Was there ever a Christmas you anticipated eagerly, only to find underwear and socks instead of a diamond necklace under the tree? Our recent 12-night cruise aboard Silversea's Silver Wind was a bit like that -- with high expectations, we not only had some pleasant surprises, but also some significant disappointments.
On this voyage from Venice to Rome, our ports of call included Trieste, Ancona, Sorrento, Amalfi and Taormina (Italy); Corfu and Pylos (Greece); and Dubrovnik (Croatia). The appeal of such an itinerary for folks like us who love food and wine is the chance to sample and sip in unfamiliar spots like Taormina and Trieste.
Our choice of Silversea -- widely considered one of the top luxury lines -- also seemed to fit. What could be better than sailing the Mediterranean while being pampered with exquisite food and service onboard? And we liked the line's shore excursions -- most offered food- and wine-related jaunts in the various ports.
Alas, while the port visits fulfilled every dream, the onboard experience was a bit of challenge.
First Things First: Wine Tasting and Lunch
Venice, where we began our trip, is undoubtedly one of the world's most exotic and romantic cities, but it's also one of its most tourist-oriented. Quite a contrast, and intriguing in its own way, was Trieste, our first port of call and a place of small pleasures with its own traditions. The city lies near Fruili, an area known for its white wines, particularly the Tocai. On this tour, just 14 of us filled the luxury bus usually reserved for the Trieste soccer team (plush seats, movable foot rests). We headed first to Castello di Spessa, a restored castle-cum-winery, set high on a vine-covered hill above a lush valley, surrounded with trees and colorful flowers. We tasted three of their wines after touring the grounds, visiting the two wine cellars (both housed in caves under the palace, the deeper of which served as a World War II bunker) and the historic wine-pressing area.
Our next stop, the family-owned Livio Felluga winery, was completely different ... sleek and modern, all cement and steel. It also produces Tocai and Merlot.
After a tasting, the vintner led us across the village street to Terra & Vini, one of those fabulously relaxed local restaurants that only Italians seem to know. In the lush gardens adjoining the vineyards, we sat at comfortable shaded tables, drank Felluga wines, and dined on proscuitto, risotto, gnocchi, and veal before finishing up with cheese and ginger grappa.
As good as the feast was the ambiance. It was like dining with old friends, enjoying the bounty of the day. The excursion took an hour longer than scheduled, but no problem for Silversea; we stayed and enjoyed ourselves until the meal was over.
Onboard Silver Wind
Silver Wind is one of cruising's smallest ships. Though it holds only 298 passengers, it offers plenty of big ship facilities and amenities. Cabins are suites and most have balconies. Dining is of the anytime variety; there are two alternative restaurants, a pool, a theater and a small casino. In its lovely spa, I had one of my best facials ever.
One of Silversea's major draws is that it while it is not cheap (even with heavy discounts, plan to pay $400 per day), it is virtually all-inclusive. In most cases, cocktails and wines are complimentary. Service is genuinely personal -- I was Mrs. Smith'd to death! Whether with extra pillows, restocks of the luxurious Aqua de Parma toiletries or more Diet Cokes for the fridge, we were pampered.
But for that price, we expected perfection, and the trip on Silver Wind itself, as opposed to our ship-organized shore adventures, fell far short in that regard.
Learning to Cook ... Sicilian Style
On our next excursion, we had to earn our lunch. From Sicily's Taormina, we headed for the village of Viagrande, in the shadow of Mount Etna, for a day with Eleonora Consoli, author of numerous books on Sicilian cooking (only one, "Olives," is available in English) and a local TV personality (Sicily's Emeril!).
Eleonora met us in her garden, under the branches of her lemon trees, and led us into the kitchen. There was no fancy stove, no high-speed appliances, no overhead mirrors. As she demonstrated her family recipe for meatballs in lemon tree leaves, we mixed ingredients, shaped the patties, oiled the leaves and molded the finished product. With each dish, Eleonora spoke of its history, and offered several variations.
