JUNEAU, Alaska — We have always considered a cruise aboard Cunard's Sea Goddess I as the epitome of taking a high-style vacation at sea.
But a new ship in the deluxe cruise category, Song of Flower, from Singapore/Tokyo-based Seven Seas Cruises, could give Sea Goddess stiff competition in Alaska and Southeast Asia.
As we discovered on a June sailing in Alaska, Song of Flower, the former Starship Explorer from the now-defunct Exploration Cruise Lines, compares favorably to Sea Goddess in many aspects, including service.
Not many ships, however, even the Song of Flower, can match Sea Goddess for sophisticated cuisine and its legendary largess, which includes caviar. Also, the smaller Sea Goddess offers more of the ambience of a private yacht.
In tough economic times, however, passengers may find the lower fares on Song of Flower more appealing than generous servings of caviar.
During Alaska's high season this month and in August, Song of Flower's lowest-priced cabins are $349 a day, per person, double occupancy, compared to the least expensive staterooms at $771 a day, per person, double occupancy, on Sea Goddess.
But unlike the Song of Flower, Sea Goddess prices include round-trip air fare from 24 gateways, including Los Angeles, and complimentary shore excursions such as helicopter glacier landings and overflights for sightseeing and salmon fishing.
Although the ships are similar in size and decor, the Song of Flower's bottom-priced cabins are slightly smaller and have portholes and stall showers instead of windows and a bathtub. These lower-priced cabins on both ships offer sitting areas with a small sofa, a chair and a table, color TV with VCR and mini-refrigerators.
Both ships are noted for their all-inclusive fares, including beverages (soft drinks to champagne), in the basic fare, with wine at lunch and dinner.
On our Song of Flower cruise, Pouilly-Fuisse, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were poured freely in the dining room. Other good wines could be ordered at moderate prices.
Tips on both ships are included in the price, a sensible solution since passengers sit wherever they please at each meal and may be served by several different waiters.
A staff of 144 crew members is on hand to serve a maximum of 179 passengers on the Song of Flower, making service exemplary.
As on Sea Goddess, Song of Flower passengers may request dinner in their cabins, ordering dishes from the dining-room menu or from an a la carte cabin menu that includes substantial sandwiches and snacks.
Itineraries, however, are different aboard the two vessels this summer. Song of Flower will be making seven-day round-trip sailings from Vancouver most of the summer, cruising Misty Fjord and Tracy Arm and calling at Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, plus several five- and six-day programs between Vancouver and Juneau.
Sea Goddess I sails between Vancouver and Whittier (for Anchorage) on seven-day programs that include Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau and Tracy Arm, as well as the Columbia Glacier and College Fjord.
Song of Flower was marketed primarily in Japan its first year. This summer, however, the company has been promoting the ship in North America, resulting in a passenger balance of about half Japanese and half North Americans.
The Japanese (about 50% of the passengers) on our sailing were mostly honeymooners and fashionably dressed older couples with college-age daughters in tow.
There's more day-to-day scheduled activities and entertainment on board Song of Flower than on Sea Goddess, with a five-piece dance band on Song of Flower, compared to a trio usually aboard the Sea Goddess ship, and several full-fledged shows with dancers, singers and a resident magician.
Song of Flower's Irish-born chef, Gerry O'Reilly, who used to cook on a private yacht, first worked on Sea Goddess and then Seabourn before taking his present post.
The Song of Flower menu offers no Japanese dishes, a concept dictated by one of its owners, Tomoko Venada of Kobe, according to O'Reilly.
"Serving all Western-style food was Madame's policy, along with European chefs and serving staff and a Western rather than Japanese ambience on board," O'Reilly said. However, O'Reilly usually offers sushi, soba (buckwheat noodles) or California rolls at the midnight buffet.
The most expensive cabins on board Song of Flower are two-room suites with two bathrooms, one with tub and one with shower, a bedroom and sitting room with sofas that can double as additional beds. These go for $571 a day per person, double occupancy.
Smaller but more appealing, the B-category suites with private verandas on the top deck are very comfortable at $539 per person per day, double occupancy.
Other cabins are from a low of $349 to $461 a day, per person, double occupancy. Some cabins, however, have views partially obstructed by hanging lifeboats.
After the summer in Alaska, Song of Flower will return to Asia for a fall series of three-, four- and seven-night cruises from Singapore, Hong Kong, Phuket, Penang and Jakarta at prices beginning at $323 a day per person, double occupancy. Air fare is not included.
Song of Flower is a Norwegian-flag vessel with Scandinavian officers. For brochures and more information, contact Seven Seas Cruise Line, 2300-555 W. Hastings St., Vancouver, B.C. V6B 4N5, Canada, (800) 661-5541.
For more information on Sea Goddess I, contact Cunard Sea Goddess, 555 Fifth Ave., New York 10017, (800) 458-9000.