On September 26, 2015 we had the extraordinary opportunity to sail with Silversea Cruises on their expedition ship, Silver Discoverer. The voyage was officially number 9520, 16 days, Lost Islands of Micronesia and Melanesia. The following posts were written by us real-time as we adventured through the South Pacific through some of the most remote and untouched places imaginable. I’ve broken up the review into several pages due to the cruise’s length. Please enjoy our first-person accounts and post your comments and questions – we’d love to hear from you!
Pre-Cruise Travels: We’re Going Where?
Four flights, five airports, and 28.5 hours later, we’ve only just started our journey. It’s a heck of a long way to get from Florida to the South Pacific. There’s not much to say about that much time in the airports and in planes other than being very pleased to have gotten through it with no delays or lost baggage. Our arrival into Koror, Palau’s airport was a welcome one complete with shell lei before meeting our hotel’s shuttle so we could turn in for the night.
Our overnight in Palau was spent tucked away at West Plaza Hotel by the Sea. There are several West Plaza hotels, all budget-conscious choices scattered about the main island. I chose the one by the sea for just that reason. I figured we didn’t come all this way to not see some water. (I guess 16 days of it isn’t enough!). It’s a tiny hotel with air conditioning in the rooms, a mini-fridge, reasonable laundry service fees, and a comfortable room. While not exceptionally modern, it is exceptionally clean. Two words of caution, the rooms are not accessible as there is a step into the bathroom and be very aware of the tile floors – they are slippery!
The on-site restaurant, the Red Rooster Café, serves up American and Italian American fare for lunch and dinners alongside its own draft beer. We had eaten in Guam and didn’t have a need for dinner when we arrived, but we were awake for breakfast right as they opened! The small menu had the usual favorites and a few regional specialities. We chose the Palauan Sunrise (fried rice, eggs, hashbrown, corned beef, and a sampling of pickled yellow radish) and Prabang Reveille (a Filipino traditional breakfast of garlic rice, eggs, sweet pork) with a small fruit plate (slices of orange, honeydew melon, and apple), an extra serving of Portuguese sausage, and one pineorange juice refill. Drinks were included with breakfast as was 10% service charge. For a very reasonable $24 – including extra tip for our attentive waitress – we feasted well and were only disappointed by the fact that this was to be our only meal here! The comfortable accommodations, good food, and reasonable price will definitely bring us back to stay in Palau again; next time, we’ll focus on the diving here. The people have been very sweet and curious, usually asking if we’re here to dive as scuba diving is the main attraction in the islands apart from anyone seeking out World War II history.
After breakfast, we had time to do something before heading to the cruise ship so we visited the Palau Aquarium which was a few minutes drive from our hotel. A quaint place, and very clean, the Palau Aquarium provides visitors an opportunity to learn about the reef history of Palau and some of the creatures inhabiting their waters. It’s an outdoor aquarium with several tanks along the walking path. We were glad to be the only ones there alongside a small family group of Japanese visitors so it was easy to move around and see things up close. The touching tank was fun, too, and I got my hands wet playing with a starfish and sea cucumber.
Around 12 noon we’ll be making our way to the Malakal Harbor to meet up with our ship. It’s our first time cruising on Silversea as well as our first time on one of their expedition itineraries. The opportunity to combine scuba diving in pristine areas with plenty of cultural history on a more luxurious cruise ship has us excited and intrigued.
Our accommodations for this voyage are a View Suite on Deck 4. Cabin 412, to be exact. The appointments of the space are comfortable, clean, and just enough space. Space-wise it’s pretty comparable to a contemporary cruise line’s balcony stateroom. The marble bathroom and Bulgari bath amenities are definitely a nice step up. Our butler, Hitesh, and stateroom attendant, Samuel, are cheery and always right there to answer a call, open the door when they see you approaching your room, and answer questions. I could get used to this! Below are just a few pictures of our suite and some photos from around the ship (more are available on our Go there with us CruiseOne Facebook page).
It’s Friday, October 2nd and we’re on our second sea day en route to Papua New Guinea. I’m curled up on a comfy deck chair on deck 6 overlooking the pool and open ocean in order to recap the past few days since we boarded Silver Discoverer with 47 other guests and a crew of about 100. The peace and quiet is almost surreal; there’s no bass-thumping music or kids squealing at a pool. Just the sound of the water and occasional closing of a door.
