An Australian cruise – in luxury

This cruise was a dream trip – especially in February when an uncompromising winter had returned and by now was deeply rooted across the country and in our stoic Canadian souls. My sister and I were escaping on an Air Canada flight to Los Angeles, then Auckland where we would board the Silver Shadow on its Tasman Passage up the coast of Australia to Cairns. I hadn’t been on a cruise for 25 years, and my recollections were of small and cramped berths, generic meals served at specific sittings to accommodate massive lineups of passengers and days at sea that could be confining and often tumultuous.

Cruise conditions such as those don’t exist anymore, certainly not on the Silver Shadow. One of four ships of Silversea Cruises, the Shadow hosts 347 guests with a staff ratio of one to one in a luxuriously appointed floating five-star hotel, making the ship a destination itself for those who don’t have to disembark at each port of call to have a good time.

There’s little chance of claustrophobia when the smallest suites are 287 square feet and range as large as 1,435 square feet. Every suite has twin beds or a queen, large windows and, in mt cases, a teak verandah with patio doors opening out from an elegant sitting area. Some suites have a separate dining room, a nice touch when guests want to have an intimate dinner in their room.

An experience in luxury
The bathrooms are marbled with a shower and full-size bathtub (in some cases, a whirlpool bath) and separate toilet. A dressing room, vanity table, television with satellite reception, mini fridge and cocktail cabinet (filled by in-suite stewards with fine brands of spirits, wines and beverages of your choice) are all standard features. The table linens are Frette, the pillows are down, the stationery is personalized, the bath amenities are Bvlgari and the champagne upon arrival and thereafter is Philipponnat Royale Reserve.

Twice-daily suite service replenishes fresh flowers and fruit every day. In more expensive suites such as the Silver, Royal, Grand and Owner’s, amenities also include a CD player, daily newspapers, afternoon canapés and complimentary laundry service. They’ll even iron pyjamas!

The staff is a mini-United Nations, representing 48 different countries but sharing two common characteristics: disarming smiles and exquisite, six-star service. By the second phone call to room service, they remember you favour Australian shiraz, the ice should be chipped and you prefer your canapés served between 5:30 and 6 p.m. The art of treating guests as special is detailed and unobtrusive yet appears, for these charismatic people, to be effortless and actually enjoyable.

Many cruise ships have two sittings for meals and guests have assigned seating. On the Silver Shadow, one main dining room, The Restaurant, accommodates all guests whenever they want to eat with or without other guests seated at their table. At breakfast or lunch when it’s a buffet in the Terrace Café, a waiter carries guests’ plates to their table.

An alternative to dining in The Restaurant, a special intimate dining room, Le Champagne, offers a spectacular menu with epicurean wines (not included in the all-inclusive cruise price). Le Champagne can also be reserved for private functions such as a wedding anniversary, birthday, engagement celebration or a retirement party.

Dining at sea is an event. Whether it’s a formal dinner dance with tables laden with sparkling crystal and silver or a casual barbecue around the pool, the menus feature several choices within a six-course (seven with dessert) gourmet feast. The servings are tastefully small culinary works of art, making it easy to sample everything – starting, for instance, with an icy appetizer of caviar, then a hot appetizer of pan-fried escalope of duck liver with fresh plum au jus and, from the soup tureen, hot curried cream of clams with fried apple. After a Cobb salad, cleanse the palate with a pink champagne sorbet and start again by choosing from main courses ranging from fresh New Zealand rock lobster Newburg, pan-fried veal with creamy morel sauce, roasted prime rib with a stuffed baked potato or roasted pumpkin parpadelle pasta.

For vegetarians, there are options such as a six-onion risotto, and for people on a low-fat, low-sodium or low-cholesterol diet, there are “Cruiselite” options. The chef will also customize any combination of order. Several choices of excellent wines are offered with each course and generously replenished. And if you wish, all of this can be ordered course by course and elegantly served in your suite.

After a long leisurely dinner, the ship transforms into a nightclub with its casino, a humidor for cigars and brandy, first-run movies and lounge entertainment ranging from cabaret and theatre acts to circus entertainers, as well as a variety of orchestras for listening and dancing in various venues.

