I would not classify myself as a huge cruise fan but Sea Dream insists that what they do is yachting, not cruising and yes, there is a difference. Try as I might I couldn’t see any mast or sails but the ship’s charming Norwegian captain Torbjorn Lund was adamant. Sea Dream 11 is small, taking a maximum of 100 passengers and technically, it’s a motorcruiser. Either way – the Sea Dream brand is the world’s highest-rated boutique passenger vessel.
What sets it apart? The ships can dock at small ports where other larger ships are restricted. On our voyage, after leaving Istanbul, we docked at various Greek islands with no other ships in the vicinity. Secondly, Sea Dream has its own marina – a water sports platform with sailboats, jetskis, waterskis and other water toys available off the back of the yacht at certain ports. They also carry bikes so those guests who don’t want to join an organised land excursion can take off on a bicycle to tour the towns.
But the real difference for me was the outstanding service and the food. The cruise is all-inclusive, so the only things you need to pay for onboard are shore excursions or land adventures. With a maximum 56 couples to 95 crew, it’s small, intimate, and every staff member knows your name and your preferences from the first day – greeting you by name. Order a mojito or a French red wine on the first night and the waiter (any waiter) will ask, “Another mojito this evening Ms Halabi”, or “We have a fantastic red I think you’ll like”. The service is impeccable and the food from executive chef, Tomasz Kozlowski, is exquisite.
I’ve stepped foot on other cruise ships – particularly the large ones and wanted to get off. Yet from the moment I stepped onboard Sea Dream 11, somewhat flustered, after a late flight into Istanbul, I felt relaxed. I was handed a cool towel, a glass of champagne and welcomed by two very handsome and charming young men, South African hotel manager, Jamie McGregor and Croatian-born maitre d’hotel, Enes Strkonjic. From that moment, every staff member knew my name, what I liked and didn’t like and if one picked up that my preferences had changed, it was somehow seamlessly communicated to all crew. I wasn’t even allowed to carry my own plate to the table from the breakfast buffet – an attentive staff member would magically appear to assist. It’s this level of detail that keeps veterans like Lincoln and Kate Gray from Mosman in Sydney coming back time after time. They’ve racked up over 100 nights on Sea Dream discovering all corners of the globe, including the Mediterranean and Caribbean – even the Amazon.
Dinners, often served under starlight, are chosen from an extensive a la carte menu that varies nightly and includes Tournedos Rossini, Alaskan crab (my favourite). There’s also a special vegan wellness menu that included vegetable health shots, pomegranate salad, vegetable crostini, and a totally inventive selection of mains for a group that’s usually ignored. I’m a fussy eater and a former food reviewer and to me this showed the extent to which the chef was willing to cater for even the most fastidious diners. I especially liked the freshly squeezed orange and vegetable juices – made on the spot in front of you – and brought to your table each morning.
As we sailed into Greece, Thomas prepared a special Greek menu – gourmet reinventions of spanakopita and melt-in-the-mouth moussaka for example, that were a slightly rustic change to our usual fine dining fare and better than I found later during my two weeks in Greece. Life on board is casual, resort-style sophisticated but unpretentious and the staff become like friends you can joke around with.
The highlight for me was the night I spent out front on the open-air deck sleeping under the stars in a giant Balinese dream bed. It’s first come best dressed as far as this spot is concerned, though if you miss out, they will always convert the day beds at the rear of the ship for you.
Each time I exited my cabin and arrived at the pool or top deck, a drink would arrive – Mark or Zoltan would recall my drink preference and send it over, just the way I liked it. Or you can choose the cocktail of the day and order snacks by the pool. No request was too much trouble. Don’t like your meal? Send it back and try another. I only needed to appear at breakfast and a fresh fruit platter of figs, watermelon and papaya and a fresh omelette was on its way, no order necessary.
Beyond that, staff would make daily recommendations, ask how you were, suggest tactfully that “madam might like to sit this evening on the aft side as a strong breeze is about to blow up as we sail through the heads”, and “why don’t I find you a table for this evening?”
The Sea Dream operation is seamless. Little wonder. The two sister yachts, Sea Dream 1 and 11, are owned by Norwegian Atle Brynestad who started the Seabourn Cruise Line. Brynestad oversees them himself. Special touches such as the pair of monogrammed pyjamas on your pillow, a bottle of chilled champagne on arrival and the chocolate strawberries on other nights are hospitable touches. Wine drinkers will love the wine selection that changes nightly – from Australian to French, South American or Californian, depending on the menu.