“Happy birrrrthday!” exclaimed Chef Jes Paskins in his distinctive British accent, spreading his arms wide as I walked down the curving stairs of the Seabourn Ovation. At the previous evening’s First-Timers Cocktail Party, the ebullient Englishman—who serves as the ship’s executive chef—had sported a towering toque and moonwalked to the Weird Al Jankovic parody Eat It as he was introduced by Captain Andrew Pedder. Today, he’d awakened bright and early to lead about a dozen guests, including my husband, Ray, and me, on a shopping expedition to the fish market in Kristiansand, Norway.
As we walked along the waterfront on the brilliantly sunny day, he explained why his steps had extra bounce: He hadn’t been off the ship in weeks. “I’m a little nervous about my sea legs,” he joked. “So far, so good.” Up ahead, we spotted a cluster of muted red and mustard clapboard shacks. Making a beeline toward one, Paskins pulled open a bright blue door and entered the fish market murmuring, “Let’s see what we have here.”
Seabourn Ovation itinerary map
Midway through the seven-night cruise that would take us to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, I’d become used to being greeted by name by housekeeping staff, restaurant servers and the ship’s officers. Paskins’ birthday salutation was just icing on the cake—as were the two hours that we spent with him on the food tour as he gleefully bought shrimp by the seeming boatload, took a whiff of some whale sausage, and proffered cold- and hot-smoked salmon and gravlax, a Scandinavian specialty of cured salmon, for us to taste. Tomorrow was a day at sea, and he was envisioning laying out a tantalizing spread of local seafood for hungry lunchers and assembling a special menu for the evening Chef’s Dinner.
His “when-in-Scandinavia” enthusiasm wasn’t surprising. During the three pre-cruise days we’d spent in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, Ray and I had noticed that the locals really enjoy eating fish. It wouldn’t be the only similarity between the Nordic nations and the other ports on the cruise that we’d discover. There was the favored transport by boats and bikes and the fondness for amusement parks; the similar words for niceties like “hello” and “thank you”; and the preference for minimalism in design. And, everywhere, there was the world-renowned well-being representative of this part of the globe.
Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen; Photo by elroce/Stock.Adobe.com
During our time in Copenhagen, we had dropped by the Happiness Museum and delved into why five Nordic countries and the Netherlands consistently appear at the top of the United Nation’s list of the world’s happiest countries. Founded by Mike Wiking, who’s responsible for popularizing the idea of hygge, the Danish art of coziness, the museum breaks down how income, health, social support and employment status contribute to happiness.
Not surprisingly, qualities like camaraderie, exploration and spending time in nature are equally powerful influencers. These factors came into play later that day when we joined the Hygge canal tour on a small electrically powered boat. With passengers handing around bubbly and marveling at the crowds lining the city’s quays, it was a convivial way to get out on the waters that are critical to the Scandinavian way of life. Elsewhere in Copenhagen, Ray and I explored the greatest hits of the current UNESCO World Capital of Architecture by visiting the Danish Design Museum and Danish Architecture Center. We lunched amid the soaring brick archways of the Christiansborg Palace tower and rode the Victorian carousel at Tivoli Gardens, the fanciful 1840s amusement park that Walt Disney credited with inspiring Disneyland.
On our final night in Copenhagen, as Tivoli’s fireworks display lit the skies outside our nearby hotel room for a fitting sendoff, I thought of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid and the celebrated sculpture of her on Copenhagen’s shores. In a reversal of the character’s journey, it was time for us to leave the land and head for the sea.
The majority of staterooms on Seabourn Ovation feature private verandas; Photo courtesy of Seabourn
Once aboard the Seabourn Ovation, we settled into our spacious stateroom, wandered the decks to check out the public spaces and enjoyed the first of what was to be many glasses of Champagne as we gathered to celebrate sail-away. We were off, hugging the coast of Denmark and heading to Aarhus, the country’s second-most populous city after the capital.
As the sun streamed in the next morning, we stepped out onto our veranda to the site of an industrial port. At breakfast, we chose a seat on the other end of the ship and easily spotted the tower of the city’s red-brick Romanesque cathedral. It proved to be as beautiful inside as out, but as an architecture buff, I was also keen on seeing City Hall, a pilgrimage site for fans of Danish modernism. It was already closed when we arrived midafternoon (hmmm, another secret to Scandi satisfaction?), but its abundant glass allowed for a glimpse of the lobby’s dramatic circular staircase.
