SILVERSEAS luxurious SILVER WHISPER: A long review of a short Caribbean cruise, with reflections on small ship cruising and suggestions for independent enjoyment of ports of call (St. Barts, Antigua, and Tortola)
Lets be honest. One of the pleasures of cruising is the fantasy factor. You know what I mean -- for a few days each year one is made to feel rich and famous, from spacious suites with attentive service to haute cuisine with fine wine.
Mainstream cruise lines offer a degree of luxury with their upper echelon suites and surcharged restaurants, but the kind of pervasive luxury and personal attention that I am talking about here is the raison detre of such cruise lines as Silversea, Regent (formerly Radisson) Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Crystal. These ships range from about 200 passengers on the older Seabourn yachts to about 1,000 passengers on the newest Crystal ship.
Perhaps because the smaller luxury ships carry fewer passengers on less common itineraries, or perhaps because wealthy passengers are not as interested in cruise review web sites as the rest of us, there are relatively few recent reviews of ships like the Silver Whisper.
BACKGROUND: What follows is a review of our experience on a four night March, 2006, Caribbean cruise on Silverseas all-suite ship Silver Whisper. I am semi-retired, in my late 50s, and not in the travel business. My wife and I have taken 17 cruises on a variety of cruise lines. When on vacation I prefer not dealing with lines or crowds, and tend to travel independently rather than with tour groups.
I shall begin this review with a discussion of LUXURY CRUISING IN GENERAL; follow with a discussion of our SILVER WHISPER cruise in particular; then give suggestions for INDEPENDENT SIGHTSEEING at our ports of call (St. Barts, Antigua, and Tortola) with a gentle warning about an Antiguan incident; and conclude with a discussion of WHETHER LUXURY CRUISING IS WORTH THE PRICE.
I shall HIGHLIGHT some topics in all capital letters, so that the reader can scroll down to any topic of particular interest. Before I begin, please understand the facts that:
First, I have a value-oriented approach to travel. Those of you who have read my previous reviews (e.g. Star Princess in the Baltic, Constellation in the Southern Caribbean, Galaxy in the Eastern Mediterranean, Zuiderdam in the Eastern Caribbean, Tahitian Princess in Polynesia) are used to my personal viewpoint.
Second, I am not an experienced luxury cruiser. Most of my previous 17 cruises have been on the cruise lines listed above. This may make me a less biased observer, or it may make me blind to some of the perks of luxury cruising.
Third, this was a relatively short, heavily discounted itinerary from a U.S. port (San Juan), and as such may not be representative of the usual Silversea cruises, which average about ten days in duration and $5,000 per person for the least expensive cabins.
Finally, cruise ships change with time, and what I say here may not apply when you read this. Also, I apologize for any errors and omissions I have made, and suggest you supplement this review with other information from other reviewers. That being said, lets begin the review with the bottom line.
THE BOTTOM LINE: This was an enjoyable cruise on a highly regarded small cruise ship calling at three of the less crowded Caribbean ports.
PROS: The spacious cabins with double bathrooms (all cabins are outsides, most with balconies); the understated elegance of the extensive public areas; the absence of noise and crowds; the absence of sales pitches (no art auctions, no photographers, no bingo games); the talented musicians and entertainers (who were presented at reasonable decibel levels); the well traveled, well educated, and articulate passengers; and the inclusive pricing (drinks and gratuities).
CONS: Minor lapses in service; minor lapses in food preparation; inadequate exercise facilities; excessive off-line and internet computer fees; and a tendency of the ship to roll in good weather during mild to moderate seas.
SILVERSEA BACKGROUND: Silversea is a privately owned Italian cruise line with four luxury ships. The officers are predominantly Italian, and the staff is international. The Silver CLOUD and Silver WIND were built in 1994/5 for 295 passengers each. The Silver SHADOW and Silver WHISPER were built in 2000/1 for 382 passengers each. All cabins are outsides, and most have balconies. Silversea prefers to call them suites rather than cabins, although most are a single room with a dividing curtain between the sitting and sleeping areas. Silver SHADOWS and Silver WHISPERS cabin size (345/287 square feet with/without balcony), space ratio (74 tons per passenger), and staff-to-passenger ratio (1.3 to 1) are almost twice those of mainstream cruise ships, and are significantly better than most other cruise ships in the luxury category.
SILVERSEA CRUISE PRICES: How much does a luxury cruise cost? As an exercise to determine how much Silver Whisper cruises cost, I searched the internet for the lowest net per diem for various itineraries in 2006, after any available discounts but before taxes and port fees. With a few exceptions the prices ranged from about $400 to $700 per person per day (pppd) for the least expensive (outside but no balcony) cabins. The lower amount was for itineraries such as Asia, and the higher amount was for itineraries such as northern Europe. A balcony adds significantly to these prices, the price depending on whether the balcony cabin is located forward or mid-ship. The largest (named) suites are much more expensive than this. Repositioning cruises are less expensive, beginning around $300 pppd.
