We've visited many Caribbean islands over the years, love the region for it vibrancy and warmth - the people sort as well as that of climate. But we'd never made it to Barbados.
We had taken a three day cruise on Carnival - and decided the large ships aren't our favorite. Vacation for us means getting away from it all and we just had the feeling on the big ship we were taking it all along with us. We had cruised on the late lamented Windjammer Barefoot Cruises and had a marvelous time but they departed the scene alas and we're a bit older than once we were.
So when the combination of the destination (Barbados) and trying out an upscale cruise experience (my wife loves the idea of having a balcony as a refuge, a place to read, relax and get completely away from it all) presented itself with Silversea line's Silver Spirits cruise #5401, Ft Lauderdale to Barbados, we jumped on. So to speak.
It had the added advantage of happening in January, raising some concerns about the possibilities of weather interfering with travel, raising costs at the far end of the cruise (we stayed a week in Barbados after our cruise) but allowing us the chance to see it all during high season. Much of our previous travel to the region has been just outside high season, generally in mid-April including sailing around the BVI with a friend in his 35 foot sailboat, a Sabreliner.
We looked over cruise lines, were highly intrigued by several especially Star Clippers, loved by friends of ours, and of course Seabourne. We had a fantastic vacation in French Polynesia a few years ago and realized after the fact that probably the best way to do that for the very first time would be to book on the Paul Gauguin, a gorgeous ship (we saw it a couple times on our trip there) and given that airfare is included a terrific way to see multiple islands in addition to experiencing the marvelous experience that ship offers.
So when we came across Silver Spirit's itinerary and learned more about the ship itself, we were hooked.
We flew out to Ft Lauderdale a couple days early just in case - the polar incursion that pretty much crippled transportation throughout the NE USA made that precaution seem quite a good choice; a number of passengers were delayed, some joining us in Puerto Rico on the third day into the cruise, others i presume not making it at all. Having time on our hands we spent a very pleasant day visiting Ft Lauderdale's fine art museum which happily had three exhibits up, each quite different from the other two, all of very high quality. We went down and strolled along the riverfront park area and wound up watching my alma mater's basketball team play (and happily win) a game at a sports bar quite near our at the port hotel which served excellent fresh fish as well.
We took a cab over to the port on launching day - January 6th - and were very pleased with the process. There was little in the way of lines the ship's capacity being just over 500 passengers and the weather, as mentioned, having intervened even with that number. (i do believe we reached at or near 500 by the time we departed Puerto Rico so it wound up being a good test of the Silver Spirit experience.)
We checked in and went to our suite (as the cabins are referred to) where we met our "butler" (seems to be what stewards are called on this line and perhaps others, i wouldn't know about that) - Rowena - and Larry who would be cleaning and tidying the suite throughout the cruise. They were very personable, very welcoming, quite professional. Rowena showed us around. Larry - who seems always to be smiling happily - was smiling happily and made us feel quite at home.
The suite was beautiful. Lots of wood, mirrors in both the bed and sitting areas with television pictures as rectangles "embedded" in the center of each, a desk, writing desk and lots of cabinet space in the sitting room and of course the teak veranda/balcony beyond that. The bathroom was on our left in the narrow hallway as we entered and beyond it the walk in closest with lots of space, hangers and the room safe atop a chest of drawers at the far end. Plenty of room for the clothing we brought along - and we had three suitcases given the nine night cruise and our planned week-long stay afterwards on the island. i know, over-packing, but we hadn't been quite this way before and when all is said and done i prefer to work a bit harder getting somewhere than to find i have prepared inadequately for the bulk of my time. i figure i'll learn to conserve before we do this next time.
We preferred to do our own unpacking - perhaps a mistake as i could take some lessons from Rowena who packs and unpacks on a professional basis - more on that later - but it's not much to do it oneself. We stowed two of the cases at the very back of the closet - lots of room; Rowena wound up putting the third simply under the bed, an easier solution.
Having a bit of time we set off to explore our floating home for a bit before the required safety drill - attendance is taken - and departure from port which we watched from the deck off the Italian restaurant - La Terrazza - where we met a couple of passengers from Ireland in the process, mother and daughter, who quickly became our friends (and added to the family feel of our trip when we would run into them and join with them for a meal or a walkabout in one port or another).
Okay, hint #1: at this time passengers have the opportunity to go to i think it was the Stars supper club (deck 7) to make dinner reservations at the various restaurants. The hint is do it as some of the restaurants are smaller and more intimate and if you don't make your reservation right at the start you might not get in. This is especially true for the line's well-advertised Le Champagne restaurant which holds about 20 people. By the time we thought to try to go there, we could only get on the waiting list and never did make it in. (Although some with whom we spoke were not all that impressed with it so we didn't worry too much about that.)
Restaurants: there are several - we did not make it into all but next cruise we would try to do so.
Le Champagne - deck 4 - intimate, highly advertised by the Italian cruise line, an elegant approach; there is a surcharge involved to eat here.
