Of all the words stripped of meaning by careless overuse, "luxury" is unrivalled in its emptiness and ubiquity. So when a cruise line promising "ultra luxury" builds its first new ship in five years, what does the cutting edge of luxury at sea look and feel like?
It looks more like a yacht than a ship, more resort than hotel. It feels more discreet residential than shock-and-awe institutional. Carnival Corporation chief Arnold Donald heralded what he called a "golden age of cruising" at the christening of Seabourn Encore, the most glamorous débutante in the cruise giant's global fleet, a few weeks before Encore's arrival in Australia in January. "In the past four years we've seen tremendous advances in technology to improve the safety, the efficiency, the comfort and just the plain fun on our ships," Donald said at a naming party at Singapore's Marina Bay cruise terminal. "But every few years those advances take a great leap forward with a ship that breaks the mould."
One of several whirlpools on Seabourn Encore (photography: Ray Woodhouse)
The Seattle-based Seabourn Cruise Line, the most upscale of the nine lines operated by Carnival Corporation, gave the challenge of designing its biggest ship to prolific hospitality designer Adam D Tihany, known for his globetrotting work on restaurants run by high-profile chefs (Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal, Paul Bocuse and Pierre Gagnaire, among others); hotels (The Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, the Beverly Hills Hotel); and resorts (One&Only Cape Town, Four Seasons Resort Dubai). Born in Transylvania, raised in Jerusalem, educated in Milan and now based in New York, Tihany describes himself as a "problem solver". "To me, if something doesn't have problems I don't enjoy myself," Tihany says during an interview aboard Seabourn Encore on the Java Sea en route to Australia. "I really like challenges. I like spaces, ideas, things that are difficult. When somebody says it can't be done, that's when I wake up." He smiles and adds: "This was a lot of fun."
Tihany says he aimed for the look and feel of a "luxury yacht", albeit a supersized version with 12 decks and 300 suites. In contrast to the angular Nordic lines and pale colours of its sister ships - Seabourn Quest, Sojourn and Odyssey - Encore is full of curves, contemporary Italian furnishings and a warmer palette of creams, deep blue and maroon. Echoes of yacht design are there in the liberal use of mahogany, glossy wood laminates, chrome and leather on distinctive curvaceous lines throughout the vessel - from windows and stairs to bars and pools. The balancing act, says Tihany, was making the ship feel familiar to passengers who travel frequently on Seabourn ships and yet surprising them as well.
Encore's atrium (photography: Eric Laignel)
Seabourn Square, which replaces the standard reception area, is a case study. On Encore it's an open-plan living room, library and café arranged around a central guest-services hub, where guests can consult a team of concierges, read, relax on sofas and chat over coffee. As a "hospitality person first, designer second", Tihany radically changed the layout used on Encore's sister ships, taking concierges "from a kind of closed wood box" to an open circular space, facing outwards. "Is the job of the concierge to have customers or hide?" he says. "The logic of the design was about what Seabourn does best, which is service."
The line has a strong reputation among a loyal, mainly American clientele for the kind of intuitive service possible only on small ships. So Seabourn's decision to build a bigger ship that accommodates 600 passengers - the existing three ships carry only 450 each - was a bold one. The balancing act here, says Seabourn president Richard Meadows, is offering more choice for more passengers (six eateries, four bars, several pools and whirlpools) while maintaining highly personalised service. "We think there's a point you can't go beyond [in size] and authentically deliver that level of personalisation and experience," he says. "I think we're really at that level. We're very conscious to have our crew remember guest names and preferences, for example. That was a very big part of our decision to stay at this size."
Seabourn Encore's main dining room (photography: Anthony Hayward)
All 300 suites have private verandas, walk-in robes, large white- and grey-marble bathrooms with separate showers and full-size bathtubs, and 23 to 120 square metres of indoor space; the larger suites have separate living rooms, entertaining areas and "winter garden" sunrooms. While size matters, the most distinctive interiors are cleverly styled small spaces: a 30-seat restaurant called Sushi, for instance, where chefs work behind an L-shaped granite bar, and The Retreat, with 15 cabanas arranged around a top-deck whirlpool, each with fully stocked fridges, customised menus for dining and spa treatments, and plenty of daybeds. The main restaurant, called simply The Restaurant, is crowned by stylised branch-like mouldings and cleverly varied ceiling heights that create the illusion of settling into a smart intimate restaurant rather than a dining room that seats 400.
Recognising that "our customers know the best", says Meadows, the cruise line has entered into partnerships with several high-profile personalities to deliver on-board services. This includes a restaurant and bar by three-starred chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame, stage productions by English lyricist Sir Tim Rice, known for musicals such as The Lion King and Evita, cocktails by American mixologist Brian Van Flandern, and a spa and "mindful living" program by Dr Andrew Weil, a physician, best-selling author and the founder-director of the University of Arizona-affiliated Center for Integrative Medicine.
