It was January, the beginning of a new year, but things didn't seem very happy. The holiday shopping season had been a bust for retailers, and here in New York people's attitudes were rising and plunging in sync with the stock market. Plus, it was freezing cold, and everybody was wearing black. (Not unusual for New Yorkers, but it just seemed extra-depressing this year.)
I was succumbing to postholiday recessionary panic, and I had to do something. Like ... take a really expensive cruise?
I tried to think like a travel agent's client: "I want to get away from it all for a while and have a memorable experience. But I also want something, er, reasonable."
I wasn't sure what to expect when I decided to go with Seabourn, which is about as luxurious as it comes when you're talking about the oceangoing experience. I'd cruised once before on the Seabourn Legend, but I wasn't sure what the atmosphere would be like this time, or if my husband and I, hosted by Seabourn, would be sailing on a half-empty ship.
To adhere to the "reasonable" part of the formula, I chose a short (for Seabourn) cruise of seven days and kept it somewhat close to home, in the Caribbean. That way, we could fly down and back without too much hassle.
If it had been a normal winter in New York, I'd be name-dropping my cruise right and left ("Oh, early March? So sorry, I can't make it; I'm going on vacation. Oh, yes, Seabourn, you know ..."). But it seemed totally counterintuitive to boast about a Seabourn cruise during a recession. Nobody was spending, right? Everybody was at home, hugging their mattresses, avoiding their 401(k) statements, worrying about their home equity.
Well, not the 200 passengers I traveled with on the Seabourn Legend in early March. To my surprise at check-in, I was told that the ship was full, and the staffer seemed equally surprised that I assumed there would be empty berths. And several passengers were holdovers from the previous seven-day cruise, which meant they weren't necessarily pinching pennies.
If these passengers had any qualms about enjoying a luxurious vacation, they weren't showing their hand.
Open seas, open bar
The open bar was thrown wide open as soon as we walked up the gangway, top-shelf liquor included. Even after the presail muster drill, most of the ship decamped to the top-deck, open-air bar for cocktails. There was lobster and filet mignon on the menu. There was dancing under the stars. If they were cutting back from two lobster nights to one, I couldn't tell the difference.
And there's that certain, undefinable something about Seabourn, a certain upscale clubbiness that I think comes from its small size and its friendly crew. You know where everything is, and pretty soon you know everyone else (at least by sight; Seabourn guests can be friendly but private). Once you're onboard, you feel wrapped in a warm, loving embrace.
On many cruise lines, the evening entertainment is a lavish, Las Vegas-style show. But on Seabourn, passengers are divided into teams and play trivia games or "The Liars Club," in which four Seabourn staffers compete by making up elaborate definitions of obscure words.
There were some cruisers in their 30s and 40s, but most were in their 50s, and they were fashionably elegant at dinnertimes in the low-lit Restaurant, even though there were no official formal nights on the cruise.
Since it was the Caribbean, the ship tried to be a little less formal. There was 2, which is the name the Verandah Restaurant takes for alternative dining in the evenings. And on a few nights, the ship offered casual al fresco dinner at the Sky Grill, which is the top-deck bar area.
But of course, this being Seabourn, they just couldn't resist throwing a fine linen tablecloth over every table and insisting that you don't carry your plate anywhere or even stare at a half-empty wine glass. Try as they might, they just can't do casual.
Luxury at a discount
But maybe it wasn't so surprising that the Seabourn Legend was filled to the brim: Prices on the luxury end of the cruise scale are at lower-than-ever rates. The week I left on my cruise, I received an email from Seabourn touting 60% off rates on a dozen Europe cruises.
During the course of the cruise, I asked several people why they had chosen Voyage 90307, and I got several different answers. One world traveler said, breezily, "Well, we'd never been to this part of the Caribbean before, so ..."
But nobody said that they'd chosen the cruise because of the great deal Seabourn had offered them.
Now, the deal factor could have been implicit in any of the answers. But since this was Seabourn, people were definitely not quizzing each other over the china and Riedel stemware about how much they paid for their suite.
It certainly seemed declasse to bring up money.
But in some ways, it was a relief. No need to worry about the day's stock market drop. I declined to watch Fox News or CNN. My husband chucked his iPhone into his bag and didn't check it once. I spent only about 20 minutes on email.
After a few days, I could feel the stress of the economy lifting from my sunburned shoulders.
I did check, discreetly, for signs that Seabourn was pulling back on the ultraluxe treatment. Since I'd previously sailed on the line, I thought I might be able to detect any changes.
When we pulled up to the pier in St. Thomas, we were met by the usual lineup of crew, dressed in navy and white, smiling and welcoming us onboard. So no changes there.
There was a bottle of champagne in our cabin. So no pullback on that perk.
Our cabin stewardesses, Eljse and Suzanne, presented us with the customary choice of soaps, which wasn't unusual. But wait a second. Two stewardesses?
As it turned out, the Seabourn Legend was sailing with an extra complement of crew, who were in training to take over when the more experienced crew members went to join the Seabourn Odyssey, which is launching in just a few weeks.
So by accident, we actually had more crew on the ship than ever before. Our charming Capt. Erik Lund Anderssen told us that the crew-to-passenger ratio was nearly 1-to-1.
In short, I didn't notice any changes onboard.
Big B.V.I. bash
And the grand-slam event of the week was the beach party on a private island just off of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. This was the location of Seabourn's Caviar in the Surf event. And Seabourn didn't seem to be cutting corners here, either.
First, a small craft came zooming up to the shore. It passed back and forth along the beach, as passengers, who must have had a caviar alert embedded in their DNA, began making their way to the shoreline.
Then, the crew hopped out of the boat into the waist-deep water, pulled out a shrinkwrapped surfboard and set up the caviar. And they were giving out healthy doses of the stuff. Meanwhile, other crew waded around with cups and bottles of bubbly.
I could tell my fellow cruisers didn't have any reservations about indulging. So, I thought, when in Rome (or, when on a private island in the British Virgin Islands ...).
Nobody mentioned the recession.
Back onboard, ensconced in the comfort of the suite, I gave it some thought. Quietly, and to myself. Discreetly.
You know, what with the discounts Seabourn is offering plus the all-inclusive nature of the cruise -- free drinks, champagne, caviar and delicious dinners -- passengers can do pretty well for themselves in the wallet. Even if you don't want to mention it.
And once you're pampered to death by the crew, and the vessel, and the amenities, and the camaraderie, then it's very, very tough to go back to the contemporary segment. Or to the real world, for that matter.