SILVERSEA ITINERARIES: Like most luxury cruise lines, Silversea offers itineraries that span the globe, sometimes calling at ports not readily accessible to larger cruise ships. Most itineraries range from 7 to 14 days, but Silversea adds the option of designing your own cruise itinerary, allowing you to embark and disembark at any of the ships ports of call around the world, as long as space is available on the segments you want.
The longer itineraries mean that the high per diems will have an even greater impact on your cruise cost. This is offset to some extent by the fact that all drinks and gratuities are included in the price, although one may wish to select surcharged premium wines and liquors or additionally tip staff as a matter of personal preference.
SOME SILVERSEA OPTIONS: Adding to the price of the cruise are optional pre- and post-cruise hotel programs, some of which include sightseeing. Many of these are three days long and average about $300 pppd for hotel and transfers. Some, such as their English manor stays, may range up to $1,500 pppd.
In addition, combined hotel and air programs, which include economy airfare and one night deluxe hotel stay prior to the cruise, are available through Silversea. Business class upgrades, home airport transfers, luggage pre-shipment, and cancellation insurance are among additional options.
SPECIAL VALUES: Bargain prices are sometimes available in cases when a cruise is poorly subscribed, as one passenger reported on a war-time Middle Eastern itinerary and another on a last minute Alaskan itinerary, although neither listed the price or per diem in his review.
Because of a heavily discounted price and a desire to sample the Silversea experience before committing several thousand dollars to a longer cruise, we selected one of four short (four night, three day) back-to-back cruises round trip out of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Although the discounted per diem (actually per nocem on a short cruise such as this) started out higher, I found a price of $250 pppd on these itineraries, and our cruise agent (Pavlus Travel) kindly included taxes and port fees in that price. We jumped at this opportunity, even though the cruise included only three ports for our $1,000 pp cruise fare, and the least expensive (independent) airfare from our regional airport added another $700.
JUSTIFYING THE COST OF A LUXURY CRUISE: This leads to rationalization #1. If a luxury cruise is priced per diem at double what one would pay on a mainstream cruise, it is a good value, since the per passenger space and staffing ratios are nearly double those of mainstream cruise ships. Unfortunately, the usual per diem for luxury cruises is closer to three or four times what most of us are used to paying for a mainstream cruise.
Then there is rationalization #2, which is the result of new pricing policies that some mainstream cruise lines have adopted in the last few years. Some mainstream cruise lines have curtailed discounting on cruise fares (you probably already know which cruise lines, one of which used to be our favorite). This leads to the frustrating message call our 800 number for the cruise price when one tries to plan a cruise vacation on the internet. Because of this opaque pricing and anti-discount policy, we find ourselves cruising less often, and as a result have that much more money to spend on a non-mainstream cruise experience.
Finally there is rationalization #3. If you need to justify a luxury cruise, then you probably cant afford it. If luxury cruise prices are a significant concern to your conscience, if not your wallet, you probably arent going to enjoy spending that much money on self-indulgence.
HIDDEN BENEFITS OF A LUXURY CRUISE: In talking with our fellow WHISPER passengers about why they selected a luxury cruise, each one mentioned the lack of crowds on the ship and in port. When a small ship is docked, one can generally walk off and back on without waiting in line. Unfortunately, this benefit is nullified when tenders are used, since these can add significantly to disembarkation times at popular cruise ports.
The decision to tender passengers may be based on security or dock availability issues, but may also be based on financial issues as docking fees get more expensive. Personally, I think all cruise lines should include information whether the ship plans to be docked or tendered at each port of call in their itineraries, just as they disclose their port fees and taxes. This would help one choose among otherwise similar itineraries, and also would help the disabled make informed cruise choices.
A significant theoretical benefit of small cruise ships involves HEALTH and SAFETY ISSUES. In an age of pandemics, why would one choose a ship with thousands of passengers when much smaller ships are available? Pandemics begin with an index case and spread rapidly in areas of high population density. It seems logical that an index case is more likely to appear, and the spread to be more rapid, on a mega-ship with thousands of passengers. Very few cruise ships, large or small, put enough emphasis on passenger hygiene, including passenger hand-wash options and gel dispensers near all dining and beverage areas, especially self-service buffets. You might want to take along your own disinfectant towelettes for use on the ship and on shore.
In addition, if there is a fire or other disaster requiring passenger evacuation or re-routing, it seems logical that this is much more easily done on a small ship. Do not get me wrong, the mega-ships are just as concerned about passenger safety as the small ships are, but beyond a certain point the huge number of passengers and crew on some ships makes the logistics of responding to disasters exponentially more difficult.
MEGA-MEGA-SHIPS: This brings me to the latest development in the cruise industry. Why in the world are we seeing plans for ships carrying 5,000 plus passengers and 3,000 plus crew members when such ships will swamp many cruise port facilities and will carry all of the increased risks mentioned above? Such enormous ships are not nimble enough to alter itineraries easily, and if one of them is out of commission due to fire, health hazard, or other cause, the financial loss to the cruise line and the ill-will generated among the passengers will be staggering.
My impression is that these mega-mega-ships are being built to satisfy a perceived public desire for increased choices in shipboard activities and dining options, which is now being taken to bizarre extremes. Cruise ships are being bloated into floating theme parks.
