When Silversea announced that it was spending more than $40 million to convert Silver Cloud, its 296-passenger luxury ship, into a 200-passenger (on polar journeys; 254 elsewhere) expedition vessel with all the bells and whistles of a luxury cruise, avid travelers sat up and took note. The move was a game-changer -- no other cruise line takes passengers to Antarctica in such style. (They're building contenders, but none are ready for prime time yet.)
All-suite accommodations, white-gloved butlers for every passenger, multiple restaurants, fully equipped fitness center and a sumptuous spa would make cruising to rugged destinations -- dare we say -- comfortable. Days spent in frigid temperatures, bundled into bulky boots and parkas and bounced around on Zodiacs, would be followed by Champagne, elegant dining and even a massage. Bucket-list travelers could eschew research-vessel-style, minimalist accommodations for sumptuous suites, and adventurers could celebrate that amazing breaching whale photograph they shot with a bottle of the finest wine south of the Tropic of Capricorn.
Would a Silver Cloud Expedition cruise really be all pampering and penguins, all the time? Would a tricked-out ship make cruising some of the world's roughest and iciest waters smooth sailing? One neck gaiter, two sets of gloves and more "I'll-never-wear-it-in-Los-Angeles" attire than I thought would possibly fit in a suitcase later, I found myself flying south -- all the way south -- to discover the answer.
Boarding Silver Cloud Expedition feels more like stepping onto a private yacht than an expedition ship. Stewardesses extend glasses of prosecco to each passenger, as white-gloved tuxedo-clad butlers grab rollaboards and escort us to suites. During the boarding and check-in process, I can't resist checking out fellow cruisers. Most appear to be between 40s and 70s in age and from the U.S. and the U.K., with some Aussies in the mix. They're quite friendly, smiling and introducing themselves. They're also casually dressed. Lots of blue jeans and casual slacks outfits -- not as fancy as on traditional luxury cruises, that's for sure. They're also really jazzed to be headed to Antarctica. And, why not? It's a dream-come-true sail.
When I get to my suite, I see an array of expedition gear -- including a bright red parka (they're not going to lose us on an iceberg), fancy backpack with a cleverly stashed waterproof cover and a snazzy black Silversea Expedition gaucho-like hat -- waiting on the Pratesi linen-clad bed. A Silver Cloud Expedition patch lies among the offerings -- a souvenir to frame, if not sew on a jacket.
I peek into the bathroom. On the plus side, it's got the Silversea signature Bulgari toiletries. On the down side, dim lighting, one sink (not two) and towels that look and feel as if they've been washed too many times show that suite bathrooms weren't included in the ship's major refurbishment.
Still, you've got to like the new leather headboard and chairs, comfy couch and overall bright and cheery vibe. The new Samsung flat-screen television swivels between the bed and living area, and there's a new well-lit desk, with a makeup mirror and leather stool, which doubles as a vanity. With a new desk and bedside USB ports and outlets, I know my marriage is safe -- we won't be arguing about who gets to recharge their electronics first.
Enough cabin talk. It's time to explore all that's new onboard Silver Cloud Expedition.
How fun to walk every deck, discovering what $40 million can do. Of course, many of the changes were technical, like installing polar temperature-resistant windows and strengthening the ship's hull. Still, the decor is radically different from the ship's previous look. Adios, dark-hued, dark wood old-school yacht; hello, modern Italian luxury boutique hotel. The elegant colors are mostly cream and beige, and the new leather furnishings smell posh, like the interior of a Porsche. This ship now resembles Silver Spirit and Silver Muse, and I can tell that younger and more style-conscious cruisers are bound to love the new look.
New art, mostly black-and-white photographs throughout the ship, depicts early polar explorers on arduous expeditions. I peer long and hard at the surprisingly sharp photos, marveling at the smiling men's resilience. No bubbly or four-course dinners awaited them after hikes. I feel guilty for a minute for having it so easy, but end up simply grateful that I was born in a different time, cruising in a new part of the world and traveling in style.
The Photo Studio -- a first for Silversea, and any expedition ship for that matter -- draws crowds of curious amateurs wielding expensive DSLRs. You can get individual or group instruction, use editing software and even print pictures, from postcard to panorama size. You can also book a private photography lesson ashore. Imagine, a one-on-one with an expert to take that perfect penguin picture on an ice floe or snap the leaping whale as you ride a bouncing Zodiac. Such a VIP lesson is going to be pricy, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. And, shooting moving wildlife against a mostly whitish background -- to say nothing of attempting it from a wobbly Zodiac or slippery trail -- can be challenging.
