two-week Seabourn cruise visiting ports in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
But while time spent ashore can be frenetic, especially in big cities, fortunately, my home away from home is the lovely, 600-passenger Seabourn Ovation, which launched in May 2018.
Check out the slide show above for some of my initial photos of the public spaces on this 40,350-grt, ultra-luxury ship, as well as snapshots of my suite, #843, a Veranda Suite (V-6 category).
Given the exotic nature of this cruise, plus its 14-day length, it appears that most guests on this cruise are 55 years of age or older, with many in their 60s and 70s, although I have also seen some younger guests, one with a young child.
Many guests are veteran cruisers, plus many have sailed on other luxury lines as well as Seabourn in the past.
I'd describe most guests as friendly, highly experienced global travelers. Many have also traveled in the past to some of the ports on our Southeast Asia itinerary, but they're looking forward to doing new things on this trip.
A few, though, are "newbies" to Asian travel and having a bit of culture shock.
The guests hail from such countries as the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, the U.S., Canada and beyond. Interestingly, I've also met several folks from my "own backyard" from Coral Springs in South Florida. It's been a fun, cordial group of guests and I've enjoyed chatting with them.
But let's start from the beginning...
Easy Boarding in Singapore
Once I arrived via my Seabourn transfer car at the Singapore Cruise Terminal last week, the entire process of boarding the ship took no more than 15-20 minutes from the time my bags were taken from the trunk of my transfer car to the time I walked onto the ship.
The Singapore terminal was squeaky clean and brightly lighted. Shops beckoned along the route to the ship, but people with Seabourn signs along the way helped guide me to my next spot -- for immigration and cruise check-in.
The process was quick, easy and, best of all, there were no lines. I filled out a form for the cruise line about visas for Cambodia and Vietnam and then walked onto the ship, where I and other guests were warmly welcomed aboard by friendly Seabourn faces.
The crew offers passengers a welcome drink, but I was eager to check out my suite, so off I went. My luggage was delivered to me within a half hour of boarding the ship.
Spacious Suite #843
My Deck 8 suite, a V-6 category suite and one of 300 accommodations on this ship, is quite spacious. I'm finding it the perfect “cocoon” for both relaxing and doing computer work onboard. Check out the slide show photos above.
For most guests, Seabourn's well-appointed accommodations are a great antidote to that frazzled feeling one gets after a long day of touring ashore.
During the first part of this journey, I've loved traipsing through markets and temples, as well as traveling through frenetic city streets on a tuk-tuk in Bangkok and a pedicab in Ho Chi Minh City, but I also like the feeling of relaxation and calm that envelops me when stepping back on "my floating hotel."
Guests returning from a busy day ashore can simply head to their large private veranda; mine has two lounge chairs (with separate foot stools that pull out from beneath the chairs) and a table big enough for dining outside.
Inside, my living area has a very long sofa with decorative pillows; the sofa converts to a bed, if needed.
While four or five people could fit comfortably on this couch, there are two dining room leather-covered chairs that also can be used for guest seating if one is hosting a party en suite.
Plus, a handy blue leather round stool in the living area can be used as another seat. It has a nifty lid that opens to reveal storage space, and the lid also flips to become an attached round tray. It's perfect as a small cocktail table to hold drinks, the TV remote or other items.
The dining area has the two chairs, plus an attractive large glass table. On several occasions, the room service delivery person set it up for breakfast or dinner with a cream-colored linen tablecloth, and it was quite a fancy meal.
Entertainment-wise, this suite has a large, flatscreen TV, which swivels far enough to face the couch or the bed. Seabourn has "live" TV, movies on demand, enrichment programs, account information, music and more on the in-suite infotainment system.
A tall "entertaining tower" in the living area opens to reveal an array of glassware, a drawer with stirrers and a cork screw, plus a surface for preparing drinks – and that area also holds several large bottles of water.
Below is a mini-refrigerator stocked with complimentary sodas and juices. In addition, each guest receives a complimentary choice of two spirits or wines for the suite, and the stateroom stewardess brings any refills as needed each evening.
I like that this suite has a separate dining/living space, which can be separated from the bedroom area via two curtains on either side that can be pulled shut -- nicely closing that space off light-wise, if someone wants to go to bed early.
Storage space in this suite is also excellent, with a compact but well-designed walk-in closet with five drawers and a safe.
In addition, the living area has enclosed shelves with doors that hide any clutter, both above and under the TV.
More enclosed shelves are located within a long, thin cabinet stretching along the wall opposite the queen bed (which is convertible to two twins). I must say that I brought more clothing on this trip than I normally do -- given the length of my travel time.
