In Part 1 of this two-part review, CruiseMates contributor E. Schlenk gives us some insight into luxury cruising on the Silver Cloud.
When our friends heard that we would spend our March, 2008, vacation on the Silver Cloud in the Persian Gulf, their first question was "Why Dubai?" and their second question was "Why Silversea?"
The first question is easy to answer. The Middle East is changing faster than any other part of the world. I am not talking about the destruction of Iraq (and our economy with it). I am talking about the construction of ultra-modern Arab emirate cities with enviable infrastructures and booming economies.
Imagine Walt Disney building a clean and modern Manhattan skyline in the middle of the desert. Add the traffic of Los Angeles, the beachfront of Miami, and the glitz of Las Vegas. Toss in the best shopping malls, the most exotic real estate developments, the tallest building, and the most expensive hotel in the world. Mix in 6 million visitors a year and you have an idea of what Dubai is like today.
And Dubai is just one of five Arab emirates (plus Iran) that we visited on our cruise. The oil in some emirates is already drying out, so they are turning to free trade, international finance, and tourism to secure their future. We wanted to see it all before it was too late -- too late for our dollar, not their dirham.
The second question "Why Silversea?" is a bit more complex. We took our first luxury cruise on the Silver Whisper two years ago. It was a short cruise in the Caribbean, and to be honest, it did not meet our expectations (my review of that cruise may be available on this web site). Perhaps it was because we expected too much or perhaps it was because a four-day cruise sandwiched between private charters was too short for the crew to do their jobs really well. In any case, we decided to give Silversea another chance, and we are glad we did. We thoroughly enjoyed our Silver Cloud cruise in the Persian Gulf.
This review is a detailed summary of our Silver Cloud experience. Keep in mind that a luxury cruise is an investment of more than $10,000 per couple once airfare, pre-cruise hotel, and sightseeing are included, even when the pre- and post-cruise arrangements are made independently in economy and tourist class. Because a cruise like this is a major investment for most of us, this review is intended to give you extensive details to help you get a feeling whether a luxury cruise might be right for you.
Because of the length of this review, I will HIGHLIGHT various topics in all caps so that you can skim down to your own areas of special interest.
This review is divided into THREE PARTS -- luxury cruises in general, our Silver Cloud cruise in particular, and independent (and inexpensive) sightseeing options in our Persian Gulf ports of call. Today's segment of the review will deal exclusively with Part I.
DISCLAIMER Please keep in mind that what follows are my personal observations. I am not in the travel business and I am not a cruise expert. If there are errors, I apologize in advance. Rely on your own reading and experience to form your own opinions, and you will end up choosing the right cruise style and cruise ship for yourself.
A GOOD BOOK In addition to cruise web sites, some of which seem to be losing speed and functionality because of their cluttered home pages and excessive advertisements, I highly recommend Douglas Ward's book Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships (2007, Berlitz). It has a wealth of information, both objective and subjective, to help you plan your next cruise.
PART 1: LUXURY CRUISING IN GENERAL Everyone has his own idea of the perfect cruise. In the end, it probably is the cruise that makes a guest feel like a VIP and yet totally at ease. White glove service and high tea may not suit someone who prefers to amble in flip-flops and a T-shirt. Zodiac excursions and watersport decks may not suit someone who prefers to foxtrot in formal wear. That is probably why there are so many luxury (and luxury adventure) cruise options.
I mention luxury and adventure cruising in the same breath because the costs may be similar even though the styles are worlds apart. An interesting development in the luxury cruise industry is that some of the traditional luxury cruise lines are adding expeditionary ships (think ice-hardened hulls and polar itineraries) to their fleets. You will be reading more about these ships as they enter service. So far, our experience with adventure cruising has been limited to chartered yachts in the Galapagos Islands, so I will not cover that option here.
DEFINING LUXURY For me, several characteristics define a luxury cruise: the high level of attentive yet unobtrusive service; superior cuisine and fine wines without surcharge; sedate and spacious cabins and public areas; unusual itineraries with uncrowded or even undiscovered ports of call; the absence of noise, announcements, and waiting lines; enrichment lectures and interesting activities, with less emphasis on entertainment and more emphasis on learning; inclusive drinks and gratuities; and (we have been happy to experience) well-educated, friendly, and unpretentious fellow passengers.
