As someone with east coast roots, I've enjoyed my share of kitchen parties. But before sailing aboard the Seabourn Sojourn, I had never experienced a hall party at sea.
I was soaking up the sea views from my stateroom verandah when the ship's bell rang around 5:30 p.m. on the second day of an Eastern Caribbean cruise. My first thought was that some sort of emergency drill must be taking place, but I was a little confused. Before sailing out of Fort Lauderdale the previous day, we had done a ship-wide safety drill.
Instead, Captain Hamish Elliott invited all aboard to open their doors, step out into the hall and greet their neighbours, which I did.
Smartly dressed wait-staff bearing trays of cool cocktails and hot hors d'oeuvres greeted me and my fellow cruisers. Between sips of Kir Royale and nibbles of crab cakes, smoked salmon and the like, most of the residents of deck seven were soon chatting, and meandering up and down the hallway to meet more "neighbours" -- a scene that was repeated throughout the ship.
While the hall party was perhaps a tad more elegant than a kitchen party -- there were no fiddles, jigs or reels -- there was a casual, friendly vibe, which broke the ice among people who were strangers but would see each other frequently around the ship during the next 11 days.
The hall party is a fairly new tradition for Seabourn Cruise Line. Cruise director Heidicha Smith says it began on one of the line's Grand Voyages and proved so popular it has been rolled out to the rest of the fleet.
It is just one of the ways Seabourn encourages mingling and fosters a sense of camaraderie on board. Hosted dinners are another.
In a throwback to the refined dinner parties of another era, guests sailing with Seabourn can expect to receive invitations to dine at tables "hosted" by staff members. There is no obligation to accept an invitation but doing so is a great way to meet people, Smith says.
During my 10-nights at sea, I dined with Smith as well as the assistant cruise director, Sophie Tehrani, guest services honchos Michael Wolff and Jo van Biljon, and vocalist Dale Paarman. From appetizer through dessert, I chatted with interesting folks from around the United States and Puerto Rico, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, Chile and more.
The hosted tables are a "long-standing Seabourn tradition" and a way to "reach out to as many guests as possible, especially those travelling solo," Smith says. But socializing is always voluntary so if guests prefer to do their own thing, that's okay, too.
A delicious barbecue lunch is prepared for Seabourn guests during a beach day on Isla Catalina in the Dominican Republic. ROBIN ROBINSON/QMI Agency
SAN JUAN MASH UP
After two sea days relaxing and exploring the 400-passenger Sojourn, the first port of call is San Juan, Puerto Rico, where we disembark for the day. As a first-time visitor to San Juan, I have signed up for a shore excursion -- Seabourn's new Mofongo and Mojito Culinary Adventure.
Part walking tour, part local food discovery, it starts with a guided stroll through Old San Juan, past ancient city walls, through shady plazas and along narrow streets paved with blue cobblestones and lined with colourful colonial buildings housing offices, shops, cafes and galleries.
The tour normally makes a tasting stop at a shop that specializes in spices and hot sauces but unfortunately, when we arrive, it is closed for a Puerto Rican holiday. That leaves extra time for us to enjoy a cool minty mojito as we make our own mofongo lunch with a local chef at one of several restaurants used for this part of the excursion.
Mofongo -- Puerto Rico's most emblematic dish -- is derived from the African dish fufu, which was brought to the Caribbean by slaves and adapted to local ingredients. Variations are found in Cuba (fufu de platano) and the Dominican Republic (mangu).
The savoury concoction is made from rounds of fried green plantains mashed in a pilon (a wooden mortar and pestle) with broth, garlic, oil and bacon bits or pork cracklings. Blending the ingredients takes some vigorous wrist action and, after a few minutes, I am longing for the big efficient potato masher in my kitchen back home.
Once the lumps have been more or less vanquished, the mash is hand-formed into a ball, then flattened and topped with a savoury stew-like mixture that can include vegetables, chicken, beef and/or seafood.
While my mofongo is less than perfect -- somewhat lopsided and a little lumpy -- it is delicious and filling nonetheless.