Since boarding in Koror, Palau, we’ve visited Ngulu Atoll and Colonia, Yap which are both in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Ngulu Atoll is a small inhabited island seldom visited by the outside world. There are resident islanders some of which have not left the island since 1997 – when you lay eyes on the island for the first time, you will wonder how impossible it seems to never leave! The day’s activities included snorkeling, an hour-long walking tour of the island to meet the islanders in addition to viewing the plant-life there, and diving. Snorkeling that day was cancelled due to blue bottle jellyfish that were present in the area where the Zodiacs were landing. Poor Patrick, one of our expedition team members, had to find out firsthand about the jellyfish when he was scouting in the morning.Our small diving group (Hans, Jurgen, Dr. Doolittle, Butch and I) was lucky however to use the time as our check-out dive with a skills check and explore the reef off the coast of the island on a side where there were thankfully no jellyfish present. Scuba Steve, as our divemaster was affectionately known, wanted to run us through a skills check prior to the remainder of our voyage so we did a buoyancy test, full mask flood, and out-of-air skill work. No matter how long you’ve been diving it’s certainly good to keep sharp on your skills; I was a bit anxious at the thought of having to perform the full mask flood, but at the same time surprised myself at how well I handled it. While there wasn’t much in the way of coral formations due to a typhoon not too long ago, the water was crystal clear. We could’ve stayed underwater considerably more time just to peek into crevices and search for macro organisms, but it was time to head back and prepare for departure to Yap.
Colonia, Yap Island
Divers reading this may know Yap for it’s famous manta ray sanctuary. The only one of its kind in the world. Scuba Steve’s surprise for us is that we would be meeting up with a local dive shop first thing in the morning to go out and dive with the mantas. We needed high tide in order to navigate the channel to reach the dive site, so our group was first off the ship around 0730. We boarded the Yap Divers boat and headed out to Stammtisch; so named by the Germans who helped discover the site just a few years ago. The word in German refers to the table in a pub at which you meet your friends. For us, the site was a cleaning table for Yap’s famous resident manta rays.
We swam out across some of the most amazing coral formations that we’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Truly pristine. It was a five to six minute swim to the table and we were directed to our places by our guide. In order to not disturb the coral, you are asked to stay on specific spots where non-live pieces are and just kneel. We didn’t wait long for our first guest to arrive and delight us all with his/her grace. It was the most remarkable and magical moments I have ever witnessed underwater to-date. The sheer grace these giant mantas possess as they glide through the water and seemingly dance before your eyes is amazing. It’s not something you’ll ever forget! This should be on your top ten list of shallow dives! (Stay tuned for dates for the next trip to dive Yap on our Facebook and GoDiveWithUs.com.)[easy-image-collage id=1049]
After our dive trip, we returned to the Discoverer to clean up then walk over to the dive shop’s gift shop. It was a short walk from the pier to the shop and we encountered many friendly Yapese. After the dive shop, we attended our first sing-sing of the voyage (the traditional dance performance) by the children by the cultural center. Young girls and boys were in grass skirts, coconut oil with turmeric, and adorned in flowers and shells to perform the dances and songs. It was quite the sight and we’re already excited about what else we’ll be witness to on this cruise.
At Sea Days 1 & 2
The smaller ship size may put off some of you. You may be thinking, “there couldn’t possibly be enough to do outside of the excursions to keep me engaged.” Oh how wrong you would be! We’d be remiss in admitting that we wondered if we would get bored as well. After all, cruising on larger ships means there’s always something going on, somewhere to eat, and something to watch even when you’re in bed. The scheduling of activities onboard the Discoverer (and the other Silversea expedition ships, Galapagos and Explorer) are detailed each day in the Chronicles along with the hours of dining, any lectures being offered, and an article about the area or place of next visit.
For those intrepid travelers with inquisitive minds, you’ll be enthralled by the knowledge the expedition leaders have to share on board. During non-port hours, a series of lectures are planned to enhance your knowledge of the traditions, culture, and related topics for the area. Since being on board, we’ve learned from Tua about the pwo master navigators, Patrick about coral reef complexity, Alejandra on the anthropology and peopling of the islands in Oceania, Richard on various photography tips, and Christian about the Yap rai (stone money) and other objects used as money across the history of Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia. It’s fascinating and inspirational to spend a few hours each day listening to people passionate about what they do. The expedition team is around the ship all day so you have multiple opportunities to sit with them during a meal or just ask a question when you see them. They are welcoming individuals and always happy to discuss their passion whether it’s history, navigation, or botany or any of the other specialties.
Let’s go back to the dining for a second. At first glance, one may think the hours to eat are rather narrow, but in practice we’ve not wanted for anything. In-suite dining is available from 0600 until 2300 each day; they will serve whatever is on The Restaurant’s menu at dinner in your suite in addition to the room service menu items. There’s an early risers Danish and coffee time, breakfast buffet, then lunch at either the buffet or Grill by the pool. Afternoon tea time happens for an hour, then dinner service starts at 1900 in either The Restaurant or The Grill for the hot rocks dining. With room service available, there’s no time during normal waking hours that food isn’t available. We’ve tried an early lunch from room service one day already and it was a lovely set-up by our butler, Hitesh.