When we arrived in Gothenburg the next day, the street life of Sweden’s second city proved to be so lively that Ray and I abandoned any notions of visiting churches and museums. In the shopping district of Haga, we indulged in fika (the Swedish coffee break) and shared an enormous cinnamon bun—a city specialty known as hagabullen—at Café Husaren, an Art Nouveau gem with a painted glass ceiling, floral tufted banquettes and tiny marble tables.
To walk off the calories, we browsed one artfully curated shop window after another, and a few lured us in. Our souvenir haul included pairs of knitted-in-Sweden merino wool socks patterned with Nordic motifs and—why not?—Swedish Fish from a confectionery in Kronhusbodarna, a complex of 18th-century sheds that has been transformed into artisanal spaces. As we shopped, though, we bore in mind Sweden’s own design and lifestyle mantra: lagom—not too much, not too little.
The fish market in Kristiansand, Norway, is a short walk from where the Ovation docks; Photo by by JoAnn Greco
RETREATING AND RESTING
In Kristiansand, after our tour of the fish market with Paskins had concluded, we spent my birthday meandering through town to peer at all the pretty houses. Strolling back to the waterfront, we stopped for a spin on a Ferris wheel that marked the skyline almost as much as the requisite cathedral did.
Ferris wheels and bright blue skies aside, though, it was never hard to return to the ship, where we knew great eating and often-surprising entertainment awaited. That evening, for example, we attended a show that seemed tailor-made for me. In a first, a member of the Ovation’s house-band delivered a spot-on hour-long revue of Billy Joel classics. Now, really, how did Seabourn know the self-styled Piano Man is one of my all-time favorites?
For my birthday dinner, a classic Caesar salad (prepared tableside) and mouthwatering Wagyu beef in The Grill, a steakhouse developed in partnership with Michelin-starred Chef Thomas Keller, was a treat. The next evening, we feasted on the spoils of Paskins’ market shopping, where oven-baked Kristiansand Cod served Viennoise-style was the menu’s star. To while away the seafaring hours during the trip, we sampled the spa, attended a presentation by retired British diplomat Sir Alan Collins about Scandinavia’s new relationship with NATO, and enjoyed evening cocktails listening to Cat, a boundlessly talented chanteuse.
Picturesque canals and medieval architecture are typical of Bruges, Belgium; Photo by allouphoto/Stock.Adobe.com
FULL STEAM AHEAD
Leaving Scandinavia and en route to Dover, England, where we would disembark, we docked two more times. We’d been to Amsterdam before, so we strolled past the long lines outside the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum and opted for slow walks and long people-watching breaks instead. In Bruges, Belgium, our final stop, our Seabourn excursion included transport into town and two tours that turned out to be vital to understanding this achingly lovely medieval town.
The walking tour began before shop doors opened and daytrippers swarmed. Our local guide, Kurt, kept things moving like clockwork but never neglected to spin a tale or crack a joke. Then, he ushered us onto a waiting boat for a picturesque, can’t-take-a-bad-photo canal tour. During the allotted free time, Ray and I walked around the ornate City Hall and noshed on a Belgian triumvirate of frites, waffles and chocolates. Our short stay here was dwindling, but the sun was beating down and the crowds were massing. The time seemed right to leave. Like the Little Mermaid, I had been constantly torn between the promises of the land and the sea during this trip. The balance, though, turned out to be lagom. Just right.
Seabourn Ovation resturant; Photo courtesy of Seabourn
AT HOME ON THE SEA
The ultra-luxury Seabourn Ovation was built in 2018 and carries 600 passengers, with a nearly one-to-one crew to passenger ratio. It offers three fine dining restaurants, plus a generous handful of casual eateries, bars and entertainment options, including a theater and a small casino. There’s also a fitness center, spa and The Retreat, a private area on the uppermost deck with its own whirlpool and plentiful servings of Champagne and caviar. All staterooms are suites (most about 300 square feet), and nearly all include private balconies. The Ovation is all-inclusive, except for The Retreat and excursions. —JG