Luxury cruise line Silversea goes more affordable, more luxury

By Robert Spencer Knotts — Tribune correspondent
Tampa Bay Online
FORT LAUDERDALE — How do you make luxury more luxurious? Push upscale up the scale just a little higher? That’s the trick for any business that caters to high-end travelers.But in an economic era when those businesses are also looking to attract less affluent clients, the trick becomes even trickier.

Silversea Cruises launched its newest flagship, Silver Spirit, in January with those goals in mind. They’ve added suites and planned shorter voyages to help accomplish the economies, along with offering travel incentives such as free flights to the port city.

To achieve the enhancements, they’ve added new restaurants and clubs, a larger spa and internet room.

I checked out the newest ship on a seven-day cruise in June, traveling from Venice, Italy, to Athens. As a cruise writer who has sailed with Silversea several times, I can say with confidence that Spirit ups the line’s game.

And good news for us it will be close to home during part of each year. Its winter port is Fort Lauderdale, which is poised to become the world’s largest cruise port by 2012.

Silversea is in that elevated category of cruise companies that includes Crystal, Regent Seven Seas and Seabourn. Silversea has been voted World’s Best Small Cruise Line seven times by readers of Travel & Leisure and nine times by Conde Nast Traveler readers. It has won a life raft full of honors, including the 2009 Five Star Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.

On a Silversea cruise all guests receive butler service, whether they’re in one of the largest suites or the smallest and yes, this is an all-suites line. High-end liquors such as Grey Goose vodka and Johnny Walker Black scotch are complimentary, as are quality French champagnes and fine wines and beers from around the world. There’s also a no-tipping policy.

Basically there’s little to worry about once you step across the gangway. No nickel-and-diming allowed on Silversea ships.

I’ve traveled on the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, the line’s largest and newest ships before the Spirit. Each carries 383 guests and 295 crew, a customer-to-staff ratio that permits highly personal service. Silver Spirit has been designed to accommodate 540 guests with 376 crew, still a very personal vessel by today’s gigantic Oasis of the Seas standards. But Silversea has made some striking changes.

The dcor for one thing. Though common areas and suites on Silversea’s other ships are understated and elegant, Silver Spirit has rich touches, such as dark wood paneling and highly polished wooden doors, wooden bathroom floors and more interesting artworks throughout. There’s a dramatic center staircase and an expanded main bar. The design scheme in the lobby and main bar has an Art Deco feel, retro but refined. My traveling companion, Gwendolyn, and I loved it.

We also agreed the entertainment was markedly better on this voyage than on our two previous Silversea trips together. An Asian crooner named Eric sang the great standards with so much feeling, I misted up more than once. And another dynamic singer, Alfreda, belted out powerful versions of nearly any music from gospel to opera, though she focused mainly on well-known pop songs and standards.

Alfreda performed nightly along with her pianist husband in the Silver Spirit’s utterly delightful supper club, Stars. This is a major new enhancement; there’s nothing like it on any other Silversea ship. Guests can visit Stars for cocktails, dancing, dinner or any combination thereof. It has the feel of a Manhattan nightclub, an intimate setting for live music with tables scattered just beyond the stage. Stars also allows its patrons to experience a full dinner made entirely of a wide variety of tapas, bite-size servings of finely prepared seafood, meats, pastas and desserts delivered in several courses.

One of the other huge improvements is the Spirit’s new dining option called The Grill, with the pool deck converted each night into a small outdoor bistro, weather permitting. Each guest cooks his or her own seafood or beef to order on a blistering hot black rock. This style of grilling results in some inevitable spatters, though bibs are available. Gwendolyn and I sat at our private table as the ship floated us through the Adriatic Sea from Croatia to Greece under cool, clear skies with granite-flat seas. It was one of the most memorable nights of our trip.

None of this should suggest that the Silver Spirit is without some new-ship gremlins. Mostly very small but occasionally annoying malfunctions such as inconsistent shower water temperature; a shower head that worked sporadically; and a sink faucet fixture that should come with an instruction manual. But even these niggles were balanced by a much larger shower stall than on the Silver Shadow or Silver Whisper.

Other pluses included a spacious veranda with more comfortable deck furniture. Our Veranda Suite was longer and narrower than on the other ships, with a compact but elegant bathroom whose style reminded me of the ultra-luxury Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok. The Spirit’s Veranda Suite actually had more square footage than similar-sized rooms on the Shadow or Whisper because the outdoor deck is so much larger.

In my experience, there’s just not much to seriously complain about on a Silversea cruise. Even the food and butler service were improved over our last voyage, when both were excellent. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners all reflected a consistently higher level of cuisine, often served with imaginative touches such as tapas of Asparagus Napoleon or osso buco .

Our butler, Morgan, polished my sunglasses repeatedly and installed a CD player in our suite at my request.

Any Silversea cruise is likely to be an experience in the world of personalized ultra-luxury. Its different ships offer different pleasures. But given the option, I’d choose the Silver Spirit again for my next voyage in a heartbeat.

Spirit’s Florida visit

The Silver Spirit arrives in Fort Lauderdale Nov. 22 and sets sail that afternoon on a 10-day cruise of Caribbean islands. Ports of call include Grand Turk, St. John’s and St. Bart’s.

A second Caribbean cruise sets sail from Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 2.

The ship will make three other voyages out of the port, but only the Caribbean cruises return passengers to Fort Lauderdale. When the ship sets sail for the last time out of Florida in January, it will be a 16-day cruise to Los Angeles.

Prices for the Caribbean cruises range from $9,295 per person for a Vista Suite to $29,095 for the Owners 2 Suite. However, some tickets may be available for up to 60 percent off the published fare. Be sure to ask about Silver Savings specials when booking.

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