My Favorite Ocean Cruises of 2015, Part I

Sailing The Seven Seas: My Favorite Ocean Cruises of 2015

Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Avid Cruiser founder Ralph Grizzle recently wrote about his six favorite river cruises on our sister-site River Cruise Advisor (you can find his favorites here and here.) He asked me to write about a few of my favorite ocean cruises from the past year. These are voyages that made an impact on me and, hopefully, will inspire you as well to try some of these intriguing ships and trips.

2015 will go down as an eventful year for me – one filled with so many noteworthy cruises around the world that I’m actually hard-pressed to come up with a shortlist of favorites. From Antarctica to the high Arctic, I traversed more sections of the planet than I ever thought I would by oceangoing cruise ship, and while I enjoyed each and every one of my voyages, there were a few that stood out.

Inspiring and often surprising, here are a few of my Favorite Ocean Cruises of 2015, with Part II to continue on Monday. Some of these ships are floating palaces with nearly every whim catered to, while others are all about the destinations. In their own way, they are uniquely suited to the environments in which they sail; locations throughout the world that are often as diverse and interesting as the ships themselves.

Silver Explorer – Arctic Svalbard

Cruising the Polar Ice Cap aboard Silversea Expedition's Silver Explorer! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Cruising the Polar Ice Cap aboard Silversea Expedition’s Silver Explorer. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

If there is one voyage that stands out this year, it was my journey to Arctic Svalbard aboard Silversea’s nimble expedition ship Silver Explorer. Silversea was one of the first lines to pioneer the concept of the luxury expedition voyage, and nowhere does that concept shine more brightly than in the polar extremes of this planet.

My sailing departed from Tromso, Norway bound for 10 days of uncharted, unscheduled adventure in Arctic Svalbard, which is situated midway between continental Europe and the North Pole.

It was the contrasts of this voyage that I appreciated most: sipping champagne and snacking on canapes in our oversized winter parkas on-deck as we sailed away from Tromso. Joining the Expedition Team and the Officers out on deck at one in the morning, under the full glare of the Midnight Sun, in order to watch for polar bears. Sitting tucked into the pack ice that surrounds the North Pole. Watching. Waiting.

A taste of Arctic wildlife in Smeerenburg, Svalbard. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A taste of Arctic wildlife in Smeerenburg, Svalbard. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Each of Silversea’s three luxury expedition ships (Silver Explorer, Silver Discover and Silver Galapagos) explore some of the world’s most remote places. These locales don’t have the brand-name recognition that Stockholm, New York and Tokyo do. They’re not bustling metropolises like Hong Kong, nor are they laid-back resort destinations like Barbados. Your friends will give you confused looks when you exclaim, “I’m off to Svalbard!”

But in my 10 (okay, 12) days with Silversea aboard Silver Explorer in the Arctic, I saw my first-ever polar bear in the wild. I walked through the remnants of whaling outposts, lonely trapper’s huts, and marble quarries. I crossed 80°N for the first time – the farthest north I’ve ever been on this planet. It’s at least 20 degrees further than most people will ever venture in their lifetimes. We wedged ourselves in the Polar Ice Cap in search of polar bears. We saw impossibly small plant life. We hiked mountains, climbed hills, and stood on glaciers.

And at the end of each day, we were treated to a welcome back drink, a hot towel, and five-star meals, service and accommodations.

Two excellent places to rest and recap the day's activities: the Observation Lounge all the way forward on Deck 6...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Two excellent places to rest and recap the day’s activities: the Observation Lounge all the way forward on Deck 6 … Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...and the Connoisseur's Club on Deck 5 aft, adjacent to the Panorama Lounge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
… and the Connoisseur’s Club on Deck 5 aft, adjacent to the Panorama Lounge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

There are other cruise lines that sail to Arctic Svalbard, and I’m sure they do a good job too. But there’s something to be said to returning to a luxury ship after a hard day ashore and being greeted by canapés and flutes of champagne.

We were even treated to a few extra days onboard Silver Explorer, courtesy of fog that shut down Longyearbyen airport just as our journey was coming to a close. In many ways, I was glad this happened. It gave me a chance to see what I’ve always suspected: that Silversea’s legendary service isn’t just confined to sailings that go according to plan.

Anchoring the Zodiac rafts for the duration of our stay on shore. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Anchoring the Zodiac rafts for the duration of our stay on shore. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...but so is the Arctic. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Exploring the Far Arctic with Silversea Expeditions. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

In fact, when the rug got pulled out from under us and we returned to the Silver Explorer for an unexpected two-night additional stay, things continued on as if we had never left. Lunch was served in the restaurant. Entertainment was put together and scheduled. New daily programs were printed, and new menus put together. New keycards were issued, and we were welcomed back as warmly as we had been ten days prior, when we first embarked.

It ended up being a memorable ending to what was a truly special voyage.

Queen Mary 2 – Westbound Transatlantic Crossing

A crossing on Queen Mary 2 gives you respect for the sea...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
There’s nothing like crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Cunard Line’s massive flagship, the superlative Queen Mary 2, is my favorite ship afloat. So thoroughly do I enjoy sailing aboard her that the idea of taking one of her many cruises – with actual ports of call – is a foreign thought to me. Instead, I prefer to sail her where she was intended to go: crossing the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

This was my second transatlantic crossing aboard Queen Mary 2, but the first westbound sailing I’ve been on. Departing from Southampton, we spent eight glorious days sailing to New York with the National Symphony Orchestra onboard to keep us company.

