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A HOTELIER WALKS ONTO A CRUISE ...
By Michael Matthews
July 18, 2012 -- The powers-that-be here at JoeSentMe.com have always wanted me to compare hotels to cruises. As a hotelier, however, I had a rather large problem: Until last December, the lovely wifey and I had never been on a cruise.

Frankly, I couldn't think of an experience that could be worse. Trapped with a few hundred or thousand passengers on a floating box. Heaven forbid. It always sounded so completely unappealing.

Then I started reading about private yachts. But having read about them and seen what they cost, I realized that private yacht cruising was off the map if any of my relatives were ever to inherit anything.

Then I saw advertisements for a company called Seabourn, which advertises itself as "the yachts of Seabourn." On further research, I learned that Seabourn's ships are fairly small, so one is not engulfed by hordes of the unwashed masses. Once on board, there's no reason to put your hand in your pocket for anything except shore excursions. Champagne, caviar, single malts, popcorn, all unlimited and free. Tips are also "unexpected."

Scribbling on the back of an envelope--an envelope I may have swiped from a hotel, by the way--I reckoned the wife and I could cover most of the cost of a Seabourn cruise with our Champagne and caviar consumption alone. It was time to take the plunge.

So in December we set sail from Buenos Aires on the Seabourn Sojourn. We sailed to Montevideo, Uruguay, onto the Falkland Islands (2,431 residents, 16 pubs, 20 policemen and 400,000 penguins), then around Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America, and finally up the Chilean fjords to Valparaiso.

In short, it was amazing. The service was superb, the food outstanding, the entertainment amusing. There was nothing to fault. So great was the trip, in fact, that we booked a cabin last month on the Seabourn Spirit (maximum 200 passengers) to sail the Adriatic.

And now to work. With my Gimlet eye, how did the Spirit compare to a five-star hotel?

Let's look at the accommodations first. At 277 square feet, our Seabourn Spirit cabin was somewhat smaller than most rooms at a deluxe hotel. But the cabin was comfortable. There was lots of cupboard space and plenty of hangers, an ironing board and iron and a safe. There was a queen-size bed with high-quality bed coverings. Not Frette, but close. There were pillows with a choice of stuffing. The bedside lighting was bright enough to read by. The cabin offered a sensible desk with plugs in all the proper places. A fridge was stocked with a complimentary supply of our favorite beverages. There were crystal glasses, silver flatware and a flat-screen TV running up-to-date movies. A sofa and table for two were wonderful spots to gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows and watch the dolphins glide by.

In the ablution department, the Spirit cabin offered a tub you could relax in, a great shower and his-and-her washbasins. All were decked out in marble. There were huge, fluffy bathrobes and slippers. You could choose your amenities: Hermes to L'Occitane to Acqua di Parma--or you could have a lowly bar of Dove if you so desire.

There was totally unobtrusive maid service at least four times a day. We'd leave our cabin only to return to find it tided up every time. There must be a switch that activates a call signal to the maid whenever you leave. (If such a switch doesn't exist, someone should invent it!)

Room service never a minute late although there was a tendency to forget flatware. Of course, that didn't matter much since spares were already available in the suite. There was a free laundromat, although it got crowded at times. Same-day laundry service was also available.

In the dining room or grill, no portion was too little or too large even though there was a very different and quite comprehensive menu each night. If there was nothing you fancied, all you needed to do was tell your server and the chef would cook it for you. But they failed on my request for roast peacock. For shame!

I have no idea how they train the staff, but they were exceptional and each one seemed to enjoy every moment as much as the passengers. Forty-nine countries (but not the United States) were represented and each staff member seemed young and good looking. All spoke English well. They are unobtrusive yet there whenever you want something. You are called by your name wherever you go. (The secret? Each staff member must remember five faces and names a day from a master list of guest photos. Ritz-Carlton does a similar trick, but only for very, very VIPs.)

So how does Seabourn compare to a Ritz-Carlton? Ritz gets the edge in room size. Everything else is comparable. In fact, I'd give the edge to Seabourn for the following reason: the stupendous service.

In summary, I will still stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel. But I have already put down a deposit for our next Seabourn cruise. I have no reservations at a Ritz-Carlton right now.

One final note: Even the captain of the Seabourn Spirit had a sense of humor. In his farewell address to passengers, he pointed out that we had 25-foot swells on the first day of the cruise. "By the time you are back in your cabin, they will be 35-foot swells. By your first cocktail party on your return home, they will have grown to 50-foot swells"!

Unlike his story, this column has no exaggerations!

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2012 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.