THE CRUISE: Seven days in August 2015 from Seward, Alaska, to Vancouver, British Columbia, on the Silversea Silver Shadow. The 28,000-ton ship was launched in 2000 and refurbished in 2011. Considered a premium or super-premium small ship, it carries a maximum of 382 passengers with a crew of around 300.
PRE-DEPARTURE AND EMBARKATION: After three days at the Hilton in Anchorage, we took the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Seward, a trip that is included in the cruise at no extra charge. Silversea reserves the entire train for cruise passengers. The cruise itself is all-inclusive, including drinks, tips and port fees, but on the train portion there's only a welcome glass of complimentary champagne; you have to pay for any other food or drink you purchase. We did buy light snacks and drinks, including a cute "Moose Mary," an Alaskan version of the Bloody Mary.
The train boards at the Alaska Railroad depot at the Anchorage airport, not at the station in downtown Anchorage, so four of us took a taxi from the Anchorage Hilton to the airport station. The fare for four was around $20 plus tip, much cheaper than the $39 per-person Silversea charges if you use their transfer service. The Anchorage airport train station is right at the airport terminal area. It's functional rather than attractive, whereas the airport itself is an attractive small airport with lots of local flavor and local art.
You turn over your luggage to a Silversea rep at the Anchorage Hilton, and it's transported by truck to the ship in Seward, so you don't have to schlep it on the train.
I was impressed by the rail cars on this Alaska Railroad route. They are fairly new "vista cars" with lots of glass so everyone has a great view. You sit at tables for four, as in a railroad dining car. Some years ago we had taken the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Denali, which was a great trip, too, but at that time the rail cars weren't nearly as nice as these. This train had diesel engines front and rear, and the railway bed seemed to be in good condition, so it was an easy ride.
The scenery coming out of Anchorage isn't noteworthy, but as you go farther south it gets better and better. You pass several glaciers and many snow-covered mountains in the Chugach National Forest.
The trip takes nearly five hours, but it's so comfortable and the scenery so beautiful time passes quickly. We were among the first to disembark the train at Seward. You don’t get to see much of Seward, but we had been there before. It was a short walk to where the Silver Shadow was docked. Embarkation on the ship was extremely easy, especially as we were at the head of the line. By the time we went to our cabin, our luggage was in our stateroom, having been brought down from Anchorage.
All in all, this is a great way to start a cruise.
THE SHIP: To cut to the chase, I was less than impressed with the Silver Shadow. Although the ship is just 15 years old and was refurbished in 2011, it feels a bit outdated. Ceilings are low, public spaces are fairly small, and I kept making negative mental comparisons with the glitzy (albeit large) new ships from Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and other lines. To add insult to injury, as a Proper Motor Car fan I resent that the ship borrows the name of the most popular motorcar in the history of Rolls-Royce. The Silver Shadow, built from 1965 to early 1980, was the first “modern” Rolls-Royce and sold better than any other Rolls before or since.
Although this is a small ship, with a capacity of fewer than 400 passengers, there is plenty of space. The space-to-passenger ratio, at 74, is better than almost any other cruise ship. Still, for some reason I found it difficult to find that private nook or favorite corner in a bar that I usually find on other cruises.
Nearly all the art work on display, including at least three pieces by Bob Dylan, was for sale, with prices ranging from $2,750 for one of the Dylan paintings, to the mid five figures for a Picasso sketch or Impressionist print. It all seemed a bit commercial, compared with the art collections you find on some ships.
The 28,000-ton, 10-deck ship has two sets of elevators, a single set forward and a double set aft. Many guests used the stairs if they were going up or down only a deck or two. We did not experience many waits for elevators. There was continued confusion about getting to the main restaurant aft on Deck 4, as the single set of elevators could not be used to access the restaurant part of that deck but only some staterooms. You had to go up to a higher deck and then take the double set of elevators down to the restaurant area, or walk down the aft stairs.
Although not a megaship, the Silver Shadow seemed stable, and sea sickness was not a problem. Generally, the coastal waters were smooth.
SERVICE: In a word, the service in all areas was excellent. Waiters and waitresses, who rotated among the different bars and restaurants on board, quickly learned to recognize you and often called us by name. I don’t think we ever saw a staff member who wasn’t smiling and friendly. Silversea clearly is proud of its level of service, and it does a great job. The crew-to-passenger ratio is a high 1.3 to 1.
