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Cruise Control Issues

Travel Editor Kate Sekules is used to taking charge on a trip, but on this Mediterranean cruise, she surrenders some of her customary control and learns to love it.

Call me a professional traveler—or stubborn— I don't like itineraries. I like doing my own exploring, researching, map reading. I like foreign supermarkets, neighborhoods I'm warned against and the hieroglyphics of local bus schedules; I don't like guided tours. So perhaps it sounds odd that I love a good cruise. Arranging everything in advance is precisely what cruises do. If you ignore their itineraries, they're liable to leave you stranded in port (this happened to me once in Puerto Rico, but that's another story). They're the ultimate controlled environment, a resort-plus-package-tour combo. And that suits me fine—at least, it does when it's done right; when the ship is a floating grand hotel with great food and service, and I only have to unpack once.

Silversea seemed to fit the bill. I had heard such good reports—about the food, the service, the understated decor (no bronzed mirrors or chandeliers the size of yachts), the general sophistication. What's more, Silver-sea's four ships are small (under 400 passengers) and young (2 to 8 years old), and they seek out off-the-beaten-track ports that aren't overrun with rival liners and have more going on than international duty-free malls. Also unusual is that everything on board is included, not just food, but drinks, house wines—50 of them—and tips; plus dinner is served in no-reservation restaurant style instead of the (I think) infantilizing 6:30 or 8:30 same-table-every-night seatings. Also, deliciously, the line is in partnership with Relais & Châteaux, which regularly donates one of its star Relais Gourmands chefs to the onboard cause. This made my itinerary selection easy. The first-ever cruise ship appearance of Alain Passard, vegetable visionary of L'Arpège in Paris, led me straight to the "Bon Vivant Collection," a sailing of the newest ship, the Silver Whisper, which went to Italy, Malta, France and Spain—Rome, Catania, Valletta, Palermo, Portofino, Calvi, Marseille, Barcelona—and sounded like it should star Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. A bit of romance is so important.

After all, romance is what cruise lines sell. When it works, it feels like you are Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. It takes countless small miracles of organization to maintain this illusion, as well as some cunning on your part. It's daunting. How to milk the all-too-limited time? Did you miss something? Well, I peered behind the scenes and sampled classes, shows and tours, and I believe it would be hard to mess up a cruise with these people. Silversea is working it.

The first small miracle they wrought was an upgrade. My husband and I got a very Cary Grant Silver Suite, which had its own deck-ette, a bedroom separated from the sitting-dining room by curtained glass walls and a double dressing room the size of our kitchen at home. Silversea does bump up when it can, so anyone might get lucky. To increase the odds, you should go on a lot of vacations. Silversea awards its frequent sailors Venetian Society (alumni club) membership, which comes with perks, like discounts and booking privileges.

Since we had only 10 days, we made an early assault on that 50-bottle wine list, ignoring the waiting chilled bottle of house Champagne (Moët & Chandon) for a 2000 Seghesio Sonoma Zinfandel. It went well with the prosciutto-wrapped grissini that had materialized. In fact, a snack arrived every 5 p.m.—smoked salmon, blinis with caviar—just part of the luxury timetable. Thus our taxing daily schedule went: breakfast on our terrace, gazing at new port; disembark; explore new port; reboard; gym; bathe; snack; dress; aperitif; dinner; nightcap; movie in room.

We were very bad passengers. Most guests' schedules were far more complicated and included: team trivia and putting competitions; bridge; water volleyball; wine tastings; fitness classes led by Jozsef Szasz, Romanian Kyokushin karate champion; Coffee Chat with International Hostess Sonia Brandi, a multilingual glamazon, who was often to be spotted rescuing lonesome passengers from social failure. Then there were the lectures ("The Glory of Greek Art & Its Influence in Ancient Italy") and the evening theatrical spectaculars.

