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Royal Waves

Posted on | July 14, 2010 | Comments Off on Royal Waves

Life in a top cruise ship suite delivers canapés, caviar, and regal treatment.
We were having dinner in Le Champagne, the Silver Whisper’s most intimate dining room (which allows no more than 30 guests per evening and pairs premium wines with every course), when the captain, Gennaro Arma, told a story about a couple who boarded the ship in early January. They were seasoned travelers who had sailed often with Silversea.
“This time they were going in high style,” said Arma. “They were staying in one of our Royal Suites.”
For three months, the couple cruised aboard the Silver Whisper on an itinerary that took them all over the Eastern and Western Caribbean, from San Juan south to Cartagena, through the Virgin Islands and the Grenadines. There were even two transits of the Panama Canal, with stops in Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, and San Diego.
Port after beautiful port – so many things to see and do. But no, not for these two.
“During all that time, from January until April, they never once set foot on shore,” Arma said. “On two occasions, I invited them to step down to the dock with me to inspect the ship, but otherwise, for three whole months, they never touched dry land. For them, it was all about the ship. It was all about life in a suite.” Arma told me that story at the outset of our ten-day Caribbean sojourn. And after dinner, as my wife Debbie and I strolled back to our suite, we were still talking about it.
“All that time aboard and never once wanting to go ashore,” I said. “Can you imagine?”
Then I opened the door to Suite 602, one of those very same Royal Suites. Our butler, a Sri Lankan who boasted a name – Duminda Wickramasinghe – right out of a Rudyard Kipling story, had paid a visit while we were out. The lights were low. The sweet sounds of Sinatra came from the stereo. There was a fresh bottle of Pommery in the ice bucket and calla lilies in a vase on the living room table. The drapes to the veranda were pulled back so we could gaze out on an almost-full moon. Debbie looked at me. She smiled.
“I have absolutely no problem imagining never leaving this suite,” she said. “No problem at all.”
It was sometime during our second day in our Royal Suite, before Duminda arrived with our stone-crab canapés and just after our en-suite massages, that I began referring to my wife as “the Contessa.”
As in, “Does the Contessa care for a spot of champagne on the veranda?”
Or, “Would the Contessa prefer to listen to Mozart or Miles Davis?”
Or, “The Count is getting ready to hop into the Jacuzzi. Would the Contessa care to join him?”
The title seemed to fit the digs. For the record, every accommodation on the all-suite Silver Whisperimpresses. Even the 287-square-foot Vista Suites (the ship’s smallest) are extraordinarily spacious and regally appointed. But the Royal Suite, at 1,312 square feet is, to state the obvious, almost five times as large. Between the master bedroom with its queen-size bed, the marble-tiled bathroom, and the living room with its plasma TV, there is room to roam around. And because the bar is well-stocked and there is plenty of seating, it is ideal for entertaining.
One evening, we invited a dozen or so new friends to our place for after-dinner drinks. Duminda arrived unbidden to make sure everyone had what they needed and to deliver a plate of chocolates. Someone soon found the Greatest Hits of the ’60s and ’70s CDs, popped one into the Bang & Olufsen stereo, and we were dancing long after midnight.
I was delighted to discover that the Royal Suite came with its own espresso maker, a very cool Lavazza Blue countertop model where you pop in a premeasured coffee “pod” and let the machine
do the rest. But the most arresting feature was its windows. Too often, when cruising offshore a winsome array of islands, I’ve been known to mutter something like: “I wish our suite was on the other side of the ship. They are getting all the good views.”
Not an issue in the Royal Suite. Perched far forward, just under the ship’s bridge, it offers the blessing of panorama – windows that look across the bow. No small matter, this. You can actually see where the ship is heading from the confines of your room. I kept the curtains open at all hours, all the better for following our course, scoping out ports by day and enjoying the moon glow by night.
With a maximum complement of just 382 guests, well served by 295 crew members, the pleasures of a smallish ship like the Silver Whisper are many. While offering abundant opportunity for socializing – a small casino, a nightclub, three dining rooms, seven bars – there are also plenty of places, aside from one’s suite, to stake out and call your own. And so it was that our days aboard the Silver Whisper found us migrating between such places: the deck chairs near the corner of the saltwater pool that caught the freshest breeze, the banquette in The Bar that offered the best people-watching, and the sofa in the Panorama Lounge equidistant between the piano and the hors d’oeuvres table.
