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The Spirit Of Quality

Gary Buchanan discovers the parallels between high hotel style on land and the Silversea Cruise style.

Of all hotel consortia that tick the right boxes when I plan my travel, Small Luxury Hotels of the World and Relais & Châteaux are unwavering in offering discerning guests exclusive collections of idiosyncratic hotels that overflow with charm. Their almanacs, showcasing a coterie of quintessentially charming hotels secreted among fashionable great cities and tiny coral cays alike, are resources without equal.

The story of Relais & Châteaux dates back to 1941 when two former music hall entertainers, Marcel and Nelly Tilloy purchased ‘La Cardinale’, an estate in the Rhône Valley. In 1952, they began recruiting hoteliers and restaurant owners who shared their passion for excellence in the Art de Vivre.

Two years later, this group of kindred spirits merged to create Relais & Châteaux. In the beginning, there were only eight establishments stretching from Paris to the Côte d’Azur; today, there are 475 members in 55 countries.

So what have prestigious international associations of land-based hotels and restaurants offering outstanding service got to do with cruising? In the realm of mass-market ships, not a lot; but, when it comes to boutique ships, the synergy becomes palpable, so much so that, since 2000, Silversea Cruises has been a partner with Grands Chefs Relais & Châteaux.

With this in mind, I decided to go the whole hog and combine a cruise aboard Silver Spirit with a stay at the idyllic bolthole of Coral Reef Club in Barbados, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Without realising, I had created possibly the ultimate cruise-and-stay combination.

Shortly after climbing aboard this 540-passenger ship in Fort Lauderdale, I met David Bilsland, who I knew when he was a leading light in the galleys aboard Queen Elizabeth 2. He explained his career path then led to him to become an instructor in the Culinary Arts Centre at Le Cordon Bleu before joining Silversea in 2007.

Since then, he has served as Executive Chef on all six ships in the fleet. Now he is running Silversea’s new L’Ecole des Chefs programme – the only Relais & Châteaux cooking school at sea.

Sharing his passion for cuisine, this amiable English chef hosts L’Ecole des Chefs programmes on selected voyages to showcase this unique cooking school concept. Designed exclusively by Grands Chefs Relais & Châteaux, these offer guests a broad curriculum of tantalising culinary events, working in small groups of fellow epicureans alongside Chef David.

Enhancing the gourmet theme, Silversea offer a host of Food and Wine excursions. These range from ‘Sunset Wine Tasting’ in Dubrovnik, ‘Castle to Culinary Delights’ in Bodrum and ‘Chocolate Flavours of Dubrovnik’ to lunch in the Médoc at Château Coreillan-Bages and dinner at Château Haut-Bailly in the heart of the Bordeaux vineyards.

For the next nine days I became reacquainted with this recent addition to the ultra-luxe Silversea fleet, which I first saw when it was fresh from the shipyard in December 2009. Boasting one of the highest space-to-guest ratios at sea, there’s an astonishing 6,700 cubic feet of personal space per guest and nowhere is this spaciousness more evident than in the 270 suites, 95 per cent of which feature a private teak veranda.

The two Owner’s Suites, six Grand Suites and 26 Silver Suites, as well as Veranda and Vista Suites are nothing short of sumptuous. Each features a separate sitting area, walk-in closet and a marbled bathroom with full-size tub and separate shower. The in-suite dining option invites guests to enjoy breakfast in bed, savour a late lunch on their veranda or indulge in a romantic dinner served course by course in their private idyll.

When set adrift in splendid isolation, a ship’s cabin is an intensely personal space. My Veranda Suite was decorated to a standard unmatched within the humdrum compromises of everyday life at home; it was far from the time-warp cliché of minimalism, boasting an artistic grace and refined glamour that spanned the lexicon of sophisticated design.

When I first experienced Silver Spirit I was skeptical about the concept of every suite having a butler in addition to a stewardess. Now, I was more than happy with my ever-present, always courteous, Indian butler who unwittingly provided me with an abiding memory of my cruise.

I had booked an Elemis Tri-Enzyme Resurfacing Facial in The Spa one afternoon. The therapist had the lightest of touches, resulting in one of the most relaxing interludes of my cruise. When I returned to my suite, I found a hand-written letter from my butler: “Dear Mr Buchanan, I hope you enjoyed your spa appointment. I have drawn a bath with special salts to soothe your mind and soul. Have a wonderful evening, Chandu.”

