A good friend has been raving to me for years about Silversea cruise line and she has sailed more than 200 days with them. But the dates when I could try the line never coincided with destinations that interested me, or the ships departed from places like Dubai or Singapore, adding a small fortune to the airfare. I had been thinking of traveling the coast of Italy or spending some time in Lisbon to revive my fading Portuguese. Voila! I saw an ad for a one-thousand dollar discount for first-time passengers with Silversea, and for my preferred dates they had a voyage from Monte Carlo to Lisbon. Booked.
Next, how to fly to the Nice airport where cars and buses take one to Monte Carlo in half an hour. Business class fares from JFK to Nice were quite steep, but I found I could fly business classs from Newark to Nice on Air Portugal and save over two thousand dollars over the JFK departures. Booked.
Alas, the only service from Rochester or Buffalo to Newark (EWR) is United Express with a poor selection of times and I found it the worst express service of any airline I’ve flown. Its Embraer jets have so little overhead luggage space that about twenty passengers had to gate-check their carry-ons and wait ten to fifteen minutes to retrieve their bags on arrival in Newark. I had not been to Newark in a long time and I was surprised at how shabby it looks. Next surprise, EWR departures gate doesn’t even have a TSA pre-check line for security so I had to take my shoes off and my laptop out. Even little Rochester airport provides better service than that. EWR does have pre-check for international arrivals.
Once aboard Air Portugal everything improved. We departed at 5:30 pm Thursday May 19 and arrived at 5 am Friday May 20. The attendants were very accommodating, the food and beverages were generous, the seat reclined to a flat bed, and we arrived in Lisbon early. Alas my connection to Nice on TAP’s express airline, Portugalia, meant a six hour wait, but at least I had the VIP lounge with excellent food and beverages, free internet, and comfortable seating. Unfortunately a strike somewhere in the system made the wait even longer, eleven frustrating hours. Then we had to board buses to the express jet, there was no pre-boarding for business class, and the seats were cramped. I ha discovered an airline worse than United Express. I didn’t get to Nice until 8:20 at night but the driver I booked online was waiting with a sign with my name and the ATM spilled out euros. I didn’t check into the Fairmont Monte Carlo until after 9 pm so I got to see nothing of the city. I was surprised to receive an upgrade to a deluxe suite I had not expected, whether due to Expedia or having a room a half mile from the elevator. With over 600 rooms it’s the second largest hotel in Europe. I did have a gourmet dinner on the top floor restaurant of the hotel with a beautiful view of the bay.
Sat. May 21. Monte Carlo.
In the morning I enjoyed a room service breakfast while I read the N.Y. Times online. It beat dining alone in the formal dining room. Check-out is 12 noon but I got an extension to 1:00 pm so I could see more of the city. I walked the beach promenade with its great views of yachts in the harbor and lovely beaches, found the Japanese Garden (there are so many of those in cities I’ve visited you’d think they won the war!) Then I climbed steep stairways to the Casino and its garden, ogled the Maseratis, Jaguars, and Lamborghinis outside the Hotel de Paris, but didn’t spot James Bond. A beautiful mall with stratospheric prices was just down an escalator from the casino, and its sparkling clean bathroom was a welcome stop. I got back to the hotel with 15 mintues to spare before check-out and the doormen got me a taxi to the port. The ten-minute drive went through several tunnels, one so long it had two round-abouts inside. The fare was a steep 25 euros. A hostess on the ship told me later that all the prices are very high in the principality and it’s not a favorite stop for staff. I would have liked a full day there to see the botanical garden and the cathedral with Princess Grace’s tomb, but I don’t think I missed much else. If you’re not a guest in one of the sumptuous villas or on a multi-million dollar yacht, there’s not much more than the casino for entertainment, though surely there are evening cultural events all year long. I’m glad I got at least a half day to explore.
Porters were waiting near the Silver Wind to take my luggage and deliver it to my suite. A formally attired waiter offered champagne as I checked in. I was led to my cabin by the Philippine maid and introduced to the formally-attired butler from India. He asked how I would like my mini-bar stocked and what liquor I preferred. Before long a liter of single-malt scotch appeared on the credenza. Silversea vessels are all-inclusive, even tips, but not shore excursions. I had a late lunch at the pool deck, explored the rest of the vessel, and returned to the cabin for a siesta. A pleasant surprise was discovering that a new policy gave all passengers 600 free minutes on the internet. Most cruise lines charge excessively for that service. I was also pleased to learn there were just 260 passengers on the 280 capacity all-suite vessel.
