It sounds like an unusual pairing, but Silversea Cruises specialises in bringing international luxury together with local flavour, as Joanna Booth discovered.
I would never have found the restaurant on my own. I know Portugal well – when I try to count the number of times I've visited I run out of fingers – but this tiny, tucked-away spot in the Algarve fishing town of Portimao is an in-the-know local's favourite, not a tourist must-see.
Maria do Mar serves canned fish, exclusively – another reason that you might not stumble into it on a whim. Visiting with a small group of guests sailing on Silver Dawn, the new ship from ultra-luxury cruise line Silversea, there were initially a few raised eyebrows – were tinned sardines really a fitting lunch when breakfast had been caviar and champagne?
Any doubts were dispelled as the dishes appeared. Sardines topped with samphire, mackerel with micro-herbs, air-cured tuna with almonds – we wolfed it down with home-baked bread, beautifully dressed salad and glasses of an easy-drinking local rosé.
The restaurant serves more than 300 different types of Portuguese tinned fish, from the classics in olive oil or tomato to unusual versions flavoured with apple, dry-cured ham or shitake mushroom.
The owners, Pedro Estorninho and Pedro Franco, couldn't have been more welcoming, plying us with a traditional Dom Rodrigo dessert, fragrant with cinnamon, and glasses of grappa distilled from the spiky, red fruit of the local medronho tree. However, they had only agreed to host Silversea guests once their lunchtime rush was over – they weren't going to kick out their many loyal regulars for a bunch of out-of-towners.
For the Portuguese, canned fish is more than merely an ingredient. It carries a host of emotional connections; memories of childhood meals, and a link to an indigenous industry, once mighty, now much reduced and mostly mechanised.
"In Portugal, these cans are like caviar. You open the can and it's some of the best quality fish you can get," explained our guide, Portuguese food writer Miguel Andrade. He accompanied us to Portimao's excellent, quirky cannery museum, helping bring to vivid life the story of how the local industry boomed and eventually burned out.
Finding extra flavour
This experience was my first encounter with Silversea's SALT culinary programme, offered exclusively on the line's two newest ships, Silver Dawn and Silver Moon.
SALT shore excursions aren't simply about gourmet dining – Silversea offers plenty of delectable food and wine-focused trips in its wider programme – but also make a deeper connection between cuisine, community and culture.
In Puglia, Italy, on a foraging trip led by two local brothers, you'll discover this habit started as no cheffy affectation, but from economic necessity. In Cadiz, Spain, you'll learn about the technique and terroir of sherry at an eighth-generation family-run bodega.
On board, the SALT experience continues. In the SALT Lab – a striking, circular teaching kitchen lined with high-tech cooking appliances and tall jars of herbs and spices – I made Portuguese classics; a hearty caldo verde soup and a bifana, a marinated pork sandwich. The dishes change to reflect the ship's destination – something that also applies in the next-door restaurant, SALT Kitchen.
With a flagrant disregard for the practicalities of provisioning a cruise ship, SALT Kitchen throws caution to the wind and changes its menu daily to reflect not only the country but the region in which the ship docks.
For my visit, this meant dishes with a special connection to the balmy Portuguese south; figs with locally-made goat's cheese, a fragrant seafood cataplana stew, and a set custard flavoured with oranges from the Algarve's orchards.
The presentation may have been rather more elevated than the versions I'd eaten in the family-run tascas of the region, but those flavours were as authentic as they come.
It's exactly these kinds of hyper-local, immersive experiences that characterise the Silversea approach to cruising. Any preconceived notions I'd had about showing up in a shiny ship and failing to connect with local culture were completely dispelled. I sailed away from Portimao feeling more in touch with Portugal than ever.
Not that the brand-new Silver Dawn doesn't have a pleasing shine to it, from the bespoke Lalique crystal panels in the French restaurant La Dame to the sun glinting off the bubbling surface of the pool deck Jacuzzis.
Sailing with a maximum of 596 guests, Silver Dawn maintains the feel of a small ship – and its ability to dock in small, interesting ports such as Portimao – but with many of the benefits you'd expect from a larger craft.
There's a theatre, a casino, an expansive sun deck with a pool, hot tubs and loungers, a gym, and a giant spa with an opulent relaxation room where you can sip cocktails post-treatment. Eight restaurants serve a selection of cuisines, from a low-lit sushi bar and an alfresco pizzeria to tapas with an accompaniment of live jazz.
But a list of facilities really doesn't do Dawn justice; the superlative design and luxurious touches are what give the ship its extra-special quality.
The swooping main staircase, which double-loops its way up the centre of the ship, is a veritable art gallery, the eclectic collection spanning everything from 19th century Kashmiri vases and heritage Chinese opera headdresses to modern American ceramics and contemporary African paintings.
The suites, decorated in a symphony of restful dove grey and white tones, are sumptuous and spacious. Nearly 95 per cent have a veranda, where your butler will lay out your morning pot of coffee, or an afternoon glass of champagne – all included as part of your cruise package.
