Ahoy, Birthday on Board

Story published in the NZ Sunday Star Times, August 31, 2015
In a fantasy worthy of Game of Thrones, Pam Neville throws a birthday party on the best little cruise ship in the world

Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, is bursting at the seams. Tourists are cramming the marble streets and narrow stone stairways, making no impact of course on the mighty walls, up to 25 metres high and six metres thick, which enclose the old town. Walking around the top of the walls is tourist attraction number one.Seadream in Croatia We are here because Dubrovnik is beautiful, a World Heritage site, a sea fortress with magnificent churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains. But many of us are thinking not so much medieval history as Game of Thrones as we wander around. The television fantasy series has done for Croatian tourism what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Fans of GoT are flocking to filming locations throughout Croatia, and multiple tour businesses have sprung up to guide them.
The city of Dubrovnik is King’s Landing, capital of Westeros. Scenes shot in Dubrovnik feature in most episodes. In a crush of other tourists, it’s easy to visit Pile Gate, site of the peasants’ dung-hurling revolt against the evil king Joffrey, to stroll Gradac Park, the location for Joffrey’s ill-fated wedding celebration, and to search for the steps and stairways where Cersei was forced to do her walk of shame in the final of series 5.
Amidst this Game of Thrones fantasy, I’m caught up in a make-believe of my own. It’s my birthday (or nameday, as they would call it in Westeros) and – although Games of Thrones seldom gives anyone cause for celebration – I’m daydreaming an epic party.
Would you believe I have 100 friends and family with me. We are partying up a storm on a small cruise ship hired just for us. After Dubrovnik, the route is flexible. She who pays the bill gets to choose where we go (in consultation with the captain of course). If the wind changes direction, we follow suit. So it’s always smooth sailing.
SeaDream entering Kotor, MontenegroWe slip into Kotor, Montenegro, for my guest who is a country-counter. She doesn’t mind which country we go to, so long as she hasn’t been there before. Another pin in the world map on her wall at home. Montenegro is a beautiful little country bordered all around by Croatia. It is not universally popular with its neighbour as it supported Serbia during the 1990s war.

My dream itinerary takes us from the Adriatic Sea through the Corinth Canal to the Aegean Sea. Imagine my floating birthday party stopping off in Santorini for the friend who has always wanted to see that Greek island of cliff-hugging sugar-cube houses, interspersed with the bright blue domes of churches. Recall any iconic photograph of the Greek islands and it will almost certainly have been snapped on Santorini.

We call at Hydra, an island of no vehicles where donkeys are the main form of transport and superyachts tie up in the circular harbour. 

IMG_0491My celebrity-spotting friends will like Hydra. Apparently Mick Jagger and Keith Richards come here. We should stop off at the island of Paros as well. Madonna is a regular here. Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt enjoy Antiparos, a little island nearby. We can anchor-off and take the tender ashore.
A Christian cousin, well-versed in theology, votes for the island of Patmos. He wants to visit the cave where John the Evangelist wrote his Book of Revelations. Towering above is the enormous Monastery of St John, staffed by brusque monks. Be modestly dressed, do not take photos, and do not chatter loudly or you might be yelled at by a black-bearded, black-clad monk who appears from the shadows. Enough to make my birthday party-goers scurry back to our personal luxury super-yacht.
And once aboard, we partake of all-day champagne and nibbles, sundowners on the top deck, cocktails, gourmet meals, and endless attention from the 95 staff. (That’s almost one staffer per guest.) The charming young man delivering my rum punch at the pool asks quietly, “May I clean your sunglasses, Madame?”, and produces a small spray bottle and cloth. Most of my guests are at the age of reading glasses, and at the age of forgetting them. Never fear, a waiter is quickly to hand with a display case of spectacles of varying strength, so everyone can read the multi-course options on the three different menus at dinner.
Fans of antiquity dictate we stop the boat at Itea on the Greek mainland for a tour to the Oracle of Delphi. If you see only one ancient site in Greece, this should be it, so the onboard adviser says. Cruise director Hayden McFarlane is from Waitara, Taranaki, the only Kiwi in a multi-national crew. He is busy signing passengers for future cruises, offering hefty discounts for booking onboard. Hayden recommends my birthday party should also nip into the port of Kusadasi in Turkey, to see Ephesus, another not-to-be-missed site for our classical scholars.

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Hayden Mcfarlane from Waitara, NZ. Cruise director on Seadream 1.

Most of the above is true. I am not kidding about my birthday, and I am celebrating aboard the Best Small Luxury Cruise Ship of 2015, according to the prestigious Forbes Life awards. The islands and countries are true, and Hayden from Waitara is real. The fantasy involves my 100 best buddies. Sadly, they are not with me.
I’m sailing around the Greek Islands, and along the Croatian coast, on Seadream 1, one of two small ships belonging to Norwegian company Seadream Yacht Club. We are ‘Yachting, not Cruising’, according to the company slogan. Such a small vessel – it’s a yacht in the same mode as the Royal Yacht Britannia, in fact a large motor cruiser – can go to ports the cruise liners can’t fit into. Getting on and off is easy, with no queues. A fleet of bikes is off-loaded each day, and a pop-out marina at the stern provides swimming and watersports including yachts, paddleboards and jet-skis. The dress code is ‘yacht casual’ and the style is laid-back luxury.
Had I been able to front up with half a million dollars, I could have taken my 100 best friends and chosen our itinerary, even our food and drink menus and entertainment, for a week of cruising – sorry, yachting.
What they call “whole-of-yacht charters” are popular. People regularly hire Seadream 1 or Seadream 2 for a few days, or a week or more, for birthday parties, weddings, and business outings. An Australian car dealership takes its best staff and clients every year. Sailing in July this year, an elegant clipper moored near us at the island of Rab, Croatia, is a ‘nude cruise’, hired by a group of naturists. Only the staff wear clothes. Rumour has it that Seadream can also be hired by the unclad, but it’s difficult to imagine the crew of perfectly dressed stewards and demure housemaids waiting on the stark naked.
On my cruise, there is a European couple who look on Seadream as their holiday home. They have each spent more than 250 nights aboard, and I work out they would have spent about half a million dollars so far. They were aboard in July, and had booked to return in August. Where would Seadream take them this time? They didn’t know, or care. Simply being aboard was everything.
A week, or two, pass in a flash when you are celebrating a big birthday on a luxury yacht – with or without your best friends. I highly recommend it. Dreams are free.
santorini 3

Top Tip: If you are sailing along the Croatian coast, pre-book your cabin on the side of the boat facing the coastline. It’s magical to wake up to a new stunning view each day.


  1. Sue Donovan says:

    Feel green with envy.

  2. Denise Wolfe says:

    Hi Pam
    What an amazing trip.You’ve sold it to us! Sounds magical ……must find out more.
    ………..Happy birthday for 31August!

  3. Sounds idyllic.
    Feel free to invite me on a similar cruise to celebrate your next birthday.