After Eleanora explained how to make the watermelon pudding, it was time for a break -- wine, cheeses, salami, bread and olive oil were served in the garden. Temporarily sated, we returned to the kitchen, where small piles of semolina flour, rolling pins and grooved wooden tools awaited -- we were making pasta. Our hostess made the dough, kneading it by hand, and distributed small portions to each of us. We learned the hand moves to make several sizes of shells, rigatoni, tagliatella, bowties and lasagna.
While waiting for lunch to be ready, Eleanora shooed us away (after all this was a shore excursion rather than a restaurant internship!), and we headed into the village to visit a putia, its small general store. We roamed the bountiful displays of local fruits and vegetables, Sicilian meats and cheeses, and regional wines and olive oils.
Mediterranean Sea Days
One of the most blissful aspects of sailing a Mediterranean itinerary is that, even on sea days, ships sail close to the rugged and varied coastline and provide gorgeous natural vistas.
It's a good thing the views were distracting, because sea days on Silver Wind were dull. We love to read and relax, but we like informative lectures and unusual activities too. On the Silver Wind, the lecturers were mundane (lifestyles of Greece's rich n' famous), and at the wine tasting, our sommelier brought pomposity to new heights (asking us to blind-taste wines while guessing their countries of origin).
In Positano, Feeling Pampered
The reputedly chi-chi town of Positano, which lies on Italy's Amalfi Coast, is overrun with tourists and the overpriced shops that cater to them. So we got out of town. We indulged in a tour highlighted by lunch at the famous San Pietro Hotel. The gorgeous but near-death-defying ride along the spectacular coastline was fantastic -- with views of secluded coves, sheer cliffs, rocky overhangs and terraced villages. We were glad to have taken a tour because no way would we have wanted to drive, particularly as we watched (fingers clenched tightly against our seats) as our driver maneuvered his large vehicle along narrow roads and village lanes, around hairpin turns, and through miniature tunnels -- all the while avoiding swarming Vespas and tiny Italian cars.
At the San Pietro, we enjoyed a multi-course feast. The atmosphere here was as lovely as the meal. It was a sheer delight to watch the small ships drift by along the coast, hundreds of feet below, enjoying the occasional butterfly as the breezes moved the brilliant bougainvillea along our terrace wall.
The ports and the shore excursions on our cruise were outstanding, but while there may be no such thing as a bad cruise, this one fell far short in offering value for the money spent. Cabins were badly soundproofed (every morning at 8 a.m., we were wakened by cabin attendants chatting and setting up). The track was partially closed to joggers. Putting tournaments were set up in hallways. Evening entertainment was mediocre. Restaurant service was highly mercurial -- sometimes excellent, other times embarrassingly unprofessional. And the quality of the cuisine was only a pale imitation of that offered on shore.
Ultimately, the inconsistencies on a cruise line that bills itself as one of the world's most luxurious bothered us. And yet, others seemed perfectly happy with the experience.
Midway through the 12-night cruise we figured it out. Silversea is like an exclusive country club. Members pay high dues to mingle with people like themselves in luxurious surroundings, eat in dining rooms that serve reliably good (and safe) food, select from a couple of not-too-strenuous activities to pass the time, be ministered to by a staff of specialists that eagerly caters to whatever itch needs scratching, and overlook any shortcomings of the club as idiosyncrasies. And for folks who enjoy an intimate onboard ambience, generally excellent service, and not too many surprises, Silversea's Silver Wind is a terrific choice.
But for travelers whose special requests usually stop at extra pillows and plenty of Diet Coke in the fridge, who expect to be dazzled in the onboard restaurants, who enjoy sophisticated and enlightening shipboard activities and entertainment, and who aren't looking for third-row-center tickets at La Scala and a private limo to take them there, Silversea is not the answer. The itinerary was divine but next time, perhaps, we'll take another route.
--written by Maria Smith