One of the first things you notice on the new Seabourn Ovation (and its nearly identical sister Seabourn Encore) is that Seabourn Square is round. This central atrium area is, as its name suggests, square on the line's three Odyssey-class ships but under the command of internationally renowned hotel designer Adam Tihany, the interiors of Encore and Ovation are all about curves.
While he has great respect for the previous ships' sharper Nordic design sensibility, Tihany is a great believer in making it sexy. "For me that means tactile – everything you touch feels nice and friendly. So, our first planning consideration was smoothing out corners, and with that came the notion that we wanted this ship to feel like a beautiful private yacht."
From the grand, double-helix spiral staircase that spans the ship from top to bottom to curvaceous couches, circular bars, well-rounded polished mahogany railings and lashings of marble in the suites' bathrooms, Seabourn Ovation is indeed a visual and sensual delight.
We're sailing on the ship's shakedown cruise out of the shipyard in Genoa – last-minute glitches are ironed out before ''revenue passengers'' board in Venice and Seabourn's VIPs are onboard to host daily presentations to international travel agents and media. While discussing design, Seabourn president Rick Meadows says Encore and Ovation are an evolution of the Odyssey-class ships – a revolution could cause loyal guests to mutiny.
"Consistency is very important to us," Meadows says. "We have kept all the suites forward and public areas aft; essentially, we have added the space of one more deck to accommodate The Restaurant, Retreat and more suites."
There are a few subtle differences between Encore, launched in 2016, and Ovation. The bar area in The Grill is larger because it's one of the most popular socialising spots on the ship, for both diners and non-diners; the Club lounge has been modified and more seating added around the bar; and there's a new focus on art.
Ovation displays more than 1600 works of art by 120 up-and-coming artists, curated by London-based experts ArtLink. Tihany has collaborated with ArtLink on five projects before, on land and at sea, notably onboard Holland America Line's Koningsdam.
"While design gives a space identity, art gives it personality," Tihany says. "Art is an important element of the design experience, especially in places where guests stay for an extended period of time. Sophisticated travellers expect to engage with their surroundings in an intellectual and meaningful way."
Seabourn's guests are certainly sophisticated travellers. Like all cruise lines, Seabourn is constantly on the lookout for destinations and experiences that will attract new cruisers and keep loyal guests returning.
As the ship cruises towards Kotor in Montenegro, the only port call we make on this cruise, we learn about some of the complexities involved in designing itineraries. Planning starts about three years in advance. Tim Littley, Seabourn's director of deployment and itinerary planning, and his team are hard at work at Seabourn's headquarters in Seattle scoping out where the ships will be sailing in 2021 while we're onboard Seabourn Ovation.
Littley has what many would consider the ultimate dream job and says he has a "lifelong passion for the sea and travel". While Ovation sails its first Northern Europe season, we have an illuminating discussion about some of the challenges involved in planning cruises.
Littley explains that from a technical and operational perspective, trailblazing new ports and destinations often means flying out to those places and interacting with the local population on a personal level, explaining the process, gathering information, evaluating the facilities and "generating excitement".
"Planning cruises is not something that can only be done from a desk or computer. Creating connections with destinations and working together to creating a memorable experience is something that can take years to accomplish," he says.
Logistics and communication are always challenging, particularly for more remote destinations. Weather patterns, tides, facilities, accessibility and safety aspects are studied in minute detail – and even when a location has featured on itineraries for many seasons, unforeseen events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes and wars can force last-minute changes.
Then there's the question of supplies. "We take great pride in offering our guests world-class amenities no matter where we are in the world," says Littley. "Where we can't obtain supplies locally, we ship containers with stores across the world to meet the ship."
Littley started his career as a cadet on small cargo ships circumnavigating Africa, climbed through the ranks as a deck officer at Holland America Line and has sailed the seven seas many times over. Does he have a favourite destination?
"Almost every destination has a story to tell and a history to know," he says. "Planning itineraries for a small-ship cruise line such as Seabourn gives me much more latitude and freedom to innovate. Just this year I was able to sprinkle more than 100 new or notable ports into our itineraries.
"Some of my personal favourites are Palapo, Indonesia, which allowed our guests to visit and experience Toraja; Ullapool, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands; the Conflict Islands in Papua New Guinea; the magnificent Skjoldungen Fjord in Greenland; Simi, an unspoiled paradise in the Greek Isles; Oban on New Zealand's Steward Island – few cruise ships venture to the 'third island', which has amazing bird sanctuaries and with luck you can spot the brown kiwi in the wild; the list goes on and on."
Seabourn is the only cruise line to have a formal partnership with UNESCO and since 2014 it has contributed at least $US1 million to help promote sustainable tourism at World Heritage properties. Guest lecturers with special knowledge about UNESCO and World Heritage Sites join select voyages as part of the Seabourn Conversations program and passengers can join tours at more than 170 designated sites.
Many of these World Heritage and Discovery tours include one-off behind-the-scenes experiences – for example, visiting the historic buildings of Bordeaux wine village St Emilion after hours, or trekking through Japan's last virgin beech forest in the Shirakimi Mountains.
When Littley is asked to gaze into his crystal ball and forecast future cruise hot-spots, he says there are a couple of destinations worth keeping an eye on. Cuba is one. "Havana is exciting and vibrant but Cuba is a big country and we are only scratching the surface at this stage," he says.
The South Pacific region in and around the Solomon Sea is also in his sights and he adds, "India continues to mature in the luxury travel space; Japan is rapidly expanding its cruise portfolio; and travelling to bucket-list destinations such as Antarctica and the Arctic are increasingly in demand, especially with smaller ships such as Seabourn Quest offering an expedition-style luxury experience."
Ultimately, though, Littley believes the epitome of luxury cruising remains the Mediterranean. "Nowhere in the world can one find such a variety and density of history, heritage, culture, cuisine and experiences."
Emirates flies four times daily from Sydney to Dubai, connecting with one daily service from Dubai to Copenhagen and Stockholm. Phone 1300 303 77, see emirates.com/au
Seven-day cruises on Seabourn Ovation between Stockholm and Copenhagen, including three days in St Petersburg, start at $6499 a person, twin share, for a verandah suite. Phone 13 24 02, see www.seabourn.com
Sally Macmillan travelled as a guest of Seabourn and Emirates.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT SEABOURN OVATION
Seabourn operates three Odyssey-class ships – Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest, built between 2009 and 2011 and each accommodating 458 guests – plus Seabourn Encore (2016) and Ovation (2018), which carry 600 guests. Two expedition ships are on order, due in 2021 and 2022.
Seabourn Ovation has five restaurants, plus the new ''pop-up'' Earth and Ocean alternative held at the poolside patio every evening. Reservations are required for dinner at The Grill by Thomas Keller but all restaurants are complimentary. Caviar is on tap in all dining venues except The Grill, because it's not served in chef Thomas Keller's acclaimed land-based restaurants.
Experts in a wide variety of fields give talks and presentations in the Seabourn Conversations program. Among speakers coming onboard Seabourn Ovation soon are Australian multi-talented cultural expert Warren Fahey, chocolate and olive oil specialist Armando Manni and several artists, authors and historians.
Classes and treatments available in the Spa & Wellness with Dr Andrew Weil program include Mindful Living yoga and meditation courses, crystal sound bath group meditation and acupuncture and sound therapy classes. There is also a thermal suite and beauty salon.
Four Seabourn ships will visit more than 200 European destinations on cruises of seven to 45 days, departing from 14 ports. Encore, Quest, Odyssey and Ovation will sail in the western and eastern Mediterranean, Northern Europe and the Baltic, the Norwegian fjords, Iceland and Greenland.