One of the year's most highly anticipated cruise ships has arrived. Scenic Eclipse, the first oceangoing expedition ship from Australian company Scenic (known for its tours and luxury river cruise line) is sailing its second voyage off the East Coast of the United States.After construction delays at the shipyard in Croatia set the debut back a year, the ship, which Scenic calls a "discovery yacht," is ready to make a splash, thanks to its combination of luxury and expedition. Onboard, passengers will find comfortable, luxurious spaces, excellent dining and high-end toys, including a six-passenger submarine and two decked-out helicopters, a first for the cruise industry.Scenic Eclipse will sail a combination of more traditional cruises in places like the Mediterranean, soft adventure voyages and hard core expedition cruises in the Arctic and Antarctica. Cruise Critic is onboard as we make our way from Halifax to New York City, where the ship will be christened today by godmother Helen Mirren. Here are our first impressions of Scenic Eclipse.
Scenic Eclipse carries 228 passengers -- and only 200 on polar cruises -- yet it offers eight restaurant options. The vision, led by German chef Tom Goetter, is that there is no "main restaurant"; rather, there are a number of restaurants from which passengers can choose, with menus that can change to reflect local ingredients.The closest thing to a main restaurant onboard is Elements, an Italian venue where menus change each night. Other highlights include an outstanding French restaurant (Lumiere), three Asian venues, including a teppanyaki spot and sushi bar, and an innovative chef's table. Menus for most venues change every four days.The quality in every venue has been outstanding on our sailing, with friendly service from waitstaff who can knowledgably talk about the menus. Goetter, who speaks passionately about food and his decision to join Scenic -- "They told me I could do whatever the hell I wanted" -- says he's put together menus designed to make it easier on those with dietary restrictions. Items are marked on menus, but many options by design don't include things like dairy or eggs. (We enjoyed an excellent hemp seed and pine nut pesto pasta, sans dairy, and all cream soups are made with almond milk.)We were a bit skeptical about whether the ship would be able to maintain the quality with so many options, but we found the food in all venues first rate. The only hiccup we saw was with wait times for food in some venues.
The Chef's Table experience onboard is so good, it's worth noting separately. The experience is included in your fare but available to passengers by invitation only. The Chef's Table hosts up to 10 diners every other night and is something special, thanks to an inventive menu created by Goetter designed to tell the story of Scenic Eclipse, from conception to inaugural sailing. So, for example, a tomato and burrata course represents the Italian workers from Fincantieri shipyard, who helped build the vessel after some setbacks at its original shipyard.Passengers dine on a multicourse meal with the ship's galley serving as a backdrop -- they actually can watch as chefs prepare each course. All dishes are simply spectacular, with a playful blend of traditional techniques and molecular gastronomy. Our favorite: A minced-meat burrito that looks like a cigar. Burritos come out of the kitchen in a humidor, then are cold-smoked tableside before being served in glass ashtrays along with dried vegetable "ash." Goetter says it takes two days to prep the meals, which are paired brilliantly with fine wines.
All cabins onboard Scenic Eclipse are called suites, and they're all quite spacious. (The smallest onboard are 345 square feet -- large when compared with virtually any other ship.) But it's not just the space we love, it's the attention to detail. For starters, all cabins have balconies, and they're all large enough for big tables. That means you can enjoy meals on your balcony, a real treat when the weather cooperates. We also love the high-end touches, including illy espresso machines; you can drink your coffee out of Italian porcelain IPA cups. And each suite has Dyson supersonic hair dryers, with all the attachments you could imagine. Beds are adjustable on each side, so you can read while your partner sleeps, then quietly recline when you're done. Suites even include bedside red lights, an idea from Karen Moroney, the wife of Scenic founder Glen Moroney and the creative force behind the ship's interior design. Advocates say red lights are linked to good sleep.We didn't love the placement of the TV -- inset into a mirror in front of the couch instead of in front of the bed -- and we would have liked a few more hooks for hanging towels and wet clothes, but otherwise, we were impressed by our suite.
Several spaces on our sailing weren't open yet, including the pools and hot tubs. Contractors were onboard trying to get everything up and running, but it sometimes had the feel of a shakedown cruise, an industry term for a test sailing designed to finish things that weren't finished in the shipyard and shake out any issues that might not have been anticipated. Passengers onboard were open to going with the flow when changes occurred, but several we spoke with said they were disappointed they couldn't enjoy everything and felt like they were missing out on the full experience.
Before steel was even cut for Scenic Eclipse, there was buzz aplenty around the high-tech toys we'd see onboard: namely, a submarine and two helicopters. Now that the ship's a reality, we've been able to see what these features bring to the overall experience.Scenic Eclipse is an expedition ship, but Discovery Leader Jason Flesher calls the line's approach to expedition "challenge by choice." The helicopters and submarine help passengers, who might never have tried adventure tours, make that leap in a comfortable way. We took a helicopter ride over Martha's Vineyard and were impressed both by the multi-million-dollar vehicle itself and the skilled pilot, who made sure to explain each piece of the journey along the way. Flying over lighthouses, bays and beautiful beach homes, we could imagine a helicopter soaring respectfully about penguins in Antarctica. Passengers also tried out the submarine in Halifax, where we're told they discovered a wreck offshore. (The submarine is not allowed to operate in the United States.)Helicopter and sub excursions are available in 20- and 40-minute increments, and they come with an additional fee somewhere in the region of several hundred dollars.
With only 228 passengers onboard, most people will get a crack at trying nearly everything. But a few experiences are going to be a bit tougher to try out. Chef's Table, for example, seats only 10 and is held every other night, so many people won't be able to enjoy the dinner. Likewise, Epicure, the ship's cooking class experience, limits session sizes to fewer than 20, and these are held sporadically throughout a cruise. (We spoke with one couple who reported trying to get on the list for "any availability" without success.)It's a good problem for Scenic to have, as demand will outweigh supply. And while the cruise line isn't revealing the secret sauce for priority order for participation, it's likely based in part on suite level booked, loyalty and persistence. Passengers who really want to experience any of these optional activities should make their wishes known as soon as they board and check back often.It's been a long road to this launch, with construction setbacks along the way. And while we've been onboard for a only few days, we are excited about this entry into a relatively new segment: luxury expedition cruising. With nearly 10 new expedition ships launching in 2020 alone, Scenic Eclipse has set the standard.
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