March 28, 2006
Let's be honest. One of the pleasures of cruising is the "fantasy factor". You know what I mean -- for a few days each year one is made to feel rich and famous, from spacious suites with attentive service to haute cuisine with fine wine.
Mainstream cruise lines offer a degree of luxury with their upper echelon suites and surcharged restaurants, but the kind of pervasive luxury and personal attention that I am talking about here is the raison d'etre of such cruise lines as Silversea, Regent (formerly Radisson) Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Crystal. These ships range from about 200 passengers on the older Seabourn "yachts" to about 1,000 passengers on the newest Crystal ship.
What follows is a review of our experience on a four-night, March 2006 Caribbean cruise on Silversea's all-suite Silver Whisper. I am semi-retired, in my late 50's, and not in the travel business. My wife and I have taken 17 cruises on a variety of lines. When on vacation I prefer not dealing with lines or crowds, and tend to travel independently rather than with tour groups.
This was a relatively short, heavily discounted itinerary from a U.S. port (San Juan), and as such may not be representative of the usual Silversea cruises, which average about 10 days and $5,000 per person for the least expensive cabins.
The bottom line: This was an enjoyable cruise on a highly regarded small ship, calling at three of the less crowded Caribbean ports.
The Good: Spacious cabins with double bathrooms (all cabins are outsides, most with balconies); the understated elegance of the extensive public areas; the absence of noise and crowds; the absence of sales pitches (no art auctions, photographers or bingo games); the talented musicians and entertainers (presented at reasonable decibel levels); the well traveled, well educated and articulate passengers; and the inclusive pricing (drinks and gratuities).
The Not-So-Good: Minor lapses in service; minor lapses in food preparation; inadequate exercise facilities; excessive off-line and Internet computer fees; and a tendency of the ship to roll in good weather during mild to moderate seas.
Because of a heavily discounted price and a desire to sample the Silversea experience before committing several thousand dollars to a longer cruise, we selected one of four short (four-night, three-day) back-to-back cruises round trip out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although the discounted per diem started out higher, I found a price of $250 pppd on these itineraries, and our cruise agent (Pavlus Travel) kindly included taxes and port fees in that price. We jumped at this opportunity, even though the cruise included only three ports for our $1,000 per person cruise fare, and the least expensive (independent) airfare from our regional airport added another $700.
One can enter preferences in Silversea's web site, but the site was not working properly when I tried it. Their webmaster told me that they were upgrading, and presumably it is functional now. We simply faxed our pre-cruise information forms.
Those interested in alternate dining at La Terraza or Le Champagne restaurants (see dining options below) should inquire about the possibility of pre-cruise reservations (all La Terraza's nights were full and wait-listed by the time we boarded). Information about shore excursions and spa treatments is on the web site, and one might want to pre-reserve those also, although I heard no problems about booking them onboard.
Silversea documents arrive in a silver-colored box, and include two black leatherette document cases and two black leather luggage tags with a metal Silversea logo.
No pre-booked cruise transfers are necessary in San Juan since it has an excellent and safe taxi system for tourists. The airport and the cruise docks have taxi dispatchers who will write down your destination and the appropriate taxi fare, giving a copy to you and to your driver. That way there is no problem with overcharges or unwanted "city tours". Look for the dispatchers' booths curbside at both locations. The cab fare for two between the airport and Old San Juan, where most cruise ships dock, is $19 (plus $1 for our two bags). Many of the cabs are mini-vans, which can hold several people and extensive luggage.
One of the negatives of cruising on a small ship is that there may be no greeter at the airport to answer questions and confirm the ship's location. The Silver Whisper was docked at a different pier than stated in our pre-cruise documents, and Silversea did not send us an e-mail or (apparently) notify our agent of the change. Fortunately the two piers were nearby, and our taxi driver found the correct one. It would be nice if all cruise lines used an e-mail alert system similar to that of airlines.
Silversea recommends embarking between 3 and 5 p.m. Early boarding (including lunch onboard) is available for a $100 per person surcharge if pre-reserved, but it is gratis to Venetian Society members (repeat Silversea cruisers) who have completed more than 250 Silversea cruise days. Similar late disembarkation is available in some ports, but not U.S. ports, which require disembarkation of all passengers once a ship clears immigration.
On the ship, there was no special welcome aboard. We cleared security and were directed to the reception desk, where we turned in our cruise tickets, were photographed, received our key cards. One must imprint one's credit card, but for some reason the reception desk did not do this at embarkation. We received a notice later in the cruise to do this. There were several chambermaids in line near the registration desk, and one of them assisted us with our hand carries and led us to our cabin, where a bottle of Pommery brut champagne on ice was waiting for us.
Since our flights had no food service, we were hungry for a snack with the champagne. After our boat drill there was no food venue open until dinnertime and the mini-bar had no snacks, so we called room service. Unfortunately the room service button on our phone responded that "this service is not currently available". Another room service number we found in our cabin directory responded with "please leave a message." We never needed room service after that and do not know how efficient it is.
