In these days of shiny new ships and huge suites, it is in theory difficult to explain how a low-key privately owned cruise line operating two elderly vessels manages to stand out as one of the best in the business. And yet year after year, SeaDream Yacht Club continues to deliver the perfect holiday experience.
The recent refurbishment has refreshed the cabins (let's not call them staterooms!), public rooms and outdoor space, with perfect joinery and comfortable furniture, but nothing can change the absence of balconies, the tininess of the bathrooms, the lack of alternative dining rooms. Does it matter? Absolutely not.
On our recent Caribbean trip with friends - two SeaDream regulars, two returning after fifteen years and several other cruise lines - we agreed it was all down to the warmth of the personable crew, led by one of the most visible captains we have ever met. I caught up with him to understand why a seasoned Master with years of experience as a Royal Caribbean captain decided to turn his back on huge ships and take up command of this little 112-guest vessel.
Captain Charles Teige, a third-generation captain raised on the island of Nerlandsøya, at the western gateway to Geirangerfjord, comes from a background of intrepid travellers sailing traditional fishing boats in the sometimes hostile waters of the Arctic and Norwegian coast.
His father worked for Wilhelmsen on cargo ships carrying just 12 intellectual passengers, whilst Charles was ambitious from the age of 5 to go to sea as a captain himself, and prepared himself with time at sea as well as a business degree and finance qualifications, ultimately joining the New York to Bermuda run on Nordic Prince in the early 1990s. 30 years on, he is still passionate about his job, and it is clear to see why. His curiosity and open-mindedness to different cultures and ideas make him an ideal leader and learner, as he stops to converse with guests and crew alike.
Many years in China on a Royal Caribbean ship out of Shanghai helped him to learn that a non-judgemental stance, and the willingness to understand what makes different people and cultures tick, is the perfect way to achieve a happy working environment and perfect cruise holiday. 'Everybody has a story,' he says, and makes it clear that taking the time to listen and learn what that story is, is the secret of his success.
Clearly, he is something of a psychologist as well as a mariner, and it stands him in good stead as he takes ships around the world. He points out that people tend to be quick to judge from the position of their default culture, and if we made more effort to understand each other the world would be a happier place. Certainly this applies to the SeaDream happy place where the service is spontaneous and charming, ever attentive but with plenty of time to stop and talk, identifying what each guest loves.
Whilst typically Norwegian in terms of his love of the outdoor life, seafaring background and dry sense of humour, Captain Teige is very easy company, and his sociability is clear as he wanders the ship, jumping from one language to another as he greets the guests, while stopping off to share a joke with his attentive crew. Captain Teige now lives in Germany where his wife rules the roost. Will his sons aged 19 and 17 follow him to sea? That's entirely up to them, he says, giving them the freedom that he was given himself.