Maureen Marriner spends four days crossing the North Atlantic in a bubble of indulgence.
The Oxford dictionary defines luxury as "a state of great comfort or elegance, especially involving great expense". Silversea Cruises has dealt in this for 20 years, offering what the Italian owners describe as a "superlative quality of luxury service".
Book-ended by whistle stops in England and Ireland, and a week meandering around islands and through waterways of Eastern Canada, I have four sea days with little to do but enjoy myself on the line's newest vessel, the Silver Muse.
Silversea passengers could well have access to all the consumer opulence they want at home; they come on cruises like this to have their senses indulged. It's an experience familiar to most of them — of the 500 passengers on board, 470 of them are return guests. In Luxury — a Rich History, Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello describe the condition as the absence of "the discomfort of a disparity between the rich and the rest".
The majority are Americans, Canadian and British but an increasing proportion are Australasians and although they are all in the same boat, their only real connection may be shared enjoyment of the same luxuries.
Our butler Pedro is, like many of the staff, from the Philippines. He is always just a call away. After embarkation he had unpacked and hung our clothes in the walk-in wardrobe and explained that Bulgari toiletries were standard but two other ranges were also available. The marble vanity has illuminated no-fog, ceiling-to-hip mirrors on three sides, there's a full-size bath with shower wand and a roomy shower with a monsoon head. There is what appears to be wood panelling on the floor that looks similar to my kitchen floor so, sensibly, it is not.
Jobie, our suite attendant, changes all the towels twice a day and changes the bed linen (classic Italian Pratesi) every three days. After she has turned down the bed she leaves squares of dark chocolate "because it's good for the heart". Long before embarkation, guests choose from eight types of pillow and the cotton or silk pillowcases have hidden pockets to add the fragrance of chamomile or lavender.
Our suite — muted creams and browns — has televisions embedded in mirrors at the end of the bed and opposite the sofa. There are black-out drapes at the balcony doors and beside the bed so one person can stay up later or be up earlier than the other. When Pedro answers the call for early cups of tea, it comes on a tray with a vacuum jug of hot water, our selection of teabags and linen-wrapped spoons. After he learns that I enjoy a ginger tea before bed, there is, every evening, a teapot with an infuser of freshly chopped ginger waiting on our marble table. The fridge is stocked and restocked with soft drinks, beer and champagne.
Not only is the ship awash with free drinks of whatever persuasion, one of the first things the butler asks is what guests would like stocked in the suite. We request gin and grappa.
Initially there is confusion and we are delivered an elegant bottle of Fior de Latte, white chocolate grappa. Who knew such a thing existed? Must be a cruisey thing but I go on to develop a taste for it. The unadulterated grappa arrives the next day.
Every deck has a laundrette, but many regular cruisers have long passed their 100 sailing days milestone and that means free laundry. There are some who have passed 1000 days.
This is because they spend two to three months a year being cosseted at sea. I overhear conversations about who will meet whom on the same ship in the Med next April; which world cruise they have already booked and how it differs from last year's global trip. Some ignore the ports of call; they have been there already and everything they want is on board. In what Silversea calls the Wow Factor, suites are decorated for birthdays and anniversaries and those who venture ashore can return to flutes of Bucks Fizz or a bathroom treat.
Captain Alessandro Zanello is half-Italian, half-Australian and at 43, the youngest master in the fleet. He says this ship copes well with the Atlantic, much like the Cunard liners, whereas the monster cruise ships, the floating buildings, have difficulty as they are so much higher above the water. He knows New Zealand waters too. At 18 he was a cadet on the Fairstar and says he experienced a Tasman storm. "I was being lifted off my mattress."
Silver Muse has eight restaurants and we dine in all. The largest, Atlantide, is an elegant bar and grill much-favoured by the country-club elite.
Waiting to be seated one evening there is a delay as a man ahead has turned up "untied". He is also unabashed as one of the waiters completes him with a conservative striped number but the half-dozen young men waiting to seat the rest of us seem like a disciplinary committee.
A starter example here is Beef and Caviar Tartare. A glorious start. One night Sir fancies the New Zealand lamb, "12-15 months, grass-fed, 175g", but says he doesn't want to risk it being whipped away by a rangey guy in a farm shirt and boots.
Atlantide on deck four also does a la carte breakfasts (Illy coffee throughout the ship) but there is an excellent buffet up at the Italian La Terrazzo on deck seven, where guests can breakfast out on the deck under heaters.
An outdoor lunch can also be had poolside up on 10 at The Grill, where I discover I am a "two-blanket woman". One around my shoulders and one, draped by the waiter, across my knees. Sir says I am a wimp. Fresh pizza is on call from 11-11 at Spaccanapoli up on deck 11, where laps of the jogging track could help counter unwise choices at lunch.
There are running machines and saunas in the gym ... or deck loungers, or bed.
On a particularly gusty afternoon, however, we decide to walk off an Atlantide lunch.
From the restaurant the swell had been impressive, but up on 11, amid the expanse of the ocean, it seems no big thing. The wind makes the exercise hilarious. Downwind we are almost forced into a jog and then, rounding the funnel at the stern, the force means I cannot stop laughing. We have to bend and fight to walk.