Why do I mention these issues in a luxury cruise ship review? It is with the hope that mainstream cruise lines will learn from the automobile and other industries that smaller and better quality products will ultimately prevail over behemoths. I hope that mainstream cruise lines will re-think their options and will start building small cruise ships with reasonable cruise prices, so that the public has additional choices in the small ship arena.
Time to get off the soapbox and get on with the REVIEW of our SILVER WHISPER cruise.
Silversea PRE-CRUISE documents are similar to those of other cruise lines, with options including pillow preference, bed configuration, and special dietary needs. Although alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are included in the cruise fare, there was no option for us to indicate personal preferences for our mini-bar.
One can enter ones cruise preferences in Silverseas web site, but the site was not working properly when I tried it. Their webmaster told me that they were upgrading the site, and presumably it is functional now. We simply faxed our pre-cruise information forms.
Those interested in the alternate dining at La Terrazza or Le Champagne restaurants (see dining options below) should inquire about the possibility of pre-cruise reservations (all of the La Terrezza nights were full and waitlisted by the time we boarded). Information about shore excursions and spa treatments is on the web site, and one might want to pre-reserve those also, although I heard no problems about booking them onboard.
Silversea cruise documents arrive in a silver colored box, and include two black leatherette document cases and two black leather luggage tags with a metal Silversea logo (a stylized S that looks a bit like a seahorse). We used neither, but they make nice souvenirs. The most useful tags we ever received from a cruise line had our names, membership numbers, and an 800- number to call if the baggage was found. That luggage locator tag has remained on our bags ever since. Other cruise lines should consider a similar service.
EMBARKATION: We generally find it less expensive and more flexible to make our own air and transfer arrangements. Our flight touched down at San Juans airport (SJU) at 4:30pm on embarkation day. Since we travel without checked bags, just a regulation carry-on each (see my previous reviews for the secret to traveling light), we were at the cruise dock ready to board the ship at 5:00pm.
No cruise transfers are necessary in San Juan since it has an excellent and safe taxi system for tourists. The airport and the cruise docks have taxi dispatchers who will write down your destination and the appropriate taxi fare, giving a copy to you and to your driver. That way there is no problem with overcharges or unwanted city tours. Look for the dispatchers booths curbside at both locations. The cab fare for two between the airport and Old San Juan, where most cruise ships dock, is $19 (plus $1 for our two bags). Many of the cabs are mini-vans, which can hold several people and extensive luggage.
GREETERS: One of the negatives of cruising on a small ship is that there may be no greeter at the airport to answer questions and confirm the ships location. The WHISPER was docked at a different pier than stated in our pre-cruise documents, and Silversea did not send us an e-mail or (apparently) notify our agent of the change. Fortunately the two piers were nearby, and our taxi driver found the correct one. It would be nice if all cruise lines used an e-mail alert system similar to that of airlines.
Silversea recommends embarking between 3 and 5pm. Early boarding (including lunch onboard) is available for a $100 per person surcharge if pre-reserved, but it is gratis to Venetian Society members (repeat Silversea cruisers) who have completed more than 250 Silversea cruise days. Similar late disembarkation is available in some ports, but not U.S. ports, which require disembarkation of all passengers once a ship clears immigration.
LINES: The WHISPER was docked alongside a much larger mainstream cruise ship that was making a port call at San Juan. Unfortunately there was a long line of returning passengers from that ship stretched along the sidewalk, waiting to clear security. There was no Silversea representative curbside to allow us direct entry to our own ship, so we waited in line along with the other ships passengers. The curbside delay was only 15 minutes.
As we waited in line I realized that some of the advantages of small ship cruising disappear as mega-ships proliferate and make cruise ports more crowded. In any case, we met some enjoyable fellow travelers as we waited. We felt a little smug, not because we were boarding the WHISPER instead of the neighboring mega-ship, but because our entire cruise luggage was smaller than some of the shopping bags waiting in line with us. (More about compulsive shopping when we land in St. Barts.)
WELCOME ABOARD: As I look back on our welcome aboard the WHISPER, what I remember most is that there was no special welcome aboard. We cleared security and were directed to the reception desk, where we turned in our cruise tickets, were photographed, received our key cards, and that was it. One must imprint ones credit card (or arrange other payment for ones shipboard account), but for some reason the reception desk did not do this at embarkation. We received a notice later in the cruise to do this, but think it would have been more efficient to handle it at the outset as other cruise lines do.
We had imagined that a ships officer or hotel manager would greet us and a waiter would offer us a glass of champagne at embarkation, but there were none. There was a tray of partially filled champagne flutes on the registration desk, but since the levels in the glasses varied, we assumed that these had been sipped and were waiting to be cleared. There were several chambermaids in line near the registration desk, and one of them assisted us with our hand carries and led us to our cabin, where a bottle of Pommery brut champagne on ice was waiting for us. The champagne was a great anodyne after our three long flights that day.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS are important, and Silversea certainly missed an opportunity to impress from the outset. Embarkation on our other cruises has ranged from elegant to disorganized. This seems to vary more by individual ship than by cruise line (each line has had its hits and misses). To be fair to the WHISPER, we were 15 minutes later than the recommended boarding time due to the curbside line, and the boat drill began 15 minutes after our embarkation, so their staff was busy.