STATEROOM: We had one of the “suites” with only a window, not a veranda open to the sea. About 85% of the cabins on the ship do have verandas. As it turned out, we didn’t miss the veranda as much as we thought we would, as it was often quite chilly, and we probably would not have had breakfast on the veranda. There was also not as much to see on the Alaska itinerary as I thought there would be. There was only one whale spotted, and we missed it. The couple we were traveling with did see a large pod of porpoises frolicking beside the ship.
Our cabin was quite large, about 287 square feet. We had a comfortable queen bed, a walk-in closet and a lovely large bathroom with both tub and separate shower, plus two washbasins in a granite top. There was plenty of storage. We had a small fridge, and our butler kept us supplied with ice. The TV, though a flat screen model, seemed fairly old, and we found the DVD player difficult to use. Although some of the wood surfaces in the room showed a little wear, overall the suite (though that’s stretching the definition) was very nice. We had no complaints.
FOOD: The food in the main restaurant, simply called The Restaurant, was always good, though rarely great. Since we usually had breakfast in our stateroom and lunch at the grill beside the pool, we experienced the main restaurant mainly for dinner. Portions tended to be small, but if you were hungry you could have multiple courses – a good choice of appetizers, soups, salads, pastas, entrees and desserts. Wine (included, of course) was of acceptable quality and served generously. I would say that most of the dishes in the main restaurant had an Italian bias, or at least a European style. The Silversea is Italian-owned, and the captain is Italian, although the staff came from about 35 different countries.
The only other restaurant, besides the poolside grill, that we tried was La Terrazza, the Italian restaurant. Our dinner here, which required advance reservations but had no upcharge, was the best of the cruise. We tried to get reservations for another night but were only wait listed and did not make the cut. One night we had reservations for the “hot rocks” restaurant by the pool, where you cook your own meats and fish on heated lava rocks, but that night was cold and rainy, and we were strongly encouraged not to eat there. We were never able to get reservations at La Champagne, the top-end restaurant on the ship and the only one that required an upcharge ($40 per person) even though we began trying to get reservations about three months before sailing.
The odd thing about the specialty restaurants on the Silver Shadow was that while it was difficult to get reservations, there seemed to always be plenty of empty tables. This was explained by staffers who said that the kitchen could handle only a limited number of diners.
In my opinion, the least appealing thing about the restaurants was that they did not serve many local Alaskan or Pacific Northwest dishes, such as oysters, clams, chowders or local fish such as salmon. One night, lobster (source unknown) was on the menu, but I never saw oysters on the half shell or clam chowder at the main restaurant, and salmon – this is prime salmon fishing season -- was only occasionally served.
DRINK: Silversea is an “all-inclusive” line, where most drinks and wines are included. Upon request, your cabin “butler” (really, just a steward) will stock your suite with the wines and liquor of your choice. We had friends in for cocktails one night, so we asked for a bottle of vodka (Grey Goose), a bottle of gin (some new British brand the line was trying out, and I can’t recall the name) and a bottle of bourbon (regular Jim Beam bourbon and Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey were the only choices). Liquor came in liter bottles, so we ended the cruise with the bottles still mostly full. Our cabin fridge was stocked with tonic water and some other mixers, along with a couple of cans of Stella Artois beer.
In the restaurants and bars, moderate-quality wines were poured generously, and most drinks, even some premium brands, were included at no extra charge. There were a few expensive single-malt Scotches and cognacs and expensive wines that did have an upcharge. Staff did not push the extra-charge drinks.
Although there was a considerable choice of drinks available, I would not say the ship had a “creative cocktail” menu. The cocktails were mostly versions of old-fashioned drinks, rather than the kind of drinks you find in hipper restaurants and bars these days. The ship also did not offer locally sourced craft beer, just domestic and imported mass-produced beer in cans and bottles.
On the positive side, it’s great not to have to show your card to get a drink, or sign for it, or tip the server.
PASSENGER MIX: Although Silversea has a reputation for having a mostly older (60 to 70 and over) clientele, we found that on this short Alaska cruise the passenger mix was fairly varied. There were quite a few passengers in their 40s and 50s, a few probably in their 30s, and some children. The vast majority of passengers were from the U.S., with some from Europe (primarily from Italy), a few from Canada and Britain and at least a couple from Australia.
DRESS: While Silversea cruises normally are a bit dressier than most, on the short Alaska cruises there are no required formal nights. However, on the second night formal dress (tuxedos or dark suits for men, cocktail dresses for women) was encouraged but not required, and that night jackets and ties for men predominated. The rest of the nights were either informal (jackets for men, but ties not required, though quite a few men wore ties) or casual (collared shirts for men). Shorts and jeans were not supposed to be worn in public areas after 6 p.m., but we saw a few guys in jeans at dinner. Bathrobes, provided in the staterooms, were not supposed to be worn in the pool area, although occasionally this rule was violated.
