From Middle East Glitz to Ancient Treasures by Larry and Gail Taylor

Two years ago we took a trip to the Middle East. Beforehand, when we told our friends, they usually questioned why on earth we would go there-terrorists, religious strife and all. However, in spring of 2007 when we said we going back to this area, flying to Dubai to embark on a cruise, the responses were different. After hearing “Dubai,” their reaction this time was one of envy. Most had heard about this amazing city and were anxious to see it themselves.

We flew to Dubai this April in order to board the Silversea’s “Passage to Antiquity” voyage on the Silver Whisper, sailing the Indian Ocean along the coast of Oman and into the Red Sea; then through the Suez Canal, ending in Alexandria. On the way we would make stops in Oman, Jordan and Egypt. One thing attractive about the cruise was that we are avid snorkelers and knew that we would have time in the water here.

We wanted to visit this comparatively out-of-the-way part of the world, and Silversea was our choice. Known for its adventurous itineraries, this line is our favorite, deserving its rating as World’s Best by Conde Nast and Travel and Leisure magazines. Besides, its smaller sized ships make it easy to get into ports not visited by larger vessels. We arrived a day before the ship left, wanting to have a quick look at this much-talked-about city and to see what all the fuss was about.

Dubai is a part of the United Arab Emirates, a confederation of seven emirates or districts. Abu Dhabi is the largest, with Dubai the most populated, around a million-and-a-half and growing fast. A boom town, for sure, Dubai has some 17 percent of the world’s cranes on construction sites here…“mind blowing” to say the least. Tall, architecturally creative, these buildings thrust up, up and beyond, changing forever the face of this desert landscape.

A Western-friendly tourism locale, Dubai is known for its lavish hotels, lovely beaches and, believe this, an inside ski slope. Shops here rival the finest in Beverly Hills and Milan. And, coming soon, Universal Theme Parks recently announced plans for a Universal City Dubailand.
Today, the area’s most famous architectural attraction is the Burj al Arab hotel. Over a thousand feet high, it is designed after the traditional Middle Eastern dhow boats, taking the form of a wind-filled sail that appears to take off into the sky. It is to Dubai what the Opera House is to Sydney. Architecture buffs come from around the world to see this.

Clearly Dubai is going after the high-end market. The inside of the Burj is beyond lavish, with rooms ranging from $1,000 to $15,000 per night. Among the perks, each comes with gift bags containing such as chocolates, fine wines, cake, fruit, dates, nut meats, electric toothbrushes, bottles of perfume (Hermes) and slippers you can take with you-and two butlers at your service. When you go out to see the city’s sites, a Rolls Royce is available for transportation.

Offshore, the government is building groups of islands-Palm Islands, shaped into the form of a palm frond, contains the three largest artificial islands in the world. Another, The World, consists of a man-made archipelago of 300 islands in the shape a world map. With these, around 350 miles of beach front will have been added to the city. As if this wasn’t enough, the world’s tallest building is nearing completion. Its height won’t be revealed until finished.

With the country’s oil running out, the word is the ruling Sheik’s plan is to increase tourist accommodations four-fold by 2020. Dubai strives to be the Las Vegas of the Middle East. (In this Muslim country, no gambling, of course, but liquor is served in hotels and restaurants.)

There is so much to see that we barely scratched the surface during our stay. After visiting the Mall of the Emirates which contains Ski Dubai, a sight to see with folks in ski gear coming in from 90 degrees outside to freezing inside the cavernous building. In addition, we enjoyed touring the historic site, Heritage Village, located in Old Dubai, celebrating an era when the area’s commerce was based on pearl diving.
We stayed the night in the Grand Hyatt, a lovely green oasis in the desert with lush tropical gardens. The hotel is situated beside Dubai Creek, which runs through the center of town. From our window, we could see dhows still carrying goods to market, as well as sight-seers taking a sail. Not the pomp of the Burj, but the Grand Hyatt is a spectacular hotel-and with reasonable rates.