ROOM SERVICE: Since our flights had no food service, we were hungry for a snack with the champagne. One of the negatives about a small cruise ship is that there are gaps in food service. After our boat drill there was no food venue open until dinnertime and the mini-bar had no snacks, so we called room service. Unfortunately the room service button on our phone responded that this service is not currently available. Another room service number we found in our cabin directory responded with a persons name and a please leave a message answer machine. We never needed room service after that and do not know how efficient it is.
We had packed Girl Scout cookies for just such an occasion, and had a great time celebrating the start of our cruise by drinking the champagne and raising toasts to the little scout who had sold us the cookies the day before. The secret to a happy vacation is to be happy.
THE DECK PLAN of the WHISPER is quite logical, with cabins located forward and public areas located aft on all decks except deck 10, where the observation lounge and spa are forward. This deck plan makes it easy to find almost any venue quickly, without that lost-in-a-maze feeling one sometimes has during the first few days on larger ships.
The one downside of the deck plan is that there is only one small elevator forward in the cabin areas, but there are four elevators aft in the public areas. Since there is no service elevator for room service or other crew members, the one forward elevator is often used by the crew. It makes for some snug but friendly trips among enormous breakfast and dinner trays. We really appreciated how hard the crew works, and we told them so when we rode with them on the elevator.
THE CREW: That brings up the issue of how some passengers treat crew members. Every cruise we have been on has had a few toxic passengers who make things difficult for the crew. Being demanding is especially tempting on a luxury cruise ship that advertises its premiere service.
We have found that crew members on all cruise ships tend to be interesting, intelligent, and often highly educated people who by chance were born in a third world or war-torn country, and therefore do not have the job opportunities that we as Americans were born to. We do not impose a false camaraderie on them as is done on some cruise lines, but we do try to let them know that we appreciate that they are individuals and not just service employees. I think that most cruise passengers do the same, and the thought is appreciated.
CABIN LOCATION: Our cabin was one of the Vista Suites, which have a window rather than balcony. These are the least expensive accommodations and account for approximately 20% of the cabins (all cabins are outsides, and 80% have balconies).
Vista Suites are clustered on deck 4 forward, and abut the dining room bulkhead. That means that Vista passengers must go up one or more decks to reach any of the public areas, including an up and then down trip to the main restaurant entrance on deck 4 aft.
Being on deck 4 can be an advantage in rough weather (it is nearest the ships center of gravity), especially since the ship tended to roll in good weather with mild to moderate seas. This certainly is not a problem on the usual Caribbean cruise, but may be a concern when crossing the North Atlantic or other rough seas. Several passengers we met were wearing accu-pressure wristbands for motion sickness, and these passengers were all repeat (Venetian Society) cruisers.
Deck 4 is also nearest the sewage treatment area, and we noticed a faint odor of sewage several times as we approached our hallway. This odor was never a problem. It was not apparent in the public areas, just in the deck 4 stairwell and hallway, and it did not seep into our cabin at any time.
CABIN AMENITIES: The WHISPERS cabins are almost double the size of the average cabins on mainstream cruise ships. The cabin configuration is standard, with the bathroom and closet along the entry hall, then the sleeping area, and then the sitting/dining area adjacent to the window or balcony. One does not notice the extra floor space so much in the sleeping and sitting areas, but it is very apparent in the bathroom, which allows two to bathe and dress for dinner at the same time. The tub and shower are separate, and there are two sinks (and double bath amenities) at the granite counter.
We did appreciate the quality of the cabins accoutrements. The duvet was sparkling white and light as air, the towels were textured and double thick, and the robes were heavyweight terry. A table converter (for room service dinners) was stowed in the closet but we never needed it. The TV had a DVD player, but I cannot imagine why anyone would use it when there are interesting ports of call, although it may help pass time when there are back-to-back days at sea.
Our minibar was stocked with beer, mixers, and fruit juice. In addition to the champagne bottle waiting on our arrival, we were given a bottle of red wine during the cruise. We never opened it and left it for the next passengers. We did not request extra alcohol for the minibar, but I am certain many passengers do. We would have preferred having some colas and champagne splits, but we never asked for them (or were asked our preferences). We simply went to the nearest bar each evening for our pre-dinner drink. No problem.
ALCOHOL: This brings us to the issue of free (included and essentially unlimited) alcoholic beverages. I have mixed feelings about this. Although we did not see any noisy drunken behavior, we did see a few quiet drunks, just as on any other cruise. Human nature leads people to over-indulge when drinks are all-inclusive. Those who drink reasonably end up subsidizing those who drink excessively -- restraint always pays for excess, whether it is health insurance, car insurance, or any other form of subsidy.
Some cruise lines and all-inclusive resorts limit included (its never free) alcohol to wine or beer with meals, and this seems a reasonable compromise. I am told, however, that this is unpopular and that other semi-inclusive cruise ships are going fully inclusive soon.
