The news that we will not be taking the submarine out for a spin is merely the first disappointment of the day, but it is the one that hits hardest. While the Scenic Eclipse, the first ocean-going vessel by Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours, has many selling points, it's the submarine that has really got us excited.
We know that the sub is on board. We have seen it: a sleek piece of equipment that would do James Bond proud, with two observation domes each seating three passengers and an impressive maximum depth of 300 metres. Unfortunately, not long after we board the ship in Nova Scotia, the Scenic Eclipse enters US waters where, we are told, the sub is not allowed to operate. Strike that one off the to-do list.
In the face of that bitter blow, the revelation that the ship has to alter course due to a hurricane provokes only mild disappointment. Fresh from wreaking havoc on the Bahamas, Hurricane Dorian is heading up the east coast of the US and may be heading for Nova Scotia. Skipping our next scheduled stop, the town of Lunenburg, Captain James Griffiths announces that we will make straight for Portland Maine, where we should be sheltered from the rough seas that are predicted.
This is not the maiden voyage that Scenic hoped for. Glen and Karen Moroney, the Australian owners of Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours, have gone all out with their first ocean cruiser, creating a vessel that sets new standards not just in the luxury category but also as an expedition ship.
Among the ship's biggest luxuries is the sheer amount of space. At 170 metres long and weighing 17,000 tonnes, the Scenic Eclipse has just 114 cabins, each equipped with a full-size verandah. "The [closest competition] in 17,000-tonne vessels takes 350 to 400 people, so double the number of passengers," Griffiths says. "There are 17,000-tonners out there that take up to 600 people."
That means more space not just in the cabins – which start at 30 square metres and go all the way up to 195 square metres for the Owner's Penthouse Suites – but also throughout the ship. On the Scenic Eclipse, you never feel like part of a crowd.
Luxury is all about the details, and the Scenic Eclipse also gets the small stuff right. From the cutlery, specially chosen for each restaurant, to the artwork – including abstract resin pieces by Byron Bay artist Mitch Gobel and Asian-inspired pieces by British artist Hush – I am constantly discovering new details.
After a class in the airy yoga studio (located, as my instructor points out, on the yin side of the ship; the gym is on the yang side), I start raving to one of my fellow passengers about the astoundingly luxuriant eye pillows, which cover my face from my cheekbones up to my forehead. I have to wait, however; first, she wants to tell me about the hairdryer in her room, a Dyson that apparently delivers salon-worthy blow-dries.
What generates perhaps more excitement than anything else on board, however, is the food. The ship has eight separate restaurants, from a sushi bar to a French degustation diner, as well as in-suite dining and a cooking school.
"I hate the idea of having a 'best' restaurant," says executive chef Tom Goetter. "I want the guest not to be able to decide where to eat." Goetter aims to deliver an experience unlike anything else at sea, and he is relentless in his pursuit of that goal. His bakers deliver fresh bread for every service – "it is hot out of the oven 15 minutes before service" – while the ingredients for his Japanese fare are air-freighted straight from Japan.
"It is not just about having the freshest fish; it is also about having the right rice, the right vinegar, the right seasonings," Goetter says.
The ship's drinks selection is equally impressive; whisky fans, for instance, have more than 100 selections to choose from. (Along with acclaimed Scottish and Japanese drops, an unexpected highlight is the Kavalan single malt from Taiwan.) The sommelier confesses to me that they are still getting the wine cellar up to speed. "We have around 4000 bottles on board, but we have another 1700 coming with the next delivery," she says happily. Moroney is clearly committed to delivering his original vision for the ship, a billionaire experience for people who aren't billionaires.
It's not all about indulgence, however. The Scenic Eclipse has also been designed for serious expeditioning, much to the delight of Captain Griffiths, whose resume includes stints at expedition cruise line Lindblad as well as on the luxurious Cunard ships, and who declares that Antarctica is his favourite place on Earth.
While the ship will spend part of the year in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, where her water sports platform will allow guests to go for a swim straight off the ship, she will really hit her stride when she heads to the polar regions. The Scenic Eclipse also has the highest ice class rating of any luxury ship, "so we don't have to skirt around the ice – we can really get into it," Griffiths says.
"She's very stable, so she will handle really well in heavy weather. We also have the speed to get across the Drake Passage [the notoriously rough passage to Antarctica] in 36 hours instead of 48," Griffiths says.
If all had gone to plan, the Scenic Eclipse would have already been ploughing through the ice during the last polar season. However, the ship was launched a year late, after a series of rolling strikes at the Croatian shipyard where it was being built, which led Scenic to directly employ specialists to finish the work. "First we became project managers; then, when the shipyard went bankrupt, we became the shipyard," Moroney told guests at the official launch of the ship in New York.
However, not everyone is a happy traveller. Some passengers are still put out about a fault in the propulsion system a few days before our arrival, which caused them to miss a day in port. Captain Griffiths takes a sanguine approach.
"You have a period of adjustment with any new ship; it takes time to settle in," he says. "This is not just a new ship – it's a new prototype. When we built a new ship at Cunard, we already had the brand, we had other ships to base the design on. This is completely new."
Despite a few rough patches, it seems the Moroneys' vision has paid off. They deserve respect not for just for combining luxury and expedition cruising, but for doing so with a distinctly different design, one that owes more to superyachts than to cruisers. One of the delights of heading back to the ship after a day ashore is admiring the Eclipse's delicately tiered lines, a stark contrast to the larger ships moored alongside, which by contrast resemble floating apartment blocks.
"She's an absolute beauty," says Griffiths happily. "Heads turn wherever we go."
A 13-day Antarctic itinerary ex-Ushuaia starts from $16,395 per person for a Verandah Suite. Price includes meals and beverages, excursions, Wi-Fi and tips. See scenic.com.au
FIVE THINGS TO LOVE ABOUT THE SCENIC ECLIPSE
Every meal brings new highlights, from a delicate dish of scallop and yuzu kosho to a pizza that would hold its own against the best in Rome.
The ship's super-sized stabiliser fins cut roll by more than 85 per cent, while a dynamic positioning system allows anchor-free mooring.
The 500-square-metre spa has a steam room and an infra-red sauna; there is also a gym and a room where yoga, Pilates and Tibetan sound healing sessions take place.
With a submarine, two helicopters, kayaks and a fleet of Zodiacs, guests can explore from the air, the land or beneath the sea.
THE GREEN FACTOR
Sustainability measures include advanced wastewater treatment and the use of marine gas oil, the highest grade of marine fuel.
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of Scenic.