The one downside: There is only one small elevator forward in the cabin areas, but there are four elevators aft in the public areas. Since there is no service elevator for room service or other crew members, the one forward elevator is often used by the crew. It makes for some snug but friendly trips among enormous breakfast and dinner trays.
Vista Suites are clustered on Deck 4 forward, and abut the dining room bulkhead. That means that Vista passengers must go up one or more decks to reach any of the public areas, including an up-and-then-down trip to the main restaurant entrance on Deck 4 aft.
Being on Deck 4 can be an advantage in rough weather (it is nearest the ship's center of gravity), especially since the ship tended to roll in good weather with mild to moderate seas. Several passengers we met were wearing accu-pressure wristbands for motion sickness, and these passengers were all repeat (Venetian Society) cruisers.
Deck 4 is also nearest the sewage treatment area, and we noticed a faint odor of sewage several times as we approached our hallway. This odor was never a problem. It was not apparent in the public areas, just in the Deck 4 stairwell and hallway, and it did not seep into our cabin at any time.
Silver Whisper's cabins are almost double the size of the average cabins on mainstream cruise ships. The configuration is standard, with the bathroom and closet along the entry hall, then the sleeping area, and then the sitting/dining area adjacent to the window or balcony. One does not notice the extra floor space so much in the sleeping and sitting areas, but it is very apparent in the bathroom, which allows two to bathe and dress for dinner at the same time. The tub and shower are separate, and there are two sinks (and double bath amenities) at the granite counter.
We did appreciate the quality of the cabin's accoutrements. The duvet was sparkling white and light as air, the towels were textured and double thick, and the robes were heavyweight terry. A table converter (for room service dinners) was stowed in the closet but we never needed it. The TV had a DVD player, but I cannot imagine why anyone would use it when there are interesting ports of call, although it may help pass time when there are back-to-back days at sea.
Our mini-bar was stocked with beer, mixers, and fruit juice. In addition to the champagne bottle waiting on our arrival, we were given a bottle of red wine during the cruise. We never opened it and left it for the next passengers. We did not request extra alcohol for the mini-bar, but I am certain many passengers do. We would have preferred having some colas and champagne splits, but we never asked for them (or were asked our preferences). We simply went to the nearest bar each evening for our pre-dinner drink. No problem.
Our cabin was maintained by two chambermaids, one from Iceland and one from India. They made a great team and did a fine job keeping our cabin ship-shape. We rarely saw them, but when we wanted something (like additional personalized stationery) we simply left a note and they responded efficiently.
Rather than my describing the public areas around the ship, log onto one of the many web sites featuring Silversea photos taken by previous cruisers. Just Google "Silversea Silver Whisper reviews" and follow the trail. The photos are beautiful, far better than any of my own. The ship is very handsome inside and out.
The excellent space ratio is apparent throughout the ship. No public area ever seemed crowded, although the alternative dining rooms and the show lounge were sometimes full. The exception was the tiny gym, which seemed cramped even when no one else was there. The ship was so quiet compared to our previous cruises that we sometimes wondered where everybody was. There were no more than a handful of cruisers in the library, the lounges, or the shops when we were there. The privacy and sense of calm were very impressive.
A vocalist played piano and sang every evening in the Deck 5 bar. He has a fine voice and great sense of style. Ingeniously, he used his laptop screen instead of sheet music.
A piano trio provided dance music every evening in the Deck 8 Panorama lounge. They knew all the standards, took requests, and even did vocals on some numbers. My wife and I thought the dance floor would be crowded on a cruise like this, but we found only a handful of passengers in the lounge with us, and they listened at the bar but did not dance.
The Jean Ann Ryan Company of six dancers and two vocalists provided entertainment in the show lounge every evening after dinner. Productions ranged from an evening of Broadway show tunes to a Cirque du Soleil style performance that combined avant-garde music with acrobatic dancing. The production values matched any that we have seen while cruising, and the bonus is that this is the first and only cruise production company we have encountered that does not over-amplify its music and vocals.
Everyone we dined with on this cruise proved to be well traveled, highly articulate, and very entertaining. On some cruises my wife and I prefer to dine at a table for two, but on this cruise we always opted to join a group because of the enjoyable company. Perhaps the maitre d' has ESP -- he always seemed to look into one's eyes, think for a moment, and then say "Hmmm, yes, I think I have the perfect table for you." He was right every time.
We also opted not to try the multi-course dinners and wine tastings in Le Champagne dining room. These had a "nominal" fee of $150 per person to cover the cost of the premium wines. Although I enjoy a good wine, I cannot detect the subtleties of a great wine, so it would have been a wasted evening for me.