At some point this will become a safety issue, as one reads more and more about cruise passengers acting foolishly and even disappearing overboard. When careless or drunken behavior becomes a threat to passenger safety, the cruise lines will be forced to reconsider their alcohol policies. We will see how this develops with time and media exposure.
STEWARDS: Our cabin was maintained by two chambermaids, one from Iceland and one from India. Although from opposite ends of the earth, one a fair beauty and the other a dark beauty, they made a great team and did a fine job keeping our cabin ship-shape. We rarely saw them, but when we wanted something (like additional personalized stationery) we simply left a note and they responded efficiently.
THE PUBLIC AREAS ARE SUBTLY DECORATED in neutral colors, mainly off-white with pale blue, gray, or beige accents. There is no glitzy atrium or hey-look-at-me type dEcor. Everything is elegant in an understated way. The art collection is not extensive, but features pleasant antiquarian prints and occasional ethnic art works from various ports around the world. The one must-see art collection is the Florentine style mosaics in the bar on deck 5. These interpret in stone various famous prints by Gustav Klimt the images are familiar and the craftsmanship is impressive.
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS: Rather than my describing each of the public areas around the ship, I suggest you log on to one of the many web sites featuring Silversea photos taken by previous cruisers. Just google Silversea Silver Whisper reviews and follow the trail. The photos are beautiful, far better than any of my own. The ship is very handsome inside and out.
SPACE RATIO: The excellent space ratio is apparent throughout the ship. No public area ever seemed crowded, although the alternative dining rooms and the show lounge were sometimes full. The exception was the tiny gym, which seemed cramped even when no one else was there. The ship was so quiet compared to our previous cruises that we sometimes wondered where everybody was. There were no more than a handful of cruisers in the library, the lounges, or the shops when we were there. The privacy and sense of calm were very impressive.
THE ENTERTAINMENT was surprisingly enjoyable, especially for such a small ship. Although there were no enrichment lectures or formal concerts on this itinerary, the musicians, vocalists, and dancers were all very talented.
A VOCALIST played piano and sang every evening in the deck 5 bar. He has a fine voice and great sense of style. Ingeniously, he used his laptop screen instead of sheet music.
A PIANO TRIO provided dance music every evening in the deck 8 Panorama lounge. They knew all the standards, took requests, and even did vocals on some of their numbers. My wife and I thought that the dance floor would be too crowded to use on a cruise like this, but we found only a handful of passengers in the lounge with us, and they listened at the bar but did not dance.
The JEAN RYAN COMPANY of six dancers and two vocalists provided entertainment in the show lounge every evening after dinner. Their productions ranged from an evening of Broadway show tunes to a Cirque du Soleil style performance that combined avant-garde music with acrobatic dancing. The production values matched any that we have seen while cruising, and the bonus is that this is the first and only cruise production company we have encountered that does not over-amplify its music and vocals. I usually have to leave the cruise ship theater after a few minutes of ear-blasting pain, but on this cruise I was able to enjoy each production from start to finish. Kudos to the man in the sound booth (and to the absence of loud music around the swimming pool)!
FELLOW PASSENGERS on this cruise were not what we expected. The average age was around 60, but ranged from the 30s to 80s. The average BMI was around thirty, but ranged a good deal higher (thin and rich do not always go together).
We expected the dress to range from Armani to Zegna, and were worried that our three outfits (formal, informal, and casual) would not be sufficient, even on a short cruise. Mirabile dictu, the average dress during the day was shorts and T-shirts. Dress during the evening was surprisingly informal. In fact, although everyone was presentable, people made less effort to dress well on this cruise than we were used to seeing on previous Holland, Celebrity, or Princess cruises. Perhaps it was just this particular short cruise.
Sartorial habits aside, everyone we were seated with when dining on this cruise proved to be well traveled, highly articulate, and very entertaining. On some cruises my wife and I prefer to dine at a table for two, but on this cruise we always opted to join a group because of the enjoyable company. Perhaps the maitre d has ESP -- he always seemed to look into ones eyes, think for a moment, and then say Hmmm, yes, I think I have the perfect table for you. He was right every time.
DINING can be a touchy subject because it is so subjective. As I mentioned earlier, we were never able to sample the regional Italian cuisine in LA TERRAZZA restaurant because this was fully booked before we ever boarded the ship.
We also opted not to try the multi-course dinners and wine tastings in LE CHAMPAGNE dining room. These had a nominal fee of $150 pp to cover the cost of the premium wines. Although I enjoy a good wine, I cannot detect the subtleties of a great wine, so it would have been a wasted evening for me.
That leaves the deck 7 buffet and the deck 4 main restaurant. The BUFFET is very enjoyable at breakfast. Since we did not have a balcony, we preferred to eat breakfast on the veranda outside the buffet rather than have room service. The buffet selections are varied, well prepared, and nicely presented. The breakfast buffet is very comparable to those found on mainstream cruise ships, but without the lines and crowds. That in itself makes the experience pleasurable. The lunch buffet parallels the menu in the main restaurant. As a matter of portion control and made-to-order freshness, we preferred the main restaurant for lunch.
THE MAIN RESTAURANT: The food is good to excellent, similar in quality to the good food found in the main dining rooms of Celebrity, Holland, or Princess ships to the excellent food found in the surcharged restaurants on those same ships.