Seishin - also deck 4 - also a surcharge to eat here. We did so twice. There are three options for dinner, each beginning with an amuse buche followed by a marvelous sashimi and sushi plate, the sushi chef located in the middle of the space preparing this, the tables - 7 or 8 iirc - around the edges of the room. At lunch there is the option of getting a bento (boxed) lunch; at dinner there are two three course meals dinners at a surcharge of $20 as well as a full 9 course degustation meal at a $30 surcharge. We tried both versions, the 9 course our first visit and the 3 course meals our second visit. We had marvelous service from MaryAnn assisted by Sharlotte and, our second visit, when i asked to have the first three-course menu but substitute the main course from the second MaryAnn just smiled and assured us it would be no problem at all. Nor was it. We very much liked this restaurant.
The main restaurant is, naturally, called The Restaurant. It too is located on deck 4 (the aforementioned two flanking the entrance to the Restaurant.) We found this one good; not great, but quite satisfactory. We have some food restrictions - one of the joys brought by advancing years - which limited us just a bit in our selection but service was excellent, the surroundings fine - think upscale restaurant 'most anywhere, and the food good. We enjoyed it - but chose other options for the rest of the cruise rather than repeat this one.
The aforementioned La Terrazza - being the Italian venue on an Italian-run ship - was quite good. Indoor seating is good and there is also the option of outdoor seating, delightful at breakfast and lunch. Starting with dinner, i found the pasta quite good; our new friend and fellow passenger Art said the lamb rack was outstanding. The wine selection was okay - and they were quite happy to offer an alternate selection such as the Bordeaux i preferred to the offered Burgundy. They would have been happier still to provide one of the for-purchase selections the prices of which were in the range of "if you have to ask the price, don't bother with these." We demurred and did just fine with the included selection, my wife especially appreciating the whites while i explored the reds.
For breakfast and lunch, the buffets in the La Terrazza venue were marvelous. Can't think of anything they might have done to have made them more appealing to us. Our Irish friends took the culinary tour offered on board and came away very impressed that they prepare all of the bread and pasta offerings from scratch every day, even the bread sticks. They certainly succeeded with those and most passengers we got to know wound up eating breakfast and lunch at La Terrazza.
The Show Lounge - deck 5 - served smaller platters and our friends Art and Cindy just loved it. We planned to make it but never did; we will do so on our next cruise on this line because of the raves about it. There was entertainment - and we simply opted for a quieter dinner experience this voyage.
The experience that i loved was Hot Rocks. You need reservations though there is no additional surcharge. This is on the pool deck - deck 9 - at the Pool Grill area (there is also a pool bar of course) or at tables on deck 10 which overlooks the pool at The Grill. Hot Rocks is called that for the obvious reason: you order a steak or the huge (and delectable) shrimp or a combination of both and your server brings your entrée to you already cooking - searing - on a lava stone that has been pre- and slowly-heated to 900 degrees.
The stone is about three inches thick and perhaps 12 inches square. The server places the stone on its platter in front of you leaving room for your dinner plate between it and you and then turns the meat over so it starts cooking on the other side. It's up to you when you want to remove it from the stone to stop cooking it. They advertise that it's perfectly done just for you every time, an element that is completely under your personal control.
As we eat simply at home - and far less often - the chance for simpler fare was very appealing and as the dinner itself was outstanding, we ate there twice including our last night on board. Your platter comes with baked potato with a range of toppings, vegetables and salad first course. Desserts here and throughout the ship were also quite good. There's even a choice of sorbets throughout the afternoon on the pool deck.
If i've forgotten other venues it is only because we failed to try them. There's only so much and so often a person can eat no matter the variety of choices and the quality of the offerings.
So, overall - was this the quality of Carlos' in Highland Park north of Chicago? No, not quite to that standard imo. But very good - high quality - very happy with the variety and the quality offered. And as throughout the ship with the service.
i should add that the bar (called The Bar) is located on deck 5 just beyond reception and the shore concierge desks. Quite attractive and this is where we all went on debarkation day, at least those of us leaving the cruise in Barbados. Voyage 5401 actually continued on to Rio, to Buenos Aires, around the horn and up the Pacific Coast of South America - Chile, Peru - and on through the Panama Canal and back to Ft Lauderdale and Port Everglades. Our new friends Art and Cindy were among those doing the entire cruise, a total of 66 days long. Others were going on as far as Rio or Buenos Aires. When we left in Barbados, others boarded for the next segment of the cruise. It was in all a lovely thought and we continue to mentally follow Art and Cindy and the others on their adventure.
The first couple days of the voyage are at sea, a portion of the cruise we found to be our favorite. The TV screens in the suite had camera options that included a camera facing ahead which was very nice entering each port, a second that included the relevant ship's environmental information including temperature, wind velocity, ship's speed, ocean depth beneath us, course, etc. along with cameras that showed various views including one of the pool area. Then there was a selection of channels including CNN, BBC, Fox, i think they had MSNBC, international sports, ESPN Caribbean (lots and lots of soccer, a bit of cricket, we did get one of the NFL playoff games - but not the other), etc.