Ginger and yoghurt semifreddo in The Restaurant **(photography: Deborah Jones)
Designed to appeal to passengers typically aged 60-plus "who are extraordinarily proactive about their health", says Meadows, the spa and health program is based on Weil's work integrating conventional and alternative therapies, with a focus on lifestyle, mindbody interaction and "mindfulness", the increasingly popular practice of focusing on the present.
"Spa programs I've looked at on cruise ships have a lopsided emphasis on the physical," says Weil. "It's massages and treatments, and there's not the mind-body component, not the emphasis on mindfulness."
On Encore, guests can consult a "mindful living coach" trained at Weil's centre, join group and individual meditation, yoga and "sound bath" sessions, consult an on-board acupuncturist and join discussions with visiting health practitioners. The gym is large and well equipped by cruise-ship standards, with a personal trainer and a body-composition analyser on hand. Also in the spa is a thermal suite tiled in bronze mosaics, comprising a steam room, a "Mediterranean" sauna, heated loungers and a couple of "experience" showers, which can generate a range of directional sprays, from a horizontal aromatic mist to a monsoonal downpour.
Sonoma duck breast at The Grill by Thomas Keller (photography: Deborah Jones)
I thought a "sound bath" might involve noisy immersion in a pool, but no water is involved. Instead it's a guided meditation session in which Jade Poleon, Encore's mindful living coach, "plays" half a dozen crystal bowls - a variation on traditional Tibetan singing bowls - by striking and circling their rims with a padded mallet as an aid to meditation. The bowls emit powerful sound-wave vibrations of varying frequency and tone, and the effect during a 50-minute session spent lying on a mat in a darkened room is deeply, hypnotically relaxing. One man said he felt the sound resonate in the site of an old knee injury; a woman said she felt a not-unpleasant "awareness" in an ear in which she'd recently had a minor infection. Poleon also performs a relaxation treatment in which the subject lies on a heated amethyst "bio-mat" and the vibrating bowls are placed on the body.
While the bowls are singing on Deck 10, on Deck Eight a team of chefs are preparing tonight's dinner in The Grill by Thomas Keller. The chef himself is on board during this leg of Encore's inaugural voyage to oversee his interpretation of a chophouse - a fancy steakhouse serving refined versions of American favourites: prawn cocktails, consommés, lobster Thermidor, superior cuts roasted or grilled with sides of creamed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, and macaroni and cheese. Roast chickens and classic Caesar salads are, respectively, carved and tossed at the table, and the spectacle and banter set the tone of the grill. "We have ELF here," says Keller. "Our restaurant should be energetic, loud and fun." The 80-seat eatery is packed every night.
The sitting room in a Signature Suite (photography: Eric Laignel)
Diners familiar with Keller's restaurants in California and New York - The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery and Per Se - will notice that produce used at Keller's on-board grill is sourced primarily from the same group of élite purveyors he has used for decades, such as Elysian Field Farm lamb for pure-bred lamb and Marcho Farms for veal, both in Pennsylvania, Kendall Farms in California for crème fraîche, Clearwater in Nova Scotia for lobsters, and Snake River Farms in Idaho for premium beef.
The ability to continue long-standing relationships with key producers was critical to his decision to develop grills across the Seabourn fleet, says Keller. "It's a restaurant on a cruise ship, not a cruise-ship restaurant," he says. "That's a big distinction."
Meadows describes Encore's approach to "ultra luxury" as a combination of world-best "hardware and software", referring to the ship's design and features, and the calibre of the 415 on-board staff delivering a complex travel experience. There's impressive attention to detail across the ship, from sunglass-cleaning by pool staff to white-glove service at afternoon tea in the Observation Bar, lit by a skylight lined with luminous glass flying fish. Coffee beans supplied by Seattle-based Fonté Coffee are roasted on board, and Joel the barista conducts impromptu coffee-cupping sessions as he pours espresso. There's customised samphire- and eucalyptus-scented products by Molton Brown in the bathrooms, and a choice of fresh herbal body scrubs for use in the spa's thermal suite. Women are escorted to their dinner tables on the arm of a restaurant host. Tonic water is made to order by a bartender who remembers your name and your Martini preferences.
The Penthouse Spa Suite (photography: Eric Laignel)
Back on Deck Eight, the roast chicken being carved tableside at The Grill is a free-range, mixed-breed Jidori bird grown on a small farm in California, brined for 12 hours, trussed and air-dried for 24 hours, and then roasted in a steam combination oven for precisely 26 minutes. The result evokes memories of life's best roast-chicken dinners. That, as much as anything, is luxury.