Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Goldring Travel's Review of Silversea Silver Shadow (With Comparisons to the Seabourn Odyssey-Class Ships)

This review is a summary of my seven part series of my time on the Silversea Silver Shadow May 30, 2013 cruise in Alaska as well as a bit of a comparison of the Silversea product on the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper to the product Seabourn has on its Odyssey-class ships (Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest) with some comments about Crystal Cruises as well. 

Full Disclosure:  I did not pay full price for this cruise.  Silversea Cruises was a more than a gracious  host, but knew going in that my comments would be my honest opinion.  That is exactly what I am giving you!  As Pamela Conover, CEO of SeaDream Yacht Club and former President of Seabourn Cruises once introduced me, "I would like you to meet Eric Goldring.  Eric can be brutally honest.  Eric, please just be honest."


Short version:  I was very impressed with most aspects of my cruise and that Silversea truly excelled in many areas.  However, there was, in all honestly, some inconsistency in certain areas of the service and cuisine.  

Bottom line:  My overall cruise experience was a luxury one which very few cruise lines can complete with, but alas there is competition and room for improvement.  For an Alaska cruise it is "the" luxury option.

Embarkation

Embarkation was excellent with the processing taking only moments.  The only curious thing was providing a fifth of glass champagne as a welcome.  It was a “huh?” rather than a “Wow!”  First impressions mean a lot and for an experienced luxury traveler that jumped out…and not in a good way.

The Suite

While the Silver Shadow is not a new ship, our suite was in suburb condition with all of the amenities one would expect.  

Silversea Silver Shadow Veranda Suite

Silversea Silver Shadow Veranda Suite
The flat screen television sticks out into the room a bit (the entertainment system needs a serious upgrade as, for example, there is an old fashioned movie schedule and no “on demand” viewing – relying on DVDs instead).  The sofa is comfortable, but too small for a nap and getting past the bed when my wife was sitting at the vanity was a challenge.  Dining in suite was great, the bed was comfortable and the walk-in closet worked well and there was plenty of storage.  The balconies are small, with two chairs and only a small low cocktail table. 

Seabourn Sojourn Veranda Suite
In contrast, the Seabourn suites have a larger “nap-able” sofa, a large balcony which allows both lounging and a full table (so working and dining on the balcony are options), the vanity is near the bathroom so there is no conflict with moving around the suite and the television, while smaller, is tucked away when not in use, is not a head knocking invitation, and has a truly robust “on demand” movie system. 

Note, however, that the Silver Shadow and Whisper are not as new as the Seabourn ships and many of these differences are because of the evolution of cruise ship design; not a fault of Silversea.  By way of example, Silversea announced on June 25, 2013 that it is installing a wireless “on demand” movie system where you can watch movies on any portable device (like an iPad) on all of its ships. Pretty cool!

The Bathroom/En-Suite
Silversea Silver Shadow Bathroom
The Silver Shadow’s bathroom is well-laid out with two lavatories, full bath and shower.  There is plenty of granite, except the shower (curiously a plastic composite).  Quickly replenished Bulgari amenities (or Ferragamo if you prefer) are provided.  The towels were both large and plush enough. The shower has a single detachable showerhead.  While not cramped, I find the toilet being on an angle so that it fits between the lavatory and the shower not to my liking.

Seabourn Odyssey Bathroom
Seabourn’s bathrooms are actually quite similar, but larger.  Seabourn’s shower is all granite and has two showerheads; one fixed and one removable.  Because it is larger, the bathtub is fully open rather than partially tucked in behind the lavatory (opposite the toilet) and the area around the toilet is significantly larger.  You also have more space around the sinks.  Seabourn offers specially formulated Molton Brown amenities with additional designer soaps.

