“Nine months of anticipation and three months of disappointment,” is how our tourist guide, Galina, described St Petersburg’s weather, her nature far sunnier than the grey, gloomy skies which loomed overhead.
When the sun did manage to peep through, the majestic city’s grand golden palaces and ornate onion-domed churches sparkled as brightly as bejewelled guests on my 10-day Silversea’s Copenhagen to London cruise, calling at Helsinki, St Petersburg and Tallinn.
The beluga caviar of luxury small ship cruising, Silver Wind served up an inspirational menu of gourmet dining, fine wines and informative lectures. It gently whispered opulence and understated elegance, although the four formal evenings provided guests with plenty of opportunity to dazzle and shine.
The smallest of Silversea’s five-strong fleet is reassuringly compact, with the ambience more relaxed house party than formal hotel, thanks to the warm, attentive and friendly service throughout.
Guests were addressed by name in the restaurants by waiters – mostly Italian, Filipino and French – who quietly attended to our every need with zest, humour and charm. Many had trained in other professions in their homelands before coming to Europe to work for Silversea. Being a small ship, dining was informal with no set tables or sittings. The two main restaurants and bars were located aft, where panoramic windows provided glorious sea views and burning infra-red sunsets.
My partner and I were welcomed on board in Helsinki with a chilled glass of champagne while our bags were taken to our Veranda cabin. We were just in time for lunch in La Terrazza, where we selected from a mouth-watering array of seafood, meats, salads, pastas and calorie-laden desserts. We dined al fresco and toasted our arrival on board with a light Chardonnay before walking into the city, returning by the ship’s shuttle bus an hour before sailing.
More informal than the main Restaurant, La Terrazza was my favourite for breakfast and lunch, where the charming head waiter, Ronnie (a qualified architect), orchestrated a service of light omelettes, fluffy pancakes, melt-in-the-mouth bagels and delicious seafood buffets. A light breakfast was also served at the poolside bar.
During the evening, La Terrazza was transformed into an Italian trattoria (as befitting the company’s ownership), serving up dishes and wines from different regions such as Calabria and Piemonte every night. A slice of the crispiest melt-in-the-mouth pizza was followed by a choice of delicious antipasto from the buffet and freshly-made pasta, with seafood and a fresh tomato and chilli sauce. Main courses followed for those still with room to take in more food.
It’s Relais Good
As good as La Terrazza was, the menu still paled beside that of THE RESTAURANT, which never failed to impress with its Relais & Chateaux signature dishes.
Scallops, lamb, snails and beef were artistically crafted into wonderful creations such as roasted beef Chateaubriand with truffle and foie gras sauce or roasted leg of lamb with eggplant cake and Thyme-infused pan flavours.
Two flamboyant lunchtime buffets, complete with towering chocolate table sculptures, provided the chefs with a great opportunity to showcase their superb culinary skills. The Galley Lunch also gave us the chance to go behind the scenes and see the chefs at work.
The Kiel Canal, which provided us with a short cut between the North Sea and the Baltic, was a fitting backdrop to the Frushschoppen buffet, a German-Bavarian version of brunch consisting of white sausages, sauerkraut, sweet mustard and a variety of other local delicacies.
Afternoon tea was a daily ritual of tinkling piano music, delicious bite-size sandwiches, fluffy scones and pastries freshly made each day by the onboard baker and patisserie chef. Artistically arranged on elegant tiered cake stands, only guests with iron will seemed able to resist.
Still, with a hi-tech gym and twice-daily exercise sessions (aerobics, Pilates and yoga), plus jogging track and small swimming pool, there was ample opportunity to work off extra calories. Unfortunately, exercise classes were held in the bar or side room where chairs had to be cleared away, which was far from ideal. Hopefully, now the ship has been refurbished, facilities will have improved.
The new ocean-view Spa built on the top deck will certainly take pride of place, replacing the fairly cramped treatment rooms. A wide of range of beauty treatments are on offer, including an excellent hour-long deep tissue massage with scrub which I received from Clara.
The new observation lounge on the top deck will also provide a welcome addition, along with eight new suites, flat screen televisions in all cabins and a much-needed refurbishment of public areas.
One advantage of Wind’s small size was that the public areas and cabins were easily accessible from the centrally located lobby areas, lifts and circular stairs, which wound around each side of the nine decks.
Our cabin came with large and welcome balcony, complete with table and chairs. Tastefully decorated and fairly spacious, it comprised a huge double bed, comfortable lounge area with sofa and a well-stocked fridge, plus a wooden storage unit where the TV could be usefully folded away. A selection of toiletries, bath robe and slippers were provided in the marble bathroom, which was small and a little tired around the edges. The walk-in dressing area had plenty of hanging space for two, though.
Room service, which was available 24 hours a day, was incredibly prompt and efficient. Dinner could also be served course by course in the cabin at no extra cost. Our cabin maids were a delight, always helpful and smiling – nothing was too much trouble for them.
