Saturday, November 26, 2016

Silversea Expedition Cruises - Exotic Journeys Focus on "The Journey" - Silver Discoverer Indonesia/Myanmar Expedition: Part IX (Reflections)

I chose the November 7, 2016 Silversea Expedition cruise on the Silver Discoverer from Singapore to Indonesia to Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago because it was on Silversea Expedition’s oldest and smallest ship and the itinerary is a mix of expeditions with no real tie between them. 

Silversea Expeditions' Silver Discoverer
An Early Morning Expedition
How does that make sense?  I figure that if Silversea Expeditions can provide a remarkable experience with this challenging combination then it can most certainly deliver on its newer, larger, ships with more cohesive itineraries.

The short answer is:  The Expedition Staff of the Silver Discoverer came through with flying colors.  They – with the odds against them due to the ship arriving in Singapore a day late and with work from the drydock still incomplete – provided a unique, enriching and enjoyable experience that has made the adventure well worth it. 

A Percula Clown a/k/a Nemo
The longer answer is, as also addressed in this article, is that, frustratingly, there is significant room for improvement on the hotel side of things.  While most of the needed improvements are easily addressed through training or minor changes, what follows may seem like a rather harsh critique.  However, the reality is that most of the issues are easily addressed and/or shouldn’t otherwise cause one to hesitate taking an expedition cruise on her.

Properly Setting Expectations Improves the Silversea Expedition Experience

I am a bit baffled why Silversea would essentially be undercutting its own product by promoting it as if the Expedition product is essentially a twin of the Classic product.  The Expedition product is an exceptional one, but is focused on the journey with the ship being a tool to assist rather than being the focus.

An Expedition cruise allows you to really spend time with locals
in a casual setting
Put another way, the most significant thing to understand when booking a Silversea Expedition cruise is that you are not booking a classic Silversea ocean cruise.   The reality is there is very little in common between a classic cruise and an expedition cruise…including the mindset of the appropriate guests. 

By setting expectations properly it eliminates a sour note when guests board the ship and entering their accommodations expecting grandeur and a “suite”, but finding an older ship design with a few rough edges and “stateroom.  I would lose any reference to “elegant casual” dress or a Silversea fine dining experience. (The idea is to have guests’ expectations exceeded; not defeated.) 

That said, the Silver Discoverer works really well as an Expedition ship.  Her small size, open decks, shallow draft and stern-located tender platform allow her to do things and go places that a classic cruise ship (even smaller ones) cannot do.  I like her and I would sail on her again without hesitation. 

Silversea Silver Discoverer Delivered the Promised Expedition
Even With the Ship Being Late

So how and why did I enjoy my Silversea Expedition Silver Discoverer experience?  I was supposed to receive an Expedition and an Expedition is what I received! 

Expedition cruising
makes beautiful places like this a daily experience
With the ship being a day late, the challenge to do so was insignificant, so observing how they were able to turn an eleven day itinerary into a ten day one and still provide the full experience was an added bonus for me. 

As an expedition experience there are only a few times that the ship is “scheduled” to be in a particular port (unlike a classic cruise ship that has its ports arranged and pretty much set in stone).  Incredibly, with the captain and expedition leader working together – and with the cooperation of the authorities – they were able to deliver just about everything that was promised from the number of snorkeling and dive opportunities, to scheduled port calls, to onshore experiences.  And it was done with one day omitted from the itinerary.  (Usually a stop would be eliminated to catch up with the planned itinerary, right?)


In order to accomplish this, and because it is an “expedition”, asking guests to be ready to go at 6:00 a.m. on a couple of occasions to was deftly done and complied with without a complaint; though some groaning.  When one is on an expedition cruise the guests’ flexibility is key.

The Expedition Staff Excelled

Each of the Expedition Staff has a specialty and each one is personable and easily relatable.  Whether it was the resident “bird nerd’ (who pretty much is a nerd about everything) having an excited discussion about his disappointment nobody took a photograph of a dead rat observed on a shoreside visit or a thoughtful and engaging talk on the palm oil dilemma or a lecture on climate change or local culture, these same folks hopped into zodiacs and the water making sure we were both safe and intellectually got as much out of each visit as we, individually, wanted.   They dined with us, socialized with us and made us feel at home.  That is a true talent and invaluable to an expedition experience.