Tor's Observation Lounge may be the hippest new hangout. It looks so cool – all black-and-white with pops of red – like it's waiting for a buzzy young crowd to come in. I instantly deem it my favorite ship lounge; I can't wait to sit on those fine leather chairs and sip evening cocktails with newfound friends. In the daytime, if not out on excursions, cruisers come to curl up with a travel book plucked from the shelves.
Speaking of lounges, I note that most passengers hang in Dolce Vita before dinner. Cruisers hop on bar stools or sit in groupings of chairs, scouting fellow passengers for dinner companions. After dinner, it's all about the Panorama Lounge. Many cruisers like the (surprisingly good) live vocalist/pianist or the dance-worthy tunes the DJ spins. I'm surprised how many guys gather in the Connoisseurs Corner. Sure, an occasional woman pops in, but mostly, it's men sitting on overstuffed chairs, puffing cigars and drinking single malts. I'm really glad that lounge is sealed airtight; there's lot of smoking going on.
The fitness center, with all-new Technogym equipment, is now double the size. Most expedition ships' gyms are like converted closets; it's hard to stretch on a mat for fear someone will drop a dumbbell on you. Not only is this center large enough to offer free weights, two treadmills, one each upright and recumbent bikes, weight machines, benches, a medicine ball and a full-body workout machine, but the fitness center buzzes as passengers are an active bunch.
Silver Cloud's original spa was serviceable, but hardly memorable. Zagara, the ship's new, awash-in-marble spa makes a statement with a mind–body approach and vastly expanded treatment choice (such as nine different massages and 12 facial therapies). At the redone beauty salon, you can get a Brazilian bikini wax (not that you're lying around in a bikini on a polar cruise), hair low-lights and even your teeth whitened. Men can find gender-specific treatments, like speed shaves and back waxing. For more fun, passengers can get resurfacing precision facial peels, cleansing salt scrubs, therapeutic manicures that include arm massages and botanical hair conditioning treatments. Not surprisingly, both the spa and beauty salon stay busy. Just think, you can explore Antarctica and return home looking more like you had checked into a spa than kayaked among ice floes.
Want a massage? First, you're led to a candlelit mood room, with a flat-screen television playing New Age music and depicting nature scenes like waves tumbling to shore. Your job is to inhale unlabeled aromatherapy scents and discover which speaks to you the most.
The therapist enters and tells you which scent you selected. Turns out I pick lavender. No surprise; I am totally Type A. After discussing treatment needs (in my case, relaxation), she develops a custom strategy, enveloping not just massage oils but also harmonious lighting and music. I get soft blue lighting and dreamy Zen-inspired tunes. Heads up if you book a relaxation massage; you might have trouble getting up off the table afterward. My therapist has hands of steel, and I'm so relaxed, I almost feel like I left my body. But, someone booked this treatment room after me. I dress as if in a dream, float to my suite and collapse on my bed -- where I lay for a good hour, basking in the uber-chill.
How many ships have you sailed where passengers pop into a lounge for a lecture and promptly fall sleep? I can count dozens -- but not this cruise. The Silver Cloud Expedition's lecturers (who are among the 22 expedition team members) are high-energy, enthusiastic and possess great senses of humor.
Passengers pack Aussie ornithologist's Malcolm Turner's lecture on climate change in the Explorer Lounge. This weathered, witty scientist has birded on six continents and spent decades working with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and other Australian marine and national reserves.
Malcolm speaks quietly but passionately, showing slides of how and when climate change began, and how the rate is speeding up. Malcolm explains the seven major impacts of climate change, including higher air temperatures, a more acidic ocean and increased storm severity. Then he flashes slides of globally imperiled wildlife. Many passengers ask questions. No one falls asleep.
Malcolm tells us what scientists are doing to manage climate change, including monitoring and identifying resilience in species, and protecting and supporting their adaptation. His parting words? "People cause the change and can lessen the change." We leave the Explorer Lounge sober, but hopeful.
After a day's delay in Buenos Aires and two rocky sea days -- thank you, high winds and stormy weather -- we reach our first port. About 800 miles south of Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn is the Argentine gateway to Patagonia. Since we have two days scheduled for Puerto Madryn, today is a good day to explore the city and buy gifts for family and friends back home. There won't be much souvenir shopping once we reach the White Continent.
Although Silversea offers complimentary shuttle buses into town, it's only a short walk from the pier. The city center may be small -- just a few blocks -- but it teems with shops hawking Patagonian tours and touristy items like stuffed penguins and aprons embroidered with whales. You can also find food, wine and chocolate boutiques, and a New Age-y herb and feng shui store, too.
Regional foodstuff, such as Patagonian sea salt, Laguna Negra (artisan chocolate) boxes and Wally's Tea, in unusual flavors like dulce de leche, make great gifts (even if just for yourself.) Many passengers buy calafate (Patagonian barberry) marmalade - legend says if you eat this berry, you're destined to return. I buy all this foodie stuff and run into other passengers showing me their shopping bags or unzipping their backpacks to reveal similar purchases. We are all happy to score easy-to-pack and fairly unbreakable, souvenirs.