There were three bars to choose from, all stocked with premium wines and liquors.The bar on deck seven featured a jazz quartet for happy hour and late-night dancing. The bar on deck eight included a pianist/singer and gourmet canapes at happy hour. It was a great place to meet others to join for dinner. When ordering in any bar or restaurant, one is asked for a suite number and once the wait staff know your name they have a talent for remembering it each time you cross paths. I probably surprised them by learning their names too.
Dinner venues included the main restaurant on Deck four (near my suite), La Terraza (Italian) on deck seven, a grill on the pool deck where meat and fish were served on a hot stone for you to finish the cooking. A special gourmet restaurant with champagne and tasting menus in a small private dining room required a reservation and I was told I had to bring my own company and would not be placed with other diners, so I skipped that option. Dinner menus changed daily and were very large considering the small ship.There was also a 24-hour menu available for room service, or one could order from it in any of the restaurants in addition to the daily menu. Fine wines were poured generously, and after-dinner drinks included familiar brands as well as a fine French cognac.
One could take breakfast in one’s suite, a continental breakfast on the pool deck, a huge buffet on the Terraza, or an elegant sit-down service in the main restaurant that seldom had more than a few tables occupied. I cannot understand why most passengers preferred the crowded buffet, though it did have wonderful outdoor terrace and one could ask the waiter for eggs, hotcakes, waffles, and the like. I loved the slow, elegant service in the main restaurant, one of the few times I had to get out my Portuguese review book, Lisbon being one of the main reasons I chose this voyage. Again, lunches were available in all the same venues. I liked the pool deck with its smaller menu of burgers and sandwiches, preferring to save over-indulgence for the evening dinner.
The small gym had an elliptical and a treadmill, universal weight machines, and a good selection of hand weights. I saved time by doing push-ups in the cabin every other morning and sit-ups every day before breakfast. In the late afternoon when the pool was quiet I did 45 to 50 minutes of water aerobics, so I didn’t put on as much weight as one might with such an array of food and drink, and my agreement with Oscar Wilde’s lament, “I can resist anything but temptation.” Now for the itinerary.
Sun. May 22, Saint Tropez.
First port of call, Saint-Tropez France. The tenders left the ship and returned from the port every half hour. I had been here twice before with my friend Monique who drove us from her home in Provence. That was before so many Med cruise ships put hundreds of people ashore daily. Once away from the port there still are quiet streets and less tacky shops. It’s a great port for one to dine in a beautiful restaurant with ocean view, but not much point in doing that when gourmet meals and great wines await one aboard ship.
Mon. May 23, Marseille
The second largest city in France has lost its reputation as a seedy, polluted city, since manufacturing has been outgrown by high technology, finance, insurance, and research facilities. In 1913 it was selected to be the European Capital of Culture. It is France’s major port for cargo and immigrants and it receives almost 900 thousand cruise-ship visitors a year. Our small ship could dock right at the old port and one could walk to the shopping district. I chose a panoramic bus tour but didn’t get the flavor of the city that way. Too much bus, too little walking. We made a brief stop to see the exterior of the Natural History Museum and a visit to the church of Notre Dame de la Garde on a high hill with a great view of the harbor. Then a one-hour stop in the shopping district. I regret I didn’t get a taste of city’s most famous dish, bouillabaisse, though I enjoyed it on previous trips to Provence.
Tues. May 24, Barcelona
Barcelona is one of Europe’s great cities, but seeing it only from a shore trip is deplorable. Fortunately I had been here twice on my own and I led at least six tour groups with superb guides for several days each. I just took a long walk on La Rambla, reached in less than ten minutes from where we docked. The wonderful market, La Boqueria, was so mobbed by tourists it wasn’t worth a revisit, another victim of the cruise industry. But I enjoyed visiting some old haunts and remembered how to use the excellent metro to return to the ship. People who took the bus tour never got off the bus, never saw the inside of Sagrada Familia or any museum, and were back on board before noon. Even those who took a Gaudi tour only saw the Sagrada Famila from the outside, missing one of the most sensational architectural interiors in Europe. Their descriptions confirmed to me that cruise-ship shore excursions are no way to see a city. What a pity for those who had never been here previously. I had been so many times I didn’t take my camera but found the google images below online.
Formal night on the Silver Wind. Somewhat bitter-sweet since it was the first time I have worn the tuxedo of my deceased brother Bill that his wife Sue so lovingly gifted me. So I felt that Bill was with me through the evening, through the single-malt scotch, the champagne, the red wine, the terrine of fois gras with black truffles, the double Maine lobster tails, the wine and cheese, the cabaret with six lovely voices doing signature songs from the James Bond films. And then to bed with bitter-sweet memories of a wonderful brother.