We experienced a few minor lapses in service on the WHISPER. One appetizer and two drink orders were forgotten; often my water glass was not refilled when empty (the wine service was more reliable but the water was more important after a long day in the sun); and sometimes there were unusually long intervals between courses.
A few dining quirks are native to Silversea. On our first night we ordered leg of lamb. The meat came without vegetables or potatoes, which were listed on the menu but have to be separately ordered to appear with the main course. A sorbet is always listed between the salad and the main courses, but this too must be ordered since it is not served automatically.
The drinking water is served in beautiful grand cru stemware which magnifies the chemical odor of water just as it does the aroma of good wine. Requesting bottled water with the meal should be a simple task, but it almost always elicited a sour expression from the waiter, and the request was never carried out through the entire meal.
Such minor lapses made me appreciate the service at traditional dining venues found on mainstream cruise ships. When the waiter and his assistant see you every evening, they get to know your preferences and their service improves accordingly. Similar service is probably available to Venetian Society members on longer cruises.
The dining room was never crowded on our cruise. In fact the quietness of the main dining room was a pleasure, and contrasted sharply with the noisy, multi-tiered dining rooms on larger ships.
THE CUISINE: The WHISPERS main restaurant provides a cuisine that matches, and sometimes exceeds, the fine dining we have experienced on other ships. Cruise lines know that dinner is the highlight of the day for most passengers, and they allocate their resources accordingly. Even mainstream cruise lines are now extremely successful at providing memorable dining, and the margin between cuisine on the WHISPER and that on other ships is very narrow.
The menu has somewhat greater choice than on some other ships, perhaps because most of its cruises are longer than one week, and most of its passengers are repeat cruisers. The WHISPER adds the extra option of ordering specialty items not listed on the menu (if ingredients are available). On a short cruise such as ours this was not necessary, but for a long round-the-world cruise this would be a lifesaver. Some passengers on our cruise apparently tried to order exotic dishes but were unsuccessful, which in my opinion was just as well, since there was adequate choice to be happy for four evenings.
We did encounter a few minor lapses in food preparation and a few menu choices that seemed a bit odd.
The fish courses were generally cooked to perfection, although my lobster and salmon were each somewhat overcooked on one occasion. This is a matter of chance. The lobster I was served was rubbery and adherent to the shell. I simply left it uneaten and instead treated myself to an extra dessert at the end of the meal. Another person at our table that evening found his lobster so excellent that he ordered a second portion, which turned out as tough as mine, so he left his second portion uneaten. One feels bad about ordering and then not eating food, but everyone was discreet about it.
The fish courses are served with the traditional fish knives and forks. Ironically, the fish courses sometimes were matched with al dente vegetables that were so crisp that one could not cut them with the fish knife or spear them with the fish fork -- a great excuse if you prefer not to eat your vegetables.
Our lamb chops were ordered rare and came seared on the outside but translucent red on the inside. The unique taste of lamb was undetectable. Medium rare should get you the pink to red doneness that you want.
One appetizer was made with taco shells straight off the grocery shelf unfortunately they were stale and tough. The filling was excellent though.
Salads were sometimes overdressed and low fat dressings were not featured the easy solution is to request the dressing on the side.
One dessert was a creamy chocolate mousse that had clear gelatin cubes inside a strange combination. Another dessert was a banana concoction constructed on a translucent gelatinous base flavorful but strange in appearance and texture.
These issues are minor, and only serve to reinforce the old saying de gustibus non disputandem est there is no arguing matters of taste. You will have a very enjoyable time in the WHISPERS main restaurant, and if you plan far enough ahead, you may be able to sample their alternative dining.
Before we leave the ship for a discussion of the ports of call, let me warn you about the EXCESSIVE COMPUTER AND INTERNET FEES. Formerly there was a charge only for uploading or downloading data from the internet, and the resulting fee was reasonable. Now there is a US $.75 per minute fee from the first keystroke, whether working off-line or on the net.
When I tried to use their system, I generated a charge of US $4.50 before even logging onto the net to access my e-mail. The on screen meter which tracks these charges is not that clear, nor is the log-off window. Fortunately a shipboard IT assistant alerted me to the charge and I logged off with her help. When I politely expressed my dismay to the reception desk, they just as politely removed the charge from my account. I never did use the net on the entire cruise.
Some passengers brought their laptops and used the ships wireless capability for e-mails and internet phone calls. I am uncertain whether there is a charge attached to this service. Some passengers complained that the net connection is slow, so the charges can be daunting.
PORTS OF CALL ON YOUR OWN: That brings us to the other reason (after the food) that we enjoy cruising the ports of call. Our cruise left from San Juan and was scheduled to call at Virgin Gorda, then Antigua, then Tortola, then return to San Juan.
ST. BARTS: Because of the ocean surge at Virgin Gorda, the tenders were considered unsafe and our first port of call was cancelled. After some communication with the Silversea head office, our master decided to spend the first day motoring to St. Barts instead, where the anchorage is more protected. Essentially we had an unscheduled day at sea, anchoring at St. Barts in the late afternoon, with shore tenders available from 4-11pm.
