We embarked in Reykjavik, Iceland, a lovely city, on a clear summer day with temperatures well into the 70's, after following SS's Arctic packing list for long underwear, layers, and sweaters, wondering if we would have occasion to use any of our polar gear. We were on a quest to follow the path of the Vikings from Iceland to Greenland, to Vinland, and also to visit remote areas to view glaciers, icebergs, and wildlife,especially polar bears, on Zodiac boats, but with the sumptuous comforts of Silversea. My husband and I had not been on an expedition cruise before,and were very excited to be on the Prince Albert during its inaugural year.
Embarkation was smooth, and our cabin, in the "Explorer" class, was roomy for an expedition ship. We had a problem with our TV reception which was soon rectified by the engineering staff, but exemplified the minor "kinks" on the ship which was brought into the SS fold rather quickly and which has some continuing small issues that are still being addressed. More on that later.
The ship was fully booked for this cruise, with approximately 120+ passengers. The passengers were a very congenial, sociable group and we were able to meet most over drinks, lunch or dinner. Being such a small group, there was a feeling of intimacy on the trip, with the frequent sighting of familiar faces. The crew and expedition staff were also most professional and welcoming. Waiters, bartenders, room stewards, masseuses, and all onboard soon identified passengers by name and recognized preferences. The level of service was excellent.
Our first day was a sea day, crossing the Denmark Strait en route from Iceland to Greenland. Seas were relatively smooth. Captain Paul Heslop, who introduced himself and his crew, steered us safely to Greenland. There we visited Skoldungen Fjord,a remote and beautiful spot,and took a hike over spongy tundra after venturing out for our first Zodiac trip. The scenery was breathtaking; unfortunately the native insect population was out in full force to welcome us and feasted on the unsuspecting visitors! SS had apparently not anticipated the "welcome" by the local insect populace, as several unlucky waiters were sent ashore to set up a champagne table for the passengers to sample while waiting to board Zodiacs back to the ship. They had no takers, as all were busy swatting away the attacking hordes and envying those prescient passengers who had worn head nets. This unfortunate scene was not repeated, and SS must be given points for trying to live up to its "every desire fulfilled" motto, although insect repellant rather than champagne would have been welcome.
From there we headed for Prins Christian Sund, enjoying beautiful weather. The Sund cuts through the Southern tip of Greenland, and provided very smooth sailing and spectacular scenery: mountains, glaciers, and icebergs. We again embarked on Zodiacs and were able to proceed close to pristine waterfalls, calving glaciers, and icebergs galore. THe glaciers and icebergs were often a "windex"-colored aquamarine. There was not a sign of humans except for our small bunch. As we were often told by ship's staff, this was an "expedition", not a cruise, and the landscape did not disappoint.
Throughout the cruise, in our time at sea, or between Zodiac tours, the expedition staff gave informative, interesting lectures about topics which were pertinent to our trip. They were all interesting and entertaining; my only criticism would be that sometimes they were a bit too detailed and academic for the general audience that was the passengers.
The other "entertainment" onboard was the ship's keyboard artist, Daryl, who did an excellent job entertaining passengers after a long day of Zodiac adventures, and even encouraged some dancing on the small dance floor.
We visited villages in Greenland as well as ruins of Norse settlements. We had the opportunity to do some more hiking, and happily, the insects were not an issue. All stops were very interesting, and we continued to have sunny weather, although it was cold enough at times on the Zodiacs to justify the packing list of Arctic gear. Greenland showed itself to be a stark, formidable, and beautiful land. The expedition staff and local guidesoffered commentary at all stops.
While it goes without saying that passengers must by carefully "herded" at remote landings to ensure that all are safe from local fauna, such as polar bears (we had an armed local fellow onboard for that portion of the trip), and that no one is left in uninhabited areas, it did seem that, in the towns, villages, archeological sites, and recreated Norse settlements (the local versions of Colonial Williamsburg), that there was a bit too much of the school teacher mentality of "keeping with your group". Sometimes husband and I just wanted to wander about to soak in the local ambience. While we certainly weren't stopped from doing so, there was a bit of an overabundance of groupthink, but this was the inaugural season, and I am sure it will be worked out.
Having said that, there were occasional "group" lapses. We went on the "long" hike in a Nunavut, Canada, port, and were told to stay with our group, which was accompanied by 2 Parks, Canada, staff, with rifles, as well as expedition staff, as the local black bears had adopted Grizzly bear behaviors, and would, we were told, stalk and kill people. Nonetheless, when the long hike became a vertical hike and was a bit much for the majority of the group, the rifles continued with the small group that made the summit, leaving the rest of us apparently unprotected until their return. Fortunately, no stalking was encountered. It may have been that the folks ahead could oversee all, but it was a bit disconcerting as the group, in this case, did not stay together, but was considerably spread out.
In Nunavut, Canada, we saw numerous polar bears from the Zodiacs, which was awesome. Also saw impressive bird cliffs. Expedition leader Combrink and Captain Heslop are to be commended for varying the planned itinerary to take advantage of local information of polar bear locales to enable us to see them. Every effort was made to ensure that all passengers saw the wildlife. The passengers were divided into 4 groups for Zodiac disembarkation, but, if a spectacular polar bear sighting was encountered, the disembarkation was flexible to help to ensure that all saw the wildlife. While some groups had more sightings than others, everyone saw numerous bears and ship staff did its best to accommodate all.
We did hear that there was a prospect of viewing a walrus "haul-out", which we did not see, that, while not on the published itinerary, was within range. We don't know what considerations may have affected the decision to stick with the planned itinerary, but local knowledge of locations of wildlife, we hope, will be carefully considered for future voyages.
Unexpectedly, we were able to view aurora borealis on 2 nights, which was a great treat! The stops in Labrador and Newfoundland toward the end of the trip were quite enjoyable with much information about the fishing industry and informative local guides. Again, however, SS should be aware that not everyone is always looking for the guided tours. Silversea did take advantage of local offerings, and we saw drum dancing, Inuit throat singing, and had a snow crab feast.
Food onboard was very good, although lunches often outshone dinners, especially when it came to dessert offerings. Also, duck and suckling pig at lunch were superior to some dinner entrees. However, dinner was a very pleasant experience, with good wines, excellent service,and great company.
One memorable dinner featured Captain Heslop (or his staff-not sure who was actually responsible) negotiating a "slalom" course through a field of icebergs as all enjoyed fine cuisine. What an experience! And I must make a special mention of sommelier Karolina, who was indefatigably pleasant and always offering her creations immediately in the reception area, such as a marvelous hot chocolate (with a variety of possible alcoholic embellishments!) as the chilled passengers returned from a Zodiac tour.
Even on this excursion ship, there was a very adequate fitness room and a wonderful masseuse, whose attentions were very much appreciated. There was also a beauty salon which seemed to be much engaged, although we did not use that particular ships service.
I heard some comments from fellow passengers that the ship was still a "work in progress" as to details in the public areas like paint and spackling around some window areas where previous configurations had obviously been changed, and had not been completely rectified. However, I think some of that has to be expected during an inaugural season, and undoubtedly SS will be handling many of these matters between NYC and Florida, when no passengers will be onboard.
We are disappointed to note that the Prince Albert will not be returning to an Arctic itinerary, as we thought there was much to explore in this region that we could not see on this cruise. We hope that SS will return to this area at some time, as we much enjoyed our trip, and, despite some minor issues, would definitely travel with Silversea on an expedition trip or otherwise, again.