The buffet breakfast and lunch selections cover one wall in the Discoverer Lounge. Don’t be looking for 542,269 buffet items. But what is there has been fresh, well-prepared, and tasty every day.
At breakfast, you’ll find a selection of breads, muffins, croissants, and jellies in addition to fruits, yogurt, nuts, oatmeal, cereals, fresh juices, smoked salmon, cold cuts, cheeses, and standard hot selections like scrambled eggs, bacon, baked beans, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomato, pancake of the day, Canadian bacon, and French toast. Your drink server can take your request for made-to-order omelets and eggs prepared any way your heart desires. They will even make your toast for you.
There’s always a salad bar at lunch, one soup selection, one pre-made sandwich selection, fresh fruit, cold cuts, freshly-baked breads, dessert selections (including the best chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies at sea, in our humble opinion), about eight hot food selections, one made-to-order pasta, and then a carved meat selection. We decided to try The Grill at lunch, but personally didn’t find it to be as good as the lunch buffet. The ham and cheese panini was really a ham and cheese sandwich with toasted bread and the burger lacked a hand-made patty and fresh bun. I would have rather have had my salad and tried the roast pork tenderloin that was offered that day! The carved meat selections so far haven’t repeated and it’s been pork loin, beef short ribs, prime rib, lemon and thyme roasted chicken, roasted turkey breast – all super tender and juicy.
Dinners in The Restaurant have been nothing short of delectable. Chef Marcelino Dela Cruz and his galley staff prepare thoughtful, well-seasoned, perfectly cooked meals each evening. I’ve ventured out and tried things that I thought I might not like such as the beef tartare and was glad I did. Norman, our sommelier on board, is exceptionally friendly and takes his job very seriously. You’ll see him even at lunch time making sure that the wines being poured meet your tastes and expectations. We’ve really enjoyed visiting with him at dinner to hear his stories and share his wisdom about wine.
During the sea days, Norman was provided an opportunity to officiate a wine tasting for us which was relaxed and educational. We’d never done a formal tasting with a sommelier, so being walked through the process of selection, looking at the clarity and color, and how to mouth and chew the wine was eye-opening. The two wines chosen were from Sicily and very good; we were thankful that they were the wines for that evening’s dinner as well so we got to partake in more of them after the tasting was over. Occasionally, Norman is granted some time to do a sparkling wine tasting, so we put in our request to see if that might help get him awarded a time slot. We shall see!
A cooking demonstration was held during these first sea days as well. Chef Marcelino was joined by Raj, the chef overseeing The Grill, to prepare porcini risotto and southern Indian chicken curry. Participants were provided the recipes and we, of course, were the beneficiaries of getting to taste the end products. I must say, Raj’s traditional southern Indian curry was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted curry-wise. It was the right amount of spicy and fresh; I only hope I can replicate it at home half as good as he made it.
Butch took time already to utilize the gym on-board which is a decent size considering the overall size of the Discoverer. I’ve not decided if I’ll try out a spa treatment or not. Between the lectures, meals, and visiting with other guests, we’ve had only a little time for short naps, a little leisure reading, or typing up our next blog entries. In fact, Butch is relaxing in the pool and visiting with Gary while I sit and review the past few days. I know once we enter into Vanimo, Papua New Guinea tomorrow, we’ll have more adventures to write about, so I don’t want to get behind!
On the agenda for this evening is our briefing to prepare us for entering Vanimo tomorrow (no diving, boo hoo). And dinner for the first time at The Grill for the Hot Rocks experience. We’ll be grilling on super hot rocks at our table with whatever meats or seafood we choose. We hope it’s as good as The Restaurant because I’m torn about missing something wonderful from Chef Marcelino.
Tonight we’ll be crossing the equator. There are a handful of us on board (both expedition staff and guests, including myself) that have never crossed the equator before (we are known as pollywogs), so tonight we’ll participate in a ceremony on-board with King Neptune to grant us safe passage to the southern hemisphere and get our shell back. It ought to be interesting and I’ve made Butch promise to take a picture or two to commemorate my not being a pollywog anymore. I’m sitting here wondering why the heck there’s a need for plastic sheeting on the deck where the ceremony will take place…!
Crossing the Equator and Vanimo, Papua New Guinea
Yep, I survived a rite of passage last night and live to tell the story! I am officially a “shellback.” Our personal pictures came out a bit dark due to the lighting on the back of the ship, but Richard captured it well in his voyage video. Good times!