SERVICE On mainstream cruise ships the service may sometimes be attentive, but it can sometimes seem informal and too chummy. Some luxury ships have a more traditional attitude toward service. We noticed that after the first day on the Silver Cloud our stewards and servers greeted us by surname, but they did not converse further unless we wanted to engage them in conversation. They anticipated most of our needs, and they responded quickly and positively when we had any questions or special requests. On a personal note, my wife was recovering from an illness during our Silver Cloud cruise, and she truly appreciated the kindness and attentiveness of the entire staff.
Good service during meals is silent and seamless. Courses are presented and cleared without flourish, and wine glasses are changed or refilled without intrusion. The service is so smooth that it is not noticeable. Part of this is due to good training, and part is due to the high crew to passenger ratios on luxury ships. Silversea, for example, has at least two crew members for every three passengers. The smaller size of the dining rooms and public areas adds to the quality of the service. There is no background noise to interfere with conversations, and servers very skillfully handle china and flatware to avoid making noise.
SPACE Space ratios are a measure of the volume of enclosed space on a ship, expressed in tonnage per passenger. In this case tonnage is a measure of volume, not weight. Mainstream cruise lines usually have space ratios in the high 30s or low 40s. Except for the smallest (Sea Dream and Seabourn) ships in this category, luxury ships generally have space ratios in the 50s or 60s. Silversea's newer ships, the Whisper and the Shadow, have space ratios in the 70s. When cruising this difference is very noticeable.
EXOTIC ITINERARIES Small luxury ships travel the world and are able to dock at unusual ports that have not yet been overrun by oversized cruise ships. This can be a negative, however, when inexperienced local immigration authorities make life difficult, or when the cruise line's central office is less than organized regarding visa or entry requirements for their exotic ports of call. Silversea's disorganization in this regard was a disappointment, but more about that later.
PEACE AND QUIET Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of a luxury cruise is the peace and quiet in the ship's public areas. For example, there is no pool-side music (except on special occasions), and the fitness area is equipped with headphones for the DVD players and TVs at each workout station. There is no muzak and there are minimal announcements. On mainstream cruise ships I sometimes end up wearing earplugs to gain some peace and quiet. On luxury ships this is unnecessary.
ENTERTAINMENT Because luxury ships are relatively small, entertainment tends to be intimate, usually soloists rather than production numbers. Personally, I would rather listen to a top-notch soloist in a small venue than watch a chorus line of singers and dancers in an over-amplified Broadway-type theater. Luxury ships tend to include enrichment programs, usually well known speakers on a variety of topics. Fortunately, mainstream cruise lines are finally adopting similar enrichment programs, which can make days at sea more enjoyable. A bonus on a small ship is the likelihood of meeting or dining with the guest lecturers and musicians, who can be very interesting conversationalists. They were on our cruise.
FELLOW PASSENGERS Yes, some luxury cruise passengers are very rich (on our cruise one big game hunter expressed his need for a Marco Polo sheep to make his trophy collection complete, and one car enthusiast wore his Ferrari-owners logo shirt), but most passengers are simply well-off, having saved wisely during their hard-working careers. Unlike private country or social clubs, wealth and status do not seem to be an issue on these cruises fellow passengers are friendly and unpretentious. Dinner conversations can be the highlight of each day, since passengers come from such varied backgrounds. On mainstream cruises my wife and I often request a table for two. On luxury cruises we prefer to be seated at a large table because of the very interesting conversations.
SIZE Ship size and space ratios seem to be the greatest variables among luxury vessels. These ships range from small (100-400 passengers) such as Sea Dream, Europa, Seabourn, and Silversea; medium (400-800 passengers) such as Regent Seven Seas: large (800-1200 passengers) such as Crystal; and very large such as Cunard's Queen Mary 2 (2,600 passengers).
