Silversea's Prince Albert II (Part 3)

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

This small expedition vessel offers all the luxury and charm of Silversea, but in more exotic -- and challenging -- settings.

Prince Albert II Details Prince Albert II is a small (6,000 ton) ship with a passenger capacity of 130. The ship was formerly the World Discoverer of now-defunct Society Expeditions. It received a multi-million dollar renovation from Silversea after its purchase in 2007. Today, it has all the signature elements of Silversea including bathrooms with granite counters, rain showers, and bathtubs. Many staterooms have "French balconies" with sliding glass doors and a ledge of about 16 inches.

The dining experience is Silversea all the way, with a European touch; the menu includes seafood, hen, lamb, veal and a variety of fish and pasta selections nightly. All restaurant meals are open seating with an accommodating Maitre D' to seat you at a table for two or with other guests upon request. You can opt to order room service from any of the dining room menus during meal hours, or partake from the 24-hour room service menu. Breakfast will be served in your stateroom every morning upon request.

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Celebrating crossing the Arctic Circle   Meal Service on the Back Deck   champagne during ice floe

Flat-panel TVs in every stateroom offer an extensive interactive system, with recently-released movies available at no charge. You also get Fox News, CNN and ESPN, plus channels for room service and your onboard account information. The TV system has a channel to display tour scheduling and another for broadcasts of the expedition team's pre-tour lectures from the theater. (However, this was not being used on our recent cruise, so guests were asked to attend each briefing in person.)

The Silver Suites are spacious, with a living room, separate bedroom with a king-sized bed, walk-in closet and butler service. Your butler will execute all your requests with aplomb, like getting your laundry done at no extra charge or "shining your shoes" (which on an expedition cruise might mean cleaning your sneakers).

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Desk Area of Suite   King-sized bedroom in bedroom
 
Desk Area and walk-in Closet   Seating area with entrance to bedroom

Every night the ship publishes "The Chronicle," with a complete schedule for the next day. However, the published information for ship arrival times and tour departures can be subject to last-minute changes without warning. When this happens, it will be announced over the public address system with adequate time to get prepared, but not much longer than that.

This is another area where Prince Albert II differs from other Silversea ships. If you don't want to miss anything, be prepared for expedition outings to leave with very little notice, say 30 to 60 minutes. This may be disconcerting to persons accustomed to traditional cruising, but the people who adapt most readily will see the most. Chalk it up to the whims of nature -- that's why they call it an expedition.

Finally, 6,000 tons is only 1/20th the size of today's average cruise ship. All small ships roll with ocean swells, especially when crossing notoriously rough waters like the North Sea. Prince Albert II has stabilizers and even ballast tanks to keep the ship more upright than most. The captain also does an excellent job of minimizing the discomfort by slowing down in high seas, but it is always advisable to bring seasickness medication on any ship in regions known for high seas, especially one this small.

This brings up our last Prince Albert II recommendation. The ship spends most of its time in the Arctic and Antarctic. If you do not tolerate high seas well, then opt for cruises where you fly into the polar regions. Our cruise was the annual repositioning trip that brings the ship to Svalbard, a Norwegian island group well above the Arctic Circle, but now that it has arrived it will stay there for the rest of the summer. If I had another choice, I would fly into Svalbard as Silversea offers, not sail through the North Sea to get there.

Our Prince Albert II Cruise: U.K., Norway and Svalbard We just completed a 17-day cruise through Scotland and the Norwegian fjords, ending in the arctic archipelago of Svalbard, a group of islands some 300 miles north of Norway. At 80 degrees latitude, Svalbard is far north of the 66.57-degree Arctic Circle demarcation and the last stop before the North Pole.

We began in Hamburg, Germany, followed by a day sailing over the infamous North Sea. Our first docking was Newcastle, England, followed by Aberdeen, Scotland. The tours were solid Silversea quality -- coach rides to historic castles with knowledgeable guides and great meals included.

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Kaiserkeller in Hamburg: Beatles steal Ringo from Rory Storm   On the Eber River leaving Hamburg   Northumberland Castle
   
Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Isle   Shetland ponies   City of Lerwicke in Scotland

Yet another rolling night through the North Sea brought us to the very remote Scottish island wryly known as Fair Isle, literally 100 miles from nowhere and with only a dozen souls in residence. This was our first tendering by Zodiac and the ship was anchored quite far from shore. The tour was a hike in frigid winds, but it gave us our first sighting of the arctic sea birds soon to become so familiar. We anchored at Fair Isle for just two hours before we set sail.

