Author: Leo Schofield
Photography: antonia pesenti
Everybody needs an Edmundo. Edmundo was my butler on a recent cruise aboard the Silver Shadow. Yes, that's right. My butler. There's one for every passenger onboard a Silversea vessel. But that's only one of the luxuries this particular cruise line's pampered passengers encounter. On a recent trip from Bangkok to Singapore, taking in the coastal highlights from Koh Samui to Kuching, I opened the door to suite 657 and entered one of the largest cabins on the high seas. To my left a bathroom - yes, a proper bathroom, the sort you'd like to have at home in addition to Edmundo. Marble walls, a sizeable shower space, toiletries by Bulgari (this is an Italian-owned line, after all) and - wait for it - a bathtub. Ah, but that's only the beginning. Further exploration revealed a neat sitting room complete with two-seater sofa, my own personal balcony and a small but perfectly formed dressing room. On one side was a safe and a semainier, on the other lots of hanging space, for, as any committed cruise addict will tell you, one of the joys of this form of travel is that you unpack only once (with Edmundo's help, of course - he unfolds and smooths with a professionalism rarely seen outside a couture house).
I'd arrived on Silver Shadow after being cosseted for 36 hours in Bangkok's beautiful orchid-filled Peninsula hotel. From these lavish lodgings we were taken by bus to the ship. Easy boarding. No pat-downs, no divesting one's person of belts and boots and keys and mobiles. No sooner did my shoes hit the deck than there was a glass of Champagne to hand, followed by a mandatory but super-efficient boat drill. Then the luxury of that suite. Edmundo materialised in tailcoat and wing collar and introduced himself. It seems that although Bulgari toiletries are standard issue, there are more options, so Edmundo presented a tray: Ferragamo or Neutrogena? And what would I like in my refrigerator?
The tariffs on all Silversea boats are all-inclusive. No tips, no chits, no signing for every nip of Scotch, every cleansing ale. There's no mini-bar either, just that small fridge in which you can keep a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and some tonic for a solitary sunset sip on your very own veranda. All meals are included too, the only extras being shore excursions, which you may or may not choose to take depending on your inclination. At Koh Samui we eschewed escorted excursions for independent activities that included shopping, a light lunch at a beach-side restaurant and a visit to Dr Fish, an establishment where your feet or entire body can be exfoliated by myriad small fish called Garra rufa - the effect of this piscatorial pedicure being somewhere between tickling and a mild electric shock.
Ho Chi Minh City was another port of call on our leisurely cruise from the Gulf of Thailand. The metamorphosis of the former capital of South Vietnam from a French colonial city to a modern Asian one is symbolised by soaring new skyscrapers, including the recently constructed Bitexco Financial Tower, which has a helipad jutting like a petulant lower lip from the 50th floor. Vestiges of French architectural influence linger in the wide boulevards and elegant planting, in the low, shuttered, colonnaded and whitewashed buildings with distinctive red-tiled roofs, and in impressive landmark public buildings such as the cathedral-like Central Post Office (designed by Gustave Eiffel of tower fame) and the former Opera House, a transposed Palais Garnier in miniature at the end of Le Loi Street. But modernisation is moving fast. The Old Market is still an amazing sight as well as a challenging shopping experience, but a different kind of store is springing up throughout the centre of the city as global luxury brands battle for a toehold. Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Marc Jacobs - they are all here, and if not, their imminent arrival is heralded on the hoardings around construction sites.
Back on the ship, another luxury is the onboard spa with a bevy of beauticians to complete the process of total relaxation. The diner, meanwhile, has a variety of options, from a meal under the stars on the pool deck to 24-hour room service. Most guests, however, prefer to tog up and take their meals in one of two large elegant dining rooms, or put the boat out, so to speak, in Le Champagne, a chic, intimate Relais & Châteaux-endorsed restaurant where a different dégustation menu with matched wines is presented each evening. Naturally this comes at an extra cost, but otherwise, as they say, there are no hidden charges.
So this was the routine on Silver Shadow as we made our way between ports, via Kuching and finally to glittering Singapore, where I indulged in one more luxurious bathtub soak at the Mandarin Oriental before heading for the airport and the reality of the metal detector and the customs check. Small wonder, I thought, as I jostled in line at Changi Airport, that an increasing number of people are choosing cruising as their mode of travel. No baggage restrictions, body searches, queues, crowded overhead lockers, delays and frustrations at every turn. Just a couple of conundrums: what to wear to dinner and whether your sharpener for the evening will be a Champagne or a Martini.
THE FINE PRINT
Silversea has seven Relais & Châteaux L'École des Chefs voyages departing in 2011. Hosted by David Bilsland of London's Le Cordon Bleu, these voyages offer cooking classes, market tours and cooking demonstrations. All Silversea fares include suite accommodation, butler service, meals, beverages (including alcohol) and gratuities. Silversea Relais & Châteaux L'École des Chefs voyages from $5853, (02) 9255 0600.