Seabourn Ovation's Central America and Panama Canal Pathfinder: Five-star service on the high seas

There is a bath in my verandah suite on the Seabourn Ovation. A bath. To emphasise how dumbfounded I am I take photographs of it and send them to friends. A bath, I write. An actual bath, in my room, on a ship that's just about to sail around Central America for two weeks.

I am reminded of the lyrics in pop star Robbie William's song Party like a Russian: "I put a bank inside a car inside a plane inside a boat."

I mean, I've cruised on some of the biggest ships sailing the ocean blue but they mostly boast showers so compact that it's possible to elbow yourself in the eye trying to pick up a dropped soap.

So, to find a bath, in my room, in a ship, on the high seas? It's good to be cruising again.

We have to undergo a supervised COVID-19 rapid antigen test (RAT)  at the ship's terminal in Miami before being allowed on board but in today's world it's better to be safe than sorry.

In fact, with the crew masked 24/7 and everyone RAT  and PCR-tested to within an inch of their lives, this is the ocean-going equivalent of the ship being injected with bleach, blasted by ultraviolet light and smothered in Ivermectin.

For Seabourn Ovation read SS Antiseptic.

We weigh anchor in early evening and slip out of a sultry Miami under leaden skies. I watch the city's glittering beachfront skyline recede into the distance while chowing down on clam chowder and cheesecake at Colonnade, the al fresco dining area at the blunt end of the ship.

This is the start of Seabourn's Central America and Panama Canal Pathfinder cruise, a 14-day odyssey through all the countries that nobody can find on a map (with the possible exception of Mexico).


The other countries on our round-trip itinerary include (in order of visitation) Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Guatemala.

Or as I like to call it, the Central America Suck-It-And-See tour. You'll never get a true sense of a country from a brief one-day excursion but you'll certainly get a taste of the place – and perhaps whether it would be worth going back one day (I'm looking at you, Cozumel, you tequila-soaked island).

There are any number of excursions that can be booked (at extra cost) at each destination, from simple days lazing on a beach to longer trips to snorkel, visit a national park or wolf down a bit of local culture.

Excursions aside, though, cruising is very much about the ship, the entertainment, the food and the number of cocktails it's possible to consume in one afternoon around the pool. I suspect my DNA had changed when we finally arrived back in Miami and I am now part-pina colada.

The Seabourn Ovation, which first slid down the slipway in 2018, is frighteningly luxurious and, it seems, pretty much every room has a bath (and here I thought I was special). For the number crunchers, it has 300 suites, can take 600 guests, its cruising speed is 15 knots, boasts 13 decks, has a tonnage of 40,350, is 210 metres long and 28 metres wide, which nestles it nicely among the small ship cruising class.

It has a restaurant called The Restaurant and a sushi bar called Sushi. The spa is called, wait for it, The Spa but, oddly, the lovely people who come in to clean the rooms in the morning and turn them down at night are now known as Personal Suite Stewardesses.

There's also a wood-panelled a la carte restaurant called The Grill by Thomas Keller where, apart from the steaks, lamb chops and lobster, they'll theatrically toss together a caesar salad right at the table. Don't stint on the anchovies, my good man.

I don't know about you but to me a cruise ship is a cruise ship is a cruise ship (the bath notwithstanding) and the only big difference in them is the size.

There are the usual expensively gleaming brass, glass and wooden fittings, and a central circular staircase that plunges down through the many floors and has mind-bendingly Escher-like qualities if you stare at it too long.

There's a pool, a few hot tubs scattered about (including a secret one at the pointy end of deck 7 which nobody seems to know about so keep it to yourself), and mirrored elevators that, no matter where you look, show your bald spot.

The Ovation does avoid one of the more egregious faults of some cruise ships, namely that the carpets in the communal areas don't bring on migraines.

But this is all hardware. Where the Ovation shines is in its software – aka the crew. On the first morning at sea I wander down to the main breakfast room to be greeted by a member of the crew I hadn't met before.

"Good morning, Mr Austin," she says.

This act of mental prestidigitation is then repeated frequently throughout the ship in the coming days, as many other passengers later attest.

One of them, Andrew, explains that he has been on several Seabourn cruises and was a big fan of the staff: "If you decide to have champagne and caviar in your room at 3am, they'll bring it to you. They don't seem to know the word 'no'. Give them a few days; they'll all know your name and what you drink."

John, another regular cruiser from Atlanta, Georgia, says: "Some friends and I once watched the Australian Open on a Seabourn cruise and ordered popcorn at 2am. Then we tried to find something they couldn't do or bring. We failed."

As if to prove the point, the next day I realise that I've left a telephone charging cable in my Miami hotel room and a baseball cap in the taxi to the port. Both are cheerily replaced within 30 minutes.

One of my favourite moments comes at 6.15am when the coffee shop in the Seabourn Square lounge/reception area opens for business.

I am in there every morning for coffee and a warm croissant, served by the irrepressibly cheery Amra from Bosnia, a woman whose smile I can only guess at thanks to the 24/7 mask rule.

I notice her hovering over the tray of freshly baked with tongs and wonder what on earth she's doing. She is, she laughs, "looking for the prettiest one".

Now that's service.



Retreat to The Retreat on deck 12 – a private, adults-only area where nothing is too much trouble. Fifteen private cabanas are set around a central whirlpool under a sun canopy. It's like having your own luxury living room in the sun, with champagne, fruit basket, lunch, a well-stocked fridge, fluffy bathrobes and Bluetooth-enabled TV and headphones thrown in.


It's just a few bookcases around the edge of the main Seabourn Square but I have seen dedicated libraries without the thoughtfulness of this small collection. Think All the Light We Cannot See next to Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood's The Testaments cheek by jowl with Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life. There's even Cari Mora, the new one from the creator of Hannibal Lecter but, really, don't bother.


There's a tinkling piano in the Observation Bar at the front of the ship, the singer is warbling the Beatles' Michelle Ma Belle and the waiter has just up-ended a small egg-timer so I can gauge the strength of my tea. There's a crepe suzette, and scones, too. The only dilemma is jam or cream first?


There is always something exciting happening around the pool, whether it be the cruise directors pushing a gelato cart around, country-themed hi-jinks and drinks, or hotly contested crew vs guest games. Just be quick off the mark on Caviar Around the Pool Day; that stuff vanishes faster than crops in a locust plague.


The Grand Salon is the venue for nightly shows that range from solo performances to all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas. There's a lot of Les Mis, a bar or two from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a smorgasbord of Tim Rice, a violin virtuoso from Ukraine, and a mind-reading magician.




Seabourn Cruise Line's 14-Day Central America and Panama Canal Pathfinder itinerary will set sail again in December, 2023, on the Seabourn Quest. It costs from $7999 for an Oceanview room and from $9999 for a Verandah room, a person, twin share. Gratuities are included as are unlimited food and beverages. See

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Seabourn Cruise Line.