But wait, I need to back up a little further than that to tell you about the Hot Rocks dining 😉 The pool deck on deck 5 accommodates the Hot Rocks experience in the evenings by reservation. (There’s no additional charge, we promise. But they have to know how many volcanic rocks to prepare and it is limited seating on the deck.) The concept is that you select your meat from the menu and you are presented with it atop of heated volcanic plate to grill at your table according to your taste. You also choose a salad and dessert, of course, and have freshly baked breads and guacamole, chips, and salsa as appetizers. Butch chose the veal shank and I went with a ribeye. The sides included baked potato and a grilled vegetable skewer.
All beef is prime grade and there were fish options such as prawns and tuna available as well. We enjoyed the experience of wearing a bib while we grilled our food and enjoyed some time under the stars. It got super windy all of a sudden, so be aware that you are indeed outside. It’s hot down here around the equator, so the wind was welcomed by us while other diners weren’t so appreciative. We both enjoyed the food and will more than likely spend at least one other evening grilling under the stars before we say farewell to the Discoverer.
After dinner, we went over to the viewing area on the bridge to stargaze. What a night it was, too. A dark, velvety sky punctuated with the brightest stars one could ever imagine and the twinkling Milky Way. We forget what it’s like to truly see the night sky when you live in the city. The light pollution obscures so much, but out here on the open ocean there’s only the ship’s lights. We’re told Tua or Alejandra may serenade us with a stargazing lecture one night (our fingers are crossed!).
Post-stargazing, it was time for King Neptune’s visit along with his Queen, Baby, and Davy Jones. Peter acted as our master of ceremonies for the evening. There were probably about ten of us, myself included, who were asking for safe passage across the equator. We were all granted our safe passage after much laughter, a limbo contest, a few shots of liquor, ketchup, meringue, melted chocolate, and warm seawater. I’ll leave that list to your imagination! It was a super fun interpretation of the folklore and certainly got us all feeling more like family. You can really tell how much the crew enjoys getting to play and having fun with the guests.
Vanimo was the entry port for us into Papua New Guinea. “Island time” was alive and well even in this part of the world and while we got to the port at our scheduled time, we had to wait for one member of immigrations to arrive in order to be cleared for entry into Papua New Guinea. Add in the fact that sometime overnight the wastewater system (i.e., toilets) decided to get clogged up and not flush, it was a stressful morning for the expedition team. Had we not be cleared by customs, there was a back-up plan, but Stefan rightfully wanted to make sure every chance was provided for the officials before, or if, we changed plans. Thankfully, after a few hours delay, the customs and immigrations officials cleared the ship’s passengers and the bank was also on board to change out our currency to the local money for Papua New Guinea which is the kina.
Our first village to visit had been waiting expectantly for several hours and the people of Lido Village did not hesitate to show that eagerness. The passengers we spoke to after the visit all concurred that our visit to Lido Village was so welcoming and genuinely heartfelt. In all of our personal travels, we’ve never once had this level of heart shown to us. They are a simple people with deeply rooted traditions. They don’t have very much in terms of material possessions, but what they had they shared with open arms and smiling faces.
As Butch was talking with the village governor and some of the lead hosts, it surfaced that we may have two former residents of Lido Village in our hometown. One of the hosts, David, had a sister who moved with her family to the U.S. We traded information for Facebook and hope to be able to connect with his family members when we return. If anyone would have told us we’d meet someone in a remote village in Papua New Guinea who had family members in our hometown, we’d have thought them crazy! It is indeed a very, very small world.
Our visit in Lido Village came to a close much too quickly due to our delays in Vanimo. After a short ride back to the beach to access the Zodiacs, we bid farewell to new friends wondering how this trip could get any better.
Murik Lakes, Sepik River, Madang & the Tami Islands
The Murik Lakes are a cluster of brackish water lakes or estuaries in the lower Sepik River province. Extensive mangrove swamps and lagoons punctuate the area. The Sepik itself is the longest river in PNG and the third largest by volume. Interestingly, the Sepik has no delta and instead flows directly into the ocean. The tribes living along the river are famous for their tremendous wood carvings which depict various totem/spirit animals. In particular, the crocodile is prominent in both their crafts and dance.
This morning’s journey was going to be dependent on whether the Zodiacs could enter the area through the wave breaks. We were in luck when the scouting team said we could go and we did so today as a convoy due to the longer trek we’d be making. The particular village we visited was called Karau. Not only were the inhabitants of the village present, but also members of several others villages who had come down for the day’s festivities and opportunities to sell their work.
Our group was welcomed by traditional song and a welcoming alley of dancers as we disembarked the Zodiacs in the sticky mud and wound our way into the village. Once we arrived into the heart of the village we were treated to several dances and songs at a time performed in a round-robin sort of way with one group going then the next and so on. In between and during the performances, we walked around and spoke with several of the villagers. Again, so warm and kind; after just a few visits in PNG now, we are overwhelmed by the emotions these people elicit from deep within our souls. Many of our fellow guests have said the exact same thing. It’s something s powerful that I can’t even begin to describe in words, but you feel it in your heart.
