Silversea's Silver Whisper provides a welcome zone of comfort in the most foreign of lands.
Chocolate-eyed children running barefoot. Women draped in bright-orange and hot pink saris, brightening dusty gray streets. Horns honking endlessly, from chauffeur-driven Bentleys to taxis held together with spit and glue. The heat. Broiling us like well-done steaks. And crowded into every inch, was poverty and opulence and the fragrance of curry. It was overpowering, intoxicating, unbelievable. It was Mumbai.
I had long dreamed of visiting India, but was a wuss about attempting it by land. When I spotted an upcoming Silversea cruise sailing from Singapore to Dubai and visiting three Indian ports, I leapt at the chance.
My husband and I flew to Singapore two days before embarkation. The clean and modern city was easy to navigate. We wandered the narrow streets of the Arab, Indian and Chinese quarters, old ethnic enclaves richly contrasting the sleek skyscrapers surrounding them.
We checked into The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore based on friends' raves. The 32-floor hotel had spacious rooms with high feather beds, Tibetan carpets and octagonal bathroom windows with sweeping marina views. And with art by Warhol and Chihuly in the 4,200-piece collection, The Ritz-Carlton was as much a gallery as a luxury hotel.
But the food stole the show. The weekend seafood buffet was stellar. The lavish spread showcased the freshest shellfish prepared with Singaporean, Malaysian and Indian accents and was manned by an army of cooks, slicing sashimi, wok-cooking fish and poaching lobster � la minute until guests groaned.
Only the upcoming Silversea cruise kept me from staying on for another go at that buffet. (It was that good.) But when I boarded the 382-passenger Silver Whisper, butterflies danced in my stomach. The itinerary: Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Malaysia; Phuket, Thailand; Cochin, Goa and Mumbai, India; Khasab, Oman and Dubai. Just saying these exotic names sent shivers down my spine. We would visit nine ports in 15 days; the perfect balance between whirlwind sight-seeing and onboard unwinding.
Much of the crew lined up to welcome passengers with glasses of champagne. This was vintage Silversea, an Italian-inspired company sailing four small luxury ships (a fifth, Silver Spirit, debuts in January) and Prince Albert II, a posh expedition vessel.
With a crew of 295 to 382 guests, the Silver Whisper staff smoothly responded to our needs. And we were struck by the crew's happiness. They could double for Disneyland employees, all sunshine and smiles. One evening, when a waiter brought a second slice of prime rib and I said I was full, he looked like he would cry. Osa, the suite stewardess, fussed over my laundry like she was my mother.
Notice I said suite. Each cabin was a suite on Silversea ships. A standard veranda suite on the Silver Whisper was 345-square-feet -- double the cabin size on most ships. Unlike typical ship bathrooms, Silver Whisper's marble baths had double vanities, full-sized tubs and separate showers. We had a choice between Bulgari and Acqua di Parma toiletries. (As if I could choose; I wanted it all and Osa the stewardess let me.)
Mingling with passengers brought a new high. Silversea lures an international clientele and I stole every opportunity to interact with guests. I had a scarf-tying lesson with a chic French woman, learned about life in Sydney from friendly Aussies and furthered my knowledge of the British legal system with a barrister.
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Sea days were serendipitous. The Silver Whisper provided low-key activities, from dance and culinary lessons by day to magicians and violin concerts at night. Like most intimate upscale cruise ships, life onboard was mellow. No announcements. No silly frenetic activities. Time to engage with fellow passengers. Or not. I spent hours on my teak verandah, watching cloud wisps float by.
Not unexpectedly, dining was fairly flawless. With open seating, I could eat whenever I wanted. Some evenings, we dined in-suite in our robes, with supper served course by course. One night, we booked a table at Le Champagne, the only Relais & Chateaux dining room at sea. The restaurant was small and romantic and we savored a multi-course meal paired with special wines.
Lunchtime was often a Thai crab burger at the pool, or the caf� buffet, with sophisticated salads, fresh-baked breads and European cheeses. (And I practically had to arm-wrestle my trays away from waiters, who insisted on carrying them for me.)
Silversea cruises are all-inclusive, which means complimentary wines and spirits and no gratuities. I loved trying boutique bottles from international producers that I never would have if I had to purchase them.
Port days were 180-degrees different. Silversea offered many shore excursions for each destination. Sometimes we chose organized outings; other times we treasured private explorations.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we roamed on our own, ogling the Petronas Twin Towers, the second tallest buildings in the world. A fairly modern city, KL (its nickname) is a blend of Malay, Chinese, British and Indian influences. I could have stayed for days.
