Travelers nowadays have to expect the unexpected. Our cruise from the Suez to Indian Ocean proves travelers today need flexibility. Recently, during fall’s hurricane season, passengers scheduled to sail on a cruise to Bermuda had their itinerary changed and headed up the northeast coast because of weather reports. In our own case, last November my wife, Gail, and I were on a Silversea cruise on the Silver Wind from Egypt to the Seychelles Islands when the unforeseen happened.
In our first week out the news came that a Seabourne Cruise line ship was attacked by pirates in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia. People on our ship were concerned because this was the very place we would be sailing for the next day. Fortunately, the Seabourne ship evaded its attackers, but we learned that the dangerous situation there dictated that we change our course.
Capt. Angelo Corsaro informed us that Silver Wind would head west 200 miles away from the African coast. As well, he said that scheduled stops in Djibouti and Eritrea were cancelled. This alteration would give us extra days at sea, but this fact was sugar-coated with the news that we would make an additional stop in the Seychelles. Naturally, everyone agreed with the captain’s decision, but the additional sea days seemed a little more than anyone wanted. Ironically, though, the time turned out to be very enjoyable and certainly relaxing. We think that, as a group, Silversea guests may be more flexible than the average traveler.
What attracts passengers to Silversea, besides the impeccable service and luxury accommodations, is the adventurous nature of the itineraries. With an average 260 passengers aboard, Silversea ships are smaller than most cruise ships, which carry a thousand or more. Thus, its vessels can anchor in smaller ports and sail through passages which are inaccessible to the large ships.
For example, the Passage to Seychelles itinerary attracted us because it went to out-of-the-way places. The journey would take us through the Suez Canal with stops in the Red Sea at the Egyptian resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Safaga, as well as up into the narrow Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan. Then it would dock on the Red Sea coast in Djibouti City, Djibouti, and Massawa, Eritrea. We are avid snorkelers and had heard about the great snorkeling and diving in the Red Sea. In addition, we enthusiastically looked forward to the Indian Ocean and our stay in the unspoiled Seychelles.
We arrived in Cairo a couple days before we were to board ship. We had visited the main sites in Egypt on a previous trip, but the extra time gave us an opportunity to overcome jet lag and to visit the Pyramids and the Cairo Museum again.
Our Cairo stay was at the lovely and ideally located Le Meridien Pyramids. After arriving early evening in Cairo, we staggered into bed, fatigued by the long flight from Los Angeles. When we awoke the next morning, we opened the curtains and there they were, the pyramids, looking to be about a half-mile from our hotel–a nice morning walk, we thought.
After breakfast we found out that walking was a “can’t get there from here” situation. What with the congested streets (Cairo’s traffic is among the world’s worst) and the confusing directions from folks on the street, we decided to take a taxi, which turned out to be the best way anyway. Our driver guided us through and gave us time to see everything.
At the Cairo Museum, first floor exhibits were easy to see and appreciate, but we found utter chaos with the crowds at the King Tut section on the second floor. We were happy to see work is progressing toward building a new, much larger museum out near the pyramids. Next day the bus left to take us and fellow passengers to Port Said, two hours away, to board ship.
There are four ships in the Silversea fleet. The Silver Cloud and Silver Wind, were the two original ships when the company began operations in1993. Dedicated to ultra-luxury cruising, each accommodates 296 passengers; both have recently been refurbished to join the line’s new ships, Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, which are somewhat larger holding 382. Silversea has an all-inclusive policy with all beverages complimentary, including wine and spirits, as well as a no-tipping policy. The ratio of crew to passengers is one of the highest in the business–you know you’re going to get good service. Usually there are a majority of American passengers onboard, but on our trip there were more Europeans, attributed to the long flight from the United States.
On our drive to the port, the highway followed the Nile River delta, and the land was lush and green, full of farms. But beyond lay the arid Sahara Desert. (On our return flight from the Seychelles, when we flew over Egypt there was a ribbon of green winding through the vast expanse of desert–the inevitable path of the Nile, bringing life to Egypt.)
Late afternoon, we boarded ship in the bustling Port Said, where the Suez Canal begins. We were greeted by Silversea hosts, offered champagne and caviar, and taken to our cabin where we happily looked over our lavish quarters. We had our own private teak verandah, as do 80 percent of suites. We unpacked and had time for a drink before dinner as we gazed out at the twinkling lights of the city. We would set sail at 11 p.m.
There was no rush to the dining room for a specific seating as guests can dine when and with whom they please. We prefer to dine with others, finding it a great way to get to know fellow travelers. And, this proved to be perfect on our first night as we met a delightful British couple traveling with her mother. Over the course of the next 16 days, we continued to visit with other interesting passengers while enjoying delicious cuisine, including low calorie, low carb and Relais & Chateaux specialties.
