Seabourn service shines on larger Ovation

Tom Stieghorst

Travel Weekly - August 15, 2019

The Seabourn Ovation is the second in a class of Seabourn Cruise Line ships, started in 2016 with the Seabourn Encore, that mark an expansion of the size of Seabourn's late-model ships to 600 guests.

A Baltic Sea sailing hosted by Seabourn on the Ovation was my first on this size ship and my first on the line since 2012.

The new ships are very consistent with the earlier Odyssey class, which carry 450 passengers. The public areas are a bit larger, the Seabourn Square area has been opened up, and an area of rentable private cabanas called the Retreat has been added on the upper deck.

With the Ovation's debut in 2018, Seabourn added a new dining concept called Earth and Ocean at the Patio, which has since been expanded fleetwide. We dined one evening at Earth and Ocean, and it was a highlight of the cruise.

The ship was docked in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the evening light lasted until well after 10 p.m. Earth and Ocean is a dinner-only concept that converts the poolside grill to a more sophisticated restaurant.

Dinner started with a trolley brought tableside that delivered a board with bread and several spreads. A lantern filled with smoke was the container for a chicken salad appetizer, which absorbed the smoky essence that emerged from the lantern when it was opened at the table.

The two previous nights we had dined in the Restaurant, which is the formal dining venue deep within the ship on Deck 4. It was a refreshing change to dine alfresco on Deck 9 in an informal setting.

Part of the charm is the view from the floor-to-ceiling glass windows lining the pool deck. While we ate, we looked out on the new, 87-story Lakhta Center, which is the tallest building in Europe and has the appearance of a rocket ship ready for takeoff.

One of the specialties at Earth and Ocean is braised meat, and the night's selection included a braised lamb shank, which was tasty and "falling-off-the-bone" tender, as the waiter excitedly told us.

The service style at Earth and Ocean is more enthusiastic and less restrained than at the Restaurant. There is also contemporary music piped in through the poolside sound system, which you won't get in the Restaurant.

There were 10 tables set for Earth and Ocean when we dined there, and six were occupied. We struck up a conversation with diners at a nearby table, which seemed easier to do than at the more formal venue.

We enjoyed the view of a sunset that started with a partly cloudy sky but gradually cleared, as the evening light slowly dimmed and pink clouds eventually faded to black.

A chunk of the space created by adding a deck of cabins to the Encore and Ovation is used for an additional restaurant, the Grill by Thomas Keller, where we ate the following night. The concept pays tribute to midcentury American dining, with Frank Sinatra on the playlist and tableside Caesar salad on the menu.

The highlight of the dinner was a delicious rib-eye steak from Snake River Farms in Wyoming, where cattle are bred to produce meat similar to Japan's famed wagyu beef.

A dessert of seven-layer coconut cake was like a grown-up cousin of coconut cream pie.

Yet another alternative dining venue on the Ovation is Sushi, a small room where diners can sit at a table or directly at the sushi counter. We had an appetizer of scallops artistically decorated with sliced radish halves and some nigiri (raw fish on top of rice mounds) and sushi rolls that were expertly made.

Personal touches

Beyond the dining venues, there isn't anything on the Ovation that would be unfamiliar to the passengers of Seabourn's smaller ships. The line's claim to fame is really its service delivery. Two guests we spoke with compared it favorably to premium lines they had tried.

"The reason we sail Seabourn is the service, pure and simple," said Andy Mellen, a retired Cigna executive, whose experience dates back to the line's original fleet of 212-passenger vessels.

"The crew and the service has been essentially the same from the small ships to this size," Mellen said.

A related attraction is Seabourn's tradition of finding ways to make guests feel special. For example, I was invited on successive nights to dine in the Restaurant with the staff captain and the captain of the vessel.

On a night when my wife and I returned late to the ship from a ballet in St. Petersburg, our cabin attendant, Aleksandra, had drawn a bath sprinkled with rose petals.

Perhaps most vitally, Seabourn was able to find and deliver a checked bag that had been missing for three days prior to the sailing after a luggage system meltdown during a plane change in London.

In my experience, Seabourn also punches above its weight in entertainment, given the constraints of its small ship size and generally longer itineraries. The four singers and two dancers in the company troupe were very talented.

A tribute to the songbook of Broadway/West End lyricist Tim Rice featured a remarkably lifelike video of Rice talking about the songs and musical collaborators he has worked with in a hit-filled career.

Another show, "Push the Button," featured a fast-paced tour through the decades of music, television, movies and pop culture. Every time one of the performers pushed a giant button, the decade changed.

I was quite impressed to see the same performers deftly handle the music and dance styles of the 1940s one moment and those of today moments later.