That said, this is the first time I've noticed having tons of storage space that I'm not using.
This stateroom has been well-designed to make the most of the space, too. A small (very narrow) nook just inside the entry and adjacent to the bathroom has a stool that pulls out. A drawer above it holds a hair dryer, and just above that is a large mirror, so it's a nice spot for putting on make-up or doing one's hair.
This suite's marble bathroom is fairly large. I like the separate tub and shower and the dual sinks. The shower is adequate, not super large but fine for me.
Bathroom amenities are Molton Brown, displayed on a small shelf adjacent to one sink. A nice touch? In addition to the soaps in the bathroom, my suite stewardess offered several other types of soaps as an option.
One day she also positioned a small body wash amid a wash cloth on the vanity, as if creating a flower.
Pro? I really like both the spaciousness and the height of the ceiling in this entire suite, which makes the space feel quite open. This particular category suite can range from about 246 square feet to 302 square feet, varying by suite number, and not counting the additional balcony space.
Con? I could do without the humongous mirror (eyeballing it, I'd say it's at least five and a half feet long and perhaps four or so feet tall) adjacent to the dining room table. When sitting on the couch, you look up and startle yourself as you're seeing yourself in the mirror.
I should note that there is a full-length mirror on the back of the walk-in closet door, so the suite already has one of those.
Overall, though, I'd give this suite top marks for the amount of space, amenities, quality of the bedding and linens and creative storage.
I've dined in the hotel's lovely main Restaurant several nights, at the Colonnade (the casual but upscale dining venue, which had a fabulous clam bake last night), and at the poolside Patio. I've also enjoyed room service, and I'll talk more about those experiences and other dining choices in a later blog.
For now, let's talk sushi. One eatery that guests have loved discovering (myself included) is Sushi, a small Japanese eatery just steps from my suite on Deck 8.
Sushi has friendly servers and each evening, guests might order small plates like aburi scallop, hamachi mizore yuzu or bonito tataki, along with a salad. Then it's time for sashimi and nigiri with two pieces per order -- everything from strip bass suzuki to octopus tako or black king fish sugi.
On tonight's menu, Sushi also listed five Signature roll choices (six pieces per order), including California, dragon maguro, yasai, hamachi and oyako.
At lunch it's a different approach -- a set bento menu with a choice of four main “cooked” hot dishes -- either miso salmon, pork dumplings, chicken teriyaki or tamari glazed mushrooms.
After just a few minutes, the server delivers a tray with your main course selection, plus a salad with Wafu dressing, white rice, Miso Soup, sauces and so on.
In the slide show you can see my lunch tray with the pork dumplings (very tasty) selected as the main dish. For dessert, I had the green tea ice cream, but there is also sorbet.
Since guests have “discovered” Sushi, it’s become more and more popular daily.
Space, Glorious Space
This ship has so much space per guest that despite a fairly full ship, I often walk out and see no one in the corridor, and even spaces where guests gather aren't crowded. I never wait more than about five to 10 seconds maximum for an elevator.
One smartly designed space is Seabourn Square, the hub of the ship and still uncrowded. It has many comfortable seating areas all around, good sea views (and an exterior terrace too), inside power loungers, a large puzzle table, shelves with books and port information, the future cruise desk, and a fine jewelry shop.
Most popular here is the coffee/capuccino/latte bar with sweet treats, light bites during the day, and a range of gelatos.
Also, in the center of Seabourn Square -- which extends across the ship's beam -- is the guest services desk with individual desks for these crew members, not a singular stand-up front desk counter.
Seabourn has effectively put the staff out with the guests, a good move from a service perspective.
That brings me to my initial impressions of service. All cruise ships pretty much have very good service. Guest satisfaction is high throughout the industry.
That said, Seabourn Ovation's crew members are a cut above, even when compared with what I’ve experienced in the past several years on other upscale cruise products.
They immediately call guests by their names, ask how their day is going, and no dish that needs to be removed at a table is left to sit, nor do guests' soda glasses or wine glasses go empty.
But it's more than that. It's the little things they say and do. It's their approach that makes one feel at home. The "genuine" nature of the service shines through.
In its collateral materials, Seabourn uses the headline phrase, “Service You Can Feel." I'd say that's exactly my perspective from just a short time onboard.
The crew have been friendly and accommodating -- from Jo van Biljon and his guest services team to the servers in the Restaurant and Colonnade, from my stateroom stewardess Valeriia to the shore team, maintenance and food-and-beverage workers that I see around the ship.
So far, I'm impressed. What's next? In our next blog, I'll look at adventures ashore in frenetic Bangkok, Thailand and emerging Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Stay tuned here.