Some dogs wander about the main streets off-leash, but they're well-fed, groomed and friendly. One golden fur baby follows me everywhere, even waiting outside Il Nonno Pizza a la Piedra while we lunch. This casual restaurant, filled with locals, serves big puffy-crusted pies, strewn with fresh tomatoes and basil. Luckily, the waitresses speak just enough English to get the orders right for hungry cruisers.
It is Day Two in Puerto Madryn. I've never seen a group of luxury travelers so excited that they're almost bouncing in their bus seats. We're off to see a Magellanic penguin colony on Peninsula de Valdes. These small-to-medium-size penguins breed in coastal Chile, Argentina and the Falklands, and are named after the iconic explorer Ferdinand Magellan after he first reported spotting them back in 1520.
We drive to Estancia San Lorenzo, a ranch where we have one hour to walk along a coastline trail without other visitors -- just our group of Silversea passengers. We must stick to the path, and if a penguin crosses it, guess who has right of way?
Penguins are everywhere, walking -- waddling, really -- through scrub brush and sandy terrain. Mated pairs, nesting in deep burrows under bushes, are only visible if you crouch low.
Magellanic penguins have white bellies with black bands crossing their fronts. They're ridiculously cute, with hooked upper beaks and white mouths that hint at a comical smile. They waddle solo or in pairs. Some stand as still as statues; others flap their wings and emit a high-pitched cry.
Many passengers kneel with their cameras, clicking away nonstop. Others tuck their cameras into their backpacks, opting to memorize the moment with their eyes. Too soon, the guide tells us our time is up. We turn away reluctantly. Then we remember we're sailing on to penguin paradise in Antarctica -- perhaps thousands await. Back onboard the bus, everyone's silent, checking smartphones and cameras to see how the pictures turned out.
I am amazed how many of us want to dine outside at night at The Grill. That's right! We're eating alfresco when the temperature is in the 40s and the wind is blowing. I guess it's a badge of honor, like taking the polar plunge. Passengers dress in layers of expedition clothes, topped by our red Silversea parkas. Servers position heat lamps by tables and drape wool blankets over chairs. I try dining here once, taking my outer gloves off (I'm wearing glove liners underneath) to grill a steak over lava rocks. The food cools off quickly and it's kind of ridiculous, but totally fun.
La Terrazza is the popular nighttime restaurant. The Italian eatery turns up its charm then, morphing from a brightly lit breakfast and lunch buffet to a table-service venue with softer lighting, fancier table appointments and limited seating. Some passengers dress a little more for dinner here than in the main restaurant. And, while some dine in groups, many cruisers come here for a couple's evening. I have a love–hate relationship with La Terrazza -- I love the food but hate that I can't resist the carbs. That darn bread basket is filled with freshly baked focaccia that you spread with roasted garlic. And, all the fresh pastas are handmade. Who wants to eat fish when plump little raviolis are calling your name?
The Restaurant is rather quiet at breakfast and lunch (many passengers enjoy room service breakfast ensuite and lunch in La Terrazza), but turns buzzy at dinner. After a few days, passengers have new friends and more tables seat groups rather than couples. A few days into the cruise and the once-subdued Restaurant delivers a higher-energy vibe. The free-flowing wine helps, too. Servers swiftly refill glasses. Most cruisers stick to the complimentary wines, which are fine. Plus, if you like a bottle, they'll leave it on your table.
It feels so luxurious to eat whatever you want at The Restaurant, whether it's on the menu or not. The chef may need a day or so to prepare a special meal like an Indian feast or prime rib, but if you want the filet mignon without the wine sauce, and a potato gratin instead of a goat cheese mash, no problem. I always find the Italian dishes, like pasta, risotto or cannelloni, the best, although I happily devour grilled duck breast and Maine lobster, too. I'm not huge on any ice cream, but the gelato-loving crowd -- which is most of the ship -- orders it nightly.
Which Silversea restaurant is the most intimate and romantic? Surely La Dame, with just 12 tables. Despite its small size, it's surprisingly easy to make reservations. Perhaps expedition passengers focus more on exploration than meals. Maybe few want to pay $60 per person for dinner on an all-inclusive, pricy cruise.
No wonder La Dame was untouched in the Cloud remodel. The gorgeous burnt-orange and gold glass fixtures, and black leather chairs and banquettes, are seriously swank. Table appointments, such as stemware, flatware and dainty china, look fancier than in other Cloud restaurants.
