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The unexpected delight of cruising from Newfoundland to the Caribbean on board the Seabourn Venture.
I AM OLD enough that my most deeply felt cultural frames of reference for going on a cruise are a mental hodgepodge of “The Love Boat,” in which swinging singles board a ship looking for romance; “The Poseidon Adventure,” in which glamorous ’70s-era celebrities must escape a cruise ship overturned by a giant tidal wave; and the ubiquitous Carnival “Fun Ship” television commercials of the ’80s, in which a very enthusiastic Kathy Lee Gifford jazzes her way through the song “If My Friends Could See Me Now” while dancing all over a cruise ship. This created a complicated set of expectations for my first cruise ship experience — a luxury Seabourn expedition cruise.
While I didn’t want us to be flipped by a rogue wave, and I wasn’t looking for love (my partner was in tow), I did have a romanticized idea of what this sort of ocean getaway might entail. I’ve always liked the idea of a cruise but have been skeptical about the reality. I looked forward to dinner at the captain's table and moonlight cocktails on the lido deck, but I was nervous about, well, being stuck on a boat — for over a week. Would we get bored? Would I be forced to socialize in ways I don’t enjoy? And with miles of open ocean in all directions, would I be overwhelmed by cabin fever?
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. It’s fortuitous that my first cruising experience happened to be on the Venture, a sparkly new 2022 addition to the Seabourn fleet. Over the course of a 10-day journey that took us from chilly St. John’s in Newfoundland all the way down to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, I was consistently amazed, amused, and genuinely surprised by the experience.
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Compared to gargantuan, family-friendly cruise ships that come complete with their own waterslides, ziplines, and decktop roller coasters, the Venture is relatively demure. Once you’re on board, though, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. With 132 ocean-front suites, three restaurants, multiple bars and lounges, and a plush onboard theater that doubles as a science discovery center, the ship feels like a beautifully appointed floating hotel in which every functional detail has been thoughtfully considered.
I slept more soundly aboard the Venture than I’ve probably ever slept in my life, rocked into near comatose slumber by the gentle movements of the ship.
Our suite included a sea-facing veranda, high-end amenities, a walk-in closet, and marble bathroom complete with a shower and soaking tub. The room was bigger than many New York City hotel rooms and apartments I’ve spent time in, and with the curtains drawn it was easy to forget that you were on a ship, were it not for the gentle sway of the ocean.
Unlike more traditional cruises, which simply pass by beautiful locations or dock at more conventional ports, expedition cruises invite you to engage with your surroundings in more meaningful ways. In the case of Seabourn, this means cruising to places like the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Northwest Passage in ships that are specially built to make their way through ice and inclement weather, which allows you to zip over to walk on a glacier, hang out with penguins, or kayak among iceflows. All six ships in Seabourn’s current fleet are outfitted for this type of expedition cruising, but the newly launched Venture is the first “purpose-built” expedition ship, meaning that the ship has lots of bells and whistles intended specifically for adventure offerings. These include a full-time, onboard, 26-person expedition team — scientists, historians, and naturalists who help guests experience adventure activities but also hold daily symposiums explaining the history and ecology of the locations on the itinerary. On my cruise, we learned about the topography of the ocean floor beneath the ship at that very moment, which I found to be both fascinating and an unnerving reminder of just how deep the ocean actually is. The Venture is also equipped with kayaks, a fleet of Zodiacs (the rubber speed boats used to whisk people to and from the shore for special activities), and two custom, six-person submarines equipped to take passengers on underwater dives.
Another fact about expedition cruises: They are long. This is partly by necessity, given the nature of the destinations involved, but it also seems to be part and parcel of cruising’s appeal. My partner and I opted for a 10-day cruise, partly because it’s the shortest one on offer, though various people we met on board told me that you really need a two-week excursion to get the full experience. We also didn’t encounter too many fair-weather cruisers. People who love cruising tend to really love it, and almost everyone we met on board seemed genuinely shocked that this was our first time on a ship.
It turns out my fears about our five days at sea, with only the Venture itself to entertain us, proved unfounded. We soon settled into what another cruiser (a friendly retiree from upstate New York) referred to as “sea daze,” a state of relaxation that comes when you are finally “freed from the tyranny of choice” and have no other option but to surrender to relaxation. Our schedule began to revolve around where and when we might eat (there is an incredible fine dining restaurant on board, as well as super-speedy room service and a variety of less formal options); where we might park ourselves at any given moment to read or nap; going to the gym and sauna (both of which offer truly surreal panoramic ocean views, which is incongruous while riding a Peloton); taking in a science lecture or a yoga class; or going to the spa for a massage. I spent time in every shipboard lounge and bar, took a tour of the bridge, and ate approximately 20 to 30 snacks a day — the cruise is all-inclusive, which makes having yet another gelato at the coffee lounge or ordering multiple desserts at dinner seem less insane.