It’s not uncommon to have someone come up to you, shake your hand and ask your name, where you are from, and be provided a heartfelt “thank you” for visiting. And for every picture you ask to take of a villager, they’re just as keen to take your picture, too! Not to mention how cute all the kids are! They get so excited when you interact with them and love having their picture taken. Many a photobomb happened from the kids darting about with huge smiles and squeals of laughter. Showing them their image on your digital screen usually only elicited even more giggling and grins.
We, of course, did not leave Karau without purchasing a few souvenirs. The exchange rate for kina at the time was around 2.7 kina/$1 USD, so a little went pretty far for handmade woven purses, carved masks and statuettes, and various jewelry with shell money and boar’s tusks. We tried to not spend it all knowing there were several more opportunities to purchase handmade PNG art. The expedition leaders are oh-so-right when they say take out more than you think you will. I actually advise now that one should double what you think you want to spend and have that changed out to kina. You won’t regret doing so!
Our afternoon visit started off quite interestingly by the Captain bringing the entire Silver Discoverer into the Sepik River. It was impressive to be out on the viewing deck directly in front of the bridge to watch the ship navigate into the channel behind our scout Zodiac who was performing depth readings. On one side, there was extensive mangrove and jungle landscape with birds sounding off and butterflies floating over to us. On the other, was our next village to visit, Kopar.
The Kopar people consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of the Sepik River and they are known for their “dragon” spirit dance. It is similar to the Chinese dragon dance in some ways. In addition to being treated to the Kopar dragon dance, among a few others, we were also entertained by a comedic theatre performance. According to expedition staff, this was a first time for the performance. Our ship was presented with a lovely carved mask by the village leader during the pomp and circumstance afforded to our group; Steffan accepted it on behalf of the captain and promised it would be hung in the ship for all to see. If you’re on-board the Silversea Discoverer and see the mask pictured below, you now know where it came from!
Next, we head down the coastline into Madang after the usual evening briefing about what to expect for the next day’s activities. For dinner, we joined staff member and On-Board Cruise Consultant, Reba. Our other guests at the table were our fellow travel agents in addition to the group leader accompanying the guests from Austria. It was a lovely evening as was the others with lively conversation and excitement about the upcoming ports and adventures.
This same-named capital town of the Madang province of PNG boasts a population of over 27,000 people and was originally settled by Germans in the 19th century. The harbor is picturesque with lush vegetation and the tropical scent of copra is heavy on the air. Pay close attention and you’ll catch site of the flying foxes here! We were treated to several fly-overs and got to appreciate just how large they really are; guests on the Bilbil Village tour had a photo stop along the way to observe the animals as they hung in the trees. And they’re not actually foxes that fly; they are large fruit-eating bats that hunt for their fresh fruit during the daylight hours with their keen sense of sight.
Madang was the only port on the entire itinerary that we were able to dive twice. It meant that we traded time ashore hunting for souvenirs/the mangrove tour aboard Zodiacs/Bilbil village visit for the opportunity the dive in PNG. Conditions were very rough so we were not able to go to Steve’s number 1 and 2 dive site choices. Instead, we went to Barracuda Point and the B-25 Mitchell Bomber. Divers may want to see those dive details here.
We wished we had more time in Madang, of course. Every port always seems too short of a visit. But we have one more stop in PNG which is Tami Island. Tonight we have the usual briefing so we know what is planned in the next port and it’s also the first screening opportunity for the movie “Awim and the Hands of Time” which is an account of the 2009 expedition led by Edmundo Edwards, father of one of our expedition team members. It should be fascinating if we can stay awake long enough (if not we’ll hope for a second screening!).
After the day of excitement, slight sunburn and diving, we totally pooped out and missed the screening of “Awim” last night. Not to fear, expedition staff have promised to try to fit it in another afternoon.
The clouds turned into drizzle today, but Mother Nature allowed us some reprieve to get our visit to Kalal village in and also allow the snorkelers among us a chance to float around in the crystal blue waters. A few raindrops wasn’t about the stop any of us! One could exit the village early to snorkel, but majority of guests stayed through the dances and shopping of handmade goods.
Tami Islands has two main villages, one on one island and the other immediately across the lagoon on the next island. Both villages were in attendance today and, I have to say, it was the best sing-sing we’ve had the pleasure of viewing since the start of this trip. You could hear more melodies between the men and women and the higher pitches of one or two choice women in the groups just added that zing that made your arm hairs stand on end. Absolutely amazing. Even I couldn’t help tapping my foot along and picking up some of the melody! The two village groups took their turns and performed at least three times each before the singsing concluded. I really could have listened to them for another hour.