In Suite Service

Our butler was polished, polite and wanted to do as much for us as possible.  Whether it was unpacking or packing us (we declined both), stocking our in-suite bar, making dinner reservations (we did that ourselves as well) or bringing us tea and scones, Yogesh was quietly enthusiastic about it.  He properly set our table for breakfast when we ordered room service and provided quite elegant service including preparing out tea/coffee and cereal.  Our stewardess kept our suite tidy without rearranging my papers and always greeted us with a smile…when she caught us in.  Other niceties were “welcome back” messages left on a mirror in our suite and a rose petal bubble bath one afternoon.

Silversea provides a few special touches such as shining your shoes and polishing your sunglasses; which is very popular (though it can initially have a “what else of my stuff is Silversea going through).

Honestly, the butler-thing is something you either love or doesn’t make a difference.  For me it doesn’t make a difference.  On Seabourn you receive effectively the same service, but with a different style as there are no butlers with the tasks are shared by your stewardess and room service.  In essence on Seabourn you form more of a relationship with your stewardess and on Silversea you form it with your butler.

Shore Excursions

Another Silversea strength is its Shore Excursion program (at least that was my experience in Alaska).  There was a wide variety of extremely well priced excursions including quite a number for the more youthful of us.  Our three excursions were a natural walk (with only four guests), zip-lining (with only seven guests) and a 4+ mile rainforest hike (with only ten guests).  All were good, but the zip-lining experience was excellent and it, along with the rainforest hike, were not expected on a luxury line supposedly catering to an older clientele.


Seabourn used to have a similar shore excursion approach, but since the move to Seattle it really has been a sore spot with me.  While many tours are quite good, there is sense that the folks arranging them do not have the same luxury or firsthand knowledge experience that Silversea has.

Enrichment Programs

One big miss for Silversea, in my opinion, was the lack of a naturalist onboard for an Alaskan cruise.  As a nature lover I have always found that understanding what you are about to look at, or are presently looking at, is far more enriching than having a few written generic sentences offered.  Having experiences Terry Breen on a similar Regent Seven Seas cruise a few years ago, there is no question that it “enriched” everyone’s experience. 

Along those lines, the Silversea enrichment lecturers that were onboard were not great; really not offering anything associated with our Alaskan experience.  Guests are onboard an Alaska cruise generally for one of two reasons:  It is a short, relatively inexpensive, first time cruise or they are interested in the nature and culture of Alaska (or both).  A relatively inexpensive “wow” are guest lecturers that go beyond port lectures.

Entertainment

I was pleasantly surprised by the singers on Silversea.  They were truly talented; not “cruise ship” talented, but actually talented.  Not only could they sing popular songs, they sang some excellent opera.  Impressive.  Not so impressive was the entertainment in the bars/lounges.  It ranged from acceptable to just a bit annoying.  Ironically, on Seabourn I have generally found just the opposite.

Public Spaces

I am not going to review each of the public areas on the Silver Shadow, but will highlight a few. Overall the spaces are traditional in setup and décor. 

Silversea Silver Whisper Observation Lounge
The Observation Lounge is fairly small and set with a decided “observe looking over the bow” orientation rather than as being a more social venue with outstanding views.  This was one area where the ship was showing a bit of age with a number of windows which were fogged due to the seals having failed and seating that should have been recovered or replaced years ago.  But nonetheless I used the venue every single day and enjoyed it.  Seabourn’s Observation Lounge is larger, more modern, has entertainment and is the smoking venue on its ships.

Silversea, in contrast, has the Humidor (a/k/a Connoisseur’s Club), this is one of the nicest spaces on the ship with leather chairs, Turkish carpets and a dedicated attendant.  While it is nice to have a place to comfortably smoke a cigar without offending others, the room does need an air filtration system.  Note:  While it is not heavily used, it does work well to keep the less-and-less tolerated second hand smoke away from those offended while giving smokers a welcoming retreat.
 
