The Luxury Expedition Cruise. It’s quickly becoming the river cruising of the deep-ocean cruising world. Much like “glamping” redefined the idea of “camping, ” luxury expedition cruises still offer all the adventure and knowledge of their predecessors, but they do it in much better surroundings.
Aside from Hamburg-based Hapag-Lloyd Cruises – which traditionally catered to a primarily German-speaking clientele – luxury line Silversea was one of the first cruise operators to pioneer the concept of the luxury expedition cruise.
Prior to 2008, if you took an expedition cruise, it generally meant you’d be sailing aboard a repurposed Russian icebreaker or a modified research vessel. Both are perfectly adequate for their purposes, but they’re low on the totem pole in terms of creature comforts. Voyages, because of their unique itineraries, still cost a small fortune – and you had to pay for nearly everything onboard.
In fact, the “traditional” expedition looked a lot like this. Behold: the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory.
Now, 50 Years of Victory is pretty cool. It’s nuclear powered. It can sail right to the North Pole. But for the price of admission, this is the level of accommodations you’re treated to – if you splurge for a suite:
Also consider this: 50 Years of Victory is pretty much the crème-de-la-crème of traditional expedition ships, because most aren’t nuclear powered, and most can’t go to the actual North Pole. What I’m driving at here is that your average expedition ship is actually a downgrade from this high standard.
So, along comes Silversea in 2007. The company purchased a small, purpose-built expedition ship that started life out back in 1989 as the Delfin Clipper. Fast-forward through six name changes and Delfin Clipper had become World Adventurer by the time Silversea purchased her and spent millions of dollars refitting her in order to turn out its very first luxury expedition ship, Prince Albert II.
Silversea renamed the vessel in early 2011 in order to bring her in line with the naming conventions for the rest of the fleet. They bestowed the name Silver Explorer on her; fitting, considering that the ship would spend most of her year traversing the globe from one polar region to the next.
Of course, there was much skepticism surrounding this decision – mostly from unsure potential guests and other cruise lines. Luxury cruisers, it was reasoned, didn’t want to get into Zodiac rafts at seven in the morning. Luxury cruisers wanted something sedate and pampering. Luxury cruisers wouldn’t take to the product. And so on.
Not only did luxury cruisers love the idea of expedition cruising, they flocked to Silver Explorer in droves. Soon, Silversea was attracting guests that had never even sailed with the line before. On my first Silver Explorer voyage back in 2012, I met a couple that had sailed nine times with Silversea – without ever setting foot on one of its classic luxury ships.
Before long, demand was so great for the line’s Silversea Expeditions product that Silversea expanded its fleet, adding Silver Discoverer in the Pacific; and Silver Galapagos to operate in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands – one of the most highly-regulated, difficult to operate in regions of the world.
Proof that Silversea had struck cruising gold came a few years back, when competitor Seabourn announced it would outfit one of its ships for Antarctic expeditions. Most recently, Crystal Cruises announced that it too was getting into the expedition cruising market.
Turns out luxury cruisers love their adventures.
It was great to return to Silver Explorer last month to see how she’s making out as she celebrates her seventh anniversary with Silversea. People often don’t realize that an expedition ship has to be designed much differently from one of the line’s classic luxury ships: You’ve got guests traipsing around in your corridors wearing heavy-traction rubber boots. They’re carrying backpacks and walking sticks, cameras and stainless-steel waterbottles, binoculars and who knows what else. So every decision you make, from your wall treatments to your carpeting, has to be designed with wear in mind.
In that respect, Silver Explorer has a very nice balance between luxury and durability. Wall treatments in guest corridors are basic, but reminiscent of the Silversea-style found aboard its classic luxury fleet. Stairwells are basic. The forward and midship elevators are small, but Silversea replaced the old cars with brand new ones since my last voyage. Those aren’t easy to install – and they don’t come cheap, either.