Having never previously called at St. Barts, which is reputed to be one of the most wealthy and stylish islands in the Caribbean, we were interested in seeing as much as we could in the two hours of daylight we had left. Fortunately we reported to the tender gangway early, because our late arrival in port meant that everyone was eager to disembark and the wait was a bit longer than usual.
Meeting the tenders onshore in Gustavia were taxi (mini-van) drivers willing to provide a one hour island tour for US$12 per person (for a minimum of six people or $72). There were about 60 passengers on our tender, and not a single one was interested in seeing the island. They all headed directly to the main shopping street, which is lined with enough designer boutiques to satisfy any affluent Parisian. It was like watching a zombie movie, but the zombies were lusting after designer fashions instead of human flesh. It seemed an apt commentary on our consumer society, where even those who have everything seem to spend their vacations searching for more.
In any case, since daylight was limited we did not wait for the next tender to provide more possible tour participants. Instead we walked along the waterfront clockwise past the small Anglican church and then over a small rise to nearby Shell Beach (Plage de Grands Galets). The route is marked or one can ask a local person. It is a pleasant ten minute walk from the tender port.
What added to the pleasure of the walk was a line of the largest and most elegant sailboats we have ever encountered. Apparently a regatta was scheduled to start in a few days, and luxury sailboats ranging from about 40 to 60 meters in length were lined up at the dock. One could smell the affluence, even though the crew members we spoke with (perhaps an occasional owner hidden among them) were quite personable. Each boat had a minimum crew of ten, and what we saw of the rigging and the interiors was breathtaking.
Shell Beach is quite pleasant, with rough rather than fine sand (as the name implies). The near end has a beach bar and restaurant that is convenient for those spending several hours at the beach, but we preferred to wade around the rocks to the far end of the beach for more privacy. We had a wonderful sunset swim and saw no one else from the SILVER WHISPER on the beach. There were a few yacht owners swimming laps parallel to the shore, with their crew following them back and forth in zodiacs for safety.
As we were passing the Anglican church on our way back to the tender port we heard singing and stepped inside. The church choir was practicing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handels Messiah for their upcoming Easter service. We sat for a while and enjoyed their amateur but joyous rendition. It was dark by the time we made it back to the tender port, feeling refreshed and happy that we had a chance to enjoy our brief stay on St. Barts.
ANTIGUA: The SILVER WHISPER docked at the cruise pier in St. Johns and was dwarfed by an adjacent RCL cruise ship. Exiting the cruise pier leads one through a gauntlet of tourist shops, tour operators, and taxi drivers.
The natural tendency of cruise passengers is to walk briskly through this gauntlet, ignoring the various people offering goods and services. Instead of ignoring them, at least acknowledge our shared humanity by looking at them directly and thanking them politely when declining their offers. Remember that these people own the island and we are their guests.
In our 17 cruises we have never opted for a tour organized by the ship. We prefer to explore on our own, using xeroxed sections of guidebooks we purchased or obtained from our local library.
On Antigua we enjoy the inexpensive public transportation. Official minibuses leave frequently from the west side and east side bus stations, covering almost any destination (or beach) on the west or east side of the island respectively. From the cruise pier, the west side bus station is three blocks inland to Market St., then several blocks south to the market (which is located behind the large white statue and is worth a quick visit in itself). The east side bus station should be (we have not used it for a few years) one block north to High St., then several blocks inland to the park. Any local can direct you.
From the west side bus station we usually take the bus south to Jolly Beach (US $1.50 pp). It is the end of the line (about 15-20 minutes by bus) and has frequent service because many locals work in the shops and resorts there. A dispatcher at the bus station will guide you to the correct bus. When using the local minibus, it is customary to greet other passengers as one boards, and to move as needed for passengers to enter or leave. We have found our fellow passengers to be very helpful in answering questions or pointing out destinations.
At the end of the Jolly Beach bus line, follow the signs to the gravel road public access west and south around the gate-guarded resorts to the south end of the beach. Walk north along the beach past the various resorts (they get a little more upscale as one walks north) until you find the perfect patch of sunshine (or shade) for your beach towel. Jolly Beach is travel poster perfect, and typical water activity rentals are available.
On this visit, for the first time during any of our many visits to the Caribbean, we came across a little attitude. We had put our beach towels on the sand in a patch of shade under a thatch roof on the beach (all of which is public land). An hour later a hotel security guard chased us off apparently a guest felt that the shady spot was his because he had placed a beach chair there several hours earlier. Cruise ship pool pigs leave a book or T-shirt on the chaises longues early to reserve them for use later in the day, a practice we dislike and think should be eliminated. This little beach incident was similar but took us by surprise. Generally the public access to, and public use of, beaches is respected.
If you prefer, minibuses to Dickenson Beach head north from the west side bus station, but we have not gone there.
From the east side bus station buses head southeast across the island to English Harbour (Nelsons Dockyard historic district). Shirley Heights is not far away from there, and one might consider exploring that too. If I recall correctly, there is a nice, very private beach over a small hill just a short walk away from Nelsons Dockyard. Any local can direct you (ask at the nearby store). Last time we were there, an enormous yacht was anchored nearby, and a Duchess of Windsor type surrounded by several of her stalwart sailing crew motored ashore and shared the beach with us.
