Spirit of the Caribbean
For several reasons, not least a highly attractive price, we booked back-to-back cruises 5135 and 5136 on SilverSea's Silver Spirit. The itineraries were both of 9 nights duration and were part of a season which saw the ship sailing between Barbados and Fort Lauderdale for a couple of months during November and December 2011.
The Spirit has something of a mixed reputation with past passengers; some love it, whilst others won't return to her. It is the biggest and newest of the SilverSea fleet, and has a normal (not all berths in cabins where more than 2 can be accommodated) capacity of 500. This is over 100 or 200 more than the other ships in the fleet. One of the features of a SilverSea cruise is that the crew make an effort early on to learn your name and we wondered whether this would hold good on our 2 cruises, where there were 473 and 406 respectively on board.
We followed our usual practice and arrived in Barbados the day prior to embarkation, in case our luggage did not keep up with us; fortunately, it did. We stayed at the Hilton Barbados (see review on Trip Advisor) and made our way to the port around 13.00. Only Emerald Princess was in port in addition to the Spirit and there was no congestion, with registration being immediate. Our cases were piled with others into a lorry and one was damaged by the time it arrived in our cabin, though fortunately, it was repaired by the ship's upholsterer.
After leaving our hand cases in our cabin -- 914 -- we went for a light lunch on the open deck area of the Terrace Cafe, then did our customary ship's familiarisation tour, as we had not previously sailed on her. The condition of the Spirit was excellent. Our lifestyle preference is to have a cabin on pool deck and this influenced our choice of 914, the furthest mid-ship accommodation available for both cruises when we booked. The open deck space around the pool appeared no bigger than on the smaller ships, whilst the pool itself was arguably not as big, a potential issue on sea days when the ship is full. The pool deck attendants were always willing to find, and set up loungers on request. We invariably lunched alfresco around the pool and Bas, the chef, cooked excellent fish to order. The rum & raisin ice cream benefited from a shot of dark rum from the pool bar!
The Observation Lounge proved to be an under-used bar both pre- and post-dinner. In fact, it was not unusual after dinner for us to be the only ones there. Sunny made the best pina colada on the ship by adding a shot of dark rum. We were told that the absence of toilet facilities in the lounge would be remedied during the next dry dock, with conversion of the Deck 11 laundrette being the most likely solution.
The Panorama Lounge, Terrace Cafe, Theatre, Dining Room and La Champagne speciality dining venues are essentially similar to the equivalent facilities on other SilverSea ships and can thus pass without general remark. One irritant is the requirement that cooked food to order at breakfast in the Terrace Cafe must be via a waiter, rather than direct to the chef. Unique in the SilverSea fleet, the ship has a Japanese dining venue Sieshin, and what is called, the Stars Supper Club. In the latter, a set tapas menu is served to the accompaniment of a light jazz singer and pianist, the entertainers being first class.
Overall, the food on board was very good. When we placed pre-orders off-menu at dinner, these were always excellent. We dislike the SilverSea practice of using vegetables purely as a garnish to a plate of meat or fish and ordered extra vegetables, well cooked, which invariably also proved popular with others at our table. Our dinner wine preferences were always accommodated from the table wines onboard. Service at all meals was virtually faultless, a marked change from our experience on Silver Shadow in March. The occasional breakfast in the dining room always found it virtually deserted but the menu choices here added variety to this meal.
The main bar, unlike on other SilverSea ships, is, effectively, a corridor on Deck 5. It lacks ambiance and atmosphere at any time of the day, from light breakfast through to post-dinner and is a design error.
Our cabin, 914, was a Midship Veranda. As such, it was a typical Silversea arrangement, with large balcony, seating/dining space with a writing desk and drinks/fridge facility, bedroom and walk-in wardrobe with safe. It is, however, somewhat narrower than cabins on other SilverSea ships and, most irritatingly, the dressing table is too narrow, as is the gap between this and the bed. By contrast, the bathroom has an excellent size of bath and a separate rain shower enclosure, which was brilliant.
We rarely patronise the spa but it was certainly an extensive facility, though the gym was small and had only basic equipment in addition to the usual cardio-vascular machines. Interestingly, part of the spa, including a wet area (a Hammam) with heated tiled beds, were accessible only on payment of a fee, either on a daily basis, or for the duration of the cruise.
Aside from the jazz entertainers already mentioned, we watched all the shows in the Theatre and considered the performers to be very good. Unusually for us, (because we are normally in the gym in the late afternoon) we participated in the late afternoon trivia quiz, though there were never more than 3 teams. Susan, the cruise director, hosted this and, as with other entertainment, conducted herself in a style appropriate to a SilverSea ship.
The one area of major weakness was the Shore Concierge Desk. Clive, the manager, had been in the same position during our cruise in March on the Shadow, however on the Caribbean sailings we were extremely disappointed with both the Desk's performance and knowledge. All the staff from Clive downwards ranged from the mediocre to the plain useless. Giving just one example, it took days of emails by us to book an excursion in the pre-cruise booklet but not on the tours list onboard. The company offering the trip (on a rib boat in Grenada), had apparently been reserved by SilverSea, but the staff on board seemed oblivious to this, even when the pre-cruise excursion brochure was referred to. Fortunately our persistence paid off, and we did the trip under our own auspices with only two other passengers, who were staying on the island, but it was most annoying and upsetting for the company, which is a husband/wife operation to realise that they had no bookings at all from the Silver Spirit
As we feared, the larger size of ship meant the crew did not get to know your name or your usual preferences, unlike on the smaller SilverSea ships. Surprisingly, the sole exception was no less than His Highness, the Hotel Director, and thus the most senior person onboard (after the Captain?). At the cocktail party on the second night, Paulo came over, greeted us by name and remarked that we were on board for the following cruise too. Full marks, Paulo, and the time we spent in your company during the ensuing 16 nights helped to make our cruise.