Immediately after the last song ended, the performers and fellow craftsmen (and women) were setting up their handicrafts and exquisite bowls. The Tami Islanders are renowned for their carved bowls and they did not disappoint. Rice bowls, utensils, salad-type bowls – some carved into the shape of shells, some with intricate carving of marlin and other fish – all superb. Guests on the cruise ship were trading amongst one another US dollars for kina to use for purchases. I had wanted a wooden bowl, but with the kina I had left “settled” for two carved coconut baskets with a shrimp/lobster and a surgeonfish on them. The craftswoman selling them had the most unique of these baskets with the various fish and crustaceans adorning them. All the others offering the trinket, had carved patterns and swirls (still beautiful), but not quite the same as the actual fish. Our Expedition Leader even scored a fantastic drum with a stretched lizard top that was used in the performance.
After our final purchases and fresh out of every last bit of kina we possessed, we headed back to the Zodiac landing on the beach thinking we might snorkel a bit. The rain started back up then ceased just as quickly as it had started. We compared the time with Dom and found we’d have a very short turnaround to actually snorkel once we collected our gear from the ship. With the cloudiness, we decided to just stay put and pursue lunch on-board while watching the snorkel tent and last snorkelers get packed up.
Robin Aiello presented her first lecture of the cruise this afternoon as the Silver Discoverer left Papua New Guinea behind and headed towards the Solomon Islands. Robin was FANtastic, wow. We’d heard great things about her, but her reputation precedes her. In a totally good way. Her knowledge and enthusiasm are contagious; this afternoon she spoke about fish communication which was not only entertaining, but supremely educational. Loved it. Love her and am already looking forward to more of her lectures!
This evening, as travel partners with Silversea, we were invited to participate in the Venetian Society welcome and cocktail hour. The Venetian Society is Silversea’s guest loyalty program for frequent cruisers. It was a pretty impressive display of numbers considering that there were less than 50 guests total on the ship. Over 20 guests were Venetian Society (they had sailed at least once prior with Silversea). The guests with the highest number of days cruising with Silversea was 150 days. The total amount of days sailing on Silversea across all Venetian Society members was over 1500 days. Pretty amazing and spoke highly for the product SIiversea offers. Many of our fellow passengers that we had talked to, had sailed Silversea Expeditions, in particular, several times. Arctic, Antarctic, Galapagos, Indonesia, and more. Butch and I have already been visiting with Reba to pick out which itinerary we want to book on-board! Now that we’ve experienced this for a few days, we know we want to do more.
The barbeque planned on the pool deck for tonight got cancelled this afternoon due to the windy conditions. The expedition staff are hopeful we’ll be able to do it tomorrow evening instead.
The Solomon Islands
Our first stop in the Solomon Islands archipelago was Njari Island. It’s a privately owned island not very different in size compared to Ngulu Atoll (visited earlier in the cruise). Solomon Islands is a sovereign Melanesian country lying to the east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu. The capital is Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal; World War II enthusiasts may be very familiar with this area of the Pacific. The islands have been inhabited for thousands of years with age-old customs being handed down from one generation to the next, allegedly from the ancestral spirits themselves.
Njari Island’s stop was purely for water activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling. But some locals brought out their canoes and apparently sold some handicraft on the meager beach shore (we missed it totally due to our heads being in the water pretty much the entire time, LOL). An international team of scientists and managers conducted a large-scale 35-day survey of the marine life in the Solomon Islands in 2004. The survey recorded 494 species of coral including several new species; this is second only to the Raja Ampat area of Indonesia. Also confirmed was the supremely rich concentration and distribution of reef fishes. The best site for fish diversity found by the team? Njari Island with 279 fish species, the second highest ever found worldwide by researcher, Dr. Gerry Allen.
We had one of the most beautiful afternoons of the trip with plenty of light to be able to see this spectacular reef and fish. It was a sensory overload as soon as we descended for our dive. After nearly 50 minutes exploring the bottom, we dumped our dive gear in the Zodiac and hit the water with just our masks, fins, and snorkels to continue trolling around in the shallows. All the hype for Njari lived up. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed the water time and all the marine life – even Captain Golubev was out snorkeling! Robin swears there were a few dolphin that swam above us while we were diving. And we swear that you can hear them on one of our videos. But we have no photographic or videographic evidence. Boo!
Our few hours in the water came to an end all too quickly once again and we found ourselves back on board. The wind again started picking up as we were all re-boarding the ship, so the barbeque deck party was moved into The Restaurant rather than delay it once again. The barbeque was fun and I give a hand to the staff for their decorating replete with coconut palm fronds, coconuts, and a tropical bar with liquor-filled coconuts. Allegedly there was some coconut cream and orange juice in that coconut, but all I could taste was rum!
