FROM the moment our Croatian waiter Goran handed over the breakfast menu and casually inquired, “Coffee, tea – or perhaps a beer?”, I knew this trip was going to be something special.
This was the first morning at sea: the beginning of an 11-night Atlantic crossing that would take us from Lisbon to the Puerto Rico capital, San Juan, in the Caribbean.
We’d been promised that Sea Dream I – the pride of the Sea Dream Yacht Club – was something to be savoured, that the level of service was extraordinary, the food exceptional, and that we’d be spoiled for any other maritime experience.
Correct on all counts.
Sailing on the Sea Dream – there are two of them in the fleet, Sea Dream I and Sea Dream II, each exactly the same – is unlike any other cruise. For a start, it’s not a cruise ship – it’s a yacht. And, yes, there is a difference.
When we set sail from Lisbon, that most elegant of European capitals, my wife and I were among just 81 passengers. To cater for our needs, we had the service of 95 crew, many of whom knew our names by the end of the first day.
About three-quarters of the passengers were Sea Dream veterans, having crossed the Atlantic previously, or sailed aboard the Sea Dream as it meandered its way around the Mediterranean or the Caribbean.
Some – like Sydney-based property developer Tony Madigan and his wife Val – had been coming back each year for 17 years. It was like a family reunion at Christmas as guests made their way up the gangway to be greeted by Captain Valter Berg and a waiter proffering a glass of champagne.
Why do they come back again and again?
Well, consider this.
A voyage on the Sea Dream is about the ultimate in luxury: the staterooms are spacious and comfortable, attendants are quick to respond to your every wish and the food is of a quality and variety that you’d only find in the most exclusive of big-city restaurants.
Granted, there are different levels of accommodation and different prices, but if you’re sharp, you can book an Atlantic crossing for about $2500. That equates to about $225 for each night at sea – comparable to a reasonably good hotel room (unless, of course, you’re staying in New York, when it’s double that).
But you’re getting much, much more than just a bed. Try three sumptuous meals a day, unlimited use of a golf simulator and a gymnasium, entertainment, lectures, world-class service – oh, and all the beer, wine, spirits and cocktails you can drink.
Once you pay your fare, that’s it. Meals, all drinks, snacks, entertainment – even tips to the ultra-attentive staff – are all included in the price.
The only additional expense is for the use of the spa and the internet.
Why is it so inexpensive – especially when the quality of service, the meals and the facilities are so superb?
Simple logistics. The twin motor yachts cruise the Mediterranean during the northern summer, stopping at exotic ports almost every day, then head across the Atlantic in October for six months in the balmy Caribbean. About March, they return to the Mediterranean.
And because the crossings don’t incur the costs of repeated ports of call, they’re offered at bargain prices: about half the usual rate.
No wonder those in the know are so quick to re-book for the next time.
Even on this voyage, more than half the passengers before they disembarked had made arrangements to sail again on Sea Dream the following year.
The Sea Dream yachts have 56 staterooms, three bars and two dining areas: a formal dining salon used mainly for dinner; and the Topside restaurant, where meals are served on deck under shades cabanas or in the open. That’s where we had breakfast and lunch and, sometimes, dinner – under the stars.
The service staff – Goran, Mike, Pierre, Angelo (a Thai with a laconic sense of humour who greeted his Australian guests each day with a hearty “G’day, mate”) and their co-workers – quickly became our friends.
Apart from knowing our names, they also remembered how we liked our eggs cooked, whether we drank tea or coffee, what wines we preferred with our meals, the beer we liked and where we preferred to sit.
Life aboard the Sea Dream is idyllic. Breakfast on deck in the morning, a brisk walk around the circuit, reading a book by the pool, lunch, a nap in the stateroom, a session in the gym, a swim, a movie or lecture in the main salon – all complemented by a team of waiters ready to produce your favourite drink at a moment’s notice.
The evenings began with cocktails in the main salon, followed by dinner in the dining salon – perhaps the highlight of each day at sea. Dinner each night was special, even though few guests bothered to dress more formally than to don long trousers and a shirt with a collar. On one evening this was my dinner: for starters, melted goat cheese on a bed of grilled peppers with tomato-basil foccacia and apricot chutney; followed by cream of pumpkin soup with tarragon and roasted pumpkin seeds; then grilled free-range chicken breast marinated with honey and thyme served on steamed spinach and tomato-demi-glace; finally, pecan cream pie served with chocolate ganache.
After that, it was off to the piano bar with Rick dispensing drinks and George at the piano. If the nearby casino wasn’t busy, casino manager Sarah would lend a hand with vocals.
And so it went for 11 glorious days and nights.
The only stops were at Madeira – a spectacular Portuguese-influenced island off the north-west coast of Africa, and the final destination of San Juan – surely the world’s best-kept tourism secret. If you ever want to experience superb food, great beer, friendly people, a wonderful climate, fantastic golf courses, beautiful women and shopping that will keep your wife happily occupied for days, San Juan’s the place.
I’m already planning a return visit. And if I’m really lucky, it will be aboard one of these Sea Dream yachts, which have consistently been judged the world’s best boutique cruise vessels. Little wonder. It’s simply the experience of a lifetime.
The author travelled from Lisbon to San Juan aboard Sea Dream I as a guest of the Sea Dream Yacht Club.
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