Many of the stops we made for first times for this ship.  Zodiacs were sent out not only to figure out which beach had the best snorkeling or diving, the logistics of getting everyone onshore safely, but what should be expected from the currents, water temperature, marine life, etc.  In port arranging for a dozen minivans hobbled together since tourism (especially Western tourism) is all but non-existent…and with guides.  Or even having a police escort to assure we did not get caught up in traffic that would have made an extremely long trip even longer…and possibly cause a port to be missed.  It is not easy making all this happen, but the Expedition Team of the Silver Discoverer did it time and time again.


 The Expedition Staff dines with the guests and not just on Elegant Casual nights when invitations are sent out.  It really adds to your experience when you can chat with the Expedition leaders not only about the day’s experiences, but who they are as individuals.

Expedition Ship Reality:  This Ain’t No Classic Cruise

There is no question that the Silver Discoverer is an old ship and needs some TLC; especially if she is associated with the luxury of Silversea.  Before reading my criticisms of the ship remember that she will be taking you to places where others cannot; so her shortcomings that cannot be easily corrected are, to me, well worth enduring.  However, you need to be sure they are for you!

Silver Discoverer's Veranda Suite
is really a large, comfortable, stateroom
The accommodations, including my Veranda Suite (one of the top categories) are not suites, but staterooms with (very) small bathrooms.  The stateroom cabinetry is not new, but the staterooms are comfortable (when the air conditioning is working properly).  The bathrooms are well designed and have wonderful, modern, higher end finishes.  Also buffing up the staterooms up are fantastic linens, Bulgari amenities, a stocked refrigerator, etc., plus they are kept immaculately clean and have butler service.  (My butler polished my boat shoes twice; making me feel a bit guilty for using them as intended!)

Your Silversea Butler
That said, there are times when the water runs brown and other times when it doesn’t run at all (not often).  There are issues with the air conditioning (this area is too cold, that area is too warm).  The teak decks are in need of work and a serious cleaning due to the refurbishment. And some steel surfaces could use sandblasting and repainting.  The lighting desperately needs to be updated and brightened especially in the dining room, reception and stairwells.  It is obvious that the wrong color light bulbs were recently installed, but nothing was done to correct the situation…or even acknowledging the problem. (This is one thing that just baffled me as the problem was immediately obvious when the bulbs were installed!)

Wrong color light bulbs turn this inviting sitting area
into an uncomfortable and dark space
Also, there were some “upgrades” that were installed during the drydock that, to me, are misses.  The buffet installed in the Restaurant is of an old design (and with the sneeze guard so low that you cannot reach the food at the rear) that lends itself to less than creatively presentations – with virtually (if not literally) the same items offered at each breakfast and lunch in identical serving trays lined up in a row.  Creative presentation costs nothing!!! 

The Discoverer Lounge (which is where breakfast and lunch used to be served) is now a rather barren looking space to relax in or play cards (though it does have a good coffee/espresso maker).  It was used regularly by a few of the guests, but they tended to only use the more comfortable chairs which are located in the four corners of the lounge.  Why those chairs were not used throughout, I haven’t a clue. 
Silver Discoverer's Discoverer Lounge
Somewhat incongruently, High Tea is served in the Discoverer Lounge each day; which to me seems inconsistent with the expedition nature of the product, but some did enjoy it.  I did enjoy the tea offerings on a few occasions.  The fingers sandwiches were fine, but the scones were merely OK and whipped rather than clotted cream was provided.

The Staff is Friendly, the Cuisine OK, But Both Need Significant Training

Also, while the Officers, Expedition Staff, Butlers and Guest Relations (even most stewards and stewardesses) are fluent in English and perform to a luxury level, the wait and bar staff have varying degrees of proficiency with English, and although they work with a pleasing approach, are generally slow and not sufficient polished to be considered luxury, or even premium, service. 