Is La Dame worth the extra money? Yes, if you're a gourmand. Every dish possesses multiple components both technically difficult and time-consuming to prepare. The quality of ingredients used, like primo caviar (an ounce to an order), Normandy butter (arguably the world's best) and Limousin beef (also in the world's best mix), is superb. Attentive servers pour pricy complimentary wine with the six-course meal, adding to the high-end Michelin-star-quality dining vibe.
Dinner is delicious. Take just one course, a fresh foie gras starter. Its silken duck stock reduction sauce is so intense, it's like 100 ducks are roasted for each pot of stock. The accompanying housemade brioche fairly oozes Normandy butter; the aroma and flavor are pure France -- even though we're sailing off the coast of South America. Dining at La Dame is not only delicious but also decadent.
The weather gods do not love us. First, we are delayed an extra day in Buenos Aires so severe storms can pass. Then we finally set sail and are met by -- you guessed it -- more storms. We should have spent two days in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, but it's Day Three before we can safely depart.
Storms have also ruled out visiting our Falklands ports. Our expedition team explains that with Mother Nature in charge, they always set sail with Plans A, B and C. They're now thinking Chile as a Falklands substitute, with fingers crossed for just two days rather than the promised five in Antarctica as we've lost so much time with delays. Our leader says that in her 18 years of polar expeditions, she's never seen so many ferocious storms lined up for the Drake Passage, with no time in-between for our ship to safely pass through and reach Antarctica.
We're finally departing Puerto Madryn, but the captain warns us of yet another storm ahead. My husband and I head to the Italian restaurant La Terrazza for dinner. The maitre d' escorts us to a window table, extolling the glories of the ocean view. I look out the window and see the horizon on a slant.
As the ship rocks, my husband's chair slides backward until the anchor attaching it to the floor halts the movement. He pulls his chair forward, but it happens repeatedly, a synchronized movement with all the other passengers seated in that row. Now that's a conversation stopper.
The ship slows down. Perhaps it's deliberate so that we may dine comfortably before the storm gets worse? But now, the ship loses its hum. Kara, our expedition leader, informs us via the loudspeaker of mechanical difficulties. We are adrift. She reassures us that we are safe and will report back shortly. Big dark birds begin circling the ship's stern. Everyone notices. Who hasn't seen Hitchcock's "The Birds"?
The captain soon informs us that they can fix the ship temporarily and we must return to Puerto Madryn. Will we even make it to Antarctica?
The Drake Passage is still socked with storms. We are informed that between the ship's mechanical issues and the relentless weather, Antarctica is out. But, we're rolling with the punches -- or, in this case, waves. We're on to Plan C, to sail to Punta Arenas, Chile. Silversea intends to charter a plane once we arrive to whisk us to a national forest, among other fab-sounding adventures.
However, we must stay in Puerto Madryn one more day as Silversea works out a new route. The destinations team has set up tours -- how they did that last-minute is miraculous (surely with up-all-night work).
But, at the day's end, we're summoned to the Explorer Lounge. It turns out there's a Plan D. Or actually, Plan P -- for packing. Silversea expedition executive Conrad Combrink, onboard for the inaugural, is center stage. The captain and the entire expedition team stand behind him. They all look distressed.
In the saddest voice, he tells us that their hearts are broken. Silversea can't make our dream trip come true. We're in shock. He looks miserable.
Combrink explains that the European shipyard must fly in a part, which would take too long (Buenos Aires customs is a nightmare) to reach Puerto Madryn. We wouldn't have enough cruise time before the next Silver Cloud Expedition Antarctic voyage must set sail.
Everyone looks upset. Some passengers look angry. Combrink explains that everyone gets fully reimbursed for this cruise (we have been onboard eight days) and will be flown home complimentarily in whatever class of service we flew to board the ship. Passengers will also receive a 25 percent discount on a future cruise to anywhere Silversea sails. Plus, everyone will be flown back to Buenos Aires, where we began our cruise, and stay overnight in a fancy hotel at Silversea's expense.
Passengers begin rallying. Silversea is doing its best to make things right. From day one, Mother Nature was never our friend. Most onboard vow to book another Antarctic cruise with Silversea. Our Antarctic dream will be a reality -- just not now. After that meeting concludes, nearly everyone makes a beeline to a bar.
Although most of us have to pack and get up early in the morning, few leave the Panorama Lounge early. In fact, this bar is packed. We are all sad to say goodbye to the new friends we made onboard. When you share such an adventurous journey, you really do bond quickly. We all drink a tad too much. We talk about Silversea punting admirably with so many weather obstacles and which dates will work to rebook Antarctica. New friends talk about rebooking with each other. My new BFFs, a Texan bunch, believe Silver Cloud Expedition is the only way to luxuriously explore the White Continent. I think it would be hard to find anyone to disagree with that statement tonight.