Editor's Note: Prince Albert II was renamed Silver Explorer in April 2011.
Silver Explorer, a purpose-rebuilt expedition ship, makes it possible for the first time to say "polar bears and penguins" in the same sentence as "cuisine by Relais & Chateaux, cigar and cognac lounge, and 675-square-foot suites."
Built in 1989 as the World Discoverer II, Silver Explorer was acquired by Silversea from now-defunct Society Expeditions in 2007, and given a multi-million-dollar refit at the Fincantieri Shipyards in Trieste, Italy. An ice-class vessel with the highest rating, Lloyds Register 1A, Silver Explorer goes beyond what most people would consider an expedition ship. It is more like an exclusive floating country club with 132 passengers (tops), who occupy the largest accommodations on average of any expedition ship and who are regularly spoiled with touches like chocolate-covered strawberries and chilled Champagne served from a "Zodiac bar" during polar bears-sighting excursions. (The ship is equipped with eight Zodiacs.)
Silver Explorer could be said to have two "faces." The first is a daytime expeditionary one, when passengers go on Zodiac excursions, walks and hikes; participate in whale- and other wildlife-watching; take in lectures about the destination, its flora, fauna, ecology and geology; and attend briefings and previews of the next day's program.
The other "face" is the evening one, when passengers stow away the complimentary parkas and backpacks (provided for them to keep), boots and other gear, and don chic leisure wear. The ambience becomes that of a luxury yacht, where the staff knows your name and welcomes you to a musical cocktail hour with tapas in one of the lounges, and you do not have to sign for beverages at the bars and restaurant.
While the yacht-like "face" includes cruise ship amenities such as an observation lounge, spa facilities and the Connoisseur's Corner cigar and cognac lounge, voyages on Silver Explorer are definitely expeditions -- not cruises. You will not find karaoke and deck games here, but you will come away with detailed knowledge of the region you are visiting.
On an expedition, flexibility is the name of the game, particularly in the polar regions, as ice and other weather conditions may affect the course of the itinerary. Since schedules can vary from announced times, it is important to be ready to get into Zodiacs on short notice when wildlife sightings and weather conditions dictate changes. In the Arctic, when the first polar bear is sighted an announcement is made -- even if it is 2:30 a.m. People throw their parkas over their nightclothes and come out on deck to the viewing areas located aft on Decks 5, 6 and 7 and forward on Deck 5.
Editor's Note: Silversea sends out packing recommendations so passengers can prepare for their expeditions in the polar regions. The list includes such items as waterproof pants, boots and gloves, and thermal underwear. Passengers may encounter chilly situations like being sprayed with water during Zodiac rides and having to make wet landings (Zodiac landings in shallow water). Heed the recommendations to the letter to get the most out of your expedition. Each participant is provided with a complimentary parka and backpack, and there is a selection of boots to borrow onboard, but be advised that they may not have all sizes.
The Restaurant (Deck 4, aft) is the ship's main dining room. Meals are open seating, with passengers dining when and with whom they choose during restaurant hours. Breakfast is generally from 7:30 to 9 a.m.; lunch from 12:30 to 2 p.m., and dinner from 7:30 to 9 p.m.
The tables are set with crisp Frette linens, Fortessa china, Christofle flatware, Schott Zwiesel crystal, fresh flowers and, for dinner, candlelight.
Breakfast offers the option of buffet-style fare and waiter service. The serve-it-yourself selection includes berries and other fruits, and breakfast favorites including eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, juices, yogurts, cereal, pastries and breads. In addition, waiters take orders for such dishes as made-to-order omelets and eggs Benedict. The staff, which seemed to know your name and preferences from the first evening, helps passengers bring their plates from the buffet to their table.
Lunch in The Restaurant is also buffet-style, with items such as salads, cold sandwiches, hot pasta, side dishes and a carving meats. There are a variety of desserts on offer, including fruit tarts and compotes, fresh fruits, cakes and pies. When the ship experienced rough seas, waiters took over the food service operation.