We were scheduled to stop at another Shetland Isle, Mousa, for another skiff expedition that afternoon but the seas were too rough, so we went directly to the small Scottish city of Lerwicke and docked overnight. The next morning we were treated to another wonderful Silversea-style tour of an ancient broch habitation from the pre-Viking era.

Sailing at noon, we endured another 36 hours through the North Sea. The weather was not bad but the North Sea made the worst of it with 12-foot swells. Nothing could be better than our very welcome arrival in beautiful Trondheim, Norway, where we enjoyed some rare free time ashore.

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Visiting a Broch near Lerwick   Local Guide at Broch
 
Trondheim Norway   Cathedral in Trondheim

We continued to cruise through the coast of Norway and sailed into a true fjord, with high mountain walls and cascading waterfalls. The end of the inlet was just wide enough for the ship to turn around.

The next morning we had a land expedition by bus in the remote Norwegian island of Lofoten, followed by the first non-landing skiff expedition around the Isle of Noss. This was our second lesson in arctic birds, and we were starting to realize that this part of the world is not nearly so rich in marine mammals as Alaska at the same latitude.

Late the next morning, we crossed the Arctic Circle. We were celebrating with champagne and pictures of a strategically placed commemorative statue when a minke whale breached on cue just yards from the ship. The timing was so perfect we had to make jokes about it really being our expedition leader in costume. I might have believed it until the captain actually pushed our team leader into the hot tub just moments later -- a variation of the traditional first arctic crossing ceremony where a sailor dips his toes into the sea.

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Odd Norwegian Building in the Midnight Sun   cruising into a Norwegian Fjord   Lofoten fishing village
   
Arctic Circle demarcation statue   humpback whales wave goodbye   celebrating crossing the arctic circle

Unfortunately, this was one of the few brief whale sightings of the entire trip. The next day a few humpback whales blew their spouts at us before diving deep into the water, and one waved goodbye to us with the inner white side of his fin -- a fitting finish to our whale watching for this cruise.

Sadly, the whale sightings we had hoped for on this repositioning itinerary never materialized. For example, the pre-cruise itinerary schedule said, "Day 11, Andoya, we hope to spend the day whale watching. Sperm whales are the most abundant but there is also the possibility to see minke, pilot or humpback whales."

Our arrival at Andoya came at 5:00 a.m. and no whales were sighted although the search was on. The weather was ghastly -- no surprise for an island more in the North Atlantic than in the Norwegian Fjords. So the promise of a full day of abundant wildlife turned into another day at sea in awful weather. This is why we recommend flying into the polar regions.

Our constant quest was to see wildlife -- ultimately polar bears and walruses in the Arctic but also whales, dolphins and reindeer on the way north. Our last day in Norway proper was a stop at North Cape, the northernmost point in continental Europe. But first we had another zodiac ride around three coastal islands nearby. Here we sighted more arctic seabirds with the surprise appearance of beautiful, soaring white-tailed eagles. We spent the afternoon at the starkly beautiful North Cape, where an elaborate and modern visitor's center celebrates the history of the northernmost point in Europe. Here we saw reindeer in abundance.

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sea water tunnel in bear island   Cormorants take off   monumental rock at Bear Island

From the North Cape it was another full night in rough weather before our scheduled anchorage at Bear Island the next afternoon. Once again, the itinerary promised "whale watching is a priority" -- although a more accurate description would have been "watching for whales is an option."

Bear Island is a tiny dot of land between the North Cape and Svalbard. The Europeans onboard were particularly excited to be there -- a familiar spot of mystery from the maps of their childhood. But we never actually landed there and we saw no bears or the promised whales. The captain anchored close by and the skiffs took us inside ice caves and along cliffs jutting up a thousand feet. Melting perennial snowdrifts created windblown waterfalls where the light could make a sizable cascade disappear when viewed from the opposite angle.

Speaking of light, during the summer solstice the Arctic Circle has continuous sunlight. It persisted with a combined sunset/sunrise that lasted up to eight hours. The orb never set; it only grew larger and hazier as it rode the horizon. Our curtains were no contenders in the battle and so we forced ourselves to sleep, fighting the very real energy the midnight sun is famous for instilling.

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Bear Island Shipwreck   Dual Cascades Bear Island   Exploring a Sea Cave

Continue Article >> Svalbard at Last (Part 4)

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