All that ozone must have gone to our heads because we get togs and adjourn to the blunt end's Jacuzzi, to where two (unbreakable) glasses of champagne are delivered. There is certain difficulty in this situation: you want to be submerged up to your chin to stay warm but you want the champagne flute to stay above the water to remain cold. Problems, problems. I can't tell the height of the swell but there is a slosh factor in the Jacuzzi of about 30 degrees. Getting out is a two-towel dash to the foyer of the nearby toilets, which are immaculate and stocked with small, neatly folded flannel squares.
Down a couple of decks at the stern is the large Panorama lounge and outside it, when the sun is shining and the Atlantic is the same blue as the cushioned armchairs, God is in his heaven and there is always a nearby waiter. One deck up at the bow, the observation lounge, which houses the library, is smaller and quieter. We are up there one night at sunset, Prosecco in hand, when the descending tangerine becomes squashed then turns into a ship shape before disappearing. The next morning I am in the gym at the stern and see the tangerine reinflate, rise and lighten into look-away mode.
The days take on their own rhythm. It is not a rough crossing so waking is to a slow-motion hammock rock. First, I lose track of the dates then one morning I find I have lost track of what day it is. As hours disappear across the Atlantic, the cycle is ruled by Pedro updating the suite's electronic clock and the dining schedule — whether it will be formal, informal or casual. Being a pedant about such things, I have sufficient bling in the suite's black velvet jewellery case to cover all options. The case lives in the safe, which I never lock as everything inside is fake. Cruisers are advised against bringing the real stuff although "faux" is foreign to many on this trip.
The Arts Cafe becomes an afternoon favourite with comfortable chairs and sofas, and perhaps a small plate of fruit and cheese to accompany a glass of rose as we enjoy sumptuous coffee-table books.
Drinks are "any time, any place" (in reality, the first of the 10 bars to open does so at 9am) but the large Dolce Vita lounge is an evening magnet for friends to meet. Warmed nuts accompany chilled martinis. One evening we meet a couple from San Antonio, regular Silversea passengers. He ran a wine importing company but says, "I didn't have to work — I'm fourth-generation Texas oil."
At another dinner we chat with a woman from Mississippi, who, when her older husband died a decade ago, vowed to see all the continents before she was 70, did so and continues to cruise. Arriving alongside at another table set for one, an Englishman in the prime of his 80s, begins some elegant old-school flirting. "At that age," the Mississippian says in an aside, "what they want is a nurse or a purse."
After she has retired, we find that the Englishman, who knew Kiwi motor racing legend Bruce McLaren, requires neither. His wife died decades earlier and he now cruises two to four months a year on Silversea, enjoying the company of much younger women on shore tours and for dinner. "I remember one world cruise when, on the night we left Venice, the butler had set the table on my balcony and a delightful ship's officer joined me there for champagne and dinner. What could be better?"
We also dine in our suite, or, according to our butler, "at Pedro's". Pedro removes the orchids from our oval coffee table and retrieves from the wardrobe a hidden contraption that unfolds to fit over our table and convert it into a higher, rectangular table. He adds a linen cloth, cutlery placed on edge, electric candles and the food and wine. It can be served course by course but we have selected so he can deliver in one go. And go.
A popular spot later in the evenings is the small Silver Note, where international tapas-style dishes accompany live jazz and blues.
At the Indochine restaurant, the boast is 1500 flavours of the Orient, whereas, at Kaiseki, dinner becomes teppanyaki theatre as we sit next to the cooks then feast on their butterfly Maine lobster with wasabi, soya sauce and signature mustard dip; miso glazed Alaskan cod with miso glaze and fresh ginger; wagyu beef teriyaki with Japanese mustard sauce, teriyaki sauce and Japanese garlic sauce; and furikake rice with teppan-caramelised apple and tonkatsu sauce. Yes, all of them.
Kaiseki is one of two restaurants for which diners pay an additional US$60 each. The other is La Dame by Relais et Chateaux, a partnership with the global fellowship of individually owned luxury hotels and restaurants. La Dame is small, its menu grandly littered with foie gras, homard and canard. My starter is Nos Escargots de Bourgogne: Burgundy snails, flatleaf parsley, garlic, butter, paprika and baguette. Whenever wine is wanted, guests are offered a red, white or rose from the complimentary wine list. With my snails I fancy a white Bordeaux, which is not among the daily offerings. Not a problem, madame is told, and a very acceptable bottle appears within minutes.
Around us at La Dame, however, diners are buying from the connoisseur wine list. The word is that the list is patronised mainly by Brazilians with new money, Russian oligarchs and Middle Eastern princes who are not allowed alcohol, so will have the wines delivered to their rooms.
There are wine lovers who know the list off by heart and have sufficient history with Silversea to inquire whether a particular bottle is available, perhaps a Chateau Palmer. A 2001 bottle of this prestigious Bordeaux could set you back nearly $1000 in New Zealand and Silver Muse did have a couple of Chateau Palmers off-list and at apparently bargain prices.
This is another life, a life free from the usual daily constraints, a life with the luxury of freedom to choose how to pass the time.
Luxurious PS: After an exhausting morning traipsing up and down through the old part of Quebec City after the crossing, I come back to find Pedro has prepared a warm, candle-lit bubble bath strewn with flowers. The Wow Factor.
One of the last privately owned cruise lines, the Silversea fleet is split into "classic" and "expedition". There are five classic ships, which carry between 296 and 596 guests, and sail to traditional destinations. The expedition fleet has four ships, equipped to travel to "remote and exotic" locations. As part of the Grand Bellezza 2018 world cruise, the Silver Whisper arrives in New Zealand on Friday and has eight ports of call before continuing on to Australia.