Friday, August 14

SeaDream cruise: Visit Croatia’s glamour ports in a luxury ship

The note is left on my pillow, along with a piccolo of champagne and a plate of colourful bite-size desserts, handmade with great care. “Kindly be advised that your bed under the stars has been prepared for you tonight. Sweet dreams!”.

Such is life aboard a SeaDream Yacht Club luxury vessel, where the royal treatment is the daily norm – royal families do sometimes charter the entire ship for private holidays – and “anticipatory service” is the gold standard. If the romance of a starry night is what you desire, say the word and your bed will be made on the upper deck under the twinkling midnight sky. Five stars? Try a million stars.

I join SeaDream II in Venice, on a warm summer evening that calls for pistachio gelato and a wander around the city. We’ll be docked here overnight, the vessel’s relatively compact size earning her a berth at the San Basilio pier, within walking distance of Piazza San Marco.

SeaDream’s motto is, “It’s yachting, not cruising”, a nod to the smaller size of the ships and the feeling that you could be holidaying on a wealthy friend’s private yacht, if you moved in those kinds of circles. Guests are encouraged to kick off their shoes, nosh on caviar at cocktail hour and join in singalongs around the piano.

For nine dreamy nights I call the ship home, as we wind our way down the coast from Italy to laid-back Slovenia and on to some of the loveliest waterfront towns in Croatia. Finally, we’ll disembark in Dubrovnik, that fortressed stunner that will forever be associated with Game of Thrones.

Although we begin and end in two of the most overtouristed cities in the world, the week in between feels remarkably relaxed as we drop anchor off the coast and take tenders to the shores of towns where locals outnumber visitors.

In Trogir, I eat a delicious grilled seafood lunch at an open-air cafe in the company of weathered fishermen. At a beach club near Sibenik, families enjoy picnics on the sand. Even in yachtie hotspot Hvar, where the summer pilgrimage of beautiful people has hit its peak, we are far enough away from the pulsating nightlife to be lulled to sleep by the lapping of waves against the hull.

With 95 highly trained crew members catering to the whims of a maximum 112 (very well-travelled) guests, SeaDream’s service is intuitive, attentive, heartfelt and never obsequious. With a wink and a warm smile, the bartender offers up another Aperol Spritz before you notice your glass is nearing empty. Craving off-menu lobster thermidor? The chef will make a detour to the local fish markets first thing in the morning. Nightly turn-down service includes thoughtful gifts such as quality cotton pyjamas, a waterproof toiletries bag, a silver keyring – left on the pillow.

The royal treatment shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Atle Brynestad is no stranger to superior service. The Norwegian owner of SeaDream Yacht Club was the founder of Seabourn Cruise Line; with that lineage, guests can naturally expect luxury and sophistication. It’s a more relaxed, clubby atmosphere than you’d find on Seabourn, appealing to many repeat passengers who become friends over the years.

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Scandinavian passengers are very well-represented, alongside other European guests, Americans and a handful of Aussies and Kiwis. Mostly couples, mostly over 40 and very few children. When not operating on scheduled itineraries in the Caribbean and Europe, SeaDream’s mega-yachts are available for private charter. The ships are regularly booked for elegant wedding parties, corporate getaways and privacy-seeking celebs.

One evening, I enjoy sunset cocktails with a banker from Copenhagen, a Norwegian hotelier and his wife, and a family from Manhattan’s Upper East Side with two impeccably mannered young sons. The boys tell me their favourite thing about the ship is the waiters who spoil them with extra ice-cream after dinner. They’re not looking forward to the rest of the summer at their house in the Hamptons, poor things.

Another night, I’m invited to dine with the ship’s captain, Steinar Holmsteinsson, and an American couple, both authors and professors at a prestigious university. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the rich “are different from you and me”. From my observations onboard, they have more money and they own more white pants. Dressed in my go-to navy or black, I make a mental note to stock up on “yachtie-chic” attire. The ship’s gift store would be a good place to start shopping.