There are many opportunities for beach bumming on sandy strands at every island visited on this cruise, but the port call at Isla Catalina -- an uninhabited island wildlife reserve in the Dominican Republic -- is an ultra-pampering yet fun day of warm seas, white sands, and delicious food and drink.
The local musicians and costumed dancers who greet guests as they come ashore for the private beach party set a festive Caribbean tone. Seabourn waiters bearing trays offer fruity cocktails or non-alcoholic drinks dockside and deliver beverages -- and sunscreen -- to guests reclining on beach chairs under sheltering bright blue and yellow umbrellas. Those inclined to water sports can splash around on banana boats, pedal-boats and more.
The ship's chefs man the grills at a permanent open-air thatched-roof kitchen, where an extensive buffet barbecue is prepared and served. On the menu: Lobster, shrimp, steak, roast beef, jerk chicken, sausages, hamburgers, cold cuts, salads and sides of every sort, and enough tempting desserts to weaken your diet resolve! Picnic tables beneath another thatched roof offer plenty of space and shade for dining.
Between refreshing dips in the impossibly blue Caribbean, there is Caviar in the Surf -- Seabourn's signature beach day event.
The excitement begins when a contingent of staffers zoom to shore on an inflatable speedboat bearing caviar and Champagne. They sound a horn, jump into the ocean and set up a serving station on a surf board before inviting guests to wade in and sample the treats.
Before long, a bathing-suit clad crowd bellies up to the surfboard bar and much noshing and laughter ensues until the caviar and Champagne are all consumed.
NOSHING AND SIPPING
Cruise lore holds that a passenger can gain 10 pounds on a cruise. But Seabourn makes it a bit easier to ward off unwanted pounds at sea.
While there are plenty of places to dine -- the Restaurant (aka the main dining room), the intimate and innovative Restaurant 2, the indoor-outdoor Colonnade and the Patio Grill -- the focus is on quality not quantity.
Each meal includes many beautifully prepared choices but portions are reasonably sized and every menu lists "lighter" choices, plenty of salads and sugar-free desserts. Reservations are required for Restaurant 2, which features a tasting menu, but there is no additional charge to dine there.
DAY BY DAY
Sailing round-trip out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this 10-night itinerary shaped up as follows:
-- DAY 1: Board Sojourn in Fort Lauderdale, unpack and settle in, mandatory emergency drill and sailaway party
DAYS 2-3: Two glorious relaxing sea days en route to the Eastern Caribbean
-- DAY 4: San Juan, Puerto Rico
-- DAY 5: Gustavia, St. Bart's
-- DAY 6: St. John's, Antigua and Barbuda
-- DAY 7: Cruz Bay, on the island of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
-- DAY 8: Isla Catalina, Dominican Republic
-- DAYS 9-10: Two more glorious sea days that ensure you are completely relaxed when you arrive back in Fort Lauderdale
DAY 11: Bid farewell to new friends and disembark at Fort Lauderdale for the journey home
NEED TO KNOW
-- Seabourn cruises are aimed at sophisticated travellers. If you are looking for a cheap and cheerful family cruise or a Caribbean party cruise, Seabourn is not the line for you. The beautifully designed Seabourn ships are most suited to adult couples or friends travelling together, not families with young children.
-- This is elegant cruising with fine dining and, while it offers good value, prices reflect that. But cruises cannot be rated by price alone. When comparing cruise fares, remember that Seabourn is an "all inclusive" cruise, so most of the "extras" routinely charged by other cruise lines -- tips, alcoholic beverages, bottled water, soft drinks, fancy coffees, specialty restaurant, etc. -- are included in Seabourn's basic cruise fares. For information, contact seabourn.com.
Seabourn's inaugural season of Antarctica sailings wraps up at the end of January but plans are in place for Quest -- sister ship to Sojourn and Odyssey -- to return next November. A series of 21-24 day voyages led by specially trained expedition staff are planned. Itineraries include complimentary Zodiac landings in several Antarctic locations, wildlife sightings from the ship and on shore, a (preordered) windproof, waterproof parka, several port calls in South America and digital photography workshops. See seabourn.com.