Having travelled on the Whisper in the spring this year we wished to see just how well the dry dock refit had worked out. More of that later.
This was a 12 day transatlantic crossing, departing Southampton and heading to New York via Fowey (UK), Waterford (Irish Republic), St John (Newfoundland, Canada), Halifax (Nova Scotia, Canada)and Newport (Rhode Island, US). Best of all, 4 full days at sea between Waterford and St John.
The ship had approximately 270 odd guests, so about 75% full.
Master - Captain Cataldo Destefano Hotel Director - Norman Rafelson Cruise Director - Don Fluke Guest Relations Manager - Saskia Harm Shore Concierge Manager - Scott Kinney Executive Chef - Lionel Lavergne Restaurant Manager - Ali Yilmazturk Guest Entertainers - Michael Victor, Judy Carmichael Guest Lecturers - Corey Sandler, Alastair Bruce, Thomson Smillie Bridge Instructors - Chris & Tammy Moll Internatioanl Hostesses - Carla & Soraia Singers & Dancers - Sophie, Charlotte, Brandon, Gemma, Cameron, Irina & Alex
Very straightforward, arrived at the Southampton Cruise Terminal at about 12:45, no one else there. In fact the Whisper was the only cruise ship in port. Checked in by the lovely Charlotte and on the ship in less than 5 minutes. Photos taken at reception and told that our suite would be ready at 14:00. Decided to go and check and found it was ready, so took possession and went for lunch.
Look and feel:
The Whisper now looks spic and span and has more of a feel of how she would have been when first entering service. All the soft furnishings in the suites have been renewed, the mattresses were changed, all the carpeting was changed throughout the ship, restaurant chairs recovered & re-varnished. The furniture on the pool deck has been renewed and a set of banquettes added between the two spa pools and the back of the pool deck. The furniture at the back of the Panorama lounge is new. Both these are cane based tables and chairs with deep cushions and are more comfortable than the wooden ones they replaced. A fixed awning has been attached over the section between the bar and grill on the pool deck, to provide additional cover for the pool grill in the evening. A further fixed awning is now above the outside section of the Terrazza, providing cover, but meaning that you cannot sit outside for either breakfast or lunch and be in direct sunshine. I happen to prefer the back of the Terrazza the way it was, but I suspect opinions will be mixed. One addition in the suites is an alarm clock/Ipod dock and speaker. The dance floor in the Panorama has been completely cleaned (to remove the horrible deep black marks made by the flamenco dancers earlier this year) and the band stand has been moved across the room. Entering the Panorama its now on the left side. This leaves the area by the bar free for serving. Seems to work ok. The only oddity that we noticed was the pattern on the carpet on decks 5, 6 and 7 in the main public areas, it had a large wavy design, and when the ship was moving I suspect that looking at will make any slightly nauseous person feel somewhat worse.
All in all the refit worked well (and it was needed).
Staff in general:
Much more like the SS service of old, with some returning from the Spirit, and those who were new earlier this year now up to speed. Bar staff were superb, especially Oliver in the Grappa, Edourdo (?sp) in the Main Bar, and the Pool bar guy. The waiting staff were very good all round, with Ali Yilmazturk absolutely outstanding.
Did not use for breakfast. Had lunch on the Galley Lunch day (too much food as ever, but well done) and once for a special occasion which was excellent. Dinner was generally good to very good. The menu is still missing the old SS wow factor, but we ate well most evenings, exceptionally well on a couple of occasions and I only had to send one meal back. (a big improvement over the previous cruise)
Ate breakfast most days and the food selection was good, plenty of fresh fruit (although the mangoes were not ripe), and the service was excellent. It was never crowded, mainly because the ship was not full. Also ate lunch here most days, generally good to pretty good, the freshly made pasta was always excellent. Service again very good. Avoided for dinner as we do not like or agree with the change away from regional Italian dinners. The current menu is too samey.
Have never eaten here, nor seen any reason too yet. We live in London and can eat at Michelin starred restaurants when we please and I have not yet seen a menu in La Champagne that lives up to that standard. Shouldn't put anyone else off though, just our opinion.
Occasionally had fresh fish for lunch, which was always good, and ate here one evening with the Hot Rocks concept. It was a cold evening, but we had a good time, the rocks worked well and the food and service were excellent. I do not think that there were ever more than 6 to 8 people here in the evenings on this cruise, mainly because of the weather. It will work much better in balmier climes.
Generally an ok selection, with some gems. Firstly they ran out of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and also had no new world Chardonnay, which annoyed quite a few people. But there were other SB's, from Chile and France, there was some old world Chardonnay, there were two Reislings from Alsace, one a very good Hugel, and there was a pretty good selection of reds, including some Barberra. The head sommelier, Lukas, was pretty knowledgeable, and were his wine waiters, and always ready to help with something else if you did not like the days choice. I admit that the provisioning could have been better, and they could have found a more oaky Chardonnay from the paid list for those disgruntled aficionados, but there was plenty of choice if you looked and especially if you took the time to have a conversation with the sommelier.
Overall Food & Wine:
It is obvious that the budget has continued to be trimmed, apparent in food choices and the level and range of wines, but it is still pretty good. Not quite 5* but it does reach 4 and 1/2*'s.
The cruise director, Don Fluke, was clearly barking. His Trivia questions and general trivia handling were weird to say the least. Other than that he was pretty professional.
The singers and dancers were very, very good, especially when they were under pressure to perform on a stage that was moving with a 6' swell. Two shows were cancelled and moved because of poor conditions and those guests who complained about this really had no appreciation of how difficult or dangerous the conditions were. This was exacerbated by there only being one guest entertainer on board for the crossing instead of the published two. Never did find out what happened to the other one.
The two guest entertainers, one a tenor and the other a pianist were both good and generally up to the usual SS standard. Each did two shows.
The bar duo were good without being obtrusive and the SS band were perfectly ok.
The guest lecturers were all very good, but Alistair Bruce, the voice of Sky News for Royal and major occasions, was outstanding.
The bridge lecturers, Chris and Tammy Moll, were also very good. They were extremely professional and rather nice people too.
A good mixture from the UK, US, Australia and a few Europeans. Happy to dress up and enter into the SS spirit. At least 175 Venetian Society guests, including a couple with 1,000 days - wow. They got flowers and a gift, having probably paid for a large chunk of the ship. Some smokers, two pony tails, one an aging hippy. Two British ladies of indeterminate years, who just happened to monopolise the two gentlemen hosts.
All the ports were well worth visiting, especially those on the North American seaboard, but I do not intend to review them here.
Did not use any, the desk staff were good, and I believe most people enjoyed the ones taken. Generally they are expensive, but they do look after you well.
Ran rather late, about an hour or so, but this was mostly due to US Customs. Once cleared, everything was speeded up and the whole process functioned well. No complaints really.
The lack of NZ Sauvignon Blanc mentioned above. This is popular, especially with the Brits and its just poor provisioning not to get it right.
The Charity charge and wrist bands. This is just SS being particularly bone headed and stupid.
The lack of ship's tenders in Newport. This was forced on SS by US Customs crawling all over the ship and crew for hours, apparently this was the first time in 4 years that the Whisper had been in a US port. The port tender, the good ship Amazing Grace, was used, however the schedules got messed up, and instead of a half hourly service there were waits in excess of an hour. Not handled well by the crew, but partly out of their hands.
On arrival into New York some fool (probably Don Fluke) played Sinatra's New York, New York on the open decks (no problem), but also through the internal pa system at high volume and at 06:30. Those that had tried to lie in were not amused.
A good cruise and itinerary and nice to see the Whisper back up to speed with the normal SS service.