Post-dinner we managed to stay awake despite the coconut cocktails to watch Richard Sidey’s film “Speechless: The Polar Realm.” Richard is the Senior Photographer for the expeditions and a hugely talented photo- and videographer. We were very blessed to have him capturing this voyage on film. “Speechless” is the result of a decade of Richard’s accompanying voyages to the Antarctic, Alaska, Iceland, Svalbard, Chukotka, Greenland, New Zealand, the Falklands, and South Georgia with majority of the voyages being aboard the Silver Discoverer and Silver Explorer. The title is a nice play on words because not only is it free of the typical narration for a documentary, but it takes any words away that you may have any sense to utter while watching it. If this film doesn’t make you want to experience the grace and beauty of the arctic and Antarctic, nothing will! Get the film, then call us to pick out your polar expedition.
In case you’re like us and you’ve lost track of what day we’re on for this cruise, it’s now October 9, 2015 and we’re supposed to be headed to Mbike Island next according to itinerary. As we found out after Tua’s traditional voyaging lecture, the ship has received permission to dock in Roderick Bay across from where the Zodiac tour was going to be headed from Mbike. So the Zodiac riders will have less distance to go if they want to explore the wreck of the World Discoverer. Several of us were disappointed though that the expedition staff decided against going to Mbike in order to be closer to the wreck.
The locals had arranged a small singsing and welcome that would be performed while we divers were off diving what we nicknamed, Steve’s Stick Dive, as we entered the water near a single stick in the water that was left to mark the spot last year when Steve was there last. The mere fact that the stick was still there was amazing, LOL. Post-dive, we were able to swap Zodiacs and go snorkel off the beach and around the World Discoverer.
You may be wondering what the World Discoverer is, or rather was. Society Expeditions, one of the early adopters of cruise expedition vacations, had acquired the BEWA Discoverer and after refurbishment renamed her the World Discoverer. On April 30, 2000 she struck an uncharted rock in the Sandfly Passage and began to sink. The Captain of the vessel was able to ground the ship as it started to list to prevent it from sinking entirely. There are no reports of oil, petroleum or other pollutants as a result of the grounding and she’s remained in Roderick Bay ever since. Several members of our expedition team were aboard the World Discoverer when she came to her final resting place; several more had multiple expeditions on-board. Once the World Discoverer was lost, Society Expeditions refurbished another ice-class vessel and renamed her the new World Discoverer at her launch in 2002. The company ended up ceasing operations when the new World Discoverer was seized by creditors in 2007. Today that “the new World Discoverer” remains in service as the Silver Discoverer, the very ship we’ve been on. Quite the story, eh?
The visit to the wreckage of Silver Discoverer’s namesake appeared to be a prelude for what met us at briefing this evening. The wind and sea forecasts were bad. So bad, that the captain and expedition team feared that if we kept our stops at Utupua and Port Mary/Santa Ana Island, that we would not make it to Lautoka, Fiji on time for disembarkation. They had discussed it at length and decided that we would head straight to Fiji instead.
While many of us were crushed at missing the cultural stops that were planned at Utupua and Port Mary, the atmosphere was one of the most understanding I’ve EVER seen on a cruise. Maybe it was the seasoned expedition travelers. Maybe just luck of the draw. The cruise line can’t control Mother Nature, so we would start taking our meclizine that they provided and grin and bear it with promises of extra activities and lectures. When the most important question was asked – do we have enough beer and wine on board? – I figured all would be okay with the group!
Sea Days and More Sea Days
Okay, so it feels like Palau was EONS ago. And Yap. And Papua New Guinea. Being on a small ship for this many days straight with restricted access to certain places has been…. interesting. But you know? It hasn’t been as bad as I thought OR as bad as it could be. I have been thankful for the meclizine tablets to make sure I don’t get overtaken by the urge to barf due to the ship’s rolling from the waves.
We’ve had lectures, movies such as the repeat of “Awim and the Hands of Time” (which was really great, so I’m glad we got to see it), Liars Club, and another wine tasting with Norman and the bar team among other activities.
The news that put a kink in many guest’s travel plans was after our first sea day and missed port. The forecasts for the seas and winds were growing worse and with the best estimates at that point, we would be arriving into Fiji late. Like, a few days late.
Finally Fiji and Cruise Summary
“Ni sa bula! E vei na taxi? Vinaka!!”
Our first words off the ship today! We’ve finally made it to Fiji around 4 PM local time on October 15 after six straight sea days following our touring Yap, Papua New Guinea and a bit of the Solomon Islands. It’s been a heck of a journey with a ton of memories. It was touch and go for a bit there when we didn’t know when we would ever make it to the end. Such a first-world problem to be sweating being stuck in Fiji, but when you want to get home to the fur kids, you want to get home.
