EMILY PAYNE pushes the boat out on a luxury cruise from Cape Town to Richards Bay
I'M FACED with a stack of several hundred chocolate eclairs, an exotic fruit tart, three kinds of tiramisu and a chocolate dragon that's giving me the eye.
First, however, a glass of champagne. Now where did my butler get to? This morning under the shade of Table Mountain I had excitedly and a little tentatively climbed aboard the six-star Silver Wind. Soon we will be leaving Cape Town on Silversea's elegant 300-capacity liner to skirt the coast of southern Africa.
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Port Elizabeth, Maputo in Mozambique, Richards Bay, Durban and East London all await me. I have no idea what to expect. I'm picturing Upstairs rather than Downstairs but nothing can prepare me for what will be the most decadent 10 days of my life.
After the safety drill I'm shown to my room, a stately affair with notepaper "From the Suite of Ms Payne", Bulgari bath products and a bed the size of Botswana. I meet Bo who will be my butler.
He's a sweet young man from Beijing who becomes my confidant in this world of cigars, champagne and disposable income by the vat-load.
From my balcony I take in Cape Town at dusk. Seagulls skirl, silhouettes against a flush sky, and the twinkling V&A Waterfront is animated with young couples and families. As night sets in we get under way.
By the end of the first evening on board it seems that all 224 staff, from chambermaids polishing the banisters to Khan the outrageously good-looking bartender, know A) my name and B) that I enjoy rum-based cocktails.
"Good evening Miss Emily," they say to me as I pass. I'm starting to feel like Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet.
I do a lot of eating. Stilton blossom with a balsamic reduction, king crab timbale and a trilogy of salmon. Every spread is immaculate. "Presentation is everything," executive chef Ramon de Bernard tells me.
"Because first you eat with your eyes."
The 10 days are not just spent vacuuming up cordon bleu. I also have taxing decisions to make such as whether to go floor-length or sequined for the formal dinners, take in lectures from Brian Jones on his adventures circumnavigating the globe in a hot air balloon or watch silver lycra-clad entertainers perform Abba songs in the Parisian Lounge.
Silver Wind is quite some ship. There are four restaurants including Le Champagne which serves six-course banquets, a clothing boutique, library, cigar room, casino, cocktail bar, pool, two Jacuzzis and an ocean-view spa and gym. Its sister ship was chartered by Russian president Vladimir Putin to wine and dine world leaders.
By the time we reach Port Elizabeth I've forgotten there's an option to get off. What if I miss golf putting, Spanish lessons or bridge for beginners?
Even so, I disembark and wander around what's known as "the friendly city" and said to be the first place South African statesman Nelson Mandela went after being released from his cell on Robben Island.
Founded in 1820 to house British settlers, Port Elizabeth was named after the late wife of the colony's former administrator General Sir Rufane Donkin.
A day at sea allows me to chat up waiter Philippe who says women tell him he looks like Kevin Costner. It's not instantly obvious.
The ex-marine has travelled the world on a cruise ship and regales me with anecdotes.
We arrive at Richards Bay, 110 miles up the coast from Durban and a gateway to South Africa's wealth of safari parks.
I go for a misty sunrise drive at the Hluhluwe Umfolozi game reserve just outside the town of Mtubatuba. It is verdant, hilly and home to 450 bird species and 2,300 white rhinoceros.
This is the first time I really smell Africa.
Maybe it's the elephant dung.
My buggy has close encounters with a family of rhinos and an elephant which mock charges us. Even the ranger's face turns a little green.
A tropical cyclone hits Mozambique and the wonderfully named Captain Michele Macarone Palmieri is forced to cancel our Maputo stop.
The plus side is an extra day in Durban, a city where Zulu and Indian cultures meet and where surfers and sun worshippers bask in subtropical heat along the sandy stretch known as The Golden Mile. A trip to town is a rude awakening.
The streets are packed and I stumble into an Indian market selling sheep heads and fl uorescent "Mother-in-Law Exterminator" curry powder. By coach I visit the Valley of 1000 Hills, an imposing swell of grassy highland shaped by the Mgeni River, now peaceful but once the scene of bloodshed during the Anglo-Zulu War.
At the Zulu Cultural Village I learn about the bead code of Zulu women. The beads are now purely decorative but were once colour-coded so men could check a woman's marital and social standing.
Later, by the pool deck, I sit and observe. My fellow passengers come in all shapes and sizes but all are glamorous.
One lady in her 70s sports head-to-toe Burberry the whole trip. The Drs Keiser, a couple of German cardiologists in their 80s, wear "his and hers" silver and gold lam© suits. None of the people I meet mention money.
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I'm reminded of the bead code. Just being on the Silver Wind is suffi cient to send out a signal. As we reach Cape Town I make the most of the last slice of sun before disembarking into real life. I've mingled with VIPs and been treated like royalty and as I walk down the steps on to the port I'm surprised to feel a little relieved, although I do consider sneaking my butler into my hand luggage.
Silversea (0844 770 9030/www.silversea.com) offers a 10-day South African voyage on board Silver Wind from £3,799pp (two sharing a Vista suite), full board.
Price includes return flights from Heathrow to Cape Town. Departs January 5, 15 and 25, 2013. South African Tourism: 0870 155 0044/www.southAfrica.net =