Although quite a number of passengers were combining 2 cruises, most were from North America and doing round-trip Fort Lauderdale. We were only 2 of 11 doing round-trip Barbados. As is now the norm on SilverSea, the passengers were a league of nations. It was most marked in Philipsburg, (St Maarten) where we were docked along with Norwegian Dawn and P&O's Ventura, to see how it was generally possible to judge which passengers were from which ship!
The weather was variable. It poured all day in Philipsburg on the day we should have been in nearby St Barts, the relocation being due to predicted poor weather for tendering ashore. Otherwise, the conditions were generally good, though getting lively as we approached and later left Fort Lauderdale.
Across the 2 itineraries, only Bequia was duplicated and during our second visit there, we arranged a schooner with others on board, to visit Mustique, a private island, also part of the Grenadines. When we returned to St Martin (Marigot), on the second cruise, whereas many headed for duty-free shopping in Philipsburg across on the Dutch side of the island (St Maarten), we took the regular 25-minute ferry crossing to the British protectorate of Anguilla. This is noted for its beaches, and snorkelling was a regular feature of our port calls on these cruises. Sadly, apart from Mustique and during the boat trip in Grenada, off-the-beach snorkelling was poor because the unsettled weather was churning up the sea close to shore.
On Bequia, we got a local cab $US 10 (same price as the water taxi but avoiding a wet landing) to Lower Bay beach.
On Dominica, during a 2-day stay in Philipsburg, Antigua and St Lucia, we toured the island on local buses. These are typically 13-seat minibuses, which charge a Government-set fare and largely pick up and drop off as required. Generally, they will not leave their start point until full, which (for our Soufriere to Castries leg on St Lucia) took 75 minutes but might also be as quick as 5 minutes, as it was on our outward leg from Castries to Vieux Fort, in the extreme south of St Lucia. Drivers and fellow passengers were always friendly and helpful and the fares were so cheap compared to taxis or shore excursions. You also experience more of an island's character by travelling this way. Locals always helped us find where we needed to go to catch the bus we wanted.
On St Kitts, we booked the highly enjoyable sugar cane train via the ship and this gave a leisurely trundle round most of the island. (Interestingly on initial research for shorexs, we had tried to book this trip independently, only to be told it had to be arranged through the ship. It would appear that many excursion and trip operators will only take bookings via hotels or cruise lines and refer independent travellers to one or other of these. From our experience the ships and hotels add on a significant mark up). The train trip only being three hours, we returned to Basseterre and got the local ferry across to nearby Nevis and went to Pinneys beach, which proved disappointing for snorkelling.
Fortunately, we were the only ship in port in Bequia, Dominica, St Kitts, Grand Turk, Tortola, French St Martin and Grenada. This helped take the pressure off local resources, like taxis, notably in Tortola and Grand Turk. In both the latter we took taxis to Smugglers Cove and Pillory Beach (the latter now hosts the Bohio Dive Resort) respectively. To reach the former involves a 10-minute crawl over a pot-holed road on the other side of the island to reach the beach and taxi drivers do not like making this journey, especially if there are easier pickings from a deluge of ship passengers. The visit was well worth it and there is a Government-set fare. Beware in Anguilla. Based on another posting, we walked just over a mile to the beautiful Rendezvous Bay on the report about the hotel there. It closed 2 years ago and, what has not been demolished, is derelict. If you do go, take drinking water and enjoy the pristine sand and sheltered water. Needless to say there are no facilities there.
I have never raved about the Caribbean but these 2 cruises, totalling 18 nights, provided a diverse perspective from a traveller's (a more inquisitive person than a sightseer) perspective. Visiting the West Indies on a small ship has very distinct advantages, not least that it is usually possible to "dock" as opposed to "tender", and the itinerary often includes less run of the mill "touristy" islands. We were extremely fortunate that in most of the ports we visited on these two cruises, we were the only ship. In Grand Turk, for example, if there had been another cruise ship docked at Carnival's purported $US 40 million complex, it would have ruined the visit! However a little postscript -- one of the beachside bars, the much vaunted Jacks Shack outside the complex, didn't open -- apparently because there was not "a big ship" in!! Silversea is classed as a "quiet" ship -- hurrah!!
The (relatively) small Silver Spirit offered an ideal vessel from many standpoints, notably comfort and amenity. On cruise 5136, two sea days, then 6 ports and disembark, was not particularly relaxing and a sea day before Barbados would have been preferable. However disembarking on a Sunday morning (about 9.30 am) with no other cruise ships in, was a breeze, and it was incredible to see not only a deserted cruise terminal, but also Bridgetown, and our taxi to visit friends took no time at all, prior to our flight later that day.
Would we cruise again with Silversea? Silly question really, already booked on the Shadow from Fremantle (WA) to Singapore next February!!