Sunday, June 9, 2013

Goldring Travel's Silversea Silver Shadow Alaska Cruise Review - Part VII

Our last day of our Alaska cruise on the Silversea Silver Shadow after our early morning visit to the Hubbard Glacier was a sea day with most of my time spent lazing around, trying to catch up on work…with very intermittent internet, trying not to think about our long trip home.

I did spend some time chatting with the Silver Shadow’s Hotel Director, Herbert Huber, about our experience.  He is an interesting, concerned and very likeable man…consistent with every person involved with Silversea’s management.  Our frank chat about the hits and misses, differences between cruise lines and a bit about our personal lives was very enjoyable and which we continued during pre-dinner cocktails.

Upon returning to my suite I remembered it was the Galley Lunch.  It had quite an assortment of offerings, but as noted by a number of guests there, curiously, were no Alaskan culinary items.





As our lunch was finishing and the dining room was quieting down, our favorite waiter in The Restaurant, Stephan, really opened up and had a nice conversation with us.  The Maître de has previously noted that there was one Turkish waiter, Tyfun, and he came over to give my wife a bit of practice speaking Turkish.  While it was great that we had these more personal experiences I wish they had started earlier in the cruise.



Upon returning to our suite we found our bags cleaned and displayed on luggage racks.  I like this better than a vinyl mat placed on my bed.  Why? Because it allowed me to take a nap (yes, I took two naps on this cruise!) without taking everything off my bed.  After my nap, it was time to pack.  Yogesh, our butler, offered to pack us and, while I understand that some would love to have the drudgery taken care of by others, I don’t think anyone should be fussing with my dirty laundry, so I happily handle the 15 minute task.

After cocktails it was time for pre-dinner drinks (we skipped the Captain’s Farewell) and one last dinner in Le Champagne, a cigar with “the cigar crew” and bed for a planned, but not attained, good night’s sleep. 

We were up early, Yogesh brought us our final coffee, tea and croissants, and off the ship by 7:10 a.m. to board the complimentary scenic train ride to the Anchorage Airport.  As we cleared Immigration before boarding the cruise in Vancouver, our luggage went straight from the ship to a holding room at the airport so the usual post cruise hassle claiming your bags was avoided.  That is a very nice touch.

Our train was not the fanciest affair (Silversea does not own private cars as to the larger cruise lines), but it gave us a 3.5 hour scenic ride in sufficient comfort and with our amusing Alaska Railroad guide, Winnie, adding some nice color.  Some of the views were spectacular.


Drinks and food are not included and the prices were steep, but Winnie did make a good Bloody Mary and the sandwiches weren’t bad.  It was also a nice time to meet some folks we had seen, but not talked with while on the ship and to say some final farewells to those we had. 

As we approached Anchorage, Silversea representatives walked each car and explained (again…and it was needed for some) the very easy process of how to claim your bags.  The time it took from disembarking the plane to being checked in, through security and sitting in the lounge was no more than 20 minutes.  (Note:  If you flight departs at 5:00 p.m. you and your bags will be delivered to the Hilton Hotel in downtown Alaska.  If you are traveling on in Alaska you have your choice.)

From the time we disembarked the train to claiming our luggage, checking in, clearing security and sitting in the Alaska Airlines lounge (graced by the great Tony Bennett…adding a bit more class to our experience) took all but 20 minutes.  Pretty impressive end to our week on our Silversea Silver Shadow.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Goldring Travel's Silversea Silver Shadow Alaska Cruise Review - Part VI

Our evening on the Silversea Silver Shadow, as we left Skagway, Alaska was quiet; a nice reprieve from my ziplining experience earlier in the day. 

We had reservations in La Terrazza, but cancelled same; opting for The Restaurant.  We “suffered” being placed in the back corner to accommodate our desire for a window table…with a breathtaking view watching whale spouting and porpoises jumping as we dined.  Not sure why the maître de apologized as we were thrilled.  Our dinner was quite good as was the service. The presentations are simple, but well done.  Interestingly, my veal chop was breaded and, in part, scallopined, so part was quite thin but near the bone done perfectly.  (I also did ask for a filet mignon to see if the third time was lucky.  Unfortunately, while it looked great and was cooked to temperature properly, the meat was just tough.)