After dinner and a late-night walk under the stars, we returned to our spacious suite. These larger than average suites (staterooms) add to the pleasure of sailing with Silversea. In addition to a comfortable queen-size bed (or twins), walk-in closet, mini-fridge and cocktail cabinet, each features a tastefully furnished sitting area with plenty of room to relax.
Through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea
Walking on deck next day, we saw ships of all types from freighters to luxury yachts, in front, behind and beside us cruising down the canal. (Traffic goes only one way at a time.) The canal, officially opened 1869, was built by Egyptian and French interests. It is approximately 108 miles long and a minimum 180 feet wide. It is extensively used by modern ships as the fastest crossing from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. In fact, taxes paid by vessels represent an important source of income to the Egyptian government. Likewise, the canal is the primary point from which goods are imported and exported.
The banks alongside were sparsely populated. Occasionally we saw small settlements. Patches of green in the distance marked an oasis from time to time, but most of the way there was endless desert. The canal flows through two small lakes and at the end is the large Bitter Lake which makes up almost a fifth of its length. When we exited into the lake, a conglomeration of ships was waiting in line to head up to the Mediterranean.
First stop in the Red Sea was in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, a famed spot for diving and snorkeling. For those not into water sports, the ship offered an excursion to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest Christian Monastery in the world, with roots all the way back to Moses and the Burring Bush. Today it is still in use, inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks.
We were anxious to check out the marine life in the Red Sea and signed up for the ship’s Red Sea Snorkeling Adventure which took us out to the reefs our first morning. To say that we were impressed would be an understatement. The water was crystal clear and the coral in all its various types was amazing–and the assortment of fish astonishing. We saw species we had seen in the Pacific and the Caribbean but in new colors here. For example, wrasse were in unique shades of blue, reds and greens And the surgeon fish were decorated with turquoise and white stripes.
We had rarely seen clown fish (our Egyptian guide called them “Nemo” fish), but they abounded, venturing in and out of its protective anenome shelter. We were ingratiated by a large three-foot orange-spotted emperor fish which invited us to pet him. Most surprising, though, we saw the outrageously bedecked lion fish sporting his lacy, striped wing-like fins, floating by as if he was in a fashion show. (We’d only seen one before hidden away in crevices.) By the end of the day we were in agreement that the Red Sea was our new favorite snorkel spot. Of course, we still had the Indian Ocean awaiting us in the Seychelles.
Next day took us to Aqaba, Jordan. Most of the passengers opted to take the one-day excursion to world-famous Petra, a 2,000-year old Nabataen fortress city. Some went on for another day to a Dead Sea resort and to visit the ancient Biblical sites of Mount Nebo and Madaba. We had been to Petra before, so we opted for a half-day trip to see Wadi Rum, the place made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. We were enthralled by the cathedral-like Seven Pillars of Wisdom rock formations rising from the endless sand dunes. We finished our trip by taking tea with a tribe of bedouins in their leader’s lavish tent.
After two days in Aqaba, it was on to Safaga, Egypt. For many, this stop would provide the cruise highlight. They would take the three-hour bus ride to stay overnight in Luxor, visiting the Temples of Karnak and Luxor, followed next day by a walk in the Valley of the Kings. We had visited Luxor before and were anxious to stay in Safaga, listed in travel books as one of the Red Sea’s prime diving spots.
Safaga is a small port town with a few luxury resorts on its outskirts. Adjacent to the Sheraton Soma Bay Resort is a long pier, going some hundred yards out. Divers and snorkelers as well enter the sea from the end and are immediately on a reef. The resort itself is something to see. Replicas of ancient Egyptian statuary line the long driveway entrance. A golf course lies close which contains very narrow grass fairways (water being a premium). If you’re drive is slightly off, you’re in deep sand. Silversea arranged for passengers to have access to the resort. When we weren’t out with our mask and fins, we lay on lounge chairs on the beach or by the pool.
Relaxing on the High Seas
After leaving Safaga, facing the extra days at sea at first seemed somewhat daunting, but soon we fell into a routine, and, ironically, when we finally reached land days later, we felt a slight tinge of regret that our pleasant routine would be interrupted.
First thing in the morning, after breakfast, we would do brisk laps walking around the top deck; then it might be time to go to an informative talk. Most days there would be 10:30 a.m and 2:30 p.m lecture programs in the theater lounge. For example, Dr. Roger Lederer, biology professor at California State University, Chico, informed us about the places we would visit from the Suez to the Seychelles; he also gave power-point presentations on the oceans, as well as the plants and animals we would encounter at our various stops.
