Gary LaPersonne encounters tailored service and royalty on a six-star sailing from Singapore to Hong Kong.
The doorbell rings. ''Would you like some canapes?'' asks our butler, Julia. They look superb. A work of art. But we haven't ordered any. Would we be snaffling someone else's treat? Seeing our hesitation, she asks again, ''Do you want them?''
''Of course, of course!'' Julia is pleased. It seems to be her personal mission to make every passenger feel special.
Our suite with a private balcony on the ninth deck of the 29,000-tonne luxury liner, Silver Whisper, is more like a boutique penthouse than a cabin. The ocean view makes the canapes taste even better.
The fanfare begins as the impeccably maintained, all-white ship casts off its moorings in Singapore. On the pool deck, a four-piece ensemble plays favourites from Hollywood's old musicals. Waiters weave deftly among the guests with trays of hors d'oeuvres and flutes of Singapore slings. It's a hint of things to come.
On our 10-day Singapore to Hong Kong cruise, the tough decisions are whether to play water polo, compete in the golf or trivia events, join the ballroom dancing classes or shoot the breeze with new friends. There are the more genteel pursuits: a bridge club, needlework classes, reading in the well-equipped library and a computer centre.
The cruise set seems to thrive on club-style living. Heading down for breakfast, a very English voice hails us. ''Hi, I'm Penelope.'' Perfectly coiffed, she's smiling, hand outstretched. We shake hands and introduce ourselves. Her less effusive husband, Michael, hurries her up. ''Come along, we haven't got all day.''
Neither mention the English peerage titles that prefix their names. At lunch, he comes to life on hearing that my wife Pamela's name was inspired by Pamela Mountbatten. ''Michael knew her well,'' Penelope confides. He regales us with stories of the late Viscount Louis Mountbatten, India's last viceroy.
Silversea has won a number of international awards, including being voted the world's best small-ship cruise line seven times in the prestigious US Travel + Leisure readers' poll.
Sister ships Silver Shadow, Silver Wind and Silver Cloud share Silver Whisper's exclusivity, along with the new 540-guest Silver Spirit. The smallest is the 132-passenger expedition ship, Prince Albert II, which navigates more remote waters, including the polar regions.
Silversea claims a six-star rating for all its vessels: sophisticated cruising; suite accommodation with 24-hour personal butler service; gourmet dining in its restaurants and suites; complimentary wines, champagne, cocktails and spirits.
But there are complaints on Silver Whisper. Some say the floorshows are below par, although everyone raves about concert pianist Katya Grineva's performance in the Viennese Lounge; so-called ''enrichment'' lectures focus on the dark side of human nature; not enough information about the ports of call: Brunei, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan in Malaysia, and Manila. The biggest complaint is about the coffee. Surprising for an Italian enterprise, it's not good.
No complaints about the suites, though. Our pale-timber bedsitter has an oversized bed, made daily with Frette linen. Cropping up everywhere is the link with prestige brands: china by Fortessa; crystal by Schotts; complimentary Drappier Carte Blanche Brut champagne in the suite; a silver Christofle ice bucket.
In our suite, ceiling downlights, bedside lamps for mood lighting and switches within arm's reach are part of the smart design. A built-in dressing table makes the bedroom minimalist, yet functional.
Heavy drapes divide the sleeping from the sitting area: sofa with two chairs, end tables, more lamps and a coffee table. For room-service meals, a tabletop and tablecloth (stored in the walk-in wardrobe) turn the coffee table into a dining table. Even in suites, it's fine dining.
The writing desk - with guest-personalised writing paper - has built-in cupboards stacked with glasses. The fridge below is restocked every day. It's part of the package, as is the bowl of fresh fruit and nibbles. The swivel-based television/DVD can be watched from anywhere in the suite.
The en suite, with marble detail, has a double vanity bench, full-sized bath and separate shower. Thick white towels in every size hang on silver rails. Toiletries by Bvlgari get the thumbs up. The walk-in wardrobe has a mirror door. An umbrella, slippers and fluffy bathrobes hang inside.
On decks five, six, seven and eight there are 128 of these verandah suites, the nucleus of Silver Whisper's accommodation. More luxurious are the four grand suites. The Rossellini suite is named after the Silversea ambassador and screen beauty Isabella Rossellini.
Our fellow passengers come from Britain, the US, South America, Belgium, Japan, Italy, Germany, Russia, the Channel Islands and Australia (20 per cent of guests are Australian).
Cocktails turn every evening into a pre-dinner party with a pianist and singer creating an aura of romance. The dance floor is always more popular after dinner. Packed, in fact, on the night the floorshow hoofers invite guests to join them.
There's peace and quiet, too, when you want it. One guest prefers a five-course meal delivered to her suite. ''No problem, madam. Would you like each course separately or all together?''
A staff of 295 pampers 382 guests around the clock. A nod of a head on the pool deck or in the restaurants gets instant attention: ''Another margarita, sir?'' - ''No thank you. May I look at the wine list?''
The mostly Italian, French and Californian wines are chosen to complement the caviar, lobster, salmon coulibiac and filet mignon. The menus are never repeated in any given month. Bread is baked daily.
