Silversea's Prince Albert II 3

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

This small cruise line has brought a new level of luxury to adventure cruises, so travelers can get close to nature without sacrificing any creature comforts.

Even though I was new to expedition cruising, it didn't take me long to realize that aboard Prince Albert II, the focus is the destination. The comfortable library/Internet room is stocked with more volumes on geography and cultures of the world than novels, and the Sun Deck, despite its two whirlpools, is the perfect place not to sunbathe, but to look for leaping dolphins or breaching whales (using the binoculars provided in each suite).

Aboard Prince Albert II, I was on an expedition, not a cruise, and that was evident in the feel of the ship's often narrow hallways and occasional industrial touches. It was evident, too, in the daily program where excursion details, lectures, and the daily recap and briefing comprise the day's activities. This wasn't the ship for a myriad of bars and nightclubs staying open until the wee hours, or for alternative restaurants or a swimming pool. But, as one expects from Silversea, luxurious signature elements were never too far away.

At no time is this more evident than at the approach of evening. With gear stowed for the next wet zodiac landing, guests begin to fill The Panorama Lounge, the social heart of Prince Albert II, for a pre-dinner cocktail and the sumptuous tapas delivered with practiced efficiency by charming staff who learn your name and drink preference with alarming speed. Close your eyes and you could be at The Bar aboard Silver Shadow or Whisper, the tinkle of piano keys in the background, sipping an expertly mixed cocktail and maybe slipping into the adjacent Humidor Room for a fine cigar. All that's missing is punishing footwear on the ladies and confining neckties on the men, as "casual" and "informal" are the only dress codes aboard Prince Albert II.

One deck down from The Panorama, a short walk past the small fitness room and boutique, I find The Restaurant, which offers my first close-up glimpse of the guests aboard Prince Albert II. This is an educated lot, "smart, even when no one's looking," my travel companion remarked earlier, noticing one guest sitting alone on deck reading a book on the Theory of Relativity. With no seating assignment or designated dining times, a willingness to join a table enables Prince Albert II guests to meet, mingle and discuss the day's excursion with fellow passengers or even expedition leaders, the experts who have been chosen by Silversea for their immense knowledge of the areas Prince Albert II sails.

With such a small passenger contingent and my joining the voyage more than halfway through, my arrival in the dining room did not go unnoticed. My tablemates had joined in Tromso, Norway, beyond the Arctic Circle, and were still reveling in the experiences they'd had in Svalbard on their way to Iceland. "I popped out on my balcony one morning and there was a group of walruses right there," exclaimed a Danish man who tsked my missing the first segment of the sailing. Soon the others joined in, their excitement barely contained, and I was regaled with tales of polar bears, arctic foxes, seals and whales -- a Discovery Channel special come to life. I started to feel as though I had missed the World Cup in favor of a third division exhibition game and, when I saw one gentleman's photos of a group of polar bears frolicking atop blue ice so very near the ship, the feeling intensified. "Oh, the things we've seen," he said.

At times like these, some people turn to food for comfort and I couldn't have been in a better place to do that. Prince Albert II may be a destination-focused expedition vessel, but its dining brings guests right back to the here and now. "I always lose weight on an expedition," one expedition leader told me between mouthfuls of rare filet mignon, "but not here."

Dinner aboard Prince Albert II is a formal affair (minus the formalwear, of course), with ample choice in salads, appetizers, soups, intermezzo, poultry, beef and seafood served on fine china, and complimentary wines poured into sparkling crystal. Dessert follows, as does a silver tray of those delectable petit fours that anyone who's sailed Silversea so fondly remembers. With no designated buffet area, breakfast and lunch are served buffet style in The Restaurant and supplemented with menu items like a variety of gourmet pizzas at lunch. Continental breakfast is available at the cozy Observation Lounge, and a grill for warmer weather sailings operates on the sun deck, which is also the spot for special event meals like the German Oktoberfest-themed lunch held aboard our sailing -- beer included, of course.

In the days ahead, Prince Albert II delivered me to off-the-beaten-track destinations in northern and southern Iceland. I'd climb into a zodiac and grasp the ropes as my expedition leader sped the craft toward the day's adventure, spray dotting the surface of my rain-proof pants and parka. I whale-watched in Husavik one day and hiked up to a volcano's crater in the rain the next, parts of the crater still warm after its 1973 eruption. I visited a private island that is home to thousands of puffins and black guillemots, and viewed Snaefellsjokull glacier, made popular by Jules Verne in Journey to the Center of the Earth. I strolled the moonlike Djupalonsandur, marveling at the strange rock formations that lead to the Atlantic, waves crashing at my feet. On the day before disembarkation in Reykjavik, I cruised Surtsey, an island off the southern coast of Iceland that only came into existence with the eruption of a volcano in 1963 and is now used as a living laboratory.

Aboard Prince Albert II, I found no casino, disco or evening showtime. On my sailing, the entertainment was Iceland itself -- its pristine air, its nature, its midnight sun and its wildlife. On this cruise, our goal wasn't a deep tropical tan or a slot machine jackpot, but a better understanding of the fascinating world we live in and the creatures we share it with.

Prince Albert II does not plan to return to Svalbard and Iceland but, instead, has set a course toward the natural wonders of Mexico, South America, Antarctica and, in 2009, Tahiti. Prince Albert II is exploring the earth, top to bottom, and judging from her inaugural sailings and her guests' reaction to them, she's off to an excellent start.

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