Silversea Cruises: You get what you pay for

By August 23, 2012Cruising, South Africa
Silversea Silver Wind

Passengers keep coming back for five-star luxury

CruseCrazies.com — Sept. 28, 2012

THE INDIAN OCEAN OFF THE COAST OF AFRICA — Decisions, decisions …

I started feeling pampered weeks before I even boarded the Silversea Silver Wind for a 16-day luxury cruise from Cape Town, South Africa to Mombasa, Kenya, with stops in-between in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

The Silversea Silver Wind

The Silver Wind anchored off the coast of Madagascar

The cruise line sent me a guest information form asking me to choose one of four different types of pillows for my suite.  It was a tough decision, but I opted to eschew the firm goose down, synthetic hypoallergenic and therapeutic foam for the standard soft goose down pillow.

It was the first of many taxing decisions I was confronted with during the cruise, from whether to choose the caviar and condiments or rouleaux de feuilles de brick (that’s French for spring roll) as my appetizer during the first formal dinner at sea (I chose both), to which type of beer to have my cabin fridge stocked with (I chose Corona), to whether to stay up late for the 10 p.m. shows in the Parisian Theater or watch a movie in my suite and call it an early night (depended on the following day’s itinerary).

But on Silversea, which has carved out a niche at the high-end of the small-ship luxury cruise market, it’s virtually impossible to make a wrong choice.  That’s why the cruise line has been voted “World’s Best” nine times by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler and seven times by Travel + Leisure magazine in the “small ship” category.

It’s also why Silversea gets so many repeat customers. There were 210 passengers on the Cape Town-Mombasa sailing — mostly North Americans and Europeans — and it was hard to find someone who hadn’t sailed on Silversea in the past. Indeed, most people I spoke with had been on the line several times before and some even had sea days numbering in the hundreds.

Silver Wind Captain Gennaro Arma

 Capt. Gennaro Arma and his staff welcome passengers aboard the Silver Wind

They keep coming back for the food, service and one of the highest space-to-guest ratios in the industry. Silversea’s largest ships — the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper — hold only 382 guests. (In December 2009, Silversea debuted the Silver Spirit, which has a capacity of 540 guests, still a fraction of what the mass-market ships carry).

As for the Silver Wind, it has room for 296 passengers. But this particular sailing was only about 70 percent full, which meant there were actually more crew members (224) on board than guests.

No long lines at the lunch buffet, no endless waits to get off the ship in tender ports, and no fighting over deckchairs.

But the luxury and intimate surroundings on Silversea don’t come cheap. Some of the nicer suites can cost well more than $1,000 per person per day.

Silver Wind pool

A day at sea. No fighting over deckchairs on a ship with only 210 passengers

It’s true what they say, though — you get what you pay for. The cabins are huge and all have an ocean view; most have balconies. The French cuisine is five-star and the ship’s restaurants offer open seating, meaning you can dine when and with whom you want.

Silversea bills itself as the most all-inclusive cruise line in the industry. A lot of things that cost extra on other lines, like beverages — alcoholic and otherwise — are included in the fare.

“Even though you may not be a big alcohol drinker, those Diet Cokes and cappuccinos and bottled waters add up on other cruise lines, and at the end of the cruise, you’re hit with sticker shock,” said Silversea spokesman Brad Ball, who was aboard the Silver Wind on the Cape Town-Mombasa sailing and answered my questions in the ship’s quiet card room.

Silver Wind lunch buffet

Executive Chef Laurent Austrui prepares the lunch buffet in the ship’s galley

“With Silversea, you know right up front what you’re going to pay, and what your budget is for that trip.”

Gratuities are also included and the cruise line provides complimentary shuttle buses from the ship into town in most ports. While we were docked next to an MSC cruise ship in Maputo, Mozambique, I looked out the window of our shuttle bus taking us into town to see MSC passengers walking in the same direction in the heat and humidity.

I wondered if the economic downturn has hurt the high-end cruise market. Surprisingly, Ball said it hasn’t and that Silversea’s bookings are “at plan.”

“You’re dealing with the very affluent,” he said of the line’s passengers. “Whether they’re business owners, or professionals, or lawyers or doctors, they know the investments are going to be up, and they’re going to be down. And once they become accustomed to this standard of travel, they don’t sacrifice.”

Ball also noted that since Silversea is more international than most cruise lines, it can better withstand a slump in one part of the world. “If the economy is soft in the U.S., there is always another economy in the world that is doing a little better,” he said.

Having said that, Ball acknowledges that Silversea has now had to begin offering a number of booking incentives, including free air for select sailings and early booking discounts.

“When Silversea was launched, we were proud to be the most expensive, and if you had to ask how much it cost, you couldn’t afford it,” said Ball. “That has changed. Value is very important to our clients these days.”

Silver Wind veranda suite

 A spacious veranda suite

No matter how wealthy, everyone likes a deal. I found it interesting that couples who didn’t mind shelling out $25,000 or more for the cruise were so pleased to be saving a few bucks with free laundry service, a perk Silversea gives to repeat passengers.

And there was a good-sized group — me among them — who regularly participated in trivia, golf-putting and other contests to win “Silversea points,” which we lined up to redeem for t-shirts, key-chains, bookmarks and other trinkets at the end of the cruise.

Silversea is not for cruisers accustomed to non-stop activities you’ll find on the bigger ships. There wasn’t a whole lot going on during days at sea, other than fascinating 45-minute “enrichment” lectures on African politics and wildlife by a professional safari guide.

A dermatologist onboard, noting the dearth of activities, volunteered to give a lecture on preventing skin cancer, certainly a relevant topic on a cruise off the coast of Africa not far from the equator. His talk was very well-attended.

The nightly entertainment featured competent performers but lacked the glitz and variety I’ve seen on other ships. And the casino, if it could be called that, consisted of a few slot machines and a couple of tables, which rarely saw much action.

But most passengers didn’t seem to mind foregoing high-stakes bingo, art auctions, parades of sparkler-carrying waiters bearing trays of baked Alaska, or the old cruise-ship standby — “The Not-So-Newlywed Game.”

They were more than content reading by the pool, soaking up the sun and contemplating whether to have a pina colada or strawberry daiquiri, and what time to head back to the cabin to get ready for dinner.

Decisions, decisions …

© 2012 Dan Fellner