Dinner is a multi-course gourmet affair, with an incredible selection for an expedition ship. Dishes are inspired by the chefs of Relais & Chateaux -- sumptuous options like filet mignon with foie gras-poached potatoes and shallot jam or wild boar with porcini mushrooms. There are an abundance of choices -- appetizers, salad, soup, pasta, palate-cleansing sorbet, poultry, seafood and beef. (Beef Wellington, rack of lamb or turbot, anyone?)
Low-fat and vegetarian selections include pan-fried Rainbow Trout with Almond and Lemon Butter Sauce and Crespelle Alla Fiorentina (spinach-stuffed pancakes baked in tomato sauce and gratineed with cheese).
The service was excellent, with everyone warmly greeting us by name, from the maitre d' to the assistant waiters. The wait staff was exceptionally solicitous, remembering preferences (and dietary requests, such as a non-dairy requirement).
Coffee comes with a selection of desserts like creme brulee, souffles and Silversea's delicious petits fours, which are presented on a two-tier silver tray.
During dinner and lunch, the expedition team leader and members join passengers at their tables, and the conversation often turns to the current expedition and anecdotes of expeditions past.
Lunch is also served with waiter service at the Outdoor Grill each day from noon to 2 p.m., weather permitting. The menu includes hamburgers, hot dogs and such treats as grilled salmon.
Other meal and snack options include Continental breakfast, with fresh squeezed orange juice, fruits, pastries, muffins and coffee, served daily in the Observation Lounge (Deck 6, forward) from 6:30 to 10 a.m. Then there's mid-morning bouillon. Remember that? Silversea still has it and it is very welcome during polar voyages. It is served with crackers in the Panorama Lounge (Deck 5, aft) from 11 a.m. to noon daily. Afternoon tea with scones, finger sandwiches and pastries is also served in the Panorama Lounge from 4 to 5 p.m. daily. Tapas -- perhaps seafood bites, melon balls with prosciutto ham and bruschetta -- are available in the Panorama Lounge during the cocktail hour, from 7 to 8 p.m.
Our butler, Vishal, from Mumbai, India, served us tea once and hors d'oeuvres a couple of afternoons in our suite, tempting us with such goodies as chilled mixed berry cups, ham and asparagus sandwiches, crab claws and mini cherry cheesecakes. He also served us dinner, course-by-course, some evenings. During restaurant hours, we dined off of the regular menu; other times it was from the 24-hour room service menu, which includes such items as bruschetta, spinach salad with salmon, grilled chicken breast with steamed vegetables, pizza and pasta.
Public rooms are understatedly elegant, decorated with paintings and other artwork, and accented with fresh flowers and maple wood paneling. A well-stocked library/Internet Center (Deck 5) has destination guide books, literary accounts and coffee table books on the Arctic and Antarctica. There are four stations for Internet access (there's also Wi-Fi). The Internet access charge is 50 cents per minute for pay as you go; packages are available for $45 (100 minutes), $85 (250 minutes) and $250 (1,000 minutes).
Other facilities include a changing room that comes in handy to don gear before boarding Zodiacs (Deck 3); and The Theatre, a comfortable setting decorated in tones of burnt orange that's used for lectures and daily briefings by the expedition leader and team (Deck 6). Two lounges, Panorama and Observation (Decks 5 and 6, respectively), are attractive and intimate.
Some unexpected features for an expedition ship include the Connoisseur's Corner (Deck 5), a venue with comfortable seating, earth tones and dark wood paneling that's ideal for cigars and after-dinner drinks, and a boutique with logo items, gifts/souvenirs and other merchandise (Deck 4).
During the refit of the World Discoverer II, the number of accommodations was reduced from 112 to 66 to create larger cabins. Ten are cabins and the rest are suites; all accommodations are oceanview. In another "unusual for an expedition ship" feature, 20 cabins have verandahs or French balconies.
At the small end of the cabin scale, there are six "Adventure Class" accommodations at 175 to 184 square feet -- pretty small for a ship billing itself as luxury. Then there are the two 675-square-foot Grand Suites (including a 87-square-foot verandah).