That leaves the Deck 7 buffet and the Deck 4 main restaurant. The buffet is very enjoyable at breakfast. Since we did not have a balcony, we preferred to eat breakfast on the veranda outside the buffet rather than have room service. The buffet selections are varied, well prepared, and nicely presented. The breakfast buffet is very comparable to those found on mainstream cruise ships, but without the lines and crowds. The lunch buffet parallels the menu in the main restaurant. As a matter of portion control and made-to-order freshness, we preferred the main restaurant for lunch.
In the main restaurant, the food is good to excellent, similar in quality to the good food found in the dining rooms of Celebrity, Holland America or Princess ships to the excellent food found in the surcharged restaurants on those same ships.
We experienced a few minor lapses in service. One appetizer and two drink orders were forgotten; often my water glass was not refilled when empty; and sometimes there were unusually long intervals between courses.
A few dining quirks are native to Silversea. On our first night we ordered leg of lamb. The meat came without vegetables or potatoes, which were listed on the menu but have to be separately ordered to appear with the main course. A sorbet is always listed between the salad and the main courses, but this too must be ordered since it is not served automatically.
The drinking water is served in beautiful grand cru stemware that magnifies the chemical odor of water just as it does the aroma of good wine. Requesting bottled water with the meal should be a simple task, but it almost always elicited a sour expression from the waiter, and the request was never carried out through the entire meal.
The dining room was never crowded on our cruise. In fact the quietness of the main dining room was a pleasure, and contrasted sharply with the noisy, multi-tiered dining rooms on larger ships.
The main restaurant provides a cuisine that matches, and sometimes exceeds, the fine dining we experienced on other ships. Even mainstream cruise lines are now extremely successful at providing memorable dining, and the margin between cuisine on the Silver Whisper and that on other ships is very narrow.
The menu has somewhat greater choice than on some other ships, perhaps because most of its cruises are longer than one week, and most of its passengers are repeat cruisers. The Silver Whisper adds the extra option of ordering specialty items not listed on the menu (if ingredients are available). On a short cruise such as ours this was not necessary, but for a long round-the-world cruise this would be a lifesaver. Some passengers on our cruise apparently tried to order exotic dishes but were unsuccessful, which in my opinion was just as well, since there was adequate choice to be happy for four evenings.
The fish courses were generally cooked to perfection, although my lobster and salmon were each somewhat overcooked on one occasion. The lobster was rubbery and adherent to the shell. Another person at our table that evening found his lobster so excellent that he ordered a second portion, which turned out as tough as mine, so he left his second portion uneaten.
The fish courses sometimes were matched with al dente vegetables that were so crisp that one could not cut them with the fish knife or spear them with the fish fork -- a great excuse if you prefer not to eat your vegetables. Our lamb chops were ordered rare and came seared on the outside but translucent red on the inside. The unique taste of lamb was undetectable. Medium rare should get you the pink to red doneness that you want.
One appetizer was made with taco shells that were stale and tough. The filling was excellent though. Salads were sometimes overdressed and low fat dressings were not featured - the easy solution is to request the dressing on the side. One dessert was a creamy chocolate mousse that had clear gelatin cubes inside - a strange combination. Another dessert was a banana concoction constructed on a translucent gelatinous base - flavorful but strange in appearance and texture.
These issues are minor. You will have a very enjoyable time in the main restaurant, and if you plan far enough ahead, you may be able to sample their alternative dining.
I generated a charge of $4.50 before even logging onto the net to access my e-mail. The on screen "meter" that tracks charges is not that clear, nor is the log-off window. Fortunately a shipboard IT assistant alerted me to the charge and I logged off with her help. When I politely expressed my dismay to the reception desk, they removed the charge from my account. I never did use the net on the entire cruise.
Some passengers brought laptops and used the ship's wireless capability for e-mails and Internet phone calls. Some passengers complained that the net connection is slow, so the charges can be daunting.
Passports are held by the cruise ship for the duration of the cruise and are returned to the passengers (in order by luggage tag color code) between 7 and 8 a.m. on the day of disembarkation. U.S. immigration inspection generally goes quickly, but every passenger must be cleared by immigration before any passenger is allowed off the ship.
Disembarkation begins around 9 a.m. and takes about an hour. Silversea recommends not booking a return flight much before noon, since one must taxi to the airport, check in, and go through security inspections there too.
As we disembarked, the gangway was relatively steep. Without being asked, a Silver Whisper crew member graciously took my wife's roll-aboard down the gangway to the dock for her. As we left the ship we felt truly pampered.Is a Luxury Cruise Worth the Cost?
Yes and no. The choice in cruise ships is very much like the choice in new automobiles - there is one for every taste and budget. Some people insist that a Lexus or a Cadillac is the only way to travel. Others insist that a Ford or Toyota is the logical choice. The bottom line is that there is no single automobile (or cruise line) that will make everyone happy, but there is at least one automobile (or cruise line) that will make each one of us happy.
Last year for the first time I bought identical Honda Accords for myself and my wife, together less than the cost of one Mercedes. The Hondas are safe, reliable, economical cars that are a delight to drive. They have given us as much pleasure as our Mercedes ever did. I guess that says it all.