Wed. May 25, Valencia
Greetings from Valencia, home of Santiago Calatrava’s sensational Ciudad de las Artes y las Sciencias (City of the Arts and Sciences), one of the most daring architectural works in Europe. Pity the roof leaked and other problems resulted in several costly law suits against Calatrava. But it really is fantastic and those who took the ship’s city tour had better luck today, spending a few hours there and seeing lots more. So I guess all shore excursions aren’t bad. I had spent several days here a decade ago thinking to add the city to my Spain tour destinations, but retirement came up before that happened. Some passengers took a paella-making shore trip, enjoying the city’s most famous dish. It really is a beautiful city and Calatrava’s masterpiece alone is worth a visit. Below are google images.
Thurs. May 26, Cartagena
Finally a city in Spain I had never visited, lovely Cartagena, founded by Carthaginians, later occupied by Romans, then Visigoths, then Moors who made it part of Al Andalus, reconquered by Spaniards before the fall of Granada in 1492. The Silver Wind docked just a short walk from the historic center and the Plaza de Ayuntamiento with its Art Nouveau City Hall (1907). The 19th century apartment buildings are charming. The Roman theatre was built at the time of the Emperor Augustus, late first century BC and held 7000 spectators. The ascensor panorámico (elevator) takes one to Torres Park with sensational views of the city, including the Roman theater, and a great view of the ship in port. At the top is the Castle of the Conception built by Alfonso X the Wise in the 13th century. It got its religious name when later occupied by an order of nuns. I spent just under three hours exploring these sites, all within a short walk of each other.
Tonight I was invited to dine with the hotel manager. The invitation was in Spanish shared with a few Spanish-speaking passengers. The others declined and the manager took sick but I had a nice time with a young Colombian woman hostess who took his place, and we shared happy memories of places we love in Colombia. I was fortunate to receive four such invitations. The officers go through the passenger list daily and send a formal written invitation to dine with them the next night. Another single passenger told me she receive no invitations, so I suspect I benefitted from the “Dr.” before my name.
Fri. May 27, Malaga
Malaga has not lost its charm despite the bustling tourist crowds. Much of the Costa del Sol has become a concrete high-rise jungle, like Torremolinos, but Malaga has been spared, at least in the old city center. The Cathedral is a short walk from the port. It has gardens with fountains and tropical flowers like bougainvillea and hibiscus. Nearby is the 11th century Alcazaba, the palace-fortress of the Moorish rulers of the city. It boasts charming patios and great views of the city and the port. Nearby is another Roman theater that I skipped in favor of the Picasso Musuem. (His birth-home is nearby but I skipped that). The collection can’t compare with that in Barcelona, but one still needs at least an hour in the museum. Not far is the Merced market, again a disappointment after Barcelona’s La Boqueria. I was tempted by the Iberian ham and manchego cheese stands, but the ship restaurants offer more variety in a more comfortable setting so I hoofed it back to the ship for a late lunch. It took me three hours to cover these sites and I saw as much as those who paid for an escorted tour. Anyone who can read Spanish doesn’t need a guide in this pleasant city.
Sat. May 28, Cádiz
Cádiz claims to be the oldest continually-inhabited city in the Western World. It was founded as Gadir by Phoenician traders in 1100 BC. Famous short-term residents included Hannibal and Julius Caesar, who first held public office here. Columbus departed from here on his second voyage. Cádiz for a time controlled all the voyages from Spain to Latin America and it became the richest city in Spain before maritime control passed to Sevilla. I was here forty years ago returning to Spain from my first visit to Portugal. It was a fairly quiet town then. Not any longer since the cruise ships disgorge thousands of people in the port where four ships were docked, three of them twice the size of the Silver Wind. I joined a morning walking tour led by Victor and Ana, local residents dressed in the style of the 19th century when the liberal Cádiz Constitution of 1812 was approved, granting freedom of the press and other radical ideas for that time. Ana stopped to sing historical songs in several stops along the 2½ hour walk. Ana is a well-read and well-traveled historian (including a visit to Cuernavaca) but Victor does the English narrative. I enjoyed picking Ana’s brain in Spanish for details Victor didn’t provide. That created a little stir among members of the group who couldn’t understand why an American could speak Spanish. It so impressed a nice couple from a Chicago suburb that they invited me to join them for dinner that night.
Sun. May 29, Portimao, Portugal
Portimao in the Algarve, two hundred miles south of Lisbon, was our first port of call in Portugal.. Compared to our other ports, this one is on the seedy side. Being Sunday there was almost nothing open in the city except a few restaurants. Even the stork in her next on the tower looked bored. Shuttle buses departed every half hour with stops in the city waterfront and at the beach. In contrast to the city, the beach is prettier than the Riviera since it is sandy not rocky and very clean. It’s like going to another country with hotels, condos, and high-rise apartments and stores like Armani and Hugo Boss. But it was not a day for the beach with mostly gray skies, temperatures in the mid-60s, and a cold wind off the water. This was my first chance to try Portuguese since I hadn’t spoken it in three years. Two passengers from Brazil and and a friendly local shuttle-bus driver were very patient and I was thrilled that I could communicate without too many Spanish words thrown in. With four upcoming extra days in Lisbon, I was hopeful I could revive my fluency pretty quickly.