The activities that interested me, though, were culinary—especially Alain Passard's demo and his (invite-only) tour de force dinner for 60 (the lobster with sweet-and-sour marinated turnips, honey and rosemary was a revelation). For both, Passard shared the stage with his new best friend, Silversea's corporate chef, Franck Garanger. The epithet "corporate" is death to a chef, but M. Garanger, who hails from France, has managed to remain excited and inventive. This was obvious from the precise, eclectic yet coherent banquets produced by his Silver Whisper team, led in the galley by executive chef Gerhard Egger. By day two, I knew we were in safe hands: This wasn't catering, this was cooking. Every night there was a beef dish (roast prime rib, Kobe beef pot-au-feu); something Eastern (Thai red chicken curry, Hoisin roast pork rack); something fairly haute (truffle-stuffed quail, wild boar with saffron apples); and perhaps a dish from L'Arpège; plus a pasta and a vegetarian dish. You could always order something—anything—else. Desserts were irresistible, from Passard's vanilla bean soufflé to Tonight's Tradition Pastry (profiteroles, cheesecake) to sugar-free lemongrass jelly with frozen yogurt. How great, I thought, to be on a midnight-buffet-free ship, where kitchen energy is concentrated on the plate, rather than expended on ice sculpting.

I was lucky enough to see this kitchen energy in action when I got invited to the galley and to visit the famous Vucciria market in Palermo with Passard and Garanger. It was a joy to see them prodding eels and selecting apricots, and to hear how Garanger developed his seaworthy baguette recipe against all the odds, and generally to watch a spot of chef-bonding, a mutual respect being born. It didn't surprise me that Passard has agreed to take part in another Silversea sailing this year.

That Vucciria foray was virtually my husband's and my only organized shore visit. Most days we'd board the ship's shuttle bus to the center of wherever we were and go it alone from there. This had both good and bad sides. In Valletta, Malta, for instance, we discovered that everything was closed for a major holiday (bad), so we hiked around the baking hot deserted city with its narrow, steep Arabic-European white stone streets (good), then hopped a rickety bus to Mdina, Malta's breathtaking intact medieval walled town (very good)—and tried not to feel smug when participants in Silversea's "Malta's Noble Heritage" waved wistfully at us from their tour group. We got the sights without the captivity. In Palermo we also got the best of both worlds, when we left the chefs with their packages of baby octopus and plums and went off alone.

Palermo was new to me, and the best surprise of the trip—we quite fell in love with it. Sicily's capital is a perfect walking city, where narrow alleys of urchins and clotheslines alternate with grand piazzas, semi-tropical gardens and elegant shopping streets; it's a palimpsest of Arabic, Norman and baroque architecture surviving from their various heydays, plus much in the Mediterranean vernacular, with more notable palaces, churches and basilicas than you can possibly see in a day—though we tried. Like any guided tour, free-form sightseeing requires destinations, the difference being that there are more of them. So we struck out north from the market to the city's wonderfully confused cathedral, which is like Palermo in microcosm, with each period of its history marked in stone—a Norman apse, Gothic portico, neoclassical interior, baroque cupola and even remnants of a 10th-century mosque. Then we took the elegant palm-lined Corso Vittorio Emanuele to the Palazzo dei Normanni in whose bulk is secreted the resplendent Cappella Palatina, a hybrid of glittering Christian mosaics and a coffered, painted ceiling that is a masterpiece of Islamic art. And so we proceeded, alternately tracking down sights and getting pleasantly lost, then stumbling on things like a thoroughly absorbing flea market near the port and several mini Vuccirias.

Back on board that night, all was buzzing for the pool-deck barbecue—at which burgers and ribs were supplemented, in typical Silversea style, by a whole roast suckling pig. In fact, every night—even a so-called casual one like this (though everyone still dressed up)—offered a terrific sense of occasion, starting with the unfathomable thrill of leaving port, accompanied by a Kir and a rousing sunset, then wafting into the restaurant for another great meal and a dip into that wine list.

By the time we disembarked for good in Barcelona, I'd grown even more fond of the controlled environment. I'd been happy to cede control to Captain Igor Bencina, Sonia the International Hostess, Franck Garanger and all. In fact, I was going to miss them. Most sailors, when they hit dry land, sway a bit, carrying the motion of the waves with them. Me, I just wanted a daily schedule under my door each morning.

Alain Passard will host another culinary cruise in 2003, aboard the Silver Shadow, sailing from Barcelona to Venice, August 5 through 14. For more information, call 877-215-9986 or consult www.silversea.com.

Published May 2003
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