For many people, bigger is better. For us discerning travelers…not so much. When the ship Oasis of the Seas launched in 2009, we took one look at its specs (close to 6000 passengers) and knew immediately it wasn’t for us. The largest ship we’d been on at that time was just slightly over 2000 passengers, and we knew that was quite large enough. But we wanted to go smaller. So we looked to the self-described “six-star” experience.
It’s wonderful to be at that point in our lives (nudging ever closer to retirement and yet still with significant cash flow) so that we can travel in a way that allows us to be a bit more discerning than we used to be – because, self-described or not, the so-called six-star cruise lines cost. And for us, there is one place where bigger is better when it comes to getting on a cruise ship; that place is the size of the stateroom.
On the occasion of our twentieth wedding anniversary some years ago, we decided to treat ourselves to a Royal Suite on a Celebrity cruise ship and we’ve never been able to go back to a smaller stateroom. So, we are looking for value when we choose an experience. In the case of moving to smaller ships, we first tried Regent – first the Navigator (490 passengers) and then the Mariner (700 passengers) – then ended up earlier this year on a Silversea ship, the Silver Cloud with all of 296 passengers. What an experience that was! Even if you can’t afford a Silversea cruise, or a Silver suite on board, come along with us and we’ll tell you what it’s like.
We boarded the Silver Cloud in Bridgetown, Barbados at the cruise terminal. We were greeted not by the usual line-ups and booths that face you when you go aboard a larger ship in places like Fort Lauderdale; rather there was a table with three of the ship’s personnel to greet us with our documents and a wave us to the pier. Once on board, with a glass of champagne in hand, we had our ID photos taken and were whisked to our suite.
What made the ship so different than previous experiences was that you could stand in the bar at one end of the ship and look down its one corridor and see to the other end. Then, as you walked along the corridors past occasionally open doors of suites (every stateroom aboard is at least a small suite) and see out both sides of the ship: there are no interior cabins; everyone has an outside suite and some 90% have verandahs.
The ship’s itinerary took us to several islands that we had never visited before either as an island vacation or as a cruise ship port. These included Dominica, Bequia and St. Bart’s. Some islands just don’t have the capability for one reason or another, to host the larger ships, so smaller is better when it comes to accessing them as ports.
We prefer just the two of us for dining companions on any given cruise ship. In fact, when ships have set dinner times and tables, if we can’t be guaranteed a table for two, we won’t book. We’ve been burned in the past by having to spend a meal or two in the company of loud wind-bags who like to hear themselves talk – not our idea of a relaxing meal. On these small ships you just arrive at the dining room any time during dining hours and ask to be seated. In our case, our requests each evening for a table-for-two were never a problem (unlike a previous experience on a Regent ship when the maître d’ simply could not seem to understand precisely what a table-for-two meant). Despite our preference for ‘twosomeness’ in dining, the ship is small enough that you would have to stay in your suite the entire cruise to not come in contact with just about everyone on board some time during the 10 days. The amazing thing was that we found ourselves in the company of some 250 like-minded people. These were people who could afford to travel well, but who were looking for an experience that assured them they had spent their money well. They were not disappointed in this experience, nor were we.
One aspect of travel aboard these six-star ships a traveler needs to know is that people dress. Some of the lines (Regent for example) have really moved away from truly formal evenings, however, every night on the Silver Cloud was like a cocktail party with cocktail attire expected – and you would certainly stick out if you chose not to dress up a bit.
Of course, the food was wonderful and these are all-inclusive experiences. Not once does a bar tender ask you to sign a bill. There is no passing over your room key for anything to be added to your bill (except spa services and if you choose wines off the sommelier’s premium list). Wine, drinks, and gratuities – they are all included in the price.
The entertainment was fairly low-key and yet there was always something to keep us amused. We would not, however, like to have too many days at sea on such a small ship. This kind of a cruise where there are five or six lovely ports to explore is the ideal way in our view to experience all the perks of small-ship cruising.
We ended up sharing our van and driver with several passengers from another larger cruise ship who were stranded at a beach on the island of St. Kitts. When they asked us which ship we were from and we mentioned the Silver Cloud, one of them asked us what it was like on board such a small ship. “I heard that everything is included and you have a butler,” he said. We nodded. He sighed. “I’m going on one of those someday,” he said. “It looks like a private yacht.” Couldn’t have said it better ourselves!