Cruising: Silver liningsSave
By Pamela Wade
Frankly, I think my husband got the better part of the deal. This was the choice: start your upper-end cruising experience on your own doorstep, or slum it until you eventually arrive on board? Total immersion, or total contrast?
When the cruise begins in Istanbul, and you live in Auckland, this counts. To be honest, I did cheat a bit: as my husband was travelling Emirates Business Class, they sent a Corporate Cab to take him to the airport, so it would have been just silly for me to have gone by bus.
For him then, though, there was their Lounge to wait in, and the upper ramp into the plane, to the top deck of the A380 with its walnut-veneer pods and the bar at the back of the cabin, and the tablecloth and the fine wines. It was the perfect lead-in to a Silversea experience.
Downstairs in Economy, which was perfectly adequate despite less space and more plastic, I was establishing a baseline that meant I would be blown away by the personal service and quality surroundings of Silver Spirit, the company's newest ship.
Once on board, the other passengers divided up along the same lines, half of them Silversea newbies, astonished by the almost immediate use of their names, by having a butler, by being escorted to their table on their waiter's arm. The rest were old hands - one couple, astonishingly, clocking up their 1872nd day on a Silversea cruise - and happily settled into the familiar routine.
It helped that we were outnumbered this time by the crew; although with a maximum total on Silver Spirit of 540, we were never going to be anonymous.
Thanks to open seating in the restaurant and participation in the keenly contested daily Trivial Pursuit challenge (the Australian in our team humiliated by not identifying one of his own snakes) we met Americans, Brits, Aussies, Belgians, Swiss and various other nationalities - all well-travelled, with interesting stories to tell - but trumped by the lighting-specialist architect who had worked at the White House and had the inside gen on Reagan, Bush senior and Clinton.
Our nine-day route took us through the Greek Islands with a couple of Turkish ports of call, and was a mix of marble, cats and thousands of years of complicated history. St Paul and St John featured strongly: we visited the sites of Paul's first European sermon and baptism, the cave where John had his Revelation, and some went to the house where Mary lived. At Ephesus, an impressively large and well-restored archaeological site, we trod the shiny marble where Cleopatra and Mark Anthony walked on their honeymoon.
We took a coach trip to the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia - who was remarkably short - and learned about his equally height-challenged son, Alexander the Great. This museum, near Thessaloniki at the northern end of the Aegean, was full of treasures, heavy on the 24ct gold, and it took two brisk hours to view them all.
There was a lot of eventful history, many fluted columns and minutely-frescoed churches and monasteries on this route; but plenty of simpler pleasures, too. Some were optional, such as the boat trip from Marmaris that aroused excursion envy afterwards when comparing notes. Everyone, though, could marvel at the brilliant blueness and clarity of the sea, the artistic scattering of white houses around the little ports, the contrast of purple bougainvillea and blue-painted woodwork along narrow alleyways paved with pebbles. And everywhere, cats. Residing in a home-made two-storey hotel in an Istanbul back street, softening the marble at Ephesus, reclining on a beach on Patmos, winding themselves around restaurant table-legs in Mykonos, gazing back impassively from the tops of walls in Rhodes: stray, but fed and watered, and adding another dimension of pleasure to places so ancient that you have to specify whether it's BC or AD. Back on board, there were lectures to help with the history; but if that felt too much like homework, there were Dali, Chagall and Picasso artworks scattered about to admire (and even buy, if you had US$85,000-plus [NZ$128,400] going spare) - or Marilyn Monroe portraits, if that was more your thing. Or the daily putting contest down the stairs; or bridge, or yoga, or the spa. There was apparently also a gym, somewhere.
At night after dinner, in a choice of six restaurants, there was a show, and all sorts of music in various bars.
One night, there was a classical concert to go to, at Ephesus. I watched 20 white-gloved butlers waiting on the dock with a 'Welcome Home' banner as a drum-and-keyboard combo played jaunty music and people slunk, unloved, behind them to a neighbouring ship. Two former newbies watched too. "Every passenger is special on Silversea," they agreed, smugly.
Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Istanbul, with Economy Class fares starting at $2294 return and Business Class from $7894 return. emirates.com
The 540-guest Silver Spirit's 2016 season includes nine Mediterranean/Aegean cruises from June to October. The company's newest ship, the ultra-luxurious Silver Muse, joins the fleet in 2017. Silversea's fares include all-suite accommodation with butler service, gourmet meals, complimentary wines, champagne and spirits served throughout the ship, many excursions, WiFi, all gratuities.
For more information contact Silversea Cruises on freephone 0800 701 427, visit silversea.com or ask your travel agent.