Next up was Penang, Malaysia. Penang was more exotic, with colorful trishaws and botanical gardens teeming with rare jungle plants and monkeys. We hired a taxi driver, who took us to Chinese temples, shopping for silk and to the legendary Eastern & Oriental (E & O) Hotel for a Malaysian lunch. Founded in 1885, E&O retained its old colonial charm. How thrilling to walk grounds where past guests like Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward once strolled.
Phuket, Thailand was next. With beautiful beaches and plush hotels, Phuket was a couple's paradise. We booked a day room at Anantara, a resort with 83 private pool suites that was as serene as a temple. (It even had a roaming yoga guru.) Designed like a southern Thai village, Anantara was all lagoons, jasmine gardens and soft breezes from the Andaman Sea. We had an exquisite couples' massage and swam in our private pool overlooking a palm-fringed lagoon. Anatara was so romantic, we would have gotten engaged if we weren't already married.
Back onboard the Silver Whisper, we eagerly anticipated the four sea days ahead. Surprisingly, time flew. Sipping cappuccinos on our verandah, pumping iron in the gym, reading books that had sat dusty on shelves back home. Walking the deck at sunrise and sunset; no one around but the sea and me. That alone was worth the price of admission.
The three Indian ports were unforgettable. Our first stop was Cochin, a southern city in the state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast, and a mecca for spice and sandalwood traders since ancient times. Cochin was all color and fragrance; fresh-ground spices heaped in woven baskets, girls in Crayola-colored saris, walking arm-in-arm.
Goats ambled alongside potholed roads where drivers beeped horns, often for no obvious reason. Visiting Jewtown, so named because it was settled by Jews around 1000 A.D., was a highlight. (Only 30 or so Jewish people now remain.) We visited an old synagogue/museum and shopped narrow streets filled with deal-a-minute antique, jewelry and pashmina stores.
In exotic Goa, we saw water buffalo, rice paddies and spectacular cathedrals. Settled by the Portuguese, Goa's green hillsides were dotted with white churches. Its coconut palm-strewn beaches were beautiful, one more breathtaking than the other.
Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India's fastest-growing city and its economic hub, was a vibrant metropolis of stunning contrasts. Lavish mansions and decaying ones. Rich people and beggars. Bollywood and street dwellers. Often, in the same place at the same time.
The ship stayed overnight in Mumbai, allowing us time to explore. Like many Silver Whisper passengers, I dined at Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, overlooking the Arabian Sea. Mumbai's premier hotel since 1903, the Taj's stunning architecture blended Florentine, Moorish and Oriental styles. Inside, silk carpets, custom furnishings and crystal chandeliers dazzled.
I can still taste the intricate spices in the fresh lobster curry at Masala Kraft, the hotel's elegant Indian restaurant. And the sashimi at Wasabi by Morimoto (as in Morimoto, the Iron Chef) was sublime.
When not eating, we crammed in sightseeing. Highlights included the Gateway of India, a stone monument erected in Queen Mary and King George V's honor, and Mahatma Gandhi's museum, compellingly displaying his life and vision. We shopped until we both dropped, at colorful bazaars like Zaveri and Chor, and Mangaldas, its silk sold at wholesale prices. It was hard to decide which temple to visit first. The Jain Temple, belonging to the Jains, strict vegetarians who follow Lord Mahavira, may be Mumbai's most colorful.
After India, I was glad for two tranquil sea days. The crew seemed delighted to have us back fulltime and eager to hear our stories ashore. Tony, the head waiter, should be up for an Oscar if he was pretending to care. And the way Bruno, the cruise director, was chatting up adoring guests, well, I would never have known they were new friends.
Our last stop was the sleepy port town of Khasab, Oman, separated from the rest of the country by the U.A.E. Ships stopped here for snorkeling and humpback dolphin-spotting, and for thrilling four-wheel drives up jagged mountain peaks. But alarmingly soon, we were disembarking in Dubai.
It's hard to sum up a cruise this eventful and exotic. In the end, it wasn't this writer, but Norman, the Silver Whisper's hotel director, who said it best. "Guests and crew get close in two weeks," he explained. "It's a small ship. We become family. It's hard to say goodbye."
Silversea sails a similar cruise from Dubai to Singapore in November, 2009. Savings are 50% off published fares. (1-800-722-9955; www.silversea.com.)