Gone with the Wind
We've holidayed at sea for years, but still managed to find one or two surprises
I'd been on board all of 50 minutes - and there I was doing the conga: like an aunt at a wedding, hands on the hips in front and filing out through doors and rocking along corridors.
We were all at it; more than a hundred of us jigging our way out on to the open deck to grab a muster moment under the lifeboats. It was a drill of course, not some welcome aboard ritual.
Orange inflatables over our smart casuals, we made our way as we would have to do if our souls needed saving in the dark, presumably as the flares went up and the band played us off with the hokey cokey.
Even for a serial cruiser like me, this was a first. The first of many, which began with the free champagne waiting at the top of the gangplank as I boarded Silversea's Silver Wind.
Nothing unusual about that per se, but what I wasn't expecting was that all the drinks were complementary – or at least, like meals, wrapped into the price paid before we set sail. Very decadent and very sensible.
Then there was the open seating in the one-sitting restaurant; a dining room open all night to all-comers. So no checking your watches on deck and hurrying down before the gong.
Then, and this was the real eyeopener, there were the not-so-formal formal evenings, the only one I could recall where I could count the black ties on two hands.
I did just that in fact, halfway through my heminavigation of the Spanish coast. I was in the bar before the captain's welcome aboard, all penguined-up like James Bond but feeling as out of place as pingu on a beach. The rich American I met at a deck buffet later told me he chose the ship because "I'd rather pack a book than a tux".
a similar seven-day voyage on sister ship Silver Spirit will cost £3,293 per person on an all-inclusive basis. Departing June 11 from Barcelona, all prices are per person, based on two people sharing a Vista Suite and include economy class air and port charges, government fees and taxes. Call 0844 770 9030, or visit www.silversea.com
I could see what he meant. For this was a ship that merely discourages jeans in the restaurant but actively frowns on one of the great bastions of cruising - tipping.
The pleasure-for-profit ethos doesn't sit well here. As I was to discover as we departed Barcelona for a seven-night, seven-port sail to Lisbon, this was a ship that wants you to relax and wasn't too fussed if it breaks a few rules, to let you do so.
So no-one chased me to "sign the cheque" for the Bellinis, followed me down the gangplank afterwards (don't laugh, it happened on a long-decommissioned vessel) or upped the fuss factor the closer we came to disembarkation.
So what more could a man want for the six-star price tag? Isabella Rosselini on his table maybe? She comes here a lot. And even she must be a little impressed when the butler calls to ask if you'd prefer Bulgari or Aqua de Parma in your bathroom. Or when you ask him for a pot of chamomile tea, it arrives in Egyptian silk bags. The place was full of touches like that. Like the little branded S cut into the foam on the cappuccino and the fresh-baked cookies they bring with it.
That and the fact that staff remember your name and what you tend to like and don't. Most of them are headhunted, trained by Leading Hotels of the World and tend to stick around for years so, like those in the best hotels, they help craft the culture and grow with it.
To be fair, this was about as professional as it gets; from the collar stripes to the guys in flannels, the balance between subservience (don't you just hate it on some ships where the maids curtsy) and sheer honest professionalism, you get exactly what you pay for.
I had pretty much everything I wanted in a suite; queen sized bed, walk-in wardrobe, flat screen TV, comfy sofas and a balcony with a nightlight to read under the stars.
The bathroom was not as lavish as some but marbled and Marriott-smart nonetheless. The entertainment was fairly small ship stuff; no lavish productions but a few nicely presented musical nights, the usual deck buffet and the odd piano recital.
But this was no Caesar's Palace floatel; rather, a 17,000-ton port-hopper, more boutique-style; all elegance and indulgence in nine neatly-stacked decks, berthing by day and sailing by night; its library books well borrowed and its sunbeds well sprawled upon.
As is traditional, a little four-page newsletter arrived every day telling us where we were, what was on and how to dress to do it.
But I quite liked the nautical info that was on TV channel 2 of the 19 day and night. Like those nifty sat-nav screens on the backs of aeroplane seats, you can see at any time where the ship is, the temperature and wind speed.
There was no cinema but a dozen or so films fed to the room on a loop and 668 DVDs (yes, I counted them) so no-one goes without. And frankly, with a large screen, the low cabin lights, the darkened sea beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows and your own butler, I preferred to see the few films I did, flopping out "at home".
So back to that formal/informal thing. On our one day at sea, somewhere between Malaga and Portugal, a wealthy businessman who fancied himself as a psycho-boffin offered to do an ad-hoc lecture on how amazing the brain is.
A dozen of us responded to the tannoy call and assembled in the theatre to find an amiable old duffer with a flip chart bumbling his way through something about how the hand manages to tell the head when it's touched something hot.
A few embarrassed coughs and sideways glances later, an act of God: the ship moved, the flip chart flipped and crashed on its face and our speaker star-jumped into the air as if he'd sat on a flare gun. As for the audience ... we headed for the lifeboats before you could say hokey cokey.