I was needed in Singapore for work and my husband, Casey, was dying to see Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. That was hardly next door and more planning that I wanted to undertake on short notice. What to do? Silversea cruises came to the rescue with a sailing on its newest ship, the beautiful all-inclusive, all-suite Silver Muse.
Commencing in Singapore, over 18 days the Muse made two stops in Indonesia and five in Australia, including two glorious days in Cairns, gateway to the reef and ended ultimately in Sydney.
Embarking the Muse was a snap as the cruise terminal was only 15 minutes from central Singapore. Ten minutes after stepping out of the car, we were on board, immediately handed a glass of Champagne — this could only end well — and following a two-minute stop at reception for key collection, escorted to our suite.
The 698-foot Muse has eight passenger decks with 411 crew and carries a maximum of 596 passengers. With such a crew-to-passenger ratio and superb training, service is truly unmatched. Even more wonderful, all Silversea cruises come with a dedicated butler who makes certain guests want for nothing.
About one-third through the trip I realized that our butler Dhanraj, who hailed from Mauritius, was not only friendly and kind, but a soothsaying mind reader capable of knowing what was wanted or needed even before we did. It was around this time that I very strongly suggested to Casey that Dhanraj might wish to permanently relocate to our home.
Suites are large, starting at over 330 square feet and beautifully appointed. Pillow menus have eight options while cotton and satin Italian-made Rivolta Carmignani sheets and Tiara pillow covers with hidden scented sachet pockets ensure dreamy sleep. Suites also have bar setups and refrigerators filled with tailored items. For those who wish to stay connected, suites have large, flat-screen HD televisions and unlimited ship-wide Wi-Fi. Marble bathrooms have separate, large soaking tubs, spacious enclosed showers and Bulgari amenities.
With 24-hour room service serving outstanding meals within 30 minutes, nine restaurants, including speciality restaurants French La Dame and Japanese Kaiseki, nine bars/lounges with live entertainment, food and drink boredom was simply impossible. A well-equipped fitness center meant gaining 100 pounds was not destiny and Zagara Spa’s treatment menu included an onboard dermatologist that could help tame the ravages of Father Time. Also on board, a large swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, humidor, casino, expert enrichment lectures, wine tastings and other curated activities.
Central Java’s Borobudur and Bali
Our first stop was in Central Java, Indonesia’s cultural heart. In the 8th and 9th centuries this region cultivated some of the country’s great Indian kingdoms. This included the Buddhist Sailendras who built the world’s largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur.
Abandoned by locals allegedly harboring superstitious beliefs surrounding the hill on which it is located, it was “discovered” by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1814. It was later restored and finally became a UNESCO site in 1991. The five levels up to the giant stupa — dome-shaped structure — contain 1,500 bas-relief carvings portraying Siddhartha’s earthly life. Above these sit 432 stone Buddhas, and above these 72 stupas reflecting Buddha’s path to enlightenment culminating at the main stupa and highest enlightenment attainment.
Indonesia’s 17,000 islands with over 270 million people is the world’s most populated Muslim country. This makes Bali, our next stop, so intriguing as Balinese people remain Hindu. While Bali has dramatically changed since the hedonistic 1970s, and indeed even since I spent several months there in 2011 writing a book, it remains alluring and charming, commercialism and traffic notwithstanding.
We headed to Ubud made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book “Eat, Pray, Love.” Ubud had changed with notoriety, but still retained grace. The 1,000-year-old Hindu sacred site of Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave, features intricate carvings in a lush rainforest setting with a large lily pond and waterfall.
About 12 miles away, the Hindu Tirta Empul — holy spring water — is used for communal purification in an idyllic setting. At Tegalalang, ethereal jade-green terraced rice paddies are an agricultural icon in a stunning rural setting, though now there are zip lines and swings providing an aerial perspective.
A traditional Balinese massage buttressed me for the stealth textile shopping that followed while Chilean sea bass and delectable lemon merengue pie at Silver Muse’s Atlantide refueled us.
