A sea of surreal luxury
THERE was a moment during my meal at Qsine, one of the signature restaurants on the new cruise ship Celebrity Silhouette, when I thought I'd tumbled down a rabbit hole or, at the very least, stumbled into my own version of Back to the Future: Part II.
The upside-down lampshades hanging from the ceiling and the mismatched oversized chairs were pretty surreal, but it was the dining experience itself which led to the other-worldly feeling of eating in uncharted territory.
We were propelled into the future as soon as we sat down and our handsome Serbian waiter, Lazar, handed us iPad menus containing a bewildering array of tapas-style food and cocktails.
My drink choice - a Moscow mule - seemed like a bit of a cop-out when one of the guys at the end of the table was presented with a dish of ingredients and given a cocktail lesson so he could construct his own mojito.
But the cocktails were soon forgotten as the mountains of food began to arrive, with each dish presented in its own special way. The Disco Shrimp (bouillon-poached tiger shrimps, avocado, tomato and celery) is served in flickering bowls of disco lights, the spring rolls come in large stainless-steel springs, a drawer is turned on its end with 12 compartments housing selections such as olives and croquettes, and sushi is served on skewers like lollipops.
The dessert menu is hidden within a colourful folding picture cube, or you can decorate your own cupcakes with the provided piping bags and choices of sprinkles. Chocolate-covered strawberries decorated as toadstools and real eggshells hiding creme brulee are presented on a square of fake grass hanging around the waiter's neck like an icecream seller at a sports game. Genius stuff, enormous fun - and every mouthful is delicious.
QSine is one of 12 restaurants on the Silhouette and one of the four "speciality" venues where guests pay a surcharge to dine.
Another of these is the Lawn Club Grill, the cruise industry's first outdoor interactive barbecue restaurant. Here guests can choose to grill their own meat and veges or make their own pizzas with the help of a chef, and there are cooking demonstrations and classes during the day.
But it's not just in its restaurants where this beautiful ship is breaking new ground - there are plenty of areas with contemporary and innovative twists which are shaking up the world of cruising.
The Silhouette is the latest ship in the Celebrity fleet and it cost about $900 million. We won't be seeing it down this way anytime soon but sister ship Solstice will be sailing in our waters later in the year.
We're on board as part of a group of 2000 members of the international travel industry and press for a pre-inaugural jaunt to check out just how shipshape Silhouette is.
Over three days, we cruise down the western coast of Italy towards Naples and back, from the port of Civitavecchia, one-and-a-half hours out of Rome. This is where the Silhouette is now based, sailing back and forth to the Holy Land until October when it moves to the United States.
At capacity, the ship holds 2850 guests but there are so many private areas dotted throughout that it's easy to find a spot all to yourself to chill out and read a book or soak up the sun.
A good place to do this is at one of the ship's most impressive features, the real lawn on one of its top decks. Up here you'll find The Alcoves - eight reservable cabanas decked out with picnic hampers and iPads loaded with music, movies, games and magazines - areas to play sports such as petanque and croquet, a couple of bars and several eateries.
Another favourite lounging space is a chic indoor area called The Hideaway. This retreat is home to stylish egg chairs, avant-garde "tree huts" and reading nooks built into the walls.
The bars and clubs continue the ship's cutting-edge ethos - the Martini Bar has a counter made of ice, the Qasar nightclub, has a state-of-the-art futuristic light display and the Molecular Bar - the brainchild of liquid chef Junior Merino - serves up cocktails using fresh fruit, natural juices and sometimes flowers and spices, topped with liquid nitrogen for effect.
If you prefer your drinking establishments a little more traditional, Michael's Club is an elegant bar, rather like a men's club, which stocks more than 50 international craft beers as well as top-of-the-line spirits. Here you can do beer tastings while watching sport on TV or enjoying live music.
The Crush bar offers vodka and caviar pairings on an ice-filled table. The ship's wine bar, Cellar Masters, uses an Italian wine system which allows guests to serve themselves wine tastings from a choice of more than 30 bottles.
The ship also features an iLounge web cafe with an Apple retail area and MacBook workstations, fantastic contemporary art including photography, paintings, sculpture and installations - such as live birds on digital screens inside real bird cages - and classic and modern decor. Glass elevators zoom up and down the central atrium around a live tree suspended in mid-air, and music piped through the ship includes Arcade Fire, Florence and the Machine and Radiohead.
The shopping is top-notch too, with two luxury brands opening their first stores at sea - Michael Kors (of Project Runway fame) has a reasonably priced boutique selling accessories, while Bulgari has a Faberge egg going for an eye-watering US$25,000 (NZ$30,000).
Treatments at the ship's impressive AquaSpa range from a 24-carat gold facial to acupuncture and bamboo massages, and cosmetic procedures available include teeth whitening, Botox and fillers.
Since luxury is the name of the game on the Silhouette, we had a peek inside one of two penthouse suites. They come with their own butler, a spa bath on the balcony, a programmable baby grand piano, a surround sound entertainment system, two 52-inch TVs and a walk-in wardrobe.
Our AquaClass balcony staterooms are not quite as opulent but still luxurious and modern. Guests who opt for these rooms enjoy extra AquaSpa privileges and have their own dedicated health-focused specialty restaurant, Blu. And that private balcony, with its two loungers, is to die for.
So is the Silhouette shipshape? Most certainly.
The captain, Dimitrios Kafetzis, says cruising is the most relaxing vacation you can ever have, and on this ship you can add luxury and innovation to your holiday checklist as well.