The bottle of chilled champagne wrapped in a stole of white linen and leaning jauntily to the side of its silver bucket was the first of many iconic symbols of luxury that greeted us when we first boarded the 382-passenger Silver Whisper in Singapore a few weeks back.

Moments after entering our suite and bonding with the bottle of Pommery Brut Royal, our cabin stewardess came by to ask if we had any special requests for our mini bar. We didn't, but it was nice knowing we could have asked for a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc or a fifth of top-shelf scotch and our Ukrainian stewardess would have trotted off to fetch it for us.

Silversea's all-inclusive fares, which typically run about $300 to $800 per person a day (or more), cover open bar, excellent wines, delicious cuisine and a convenient no tipping policy. Further, every cabin is a suite, ranging from 287-square-foot standards with large marble clad bathrooms all the way up to the 1,435-square-foot Grand Suites, for those who can't travel without a dining room and a butler.

Before leaving us to enjoy our plush surroundings, our stewardess, smart in her black and white maid-style uniform, presented us with a choice of posh toiletries --- Bulgari, Acqua di Parma or Neutrogena. We were also briefed on the room service menu (breakfast soufflés and jumbo shrimp cocktail were just the tip of the iceberg) and reminded about complimentary services like shoe shining.

A Silversea cruise is among the most pampered ways to travel to some pretty cool places. In 2008, for example, Silversea's four globetrotting ships will visit 340+ different ports in 116 countries on a sea of six- to 110-day cruises. Rarely is the exact same itinerary offered twice. My mid February Silver Whisper cruise was an 11-night Asia voyage roundtrip from Singapore to Malaysia (Port Klang/Kuala Lampur and Penang), Thailand (Phuket) and Myanmar. Many on board were there for Myanmar (known as Burma during the British occupation), and a port not offered by many other cruise lines. Adding to the appeal, Silversea was docked at Yangon (formerly called Rangoon) for three whole days to allow passengers plenty of time to explore its ancient pagodas, royal palaces and yet unspoiled Asian culture.

The Origins of Luxury

Italian-owned Silversea Cruises came into being in the early 1990s and its four ships were built and outfitted at shipyards in Italy. The Silver Whisper debuted in 2001, a year after sister Silver Shadow. The line just announced plans for a brand new ship (and options for a sister), a larger 540-passenger vessel to be built in Italy for a projected late 2009 debut. Playing up its Italian connections, the ships' specialty Italian restaurants are under the guidance of Marco Betti, owner of Florence's award-winning Antica Posta restaurant; Italian-made bath amenities come from Acqua di Parma and Bulgari; high-end Italian clothes and accessories are in the boutiques; and bronze statues and reliefs from an Italian sculptor decorate niches around the ship.

With a 1.3 to 1 passenger to crew ratio, these ships were built for travelers used to the good life. Most passengers are Americans (about 70%) in their 50s, 60s and 70s on up, with the rest a mix of English, Germans, Swiss, Italians, Mexican, Japanese and other nationalities. Shorter sailings of a week or less in the Caribbean and Europe often add a handful of 30- and 40-somethings to the pot. Still, the cruise director on a recent Silver Whisper cruise told us a 30-something honeymoon couple on the previous sailing had cut out half way through because the crowd and vibe was older and more sedate than they had expected. Most guests are couples, though singles and small groups of friends traveling together are usually part of the scene, too. Many have cruised with Silversea before; in fact every single person I met last month had sailed with the line at least once, if not many times .

The plush, but sedate interior of the ship appeals to well-dressed (tuxes are ubiquitous on formal nights), well-accessorized and well-traveled passengers who value discretion, decorum and knowing they're booked on one of the top ships out there. The low-key main lobby area branches out into a pair of attractive four-deck-high staircases, with ship-like railings, and corridors done in a mix of Wedgwood blue and golden peach fabrics and carpeting, along with warm caramel wood tones. There's a two-story show lounge with tiered seating (impressive for a ship of this size), plus an adjacent bar with a dance floor, an ocean view nightclub where a pianist resides, and a dark and cozy cigar bar with leather club chairs and a small walk-in humidor. There's also a small casino and attached bar, a card room with felt-topped tables, and a pool bar.

Millefoglie Anyone?

There are two main dining spots on the Whisper, The Restaurant, a more formal option with open seating, and the more casual La Terrazza, also with open seating. The later, as well as a third small venue called Le Champagne and geared to wine lovers, require reservations at dinnertime. Tables for two are available in all them, though you may have to wait for one in The Restaurant during prime dining hours.