Silversea Silver Whisper Connoisseur Lounge
The Bar is the main lounge midship with a large bar center stage while the Panorama Lounge, located aft, is a bit more refined and where Afternoon Tea is served daily.  While a bit of an updated is scheduled, one improvement would be advising the bartenders to not call out, “Have a nice Deeenaar!” to everyone while being a bit more “Welcome.  May I get you a cocktail?”  It should be noted that both of these venues need a facelift with the furnishings (especially the sofas) needing replacement.


Cuisine and Dining Venues

Cuisine is subjective and, to be sure, many on our cruise were quite pleased.  There was a notable number of guests, including myself and my wife, were was left a bit disappointed.  Some courses were excellent, but others were bland or worse.  Three times a filet mignon was ordered and none were near up to par.  Pastas (other than at the lunch pasta station) were excellent as was the tiramisu. Curiously, Atlantic salmon (frozen and farmed) was offered at every meal, but on this Alaskan cruise fresh Pacific salmon was essentially non-existent…same for shellfish. 

Culinary presentations were basic and very few were “polished” thus failing giving the impression of a beautifully prepared dish. This was also evident during the Galley Market Luncheon.  I noticed so many places where Seabourn’s cuisine and presentation far exceeded Silversea…down to how the sashimi was cut and presented.

The Restaurant (main dining room) was comfortable and attractive, but the waiter stations use drawers filled with silverware, so you regularly hear a crash when opened or closed. Wine service was minimal (and less than fluency in English made understanding the explanations of the wines a challenge at times), and the daily wine offerings were OK, but nothing special.  Comparing it to Seabourn’s ships is, in a way, unfair as they are newer and have a bit of more modern flair, but I have never chosen a cruise based upon the décor of the main restaurant (and the differences aren’t so severe that I could in this instance).

La Terrazza is a nicer venue with great views. During the day, it is the casual dining venue, but its buffet needs to be redesigned as it focuses on serving main dishes in old-fashioned serving pans/chafing dishes which makes it a bit less appetizing and limits creativity.  Also, the lighting needs to be changed as you kind of feel like you are walking into a closet so the food doesn’t look as good as it is when you return to the restaurant. 

In the evenings, La Terrazza is an alternative dining venue, but not necessarily more casual. (It is where we dined with the Captain.)  With the large windows and the spectacular Alaskan scenery it was visually impressive.  Unfortunately, the cuisine was inconsistent…surprising for an Italian owned cruise line.  The Colonnade on Seabourn is, again, a more modern style (I describe it as upscale New York City) and the buffets are taken to an entirely different level in style, variety and presentation, so on the culinary side Seabourn is hands down a far better product. 

Both have al fresco dining, but Seabourn offers more and in very comfortable and elegant all-weather wicker seating versus Silversea’s more traditional teak wood furnishings.  However, our whale-watching while having lunch on the Silver Shadow made the furnishings rather irrelevant!


Le Champagne, the seven table, $30 per person, reservation only, Relais & Chateau restaurant is the finest restaurant on the ship.  I dined here more than once (a guilt-ridden treat…as many could not get a reservation for even one night).  While the décor could use an elegant bit of sprucing up and the leaching of cigar smoke from the attached Humidor eliminated, just about everything I ate was excellent (special nod to the forest pigeon) and the service was the most consistently high quality on the ship.  I am not in favor of the $30 per person charge and as reservations are at a premium (at least on a short seven day cruise), I think this takes away from a luxury cruise experience. 

Honestly, Seabourn’s regular menu offerings are of the same quality as I found in Le Champagne…with a few limited exceptions.  Seabourn’s Restaurant 2, which has a more Avant garde tasting menu is an entirely different concept, so comparisons really aren’t appropriate here.

The Patio Grill at lunch was, for me, disastrous.  Poor service.  Nothing better than OK food.  Hygiene issues.  A sirloin steak served with no garnish or the requisite French fries and onion rings, then being given ice cold (not fresh) onion rings.  An order of two hot dogs came, curiously, on one bun…but with garnish and hot fries and rings.  A bar waiter picking up dirty pool towels and then immediately serving drinks.  Dirty dishes being taken from one table to another. Etc. It left me worse than flat.  Seabourn’s Patio Grill at lunch has a wider variety of, and higher quality, offerings and appropriate service.

