A three-day sampler leaves cruise-sceptic Giovanna Dunmall wanting to stay for more
'Appropriate evening formal wear for women is an evening gown or cocktail dress" reads the cruise information guide that I receive in a beautiful leather travel wallet at home but choose to read – helpfully – on the plane to Barcelona where I am to board my ship. I panic, and hope my understated grey COS number will make the grade. Luckily, there are only two formal nights every eight days. Phew. My very next thought is how different it all sounds from those several-thousand-capacity floating behemoths you see ploughing their way out of deep Mediterranean harbours, full to the brim with mini-golf and climbing walls. Not an experience I've ever wanted to participate in.
As soon as I board the Silver Spirit, which holds 540 people, and am offered a warm scented towel I realise this is definitely not that sort of cruise. I am whisked to my suite on deck seven, replete with walk-in wardrobe, a veranda and a roomy living area. My butler Albert arrives and swiftly points out the caviar menu, spa treatment guide, and Bulgari amenities ("Or would you like Ferragamo instead, Ms Giovanna?") before asking if he can bring me a bottle of prosecco. I want to pinch myself. Instead I hear myself saying, "Yes, of course" and then, after a brief inspection of the pillow menu, realise that I am uttering the words: "Could I please try the buckwheat, memory foam and body pillow?"
By the time I have enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine, my pathological fear of cruising is certainly on the wane.
After a snack poolside on deck nine I change outfits. (Tonight it's informal wear, so "dresses or pantsuits" are required. I wear a nice blouse and trousers.) Then I head for dinner in the Italian-themed La Terrazza restaurant. The standard is high: the pasta, breads and profiteroles are home-made, and the sole with lemon sauce is delicate. My fellow diners are split between those close to retirement age and younger couples and families. The older mother and grown daughter combo seems popular, too.
Afterwards I visit the library, the all-leather and dark wood Connoisseur's Corner, then plump for an outdoor lounger on the panoramic terrace on deck nine. Later that evening, curled up on my giant body pillow, I think: why haven't I thought of this before? The answer is that I simply didn't know you could cruise for just a few days, in complete luxury and at relatively modest prices.
This is a sampler cruise, you see, one of a series of three- to five-day luxury cruises around European destinations that Silversea has launched this year to attract the time-poor and the curious. Sampler cruises are also designed to knock the sort of preconceptions that I had firmly on the head. My three-day cruise takes in Barcelona, St Tropez and Monaco. It's short enough to leave me wanting more, and not so long that I wouldn't do it again. Going to three countries and never once having to lug my suitcase around or stand in line at an airport feels like a minor victory in itself.
Inside, the ship is spacious. One of a fleet of seven small cruise ships operated by the Italian-owned Silversea company, the Spirit is its largest (the smallest carries only 100) but somehow, never feels packed. There are just three of us in the Observation Lounge for several hours one morning, and I have the outdoor Jacuzzi to myself as we pull out of St Tropez. And I always find a place in one of the ship's six restaurants, though I fail in my self-appointed task to try them all.
The Relais & Chateaux restaurant Le Champagne is small and consistently booked out, and I run out of time to visit the Stars Supper Club, another smaller venue that does an intriguing tasting menu in an Art- Deco inspired interior. However, I do make it to the outdoor Pool Grill (aka Hot Rocks), an upmarket barbecue where guests cook their own fish and meat on pre-heated volcanic rocks. I also have some of the best sushi and tempura of my life at intimate Asian fusion restaurant Seishin, and have several more meals back at La Terrazza (which becomes a multi-cultural buffet at lunch).
My sampling menu gets jammed up quickly. It's hard to try even one third of the activities on offer. Every evening I get a copy of the Silversea Chronicles (along with two chocolates) on my bed detailing the next day's on-board and on-shore highlights and telling me where the rest of Silversea's fleet is (a clever touch that makes you want to book your next cruise as soon as possible).
The bulletin of daily activities ranges from early-morning walks on the deck-10 jogging track, to wine tastings with the head sommelier. There are afternoon port talks (I attend one on Monaco's three Gs: Gaming, Grand Prix and the Grimaldis), evening musical performances in the main auditorium, and 7pm cocktails and dancing with the Gentlemen Hosts for solo travellers (not my thing, but many female guests seemed to enjoy it).
Given that I am only on the Spirit for three days, I stick to the steam room and sauna, lounging on various decks and eating. I do, however, stir myself for long enough to go on an excursion in St Tropez. The tour of Port Grimaud, a private lagoon city built in the 1960s, and Grimaud, a beautiful medieval village, is led by knowledgeable local guides and well worth the extra $99 (£64) excursion charge (even on an Italian ship in French waters, the US dollar is the currency on board).
The real beauty of a Silversea cruise, though, is that everything other than spa treatments, the internet and excursions is included. So whether you order room service at 3am or eat and drink all through the day in the ship's restaurants and bars, you never have to sign a tab. And the well-stocked mini-bar and tips are built in to your cruise price too.
My new found respect for cruises – well, this cruise at any rate – is sealed when I decide to have dinner in my suite on my last night. Albert serves prosecco and appetisers on my balcony, then a main course of fish and a flamboyant raspberry dessert in my living room, which he has magically transformed into a restaurant for one. I feel so spoiled I could kiss him. Next time I might just book for an entire week.
Giovanna Dunmall sailed from Barcelona to Monte Carlo as a guest of Silversea (0844 251 0837; silversea.com), which has a range of short sampler cruises sailing the Mediterranean in 2014 with prices starting at £1,040pp, for four nights, cruise only.
Appeared in The Independent, 27 July 2013