PASSAGE TO HONG KONG
On a short voyage across the South China Sea aboard Silversea’s flagship Silver Spirit,discovers that he’s utterly hooked on cruising
WORKING IN HONG KONG but having a family in Manila means I’ve travelled between those two cities more times than I care to remember in the past 10 years. But I’ve never made the journey quite like this before. Instead of glimpsing the South China Sea from a height of 39,000 feet and through holes in the billowing cumulus, I’m sitting just metres above the water at the stern of a luxury liner as it slices a path of straight white foam across the placid blue surface.
I’m taking this short voyage because the Monaco-based Silversea cruise line, owner of the sleek, Bahamas-registered MV Silver Spirit, permits sections of longer itineraries to be booked on a daily basis, the cost depending on the class of cabin. And as Silver Spirit is more or less halfway through a world cruise that takes her, via the Pacific, from Florida, USA to Southampton, UK – and a few cabins are unoccupied as she sails between Bali and Hong Kong – my partner and I have joined her for the two-day Manila-Hong Kong fragment of a four-month passage.
The newest vessel in a fleet that’s a byword for ocean-going opulence, Silver Spirit became operational just two years ago. Carrying up to 540 passengers and a crew of 376, she’s also the company’s biggest ship – though compared with such mega-vessels as Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which packs aboard almost 10 times that combined number of people, she’s mercifully a minnow. I say mercifully because with the exception of dinner time, when there may be one or two groups waiting to be seated (if only for a couple of minutes – there’s always sufficient room for everyone to be accommodated at whichever time of the evening they decide to dine), the relatively small number of passengers means there’s never the feeling that we’re in competition for use of the ship’s facilities.
We embark from a quayside a few blocks away from the venerable Manila Hotel, and once we’ve handed over our passports and credit cards (the latter to cover incidentals such as spa treatments, premium wines and cigars; everything else, including tips, is included in the ticket price), and we, in turn, have received our personalised key-cards, a butler shows us to our quarters, two levels up on deck number six. Cosy in the shipshape kind of way that ingeniously packs an astonishing array of amenities into a relatively restricted area, our accommodations turn out to be comfortable, beautifully finished and even surprisingly spacious.
Thus our suite, which is decorated in sunny oranges and reds, has a marble bathroom with a tub and a walk-in shower. The bedroom has a proper-sized bed facing a mirror that conceals one of two TVs, while the lounge area – which opens onto our private balcony (almost every class of suite aboard Silver Spirit has one) – has room for an armchair as well as a settee. I’ve occupied considerably smaller and far less agreeable spaces in some five-star hotels.
Then it’s off to explore a ship that’s small enough to walk from one end to the other in just a few minutes and yet, with eight passenger decks, sufficiently labyrinthine to keep us occupied for more than an hour, sticking our noses into boutiques, spa, fitness centre, hair salon, library, theatre, casino, Stars Supper Club, Humidor, Panorama Lounge, pool deck, Observation Deck and all five restaurants. After which we position ourselves at the stern to watch, at precisely 6pm and to the strains of a marching band on the quayside, the crew haul up the gangways and let loose the hawsers. As we gently manoeuvre away from the dockside and into Manila Bay, the dappled grey sky ignites into a brief fiery sunset, and then the night descends so fast that we’re in total darkness before we’ve even reached the open sea.
According to the ship’s daily news bulletin, tonight’s dress code is informal, meaning jackets but no ties for gentlemen (ladies aboard Silver Spirit always seem to be exquisitely turned out for dinner, whatever the evening’s dress requirement demands). We take our places in La Terrazza, the Italian restaurant, and the seemingly continuous round of wining and dining begins (thoughts of dining, preparations for dining and actual dining occupy most of our waking moments at sea). One after another, plates piled with authentic Italian dishes arrive in front of us. We also meet our companionable serving staff, including the grandly named Redempto, who mysteriously yet reliably appears beside our table whenever we decide to eat, and at whichever restaurant we dine.
The urge to indulge continues long after we’ve left the dinner table, yet even an extended nightcap on the Panorama deck that keeps us carousing until 1am doesn’t blunt our appetite to be up and about as soon as sunrise reveals a cloudless blue sky and a limitless ocean as flat as a duck pond. At 6.30am the serious exercise buffs are already pounding off the pounds in endless circuits of the funnel. Exhausted by simply watching them, we sit down to breakfast outside La Terrazza and sip coffee and orange juice as Silver Spirit’s wake disappears relentlessly towards the horizon.
Commandeering a hooded pod bed on the Panorama deck, we discover just how blissful doing absolutely nothing can be, sunbathing and snoozing till lunchtime – steaks and beer beside the pool – before returning to our refuge for more delicious indolence. Mid-afternoon takes us down to our suite for a lie-down in the air-conditioned cool, a shower and some serious thoughts about dinner, which tonight is a rather more formal affair in the fourth-deck Restaurant – tuxedoes preferred, lounge suits and ties tolerated. But tonight after rare lamb and red wine, and with an early arrival in Hong Kong scheduled, it’s straight to bed after dinner.
We’re woken at six by a mournful blast of the foghorn, the ship blanketed in a thick mist. I turn on my iPhone, there’s a CSL signal and the map application shows us passing Po Toi and headed towards East Lamma Channel. Approaching one of the world’s most magnificent harbours, predictably we can’t see a thing.
The fog lifts and for a tantalising moment we glimpse the roller coaster at Ocean Park before it closes in again. A cutter pulls alongside and the pilot climbs aboard, followed by several furious blasts on the horn as a rusting Pearl River barge emerges out of the mist straight into our path, then promptly disappears again into the murk. Breakfast arrives at our suite, so we spend the final moments of the voyage on our balcony, munching poached eggs on toast as we slip out of the fog and into the gap between Green Island and Mount Davis, where we’re piped into our berth off Kennedy Town by the band of the Hong Kong Police. It’s time to leave.
Only – and, oh joy! – it isn’t. Because just as we’re about to disembark we discover our passage to Hong Kong has been booked for three nights, not two. So that even though we’re going nowhere, we still have the run of Silver Spirit for an extra day. There are yet more meals to be devoured, and a taxi ride into town so we can play at being tourists, before heading back on board for cocktails in our favourite pod bed at the back of the boat. And as the sun goes down over Lantau, casting Hong Kong and Kowloon in a rich shade of gold, we fervently wish our life on the ocean would go on forever.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO