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Doc Vernon
5th October 2016, 02:29 AM
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Sun Sep 11th at sea, heading for Iceland: Time to talk about Silversea Cruises & the beautiful Silver Whisper, sparkling, yacht-like and indulgently carrying only 375 "guests" while being looked after by 150 seemingly handpicked staff. Pure gold-plated cruising – six star class!

For myself, it is something like my 15th trip with this Italian-owned but Miami-based firm. Altogether, they have 8 ships: four for luxury cruising, four for equally luxurious expedition cruising (an increasing popular alternate to, well, plain old, ordinary luxury cruising) and then next spring bring out their biggest ship yet, the 596-guest, 8-restaurant Silver Muse. And at Silversea, they've been tweaking things, well here 'n there, and why not – the high-end luxury market is growing, expanding, in fact booming. It is the top end of ocean travel – where guests have been just about everywhere, travel first class in the skies and sleep in the very best hotels & resorts ashore. So at sea, they want the best – but not glittery or razzmatazz luxury but that quiet, exacting atmosphere of say a posh club. It is all elegance – but quiet elegance. The guests themselves are a mix – half North American, almost half European and then throw in a handful of South Africans & Australians.

The ship (built in 1999) has just had a refurbishment – and so some redecorating, redoing, fixing here 'n there. The service remains "hot & cold running butlers" – in immaculate uniforms & equally immaculate white gloves. And, yes, they've been to butler school. And they do it all – including organizing your closet, putting your shoes in perfect, soldier-like order, fluff your pillows (there are 10 kinds on the "pillow menu"), wave their magic wands. Anywhere and everywhere onboard, you are treated/accorded like the very top passenger – that golden repeater with the most cruises. Smiles, gentle service, endless kindness & attention are the orders of the day (and in the night – yes, there's another, fully-uniformed "night butler" for, say, that call at two in the morning – you just buzz him!).

The ship is all suites – no ordinary staterooms or cabins here – and so its bedroom (incredible mattresses matched with incredibly soft Italian linens), complete living room, picture windows, a desk/work area the size of Montana, massive marble & glass baths and walk-in closets that would have been, say, lower-deck, tourist class quarters on the likes of the old Queen Mary or Ile de France.

Pots 'n pans! But it is the food which to me has had the biggest overhaul. It was always wonderful on Silversea – but now, let's say it is wonderfully superb! The new motto is simple: "quality over quantity". And the waiters now use Ipads, which – with the entry of your suite number – instantly display the likes of your food restrictions and allergies. Yes, you are kindly, but softly reminded just in case. Of course, down to the last sugar cube, everything is splendidly served, on gleaming tableware and on brand new, almost streamline silverware, washed down with fine wines and the portions deliberately smaller – you rarely if ever leave the dinner table feeling, like, say the Goodyear blimp.

So here goes – a dinner menu: 9 categories to start with – Crudo Bar, Appetizers, Soups, Salads, Pastas, From the Sea, From the Fields (extra fresh & so extra healthy), Gourmet Burgers & From the Garden. And among several offerings, we turn to a mellow Chilean red wine. (And even the wine steward steps off the pages of a glossy brochure – good looking, that French accent, from Bordeaux!)

Let's start with an Appetizer: Fresh Goat Cheese & Cherry Tomato Tian (and all done in a puff pastry). Then it's South East Asian Lentil Soup (lentils, carrots, leeks, celery, fennel & Asian spices). Then it's on to a pasta course: Homemade Penne with fresh arugula, cherry tomatoes, garlic, aged parmesan & a dash of olive oil. And for the main course: Beef Bourguignon (braised black Angus beef bathed in red Burgundy, beef broth, a drizzle of garlic, pearl onions, mushrooms and all resting on a bed of creamy mash potatoes). And, if the waiter (impeccably trained and from Chennai in India) insists, a side of Black Tiger Prawn Curry (prawns prepared in fresh ginger with fresh red peppers & olive oil while on a layer of Basmati rice – and then throw in Bahji-style onion rings).

And those calories! The dessert menu is presented in a 2-page leather folder and includes yet another 9 categories: Cioccolato, Fantasia, Ille Caffe Gourmand, Cookies, Cioccolatini, Special Diets, Gelati, Variegature & Sorbetti. Michael tried the Delizia al Limone (short crust dough, lemon cream, Italian meringue & lemon caramel). Myself, it was the Vaniglia: Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream on a collection of cubes of assorted fresh fruit.

And leaving the dining room: Jorge, the hugely charming, deeply elegant matire'd (from swank Cascais in Portugal) makes a point of asking: "And did you enjoy your dinner?"

After-dinner show: Very fine sextet of singers & all hosted by the very charming, very funny & very unaffected Vickie van Tassel, cruise director (and – small world -- who lives nearby, in West New York, New Jersey).

Mon Sep 12th at sea, nearing Iceland: Interesting chatter – lunch with Jason (our concert pianist), tea with Jeff (who has been to 150 countries, done the likes of Russian icebreakers over the North Pole & toured otherwise isolated North Korea) and then dinner with Nick (our destination speaker & who has visited 140 countries as well as being frequent guest lecturer on The World, the floating residence).

Tue Sep 13th Reykjavik (Iceland): The City buzzing on this weekday morning, a visit to the new Opera House (eye-catching, heavily-glassed design) and visit to the observatory (well, not quite Manhattan, but the 5th floor). Showery but tranquil – and then, by early afternoon, that magnificent, crystal-like Northern sunshine.

Knives & forks! Dinner tonight on deck (spiced with a glorious Arctic sunset) appropriately called "Hot Rocks Under the Stars". I did the chunk (really, a small mountain) of Filet Mignon cooked (sizzling & steaming before my eyes) on a slab of a hot stone & then joined by several grilled but huge Madagascar Shrimp and steel skewers of nicely grilled veg. Dessert is a gently warmed apple pie tart capped by Italian vanilla ice cream. Silversea is so thoughtful: White linen, snap-on bibs are provided as well as a light weight, orange-colored, cashmere shawl.

Wed Sep 14th at sea between Iceland & Greenland: We are a intimate group but full-up to absolute capacity – 375 passengers in all. The great divide:

146 American

63 UK

44 Australian

27 Canadian

15 German

And the rest being from Holland, France, Brazil, Italy, Iceland, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, Denmark & Singapore. Many of them have lots of more current travel: cruises & an especially high number of on expedition voyages.

Pass the cheese! Italian cafe deck luncheon onboard: pastas, sauces, meats as well as fish, and – in a menu -- no less than 14 varieties of pizza!

Long-ago voyages: The long-distance champ this trip seems to be a man who crossed on the Bremen & Europa in 1936, and then Deutschland in '38. Another but slightly more recent guest did crossings in the Fifties on the likes of the United States, Independence, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, Britannic but liked Cunard's little Media (only 250 all-first class travelers) the best. But he added that the smallish Media was probably the "worst sea boat" ever built – it began rolling & pitching, he said, from the moment the ship left Liverpool until entering the Hudson River at New York. Another told me of his very first cruise – back in 1965 on the aged Bahama Star [built 1931], on a 3-night jaunt from Miami to Nassau and back. He described the ship's decor as being somewhere between "boarding house and a troopship". A lady recalled her voyage, as a student, from New York to Le Havre in 1965 on Sitmar's Castel Felice.

My 3rd talk today (on the life & times of the great if ill-fated Normandie) – and Nikki S's superb talk on Northern life & culture and highlighted by the most superb photography (polar bears, sea life, the Greenlanders themselves, those extraordinary Northern Lights, etc). Dynamic, ultra-charming, staggeringly well-informed Nikki has sailed many cruise ships – as a guest speaker, a tour escort and a dance instructor as well as host. He did lots of trips in the 1980s & '90s in the Eastern Mediterranean, aboard the likes of the Sun & Epirotiki Lines and recalled ships such as the Stella Solaris, Stella Oceanis & Stella Maris II as well as the Atlas, Pallas Athena, Orpheus, Jason & Oceanos.