(The following is a guest article by noted journalist and travel writer Si Liberman.)
By Si Liberman
Silversea Cruises, an Italian privately-owned fleet of eight boutique ships, is known for having set a standard for ultra luxury, all-inclusive cruising, and a Central America cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., this spring on its largest vessel, the 540-passenger, all-suite Silver Spirit, was an experience like no other.
After being welcomed aboard the seven-year-old vessel with flutes of champagne and escorted to our eighth deck stateroom, my wife and I were met by a tuxedoed butler. Noro, a native of India, was his name. He'd be at our service, he said, during the 10-day $3,915 per person voyage that would to take us to Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Grand Cayman Island and Key West, Fla.
"If you need me hit butler on the phone base index," Noro suggested. "I can bring you canapes and drinks every afternoon, shine your shoes, wash and press your clothes, make reservations at the specialty restaurants, help with anything."
With a complimentary box of chocolates on the coffee table, a bowl of fresh fruit and a chilled bottle of French Laurent-Perrier rose champagne nearby already awaiting us, not to mention anticipated gourmet meals created by an acclaimed French chef, my health-conscious wife had a quick response. "You can skip the canapes and drinks," Dorothy said.
The stateroom had a rich baronial feel with dark woods, twin beds, a walk-in closet, balcony, sofa, club chair, desk and two flat TV screens embedded in mirrored walls, one in the living room area, the other in the bedroom section. A bathroom with marble accents had a glass-enclosed stall shower and tub jacuzzi. A minor quibble was with my bunk-like bed. It could have used a layer of memory foam to make it cushier.
Atop a stack of printed instruction material was a two-page U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention warning about the proliferating number of Zika virus cases in areas we were about to visit. Wear long sleeved shirts and long pants, it urged, and use EPA-registered insect repellents to guard against the mosquito-borne disease that's resulted in pregnant women giving birth to brain-damaged infants with small heads.
Luckily. we managed to come through a series of lengthy outdoor tours with nary a mosquito bite. The tours included an ear-splitting, splashy airboat ride on a manatee- and alligator-populated lagoon in Belize (spotted a manatee but no alligators); a Cozumel, Mexico, visit to Mayan Indian ruins, tequila museum and chocolate factory (tastings at museum and factory were a nice finale); and a semi-submersible boat ride off the Honduras island of Roatan (sergeant major fish seemed to be following and observing us).
At breakfast and lunch we kept it simple dining in the Terazza restaurant and just sampling a couple buffet items, leaving room for the elaborate dinners fashioned by the Silver Spirit's 51-year-old executive chef Jerome Foussier, who's served royalty and government leaders.
Schooled at Bordeaux’s Hotellerie University, Foussier gained experience in the pressure cooker kitchen of Le Taillevent, the famed Michelin 3-star Paris restaurant, did a two-year stint as personal chef for the Emir of the oil-rich kingdom of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thain, and helped the Ritz Carlton Hotel group set up kitchens, menus and staff for restaurants in new five-star Dubai, Qatar and Jamaica hotels.
Along the way he's prepared dinners for an impressive number of VIPs. Among them, Nelson Mandela, the the first President Bush, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, Prince of Wales Andrew, Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, former Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Albright and Kerry were very friendly and spoke French fluently, Foussier recalled. "The Qatar Sheik wasn’t a fussy eater,” the chef continued in his accented English. “He was very open-minded, over 6 feet tall, weighed 300 pounds, had three wives and 24 children. One of his sons recently succeeded him as Emir."
At dinner in the main restaurant each night we opted for a table of six or eight, allowing us to meet a number of interesting guests. The dinner menus regularly included complimentary wines with choices of two appetizers, two soups, two salads, two pastas, two fish entrees, three meat entrees and four desserts. Filet mignon and two differently seasoned Angus beef burgers were always available.
All very satisfying, but the creme de la creme and culinary highlight was dinner in Le Champagne, the ship's specialty restaurant ($40 per person) on one of the two formal nights. The dimly-lit room with 16 tables had the ambiance of an intimate, exclusive Michelin-starred French restaurant, and our very proper sophisticated, tuxedoed French waiter, surprisingly, turned out to be the 21-year-old son of the executive chef.
We started with a glass of Champagne and dainty assortment of butternut, scallop, mango, lobster and mushroom hors d'oeuvres. A terrine of warm foie gras with berries followed. Lobster thermidor was my entree and Dorothy selected New Zealand rack of lamb as hers. Between sips of red and white wines, it all went down very nicely, thank you. For dessert I chose the flambed pancake rather than a Grand Marnier soufflé and my wife settled on a three petite chocolate lava cakes choice.
In addition to the customary nightly chocolates left on our bed as favors, one night we also found a pair of backpacks courtesy of the cruise line. Each contained a Silversea-embossed cap, bottle of water and sunscreen. Mine came in handy, carting home a complimentary bottle of Ketel One vodka. Noro, our butler, had delivered it to our stateroom after I happened to mention that my alcoholic preference was vodka on the rocks with a lemon wedge.
Production shows most nights involved a multi-talented group of singers and dancers, but a one-woman show by the Silver Spirit cruise director, Vicki Van Tassel, brought down the house. In humorous and poignant anecdotes interspersed with song and dance, Ms. Van Tassel told of growing up in Denver, her rocky reach for stardom and finally winning a major role in a "Mama Mia" road company. The performance brought a previously laid back audience to its feet with shouts of "bravo."
We only experienced about five minutes of rain during our 10 day vacation, leaving us in a sunny, nostalgic frame of mind.