Soon it was time to board Silver Whisper for our third Silversea cruise. Previously we had sailed on the Silver Cloud and Silver Wind. Silversea ships are in the mid-size category. According to the ship’s hotel director, Susan Richardson, our cruise was about 60 percent full, with 145 guests, representing 19 different nationalities, led by the United States with 73, with 26 from the United Kingdom.

The staff who serve the passengers is what really makes Silversea special, always remembering your name, constantly offering to help you. So attentive, servers will not even let you carry your orange juice from the buffet to your table. Most were from Eastern Europe, with a significant number from Romania, France, Portugal and India.

The decor of this ship is interesting…quite austere but elegant. The stairwells, which on most ships are brass or wrought iron, are contemporary functional steel, attractively simple. The eclectic nouveau modern look is enhanced by Klimt copies as well as other deco art. The central lobby area is in terra cotta and black marble with assorted water colors and copies of well known tapestries The 10th floor, which houses the spa, gym and an observation area, has framed Indonesian shadow puppets.
Decor in the suites (all staterooms on Silversea are suites) is tasteful, blending subtle blues or reds and beiges in the living and bedroom areas. Bathrooms, too, are spacious and feature colorful marble counters, glass and chrome shelves for storage, and thick, absorbent towels. Closet and storage space is very generous, allowing plenty of room for the variety of clothing it’s fun to bring on a cruise. During the course of each cruise one of three dress suggestions for evening is printed in the daily Chronicles: casual, informal or formal. With several formal nights on a two-week cruise, the extra closet space is something my wife certainly appreciates.

While formal nights are, indeed, very special throughout the ship, dinner every night is like dining in a 5-star establishment. Whether it was an appetizer such as Escargots De Bourgogne Au Beurre d’Au or an entree such as Boeuf Bourguignonne, it was beautifully presented and excellently prepared. For those desiring simpler fare, Chicken Consomme with Matzo Balls and a Sirloin Steak, among many others, were always on the menu. Breakfast and lunch could be elegant or simple, as well, whether taken in one of the two dining rooms, at the pool deck or en suite. An important thing to remember about the Silversea policy, all liquorand beverages are included in the cost of the cruise.

Our first day onboard took us from glitzy Dubai to the plain, simple desert tones of traditional Oman. First stop was the capital Muscat, a clean city with lovely sand-colored architecture. This city is the site of the sultan’s main palaces and two medieval forts from the 1580s, Jalalli and Miranis, which sit imposingly on a hill guarding the entrance to the city. They are still used today by police and the military.
Many passengers strolled through town on their own or others took organized tours of museums and the Grand Mosque, while others went for sail on a dhow in the harbor. We decided that this was the place to snorkel.

Snorkeling wasn’t listed on the ship’s “things -to-do “ list, but we knew there must be good places to see fish and coral. We had flown over the area the previous year on the way home from the Seychelles. From the plane, we looked down on this coastline, seeing outlines of reefs close to the shore.

We had the very helpful tour desk track down a dive boat operator who took us along the shoreline 20 minutes to a small sheltered cove. Here we saw a huge array of fish, some species we knew, others we had not seen before. The highlight was a porcupine puffer fish about the size of a large cat. We were also intrigued by a very colorful Napoleon wrasse, which in other areas was just plain grey. All in all, it was a great day for us in Muscat.
The next morning we left for Salalah, Oman, one of the country’s most popular destinations for tourists. The temperature here is significantly lower than the blazing 120-plus days of much of the country. From the coast, it is a short drive to the Shaman mountains, green with vegetation, a sharp contrast to the desert below. Peak season here for visitors is the monsoon months from late spring through early summer when it rains much of the time. Middle Easterners come here to luxuriate in the downpour…a “singin’ in the rain” type thing.

Salalah also has been the center of trade for frankincense since Biblical times. From the ship, excursions were available to take people to groves of the fragrant spice trees along the way to the archaeological site of the lost city of Udar. Again, in Salalah, we headed for the ocean. From the Crowne Plaza Hotel’s dive shop, we hired a driver who was also a diver who in an hour-and-a-half took us to a beautiful rocky coastline with reefs close in.