Mon.May 30, Lisbon/Cascais/Sintra
On my visit to Portugal almost 40 years ago, I didn’t get to Sintra with its alluring historical center and its medieval palace of the Portuguese monarchy. So I took the ship’s shore excursion which included a stop in the coastal resort of Cascais with its charming streets and shops and homes painted in pastel colors. But we spent so much time there and on the road that when we got to Sintra, the guide gave us just 45 minutes to be back on the bus. I was outraged since that was the purpose in taking the tour. The guide was not at fault since she took her orders from the agency booked by the ship. Entrances to the palace were not included and it took a 15 minutes wait in line to buy my ticket and enter the palace. Then I had to rush my visit, groping my way past the tour groups occupying the doorways. Had I known I would have saved the city for later and taken the train on my own from Lisbon so I could spend more time there. Another lesson in shore-trip mediocrity, this one unforgivable.
Tues. May 31, End of Voyage. Lisbon
We had to vacate our suites by 8:30 am but could stay in one of the lounges until 9:30. Most passengers took ship transfers to the airport, some into Lisbon. A private transfer to a hotel in Lisbon cost 150 euros! This is a shabby way to end a cruise. Taxis are always waiting at the port and charge about 15 to 20 euros, if the drivers are honest. I didn’t know that and paid 35 euros, still far below the ship charges. Passengers were discouraged from taking private transfers. My taxi driver took me to a charming hotel in the Bairro Alto section of the city where my four days of exploration deserve a separate essay.
I loved the Silver Wind but there is room for some improvements.
In sum, I loved the Silver Wind and thoroughly enjoyed the 12 day cruise, especially the all-inclusive features. My disappointment with the shore excursions is one common to most cruise ships according to friends who cruise more often than I do. I would recommend that one go online and search for English-speaking local guides with a car who could probably offer a more intimate and thorough tour. I did see drivers waiting at the port with passengers’ names on signs. This would be pricey for a single but at over 150 dollars per person for some shore excursions, it would be a good value if two or more persons booked a car and driver. If one speaks the language or the taxi driver speaks English, one can ask for a taxi rate by the hour and save over the shore trips. And Silversea ought to review what the local agencies are offering them in Spain and Portugal because a great ship should not offer such mediocre shore experiences. Anyway, if one wants to see a place, there is no comparison with a good land tour from a highly-regarded company like Tauck, Road Scholar (Elderhostel), Insight, and others. Cruises are great for revisiting places you have already been but not for an introduction to a country. I am sure Silversea will review the many evaluations and consider improving the excursion aspect of the cruise. Allowing the Sintra trip participants less than 45 minutes in that city borders on the criminal.
The Silver Wind’s pool deck is wonderful with excellent food, beverages, and service. The young wait-staff really hustle all day yet carry out their work with huge smiles and gracious courtesy. The pool seldom has more than a few people swimming. For a contrast just google a large cruise line and open photos of the pool deck. You will find hundreds of people in the pool and spilling over the deck and never enough deck chairs. I was able to do water aerobics without disturbing others. My only complaint is that pool instructions are on a small sign and they need to post a large notice PLEASE SHOWER. So many people who bake in their deck chairs slimed with sun screen entered the pool and the jacuzzi without showering despite showers at both entrances to the pool and jacuzzis.
I imagine the lecturers change from time to time and this sailing had a scholarly professor who knew his material and presented it with excellent visual projections. But I cringed throughout his lecture on Spanish history since he mispronounced every word in Spanish. The city of Valladolid he pronounced Valla-DOLL-id instead of Vaya-do-LEED. Moo-DAY-har architecture he pronunced MOOD-ay-Jar. He needs to sit down with a Spanish-speaker for half an hour and learn how to pronounce the names in his lectures. As an historian who taught this subject I couldn’t bear to attend another of his talks. I must say the audience, almost all of whom knew no Spanish, were not offended since they probably assumed his pronunciations were correct.
These are minor quibbles with an overall sensational cruise that I can highly recommend. Prices vary with the category of stateroom and length of cruise. Alas, the single supplements are very steep and prevent a lot of my single friends from enjoying this superb cruise line. Details on the many destinations and ships can be found at www.silversea.com. After a cruise like this it would be hard to ever again board an enormous vessel. Next up, four wonderful days in beautiful Lisbon.