After the multitude of return ravel plan updates and revisions, I am finally writing the conclusion of this massive blog post aboard our Fiji Airways flight en route to Los Angeles. While Butch and I wish that the cruise didn’t end the way it did, we are extremely thankful to have met the Silversea team that we did and to have the chance to experience such an amazing itinerary. We were a family by the cruise’s conclusion. I’d sail anywhere with that talented crew any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
We have oodles pictures. We have a DVD. We have some pretty damn awesome wood carvings and trinkets. But what we can’t show you, or even express with words known to me, is what we’re taking away from the people of the Lost Islands of Micronesia and Melanesia. They shared with us a piece of each of their hearts and a love of a simpler life rich in tradition. If you’re still reading this account, and are on the fence about taking such a trip, let me promise to you that you would not regret it. Papua New Guinea and these small islands are overflowing with love and a cultural experience you will not find anywhere else. I would not hesitate to come out to PNG again and honestly look forward to when we can schedule it in again on board a Silversea expedition vessel. (We’d LOVE to escort your group, so let’s talk and give us a reason to go back to this paradise!)
Below are some of our overall highlights and criticisms for the cruise. We’d give it two thumbs up and it was all Butch could do to keep me from booking something to squeeze in among our already burgeoning 2016 travel calendar!
- Unique itinerary. Yeah, when else would you be going to Palau, Yap, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands? Love the creativity of the Silversea Expedition itineraries whether in Micronesia and Melanesia or worldwide. None have ever been exactly repeated yet.
- All-inclusive cruise. All our wine, beer, liquor, scrumptious food, desserts, Zodiac excursions, diving, snorkeling (including equipment), gratuities, and such. Not included: Internet, spa and salon services, souvenir gifts, laundry and garment pressing.
- Real, brewed iced tea (we all have that thing we can’t live without and I’m a tea fanatic)
- Very comfortable “suite” accommodations all with butler service. All have an oceanview – whether portholes, windows, or a balcony. Our View suite wasn’t that much bigger than your normal balcony cabin on a contemporary cruise line, but it was comfortable with a desk, mini-fridge, and marble framed bathroom. Loved the full complement of bath amenities including shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion in three choices (Bulgari, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Sebamed). Even cotton swabs and cotton balls were in a little jar in the bathroom plus a sewing kit and shoe shine kit. They were surprising details. This was the first time I’ve ever vacationed with a butler and let me say, Hitesh was a superb butler. He went above and beyond for anything we wanted for and was super caring. What a sweet guy on top of it; you could tell it wasn’t just about the job for him, he genuinely cared about you as a person.
- Unpretentious luxury. Yes, this is a luxury cruise. No, you are not expected to wear a tuxedo at dinner (ever).
- The expedition staff. I cannot express how amazing this group of people really are. They make for an unforgettable experience. They know you. They laugh with you. You really become family. Peter, Christian/Rapa, Dom, Stefan, Alejandra, Aiello, Patrick, Tua, and Tim.
- The crew of the Silver Discoverer. In addition to Hitesh and Samuel, our suite butler and attendant, we had the pleasure of meeting so many others on board that with nay luck, we’ll meet gain in the future. Alexander, Jonifa, Alfred, Lionel, Marlon, Rexy, Paolo, Henry, Carlo. Norman, the best sommelier we’ve had the pleasure of conversing with. Chef Marcelino. Jean at reception with her nonstop smile. Captain Golubev. Nicole, spa extraordinaire and dive buddy. I know I’m probably leaving folks out. Again, they all became family. As I sit here and type, I feel like I did some a disservice by not being able to say “see you later” to every one!
There’s not many things we can honestly criticize about this ship, trip, or crew. But there are a couple items…
- The cost of laundry. The Silver Discoverer does not have a self-service launderette on board and with the longer itineraries, one is either paying the airline for a ton of clothes in your luggage or paying for laundry. We paid for some laundry. And ouch. A pair of underwear $2.50, trousers $7.00, and so on. It almost makes you want to dress like the natives all the time.
- The change in itinerary switching Mbike Island for Roderick Bay. Several of us couldn’t figure out why you’d trade out a remarkable site for water activities to stay on Roderick Bay the entire time. I can’t be sure what drove that decision by the expedition staff, but we didn’t feel it was a good one.
- Silversea features this as a scuba expedition and we expected there to be many more diving opportunities than there were. Granted, in some ports that means picking between the cultural experience and the diving, but frankly that should be an option if it’s to be billed as a “scuba expedition.”
Interested in experiencing your own Expedition? Contact us to reserve your next Dream Vacation. Go There With Us.