If you’ve never been on a transatlantic crossing, this is the ship to do it on. Boredom is simply not an option aboard the 1,132 foot-long Queen Mary 2, which towers more than 200 feet above the waterline and features amenities like the largest ballroom at sea, the only planetarium at sea, and even dedicated kennels on Deck 12 for your canine and feline friends to travel across the Atlantic as well.

Conductor Anthony Inglis and the National Symphony Orchestra performed for guests tonight in the Royal Court Theatre onboard Queen Mary 2. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Conductor Anthony Inglis and the National Symphony Orchestra performed for guests in the Royal Court Theatre onboard Queen Mary 2. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Step Into My Office: the Chart Room on Deck 3, shortly before midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Step Into My Office: the Chart Room on Deck 3, shortly before midnight. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A moody day of wild weather aboard the Queen Mary 2 as we cross the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
A moody day of wild weather aboard the Queen Mary 2 as we cross the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. On a Crossing, the weather becomes a character in and of itself. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Queen Mary 2 is nothing short of magical, but it’s Cunard’s enrichment programs that make all the difference. Acclaimed conductor Anthony Inglis conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in several special evening (and one matinee) performances for the benefit of those on-board, and an array of guest speakers lectured us on the finer points of a variety of subjects. If you think lectures are boring, you’ve never been to ones on a Cunard liner: My first crossing featured a retired British Airways Concorde captain who filled the Illumniations Theatre to capacity every time he spoke.

After dinner, it's time to go up to my favorite spot on the ship: the Commodore Club, Deck 9 forward. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
My favorite spot on the ship: the Commodore Club, Deck 9 forward. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Next year, Queen Mary 2 is undergoing some major renovations and refits. New solo staterooms are added. Todd English is going away, as is the Winter Garden on Deck 7. While I’m generally not a fan of most cruise line’s refit programs, Cunard has done its homework on this one: These changes are poised to bring new life into Queen Mary 2 as she celebrates her 12th year in service in 2016.

Her look and some public rooms might be changing, but her spirit is as strong and appealing as I remember it. I’ll be on board her again – and you should, too.

Star Princess – Alaska

Princess Cruises' Star Princess approaches Hubbard Glacier, Alaska
Princess Cruises’ Star Princess approaches Hubbard Glacier, Alaska. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

What can I say – I never get tired of cruising to Alaska. I’ve been sailing to the Last Frontier for 17 years now, and Alaska never disappoints me. This year, though, I found even more to enjoy on a massive cruisetour aboard Princess CruisesStar Princess.

Beginning in Anchorage, we journeyed to two of Princess Cruises’ exclusive mountain lodges deep within the wilderness of Mainland Alaska. At the Mt. McKinley Wilderness Lodge, we were able to enjoy the thrill of being nestled within sight of Mt. McKinley, which was renamed just two months later as Mt. Denali. Locals have been calling it that forever, but they finally got their wishes this year when President Obama officially declared the name change.

Then, it was off to Denali National Park and the Princess Denali Wilderness Lodge where we spent two full days touring this crown jewel of Alaska, both by land and air: a fixed-wing aircraft took us on a half-day flightseeing tour and even landed us on a glacier for a half-hour of walking around on its frozen, mountainous surface.

Touchdown! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Touchdown! Landing on a glacier near Denali National Park with Princess Cruises. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Princess has integrated its land and cruise products together better than I had expected. At the lodge, there was a level of continuity in the service and the culinary offerings that paired well with the line’s trademark onboard service. Local ingredients are featured wherever possible, and the design of the lodges is meant to include native materials and fittings wherever possible.

The real star of the show, however, was the aptly-named Star Princess. Built in 2002, my week aboard her reminded me just how well-built Princess’s Grand Class ships are – and how well they’ve aged. The original three ships (Grand Princess, Golden Princess, Star Princess) have been thoughtfully refitted over the years to expand upon concepts introduced on other vessels, like Movies Under the Stars (Caribbean Princess, 2004) and the Piazza Atrium concept (Crown Princess, 2006).

Back onboard the soothing Star Princess. Shown here is Crooner's Lounge on Deck 7...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Onboard the elegant Star Princess. Shown here is Crooner’s Lounge on Deck 7. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...but my two favorite spots onboard are the Explorer's Lounge, above,...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
The Explorer’s Lounge. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
...as seen from the decks of the Star Princess. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Guests lined up along the starboard bridge wing of the Star Princess in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Both inside and out, Star Princess sparkled. Looking nothing like her 13 years of age, Star Princess is the ideal vessel to sail to Alaska on, thanks to her covered wraparound Promenade Deck, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs, and plethora of open deck spaces. These include the coveted viewing platforms situated atop the extreme port and starboard bridge wings, as well as the additional cost venue known as The Sanctuary. On a day spent cruising Glacier Bay, it’s tough to beat this ship for sheer personal space and amenities.

This year, Princess Cruises celebrated its 50th Anniversary. For much of that time, the line has been continuously sailing to Alaska. If my sailing this past June was any indication, the future ahead is just as bright and illustrious as the line’s “Love Boat” past.

Tune in on Monday for the rest of my favorite oceangoing cruises of 2015.

For further reading … 

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