Darwin: Capital of Australia’s Northern Territory
Following three calm sea days we arrived to Australia’s Darwin, called Top End and known mainly for crocodiles with 140,000 saltwater crocs and 150,000 freshwater ones. Accordingly, crocs are part of Darwin’s cultural conscience. At Crocodile Cove, we fed young crocs cow hearts while heartier souls went into plexiglass cages and swam amid full grown ones.
Darwin was tattered two months after Pearl Harbor when 64 Japanese air raids released 683 bombs killing 235 people and wounding several hundred more. There are several memorials in town, military museums and vast underground oil storage tunnels used during WWII. In 1974 Cyclone Tracy brought devastation to Darwin again bringing it to its knees. However outback Aussies are incredibly resilient and Darwin has rebuilt.
Cairns: Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef
This charming town with wide pedestrian walkways, cafes, bars and aboriginal art galleries is the portal to the world’s largest and longest coral reef stretching over 1,400 miles along Queensland’s eastern coast. A UNESCO site since 1981, it has over 1,500 fish species, 4,500 vertebrae species and six turtle species.
Embarking a 90-foot catamaran, we sailed 30 miles to Flynn Reef. Ninety minutes later we were snorkeling in 82-degree water amid fish aplenty, including giant trevally and brassy drummers. Stealing the show, a massive humphead Maori wrasse with its yellow-tinged, odd-shaped forehead. After four hours in the water we wanted more, so the next day we jumped on a 60-foot catamaran to Upolu Reef in the morning and Upolu Cay for the afternoon.
Yard-length clamshells, mammoth dinner plate-diameter neon-blue starfish and gargantuan 5-foot humphead parrotfish competed with a pair of clownfish who live in symbiosis with deadly sea anemones. Wrinkled after six blissful hours, we returned to the Muse and devoured a marvelous meal of grilled lobster, Wagyu beef teriyaki and miso black cod at Kaiseki restaurant.
Established in 1864, Townsville’s Flinders Street possesses some wonderfully restored colonial architecture originally built between 1899 and the 1920s.
Hopping on a 20-minute ferry ride to Magnetic Island, its 2,500 local residents are far outnumbered by massive 275-million-year-old granite boulders dotting the island amid two-dozen pristine bays. Here local koalas make up Northern Australia’s largest wild colony.
At Bungalow Bay Koala Village, we were able to get up close and personal with koalas. While adorably cute, hugging marsupials — misnomers reflect the bear moniker — most carry the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia that thankfully doesn’t jump between species. Young koalas called joeys eat maternal dung to obtain the requisite bacteria enabling digestion of the highly toxic eucalyptus leaves that comprises their main dietary staple. I doubted going forward I would ever view these 20-hour-a-day dozers in quite the same way.
Shiny skyscrapers, 200 jacaranda-filled parks and oodles of charm belie Brisbane’s genesis as a former penal colony founded in 1824.
Beautifully restored colonial architecture lines portions of the Queen Street pedestrian mall. Near Victoria Bridge the behemoth Treasury Building, formerly public offices — now a grand hotel and casino — is imposingly impressive. Walking over the bridge to South Bank, a free public pool and man-made beach worthy of a five-star resort hotel with ibis’ milling about rendered it hard to believe downtown was a short stroll away.
Nearby, a Nepalese pagoda remains from the 1988 Expo and the Queensland Art Gallery houses a fine permanent collection of Aboriginal art, including several by Albert Namatjira, a celebrated pioneer of contemporary indigenous art. Another dining extravaganza, this time at Muse’s La Dame, ended another perfect day.
Sydney’s iconic opera house came into full view as we sailed toward the harbor. While the idea of disembarking the floating paradise that is the Silver Muse and leaving Dhanraj behind left me nearly bereft, I consoled myself with another great brunch on board and thought of Nicholas Monsarrat’s wise words, “Sailors, with their built-in sense of order, service and discipline, should really be running the world.” Indeed.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, legal columnist and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.