Since the theme of this cruise was “The Spirit of Exploration,” one of the world’s renowned underwater explorers, Dr. Joe MacGinnis, was on board to speak and show films of his many deep-sea expeditions. He was on the Titanic discovery dive which inspired James Cameron to make the movie, “Titanic.” MacGinnis continues to work with Cameron and showed the director’s recent IMAX feature “Aliens of the Deep.” To further entertain us were stage shows at night performed by a company of talented young singers and dancers.
When physical or mental activities became too much, we didn’t miss a chance to relax on our verandah with a book, looking up every once in a while to see flying fish or dolphins chasing the ship. Nodding off for a little nap wasn’t out of the question. Everyday as we sailed closer to the equator, it became warmer, and the pool area was increasingly popular.
Past the Equator–On to the Seychelles
The day before we arrived in the Seychelles we crossed the equator, and, as most know there are rituals imposed on “first-timers” going over the earth’s dividing line. These ceremonies, dating back to when the Vikings roamed the sea, were pretty rough in olden times. “Shellbacks” initiated “pollywogs” by making them go through disgusting actions before a designated “King Neptune,” such as kissing the belly of the “Royal Baby,” the fattest chief on board, and eating sickening food.
Today’s proceedings are less serious, more a celebration. The ship had its own ceremony pool-side which was fun for all. A representative sample of voyagers (all volunteers) were presented one by one and doused with flour and raw eggs, and then made to kiss a fish. It was a lively event witnessed and photographed by most of the passengers.
The next day we arrived in the Republic of Seychelles, a nation of islands in the Indian Ocean, some thousand miles east of Kenya. It constitutes an archipelago of about 115 islands, of which 33 are inhabited. Mahe is the largest, containing the capital city of Victoria. The granite islands around Mahe are the most populated. Those outlying are mostly coral atolls.
The Seychelles are home to 81 endemic species, the most famous being the Coco de Mere, sometimes nicknamed the “love nut” because of its suggestive shape. There is no indigenous population; citizens are predominantly of French, African, Indian and Chinese descent. The French took control of the islands in 1756, but the British gained possession in1814. The Seychelles were granted independence in 1976. Today the islands are clean, well kept and the citizens are comparatively well off–no hustlers and beggars on the streets.
We visited three islands before disembarking in Mahe. Here are some highlights:
*Desroches is small, flat and sparsely populated. Its major attraction is a beautiful beach fringed by palms.
A reef lies about 50 yards out. After swimming to it in shallow water, we had one of our greatest ever snorkeling experiences. After awhile, we came upon a tower of coral with the most varieties of fish we had ever seen in a small space, including many of our favorites–the moon-shaped marong fish and the oriental sweetlips with his polka dot patterned fins–even a lionfish slowly gliding through the multitude. (*Photo of Beach)
*La Digue consists of four square miles, with 2,000 islanders, the majority of whom work in coconut and vanilla plantations. There are a few cars here, but most get around on bicycles and oxcarts. Many ship’s passengers piled towels and gear into baskets and pedaled to the beach–the most photographed in the world with giant granite boulders sculpted into strange shapes by the elements, looming like sentinels above the sand and in the water.
We swam to the outer reef. At first the water was almost too warm, but a cool current came in and it was perfect. I was entranced watching a large octopus wind in and out of the coral, but Gail made a hasty exit back to the shore when she saw several ugly scorpion fish lying on the bottom–deadly poisonous if touched.
*Praslin, called a tropical Eden, is the second largest in the chain. Here we took the excursion to the Vallee de Mai World Heritage site located in the lush tropical highlands where the coco de mer grows in abundance. Our guide took us on a lovely walk, while explaining the strange features of the palm and pointing out exotic birds.*(Photo of coco palm)
All too soon, we reached Mahe and our 17-day cruise was over–but, fortunately for us, we had two more days before flying home. We stayed at the Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove, the hotel of honeymooners as it’s been called. There are 70 guest rooms and suites with oversized bathrooms and private terraces.
Individual bungalows face the water, a few yards from the beach–the ultimate in romantic getaways. Also a snorkelers paradise–out the door, a minute to the sand and into the lagoon. Meals were delicious, particularly in the open air, over-the-water Le Bourgeois restaurant. I had one of my best dinners ever–a whole fish, pan-grilled, probably caught an hour ago. In addition, there is the Le Meridien Barbarons on the west side of the island. It is more suited for families with a modern, sleek design and an abundance of activities for children. Together the two cater to all aspects of the tourist market.
Fisherman’s Cove’s manager said that the hotel gets most of its business from Europeans because of its distance from the United States. We think, however, more Americans should add a jaunt to the Seychelles when in Africa on a game safari. It’s only a short flight from Kenya and not far from South Africa. Better yet, sign up for a Silversea cruise. You can bet the ship will be going back.