The veranda (at the outboard side of the suite) got some use; the ocean was a fine companion; the ship was stabilized of course - there was a bit of rocking that didn't feel like that at all, it was just that at times you did need to watch your balance a bit. i noticed there were always waiters at the buffet to assist by carrying one's platter to one's table, a precaution perhaps more for the rest of the diners than for the person who would actually eat the food.
We used the first day to visit the boutiques and were surprised to find the prices quite reasonable there. There were sport coats - a light colored one and of course a blazer - as well as more formal wear. The blazer - light colored - was $179 and seemed of a quality that made that a reasonable price for it.
The exercise room was well equipped and very nice. We didn't use the spa services - massages and such - but have no doubt as to their high quality as well.
In the suite, i should mention the bathroom. There is a tub which was of a generous size and the shower was well thought out and organized, encased in a clear plastic enclosure with a tight-closing door and both a rain shower head and a hand held - whatever your preference it was easily arrangeable.
Hint #2: in our suite anyway the water temperature varied between the two shower heads. If you started with the rain shower head, directly overhead, and then wanted to switch to the hand held to direct the spray while you shampooed or such, the initial spray of water would be cold for a second or two and then significantly hotter than the rain shower. It was important to turn the temperature down before switching and then adjust a bit up after a couple seconds to feel. There is a sign posted that cautions you to always test the temperature before stepping in. If you're used to hots that don't really get hot, think again - when they say "hot" on the Silver Spirit, they truly mean hot. It was a marvelous surprise to us.
Combine that with amenities by Bvlgari and the suite and bathroom were quite up with our anticipation of what such ought to be on a luxury cruise.
The ship's shore excursions: we signed up only for two - the Rain Forest excursion in Puerto Rico and a snorkel and scuba excursion in St Barths. (see below)
A separate word - from what i've written under port reports below about St Maarten. St Martin (smallest piece of land in the world divided between two nations: the port and Phillipsburg are in Sint Maarten and are Dutch; the northern area of the island are St Martin and are French. We spent a marvelous week once in the French Village of Grand Case and highly recommend that.) Phillipsburg is a duty free port with outstanding shopping particularly for jewelry and watches.
Silver Spirit carries with it a designated ship's shopper. On our cruise it was Phillip. He's a Californian and he was expert, thorough and always available. Landing in Phillipsburg (a coincidence? well, okay, but it did seem rather apt), St Maarten, we cruised the shopping area and when anyone heard the name of our ship (they ask when you enter a shop such as Diamonds International) they would say, "Oh, you're with Phillip." Quoted prices dropped significantly once it was established that you were with Phillip and he made the rounds of the shops and seemed constantly available to consult or assist anyone from the ship. Prices in port seemed quite good for expensive items. But such items are individual enough i really couldn't tell you. Phillipsburg and St John Antigua however have widespread reputations for being excellent ports for the purchase of jewelry - especially diamonds - and watches if you are into such things. Phillip was definitely one of the ship's very useful features and a number of our shipmates commented very appreciatively about him and his services.
Disembarking came. You can choose your preferred disembarking time but are asked to clear your suite (the ship is nearly entirely suites with verandas) by 8:30 in the morning. Rowena assisted with the packing - in my case she did a lot more than simply assist. We all applied the provided tags to our luggage - each color corresponding with the requested disembarkation time in what appeared to be half hour intervals - in the hallway outside our door when we went to bed, retaining only what we would need for the morning and our carry-ons. In the morning we left our carryons in the room while we went and settled up at the reception desk, reclaimed our passports, had a last breakfast at La Terrazza, reclaimed our carryons and joined our friends in The Bar area to await the call for our group to disembark and reclaim our luggage at customs. Disembarkation was easy and straightforward. A bus took you - again by color designation - to where your luggage was waiting and customs was quite a simple process.
i'm sure i've forgotten something but that's a whole lot already up above so a short summary. My wife had wondered how she would like it, on the ship with 500 others, upscale food and service all the time, etc. Short answer, she loved it. Silver Spirit was about her favorite vacation ever - and when that includes 14 days in French Polynesia (Tahati and all that), that's saying something. The number of people was enough that we found great companions and i hope lasting friends - and enjoyed running into friends in whatever port we happened to be - and yet small enough that we rarely felt we were in a crowd. Food was very good, breakfasts and lunches superior. The suite was more than simply comfortable - we certainly do miss it. The service was wonderful - so many going out of their way obviously their hope was to please you.
Lovely experience. Would we prefer one of the line's smaller ships? (Silver Spirit is their largest - others carry up to 380 or fewer passengers) Perhaps so. We look forward to finding out one day. But this was pretty terrific - and in our case the itinerary was perfect.