Next page: No lack of activities

During the day, whether the ship is at sea or in port, the decks bustle with a full menu of physical activities to join – or not – starting with a power walk at 7 a.m., yoga, pilates, aerobics in a state-of-the-art fitness centre where guests can work out on machines of their choice independently, sign up for a fitness assessment with the personal trainer or attend weight loss clinics. Next to the fitness centre is the Mandara Spa, voted Best Spa at Sea by Condé Nast Traveler magazine readers. Pampering includes everything from facials, manicures and pedicures to a host of mind- and-body-softening massage offerings.

For the intellectuals and wannabes, there are enrichment talks given by guest lecturers, language classes, computer classes, Scrabble competitions, bridge games, and jigsaw and crossword puzzles. A library offers bestselling hardcover books, popular movies to rent and computers where you can check your e-mail with a personal e-mail address you’re given before you board the ship. Each morning, a newsletter with the news from your country of origin is delivered to your suite door.

Ports of call
Land excursions are extra and are booked through the tour desk. Each port of call offers several options addressing the interests of adventurers, sports enthusiasts and culture buffs. We chose the Tasman Voyage, which stops first at the Bay of Islands at the tip of New Zealand’s North Island, where we settled on a six-hour Maori Cultural Experience and Forest Walk, led by Kena Rameka Alexander, a proud Maori who guided us through the Puketi forest with its magnificent kauri trees, some of them 4,000 years old.

Then on to Mangamuka Marae, the revered meeting place of the Maori people, at the end of a drive through the orchards and farms of this “Land of the Long White Cloud.” By the end of Kena’s tour, we were experts on this tribe who came to New Zealand from Polynesia 1,000 years ago.

After two days crossing the Tasman Sea, the ship glides into the famous Sydney Harbour, studded with charming inlets and graced by the famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Guests disembark for a night at the opera, participate in a yacht race, take a drive out to the Blue Mountains, visit the Koala Park or see the sights on their own.

The next stop is Newcastle, originally a convict settlement and the largest coal exporting port in the world. There are several land excursions from Newcastle, and we choose a day in the Hunter Valley where Tyrrells and Lindeman wineries hold court. Our excursion includes a delightful sampling of wines from small boutiques, such as Pepper Tree Wines, tucked into the rolling hills, and a remarkable lunch at Roberts Restaurant, one of Australia’s best. There, we taste several wines from Sandalyn Wild-erness Estate along with appetizers of warm goat cheese and figs wrapped in grilled prosciutto and deep-fried asparagus, and main dishes of tender flaky cod or melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin.

Probably the most thrilling excursion from the Shadow is a catamaran trip to the Great Barrier Reef where guests of the Shadow snorkel and scuba dive or just marvel at the damsel fish, parrot fish, sea turtles, giant clams and stag-horn coral (some of it 1,000 years old) from a semi-submersible launched off the side of the reef pontoon.

From the Great Barrier, we join the ship, anchored off Hayman Island, a private 990-acre resort with stunning white beaches and Australia’s most prestigious resort. As the ship travels north, the climate becomes hotter (about 33 C) and more humid. In Townsville, tucked along the coast hugged by the ranges leading to the outback, there are two seasons: wet and dry. In wet season (November to April), they can get as much as 45 feet of rain. And if you rent a cabin out here, keep your doors closed, our guide at the Billabong Sanctuary warns, or you may find a kangaroo asleep on your bed when you return.

Our final stop is Cairns and to mark our last night aboard the Shadow, we stay up late enough to have an after-dinner drink in the Lampadina, a cosy little bar next to the casino. We’re getting off at Cairns and flying back to Sydney for a flight home, but some passengers will continue on to Singapore, Bangkok, even Tokyo.

For several years in a row, Silversea Cruises has won both the prestigious Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure magazine awards for World’s Best Small Ship Cruise Line. It doesn’t mean there isn’t the odd rough day with 40-foot swells and rocky decks, but then there’s a handsome steward to escort your wobbly frame to a panorama lounge where the pianist is trilling soothing music and afternoon tea is being served.
That’s the memory that will linger during cold days back here in reality.