We arrived in Sitka, Alaska, our last port, in an early morning mist with rain.  It is our only tender port.  Getting off the ship was very well organized.

As we had booked the Tongass Rainforest Hike I was confident we were going to get lots of rain in the forest.  But as luck seems to be following us, the rain all but disappeared.  We started our hike (totaling a little over 4 miles) with the Mosquito Cove Loop Trail.  It was, especially with the light rain falling in the rain forest, one of the prettiest and most interesting hikes I have been on…and with excellently maintained trails.  It was concerned that some of our group of 8 would not be up to this hike, but they all made it!  (Again, the Silversea small group experience made this hike enjoyable rather than a touristic ordeal.)






We then took a more leisurely mile or so walk/hike through marine, estuary and muskeg (peat bog) environments with some truly spectacular scenery…and with the sun breaking though just at the perfect time.  (It was there I discovered that our very energetic guide who kept us moving at a good pace was 77 years old!)

 


For me this was the best land experience of this cruise.  I had been to Alaska once before, but with our children when they were younger, so I opted for more family friendly experiences.  I love nature and since then felt that I had been missing out on something important.  While some others saw a couple of breaching whales for a few moments, I truly felt fulfilled spending hours surrounded by deep greens, running water and moss-covered trees.  (And with Silversea charging a mere $89 for the experience it truly was a great bargain.)

After returning to the pier we walked through the charming town of Sitka – which is about a 30 minute stroll if you continue on to the excellent park at its far end – where we had a very nice casual lunch at Westmark consisting of an excellent fresh clam chowder and a grilled halibut sandwich.  A bit of art gallery wandering and then it was back to the pier.

Curiously, with the mist and rain starting, Silversea did not have Welcome tent or any hot beverages and it was only running one tender, so we had about a 30 minute wait taking cover under the bridge next to the pier.  Not the end of the world, but not expected and not a luxury experience.

Back on board I tried to get some work done, but the internet is terribly slow and inconsistent.  I am sure this is, in large part, due to the latitude and the mountains.  Silversea does not offer a full cruise internet package, but rather only three choices:  100 minutes for $45, 250 minutes for $85 and 1,000 minutes for $250.  Figuring I would use about 250 minutes I bought that…and then a $45 package and then another $45 package, but at about 50% efficiency it does come out to be quite pricey.

Although feeling guilty, we dined in Le Champagne for a second time and again enjoyed the experience.  This time I had the King Scallops and the Dover Sole, both of which were very good.  The wait staff, who are Romanian, were polished and very friendly. My dessert, however, was the only disappointment as the crepe Suzette was soggy and without great flavor.

As our last day is a Sea Day I thought I might just sleep in…until I realized we would be visiting the Hubbard Glacier between 6:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.  Again, being lucky on this trip, we arrived with some rain and low clouds/mist…and then it cleared. While there was a good bit of ice, Captain Alessandro Zanello – who is friendly and charming, guided the Silver Shadow within 3 miles of the glacier.






While the bow and Observation Lounge (where hot chocolate, warm spiced wine and snacks were being served) were filled with guests, we decided to slip down to a virtually empty La Terrazza for breakfast.  Table for two by the window overlooking the stern?  Absolutely!  And now, with the Silver Shadow turning to depart Hubbard Glacier we had the ultimate in breakfast with a view.


  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Goldring Travel's Silversea Silver Shadow Alaska Cruise Review - Part V

Last night we dined at Silversea Silver Shadow's Le Champagne Restaurant, the finest dining venue on the Silversea Silver Shadow.  It has but seven tables and a significant demand for reservations as this restaurant’s cache is significant.

