Aboard the Silver Shadow, casual is very refined

Cruise editor Rebecca Tobin spent seven days cruising around South America on board Silversea Cruises' Silver Shadow. Here is her report:

everal travel agents and even a few executives from other cruise lines predicted I would come back from the cruise on the Silver Shadow a changed woman -- like someone who expected her breakfast on a silver tray every morning.

I did survive the seven-day cruise without being spoiled for life. But I have to admit, I did love the Silversea in-cabin breakfast ritual.

Not only does your food come on a silver platter, but it comes with a white tablecloth, Christofle flatware and Eschenbach china. The room steward had to move a large flower arrangement off the dining room table to spread out the feast. And the food was really tasty and still warm.

Breakfast served as a wake-up call for whatever was on the menu, itinerary-wise, for the day, like port calls in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, Argentina; playground-for-the-jet-set Punta del Este, Uruguay; megalopolis Sao Paulo or fun-loving Rio de Janiero, Brazil -- or just lazing around in the suite. (All cabins are "suites" on board Silversea.)

There wasn't much need to hurry on the Silver Shadow.

A bird's-eye view of the Silver Shadow's pool deck. The ship carries just under 400 guests in ultra-luxury accommodations. The Shadow's crew sets the tone right away. Passengers are handed a glass of Moet & Chandon on embarkation (though now the house bubbly has changed to Philipponnat Royale Reserve, which Silversea touts as more distinctive).

Throughout that first day a common sight was of guests, champagne flutes in hand, poking their heads into various rooms, exchanging nods and smiles with other Moet-toting guests.

It takes all of 10 minutes to explore the ship itself. With 382 passengers, this vessel is squarely in the "small-ship" category, a breed of ship that's disappearing as cruise companies seek to maximize returns by building bigger and bigger.

But you won't find the ship overrun with families or boisterous groups of friends. Everything is casual -- a very refined casual.

The clientele on a Silversea cruise come specifically for that relaxed, refined vibe. Folks are friendly but reserved. Not surprisingly, Silversea doesn't host wet T-shirt contests or the "newlywed, not-so-newlywed" game.

Most of the guests here fall into the not-so-newlywed category, and most have money.

After all, the brochure rate on the 701-square-foot Silver Suite, which has a living area, dining area and separate bedroom, was $12,295.

Bill Leiber, vice president of sales for Silversea, said the line experienced an 11% growth in the under-60-year-old segment since 1998. But the passenger base still is "at least 45 years or older, with disposable incomes of $1 million or more."

The well-heeled crowd was much more relaxed and informal than I would have expected. Although there were two formal nights on the cruise, there were no diamond tiaras. Some passengers' formal attire was indistinguishable from their informal garb.

Passengers convened for dinner in The Restaurant and for the evening entertainment, which throughout our seven-day cruise included different production shows, a pianist and, in one Brazilian port, a troupe of local dancers.

But future guests can look for changes and new features in the ship's entertainment program.

Leiber said the company is in the midst of reconfiguring its onboard flow to mesh with its "Personalized Voyage" program, where passengers can pick their length of cruise and their embarkation and disembarkation ports.

"The traditional cruise model has a beginning, a middle and an end," he said. "You're on automatic pilot; you know the second night is the captain's party and a formal night. We're trying to figure out what should change and what should remain."

One idea on the drawing board is to cut back on traditional cruise- or Vegas-style production numbers in favor of more cabaret-style shows and local entertainment.

One of Silversea's main selling points is its all-inclusive fare. Bottled water, soft drinks and all onboard liquor, minus an extensive wine list in The Restaurant, is offered gratis. Tips are prepaid.

If passengers are really eager to spend money, they can do so in the casino, the Mandara spa and on the shore excursions.

But grabbing a drink at the pool or a Coke from the minifridge can be done with no second thoughts.

Aside from a lively poolside barbecue, evenings on the Shadow were subdued. The bars and lounges that could seat up to 100 passengers were often deserted. The late-night crowd seemed to gravitate to Lampadina, a tiny bar abutting the casino. Here, Darwin, the easygoing bartender, was just as willing to tell a lame joke as pour a drink to one of the bar's regulars.

There were a few areas on the ship that got a lot of foot traffic. One was the exercise room.

Before one scheduled yoga class an overflow of guests lined up outside the exercise room, jockeying to get first dibs on the yoga mats. The spa was booked solid during the ship's at-sea day.

Another see-and-be-seen room was the Internet Cafe. Passengers, some probably for the first time in their lives, dropped in to use the ship's e-mail.

Communication is key, even on a cruise. One couple brought along a bulky satellite phone for use poolside. (The woman was checking daily on her dog back in Baltimore.)

There was plenty of time to be spoiled by the Silversea staff. Of course, I didn't need to have a porter take my one suitcase into the airport on a cart. I didn't have to have a waiter come over during an al fresco lunch to make sure my cold water glass didn't sweat all over the tablecloth. But that's what they did.

I could have set out the silver bucket for the Dom Perignon reserve all by myself.

But, on the other hand -- "Hello, room service? Can you send up some ice? And a few extra champagne flutes?"

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For more details on this article, see Private touring with Silversea Cruises in Brazil.

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