The Patio Grill is “transformed” into the Hot Rocks Grill for dinner where you are given a hot lava stone to cook your own food (meat, vegetables, etc.)  It is popular, but just not my thing.  Seabourn continues with its Patio Grill, but with an essentially full waiter service and a thematic menu that varies each night (Surf & Turf, Grill, Mediterranean, etc.)

Service

As with food, service is a personal thing.  Silversea’s service style is markedly different from Seabourn’s.  Silversea has a large Filipino staffing, so the more subservient culture onboard is far different than the Seabourn European/South African staffing “I own this” approach.  A simple example:  On Silversea I generally had to call over a bar waiter to get another drink and tell him what I am drinking, while on Seabourn the bar waiters look at your glass and before you are finished they come over and say, “May I get you another Glenfiddich?”  In other words, I don’t want to have to ask to be served.

To be sure there were a few on my Silversea cruise that “got it” and took a more proactive approach, but they were standouts; not the norm and not looked upon by the other staff (from what I can tell) as leaders, but rather “different”.

That said there are a lot of people that prefer this manner of service.  It is, alas, a stylistic approach that is not comfortable for me.  It gives me the feeling that I am somehow treated as superior rather than as a guest.  I don’t want the staff to be sitting down and having drinks with me, but then again, I don’t want to feel like I am more important than they are.

But what was missing, regardless of style of service, was polish.  Too many of the staff was new and/or had trouble speaking American/British/Australian English.  The language barrier created insecurity on the staff’s part and a bit of frustration on the guest’s part.  That is not acceptable.


Am I being a bit tough?  Absolutely!  Silversea is one of the top luxury cruise lines and its service should not be “as good as” a premium or mass market line.

Overall Experience

The executives at Silversea are some of the nicest and most caring people I have met in the industry.  They know they have a wonderful product and are always looking for ways to make it better.  I enjoy doing business with nice people and find it can make ones overall cruise experience just that much better.

Going into this cruise I had my concerns about the consistency of the cuisine and service and, as noted, those concerns remain.  But as important as they are for me, my standards are generally much higher and I am much more critical than most and should be read in that light.  (Seriously, you don't know the details I observe!)  Possibly of greater importance, there is much that surprised me in a good way, from the comfort of the suite to the excellent suite service to the onboard entertainment to the shore excursions.

Overall Silversea does provide a wonderful experience and is greatly concerned that its guests are happy and well taken care of.  It does not load its product with mass market "included" shore excursions or provide restaurant waiters that are hapless (ala Regent Seven Seas Cruises) and then charge you extra.  Especially if you are ready to move up from the mass market or premium lines, Silversea does an admirable job.

As I was finishing up this article, a client of mine moved up to Silversea from Princess and just returned from a Mediterreanean cruise on the Silversea Silver Spirit.  She wrote to me, in part:

We got back from our trip and cruise on Silversea last week. It was absolutely the BEST time of my life! [My husband] still not 100% into cruise travel, but agreed there was no better way to get a taste of the Mediterranean. And Silversea was amazing – the value was definitely there for us with everything included. 

The best part was the ease and speed of getting on/off a small ship like that with no line-ups or waits, and often getting into ports before the masses from the big cruise ships hit. For example, we got on the wall in Dubrovnik without a single person in the queue, and within 30 minutes when [the other cruise ships' passengers] came from the port, and line-up was a hundred deep! 

I loved every single minute of our adventure. Happy to write a testimonial for Silversea and/or your website, and am referring friends your way. 

For me it is about making sure my clients are on the right cruise line for them, with the right itinerary, and that fits within their budget.  As you can see, I may find some faults, but I also know Silversea Cruises made my clients very, very, happy.

Interested in a Silversea cruise?  Give me a call at (877) 2GO-LUXURY or email me at eric@goldringtravel.com.