Afloat on a sea of luxury

KATHRYN KING
Last updated 05:00 11/03/2013
Silversea Silver Shadow

SILVER SERVICE: The cruise is about a chance to relax, indulge, and have your every whim indulged.

Silversea Silver Shadow
ON BOARD BUTLER: One of the first things Armando asks is if he can pour us some champagne.

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Stepping aboard the Silver Shadow is more like walking into a high-end hotel than boarding a ship.

Signed photos of Marilyn Monroe grace the walls as we walk in past the casino, filled with glittering jewellery displays and elegantly tailored cruisewear, to be greeted by a circular reception area casually dotted with thousands of dollars worth of Salvador Dali sculptures.

The Silver Shadow, one of seven ships in the Italian-owned Silversea fleet, isn’t your average cruise liner experience.

Accommodating just 382 passengers, it’s the small but luxurious choice for explorers who prefer to go forth and adventure with all the comforts of home and then some.

After being shown to our cabin, with a sitting room and marble bathroom big enough to house marble double sinks, a bath and a separate shower, my partner and I are met by our personal butler, Armando.

His job is, essentially, to be our personal assistant. For any services we want, including tours room service or questions, he’s our man.

One of the first things Armando asks is if he can pour us some champagne. While he’s doing that, I peruse the pillow menu, a choice of about half a dozen different kinds with names like ‘‘Princess’’ and optional lavender-scent sachets.

Along with Armando, we’re assigned a suite attendant, Aida, who tidies our room twice a day and gives us chocolates at night.

An initial reconnoitre of the ship confirms we won’t be finding anyone our own age (20s-30s). But I am surprised to find the majority of cruisegoers on the Silver Shadow are around the 60 range, younger than I was expecting given a non-shore activity itinerary noting that passengers ‘‘must be able to walk unaided’’.

What doesn’t surprise me is the total lack of children’s facilities. Silversea doesn’t actively discourage child passengers, but it doesn’t go out of the way to encourage them either. There are no cut-price fares for kids, kids’ clubs, or kids’ activities onboard.

At a cost for this sailing of US$6999 (NZ$8350) per person, it’s little wonder people aren’t keen to bring their children along for the ride.

Our excitement at the thought of diving straight into the ever-available five-star food and cocktails is quickly shut down when, shortly after pushing off from Wellington, we encounter rough seas that don’t abate for hours.

We feel a bit meek lying in bed feeling poorly, until a particularly big swell sees sea spray lash our veranda door. On the ninth floor. This is no gentle rocking.

Like a true pro, Armando drops by unbidden with some crackers and ginger ale to help settle our stomachs.

Later, when comparing experiences with other guests, we are told our rough patch was been minor compared to the turbulent seas that had plagued them for three solid days and nights while crossing the Tasman Sea.

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Thankfully, that is the worst of it as we continue on to dock twice on our whistle-stop trip up the North Island, coming into port at Napier and then again in Tauranga.

While we decide to simply disembark and wander, both stops include a variety of organised on-shore excursions at prices from $120 to $6000.

Activities onboard change daily, notified by newsletter. Regular activities include exercise classes with a personal trainer, trivia competitions, expert seminars, plus access to board games, crossword puzzles, a pool, gym, library and casino.

Before going on the trip, a colleague warned me we would be a ‘‘captive audience’’. And to an extent, it’s true.

The onboard entertainment is adequate but doesn’t captivate us and the evening show, an Abba tribute band, is an acquired taste.

As we anchor in Napier, our ship is dwarfed by a 2500 passenger cruise liner. The difference between the style of the two ships is obvious. Our larger counterpart is jam-packed with families and small children.

And that’s not what the Silverseas devotees I spoke to are looking for.

They want peace. People they can identify with. And overwhelmingly, they want round-the-clock service. That’s what keeps them coming back to the Silversea ships.

The service is ‘‘so good you don’t realise how good it is’’, one serial cruiser said, as she sat curled up, book in hand, in the lounger next to me by the pool.

In a conspiratorial tone, she confesses to me her husband is onshore for the day and she’s had two gin and tonics and - scandalously, fries for lunch.

In essence, that sums up what the cruise is about for my fellow passengers: a chance to relax, indulge, and have their every whim indulged. No airports to navigate, no bags to lug around, no confusing transport plans, or money to exchange.

The cost of the cruise is all inclusive, allowing round the clock access to unlimited food, wine, beer, champagne and spirits. They also keep your mini bar stocked with whatever takes your fancy.

Staff make an effort to learn your name, and ladies are escorted to their dinner tables by the arm. In moments between tasks, staff are continually scanning the crowd for anyone who might look like they need something. If nothing becomes apparent, they check regardless.

It’s a level of attentiveness they’re rewarded for every few months with cash prizes based on the comments left on customer surveys filled out at the end of the cruise.

While chatting to another passenger in the hallway, I’m pointed out a couple of silver foxes strolling by.

These rarely mentioned well-dressed older gentlemen can be commissioned to escort single ladies for dinner or dancing. Services stop at the cabin door, though, and there is no such service for single men.

For me, the intensity of the waitstaff is hard to get used to.

My first awkward encounter happened at the self-serve salad bar. I stood looking at the options when I heard ‘‘I will help you’’.

Not ‘‘can I help you?’’, or ‘‘would you like some help?’’. I will help you.

A waiter grabbed a bowl and stood next to me, pointing at various things. ‘‘Do you want some of this?’’ Silence. ‘‘Some of this?’’ pointing at another dish. After he asked the third time, the silence stretched into awkwardness while he waited, tongs poised, and me, standing stupidly, suffering a complete mind blank. I reasoned that salad shouldn’t be that hard, so I took the bowl off him.

Undeterred, he followed me, making suggestions, and deftly took the bowl back as I turned to escape, insisting on carrying it back to my table for me.

I decided if he really wanted to carry it, I should let him.

On another occasion, a waiter insisted on making me a post-dinner chai tea latte, even though he had never heard of one.

To my shame, I tried to explain it to him by saying, ‘‘you know, like they do in Starbucks’’, thinking surely he would have come across such a request before given the number of Americans on board.

All that earned me was a quizzical half smile from the waiter and an audible groan from my partner, who slapped both hands to his face as the words came out of my mouth.

I blame the chianti.

Despite my protests he came back with an experimental chamomile tea latte, standing attentively aside to watch me taste it.

It was actually pretty good. But then, I shouldn’t have doubted him.

Just as I’m starting to get used to being scrupulously waited on, suddenly it’s all over and we’re dragging our own bags to the taxi stand.

I’m thirsty, but there’s no Armando to call.

Maybe there is something to this cruise business after all.

Kathryn King was hosted by Silversea Cruises, spending four days on board the Silver Shadow at the end of its two week cruise from Sydney to Auckland, with visits to the ports and harbours of Victoria, north-western Tasmania and both islands of New Zealand. Two cruises are scheduled for next summer, with fares starting at A$6750 (NZ$8315) per person for a Vista suite double occupancy. For details, go to silversea.com.

- Fairfax Media

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