Many ingredients are imported from Italy (the pasta, cheese and parma ham, for instance) and most of the baked goods -- including the excellent foccacia and flat breads -- are made right on board. The wine list is excellent, and a pair of complimentary wines is suggested at each meal from more than 40 choices. If you'd like something other than the featured ones, ask and ye shall find.

Open most evenings for dinner, the intimate La Terrazza offers Italian cuisine created by celebrated chef Marco Betti. Start with a plate of antipasto -- fresh parmegano, proscuitto, olives, sun dried tomatoes and marinated eggplant -- before moving on to delicious dishes such as a mushroom tartlet or buffalo mozzarella with fresh tomato and basil; gnocchi filled with gorgonzola; and a juicy pork loin. Featured desserts, like a delicious millefoglie (flakey puff pastry layered with creamy filling), are paired with a tray of Italian-made Biscotti. Wines are generously poured, often starting with Prosecco and followed by selections chosen by the sommelier. Lunch buffets here are extensive, with hot dishes as well as sushi, salad, European cheeses, and much more. Burgers, sandwiches, and salads are served poolside at lunchtime as well, and there's also a white-gloved tea service in one of the lounges.

Three meals a day are offered in The Restaurant, and dinner entrees on my recent cruise ranged from a well-prepared duet of king prawn and halibut with wild rice cakes to a crispy roasted duck and a penne pasta with spicy tomatoes, olive, caper and anchovy sauce. If you'd rather dine in one evening, you can order off The Restaurant's menu during its dinnertime operating hours and have your meal served course-by-course on a table set with linens and china in your suite. The 24-hour room-service menu includes trendy snack-sized portions served in martini glasses (like a yummy crabmeat and guacamole combo), delicious thin-crust gourmet pizzas, plus sandwiches, salads and lots more.

For hardcore wine lovers, the Le Champagne restaurant was developed in consultation with master sommeliers trained in the member boutique lodgings and restaurants of Relais & Châteaux-Relais Gourmands. The wine menus reflect regions of the world known for their rich viticultural heritage, including France, Italy, northern California, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Sommeliers describe the origin and craft of each vintage, then offer dishes created especially to bring out the wine's full richness. The wine is the most important part of the meal, and there is an extra charge for dining here that varies according to the wines served. On a recent cruise it was $150 per person, and frequented mostly by European passengers.

... And They're All Suites

The standard suites are a very roomy 287 square feet, not including the balcony that three quarters offer. Compare this to the standard cabin on a mass-market mega ship which typically measures about 150 to 180 square feet. Like a traditional high-end hotel, color schemes are safe and warm, focused on medium blues and soft golds, along with coppery-brown wood tones. Each suite has a walk-in closet, mini-bar, DVD player, sitting area, lighted dressing table with hair dryer, writing desk, and wonderful marble-covered bathrooms stocked with toiletries. The separate shower stall and long bathtub, along with double sinks, make these among the best loos at sea. All beds have feather-down pillows and duvets, and Egyptian cotton linens. The largest of the four two-bedroom Grand Suites are really something else, measuring 1,435 square feet with three bathrooms, a pair of walk-in closets, an entertainment center, two verandas, and a living room and dining area. By year-end, all suites are slated to get plush new Sealy mattresses, new flat-screen televisions and WiFi service. On formal nights, the pillow chocolates are Godiva.

If you really don't want to lift a finger, literally, book yourself in one of the Grand, Royal, Rossellini, or Owner's Suites and let the butler do it. A gracious gentleman (typically from India) in a black tux is there to unpack your bags, draw your bath, make spa or dinner reservations, put together an in-suite cocktail party for you and your entourage, or even arrange a private car at the next port.

Entertainment and Activities Play Low Key

The cruise standards --- trivia games, card tournaments, movies and surfing in the Internet center --- are enhanced by more interesting choices, like in-depth wine-tasting seminars and the line's enrichment lectures. At least one guest speaker is featured on every sailing, ranging from explorers and adventurers to professors, authors and journalists. Upcoming culinary theme cruises, offered in partnership with Relais & Châteaux, are hosted by Relais Gourmands chefs and feature cooking demos, hands-on classes and tastings. Other pursuits include language classes, golf lessons and driving nets, shuffle board, and browsing the two boutiques, one an H Stern where you'll find high-end gold, diamond and gemstone pieces.