Other accommodations include two Owner's Suites (626 square feet, including the largest verandah onboard at a whopping 158 square feet) and six Silver Suites (460 square feet with two French balconies with doors that open so you can step outside).
There are also Four Discoverer Suites (450 square feet); two Medallion Suites (351 square feet including 86-square-foot verandah); four Expedition Suites (460 square feet); eight Veranda Suites (230 square feet with French balcony); 16 Vista Suites (194 to 230 square feet); 12 View Suites (230 square feet); and four Explorer Class cabins(185 to 275 square feet).
Owner's and Grand suites have a sofa bed and can accommodate three passengers. Some Silver, Expedition, Vista and View category accommodations also include sofa beds and can accommodate a third passengers as well.
All cabins feature butler service -- thus you have someone at your beck and call in addition to the room steward. They all come with convertible twin-to-queen beds, a walk-in or fitted wardrobe, sitting area and writing desk, and choice of pillow, plush bedding, robes and slippers. Upon arrival, passengers find a fruit basket and flowers, and a (replenished) beverage cabinet stocked to their preferences.
Other amenities include personalized stationery, binoculars for use during expeditions, hair dryer, personal safe, flat-screen television with satellite news reception (on our itinerary in the Arctic it worked fine, but may vary in other itineraries), music channels and complimentary on-demand movies and documentaries. Cabins are also Wi-Fi accessible.
The attractive bathrooms are marbled, with tub and separate shower, an oversized wash basin -- big enough to give a baby a bath in it if you had a mind to. Passengers have the choice of Bvlgari, Ferragamo or Neutrogena bath products.
Additional amenities in Owner's Suites and Grand Suites include a living room, two flat-screen televisions, complimentary laundry service, pressing and dry cleaning, four hours of Internet service, two hours of worldwide phone use from the suite (per voyage segment) and dinner at the officer's table.
The electricity onboard is 220volt/60Hz AC electric current, so adapters are recommended if you plan to bring a laptop, camera, electric toothbrush or other appliances.
There are no cabins/suites designated for disabled passengers.
Gratuities are included in the cruise fare. No other tips are necessary.
|Fitness and Recreation|
After Silversea transformed Silver Explorer , the swimming pool was taken out, as it was rarely if ever used during polar expeditions. You will not miss it during a polar voyage, but you may long for a swim during repositioning cruises through Central and South America and Africa. The ship does have two whirlpools (Deck 6) that were used occasionally by passengers during our expedition.
The ship's spa facilities are split into several locations: The Spa (Deck 6), managed by Steiner, with one treatment room for massages, wraps and facials; a sauna and steam room; the Fitness Centre (Deck 4) with elliptical stepper, treadmill, stationery bike and multi-exerciser; and a tiny, windowless beauty salon (Deck 4) for hair and nail services. Spa treatments include an Elemis Urban Cleanse Facial for men (50-minutes, $129); a 50-minute deep-tissue massage for $116; a 50-minute Swedish massage for $110; and a 50-minute Elemis Aroma Stone Therapy treatment for $159 (aaah, so great after a long hike!).
There is no jogging track onboard, but passengers can stroll around Deck 6. And with expedition activities including walks and hikes, there is no lack of opportunity for exercise. Occasionally, there's something more strenuous, like the time the expedition team led a hike/climb up Norway's North Cape, which is situated 307 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) over the Barents Sea.
Silver Explorer is not designed for youngsters. There are no facilities or programs for them, and there's no babysitting service. Older children and teenagers may enjoy the lectures, the hikes and Zodiac explorations. There were two children, about 8 or 9 years old, on our expedition. They seemed to be having a good time on the Zodiac tours and wildlife-spotting excursions -- and the tots were outfitted with appropriately sized parkas.
Children under the age of one cannot sail on Silver Explorer, and kids under six years old are not allowed onboard Zodiacs (and therefore not permitted to participate in any expedition excursions that require the use of a Zodiac). A signed and notarized waiver is required for passengers traveling with children under six years of age.
Passengers are well-heeled, well-traveled Americans and Europeans (including many Germans) -- mostly couples in their 40's to 60's -- who often talked about their travels to Antarctica, the Galapagos and other exotic destinations.
