What does it take to build the most luxurious ship afloat?We go behind the scenes on Silversea's latest, greatest vessel to find out
Judson Baker

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 BROKERtried 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.

Though Silversea shopped bids from other yards for the final construction, outfitting, and furnishing, Mariotti always had the edge, having built the Wind and Cloud to positive reviews from Smith. Jittery about doubling the size of his fleet with the Shadow and Whisper, Smith says that choosing any other company would have felt like jumping without a net.

Not that you should think of Mariotti strictly as builders of commercial luxury cruise ships. The yard accepts only one big job like the Shadow per year, but it will be happy to consider your order for, say, a 340-foot private yacht. Employing an army of subcontractors on the Shadow, Marriotti waws responsible for everything from the painting and cleaning to the electrical and sewage systems, galleys, pantries, floors, and the pool. (Everyone points to the pool's location almost directly above the suite of the owner, the Lefebvre family of Rome, as the best assurance that it will never leak.) The firm was also charged with producing and installing the cabin furniture—Ultrasuede headboards, telescoping pedestal tables—designed by the ship's Norwegian architects, Peter Yran and Bjorn Storbraaten, who can also be thanked for the Shadow's relatively low glitz factor. At the peak of activity in July, the number of workers topped 1,000. It was a drain on the company but the Silversea set up its own seven-man on-site project team to ensure timely delivery of its $150 million-plus baby.

That figure bought 9,000 tons of steel, 40 tons of Thai teak, a Mandara spa offering Javanese honey-and-coffee steam wraps, a Moët & Chandon wine and champagne bar, a computer center, three passenger launderettes, plus an isolation ward with a dedicated ventilation system, and a morgue that holds two bodies or 85 cases of beer. "On every ship I've worked on," an engineer told me, "the crew always chilled its beer in the morgue."

The price does not include "owner's supplies," which might be described as everything that isn't nailed down. For these incidentals, add another $12 million or so. The list fills 70 pieces of Schott Zweisel crystal that go ping! when you flick your finger on them.

TO GIVE AN IDEA OF JUST HOW KEEN people were to be the first to sip from those glasses, the Shadow's maiden voyage from Rome to Lisbon in September sold out in 72 hours. While the reservation books were opened on 165 of the 194 cabins, the balance were held back, occupied by carpenters, plumbers, Silversea executives, and showgirls on call to repair paneling, plug leaks, stroke egos, and wiggle their tail feathers. Every Silversea cruise has the exclusive and jaunty atmosphere of a house party for the happy few, but to be locked out of this one—ouch!

"New ships fill up quickly with collectors of cruise experiences," says Smith. While the median age of Silversea passengers is 62, the men are often corporate honchos who retired early. Brass in Fort Lauderdale like to crack that some guests have such deep pockets they can buy the ship they're sailing on, so how tough can it be to pony up Silversea's famously elevated per diems?

A Silversea cruise averages $850 per person, per day, based on double occupancy in a 287-square-foot Veranda Suite with private 58-square-foot teak balcony. Bundled in the price—which is known and loved for including a catalogue of items other lines charge extra for—are gratuities, plus unlimited quantities of premium-brand liquors, 25 white and 25 red wines, and Moët & Chandon champagne. (A 30-day supply of champagne is 3,200 bottles, or 8.37 bottles per person.) Osetra caviar is also bottomless. If you can stomach it, it's yours for breakfast, mid-morning snack, and lunch, at teatime, with cocktails, for dinner, at turndown—even at 3 a.m. as you make your way through all six tapes of the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (borrowed from the video library) on the VCR in your cabin.

"We've got the highest rates in the industry, which makes me feel good that we're worth that much," says Smith. "Still, I wouldn't hang my hat on being the most expensive. I hang my hat on our sixty-percent passenger repeat rate and the company we keep: hotels like the Villa d'Este are part of our pre- and post-cruise land program."

With the Shadow, Silversea is betting it can create its own legend, and blow competitors like Seabourn Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises out of the water. Silversea claims that at 610 feet long, 81.8 feet wide, and 28,000 gross tons, the Shadow has the highest space-to-passenger quotient in the business. The 11-deck ship is nearly double the size of the fleet's first vessels yet carries only 29 percent more guests. And the crew-to-passenger ratio—1 to 1.3—is one of the most extravagant afloat.

THE CHAOS I WITNESSED LAST SPRING at Mariotti was illusory. On July 29, right on schedule, the Shadow left for sea trials—three days during which the ship was put unsparingly through its paces. Among the 122 technicians on board for "the cruise to nowhere" were representatives from Wartsila and the companies that supplied the stabilizers, elevators, bridge electronics, and waste-evacuation and air-conditioning systems. Silversea's contract with Mariotti guaranteed measurements for speed, agility, vibration, noise, and fuel consumption. The point of the trip was to see if these were met.

The cheer was so loud you could have heard it on land when the Shadow climbed 0.4 knots above its expected maximum speed of 21 knots. At full speed it made a 360-degree turn in a 984-foot radius. In the "crash test" it went from full speed to a dead stop in 2,625 feet and four minutes. Theoretical fuel usage was confirmed: 58 tons in 24 hours at a cruising speed of 19½; knots. (Thick as tar, fuel is heated to 257 degrees before it can flow to the engines.) There was no loss of water pressure when every faucet was turned on and every toilet flushed at the same time. And not a light flickered when the switches were flipped synchronously on every piece of equipment in the ship's four galleys.

With only perfunctory fine-tuning of the joystick controls remaining, the Shadow was all-systems-go for the first time in early August. On the last day of the month, with nearly all of the 303 crew members already living on board, Silversea "took the keys" from Mariotti.

There were a few waves ahead. Friends and family of the crew were invited on a two-day shakedown cruise along the Ligurian coast. But a roiling sea made so many sick that Captain Mazzetti pulled the ship over in Spezia. Then a French fuel transporters' strike forced Lindsay to alter the itinerary of an overnight, pre-inaugural VIP cruise between Monte Carlo and Civitavecchia outside Rome. Lindsay gave the 11th-hour order for the Shadow to depart from Genoa, where it was docked, a costly logistical headache that involved rerouting 350 guests.

None of that anguish was betrayed at the dockside naming ceremony in Civitavecchia the day before the ship's first official sailing. The Rome Philharmonic Orchestra played Beethoven. The Corolla children's choir chirped Verdi. A searchlight raked the face of the Shadow until it picked out, huddled on the balcony of suite 529, the diminutive form of Monsignor Girolamo Grillo. The bishop earned his 15 minutes of stardom by blessing the ship with holy water. Armed with video cameras, locals lifted children onto their shoulders to watch the fireworks. A salamanzer of champagne (the equivalent of 12 bottles) crashed squarely between the H and A in shadow, requiring a hull touch-up the next morning. Polishing his reputation as prankster, Smith stole a reporter's notebook, filling it with phantom messages like "This is the most beautiful ship I have ever seen."

On a final tour of the Shadow that night, Smith was especially proud of the suites' doorbells. But why doorbells?Think about it. In-cabin entertaining is a major part of cruise culture. Isn't it nice that the friends you make on board and invite for cocktails can now ring instead of knock?

Silversea Cruises, 800/774-9996; www.silversea.com.