Robert Upe enjoys martinis and anecdotes on a South China Sea voyage whose guests include author Bill Bryson.
Bill Bryson is grateful to have an audience of more than five. "Thank you for turning up on a Sunday morning for my little talk," the softly spoken American author and travel writer says on board Silver Whisper. "I'm still finding my sea legs," he confesses.
"It wasn't all that long ago that I did a bookstore reading to an audience of five people in Stratton, Pennsylvania. They only put out six chairs, so it was a good turnout. Of the five people, one was the manager of the bookstore so he didn't really count; two others were friends of my parents who had retired to Pennsylvania and just wanted to know how my mom was; the fourth guy was someone also named Bill Bryson who had driven a great distance from West Virginia so we could stand there and look at his driver's licence with the same name; and the fifth person was his wife who didn't seem to want to spend the evening with anybody named Bill Bryson."
With that, 100 people in Silver Whisper's lounge chuckle and give the self-deprecating writer a warm welcome. Silver Whisper is gliding in open sea on its way from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, the next port of call on a 115-day around-the-world voyage patronised by countesses, earls, playwrights and authors. The cruise director, Fernando de Oliveira, sidles up: "You know, many people on board earn nine figures a year. But they don't flaunt it, none of them shows off. We always have a good crowd on board and 90 per cent of them are repeat passengers." Still in hushed tones, he says. "One lady has arrived with 36 suitcases. Her husband only has eight!"
Bryson, the author of more than 20 books, including A Walk in the Woods, Notes from a Small Island and, more recently, the best-selling A Short History of Nearly Everything, is part of the talent recruited for the Singapore-to- Shanghai segment of this voyage. There's also flamboyant flautist Jane Rutter, who gives night-time concerts, and cabaret singers, pianists and experts who speak on world affairs. De Oliveira, who seems to know everyone by name and addresses them with honorifics, even steps in to offer "gentle" Spanish lessons.
I plump for a martini appreciation class. It's about 11am and I have four martinis in front of me at the ship's dimly lit main bar. Another dozen or so people are taking this class and we sit on a line of stools as the head barman starts the tasting with a dirty gin martini mixed with vermouth and olive juice.
There is an intimacy on the Silver Whisper, and it's not just from the warm inner glow of martinis or the European and art deco styling and original artwork that help create a glamorous club-like atmosphere. The vessel has a good passenger-staff ratio: 382 are served by 302 staff. Every passenger has a butler who, among other things, offers to unpack bags. (Pity the one assigned to the woman with 36 suitcases.)
The Italian-owned Silver Whisper competes in the boutique ships' stakes (generally regarded as fewer than 500 passengers) against Regent Seven Seas, Oceania and Seabourn, the latter having just been named by Travel + Leisure magazine for the fourth consecutive year as the world's best small-ship line. Silver Whisper, though, may have it over the others for the number and size of its balcony accommodation. About 85 per cent of the ship's suites have six-square-metre or bigger private balconies with a table and chairs and the rest have, at least, sea views through picture windows. There are no "inside" cabins - sorry, suites (the term cabin is frowned on). Suites include a pillow menu (including buckwheat to ease aches and snoring), wood panelling, a flat-screen television with movie channels, lounge and coffee table, writing table with stationery and walk-in wardrobe. The bathrooms are finished with marble tiling, a full-size bath, double wash basins and Bulgari or Ferragamo toiletries.
There's wi-fi in the suites, though it costs 50¢ a minute (or $250 for 1000 minutes). Almost everything else is covered in the cruise fare, including lectures by the likes of Bryson, transport into town in most ports, and meals and drinks (the minibar is replenished daily to personal preference, including with French champagne). It costs extra to dine at Le Champagne restaurant, the only Relais & Chateaux wine restaurant at sea.
There are no set dining times in Silver Whisper's five restaurants, which include the Italian-leaning La Terrazza, the French-influenced The Restaurant and a poolside grill.
Captain Angelo Corsaro, a Sicilian and the most senior employee in Silversea's six-ship fleet (soon to be seven), suddenly gives the ship's horn two blasts as we enter Saigon River, on approach to Ho Chi Minh City. There's maritime traffic and hazards such as heavy barges perilously low to the water and full to the brim with cargo. The captain's blast is for them, specifically for the bare-chested cargo-boat crews whose vessels are powered by the current and "steered" by smaller boats.
"It's very stressful along here," Corsaro says. "There are strong currents on the bends and a vessel can drift 10 degrees. The potential for collisions is there." Indeed a collision, described as a "minor" incident, between Silver Whisper's sister ship, Silver Shadow, and a Vietnamese vessel, occurred earlier this year.
Silver Whisper shore excursions are well orchestrated. As soon as we dock in Ho Chi Minh City, passengers disembark and board tour buses to see the city's sights ($89 a ticket) or go further into the Mekong Delta ($169) to see floating markets and lush rice fields. There's also a line of rickshaws dockside to take passengers around city streets.
Bryson opts for a long city bus tour. "I'm often reluctant to go on that type of tour and I prefer to explore freelance but because I had not been here I thought I'd give it a go," he says afterwards. "I'm glad we went along. We had a good tour guide and saw places we wouldn't have seen otherwise."
The next time I see Bryson we're at sea again. We're the only ones in the ship's observation lounge, a bow space with floor-to-ceiling windows where reading and snoozing come easily in big armchairs. I'm reading his 2000 travelogue about Australia, Down Under. Opposite me, he is writing his next book.
"I intend to always keep writing," he tells me. "As part of our 'sad' new regime [he's only 60 but on the verge of what he calls semi-retirement], I get up early and write at my desk from 6.15 to 11 in the morning; that works well in terms of getting both books and the gardening done ... plus I am completely knackered by night and don't drink as much."
Bryson and his wife, Cynthia, live in an old rectory on almost two hectares in Norfolk, England, where they share a passion for gardening. "It [the next book] looks at the summer of 1927, especially in America. There were lots of really big, pivotal, popular cultural events in the United States. The first 'talking picture', The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, was shot, and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II were doing Showboat. It was when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic; and it was the year that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, which in baseball terms was really big.
"He single-handedly hit more home runs than most teams - this guy who didn't look like an athlete at all, and would eat 16 hot dogs for breakfast." Bryson says this with some admiration. But I bet Babe Ruth never had a martini for breakfast.
Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Silversea.
Silver Whisper embarks on a 115-day world voyage from Los Angeles on January 5, visiting 52 destinations in 28 countries. Fares cost from $47,925 a person, twin share, in a Vista Suite ($150,943 for the Owner's Suite), and include all meals and drinks. The voyage's 21-day Sydney- to-Hong Kong sector costs from $8899; the 11-day Hong Kong to Singapore sector from $5899. Guest speakers include hostage negotiator Terry Waite, military historian and writer Nigel West, and the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss. See silversea.com.
While on board
Meals served between Singapore and Shanghai included shrimp salad, caviar, roasted quail, porcini mushroom risotto, ravioli with walnut sauce, Berkshire pork chop and tiramisu.
Silver Whisper has a swimming pool, library, casino, spa and beauty salon, gym, walking-running track and golf net.
The dress code is neat, casual resort wear during the day. Evening dress codes vary from casual (trousers and shirt for men) to informal (jacket for men) to formal (tuxedo or dark suit).
There are no disco balls or raucous nights with beer games. Think whisky tumblers, a piano bar and well-travelled passengers mainly aged 50-75 in a club-like atmosphere. Children are allowed but their numbers are usually small; there is no kids' club.