Whisper my name

Phoebe Dunmore marvels at the shipboard magic on a high-end cruise.

If there's one person who understands the magic of luxury cruising, it's Stephen Garcia. As the resident magician (yes, they still have them) on board the cruise liner Silver Whisper, he says he loves the fact that the crew know passengers by name.

He's not wrong. "Good morning, Miss Dunmore" is a constant refrain as crew, from the room attendants to the bar staff, recognise me everywhere I go. While I'd like to think I am unforgettable, in fact every guest gets this treatment. And with a ratio of almost one staff member per passenger, that's a lot of people delighted to see you.

It's a little startling at first but, in fairness, they haven't all attended the magician's masterclass to gain the ultimate memory recall; rather, the ship employs "facial-recognising technology" - that is, they take a photo when you board and display the photo on a computer to help them match names to faces.

Silver Whisper is one of a fleet of four Silversea luxury liners (a fifth will be launched in December). With a capacity of 382 guests - and on our trip there are fewer than that - this attention to detail pays off. There's genuine pleasure from the passengers, who are clearly relishing the personal touch, joking with Captain Michele Macarone Palmieri as he passes through the deck or joins them for dinner.

And they keep coming back for more - septuagenarians Bill and Alice from Florida tell me proudly it's their fifth cruise with the Italian company, before introducing me to a couple from Sweden who have been at sea for 230 days.

It becomes a constant refrain. Palmieri, who has spent 10 years with the company, tells me of an American couple who have spent more than 900 days at sea since 1994. That's 2 1/2 years!

"It's probably cheaper than being at home now," Palmieri adds.

He might be right. Although in no way a budget cruise line, the price of the ticket is all-inclusive, with meals, drinks and entertainment thrown in. Cabins are spacious and comfortable, with extra touches such as a walk-in wardrobe, bath and separate shower and a mini-bar that is refilled to your personal requirements.

Dining is extensive and varied. Silver Whisper has four eating areas: from the casual pool grill to main restaurant, formal dining room La Terrazza to degustation wine restaurant La Champagne (the only restaurant where you pay extra).

All meals are a la carte, designed by chefs from Relais & Chateaux, and the sommelier's wine cellar stretches to more than 8000 decent bottles.

Four-course dinners are modern European in theme and just the right size, with healthy choices marked on the menu.

A comparatively small ship as cruise liners go, Silver Whisper is a boutique experience, with all the amenities you would expect, including a spa, gym, casino, two lounges, two bars, internet cafe, library, theatre, humidor and swimming pool.

The interior is traditional and tasteful, with swathes of curtains and carpets appealing to the ship's predominantly over-50 market.

The super-social and super-active can fill every minute with activities such as yoga, Spanish lessons, bridge, enrichment lectures by guest speakers, golf, water volleyball and cookery classes. Run around the outdoor track or on a treadmill, then reward yourself by lolling by the pool reading a novel for the rest of the day, like I did.

But I do drag myself off the sun lounge long enough to join the daily team trivia competition, although be aware that the clientele on board is clever and the questions are hard. Or that's what I'm telling myself, anyway. Our team manages to come fourth every time. Out of four.

I have joined Silver Whisper part-way through its longest trip of the year, an 18-day journey from Sydney to Hong Kong via the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Philippines.

I begin the journey in Cebu, the second-largest city in the Philippines and a great choice for a resort-style holiday, with luxury properties such as the Shangri-La's Mactan offering a classic beach holiday with snorkelling, water sports and a standout spa.

A bustling, heavily developed island, Cebu is historically important as the place where Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan introduced Christianity to the Philippines.

On behalf of King Charles V of Spain, Magellan arrived in Cebu in 1521 and, after converting local chief Rajah Humabon and his wives to Catholicism, built a large wooden cross.

Still standing today, the Magellan cross and nearby Basilica of Santa Nino are revered by the devout Catholic nation.

A Spanish colony for 300 years, until the turn of last century when it fell to the US, the Philippines finally gained independence after World War II.

It's this tumultuous history that gives the Philippines such a fascinating blend of culture that pervades everything, from the food to architecture.

Unlike other countries in South-East Asia, the food is not at all spicy, more a mix of Asian ingredients and Spanish recipes with lots of fresh fish and meat with vegetables.

But the city that most embodies this cultural mix is Manila, our next port of call.

There are gleaming shopping plazas with churches built in the middle of them; high-end restaurants next to roadside shacks selling rice in bamboo; middle-class housing estates flanked by shanty towns; swarms of silver Jeepnies (modified Jeeps) caught in traffic jams with four-wheel-drives chauffeured by uniformed drivers.

One of the best ways to experience the city is to head to two or three diverse regions. Soak up the atmosphere of the Fort Bonifacio area, for example, and eat pork knuckle in Abe Restaurant as the glamour set parades past with their poodles. Then soak in Spanish colonial history at the Intramuros (walled city) and Fort Santiago.

Finally, head out of the city into the nearby region of Tagaytay and breathe in some fresh air. Spectacular countryside gives way to the incredible vista of the Taal Volcano and its crater lake.

The active can hike it, or the less active can take a photograph, then head to one of the burgeoning nature spas, such as the boutique Nurture Spa Village.

While in the region, don't miss Antonio's, one of the best restaurants in the country. Chef-owner Tony Escalante trained in Australia and it's worth making a special trip for a memorable lunch.

As we pull out of port in Manila, one of the trip's most enduring images is seeing the families of the crew waving goodbye on the dock.

The crew members come from all over the world. Many are at sea for as long as eight months at a time and so an unexpected chance to see family when the ship docks in their homeland is priceless. There are more farewells as we disembark a few days later in Hong Kong with promises to meet again from passengers and crew.

And they mean it. Some passengers are staying on for the next cruise and with a discount of up to 40 per cent on the next booking, many have already locked in their next trip.

Phoebe Dunmore travelled courtesy of Silversea.


Getting there

For $788, Philippine Airlines will fly you to Manila, where you change aircraft for the flight to Cebu. Malaysia Airlines has a fare for $918 with a change of aircraft in Kuala Lumpur. For $1001, Singapore Airlines will take you to Singapore and on to Cebu with SilkAir. All fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney and do not include taxes. Tax fees can vary depending on itinerary, airline, stops and time of payment.

Cruising there

Silver Whisper and its sister ships, Silver Shadow, Silver Wind, Silver Cloud and the upcoming Silver Spirit, have trips all over the world, from seven to 18 days. A seven-day cruise from Athens to Istanbul, for example, departs on September 5 and costs $US5945 ($9314) a person for an early booking, including all meals, drinks and gratuities. Phone 1300 306 872 or see silversea.com.

Staying there

The Makati Shangri-La, in central Manila, has rooms from $270. Shangri-La Mactan Resort and Spa is 45 minutes' drive from Cebu City and has rooms also from $270. Phone 1800 222 448 or see shangri-la.com.