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The Silver Shadow

PASSENGERS WERE OOHING AND AAHING OVER THE BATHROOM WITH A full-length tub and separate stall shower, and the walk-in closet measuring 27 square feet. One guest trained a proprietary gaze on the data port that would allow him to check his e-mail without stepping out of his fluffy Frette robe or leaving the upholstered comfort of his honey-toned, cherrywood-trimmed cabin.

"I can't believe they took my suggestion!" he exclaimed.

And to think, the man added, that he had almost neglected to fill out the passenger questionnaire on the Silversea cruise he took two years ago through the Chilean fjords. "Please tell us in what areas our performance excelled," it instructed. "And also where it may not have."

Peppered with suggestions that are sometimes surgical, sometimes side-splitting, the wish lists of people who have sailed on Silversea's original ships, the Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, are the unlikely motor driving its new-and-improved vessel, the 382-passenger Silver Shadow. As with the upstart company's first "ultra-luxury ships" (the industry tag for them), the Shadow elegantly and imaginatively blurs the line between a full-blown ocean liner and a yachtlike boutique vessel, offering the diversions of the former and the ain't-no-mountain-high-enough service and nearly obscene niceties of the latter.

William Smith, Silversea's president and COO, calls the Shadow "a balancing act," a cautious mix of the tried (all-suite accommodations, room-service meals served course by course, open-seating dining that allows you to eat when you want and with whom you want) and new (the Davidoff cigar lounge with walk-in humidor, the greatly expanded observation lounge, the fleet's first-ever craps table). "It's taking what is already very good and raising the bar," says Smith, a firebrand who runs Silversea the way former police commissioner William Bratton ran the NYPD—hand-picking his lieutenants, and giving them all the rope they need to do their jobs (or, when they fail, to hang themselves).

SINCE I'M NO SEER, NONE OF THESE "ENHANCEMENTS" WAS THE LEAST BIT obvious to me when I visited the Shadow at the T. Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa in mid-May. I have made countless "hard hat tours" of hotels when it was impossible to tell whether they were going up or being pulled down, risking not just my life but my good Gucci loafers. But nothing prepared me for the rawness and chaos of the Shadow exactly 123 days before it was due to launch. If you'd managed to secure passage on the first sailing and happened to stroll past it in wet dock then, you probably would have activated your travel insurance. The ship didn't look as if it were going anywhere soon. If you'd been told that it was destined for the Balkans not to pleasure-cruise but to fight insurgents, you would have believed it.

In an attempt to jolly things up for a visit by journalists and Silversea management, the quay had been decorated with a red carpet and some dusty potted bay trees. Guido Mazzetti, the Shadow's cuddly and universally adored master, tried to bring some nautical glamour to the event by wearing his creamy yellow brass-buttoned captain's jacket. But it was a hard sell. There was nothing glamorous about attending the near-meltdown of the reverse osmosis plant, which produces the 150 tons of fresh water consumed daily. By my own expert calculation, 40 of the 310 miles of electrical wire on the vessel were heaped in a rat's nest in the future Bulgari boutique on deck five. (It tells you practically everything you need to know about the Shadow that one of the only two retailers on the ship is a tony old-guard jeweler.) Taped to the wall of the Piazzetta, which refers cutely to the crossroads between the shops and casino, were two sets of plans. The one dated 9/4/98 showed a snaking corridor leading aft and had a big red X through it. On the one dated 12/11/99, the corridor had been straightened out.

Moored at the yard's seaward quay about five city blocks away was the Silver Whisper, the Shadow's sister ship, which bows in July. It was exactly 10 months behind its sister vessel and looked even more like a warship. I had assumed that ocean liners were constructed horizontally deck by deck, like a sandwich or layer cake. Wrong. As welders on the dock demonstrated, vertical multi-deck sections are assembled, then lowered into place by crane.

"Rather than steel, decks eight to eleven are aluminum—good ol' Alcoa made-in-America aluminum—for stability," explained senior vice president of vessel operations Robin Lindsay, a man as buttoned-up as Smith is backslapping. "The higher up you go, the less weight you want, because weight contributes to swaying." In a corner, Smith pored over spreadsheets, rethinking the different suite types. Would three Royals and one Medallion be more profitable than one Royal and three Medallions?There was still time to change.

Back on the Shadow, Smith test-drove a mock-up suite, sitting on the couch and turning on the television. Based on passenger feedback, TV's occupy high cabinets in the desk units, not the floor-hugging ones they do on the Wind and Cloud; the change, Smith noted, makes for more comfortable viewing. "Guests know our vessels better than we do," he explained. "We have passengers who practically live on the ships, refusing to book unless they can do four sailings back-to-back. So we're in the habit of listening to them."

Smith also gave a thumbs-up to the desk's larger surface, which he said women would love because it gives them more room to apply their makeup. In the bathroom, the COO sat on the toilet. "How else can I make sure the toilet paper is within easy reach?" he reasoned. Leaving the ship for lunch at Gran Grotto, Smith paused to watch the funnel raising, which he likened to putting the roof on a house. That afternoon the Shadow's engines coughed into life for the first time.

AND TO IMAGINE THE FUNNEL MIGHT HAVE CAPPED A RUSSIAN SPY HULL. A BROKER tried to sell Silversea on gutting one to create the Shadow, as Radisson Seven Seas Cruises did for its 1999 Navigator. "We dismissed the idea because of the limitations," says Lindsay. "It seems inexpensive, but once you start retrofitting, it's a nightmare."

The first steel for the Shadow was cut at the Francesco Visentini Shipyard in Trieste, Italy, in July 1998. Fifteen months later the superstructure was complete to deck six, with the major pipework, two Wartsila diesel engines, the generators, boilers, and other heavy machinery in place. If you were cruising around Trieste on October 14, 1999, you would have seen the Shadow, monumentally gray and grim, being towed down the Adriatic coast, the first leg of a 10-day trip around the boot of Italy to Mariotti in Genoa. Without power, propellers, or rudders, it was classed as a barge, not a ship.


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