We also became hyper-attuned to the science and geography announcements, such as when a huge seabird — a white booby — was spotted flying around the bow looking to snatch small fish from the open ocean. A group of us rushed to the deck with our binoculars to have a look. I couldn’t help but think how remarkable it is that a group of reasonably jaded travelers, who might never stop to look twice at a garden cardinal or a common pigeon, were all wowed by the site of this single roving seabird, which swooped and bobbed over our heads, keeping pace with the ship. “Where did it come from?” one woman asked as one of the science officers materialized on deck to explain. Later we heard a rumor that an errant flying fish had been found on the veranda of one of the suites, but no one could confirm if this was actually true.
Because I was raised on a steady diet of “Murder, She Wrote” episodes and mystery novels, I can’t stop myself from imagining the kind of intrigue that can only happen among the captive population of a cruise ship. Even though I’m told that our particular sailing is completely full, I am surprised by how uncrowded the ship seems. Even at dinner time, we rarely wait for a table, and the common areas, including the pool and hot tubs, are never particularly crowded. It’s easy to chat with people on board, but it’s also easy not to — if that is your vibe. As it turns out, a common conversation starter at sea has to do with the internet, or the occasional lack thereof. When working on my laptop in the lounge, people might stop and ask me how strong the connection is that day or just how, exactly, I had figured out how to log on. One morning I heard a woman at breakfast say, “Isn’t it amazing that we can land a roving robot on the surface of Mars but we can’t figure out reliable internet for a cruise ship?” I looked at one of the wall monitors in the lounge, which indicated our location on a global map. At that moment, the Seabourn Venture appeared as a tiny red dot in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, a place that is maybe just not meant to have high-speed Wi-Fi. When my phone couldn’t connect, I took it as a sign from the universe that I should just finish reading my book.
After nearly a week at sea, the last few days of our cruise turned out to be action-packed, with stops in Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Martinique, and Barbados. Every morning was a surprise when, pulling open our curtains, we were greeted by the panoramic view of the new destination that we had silently pulled up to in the middle of the night. At each stop, you have the option to disembark and either explore on your own or take part in a variety of activities organized by Seabourn. We split the difference, taking the time to wander around Martinique and going on a few excursions: a snorkeling trip to a remote island and a guided tour of the dazzling El Yunque forest in Puerto Rico. The submarine experience turned out to be our own personal white whale, as our reservation got canceled due to windy sea conditions. No matter how we spent our days, coming back to our homey suite and the amenities of the ship was comforting. There was no need to pack or unpack, no need to rush to an airport. I slept more soundly aboard the Venture than I’ve probably ever slept in my life, rocked into near comatose slumber by the gentle movements of the ship.
The beauty of our various destinations was matched only by the brevity with which we visited them: a few hours to spend on a private beach reachable only by small boat, a morning to snorkel and swim at a secluded chain of islands near Martinique. I felt the urge to see as much as possible at every port, knowing that we’d only have a few precious hours to explore. This lent a sense of dreamy urgency to the proceedings, but it could also be frustrating. In San Juan, after taking a morning tour that traveled us to the rainforest, we had only one long afternoon to get a sense of the city. The idea of trying to get a feeling for Puerto Rico, via a few hours in San Juan, was both daunting and laughable.
Still, we were blessed with perfect weather and spent a sunny afternoon walking the streets of old San Juan, stopping for a piña colada at Barrachina and eventually strolling through the remnants of historic forts and sixteenth-century Spanish Colonial buildings, stopping for a visit at the San Juan Cathedral, which is home to the tomb of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. At the end of our day, we found ourselves at the far end of Old San Juan at the Save A Gato cat sanctuary. I was drawn there, Pied Piper-style, by the endless parade of funky street cats continuously crossing our path. After trying to sweet-talk some of the felines, I took a moment to donate to the volunteer center, which provides care and food for the iconic cat colony, and snap a few thousand more iPhone photos of the cats. The park that the sanctuary calls home exists at the edge of Paseo del Morro, the boardwalk that borders the outer edge of Old San Juan's formidable Castillo San Felipe del Morro. From here, we had an unbelievable view of the city and the sprawling ocean. Not only could we see the historic forts and battlements that flank the perimeters of the island, I could also spot our ship docked in the distance, waiting for our return.
On our last night aboard the Venture, we decided to forgo the formal dinner and have a drink on the deck. Even though we’ve been on board for over 10 days, I understood how a person could be tempted to stay even longer. I felt a pang of sadness about packing up our comfy room and heading back to New York City. Despite the amenities on board and the ease with which the ship had spirited us from island to island, I realized the thing I would miss most was this nighttime ocean view. As a person who grew up in a landlocked state, I find the immensity of the open ocean — particularly the way it illuminates in bright moonlight — to be both awe-inducing and a little terrifying. Just as I had on every night of our cruise, I stayed on deck long after most of the other guests had gone inside, trying as hard as I could to take it all in.
Cast off for the Caribbean and enjoy a range of benefits, from exclusive amenities to credit redeemable toward dining, spa treatments, and more. Book a trip with American Express Travel through the Cruise Privileges Program and pay with your Platinum. Ship exclusions apply, please see full terms and conditions for details. Learn more.
T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.
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