The butler and I


Silver service ... outside La Terrazza restaurant.Silver service … outside La Terrazza restaurant.

On a new liner fitted with every indulgence, Amanda Wilson discovers one luxury that is indispensable.

This is a fairytale of sorts. It’s the story of one woman and her butler, of dressing up for dinner, of sipping cocktails as the sun fades to red on the horizon and dining like a queen.

But first, here’s some free advice you won’t get on the DFAT website.

Silver service ... the Silver Spirit is the newest vessel in the Silversea fleet.

Silver service … the Silver Spirit is the newest vessel in the Silversea fleet.

One: do not venture into a Mexican beauty parlour at 11am immediately after emerging from a bar where you have asked to sample the best tequila. You will end up with gold sparkly fingernails, the full effect of which won’t hit you until the next morning when your vision has returned to normal.

Two: when you acquire a hangover after such an experience, there is no better place to cure it than draped on a lounger on the private verandah of your suite on board the Silver Spirit, being hovered over solicitously by your butler.

You might wonder why someone who has experienced the all-encompassing luxury of a cruise aboard the Silver Spirit might choose to focus first on its curative aspects? Let me tell you, that’s what it’s all about – the six-star luxury that fixes ills you didn’t know you had and a few you wish you hadn’t.

In spirit ... a midship suite with verandah off the sitting room on the Silver Spirit.

In spirit … a midship suite with verandah off the sitting room on the Silver Spirit.

My butler – oh, how I love those two words – is a Filipino father of two who is so suave he would no doubt just shrug to hear he’s featured in my dreams since returning home. Here I am, leaning on the railing, the moon is high over the Pacific coast of Mexico, the waves are lapping gently against the hull and the French champagne is tickling my nose. I can’t wipe the smile off my face as Arnel emerges into the moonlight to inquire: ”Is there anything else I can get you, madam?”

Even in Cabo San Lucas, when I found myself on the patio of the villa next door to George Clooney’s Mexican hideaway, I was thinking of Arnel and checking my watch surreptitiously to make sure I had enough time to get back before the Silver Spirit sailed. (Yes, George Clooney – but that’s another story.)

So pivotal is the butler to my Silver Spirit experience that at the end of the cruise I declare: ”Arnel, I think I am falling in love with you.” Suave, and chaste as ever, he replies: ”Yes, madam, I know.”

A butler serves breakfast in a suite.

A butler serves breakfast in a suite.

I’ve been puzzling over how best to test Arnel’s skills when I bump into Ines, the officer in charge of domestic staff. She has some good suggestions, such as asking him to draw a bubble bath, have the champagne on ice and arrange an in-suite dinner for just me and my companion.

But I find the perfect challenge when we decide to help Judy from Mosman celebrate a significant birthday that she’d left Sydney to ignore. She booked the cruise but as the big day approached, Judy was missing some of her nearest and dearest. So, with her husband’s permission, I ask my butler to talk to their butler and organise a pre-dinner cocktail party in their suite for some of her new friends and a birthday cake at dinner. No sooner mentioned than done – and that was to become the theme of our 10 days of cruising.

We had joined the Silver Spirit in Acapulco for a 10-day portion of its maiden voyage, heading north up the Pacific coast of Mexico to Los Angeles, with several opportunities along the way to disembark and explore.

The ship, the latest addition to the Silversea fleet, launched from Fort Lauderdale in January. For me, the experience is more about the senses than statistics but here are some key facts: there are 1½ staff to every guest, a capacity of 540 guests, six fine-dining venues, it’s absolutely all-inclusive (including in-suite cocktail parties) and the suites are fabulous.

After an early-morning flight from LA via Mexico City, I’m hot and bothered by the time the taxi drops us off at the Acapulco port and some hassle with the local porters doesn’t help. We’ve arrived in the middle of a nasty little drug war. Acapulco’s finest are on display everywhere, perched in the back of big black utes toting machine guns and bulletproof vests. The ship, by contrast, is an oasis of calm and we’re greeted with a glass of prosecco to revive us before the check-in starts. In no time, we are in our midship verandah suite (which proves to be the perfect spot in all weather conditions) and Arnel is showing us its finer points.

There’s the nine-pillow menu. There are the two television screens hidden cunningly behind mirrors in the bedroom and sitting room. There’s the walk-in wardrobe, the choice of Bulgari or Ferragamo toiletries, the minibar stocked with beverages of our choice, the iPod dock, binoculars, a never-ending bottle of champagne, 24-hour room service and beds so comfortable I’m tempted to stay tucked in for days.