Le Champagne has a $30 per person cover charge which I believe is a way to reduce the demand for the restaurant.  While its offerings are upscale, so are many of the offerings at the other dining venues throughout the ship, so one is not encountering a meal so expensive that on a luxury cruise line there needs to be an offsetting extra charge.  Le Champagne used to have a $200 per person paired tasting menu, but that has been abandoned.  The result is a bit of a hesitation to offer you the complimentary poured wines in lieu of the premium wine list.

The space is, without question, small and not designed particularly well, though there is no way more tables could be added.  There is a lovely wall of wine bottles but there is also a glass door leading into the Connoisseur’s Club (smoking lounge) that, to me, should be covered with a tasteful drape…not only for décor and intimacy, but because there is a definite light odor of cigars in the restaurant (something for which I kind of feel like a somewhat guilty contributor).

My dinner consisted of an interesting tasting of four amuse bouche followed by a pan seared foie gras appetizer that was uninspiring, a truly excellent forest pigeon main course (apparently a new and very popular menu item) and then a Grand Marnier soufflé.  My wife had an excellent porcini mushroom soup and rack of lamb.  Paired with champagne followed by a 2006 Lynch Bages Bordeaux, it was a very enjoyable evening.  (I am looking forward to dining here again during our cruise.)

Juxtaposed to this fine dining experience was our lunch today at the Pool Grill.  I know the Black Rock Grill (offered there in the evening) is supposed to be a highlight, but aside from my preferring others cook my dinner when I am on a cruise (others love the concept, so that is possibly just my being boring!), if the service and cuisine I had at lunch was any indication of what to expect, I have my concerns.  I am not going to give all the details, but using American cheese rather than the menu offering of cheddar and serving me rock hard/ice cold onion rings were the least of my concerns.  I saw serious hygiene issues (like a bar waiter removing six used pool towels while holding his service tray and then not washing his hands before serving cocktails and another waiter bringing dirty dishes from one table to another table when clearing them).  In over 40 cruises I have never seen anything like it!

Let’s just say between the prior poor service at the Pool Bar and my lunch at the Pool Grill, I consider the area a “no go” for the rest of my cruise.  That is a shame considering how much the rest of the staff seem to care.  I will not allow this area to color my overall experience.

Another slight disappointment was my request for scones and tea at 5:15 p.m. today.  Each day you receive a menu for Afternoon Tea and High Tea.  It states, “Between 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm should you wish to order any of the above, kindly contact your in-Suite butler.”  So I did…only to be told a few minutes later that scones are not available after 5:00 p.m.  Not a big issue, but curious to me.  (Note:  Our butler, Yogesh, made it his business to make things right the next day, calling me right at 4:00 p.m. and asking if I would like scones and tea.  Although full from lunch we found a way to find room to enjoy the small scones, jam and clotted cream with very good tea.)

Our Silversea Excursion today, on the other hand (and, frankly, far more important to me) was outstanding…even though I really didn’t want to do it.  The Grizzly Falls Ziplining Expedition, operated by Alaska Excursions, has funky, friendly, extremely professional staff and is a lot of fun.  With brilliant blue skies and 60 degree temperatures we boarded a van and, after about a 20 minute ride through Skagway and then beautiful countryside/mountainside with a colorful young man, we arrived at the ziplining base camp.  There we transferred to a Unimog (all-wheel drive open truck) called “Kermit the Mog” driven by another nice young man named Stash (they say because he has a mustache…and beard, but I think it is for another reason) which transported us far up the mountain for a nine zipline and 2 suspension bridge adventure.  (There are actually 11 ziplines, but two are training ones which we skipped.) 




Our group of seven was harnessed up and our two guides/instructors made quite sure that we were safe and had fun at all times.  (“You are on a cruise, so your brains are not working.  We know that.”)  You should know that I agreed to do this excursion because my wife loves this stuff.  I prefer walking through the forest rather than flying over it.  As a result I was the most (only?) somewhat reluctant one as I have some difficulty understanding why you would jump off a perfectly good 300 foot tall tower and zip along a 750 foot cable…to then do a flip off another tower and then…well, you get the idea.  But I did them all sans the flips and “no hands” tricks the others did.