Equally charming was historian Alastair Bruce, a descendant of Scottish king Robert the Bruce, who delivered three inspirational lectures, providing a background to the areas we were cruising. Navigating us expertly through the Kiel Canal’s history from the bridge, he turned what could have been a drizzly sailing into a fascinating exploration of locks, military history and European trading.
A commentator for Sky News and the BBC, Bruce was passionate about his subject, informative and, above all, entertaining. Unlike his lectures, the journey was slow going, taking 14 hours instead of the usual eight, the longest it has ever taken, according to Captain Marco Sangiacomo.
During sea days, a range of low-key activities were on offer including team trivia, bridge, French lessons, crosswords, wine tasting and golf putting, where guests could earn points and redeem them for prizes at the end of the cruise. Appropriately themed seminars, such as how to burn fat, also took place!
The cosy library was a popular place for catching up on national newspapers and magazines or borrowing DVDs and books. Help was on hand twice a day if guests had problems connecting to the internet.
A tour of the ship’s bridge was a highlight, Silversea seemingly being the only cruise company still to offer this facility. Surrounded by a huge bank of levers, controls and electronic and papers charts, chief navigator Dimo Zlatev explained how everything worked, covering topics such as navigation, VHF frequencies, safety, cruising speed – usually 16 knots – emergency stops (which apparently take seven minutes) and why local pilots are taken on board to navigate the waters such as the Kiel Canal and River Thames.
Another feature was my meal at La Saletta, Relais & Chateaux’s only wine restaurant at sea. Every night wines from a different region – Burgundy, Spain, Italy – are paired with each stage of Master chef Jacques Thorel’s six-course degustation menu. Before each course, the sommelier introduced each wine, encouraging us to sniff and savour the velvety liquids’ sometimes buttery, sometimes lemony or sometimes fragrant qualities.
Slow-roasted pear stuffed with gorgonzola and Gianduja chocolate fondue with white truffle ice cream were fitting finales to our delicious meal. The experience costs $200 a head, or just $30 if the pre-selected wines are not included. Despite daily mentions in the ship’s Chronicles, La Saletta has been slow to catch on, possibly the extra cost detracting from the all-inclusive nature of this cruise.
The one real disappointment was the evening entertainment in the Show Lounge, which was fairly lackluster and not well supported. Cruise director David Lawton’s renditions of popular old-time classics were aimed at an older audience than me, as was Peter Neighbour’s excellent, but rather dated, clarinet solos.
The real high point in the ship’s entertainment offerings was violin diva BEVERLEY DAVISON, Silversea’s answer to Vanessa Mae, who wielded her bow at a speed even Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton would be proud of. Peppered with comic asides, this larger than life lady, dressed in a heavy chainmail costume, entertained the audience with a mix of popular classics.
A lead violinist and student of Yehudi Menuhin’s school in Surrey, she has guest-led the Bolshoi, Rambert and English National orchestras, worked with Rudolf Nureyev and performed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. She also founded the first women’s orchestra.
Over dinner, she regaled us with anecdotes about why her valuable violin needs papers to ensure it safely gets through customs and how difficult it is to pack when her heavy costume takes up most of the airline’s luggage weight limit. She described Silversea audiences as “very warm but more sedate,” unlike Holland America cruisers, who are likely to “get up and cheer.”
This was of no surprise as the majority of guests were over 55-plus and an eclectic mix of nationalities – American (60%), British (20%), Australians, Italians and other Europeans.
After dinner, guests retired to the bar, suitably divided into smoking and no smoking areas, for a cocktail or digestif, or to the cosy Humidor for a cigar and cognac. A few regulars tried their luck on the blackjack and roulette tables, while others retired to their cabins in preparation for an early morning start or to watch a decent selection of films which were shown throughout the day.
In port, the usual selection of excursions were offered – city tours, bike and boat rides, meet the locals, music, ballet and museum tours.
In St Petersburg, excursions were something of a Catch 22. It was the only way that cruisers without a visa could go ashore, and the only way those with visas could gain entry to Catherine’s, Pavlovsk and Peter the Great’s palaces.
Highlights for me were a performance of Swan Lake at the beautiful historic Palace Theatre, with a talk afterwards by prima ballerina Ana Alexandrova and tours of Catherine’s and Pavlovsk palaces in leafy Pushkin. A musical evening at the Hermitage Museum also received rave reviews.
In pretty, medieval Tallinn and Helsinki the tours were interesting but the cities were small enough to explore on one’s own, taking the ship’s complimentary shuttle into the centre.
Unusually, the end of this cruise was another highlight. Cruising down the snaking River Thames at midnight with lights twinkling on both banks, we watched as the mighty Tower Bridge was raised in salute as we sailed through. Moored alongside HMS Belfast, we had breakfast al fresco with iconic Bridge silhouetted in the background.
We said our goodbyes to crew and Beverley, seated on the next table. At