It’s a clear, starry night aboard SeaDream II, which is anchored just off the coast of Italy in the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Tucked up in a Balinese-style bed with crisp cotton sheets and a snuggly duvet, I am trying to spot recognisable star formations in the skies above but with little luck.
As I drift off to sleep, the shoreline twinkles with tiny lights and a cool breeze picks up.
A night out on deck is just one of the magical experiences aboard SeaDream II, an elegant mega yacht where you won’t find lengthy queues, bingo sessions or gala extravaganzas.
Instead, for a maximum of 112 passengers it’s all about exceptional service from the 95 crew with an emphasis on casual comfort and refined elegance.
Ever since we stepped aboard this beauty in Nice — welcomed with a glass of champagne and chilled hand towels — we have felt at home.
Our seven-night itinerary sees us stopping at picturesque harbours and ports in France, Italy and Spain, disembarking in Barcelona.
Each port is vastly different ranging from a day in Monte Carlo amid big-buck boats owned by multi-millionaires to catching a tender boat to a quaint fishing village lined with seafood cafes and enjoying the best mussels I have tasted.
It doesn’t take long to discover why the twin SeaDream yachts have taken out top accolades for their fine-tuned operation.
Owner Atle Brynestad, who spends four weeks a year aboard each of his two SeaDreams, aims to give passengers the feeling of being on their own private yacht, hence the company’s mantra — “it’s yachting, not cruising”.
Mr Brynestad says he strives for casual perfection with hand-picked staff who engage with passengers but never overwhelm.
A self-made man, who admits as a child he had few toys except for a red car, now has toys of a much bigger size.
He’s passionate about providing a special type of experience for guests who won’t forget their cruise it in a hurry — and he achieves it.
Weeks after reluctantly packing our suitcases we are still recalling special SeaDream moments.
It doesn’t take long to adapt to yachting life, starting with coffee and croissants at the Top of the Yacht bar.
Breakfast is served later on deck with a wide selection of fruits, juices, healthy options and daily specials such as eggs benedict.
If you are looking for exercise you can stretch your legs in a yoga class one morning and a pilates the following and there’s a fitness centre complete with treadmills, bikes and weights.
Great sea views somehow lessen the pain of 30 minutes on a treadmill trying to counteract the inevitable kilos added at each meal.
Chilled towels and bottled water await you when you have finished a workout.
A jog or walk around Deck 6 is also a great way to keep trim and it takes exactly 16 laps to clock up a mile.
There’s also a small pool and jacuzzi and, if you love water sports, you can hop aboard a jetski or waterskis available from the lower deck marina.
Spa aficionados are well catered for with indulgent treatments and massages.
When in port, I loved heading out on a mountain bike and cycling along the shoreline discovering quaint shops and cafes.
Gourmet dining is one of SeaDream’s features and Polish executive chef Tomasz Kozlowski has devised eclectic menus catering for various tastes.
Kozlowski is very much a believer in all things sustainable and concentrates on using the best ingredients that are in harmony with “the plate, the palate and the planet”.
He also takes a chef’s tour at a port on most cruises introducing passengers to passionate producers with lots of taste testing along the way.
We head off with the talented chef in St Tropez, a stunning seaside port made famous by actor and animal activist Brigitte Bardot, where we stop at a wine shop and taste-test the cheeses and some precious drops along with olives and other treats.
Quaint shops filled with swimwear and beach clothes, art galleries and cafes keep us entertained before returning to SeaDream II for lunch, which is served on deck.
There’s a great selection of hot offerings and delicious cold selections and a choice of tasty homemade ice-creams.
Dinner is always looked forward to and often follows a theme — Spanish, French and Italian cuisine are highlights.
Cocktail hour is held every night before dinner with champagne, cocktails and wines served with a selection of canapes.
It’s a great way to meet fellow passengers and we are introduced to a Japanese writer living in New York, a Texan millionaire who loves “yachting” and a Swedish couple who have saved for years for their honeymoon.
Dinner is served in the elegant dining room or on deck by request, weather permitting.
The menus make interesting reading and decisions aren’t easy. There’s a selection of appetisers, entrees, palate cleaners and sorbets, main courses and desserts.
I glance at the healthy treat option, described as a confluence of Oriental and Western dishes, then go even further and opt for the dream raw cuisine.
Described as an epic form or vegetarianism I start with a watercress tang, the juice of watercress, pear, pineapple and lime, followed by shitake and pink grapefruit ceviche, which is a pineapple-avocado puree and heirloom cherry tomato salsa.
Then it’s a purple haze with grapes, sake, lemon and agave nectar and a caper salad with wildflower honey mustard and raw ruby kraut.
I recall Mr Brynestad’s words that it is possible to come on a cruise and not put on any weight, even lose it if you stick to the raw cuisine.
Sadly, my good intentions only last one night and the following night my selection includes homemade gnocchi with tomato concasse and creamy pesto sauce, tournedos rossini and, yes, grand marnier souffle.
A cosy piano bar is a favourite haunt for many after dinner, but when the weather is fine the Top of the Yacht Bar is full of action.
Jovial bartenders get up to cocktails high jinx and prove they could easily give Tom Cruise a run for his money.
Home for the week is on Deck 2, a compact stateroom with plenty of hanging space, entertainment centre and very comfortable beds. The small en suite is stocked with Bvlgari bath products.
For quiet time, I head to the elegant library which is filled with interesting books and magazines or stretch out on a sun bed and gaze out to sea. Don’t be surprised if your sunglasses suddenly disappear for a minute or two.
You’ll find a crew member whisks them away and in no time they are returned, cleaned and polished.
And when the temperatures drop on deck, a cosy blanket just appears. I guess it’s that SeaDream magic in full force.
For details see travel agents, or phone SeaDream Yacht Club in Miami, US, on toll-free 1800 217 902 (open until 11am Sydney time), or email inquiries to [email protected] or visit seadream.com
Rail Europe can organise seamless rail travel to all ports to connect with cruises. We travelled from Montreaux in Switzerland to Nice in France in first class on the TGV to meet SeaDream II. The train was on time, clean, efficient, served excellent food and featured comfortable seats. It’s a great way to travel without the hassle of flying. For information visit Rail Europe See raileurope.com.au