Casual dress is the norm during the day, and chic casual is par for most evenings (sports outfits you would wear at a fine resort). Jeans and shorts are not permitted in The Restaurant. The dress code also calls for semi-formal attire for the Captain's Welcome Aboard Party and Captain's Farewell Party (jackets, tie-optional for gentlemen; dresses or pantsuits for ladies).
Mother Nature is the star on this type of voyage -- not singers and dancers in musical revues -- and the main pursuits are watching and photographing polar bears, whales and birds. For better wildlife viewing, binoculars are provided to all passengers. And for a zoomed-in view, a high-powered telescope is available for use in the Observation Lounge (Deck 6), which is situated over the Bridge and so boasts superb forward views. During our sailing, there were two special bear guides that helped us spot these fantastic creatures. The bear guides kept watch on the bridge for bears that might have been in the water or the ice, and they accompanied passengers on walks/hikes ashore. (Though general opinion is that polar bears are white, they tend to have a slightly yellow hue. Bear guides look for yellowish patches on the ice to spot polar bears. They are also armed in case a bear is unexpectedly encountered during a hike.)
Ashore, Zodiac landings are accompanied by an expedition team member who discusses subjects like bird life (storm petrels in Fair Isle or Mousa in the Shetlands), polar bears in Hornsund and walruses in Poolepynten, Svalbaard.
Our walrus-sighting expedition was a highlight of our voyage. With ice covering the bay where a colony of walruses resided, it would have been impossible for the Zodiacs to get close enough to the animals for a good look. But with the captain cautiously maneuvering the ship, Silver Explorer cut a path through the ice, and passengers followed in Zodiacs, like ducklings following their mother, to get to the walruses. Some of the majestic creatures were sunning themselves on a rocky promontory, others were swimming close to the Zodiacs, as curious to see us as we were to see them.
The expedition team also presents slide lectures and videos about bird life, whales, dolphins, ecology and geology. (A German lecturer is onboard on every cruise, and lectures in English and German are conducted in separate rooms so passengers do not have to sit through translations. Zodiac excursions are also divided into English and German groups.) On our expedition in particular, there were a number of geology lectures. I would have preferred fewer talks on rocks, perhaps substituting one or two of those for more on marine mammals and seabirds. A couple of other passengers mentioned they'd have welcomed more talks on marine mammals; others said they were fine with the lineup.
A talk from professional photographer Camille Seaman was a highlight of the lecture program. The aptly named Seaman gave several excellent and well-attended presentations on how best to photograph the wildlife and scenery we were seeing.
Each afternoon, the expedition leader and his team presented a briefing in The Theatre or the Observation Lounge, recapping the day's activities and previewing the next day's program.
The sun never set during our Arctic voyage, so late-night wildlife-watching and enjoying the midnight sun were popular pastimes -- and so much sunlight seemed to energize everyone. Many passengers turned in late and rose early the next morning to go out on deck with their binoculars and cameras.
The Bridge is open for visits, and most passengers drop in at their leisure to observe the navigation protocol and chat with the officers.
There were also numerous non-expeditionary activities during our 16-day voyage from Hamburg, Germany, to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, including a martini tasting, a culinary demonstration and a wine tasting. Another highlight was an outdoor afternoon tea party served on deck to coincide with our crossing of the Arctic Circle (latitude 66 degrees 33 minutes north, marked by a large globe sculpture on a cliff). Temperatures were in the mid-50's, the sky was blue and Silversea went all out to commemorate the event. Disney's "A Whole New World" played, the ship's whistle blew at the precise moment of the crossing, and a Minke whale breached spectacularly, seemingly just for the occasion. Canapes, pastries and teas were served by the staff on tables adorned with crisp tablecloths, fine china and flowers, and a special Arctic Punch (Absolut vodka, cranberry juice and lemonade) was offered.
A pianist/vocalist entertained in the Panorama Lounge every day during afternoon tea, during the cocktail hour and after dinner.
There is no casino onboard. A variety of board games, including chess, are available for play in the Observation Lounge, Panorama Lounge or in your suite or cabin.
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