Silversea really did a great job with this small, boutique, experience.  With four cruise ships in Skagway, Silversea apparently was the only one offering this small group experience, though it can be booked directly through www.alaskaexcursions.com.  These sort of high quality experiences enrich one’s entire cruise experience and, to be sure, makes it just a bit more about “travel” than “cruising”.

Having survived ziplining, we asked to be dropped off at the top of Skagway’s main street and strolled back to the ship after having a Spruce Tip Beer (actually made from the tips of spruce trees, allegedly originating as a way for the high in vitamin C tips to be used to fight off scurvy) and fondly remembering the Soapy Smith show we saw with the kids a few years ago.


As we walked, the wind picked up, the clouds came in and we are told that after 1:00 a.m. we may have our first seas to contend with.  I hope it clears enough for me to enjoy my nature hike scheduled for tomorrow.  We have, to be fair, been so lucky with the weather so it will be what it will be.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Goldring Travel's Silversea Silver Shadow Alaska Cruise Review - Part IV

Today was our first port call on our Silversea Silver Shadow cruise and the weatherman was, fortunately, wrong…again.  We had a good bit of sun and only a slight sprinkle of rain. This was a good thing as we decided on the Rainforest Sanctuary Walk and doing that in the rain would not have been much fun.

We sailed into Ketchikan, Alaska at 7:00 a.m. and, for a good part of the day, we were the only cruise ship in town (later to be joined by the Oceania Regatta, Norwegian Sun and a Disney ship).  It allowed us to enjoy our arrival in a quieter, more exclusive, manner…fitting for a Silversea cruise.

After supervising the Silver Shadow’s docking, I returned to our suite opting today for a room service breakfast before our 9:00 a.m. departure for our tour.  Yogesh arrived promptly at 8:00 a.m. and properly set our table with linen and china, poured my coffee and prepared my cereal (rather than leaving it in the box)…very civilized.   

It was then off to our nature walk.  Here is where a Silversea experience is superior to those of the other players in Alaska, including Regent Seven Seas.  It wound up that there were only four people on our tour, so we had a very personal experience.  It was not 30+ people on an allegedly “free” Regent tour or cancelled due to a lack of participants.  This is a very nice touch.







The walk was beautiful and our guide was knowledgeable and friendly (though I could tell when a “canned” joke was going to be coming…such as seeing bear scat and being told, “Now you know that a bear does sh*%* in the woods!”).  While we did see bear scat and paw prints, alas we did not see any bears or other wildlife other than a Pacific wren, some swallows and a couple of bald eagles.  The vegetation was beautiful and, for me, well worth the one mile stroll on well-made paths and boardwalks.


During my walk I went to put on my sunglasses and found that my butler had cleaned my sunglasses and wrapped them in a Silversea microfiber cloth.  It, like coming back to my suite and finding my two pairs of dress shoes polished and wrapped, was a very nice touch.  (I do have to say that there is also a bit of an uncomfortable feeling of someone going through my things.  But once you know this is the Silversea way of doing things, you should lose that.)

After a more touristic walk through a reindeer petty coral, a "show" raptor rescue center (composed of a single bald eagle and a single owl),

partially restored sawmill and a small “show” woodcarver’s shop we were directed to the obligatory souvenir shop before being driven back to the ship. 

We then took a stroll into town and had a nice lunch of chowder, oysters, cod and halibut with local beer at Annabelle’s Keg and Chowder House.  It was recommended by the van driver as being the least touristic restaurant in Ketchikan.  It was, but did have touristic prices.  It was then back to the ship for a rest…being greeted by a Welcome Home note drawn on one of our suite mirrors…the posting of an article, checking emails.


Then, for me, a walk about the deck followed by a tour of the galley with Executive Chef Janine  Fourie, a jovial and enthusiastic soul.  (Surprisingly, there were only four people who took this tour.)


It was interesting to listen to the different approaches to ordering, preparation, food management and the like.  I am glad I went, but do note that if you were looking for a bit of a show with some creative canapés, this is not what is provided.  A quarter glass of champagne greeted you as you entered and that was it.  Possibly it was because of the lack of interest, but it was the least impressive of any ship galley tour I have been on.  (Clearly this is a bit of nitpicking, and it wouldn't change the cruise I would take or recommend.) 

