Barcelona, Spain to Portsmouth, England
Sea Cloud II
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The phrase "Relaxing, exciting vacation" sounds a bit like an oxymoron, although it perfectly describes my most recent trip onboard the Sea Cloud II -- Barcelona, Spain to Portsmouth, England. "Relaxing" was: someone else doing all the thinking and planning to ensure I visited all the "must-see" places in cities, towns and ports; not having to pack and unpack numerous times; comfy deck chairs; someone else cooking amazing meals and bringing them to me... "Exciting" captured the feeling that came from exploring those cities, towns and ports I had never visited before, while sailing on a stunning, hand-sailed, square-rigged tall ship.
Very few luxury sailing ships are entirely hand-sailed; most have a push-button mechanism that unfurls the sails. I think this removes most of the romantic charm of sailing. The Sea Cloud II is entirely hand-sailed and an exhilarating spectacle that was exciting to witness. It was still such a treat to lie back on the Sun Deck, camera in hand, and photograph the sailors scrambling up the masts in unison to unfurl the giant sails under a clear blue sky. At times it felt like a Cirque du Soleil performance.
The Sea Cloud II is the most deluxe ship I have ever sailed on. Completely spoiled and pampered (and rightly so; I was on my relaxing and exciting vacation), I enjoyed phenomenal luxury, in a low-key and casual environment. I think flip-flops were the official footwear of the voyage. The staff knew my name the second I stepped onboard, and always remembered I preferred a Diet Coke with a straw, with lunch, rather than the fantastic (not to mention complimentary) wine. The attention to detail was superb, and the food was incredible -- but you had to be willing to eat spectacular food. One of my co-travelers wanted a grilled cheese sandwich rather than the delicious fresh sushi or baked chicken or hand-made tortellini, etc. followed by dessert, and finally followed by a delicate silver tray of pralines. I don't think that pralines are designed to complement grilled cheese sandwiches...
The expedition staff was simply the best -- the Expedition Leader had an infectious enthusiasm, and an easygoing manner, which helped to create the relaxed vibe onboard. The historians were incredibly knowledgeable, hilarious, and made the "learning part" fun. There were also great lectures and video presentations, which enhanced the choice of shore excursions.
The itinerary was wonderful and full of variety: Church tours (it IS Europe after all), city walks, port wine tasting, cultural dance performances -- and everything was optional -- if you'd preferred to sit up on the sun deck while others were out doing the tours, this was just as satisfying. We visited quite a few "must see" places in each of the ports (the Alhambra in Granada, Opporto in Portugal, Mont St. Michel in St. Malo), and although we spent limited time at these places, it was absolutely quality time spent.
I have never been more disappointed to leave a trip, knowing that upon return home I would have to suffer through boring grilled cheese sandwiches, get my own Diet Coke and know there would be no after dessert pralines brought to me by the friendly, wait-staff. There would be no leaning on the railing, enjoying the warm ocean breeze while watching the sun set over the water.
As a self-professed "unique destination aficionado" I've always been a bit lukewarm about spending precious vacation time visiting the Caribbean... But, what's that you say? The Sea Cloud II is sailing a Caribbean itinerary this winter? I've ALWAYS wanted to visit the Caribbean! When do we leave? The Caribbean is not necessarily a "unique destination", but sailing on the Sea Cloud II is absolutely a unique experience, and undeniably a relaxing, exciting vacation.