SeaDream’s fares are inclusive of just about everything that’s needed for a memorable week at sea: All meals, plus 24-hour room service, gratuities, and an open bar with premium brands. The food is terrific, though never stuffy. It’s as acceptable to order a gourmet hot dog for lunch as it is to linger over the seven-course tasting menu at dinner. For those on the white-pants diet, the chef can prepare elaborate raw, organic, vegan or low-calorie meals to order.

While French rosé is always a good idea, I request a green juice for my first onboard drink, hoping it might alkalise my jet-lag. I request lemon juice and ginger be added to the spinach and celery; allergic to kiwi fruit, I ask that it be replaced by a green apple. Not only is it served up a few minutes later, icy cold and exactly as ordered, it then appears automatically on my breakfast table each morning. My wish, their command. At least, that’s how SeaDream’s crew makes every passenger feel.

The ships are getting on in age – SeaDream I and II were built in 1985 and 1986 – and lack modern luxuries cruisers have come to expect (balcony suites, for one), but it’s the personalised service that keeps guests coming back.

Internet connection is one of the few things that incurs an additional charge, as well as treatments at the spa. Shore excursions are an optional extra, with a focus on active pursuits including sailing, biking and truffle-hunting.

Access to the fitness centre and a raft of entertainment options – piano bar singalongs, movies under the stars, morning tai chi – is complimentary. Sporty guests take advantage of the Watersports Marina Platform, stocked with water toys for grown-ups. On clear days, when the water is calm, there’s a race to take out kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, snorkels and wave runners. Others choose to explore on shore on the ship’s mountain bikes, or simply laze by the pool and tan.

In the middle of a thermometer-busting European summer, the best way to take the heat out of scorching afternoons is to jump straight into the deep sea from the back of the ship. I savour the salty shock of the cold, sapphire-hued plunge each day after lunch, willing myself to remember every sensory detail of this priceless privilege.

FOUR MORE PLACES TO LOVE ON CROATIA’S COAST

HVAR

A favourite with yachties and glamorous young people, Hvar was the one port where most of the SeaDream crew, dressed in their sparkly dresses and crisp, white shirts, went ashore to party after dinner. The best nightclubs and restaurants are found along the waterfront promenade, close to where tenders dock. During the day, sailing adventures to the Pakleni Islands archipelago promise idyllic swimming and snorkelling conditions.

ZADAR

A cancelled port stop in Rab, due to 50-knot winds, gave us the opportunity to discover beautiful Zadar. The oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia is underrated by many travellers, who head to Split or Hvar instead. They’re missing out on a well-preserved Old Town that dates back to Roman times, with ancient ruins and historic churches to explore. Independent boutiques in the Old Town sell well-made clothes, shoes and souvenirs. Pick up a bottle of the local maraschino liqueur, the production of which is 400 years old.

SIBENIK

This is surrounded by fortifications constructed a thousand years ago to keep would-be conquerors at bay. A walk up to the hilltop Fortress of St Anne is worth it for the spectacular views of the city and sea. Church-aficionados won’t want to miss the 15th century Cathedral of St Jakov, which took more than a hundred years to construct. Sun-worshippers will find more to love at Solaris Beach Resort, one of the best and biggest beach clubs in Croatia. Day passes are reasonably priced.

TROGIR

A small island community lives within Trogir’s World Heritage-listed medieval walls. Connected to the mainland by bridges, it’s a popular day trip from Split, though the case could be made to do it the other way around. It’s an ideal base from which to explore the surrounding coastal towns. From Trogir, a scenic 70-minute drive will bring you to the Cetina River, where some of the best whitewater rafting in Europe is found.

THE DETAILS

Kristie Kellahan was a guest of SeaDream Yacht Club.

FLY

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubrovnik via stops in Singapore and London. See britishairways.com

CRUISE

SeaDream I and II are boutique ships offering luxe voyages in the Caribbean and Mediterranean. The nine-night Venice-to-Dubrovnik itinerary includes an overnight stay in Venice, a port day in Slovenia (Piran) and stops in some of Croatia’s most beautiful coastal cities. Voyages to the West Indies and South Florida are on sale now for 2022 departures. With 95 crew members and maximum 112 guests, the service is attentive. See seadream.com