By Art Sbarsky.
The Silver Discoverer cruise I took was titled “Peaks and Atolls of French Polynesia” and the 10-night voyage roundtrip from Papeete, Tahiti, was a perfect example of the far-out, off-the-beaten-path experience you get on a Silversea Expeditions trip.
The names of places we visited on this cruise don’t fall trippingly off the tongue: Ahe, Rangiroa, Hanavave, Puamau, Tahanea, Fakarava and more. None of them would be considered prime cruising destinations, but that was part of the fascination and excitement of being in this area. They’re all part of the Tuamotu Archipelago and the Marquesas Islands located northeast of Tahiti. Adding to the remote and undeveloped nature of the voyage is the fact that we never docked anywhere; we took zodiacs (high-quality solid-riding ones) to get from the ship to either a snorkeling/diving site or to the small villages ashore. When you see pictures of the gorgeous South Pacific water or the amazingly green volcanic mountains in the region, these are the places you see.
An expedition cruise is the same as a regular cruise in that it goes places, feeds it guests, pampers them, gives them a very comfortable place to stay, and makes the entire operation seamless. But the whole vibe, especially when going to the far-flung places reached by Silversea Expeditions, is different; just reading the massive brochure creates interest in so many places for true travelers, not just tourists. People I spoke with on board from places like Seattle and Lake Arrowhead, CA, as well as various folks from the UK and Australia, had an affinity towards expedition cruises that makes them quite loyal to this type of cruising. There were lots of 60+ guests on board, and a good number went back and forth between Silversea’s smaller ships and their larger ships. The level of repeat guests to the brand was quite high, regardless of where and how they traveled. The largest percentage of guests came from the United States at about 21% with slightly lower numbers from Australia/New Zealand and the UK. Most of the rest were from Europe, making for a nice mix of accents on board. Because of the sufficient numbers from Germany, special lectures and slide/video presentations were set up for them.
The Silver Discoverer, the ex-Clipper Odyssey (Clipper Cruise Line/Intrav) taken over and refurbished by Silversea Cruises in May 2014, carries 120 when full and with its 5,218 tonnage, the space ratio is a comfy 43; not as spacious as the regular Silversea ships, but it never felt crowded. With 101 crewmembers, service was exceptional. Bar and wait staff got to know everyone quite quickly and service became personalized to an impressive degree.
The superb 15-member expedition team was responsible for snorkel and dive guidance, driving the zodiacs, handling logistics, conducting lectures and video presentations, and running everything else that went into making the local stops easy to enjoy. They really got to know individual guests and made beginner snorkelers (such as me) and experienced divers all capable of enjoying the marine life. And this is important because a major reason to go to a place like French Polynesia, where the waters are so clear, is to see and experience the abundant fish life and coral.
Here’s a typical wonderful day in the Marquesas Islands:
Breakfast was served in the Discoverer Lounge from 6:30 – 8:30am. It was a lovely buffet and there were specialty items cooked to order for guests sitting inside or outside at the aft pool deck dining/drinking location. Then it was a visit to the Tahanea Atoll, part of the Tuamoto Archipelago. It’s only about 28 miles in length with a maximum width of 9 miles and we stopped inside the atoll itself. A snorkeling platform was set up and the colors were simply amazing and the fish life and coral fascinating.
After a morning of water adventures the ship left and headed toward the Motutunga Atoll, even smaller than Tahanea. On the way, of course, we had lunch, one of many great buffets with a set menu as well. We had to zodiac to the snorkeling platform because there were no entries large enough for the ship to get inside the atoll ring itself. Hard to believe, but here the ship’s crew brought ashore beverages, snacks and even ice cream for a sunset cocktail celebration at the end of the day. We sailed for Fakarava at about 6pm. Dinner of course followed on board with guests enjoying terrific cuisine in the main dining room; menus were more than sufficient, but the staff was also flexible when guests wanted something as simple as an unlisted pasta dish — if they had it on board, they cooked it. Hot Rocks was another option, a truly fun outside dining experience where guests mostly cook their own steaks, shrimp and more. After dinner, it was quiet music in the lounge, conversation, strolling the decks and enjoying the weather/stars or, in most cases, making it an early evening to get ready for the next day’s outings.
Normally, in the early evening, there was a talk by members of the expedition team about what we had seen that day and what to expect tomorrow. This was a very knowledgeable group of guides, catering to all skill levels and making it easy to enjoy the experience. Virtually every place we went ashore where there was a village, locals entertained us with music, song and dance. The welcomes were warm and friendly and the villages interesting. In at least one case, there was an opportunity to choose from many kinds of hiking, from relatively simple strolling and birdwatching to some extremely strenuous hikes. I chose the middle walk to a waterfall. Didn’t quite make it all the way, but the pictures looked great.
Snorkeling equipment is supplied on board for everyone, but many guests seemed to bring their own. Lifejackets, mandatory for all zodiac rides, aren’t the normal clunky type on big ships; they aren’t lightweight, but they are compact and give guests a real feeling of safety should the need arise. Happily, it didn’t.
On a cruise aboard a ship like the Silver Discoverer, guests need to realize what an expedition cruise is all about. For example, traditional evening entertainment and casinos don’t exist on board such a small ship as Silver Discoverer. Two nights, however, the evenings were particularly enjoyable with a great BBQ on deck about halfway through the cruise and then a crew show scheduled nicely on Halloween night. Both evenings were among the very best I have ever experienced at sea.
And now that the line has converted one of its smaller ships, Silver Cloud, to expedition cruising, there are four Silversea expedition ships to offer up an even wider and more exciting range of places to go all over the world. Perfect for guests who want to steer clear of ordinary cruise destinations.
Click here to read more about Silversea Expeditions.
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