To Tromso And Beyond With Silversea
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Jetlag woke me up at 3:30a.m. this morning. At least, I think it did. It could be excitement, too: today is the day that I fly to Tromso, Norway to board Silversea Expeditions’ intimate Silver Explorer for a 10-night adventure into the heart of Arctic Svalbard.
Whenever I sail with Silversea, I like to make a point of illustrating the contrasts of travelling on a small-ship luxury cruise line versus the hassle and bureaucracy that infects so much of the travel world as a whole.
Take, for example, my flight today from Oslo Gardermoen Airport to Tromso. I like Gardermoen; it’s a beautifully-designed airport. I’ve been through it many times in the past. Today, however, I had some problems passing through with the same items I travel with each and every day.
I went into the security lineup as normal. I practically undressed, as normal, to ensure I wouldn’t beep going through the metal detector. I didn’t. I walked over to the x-ray conveyor and watched my laptop roll harmlessly to a stop.
My bag, however, didn’t follow. It was selected for some special screening.
So I walked around the carousel to the inspection table where I met Gardermoen’s crack security inspector. Did I have any electronics? I replied that I had a camera. Barely finished the sentence when he ordered me to take it out.
I did so. He gingerly placed it into a tray like a jack-in-the-box that might spring forth at any moment. Then, both bag and camera went through the scanner again. I thought we were done. I thought wrong.
Colombo jabbed his finger at the x-ray screen. “There’s something else.”
We took out my iPhone. It went in a separate box, along with the camera, and the bag, and all three made another journey of sadness through the x-ray. Finally, after one last pass through, I was allowed to proceed. There’s something delightfully Orwellian about modern airport security. Big Brother is watching, kids – but he’s fairly distracted.
Embarking Silversea’s Silver Explorer, however, was an entirely different story: I got off the coach at the pier in Tromso. I had my name checked against the manifest – and it checked out. I walked up the gangway, turned in my passport, and answered a short health questionnaire. (Have I ever been around an Ebola patient? No. Do I have MERS? No.) I was then given my suite keycard, and personally led to my suite.
It’s just that easy.
Before I sailed aboard Silver Explorer back in 2012, I had no idea what an “expedition cruise” even was. Small ship, probably. Lesser accommodations, likely. I went mainly for two reasons: I wanted to see more of Ireland, and I liked sailing with Silversea on their “classic” fleet of luxury ships.
What I got was so much more than just a cruise- it was, to that point, the most exciting thing I’d ever done. Mornings were spent zipping across the waves in zodiac rafts, clinging to the black guide ropes along the side as we crested swell after swell to the site of our shore landings. I drank Guinness at the Giants Causeway, hiked deserted islands, visited medieval castles, prowled for fossilized dinosaurs on England’s “Jurassic Coast” in Lyme Regis, drank cocktails at the Royal Naval Academy in Dartmouth – all in less than two weeks.
Plus, after all that running around, I’d come back onboard the Silver Explorer to find a hot towel and a glass of champagne waiting for me. Canapes in the suite. Butler service. The whole white-glove treatment – for each and every guest onboard.
There’s that word: suite. Every single type of accommodation onboard Silver Explorer is a suite, and the smallest ones still clock in at nearly 200 square feet. You won’t find the featureless ex-Russian icebreaker look here: attractive wood accents adorn suites, along with soft furnishings done in rich earth tones and accented by clever lighting arrangements. Silversea spent a lot of money refitting Silver Explorer when they acquired her to become their first expedition ship in 2008, and it shows.
Expedition cruising infected my bloodstream and became impossible to shake. It invaded my personal time long after the voyage ended, reminding me constantly that life is, as they say, short.
It’s not until you do your second, or even third, Silversea cruise that you come to realize just how special it is. Today alone, I recognized a dozen or so crew members I’ve sailed with in the past. There’s Hotel Director Marcelo, who was onboard the Silver Galapagos when I sailed aboard her in October. From Silver Discoverer, we’ve got Maitre D’ Robert and Chef Pia. Also from Silver Discoverer is a man I met three years ago onboard this very ship, Mr. Juan Carlos Restrepo. He’ll be our Expedition Leader here onboard Silver Explorer for the next 10 days as we sail into the far Arctic. I’ve sailed with Expedition Team Members Daniel and Daniela in the Galapagos; and waiter Jerry onboard Silver Shadow, Silver Spirit and Silver Wind. There’s probably others I’m forgetting, too.
It’s nice to come halfway around the world and see familiar faces. Not every cruise line can offer that to their repeat guests.
Small ships are awesome because they’re hugely navigable. Within moments of embarking the Silver Explorer, I was already at my home for the next 10 days: one of the ship’s two sprawling Owner’s Suites located on Deck 7. While even the smallest suites aboard Silver Explorer are fantastic (I love the porthole views in the Adventurer Suites!), these Owner’s Suites are the last word in expedition luxury. I’ll outline the suite in full detail tomorrow when we have our day at sea – but for now, a few photos:
At 4:00pm, guests mustered for the mandatory lifeboat drill. I like how Silversea does their muster drill: an indoor informational session that is coupled with an actual trip outside to the lifeboats. I think this is crucial because, in the unlikely event of an emergency, knowing where your physical lifeboat’s location is can be a lifesaver.
At 5:00pm, guests – almost all 108 of us – gathered on the ship’s stern to watch our departure from Tromso. A light rain had started to fall, but no one seemed to mind so long as the champagne kept flowing. Our gala sailaway party lasted for almost an hour, with few guests retreating indoors as crew and Expedition Team members mingled amongst us. For me, it was a chance to say hello to some of the people I knew from past voyages, and to meet other members of the team as well.
When I met Expedition Team member and fellow Canadian Chris Srigley, I was reminded that this is, at its heart, a real expedition. Chris is one of the Silver Explorer’s general naturalists – and a Bear Guard.
Polar Bears, though beautiful, pose an enormous danger to humans. Along with a small team of Expedition Team members, it’s Chris’s job to secure the area for any potential landing sites, and to monitor the site while guests are ashore. Should a bear approach, he orders the quick and calm evacuation of the area, and guests reboard the ship.
Chris is armed (on-shore) with a high-powered rifle. In total, five crew members will be armed with them whenever guests are ashore. But Chris’s outlook reflects his conservationist stance. “My job is to protect the bears from us,” he says. “In 10 years, I’ve never had to chamber a round.”
By ensuring we’re never sharing the same space as a bear, Chris protects both us – and the local wildlife – at the same time. I admire that, and I admire his proactive attitude to the entire situation.
Tonight, I discovered just how dark it’s going to get up here: not very! Even as we passed Silversea’s elegant Silver Cloud last night on her way from Alta, Norway to Kristiansund, the atmosphere outside more closely resembled a rainy afternoon instead of closing in on midnight. I had drinks with some fellow guests from Australia in the Panorama Lounge, and listened to Eric on the piano. Finally, someone made the mistake of checking their watch.
“Is it really 12:30 in the morning?!”