Lighter activities include a dip in the pool or two hot tubs. A combination of old-style wooden deck chairs and plastic chaise lounges padded with royal blue cushions line the open decks. Jolting golf-course-green AstroTurf covers the entirety of decks 9 and 10. There are plenty of places to retire with a good book or an afternoon snooze, including near the pool on Deck 8 (which is real teak, by the way), or at the stern on that deck.

Overall, these ships are low-key. Don't expect music on the pool deck, for instance, the cruise director told me he can never get passengers to agree on the type of music, so he doesn't play anything. Most guests seem happy to be left to their own devices, reading, dozing and sipping cool drinks.

The spa, gym, and separate aerobics room are good sized for this ship. Exercise machines are due for an upgrade by year-end. The Mandara spa plays up its Asian vibe, offering treatments with names like Balinese Bliss (a Swedish massage "with a Mandara touch"), Lomi Lomi (Hawaiian style), and Bali-atsu (Bali-style shiatsu). When I asked one of the masseuses, Sarah, what the differences between the treatments were, she told me it doesn't really matter because I wouldn't know the difference anyway. I chuckled at her bluntness. Just what I had suspected all of these years, the cruise ship spa descriptions are more marketing than meat. Advice: skip the fluff and stick to the basics. I signed up for what felt like a Swedish style massage and it did feel great.

For evening entertainment, the ship has a small casino, plus nightclub-style acts (singer and keyboard player), pianists and other musical talent. On my recent cruise, there was a Barbra Streisand impersonator and a versatile chap who played the clarinet, flute and other instruments I can't recall.

Luring a New Brand of Luxury Cruiser

You'll find mostly the gray haired crowd in their 60s, 70s and 80s, many with canes, walkers and wheel chairs (just as you would find aboard a Seabourn or Regent Seven Seas cruise, for example), but Silversea is recognizing the need to keep things fresh to appeal to a broader range of luxury travelers.

"In order to attract more first-time and nontraditional cruisers, we're going to continue to completely break the mold of the conventional cruise vacation and change travelers' perceptions about the rigidity and formality often associated with cruising," says a Silversea spokesperson.

In the spirit of breaking with convention, Silversea has recently phased out its traditional song and dance productions for a year-long trial to see if other types of musical, comedy and magic acts would please guests more. Cruise Director Steve Lewis told me the line was trying to experiment with different types of entertainment because some guests weren't crazy about the glitzy production shows. There will soon be WiFi Internet access for those toting lap tops and guests can use their cell phones and PDAs on board as well.

While the Le Terrazza dining venue appeals to anyone craving fine dining in a casual atmosphere, fun room service menu items like a trio of "Tongue Twister" snacks (jumbo shrimp and crab meat, for example) served in martini glasses lend a youthful glow to Silversea's culinary side.

Other experiments attempting to replace stodgy with cool, include the line's "Personalized Voyages," where passengers can customize the length of their cruise to fit their schedule. Do half of one cruise, or parts of two others, or whatever, pricing will be figured out on a per diem basis.

Perhaps the biggest leap into uncharted territory is Silversea's new "Privileged Passage" sailings. Formal nights will be abolished on these one-week, ultra-casual cruisings. Spa and gym hours will be extended, and the focus will be on a more modern, up-to-date entertainment mix featuring contemporary bands, jazz groups and even celebrity DJs. The July 13 sailing aboard the Silver Cloud from Athens to Istanbul will host DJ Ravin, the resident DJ of the hip Buddha Bar in Paris. The cruise will also host a top chef, Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat, executive chef of the Chiva-Som luxury health resort in Thailand. Specializing in a fusion of Thai and European cuisines, he'll be cooking and conducting demos and classes. Passengers on this cruise will also enjoy three free shore excursions, including a classical concert in ancient Ephesus.

Cruising for Less (Relatively Speaking)

If it's the posh life that attracts you, but not the price, Silversea spokesman Brad Ball says consider booking a cruise to a popular destination in the off season, for example the Mediterranean and Caribbean in March, April, October and November. An October 27 weeklong cruise aboard the Silver Cloud from Athens to Port Said (Egypt) is going for $2,697 a person on the line's website. The itinerary includes Mykonos and Patmos, Greece, plus Marmaris, Turkey and Tartous, Syria. A nine-night Caribbean cruise aboard Silver Shadow on November 5 is going for $2,997 per person.

Ball says their Silver Sailing discounts can go up as high as 50% throughout the year, with discounts reduced as (and if) the particular sailing fills up.

Though even the least expensive Silversea cruises are $300 to $400 per person a day, do factor in that fares include all meals, tips and beverages, which could easily add up to $100 (or more) savings per person a day for big drinkers.

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