Review by Fiona Duncan, published 9th November 2005.
It was somewhere in the Baltic Sea that I discovered that the pretty garnet necklace, bracelet and broach I’d recently inherited from an elderly godmother was worth a great deal more than either she or I had realised. They were made in England around 1812, Alexandra Rhodes, senior jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s and one of the country’s foremost experts, told me, and remodelled in France in the early 20th century. How did she know? She pointed to a tiny eagle’s head – the French gold assay mark – stamped on each item. It was so tiny, in fact, that I could barely make it out, even with the help of her eyeglass, and inclined, secretly, to doubt her. But when I returned home and made enquiries, I learned that my godmother’s parents, from whom she had inherited the items, had lived in Paris until the outbreak of World War One. I was impressed. It’s not often that I’ve had my jewellery expertly analysed, and never before on a cruise ship. As Alexandra poured over the scant contents of my case, I sat back and watched the sunlight slanting across an empty sea. This is the life, I thought; and St Petersburg, the highlight of our Baltic cruise, was yet to come.
There’s no more luxurious cruise ship than the Radisson Seven Seas Voyager and her sister, the Mariner, the world’s only two all-suite, all-balcony top-of-the-range vessels. I was aboard the Voyager; at 670 ft long and 12 decks high, she could easily accommodate up to 1,500 passengers, but such is the spaciousness of her cabins that the maximum is a mere 700, with nearly 450 crew to look after them and sail the ship. There are Grand and Penthouse suites, but who needs them when the standard Deluxe suite is so large (although I might make an exception for the wrap-around windows of the six Seven Seas suites)? Add a kitchenette and my cabin would, I reckoned, make a perfect city pied-a-terre, with hallway and walk-in closet, dressing table, desk, balcony with sun loungers, 7-ft long sofa, sophisticated lighting and more cupboards and shelves than I have in my bedroom and bathroom at home.
It took less than two days before I considered it my very own and began to resent the thought of being turfed out at the end. Aficionados of cruising, on vessels large or small, know well that once you have set sail, the boat – or yacht, or ship – soon becomes your universe. The world outside fades to an indistinct memory and even ports of call seem like mysterious, rather unreal places, here today, gone tomorrow. We aficionados (in my case of sailing yachts – this was my first passenger cruise) know that for a successful trip, we must feel completely happy in our temporary floating home. And so I was – happy and very spoiled, with 24-hour room service and four restaurants (the food was sophisticated and the service second to none) to choose from, plus a glamorous rooftop pool deck, shops, internet café, fitness centre, spa, beauty salon and show time theatre to keep me quiet. And along the way I learned a thing or two about antiques and jewellery, including, as it turned out, my own, thanks to one of Alexandra Rhodes’ individual consultations for passengers. Amongst the themes on selected Radisson cruises – which include classical music and jazz, food and wine, photography and film – their Spotlight on Antiques is particularly popular, especially in parts of the world, such as the Baltic and the Mediterranean, where antiques and curios can be found in shops ashore. And who better than three experts from the BBC Antiques Roadshow to advise? As well as focusing on various aspects of antiques (in our case concerned with food and the dining room, from porcelain Montieth bowls to silver potato rings) our three experts – Alexandra, Lady Victoria Leatham and David Battie – took us, amusingly, behind the scenes of the BBC show, now filming its 28th annual series. “You get people who’ve queued for three hours,” said ceramics expert David Battie. “They sit down in front of you and solemnly unwrap a plate. They look at you and you look at them. You take the plate, turn it over, and on the back it says ‘microwave safe’”. Lady Victoria recalled a Roadshow in Malta where people had been queuing for hours and a near-brawl was developing. “They don’t do queues in Malta and the noise outside was becoming deafening. A woman was ushered in and strode forward to my table. With a dramatic flourish she produced from her bag a voluminous black velvet bedspread which she proceeded to shake out, enveloping me in a thick cloud of fleas. The result was a line of angry bites right round my neck and an irate producer complaining that I couldn’t be filmed in that state.”With Stockholm behind us, St Petersburg looming on the horizon and Tallinn, Riga, Copenhagen and Amsterdam still to come, our three experts prepared us – or rather those amongst the predominantly American and British guests who were interested – for the treasures waiting for us in St Petersburg and in the Hermitage in particular: gold and more gold, malachite mounted in ormolu, micro mosaics made of miniscule pieces of glass or stone, engraved ivory, snuff boxes and samovars and so much more.
We also picked up plenty of tips for bargain hunting back home. I learned what to look for when buying decanters, cutlery and dinner services as well as the reason why there are so many antique spoons around (useful for slurping when you have rotten teeth) and that the Queen eats fish with two forks. Alexandra brought to life some of the 20th century’s great jewellery collectors such as Daisy Fellowes, for whom the couturier Elsa Schiaparelli created shocking pink to complement her pink diamond, the Tête de Belier, Meanwhile, on trips ashore we rootled about in antique shops, with new purpose in our search (particularly rich pickings in Copenhagen), and presented any puzzling finds to the experts at our very own Antiques Boatshow towards the end of the voyage.
They had a story to tell about every object, however humble, and a valuation for each. A 19th century stamp album won the prize for best buy, though the exquisite Coalport sauce tureen, cover and stand that David Battie found at the back of a display cabinet in a dusty shop in St Petersburg, was the real star of the showMy first cruise, but not my last. I’m a convert, at least to the Seven Seas Voyager and all who sail on her. Come to think of it, if I sold those garnets, I could pay for another trip; I might even afford a Seven Seas Suite.Essentials Radisson Seven Seas Cruises offer a selection of cruises worldwide, ranging in length from one week to 108 days for a world cruise. The cost of the next 11-night antiques-themed Baltic cruises, in June and August 2006, between Dover and Copenhagen, is from £2,990 per person in a deluxe balcony suite. Prices include: all meals, use of facilities and entertainment; wine or spirits with dinner; in-suite bar set up on embarkation; warm beverages and soft drinks throughout; all events scheduled as part of the Antiques Theme; 24 hr room service; all gratuities; port charges. Flights are additional: British Airways flies between Copenhagen and Heathrow daily from £86 for a single fare.