One guest I met said they’d like to see better wall treatments in the corridors. I would too – but they’re just not practical. Silver Explorer, on average, will encounter more rough seas than the rest of the fleet combined in her sailing year. It’s why the chairs in the dining room are discreetly chained to the floor. So to have multi-million dollar faux wood panelling in the guest corridors where a room service trolley might slam into them and rip a chunk out during adverse weather? It’s just not practical.
For a ship that is run hard, the rest of Silver Explorer sparkles. On the public room front, the Panorama Lounge all the way aft on Deck 5 features the same basic look and feel (and wall treatments) that the same space aboard the company’s flagship, Silver Spirit, does. It’s nice, subtle, inviting, and most importantly, it’s not so overbearing that it takes away from the scenery outside.
Love smoking or hate it, there’s no denying that the adjacent Connoisseur’s Club is one heck of a popular place. It gives smokers an indoor space to enjoy a fine cigar and a scotch, while the scent is kept inside the room thanks to a set of glass doors that allow access but are never propped open.
The Restaurant on Deck 4 is also strikingly beautiful, with plenty of wood accents and richly-upholstered chairs. There’s a handful of tables for two but really, to make the most out of your experience, ask to be seated at a larger table. The Maitre’d will gladly find you one. Plus, there’s no such thing as a bad table in The Restaurant: Windows wrap 180 degrees around the room.
In fact, for such a small ship, Silver Explorer offers an unusually large number of public rooms and amenities. She has one of the most attractive libraries I’ve seen on an expedition ship, which also serves as a base for the Future Cruise Consultant and the ship’s computer workstation point. It’s not stocked with fluff, either: There are seriously good books on the topics of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, birds, wildlife, travel, history, culture, you name it. There’s even a small paperback exchange section where you can leave (or take) books from a small selection that other guests have donated.
Moving forward and up one deck, the Observation Lounge is a cozy spot to sit and read during the daytime (or, let’s face it – nap), and a small continental breakfast is served up here each morning, with coffee, juice, and an assortment of pastries.
You can also dine outdoors at The Grill for a casual lunch – even in the Arctic and Antarctica – and you can enjoy Silversea’s signature Hot Rock Dining, where your meal is cooked atop a slab of preheated volcanic rock. It’s a great feature that was pioneered aboard the Silver Spirit and brought onboard Silver Explorer and the rest of the expedition fleet by popular demand.
The real luxuries, however, have been saved for Silver Explorer’s suites. There’s a surprising number of options to choose between, ranging from spacious Adventurer Suites that feature two portholes to staterooms with French balconies, suites with French balconies, suites with fixed windows and no balcony, and even suites with full walk-out balconies. These latter suites are all featured on Deck 7, and were added to the ship during her refit in 2007.
No matter which suite category you choose, you’re treated to full butler service – just as if you were onboard Silver Spirit. Bulgari Green toiletries are provided in most suites, with Bulgari White provided in the Grand and Owner’s suites. But, this is Silversea: You can also have the Bulgari swapped out for toiletries by Salvatore Ferragamo, or choose a hypo-allergenic brand.
Even aboard Silver Explorer, Silversea rolls out the pillow menu, with nine different choices in all. These range from firm to feathery-soft to hypo-allergenic. There’s a pillow option that includes a scented sachet of lavender. Try asking for that on an ex-Russian icebreaker expedition ship and see what sort of answer you get.
Seven years on, Silver Explorer still continues to pioneer expedition cruising for Silversea under its Silversea Expeditions brand.
After her Arctic season this summer, Silver Explorer makes her way down to Ushuaia, Argentina for the start of her Winter 2015-16 Antarctic season, where she’ll operate 18-night voyages that include the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia. She’ll also do shorter, 10-night runs that solely concentrate on exploring the Antarctic Peninsula.
But it’s not just cold destinations that Silver Explorer covers; next spring, she’ll sail a fabulous 23-night voyage from Cape Town to Dakar (V.7606, 23 March 2016), and a shorter 14-night voyage from Dakar to Lisbon (V.7607, 15 April 2016). She’ll then venture up Europe’s western coast, through the British Isles, and eventually to Tromso, Norway, where she’ll once again begin a summer of voyages to the High Arctic.