Sommelier Robin Francis, from Chennai, didn't taste wine until the age of 19 ''apart from church wines made by priests - more likely to put you off''. In the past eight years, he has made up for lost time. His mother cannot work out why he's paid to taste wine and regularly warns him about excessive drinking.
As Silver Whisper's wine master, his task is to order the signature drops. A glass of Maison Pommery Brut Royal or Chateau Le Bernet Saint-Emilion goes down nicely, as does the crisp Pouilly Fume sauvignon blanc. From the colonies, it's Peter Lehmann shiraz and New Zealand's Dashwood sauvignon blanc.
The executive chef, Frenchman Lionel Lavergne - who saw service on Queen Elizabeth 2 (now rusting in Dubai) - has 48 staff from Bulgaria, Austria, Germany, the Philippines, India and Indonesia to help him deliver his exotic cuisine. Special requests are welcome. While we talk, he is already making plans for the next cruise, when a rabbi comes on board with specific dietary requirements.
Dining in Silver Whisper's a la carte The Restaurant is a gracious experience: soft lighting and warm tones. Guests may request to be seated with company or at a private table. It's a grand setting with charming service. ''Lovely, thank you,'' says a passenger as a waiter clears away the plates. ''As lovely as you, madam,'' he replies.
At 4pm, it's high tea: tables are laden with finger sandwiches and miniature cakes. Inside, or on the terrace, the 180-degree ocean view enhances the indulgence. At night, the cafe morphs into La Terrazza, an intimate, candle-lit restaurant with Italian a-la-carte dining. At the informal pool grill, the steaks and chops are cooked to order.
For an extravagant dining experience, there's the tucked-away Le Champagne. For a surcharge of $US150 ($170) a diner, vintage wines chosen by Relais & Chateaux sommeliers are matched with a 15-course degustation menu. With all that is on offer elsewhere, we opt not to partake.
Other pay-as-you-go options are premium wines; the spa centre; a perfume, clothing or jewellery splurge (Christin van Geuze's handcrafted jewellery is stocked at the H.Stern boutique); tailor-made clothes (a Hong Kong company is on board); laundry; internet and shore excursions. The casino, too, can prove costly.
After dinner, The Humidor room by Davidoff - all wood panelling and deep leather chairs - offers cognacs and an assortment of Davidoff and Cuban cigars. We never see it in use - perhaps a sign of the times.
Our final day at sea is also the birthday of a guest. Filipino waiter Charly Dingal spots her. ''There you are! Happy birthday, madam. I'm going to sing to you.'' After dinner, Dingal and a group of the restaurant staff approach with a dark chocolate, candle-lit cake. Gathering around, they sing a hearty Happy Birthday. She blows out the three candles - for her birth date.
Back at our suite, another cake sits on a large plate. The chocolate-coated message reads: ''Happy birthday, Pamela.'' A present from Julia, who has missed nothing.
Gary LaPersonne travelled courtesy of Silversea.
A 10-day cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong on Silver Shadow (identical to the Whisper), departs on November 6 for $7343 a person, including port charges. Phone Silversea Cruises on 9255 0600 or 1300 306 872; see silversea.com.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Singapore from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1150 (8hr), with a return flight from Hong Kong to Australia via Singapore. Fare is low-season return, including tax.
PORTS OF CALL
Since the discovery of oil and natural gas, the citizens of this tiny sultanate have an enviable lifestyle. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, said to earn $100 a second, shares some of his wealth with his subjects - no taxes; free education, land and medical care; old-age pensions. The Royal Polo Club has gold-plated lamp posts ($10,000 each) and his mosque features a 29-carat-gold dome. An 8½ -tonne crystal stone, in the shape of a wedding ring, sits on top of a towering musical fountain at the entrance of a $1 billion amusement park, Jerudong Park. Along the Brunei River is the water village, the Kampong Ayer, a maze of wooden houses built on stilts and still occupied by the river people.
Most poignant in the Malaysian port of Sandakan is the landscaped Sandakan Memorial Park. It's dedicated to British and Australian POWs and the locals who assisted them. In 1945, the Japanese force marched emaciated prisoners through 250 kilometres of dense jungle to Ranau village, at the bottom of Mount Kinabalu. Of the almost 2800 POWs, just six diggers survived. Amid the rhododendrons, water lillies, ponds and native fauna, a sense of serenity prevails. The pavilion has stained-glass windows, created by the Australian glass artist Robin Seville, with motifs representing the people of Malaysia, Australia and Britain. Sandakan is also the entry to Sabah's Semengoh orang-utan rehabilitation centre. Apart from the endangered orang-utans, it's also home to monkeys, honey bears and storks.
The capital city of the Sabah region features the Mari Mari cultural village, with traditional homes built by the descendants of the five largest ethnic tribes. Each has a distinct architectural style. The local handicraft market is a good place for cultured pearls.
Given Asia's many exotic cities, Manila can easily fly under the radar. But it's lively and its people welcoming. Our 10-hour stop is too short. We lunch at Escolta, the Peninsula Manila's new restaurant. The buffet showcases the country's cuisine - a fusion of Chinese, European, American, Arab and Asian influences. Included on any tour of the city should be the walled city with its moats, turrets and high walls. Fort Santiago has a fascinating history of the Philippines's struggle for independence. The restored Manila Cathedral and San Agustin church are impressive examples of romanesque and baroque architecture respectively.