If I'd felt a little hesitant about the idea of butler service – would it be awkward? – then any reservations melted away the moment I met Shakil. With a friendly smile, he was on hand to help at a moment's notice but never intrusive, and had an almost supernatural ability to second guess what might be absolutely lovely at any given moment.
Perhaps a glass of champagne? Would I like any table reservations organised, or shore excursions set up? Pastries with that coffee? Anything special I'd like in my complimentary mini-bar? When I returned to my suite, even my sunglasses had been polished.
In an extension to Silversea's usual plethora of services, on Silver Dawn you'll find an extra level of pampering. Called Otium, and inspired by the pleasures of Ancient Rome, it brings together indulgent spa treatments (think extra-long massages and facials that use the healing powers of gold) with in-suite experiences to wrap you in a cocoon of relaxation.
I picked my favourites from the pillow menu and slept like a log. I sipped a rum-laced hot chocolate on my veranda wrapped in a cashmere blanket on a chilly morning. I returned from a long walk around the medieval town of Silves to find Shakil had run me a bath, scented with fig and cedar salts, surrounded by candles, and accompanied by macarons, a glass of champagne and a neck pillow.
One evening, too lazy to head out for dinner, I ordered a lobster and caviar brioche roll and truffle popcorn from the room service menu. I felt those ancient Romans would approve.
Whether it's cultural curation or rarefied relaxation, Silversea is uncompromising in its quest to offer only the best of the best. As international travel reopens, there's a whole lot of lost time to make up for, so why waste a moment on anything mediocre? With Silversea, the world can be your oyster once more. Served – naturally – with a glass of champagne.
5 SILVERSEA SAILINGS TO BOOK
1. The heart of the Mediterranean
Visiting 8 ports in 4 countries, this 7-day voyage on board the new Silver Dawn is a curated package of the best of the Mediterranean. Sailing between Rome and Barcelona, you'll call in at the historic port of Livorno in Tuscany, revel in effervescent Portofino and Monte-Carlo, delight in Mallorca, a Spanish island of cuisine, culture, and sun-gorged beaches, enter Dali's 'theatrical dream' in Palamos, before finally disembarking in Barcelona.
Departing October 19, 2022, the Rome to Barcelona voyage starts from AUD$8,800pp door-to-door.
2. A Moorish melting pot
See the lesser-known side of the Mediterranean on this journey on one of the line's smallest ships, Silver Cloud, carrying just 250 guests. Discover Lisbon and Portimao, Portugal before exploring Spain's Moorish south in Seville and Granada. Then you'll dock in North Africa, where fascinating history both ancient and modern is on show at Oran and Algiers in Algeria and Sousse in Tunisia. Departing September 7, the 10-day Lisbon to Valletta sailing starts from A$9,700pp.
3. Autumnal antiquity
This autumnal round-trip cruise from Athens showcases the Ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman history of Greece and Turkey once the summer crowds have left.
Cruising on the fully refurbished Silver Spirit you'll spend a day at the Unesco World Heritage site of Ephesus, overnight in both Istanbul and Rhodes, giving you time to explore in-depth, and enjoy the late-season sun on the islands of Santorini, Crete and Patmos. Departing September 20, the 15-day Athens to Athens cruise starts from A$14,900pp.
4. Wild Western Australia
You don't need to go to Europe to enjoy the Silversea experience. Closer to home, but more off-the-beaten-track, Western Australia's remote but beautiful Kimberley region is home to Aboriginal culture, towering red-rock formations and wildlife-packed mangrove forests.
An expedition cruise on Silver Explorer hops up the coast from Broome to Darwin, and also calls at remote Matakus Island, Indonesia, where you can snorkel on a pristine reef. Departing July 20, 2023, the 10-day Broome to Darwin voyage starts from A$12,800pp.
5. Japan in bloom
Plan ahead for Japan's cherry blossom season in 2024 and book this comprehensive spring voyage on Silver Dawn's sister ship, Silver Moon. Sailing from sprawling Tokyo and calling at buzzy Osaka and poignant Hiroshima, the voyage also explores the southern island of Kyushu, where you'll find hot springs and towering volcanoes, and stops at the busy port of Busan, South Korea.
Special shore excursions introduce you to classic elements of Japanese culture, from geisha and sumo to calligraphy and hot sand bathing. Departing on April 9, 2024, the 10-day Tokyo to Tokyo cruise starts from A$11,200pp.
Silversea's door-to-door fares are all-inclusive. The price covers from-home executive transfers, airfares, pre- and post-cruise hotel nights, 24-hour gourmet dining, premium beverages, butler service, shore excursions and gratuities.
Bookings made before May 31 will be eligible for up to US$1000 shipboard credit per suite, an offer exclusive to passengers booking from New Zealand. 0800 701 427; silversea.com