PORTS: After leaving Seward, the Silver Shadow stopped at Sitka (the only port where we had to tender in), Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. Frankly, we were disappointed in the ports, not that there were any other real choices. The small towns of Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan have been taken over by the cruise ship lines, Sitka to a lesser degree. Diamonds International and other typical cruise port shops line the main streets. When I last visited Juneau, in the 1990s, Alaska’s capital was a friendly, low-key town with an authentic Alaskan feel. Now it looks like part of Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas has been imported to the Southwestern coast of Alaska. It’s a shame when these small towns allow the cruise ship companies to take over the towns. One wonders what these places look like from late September to early May when the cruise ships don’t visit. Are the jewelry and tee-shirt shops boarded up?
We did enjoy a close-up view on a clear day of the Hubbard Glacier, and parts of the Inland Passage near Vancouver were beautiful, with the ship passing by islands close by. We were disappointed that we did not see much wildlife. We saw much more – whales, sea lions, seals and all kinds of birds including many eagles – on a day cruise tour we took some years ago from Seward.
ENTERTAINMENT: This was one of the weakest parts of the cruise. Except for a couple of small ensembles playing in two bars, the only entertainment in the main theater, besides movies, were shows put on by a group called The Voices of Silversea. This six-person group, three men and three women, were talented, but the same group night after night was not what we expected. Couldn’t Silversea bring on a magician or another band or singing group for just a night or two?
There was a small casino, which we only visited briefly, and a few exclusive shops on one deck.
Perhaps it’s the kind of person this line attracts – older and more sedate, though there were some younger people and even families with children on this cruise – or perhaps it’s the outdoorsy Alaskan itinerary, but most of the time the bars (there were really just two main bars on the ship, the Panorama and The Bar) were nearly empty, and by 11 pm or so they were virtually deserted. Only a handful of passengers ever danced.
Informal bridge games were advertised daily, though not many people turned out. The ship has a nice lending library, with books in several languages, and DVDs also were available to be checked out for viewing in your stateroom.
FITNESS: When on a cruise, I try to work out daily, mainly riding a recumbent bike and doing some weight training. I found the fitness room on the Silver Shadow rather small but adequately equipped. There were two recumbent bikes, a regular bike, various weight machines along with free weights, plus other high-quality exercise equipment. Rarely were there more than three or four other people in the room when I was there. There is a short jogging track on one upper deck, and another deck is used for walking. The ship has one fairly small swimming pool, with two hot tubs. Due to the cool weather most of the trip, not many people swam in the pool. There is a spa near the fitness room, but no one in our party used it.
HEALTH: Unlike many other ships, the Silver Shadow did not actively promote using hand cleanser to reduce the chance of norovirus or other infectious outbreaks. There were hand sanitizer stations at various points around the ship, but no one encouraged their use, and I would say most people did not use them regularly. However, the ship seemed very clean, and there were no health problems on the cruise that I was aware of.
EXCURSIONS: We did not use any of the Silversea excursions, as we found them extremely expensive, even more so than on other ships. We either went into town at port stops and walked around on our own, or took taxis to places we wanted to visit. I’m sure that some of the official excursions were very good, but we couldn’t afford the hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person that were charged.
TIPPING: Officially, your cruise price on Silversea includes gratuities, along with drinks and port fees. We never saw any effort by Silversea staff to get tips. We did give our butler and housekeeping person extra gratuities, and I know some other passengers did as well, but overall I think the no-tipping policy on Silversea is real.
DISEMBARKATION: It was a breeze. We waited briefly for our group to be called and to meet up with our friends, but it took just a few minutes to get off the ship and into a taxi in Vancouver. I’m not sure why, but we didn’t even have to go through Canadian customs or immigration. We simply picked up our luggage and walked out. (We had to turn in our passports when boarding the ship, and I guess that somehow Canadian customs handled screening beforehand.) Anyway, it was great.
BOTTOM LINE: We enjoyed this cruise, despite the disappointment in the ports and in the ship’s entertainment, and not being wowed by the food and drink. We did love not having to tip every time we asked for a drink or have to sign a chit or present a card. The cruise staff was great, and service was always top-notch. But based on this short, seven-day Alaska cruise, are we likely to become Silversea regulars? I don’t think so.
Depending on the ship, the itinerary and the price, we might some day consider another Silversea cruise, but I think this will be our one and only Silversea experience.