The impression I have is that the bar staff actually has had no training whatsoever, so drinks are poured inconsistently and cocktails are essentially non-existent.  Too frequently flat tonic or sparking water instead of club soda was used in drinks.  I consistently asked for Tanqueray gin and was given Bombay Sapphire (presumably as an upgrade).  I dared not ask for a rum punch no less anything more complicated; noting that the bars are sparsely stocked with liquors and ingredients.  (In contrast, after I disembarked the Silver Discoverer I spent one day at The Slate, in Phuket.  Each complex cocktail was perfectly created down to the symmetry of the sliced fruit.  It highlighted the Silver Discoverer’s bar staff’s weakness and how it truly affected any possible perception of a “luxury” experience.)


 The same can be said for most (not all) of the wait staff.  At breakfast I was never offered poached or fried eggs or omelets.  If you request them, they are available, but you have to flag down a waiter.  Similarly, bagels are not presented on the buffet, so again, if you want it you need to know to ask. 

One of my pet peeves is a waiter reaching across me to remove a plate and that is consistently done.  When dining by the pool, another pet peeve:  Dirty forks are not replaced, but rather taken off your plate and put on the placemat to be used for your second course. Yuk!  If you get up during your meal, your napkin is neither replaced or refolded.  These are simple training issues that can make a world of difference; especially when attempt to present a luxury product.


Communication is also an issue with a good number of the wait staff not really having a command of English…even on simple things.  As an infuriating example, I am pretty good with my wines, but I could never understand what the descriptions were…which were clearly memorized - not known - by the wine stewards – and delivered with thick accents and mispronunciations.  Thus you were pretty much in a less than luxury or premium experience merely choosing between “white or red” (both being held in one hand) with no – or only one - alternative readily available.    Were the wine stewards nice people?  Yes. Did they do their best?  Yes.  But if they are not properly trained there is no way they perform to an expected level.

Little touches are needed or are inconsistently provided such as continental breakfast in the lounge (or, better, would be on deck) when you are up at sunrise, mimosas and orange juice when you return, a culturally relevant culinary surprise midday on deck or at high tea, etc.
Similarly, the cuisine is OK, but not luxury or what one would expect on a Silversea classic fleet cruise.  It isn’t bad, but nothing was really memorable.  Breakfast is literally identical every day with a modest buffet (you can order eggs or an omelet but the waiters do not offer it to you) and lunch is also a buffet with many repetitive items.  Croissants seem to be frozen and tasteless as are most breads.  (I had expected some crusty Italian bread on Silversea, but none was to be had; not even the baguettes that occasionally appeared. Lunch at the pool provides a very limited menu with only the fish of the day changing.

Silver Discoverer in Kawthoung, Myanmar
In the Dining Room, misses like “pan seared” fish clearly never having seen a pan, but merely baked are common.  The only dinner that caught my attention at all was the Indian themed one.  Personally, I felt uncomfortable with the chef appearing each evening and going to each table seeking praise…especially when she had to know the quality of what was coming out of her galley.

But, with all of these issues, the cuisine wasn’t terrible, the breads were fresh and the wines were acceptable.  But with just a little effort it all could be so much better.

Overall Experience

From the cuisine and cutting edge architecture of Singapore to the orangutans of Belawan, Indonesia to the tsunami-ravaged Banda Aceh, Indonesia to the mystery and tension in Kawthaong, Myanmar to the natural wonders and Moken people of Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, Silversea Expeditions delivered a very full and enriching eleven days.

Silversea Expeditions Silver Discoverer at sunset
To be sure, expedition cruising is not for everyone.  You need to be able to look and live past the discomfort of heat and humidity (or cold and wet), possibly constantly changing itineraries, less than optimal transportation, less than luxurious accommodations and a few misses.  Not everyone can or wants to. 

But if you do…or are willing to try it once…expedition cruising with Silversea Expeditions can be incredibly rewarding.

If you would like more information or would like to book your Silversea Expedition or other exotic cruise, please give us a call:

United States:           (877) 2GO-LUXURY
United Kingdom:     020 8133 3450
Australia:                 (07) 3102 4685
Everywhere Else:    +1 530-562-9232