Riding local minibuses can be as exciting as watching an Imax movie. On this trip our driver made change for passengers, smoked a cigarette, spoke on his cell phone, shifted gears, and turned the steering wheel, all while driving on the left and dodging pedestrians (which is the reason we do not rent cars in the Caribbean). As in an Imax film, if you get frightened during the drive, just close your eyes.
In the afternoon, as the day cools, consider a walk though the town of St. Johns. It is a somewhat gritty town, but the people are polite and very friendly. There is a large old Anglican church on the hill several blocks east and north of the cruise pier. When we were there this time, the funeral of a prominent citizen was taking place. The parishioners were beautifully dressed, and the sound of their 500 voices singing traditional hymns in harmony echoed off the beamed ceiling and penetrated to the heart. It was a most moving experience.
TORTOLA: The SILVER WHISPER was scheduled to tender into Road Town, but since we were the only ship in port, we docked instead. Tortola is very much like St. Thomas but more affluent and less crowded. One of the nicest local beaches is Cane Garden Bay, which resembles Magens Bay on St. Thomas but has no fee and is less private. Just east of Cane Garden Bay is Brewers Bay, which is said to provide good snorkeling. Taxis wait at the pier and will take you north over the spine of the island to the beaches, with fantastic views in all directions along the way, for about US $6 pp each way.
Alternately, an open taxi (jitney style with sun protection) waits at the pier and offers a 3 hour round island tour, again with fantastic views of neighboring islands and photo stops along the way, plus an hour swim at Cane Garden Bay, all for US $20 pp. The drivers name on this visit was Larry, and I think he meets each cruise ship. If not, the local tourist board representative or taxi dispatcher who are at the pier should be able to arrange it for you.
As Caribbean islands become more crowded, especially when more than one ship is in port, my wife and I prefer to escape to some of the nearby islands for a beach day in solitude. In this case, one can take the private ferry to nearby Peter Island (still owned by the Amway Corp. I believe) for US $15 round trip. This is a very quiet, very upscale island resort that allows day visitors but requests that they use the far east end of Deadmans Beach. The near end is reserved for resort guests. The far east end of the beach is shared with the yachters whose boats are anchored offshore. A restaurant is available in the middle of the beach, and we were told it takes credit cards.
A taxi will take you from the cruise pier to the Peter Island ferry pier (caution, there are several ferry piers) for US $4 pp each way. Notify the ferry captain on your return that you need a taxi, and he should be able to radio ahead. As I write this, outbound ferries leave Road Town at 0830, 1000, 1200, 1400, 1530. Return ferries leave Peter Island at 0900, 1130, 1330, 1430, 1630, 1800 and 1930. Verify the schedules with the tourist office representative (or on the net) to make certain you do not miss your boat! Other ferry services run to neighboring islands, but these are farther away and less practical for a day escape.
END OF CRUISE DISEMBARKATION: This follows the usual drill and is handled efficiently. Color coded baggage tags are distributed the day before disembarkation. The color code determines the disembarkation priority, and is based on a questionnaire distributed during the cruise. Baggage is left in the hallways the last night of the cruise, and is reclaimed and cleared through customs dockside by the passengers as they disembark the next morning.
Passports are held by the cruise ship for the duration of the cruise and are returned to the passengers (in order by luggage tag color code) between 0700 and 0800 on the day of disembarkation. U.S. immigration inspection generally goes quickly, but every passenger must be cleared by immigration before any passenger is allowed off the ship.
Disembarkation begins around 0900 and is complete by 1000. As Silversea recommends, do not book a return flight much before noon, since one must taxi to the airport, check in, and go through security inspections there too.
As we disembarked, the gangway was relatively steep. Without being asked, a WHISPER crew member graciously took my wifes roll-aboard down the gangway to the dock for her. As we left the ship we felt truly pampered.
It is time to bring our cruise and this review to a conclusion. In the end, WHAT DOES ONE GET FOR THE EXTRA COST OF A LUXURY CRUISE? Judging from our experience described above, one can expect more space, fewer crowds, and better itineraries. Dont expect better food or better service than on some mainstream cruise lines over the last few years their food and service have improved to match what we experienced on the Silver Whisper.
IS A LUXURY CRUISE WORTH THE EXTRA COST? Yes and no. The choice in cruise ships is very much like the choice in new automobiles there is one for every taste and budget. Some people insist that a Lexus or a Cadillac is the only way to travel. Others insist that a Ford or Toyota is the logical choice. The bottom line is that there is no single automobile (or cruise line) that will make everyone happy, but there is at least one automobile (or cruise line) that will make each one of us happy.
TO END ON A PERSONAL NOTE, last year for the first time I bought identical Honda Accords for myself and my wife, together less than the cost of one Mercedes. The Hondas are safe, reliable, economical cars that are a delight to drive. They have given us as much pleasure as our Mercedes ever did. I guess that says it all.
Happy cruising! efschlenk at hotmail dot com. Read Less