And even Acapulco scrubs up OK when we venture ashore the next morning. We hire an official town taxi for a very reasonable sum and take a private tour. First stop, the clavadistas, or high-cliff divers, who put on a breathtaking show. Then to the Hotel Los Flamingos, which dates to the 1930s when Hollywood’s handsome bad boys made it their holiday base. In the foyer are photos of Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Johnny Weissmuller and Roy Rogers – one can only imagine what they got up to in this little piece of paradise; they liked it so much that in the 1950s, they bought the hotel. It’s looking a bit rundown these days but unless you’re on the Silver Spirit’s aft deck enjoying the view from the Panorama Bar, there’s no better place in Acapulco to sip your sundowner.

Since returning home, I’ve been considering how best to describe my experience. It was definitely a trip to Mexico – we made plenty of stops along the coast and I saw fishing villages, lively markets, frolicking sea lions and 16th-century churches. It wasn’t all sparkly fingernails, folks.

Really, though, it was all about the cruise. At one point my companion, after an hour ashore in Manzanillo, declares all she wants to do is return to the Silver Spirit in time for the formal afternoon tea and request some tunes from the pianist. I have to agree – there are too many on-board delights to be enjoyed.

The highlight is the food and the wine selections that accompanies it. Silver Spirit is a gourmet’s heaven; even the buffet breakfast in the Italian restaurant, La Terrazza, is a step above anything similar I’ve enjoyed previously. And for the diet-conscious, there’s the wellness breakfast menu beside the pool, where you can torture yourself by reading the calorie, fat and carb counts of whatever you order. Personally, after an hour in the gym every morning, I feel virtuous enough to give calorie counting a miss.

All the Silversea vessels have a main dining room, The Restaurant; Le Champagne, with French food and wine pairings; and Italian at La Terrazza. The Spirit also has three new venues: Seishin, the Pool Grill and Stars.

Seishin and Le Champagne are my most memorable dining experiences. Seishin is a dinner-only restaurant that seats 24, so booking ahead is vital, though your butler will take care of that. A sushi chef is at work beside a seafood display so irresistible I reject the idea of one of the four-course ”teaser” menus in favour of the nine-course degustation.

An amuse-bouche of carpaccio of king scallops with flying fish roe sets the scene. The degustation attracts a $40 cover charge, which rises to $80 for sake with your meal, though connoisseurs will be tempted by premium wine pairings, for $200.

At Le Champagne, French chef Julie le Gallic delivers an inspired Relais & Chateaux menu. Again, there’s a $30 cover charge for six courses, which includes wine pairings. The charge increases to $200 for premium wine pairings, and the restaurant rotates 11 menus.

My highlight here is a coffee and foie gras ”passion” and baby artichokes stuffed with duck ragout and Perigord truffles.

In The Restaurant, which serves as the main dining room, the consistent excellence of meals, wine and service is remarkable; here, too, are Relais & Chateaux dishes each evening.

My only complaint – and it’s a small one – is Stars, a tapas bar and late-night venue. As an intimate jazz club, I love it but the idea behind the tapas is confusing. Each letter of the word ”stars” makes up a course, which is cute but the letters bear no real relation to the food and the full five courses contain too many flavours and styles.

There are, however, some scrumptious moments: oyster poached in wine with creamy spinach (which comes with the A course – go figure); and several lovely desserts in the final course, none of which have anything to do with S.

And I do have one gripe with the Pool Grill. The cook-it-yourself evening venue above the pool deck is another innovation aboard the Spirit. It seats only 60 and is so popular we have trouble getting a booking. Yet I’m disappointed. So spoilt have we been elsewhere on the ship that the last thing I want to do is slave over a hot rock.

So, what to do after all this eating and drinking? A Russian ballroom-dancing couple are on hand for daily afternoon dance lessons. There’s a casino for those who like to exercise a bit of risk, a huge library for the few passengers without a Kindle, a spa and a well-stocked shop.

I must offer another warning, however. Do not, as I did, down a couple of cocktails and then spend an hour in the shop trying on clothes without the benefit of a changing room – especially after the assistant’s gentle suggestion that I try them on in the privacy of my suite. Because, if you are fortunate enough later to dine with Alan, the delightful chief security officer, you will learn that cameras are everywhere and some video footage is priceless.

In January, the Spirit embarks on a 119-day cruise across two hemispheres, 60 destinations and 25 countries, including Australia. I am ready to make whatever ritual sacrifice is required to return for chapter two of my fairytale.

Amanda Wilson travelled courtesy of Silversea.

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