Seabourn Encore cruise ship review: Lapping up luxury in oceans heaven

On an afternoon when Singapore shimmers beneath a 38-degree sun, a bottle of champagne sitting in an ice-filled bucket never looked so appealing.

Alongside is a note from Kiwi captain Mark Dexter wishing the passengers in this Seabourn Encore cabin "a most pleasant and luxurious voyage".

Opulence and indulgence are what this newly launched ship, which entered Australian waters for the first time on Sunday, is all about. Its owners call it ultra-luxury cruising.

Each of its 300 suites has a private verandah, wine and spirits flow freely throughout the voyage and stewards memorise passengers' names long before they've stepped on board.

There's a celebrity chef restaurant, The Grill, where American superstar Thomas Keller has overseen a menu of classics including caesar salad, lobster thermidor and ice-cream sundaes.

But cruise ship companies aligning with well-known chefs isn't new. Jamie Oliver, Luke Mangan, Nobuyuki Matsushita, Marco Pierre White and a host of others all do it. With Encore, Seabourn may have started a cruise ship trend by enlisting a celebrity designer, Adam D. Tihany, for the interiors. The dapper, Romanian-born Tihany has many well-known venues in his portfolio, from Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas to Heston Blumenthal and Wolfgang Puck restaurants.

As a first step in Seabourn design, he took cruises on two of Encore's three sister ships. And they studied how people moved around on board and the spaces they occupied.

"I wanted it to be sexy and curvy, to remove the hard edges and to make it softer. To be a little more Italian and not Iceland."

The result is a ship that is light and bright with high ceilings. Furniture and fittings curve smoothly round corners. In public areas, the curvaceous theme continues with a circular bar and sweeping semicircular banquette seating in the Observation Bar.

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The cruise line's signature Seabourn Square, which replaces the traditional reception with concierge service staff, follows the circular theme. It's also where passengers discuss off-shore adventures, borrow books, read newspapers and do a jigsaw or two.

At the ship's heart, and connecting seven of the 12 decks, is a big statement, swirling, suspended circular stairwell. The copious amounts of glass, royal blue carpets and brilliantly polished timber sparkle beneath a large, glass atrium. Just the place to sweep downstairs in a party frock to The Salon on Deck 6 and take in the new production An Evening with Tim Rice. In the show, the ship's singers perform some of Rice's best known musical songs from Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita and The Lion King.

Entertainment includes a guest speaker program and Tim Rice was on board in Singapore. Former prime minister Julia Gillard makes her Seabourn speaking debut in November when Encore sails from Singapore to Australia. Other 2107 speakers include former royal chef Darren McGrady, who worked for Queen Elizabeth II, and Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Moss.

Familiarity with what's on which deck matters more than you may imagine to many regular cruise passengers. More than half Seabourn's customers are repeat guests and on Encore, they will discover a few changes, including an extra level.

Venture to Deck 12 at the top of the 210-metre ship to find Tihany's favourite spot, a place where his vision for introducing a luxury yacht feel is most evident. In this adults-only area, guests cocoon themselves in one of 12 private cabanas where the decor is beige, brown and navy with a touch of yellow and jaunty nautical stripes. In each, there is a sofa, large television and fully stocked fridge. Shade sails sit overhead and there's a central whirlpool for a quick dip. For ultimate privacy, pull the curtains around, slip on the monogrammed bathrobe and thongs and order a cabana exclusive cocktail. Such special treatment comes at an additional cost.

But there are not many extra charges on Encore. All restaurants, from The Grill by Thomas Keller to a sushi bar, which also does takeaway, are included. There's a large curved glass wine cabinet in The Restaurant – where Penfold's Grange makes an appearance – and a selection from here would be added to your bill but regular wines and spirits are included in the cost of the cruise.

And, in-suite minibars are stocked with passengers' favourites before they board. In-room, or on-verandah, dining is available at all times. Suites range in size from 23 square metres to 121 square metres with verandahs adding six to 84 square metres respectively. From the smallest suite upward, each unit has one queen, or twin, beds, sitting area, flat-screen TV, walk-in wardrobe with lots of hangers and a bathroom big on granite and mirrors with a separate bath and shower. Soaps are by Hermes and L'Occitane and Molton Brown has developed a new, Seabourn Signature scent.

Another new development, begun as Encore left Singapore, is a spa and wellness program designed by American celebrity doctor and holistic health guru Andrew Weil. Passengers are able to attend seminars, classes and daily yoga sessions while the program integrates physical, environmental and spiritual wellbeing.

His DIY scrub bar treatment, to "exfoliate and excite the senses", has tangerine, peppermint, chocolate and vanilla among its choice of ingredients.

Seabourn, part of the Carnival Corporation, is represented in this country by Carnival Australia. Its sister cruise lines include Holland America, Cunard, Princess and P&O but Seabourn is by far the most luxurious in the 10 cruise-line group.

"There's a group of very affluent people and discerning customers who want something that's their own," says Seabourn president Richard Meadows, who predicts a bright future for the luxe end of the market.

"We think there's still tremendous opportunity for the high-end cruise market to grow. To us, we feel there is still ample room."

That's ample room for more passengers to take their first cruise and many of these will be "boomers who like learning", Meadows says.

And the new wave of passengers may be in their 50s and 60s but, says Meadows: "We are all ageing younger and moving actively".

Hence the Seabourn experience emphasisesits Ventures program. Zodiac and kayak tours around Australia include visits to Northern Territory mangroves, a swim and hike in the Whitsundays and a shoreline exploration of Phillip Island.

At 40,350 tonnes, Encore is not a massive ship. Its size allows it to visit places larger vessels cannot enter and the company's UNESCO partnership brings World Heritage experts to talk on board.

At Encore's naming ceremony in Singapore, Carnival Corporation chief executive Arnold Donald predicted a new "golden age of cruising".

See also: Cruise ship secrets: 25 insider tips you never knew about

See also: 20 amazing new ships that will change the world

TRIP NOTES

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http://www.traveller.com.au/cruises

seabourn.com

CRUISE

Seabourn Encore is on its inaugural voyage and arrives in Darwin on Sunday, as part of a 16-day cruise from Bali to Sydney. It will sail in Australian and New Zealand waters this month and in March.

PORTS OF CALL

Mooloolaba, Phillip Island and Geelong are among nine maiden calls the ships makes while sailing here. Other destinations include Townsville, Melbourne and Sydney.

SAIL AWAY

There is availability on Seabourn Encore's 16-day cruise from Sydney to Bali departing on March 6. Cairns, Hamilton Island, Komodo Island and Lombok are among its visits. Prices from $8499 a person twin share. Phone 13 24 02, see seabourn.com

Sue Bennett travelled to Singapore as a guest of Seabourn.

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