Some travelers feel that the former Renaissance vessels currently sailing with Oceania and Azamara are medium-sized luxury ships, but others prefer to categorize them as "deluxe" rather than luxury because of the smaller size of their cabins: 216 sq. ft. standard balcony cabins, 160 sq. ft. inside cabins, and some 143 sq. ft. obstructed-view outside cabins (10 sq. ft. approximately equal one sq. meter). Some feel that the very large ships of Cunard are hybrids with more than one level of food and service, and only their "grill class" qualifies as luxurious. Oceania, Azamara, and Cunard can be excellent options, however, when lower prices compensate for differences in cabin size or level of service.
THE FUTURE Luxury cruise lines are adding new-builds to their fleets. These new ships seem to show "bracket creep" and are larger than their older sister ships, perhaps because larger ships are more profitable to operate. Personally I regret this development, since I find the intimacy and personal attention of a smaller ship among the most enjoyable aspects of luxury cruising.
Whether the current economic downturn affects the luxury cruise market remains to be seen. Affluent passengers may be relatively insulated from market cycles, and luxury cruise prices may remain steady or may even increase in spite of a faltering economy. It is too soon to tell.
One thing that is likely is that small luxury ships will "follow the money". That means more cruises in the "euro zone" where the currency is not under the same downward momentum as the US dollar. After all, what cruise line wants to book a trip in dollars only to have the value of those dollars erode during the months between contracting and cruising? Perhaps the euro will become the shipboard currency on more ships in the future. Certainly the strength of the euro and the pound sterling means that European cruisers are getting a de facto discount that Americans are not. As a result, Americans accounted for fewer than 25% of the passengers on our cruise, the first time we have been in such a small minority on any of our twenty previous cruises.
HEALTH AND SAFETY A lesser known and perhaps just theoretical advantage of small luxury ships involves health and safety. Norovirus and more serious disease outbreaks begin with an index case and spread quickly in areas where people live and eat in close quarters. It seems logical that the risk of a disease outbreak would be much lower on smaller ships with fewer passengers.
Similarly, a small ship should be easier to re-route in case of terrorism or political turmoil, and easier to evacuate in case of an accident or fire. The latter may seem far-fetched, but cruise ships have run aground, been attacked by sea pirates, experienced a major fire, and have even sunk in the last few years. Again, these considerations are theoretical and are just as dependent on the training and ability of the cruise line administration and crew as on the size of the ship. A disorganized central office or an under-trained crew can theoretically negate the small ship advantage.
COST Price is probably the major factor for most travelers when considering a luxury cruise. I have not researched prices recently, but it is my impression that true luxury cruises are priced around 600-700 US dollars per person per day (pppd) for the least expensive cabin category (an outside suite, which may not include a balcony on some cruise lines such as Silversea), although discounts to $500 pppd seem reasonably common, and discounts to $400 pppd on repositioning or less popular itineraries are sometimes available.
VALUE I rationalize that if one takes the per diem cost of a standard cabin on a mainstream cruise ship; then adds the cost of gratuities, adds the cost of wine and other drinks, and adds the cost of better quality (surcharged) dining; then doubles this amount to cover the cost of higher space ratios and higher crew to passenger ratios on luxury ships, one has a reasonable price comparison for a luxury cruise of the same itinerary. Some would argue that large (300+ sq. ft.) suites with butler service on a mainstream cruise ship are directly comparable to a small ship luxury cruise, but I have never taken (or priced) that option.
As an example, the Costa Romantica sailed from Dubai on a similar but slightly shorter itinerary than the Silver Cloud's. The price pppd for a standard outside cabin with the usual surcharges on the Romantica was about half the price pppd of our cruise, so I felt we received a reasonable value for our money on the Silver Cloud.
For those travelers not used to spending $400 to $500 plus per day on themselves, it takes a bit of effort not to think of what one could be doing with that money instead, especially if one is traveling to third world countries where donating that amount might feed someone for an entire year. I have had those thoughts in the past and have acted on them, but now that I am older, I enjoy luxury cruises guilt-free. It is a personal issue that everyone must settle for him or herself.
To read part 2 of this review, just click here!