We dined by ourselves in La Terrazza and both the scenery and our waiter, Ary, outshined the food.  It is great to see that the wait staff is warming up and there is more interaction so that part of my La Terrazza experience has been excellent.  The cuisine, however, has been a bit of hit or miss; nothing was terrible, but nothing was memorable…except the tiramisu (which I normally don’t like) which was excellent. 

After dinner and a cigar in the Connoisseur’s Club, we sat in on the last few minutes of the show.  I must say, as someone who is not a fan of shipboard entertainment, these guys and girls can sing.  It was truly enjoyable.

The next morning we entered Tracy Arm with, again surprisingly, brilliant blue skies and breathtaking scenery.  


















We opted for an enjoyable breakfast in La Terrazza.  I do not live for food alone and the food was fine (there even were bagels today), but the presentation needs to be spiffed up a bit. 

A lazy morning as we sailed into Juneau found us right back in La Terrazza for lunch.  Ary saw us, guided us and made it clear he “owned” us for lunch.  I truly appreciated that level of service.  I was not hungry, so I thought I would order a slice of one of the pizzas on the menu, but was told I had to order an entire personal pie.  OK.  Then my wife told me, “You shouldn’t have ordered the pizza because there is paella.”  OK, I’ll have a little paella…just for research purposes.  Then I walk into the buffet and see a line, so I ask what the line is for and am told “Roast Duck”.  OK, I’ll have a little roast duck, a little paella and a little bit of the pizza.

As I ponder my dilemma I hear, “Hello Mr. G and Mrs. G!”  It was a waiter that used to work on Seabourn, but left a couple of years ago.  The stylistic difference between he and most of the Silversea staff became readily apparent.  He asked questions, offered opinions and “got personal” instantaneously. If service style matters to you, this confirmed to me that there is a difference.  It is not that one is better than the other (chocolate vs. vanilla), but you need to know there is a difference.

After a very tasty lunch (save, for a second time the pasta station which had below par pasta as it clearly has been pre-cooked and then sort of warmed up with the sauce) and excellent service we headed out in Juneau after our 1:00 p.m. arrival.  The Red Dog Saloon was just steps away, but there was a line.  So we took a walk through town, past the Celebrity Millennium and the Oceania Regatta, but not quite as far as Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Sea and found ourselves being drawn into going whale watching. I negotiated a good deal, so we said “Why not?”  While waiting for our 3:00 p.m. departure we headed back to The Red Dog Saloon where Big Jack poured us an Alaskan Amber and Summer Ale as we enjoyed the tacky old time ambience and hokey sing-a-long.


As we walked over to the pickup point for our whale watching with Dolphin Tours and its twin jet drive high speed boat, the skies brightened and the temperatures warmed.  By the time we got to the boat the day was gorgeous.  We were also blessed with some great whale watching; especially a mother and her calf coming right near our boat.  And the staff was really nice too.




Our spur of the moment decision was a good one.


Tonight we dine at Le Champagne…but as my wife went to get ready she was greeted by a rose petaled bubble bath.  A very nice touch.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Goldring Travel's Silversea Silver Shadow Alaska Cruise Review - Part III

Sometimes jetlag is a good thing and today that was most definitely the case.  I was sleeping quite comfortably in my bed on the Silversea Silver Shadow with my new buckwheat pillow when my wife (the one with the jetlag) woke me up at 5:30 a.m. with a “You have to see this!” 

She was right.  The sun was just up, and peeking through the clouds, the Inside Passage water was like a mirror, and it was simply breathtaking.  Wisps of clouds, mist, jumping porpoises, a yellow tug boat, a snow-covered mountain top, forests with trees having ten shades of green…and quiet.








