Exploring the Polar Ice Cap
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
I was brushing my teeth when I felt Silversea Expeditions’ Silver Explorer shudder. It wasn’t much – just enough to rattle a few ceiling tiles and create an obvious disturbance beneath my feet. I could feel the ship bounce in place a few times, then return to normal.
I knew then that we’d entered the pack ice that would eventually give way to the polar ice cap.
Today, guests aboard Silver Explorer are being treated to a day above 80°N latitude, exploring the pack ice that exists above arctic Svalbard. Although it might not look like it at first glance, this vast expanse of Arctic Ocean littered with ice floes is actually an area known as the Nordaust Svalbard Nature Reserve. Our goal for the day: to weave in and among the ice in the ongoing search for the elusive Polar Bear.
To put where we are in perspective, at 80°N we are very nearly at the top of the world. Only parts of Ellesmere Island in arctic Canada, the northernmost tip of Greenland, Franz Josef Land, and the Severnaya Zemlya islands in Russia are higher. Only a thousand kilometres separate us from the North Pole, but getting there is nearly impossible due to the thick polar ice cap. You’d need an icebreaker – and probably a helicopter – to get the job done.
And how is it that Silver Explorer can cut through this pack ice? She’s been specially designed and built to operate in Polar Regions. Lloyds Register has given her a Class 1A Ice Rating thanks to her strengthened hull and sharper-than-average bow that allows her to literally slice through most kinds of ice safely.
And slice through the ice we did. All day, in fact. That in and of itself turned out to be quite the reward.
This far north, everything is in a constant state of flux. The wind changes direction with surprising speed and strength. If it comes from the north, it sweeps in over the polar ice cap and temperatures plummet rapidly. Although most of today hovered around freezing, things got down to -10°C when the wind kicked up.
The skies change colour too – from bursts of unguarded blue that are suddenly snatched away by banks of fog that roll in and out with reckless abandon.
Far from being consistent, the ice changes in shape, size and consistency. Some pieces are little more than newly-formed ice, while others could classify as growlers and a few as bergy bits. Unlike the Antarctic peninsula with its massive Tabular Icebergs, ice here is less dramatic but more numerous. It is low and flat for the most part, but stretches out for miles in every direction surrounding the ship.
Personally, I found this ever-changing scenery to be its own reward today. I admired it from the Observation Lounge, the Panorama Lounge, the exposed outer deck on Decks 6 and 7, and from the privacy of my own suite balcony.
Speaking of – and since there are no polar bears to be found – let’s talk a little about the Owner’s Suites aboard Silver Explorer. Each measures 728 square feet including a balcony that clocks in at a whopping 158 square feet – or roughly as large as an oceanview stateroom on a Royal Caribbean ship.
While many suites offer French Balconies aboard Silver Explorer, only three categories of suites offer true, step-out balconies: Owner’s Suites, Grand Suites and Medallion Suites, all of which are located on Deck 7 in a new prefabricated section that was added to Silver Explorer when she was acquired in 2008.
There’s a lot to like about this suite. The balcony, even in the Arctic, is surprisingly useful. In fact, I’m amazed at how often I’m out there – even if it’s just in my pyjamas to check out the weather or to take a quick picture of the pack ice. Sure, it’s cold – but it’s your own little private oasis of deck space to enjoy.
The separated bedroom and living room arrangement is ideal for families – these Owner’s Suites can comfortably hold up to three guests, with the sofa couch in the living room pulling out to create a third berth.
There are little things that I appreciate: the walk-in closet is large enough for three people to store all their clothing in, and the myriad of drawers, cupboards and shelving units throughout the living and sleeping areas of the suite almost borders on overkill. You could comfortably sail on here for a month and still have storage space to spare.
Two flat-panel television sets are included: one in the living room, and one in the bedroom. Both feature interactive video-on-demand systems that include the latest movies across all genres. Adult films are not featured. Yes, I do get asked that question!
Of course, you also get a mini-bar stocked with your preferences and additional alcoholic drinks are available upon request. Interestingly, suites aboard Silver Explorer come pre-stocked with a 70cl bottle of Berkeley Square London Dry Gin. Small-batch produced in Mayfair, England, Berkeley Square Gin is a new feature for me – I’ve never seen it before on the fleet. I’m also hesitant to open it as I am not really a gin man.
Another great feature of these suites is the marble bathroom. While not as cavernous as bathrooms aboard Silversea’s flagship, the Silver Spirit, this bathroom is downright luxurious for an expedition vessel. There’s a separate (but open) toilet area, followed by the main sink and vanity area that boasts an excellent amount of storage space. Then, moving to the left, we come to the full-sized tub and shower combination. The shower features a rainforest shower head, and is located next to the tub. If you want to have a bath, you simply fill the tub. If you want to shower, simply stand next to the tub and turn the shower on. A frosted glass door allows for some privacy while showering, so couples could technically both be in the bathroom at the same time, with one in the shower and one at the vanity.
Here’s some other perks that Owner’s Suite guests are afforded:
- Four hours of internet service per suite, per voyage segment.
- Two hours of worldwide phone use from your suite, per voyage segment.
- Dinner at an Officer’s table
- Afternoon canapés upon request
- An Illy espresso machine
- Complimentary dry cleaning and pressing
- Complimentary laundry service
Of course, Owner’s Suite guests are afforded all the perks of other suite categories, including a choice of three different types of toiletries (Bulgari, Ferragamo or a hypo-allergenic brand); nine different pillow types; complimentary video-on-demand; Pratesi bed linens; butler service; champagne on request; personalized stationery; iPod docking station; umbrellas; premium mattresses, and – of course – a complimentary backpack and water bottles on all Expedition voyages, and a complimentary parka on all polar voyages.
It’s worth noting that in Owner’s Suites, the standard Bulgari Green is replaced with Bulgari White toiletries that feature a more subtle white tea scent. Of course, if you prefer the Bulgari Vert, you can always request it from your butler. Personally, I like to switch between the Bulgari White and the Ferragamo toiletries – getting both sent to the room wasn’t an issue at all.
I have to admit: I get canapés delivered to the room every afternoon around 5:00 p.m. I tend to have a light lunch, and my tummy starts to rumble around then. With dinner at 7:30 p.m. each evening, a little cheese & shrimp cocktail hits the spot! Of course, the canapés change every evening.
If there’s a downside to these massive suites, it’s that power outlets are surprisingly scarce: just one on the desk area in the living room, and one on the vanity area in the bedroom – though you’ll have to unplug the iHome iPod dock to use it. North American guests: bring two adapters – all plugs onboard Silver Explorer are the 220V, two-pronged European type.
So while we didn’t see any polar bears, today was a nice day. It gave me a chance to slow down and relax. To spend the day hunting the ice for the elusive creature. To enjoy lunch outdoors at The Grill on Deck 6 aft. To read my book. To do my writing.
If you’ve been to Antarctica, you’ll know what an endurance marathon that is. There is so much to see and do that it’s just mind-boggling. Landings ashore happen at least twice a day. Scenic cruising is so phenomenal that the decks are nearly crowded 24/7. Sleep, in Antarctica, is elusive.
The Arctic, by comparison, is the more laid-back of the two polar destinations. There’s more time spent at sea. Hikes are shorter. Walks are easier. There’s a good balance between on-shore exploration and time to enjoy the beautiful Silver Explorer herself.
Tomorrow, that balance continues as we set out on a landing ashore bright and early in the morning, resuming our hunt through the pack ice aboard Silver Explorer in the afternoon. I’d love to see a polar bear –but for me, this journey itself is the reward.
After all, how often do you get to see Mother Nature’s handiwork at its most raw and untamed?