But my favorite place, outside of our glorious suite, was the Observation Lounge. Spanning the bow on the uppermost deck, it seemed off the radar of other passengers. I often had the place to myself, and seldom were there more than a half dozen others in its comfy confines. Its appeal for me was threefold. The self-service bar offered a fine assortment of goodies, including another of those nifty Lavazza Blue espresso machines. Bookshelves lined the walls, providing a splendid addition to the ship’s main library a couple of decks below. And the view was stupendous: Floor-to-ceiling windows curved around the length of the room. Binoculars were placed here and there, along with nautical charts and a telescope. The overall effect was that of being stationed at a command point on the bridge – minus the attendant pressures of having to steer the ship. I plopped myself down in the Observation Lounge every chance I got.
The Silver Whisper’s economy of size also presents its dividends in the dining room. While executive chef Norbert Ruhdorfer created an exceptional selection of menus that gave a generous nod to the ship’s Italian registry (asparagus ravioli with creamy truffle sauce, polenta timbale with sausage ragout), various international cuisines (English fish and chips, Szechuan beef), and Caribbean specialties (creole snapper in mango sauce, pumpkin soup), the kitchen was always happy to accommodate special orders.
One morning, as we enjoyed an open-air breakfast at the Terrace Café, a gentleman at the next table asked the waiter, “Would it be possible to get a caviar omelet?”
“Certainly, sir,” came the reply. “And do you wish chopped onions, sour cream, and capers with that?”
And then there is the mobility of a ship like the Silver Whisper. Not only can it slip into places typically off the itinerary of larger vessels, when nature throws a wrench into the works, it’s easy enough to adjust. Case in point: On the day we were scheduled to visit Saint Bart’s, rolling seas and a vicious current made it impossible to set anchor in the harbor at Gustavia. Not a problem. Captain Arma promptly set course for Antigua instead and, on the return to Saint Bart’s the next day, threw in a three-hour circumnavigation of Montserrat. At one point we pulled so close to shore that we could witness the towering plume of smoke from the Soufrière Hills volcano (still ominously active since its series of eruptions began anew in 1994) and catch a whiff of sulfur in the air.
“A perfect cruise should always offer a few nice surprises,” Arma told me later. “It is the surprises that give us the best memories.”
While my wife and I were sorely tempted to becomefull-fledged Suite People, content to gaze upon ports of call from the comforts of our luxurious abode, we did roam ashore as opportunity presented itself.
Embarkation from the docks at Old San Juan offered a chance to walk the cobblestone streets of what is surely one of the Caribbean’s culinary capitals. We managed to squeeze in two meals along Calle Fortaleza, both at restaurants created and owned by acclaimed chef Roberto Trevino. At the Parrot Club, the Nuevo Latino-inspired menu offered such treats as spicy shrimp and scallop ceviche and duck enchiladas. Across the street, at Aguaviva, the watermelon sangria stole the show on a hot afternoon.
Since neither of us had ever visited Saint Bart’s, the ship’s tour-desk concierge suggested that we might enjoy a self-guided tour of the exclusive French island. The staff arranged for a car and made lunch reservations at Hotel Guanahani. As day guests, we could stretch out on chaise lounges under palm trees along the lovely crescent of Grand Cul de Sac Bay. The meal at L’Indigo was a Japanese-Gallic spectacle with an array of treats complemented by white Bordeaux for the Contessa and French ale for me.
Dominica’s reputation as one of the Caribbean’s leading eco-destinations is deserved, at least judging by our kayak/snorkel tour of the Scott’s Head-Soufrière Marine Reserve, about 12 miles south of Rousseau, the capital. The protected waters of the bay made for serene paddling, with hawksbill turtles bobbing to the surface to keep us company.
On Grenada, we joined a Silversea excursion through the lush and fertile island. At the first stop, Laura’s Herb and Spice Garden, paths mulched with nutmeg husks led us past herb beds lined by sun-bleached conch shells. The tour ended at Sunnyside, the hillside home of Jean Renwick, which overlooks the capital of Saint George’s. Renwick, whose family first settled in Grenada almost 400 years ago, led us through lovingly tended gardens with a dazzling array of hibiscus, a couple dozen varieties in every color imaginable. As the afternoon heat ratcheted up, we retreated to the shady porch, where the sea breeze blew cool and pitchers of homemade rum punch, topped off with fresh nutmeg, offered a solace all their own.
On our last evening aboard the Silver Whisper, as it left Tortola in the sunset and set course for Antigua, we discussed how best to spend our waning hours on board.
“We could join the crowd at the Panorama Lounge for cocktails,” the Contessa said.
“Yes, we could,” I said.
“Or we could play a few hands of blackjack.”
“Or maybe catch the floor show in the Viennese Lounge.”