By 7:00 a.m. I was ready for a bit of breakfast, but La Terrazza didn’t open until 7:30 a.m. (This is a whole new time period for me while on a cruise!)  So I decided to walk the decks and enjoy the view.  I ran into a new client of mine (he found me after he had booked this cruise) and recognized me.  Unfortunately, he was into doing some fast walking laps around the ship, so I went along…unable to drink my coffee and dying for another sip.  After his mile was up we headed to La Terrazza for breakfast…my wife now soundly back asleep.

There was a nice selection of smoked salmon, pickled herrings, cured meats, fruits and various hot dishes.  Being an older ship the display was just OK, but the content is what matters.  (One curious thing missing:  bagels.)  We had a very nicely set table, with a great view, proper linens and china.  A waiter asked me for any specially prepared eggs, so I ordered two poached eggs.  They were done to perfection.  Service was very good until I didn’t want any more coffee.  Then my conversation was interrupted four times by four different people asking me if I wanted more coffee.  Not a big issues, but more of an observation.

After tending to some work we attended the Food & Wine Pairing Talk with the Executive Chef Janine Fourie and the Head Sommelier Mathieu.  Even though it was set up as if it was also a cooking demonstration it was truly a wine pairing talk.  Mathieu was quite informative, though I personally would not have made the same pairings.  (That is, of course, what makes pairing food and wine fun and interesting.)  The scallop with green peas was excellent as was the Thai crab and pickled ginger ravioli.




Our appetites whetted we headed shortly thereafter to La Terrazza for lunch.  Over the protests of my wife and the staff’s concern that it would be too cool, we dined al fresco.  Again:  Great idea!  As I dined on bouillabaisse, with excellent service I might add, we watched whale spout after whale spout with the sun breaking though. 

Since we were up so early it was time for a nap…until the phone rang at 4:00 p.m.  But that was a good excuse to get up.  I took a walk around and saw a very popular High Tea service in the Panorama Lounge.  I opted for a coffee and a comfortable chair on deck overlooking the stern where I again saw whale spouts and a few breaking the water, but no real breaching.

Then it was time to try the whirlpool.  But before I got back to my suite I ran into a young woman who, I believe, works the front desk. She was just standing outside looking out to sea.  We started to chat and found out she was a newbie, having been onboard only about two months.  She was absolutely charming talking about her trials and tribulations of a life at sea, her excitement for all of the travel, and such.  It added a bit of that personal touch that makes you feel you are not just on any cruise.  This was the first time staff on this ship, other than our butler, has taken the time to make it “personal”.  It matters!

Now to the whirlpool.  I must admit that I am not a fan of having my soak in the middle of the pool deck, but with grey skies and it being later afternoon it was not like an audience was watching me.  The bar attendant promptly arrived and asked me if I wanted a drink; I opted for a glass of champagne as it sort of is a tradition of mine.

It was then back to the suite to get ready for dinner.  We were invited to dine with Captain Alessandro Zanello and his charming wife in La Terrazza.  Tonight was Formal Optional.  We opted for black tie and gown and felt completely appropriate.  Even though Silversea downplayed the formality of the evening before we left for this cruise, clearly there was a large number of guests that enjoyed the formality.  We had a wonderful evening with our dinner companions chatting about everything from the differences between the Silversea ships to possible names for the Captain and his wife’s anticipated baby. 

I want to tell you that the food was great, but other than the pasta – which I really enjoyed - it was fine (no complaints), but nothing that got me excited. Also, and I say this as a very seasoned international traveler, I am having a bit of difficulty communicating with my servers.  Sometimes they speak too quickly for me and sometimes they don’t understand what I am saying. 

Our dinner lingered a bit longer than anticipated (a good thing), so the evening’s entertainment had started long before we finished.  While it clearly was popular, it was ABBA, so there was no way this rock ‘n roller was going to check it out.  So after thanking our wonderful hosts, we retired to our suite for a nightcap on the balcony.


After today I am quite confident that if you are interested in taking a luxury Alaska cruise the Silversea experience is one that gives you plenty of quiet upscale space to enjoy your surroundings while not being surrounded and many of the touches you expect on a luxury cruise.  (Tomorrow I am going to try those scones at High Tea!)