Another memorable facet was dining in a choice of enjoyable and contrasting venues: from the Relais & Châteaux ‘La Collection du Monde’ dishes and epicurean elegance of The Restaurant, to the Asian specialities in Seishen; from La Terrazza, which boasts à la carte menus showcasing cuisine from the culinary colossus that is Italy, to the recherché Stars Supper Club with its trendsetting ‘assiette plates’ and congenial atmosphere.

The intimacy of Le Champagne with its à la carte menu offered a night of savoire vivre; while The Grill on deck 10 featured a unique volcanic ‘Black Rock’ cooking concept, which is certainly a quirky take on al fresco dinners by the pool.

With perfect weather, my cruise offered a harmonious compilation of ports, with unsurpassed duty-free shopping in the US Virgin Island of St Thomas while Gustavia’s harbour, brim-full of mega yachts, surrounded by red-roofed cantaloupe-coloured stucco cottages, overflows in French chic in St Barths.

The British influence is omnipresent on Antigua where there’s a beach for every day of the year and a similar heritage abounds in St Kitts. Roseau is the jumping off point for visits to Dominica’s Morne Trois Pitons National Park; then in Castries, on St Lucia, Columbus Square is lined with brightly-painted shops and houses in shades of amber, saffron, pink and blue.

To discuss which excursions would offer the best insight into the islands, I dined with Tour Manager Clive Jellicoe early on in the cruise. Hailing from Cheshire but now living in Cap d’Ail in the south of France, this avid traveller’s seagoing career spans over 14 years with Royal Viking Line, Seabourn and Cunard, where he was Tour Manager for no fewer than six world cruises. He proved a font of knowledge when it came to getting the best out of my time in port.

Unbelievably, we were the only ship in busy St Thomas. Here, I shared an open-sided taxi with fellow travellers to Charlotte Amalie, the island’s tiny capital that’s normally manic when some 10,000 cruise passengers disembark most weekdays. Clive joined me on a visit to St Jean, the most popular beach on St Barths; here, we watched the hair-raising approach and landings made by aircraft on the island’s precipitous runway.

In Antigua, I visited Nelson’s Dockyard – the only surviving Georgian dockyard in the world – where lunch beckoned at the splendidly-restored 18th century Admiral’s Inn. The old narrow-gauge railway that transported sugar cane to the central factory in St Kitts is all that remains of that island’s once-thriving industry and I clambered aboard the two-level carriages of the popular tourist train for a circular tour of this mountainous island.

Founded in 1891, the 40-acre Botanical Gardens in Roseau are an annex of Kew Gardens and every bit as exotic. From Castries, I took a taxi north to the idyllic bay named after Admiral George Rodney, who decimated the French fleet, and lunched on fresh mahi-mahi at La Créole.

All too soon, Barbados appeared off the fo’c’sle, signaling journey’s end, but my Caribbean interlude was not about to play its finale. Waiting for me at the cruise terminal was an air-conditioned limousine to whisk me to the redoubt of the cognoscenti that is Coral Reef Club.

No one can dispute Silver Spirit’s eight passenger decks represent a complex integration of innovative design, where style and substance coexist in harmony, with each well-dressed space segueing seamlessly from one to another. This is undoubtedly a re-invented version of Silversea’s successful original formula.

When I first cruised on this 36,000-ton vessel, I questioned whether the all-pervading principals of intimacy and highly personalised service could be achieved on a vessel conveying twice the number of the original two ships that ushered Silversea into the luxury travel hall of fame, Two years on, I consigned my doubts to the deep.

Silversea’s L’Ecole des Chefs programmes includes:

  • Workshops – interactive classes covering a range of topics from basic knife skills to creating sauces and baking.
  • Cooking Demonstrations – when guests watch the chef prepare dishes before the head sommelier gives a tutorial on wine pairings.
  • Lunch & Learn – observing the chef prepare an appetiser, main course and dessert prior to sampling a serving of each one.
  • Market to Plate – shopping with Chef David for indigenous ingredients at a local market that are then skillfully transformed into regional specialty dishes.
  • Culinary Outing – accompanying the chef to a local restaurant or Relais & Châteaux property where renowned chefs reveal their talent.
  • Cooking Competition – showcasing the very best in culinary finesse in the style of ‘Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook.’

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