But who were we kidding? We knew we wanted to cocoon in our suite, and that’s exactly what we did. We each had a small pile of books from the ship’s library that we wanted to read. So we poured ourselves some wine – a California chardonnay for the Contessa, a pinot noir from Oregon for me – and luxuriated in the knowledge that we had nowhere to go and no schedule that demanded our attention. Yes, we had settled into our suite. It felt like home.
At some point, the doorbell rang, and there was Duminda delivering the canapés – shrimp toast done just right. And he followed with a bottle of Pommery, a bit of bubbly to elevate the senses.
Dinner served en-suite was every bit as splendid as it would have been in the dining room, from the starter of cheese terrine with peppers, olives, and pesto, to the fennel soup with garlic crostini, the grilled-portobello-and-tomato salad, and the sautéed turbot in champagne sauce.
As my wife nibbled from the tray of petit fours, I flipped through the CDs and found Van Morrison’s rendition of “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.”
I took her by the hand. We slipped off our shoes. And we danced.
Doing It
The two Royal Suites, 602 and 702, on board Silversea’s 382-passenger Silver Whisper clock in at about 1,300 square feet each. Bested only by the Grand and Owner’s suites in opulence, Royal Suites count among their charms Acqua di Parma bath products, an endless supply of Pommery champagne, complimentary laundry service, canapés every afternoon, and the meta-pleasure of floating in the Jacuzzi tub as the ship floats from port to port. It’s enough to merit at least one letter home on the suites’ personalized stationery. Sample pricing: Seven days from ,000. – MARIKA MCELROY
Suite-est of Them All
The skinny on the most extravagant accommodations at sea.
Celebrity Cruises’ 2,034-passenger Millennium Penthouse; 1,432 square feet
In addition to the living room, dining room, and master bedroom, it has a butler’s pantry (and a butler who delivers hors d’oeuvres daily) and a baby grand piano. Priority boarding, express luggage service, and help with packing and unpacking make for more time spent in the 1,098-square-foot veranda’s hot tub sipping cocktails from the wet bar.
Seven days from ,020.
Crystal Cruises’ 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity Penthouse; 1,345 square feet (including deck)
This expansive suite blends sybaritic pleasures (complimentary Cristal) with virtuous ones (a workout area with a treadmill). Flat-screen televisions, a Bang & Olufsen sound system, and an ocean view (or Italian village view, depending on the port) from the bathroom complete the picture
Seven days from ,620.
Cunard’s 3,056-passenger Queen Mary 2 Balmoral or Sandringham duplex; 2,249 square feet
For starters, it has two levels (bedroom upstairs, living room downstairs). Opt to use the reserved table at the Queen’s Grill, the ship’s top restaurant, or just while away a transatlantic crossing nibbling on butler-delivered sevruga blinis and lounging in front of the flat-screen TV.
Six-day transatlantic crossings from ,199.
Holland America’s 1,918-passenger Noordam Willem Barentsz Suite; 1,318 square feet
Apart from enjoying a king-size bed, living room, dining room, dressing room, private veranda with hot tub, a 36-inch flat-screen TV, and a pantry, suite guests receive complimentary laundry and dry cleaning, and private concierge service for booking shore excursions and dinner reservations. Bonus: Toast the sailing with the ship’s officers at an invite-only cocktail reception.
Ten-day sailings from ,169.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 700-passenger Seven Seas Mariner Master suites 900 and 901; 2,002 square feet
The two-bedroom châteaus-at-sea count two balconies among their alfresco areas: The small ones are hardly petite at 71 square feet; the larger are bigger than most New York studios. Indoors, a pair of walk-in closets, two and a half baths, and ample living and dining areas complete the spaciousness.
Eight days from ,796.
Residensea’s 657-passenger The World Apartment 801; 3,086 square feet
Bordering on gargantuan, this four-bedroom apartment can house six passengers and has a dining room that seats ten, a jetted pool on the veranda, and marble flooring and wood paneling throughout (including in the walk-in closets). Decor runs to Neoclassical European with a dash of Chinese lacquer.
Seven days from ,100 to ,000 for two; additional passengers 0 per person per night.
Royal Caribbean’s 3,634-passenger Freedom of the Seas Presidential Family Suite; 1,200 square feet
It’s the largest suite on board the biggest cruise ship in the world, boasting two master bedrooms with 30-inch flat-screen TVs, plus two additional bedrooms. The table on the 770-square-foot balcony seats 14 dinner guests.
Seven days from ,100.
Silversea’s 382-passenger Silver Whisper Owner’s Suite; 1,264 square feet
The two teak balconies alone are nearly the size of the ship’s most standard suites. Inside, two bedrooms and two marble bathrooms are the domain of the ship’s owner whenever he’s on board. Butlers deliver champagne, fresh fruit, and canapés daily.
Seven days from ,395.