A luxury cruise, like the Silversea Silver Whisper -- drop dead luxury. Do it once, do it now. And to get the most out of it, keep in mind that nothing is perfect, even luxury. So plan for that and you'll have the time of your life. In fact, once you get the hang of it, you can use these tips to turn an ordinary trip into a luxury experience.
Tip One: Luxury is affordable. Shop online or follow travel section ads and find a premier cruise for huge discounts off the rack rate, especially if you travel in the shoulder season -- just before or after high season, which is now. We chose the Silversea line because it is often referred to as the world's best small ship cruise line, offering stateroom suites with private teak verandas and a culinary Relais & Chateau affiliation. It didn't take much digging to find an advertised discount fare from Silversea for 50% off the published fare. In our case that amounted to $3247 a person rather than $6395 each. That's all-inclusive -- meals, most wines and beverages (including in-suite beverage cabinets stocked with our preferences), complimentary 24-hour room service, in-suite movies and CD player, and normal gratuities -- and, most importantly, an impeccably trained staff that does not (to a person) know how to say "no."
Tip Two: Consider shipping your luggage ahead. Some port customs restrictions will not allow this (you have to arrive with your luggage), so check with your cruise line and with FedEx, DHL, and UPS. This is situation in which paying a premium for peace of mind may be worth it (domestically or internationally). There are hassles that also have to weigh. You have to pack up to a week in advance, list everything in your bag for customs, and possibly face customs charges on something you already own. (I did ship my luggage back home at the end of the cruise, and it was all handled by the cruise staff.)
Tip Three: On any major trip, especially abroad, take a couple of days at the beginning to unwind and get in the groove. It pays off in more ways than you can imagine. In our case, what was supposed to be a relaxing transition turned out to be a nail-biting, cell phones a-blazing two days of chasing down our luggage (we didn't have the option of Tip Two). I absolutely could not have gone on the trip without my 4 Audrey Hepburn hats -- no way! But we had smartly packed carry-on bags for 2 transitional days in Antigua, and the universe had two days to sort itself out. We launched from St. John's in style.
Tip Four: Do not travel without an international cell phone, whether arranged for at home or abroad. Using phones locally for international calls -- whether cell-phone, landline, or ship-to-shore, can be extremely expensive, and we discovered that in the Caribbean.
Tip Five: Once you commit to a luxury experience, be consistent. Have fun preparing for it. Buy that drop-dead gorgeous dress, even if you wear it only that once. This is not the time to cut corners. So go in style every way. Fly first-class or upgrade. Arrange for private cars for transport to and from the airport, hotels, and ports. A driver waiting for you with your name and a sign saves much hassle for a negligible price difference, particularly in less-familiar surroundings. Dress for the country club, not the surfer beach club (most ships have formal, informal, and casual nights, so you need variety). Be gracious and friendly; your discreet manners and their attentive service go hand-in-hand for a make-or-break experience. Snobbery and rudeness do mnot travel well or get you much, whatever the price.
The supreme advantage of a small ship is personal attention, so get to know the important staff immediately. When you arrive on board, introduce yourself to the maitre d', the cruise director, and others who will oversee the amenities you care about most. Since food and wine were our focal points, we scoped out the dining room before our first dinner, chatting with the staff, letting them know our seating preferences, and reconfirming our low-fat, low-cholesterol meal requests. When we arrived for dinner the first evening, we were treated like VIPs.
Tip Six: Before you sign up, be certain that the cruise's social and leisure activities fit your style and preferences. Smaller cruise ships do not offer something for everyone as the large ships do; nightly options are often limited to one offering at a time. What we learned was that the taste of the cruise director's definitely was not the same as ours -- Bad Broadway shows and dance bands with very limited repertoires were surprising for such a classy cruise line. On the other hand, Silversea's new author lecture series adds new dimension to the daytime experiences.
Tip Seven: Research the island ports in advance, particularly if you're not planning to spend your time on all the organized tours. Shore excursion partnerships bring cruise lines make a lot of money, so they promote them heavily. You can make your own shore arrangements directly in advance, including organized tours, at a lower cost. Or, once on land, rent a taxi and create your own experience. At any rate, it's smart to do some homework and make some plans before you leave home, even if it's to go to a local beach resort. Time is short, distances may be long, and island time is island time, which puts your schedule at their mercy.
Tip Eight: Use the ship's fitness facilities. If you exercise regularly at home, take advantage of the machines, classes, golf cages, and jogging tracks. Changing your physical rhythm for days at a time at sea can be very disconcerting.
And Tip Nine -- What to pack beyond what they tell you:
- Sundries. Ship boutiques are open at inconvenient hours because of sales restrictions in ports. You don't want to run out of toothpaste for days at a time.
- Plenty of changes of clothes. The ships are heavily airconditioned and the ports, especially in the tropics, are not. That means a lot of variety -- and often only one wearing per outfit to stay fresh. While luxury ships have amply laundry and dry cleaning services, it can take a day to turn them around.
- Hats. You're on the water and the rays are intense. Especially if you are in the tropics close to the equator, you will burn twice as fast as normal, even if you are from sunny climes and have a good base tan. Wide-brimmed hats for women and Panama hats for men are essential in the Caribbean.