Virtually unoccupied except for a few fishermen shacks, a sheltered cove lay before us. The driver/diver led us out into an aquarium wonderland teeming with sea life-beautiful fish in all colors and sizes. We saw exotic eels, colorful starfish, a small shark and a friendly eagle ray that swam along with us. It was so lovely we were in the warm water for some 90 minutes.

On our way back to the ship, the driver gave us a tour of the countryside, pointing out a waterfall coming down a mountain. Often there were camels roadside, bringing us to a stop as they crossed. Along the way, we saw an ancient castle and one of the sultan’s three palaces. Although he often stays here, his eminence was not in that day but out visiting citizens, the driver said, to find out what issues they might have to discuss.
Before we reached port we visited a small grove of Frankincense trees from which we extracted a bit of the precious sap, which is pleasingly pungent. The trees, though, are a bit scraggly looking.

After leaving Oman, we began our first of four days at sea. These were relaxing times, listening to lectures by experts on the Middle East, taking walks on deck, watching movies and, of course, reading and possibly taking in a nap. First morning a speaker presented an hour’s lecture on Islam. It was especially interesting as the day before our Omani driver gave us his version of the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. He was a Shiite but decried the militancy between the two sects.

In fact everyone we met onshore was friendly, welcoming and eager to talk to us. An Egyptian taxi driver was so anxious to go to America and get his Green Card, he didn’t stop praising our country and listing opportunities that awaited him here. He took our e-mail address to contact us when he comes over. Earlier we ran into an Iranian family vacationing in Dubai who spoke to us in good English. As we discussed the various places we had been, it was as if we were talking to a neighbor.

Shipboard, in the evening, there was always entertainment in the Viennese Lounge including an excellent classical pianist and violinist. Other nights there were a variety of singers, comedians and jugglers.

A big night during our sea days was a sumptuous barbecue around the pool under the stars. Roasted pig, ribs, fish, lamb, seafood and oodles of salads and roasted veggies were among the succulent dishes offered. Of course, the dessert buffet was nearly as huge. Following dinner, the band played for dancing and three vocalists sang. The moon was nearly full and the weather was quite warm-a delightful affair.

There are plenty of organized activities for those who want to participate. My wife took a dancing class each day. She loved the lessons and met many people, but sadly she could not persuade me to take the dance floor and practice her line-dancing and rhumba skills. Other pastimes offered included bridge, bingo and trivia games.
The true highlight of any cruise is the people you meet. We always asked to be seated with others in order to mingle with interesting guests. For example, we met an Irish couple, both doctors and learned about their life in Southern Ireland. Another night we met a couple from Oregon. She was a bush pilot in Canada in the fifties. (No major airline would hire a woman in those days.) Her husband was also a pilot. They’ve raced small planes all over the world. In another interesting encounter, we dined with an older scientist who has signed up for a seat on a space ship soon to be launched by airline entrepreneur Richard Branson.

A Southern couple was at our table a couple of nights. His “shtick” was to wear outrageous jackets every night-pink, purple, silver, whatever. Topping it off we met an English woman in her eighties who says she has spent some 700 days on various cruises, but she “loved” Silver Whisper because of Steve, the cruise director. She was really full of life and stole the show at our table telling jokes (some not repeatable), as well as stories about her world travels.

After four days at sea, we docked in Safaga, Egypt. Our two-day stop here is the reason a lot of people come on this cruise. An overnight stay in Luxor is the attraction and over half went off to see fabled Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings. We had been there before so we stayed onboard in this sleepy little town with big resorts located on Red Sea beaches on its outskirts. The Red Sea has some of the world’s most colorful sea life and coral. So, as planned, we snorkeled on our own one day and went off on a dive boat the next.

After two days we left for Aqaba, Jordan, gateway to Petra and the Holy Lands. We had been to Petra before but were anxious to explore this wonder of the world again. Fifteen years ago we rode horses though through the pathway on the way through the narrow gorge to the site. On this day so many tourists were on the path that we walked the 1.5 miles.
Built by the Nabateans, Petra flourished more than 2,000 years ago. What started as caves in rocky outcrops became a fortress city. On the trading route, Petra grew rich, extracting duties from caravans which needed to cross through. Seeking immortality, city rulers hired the best architects to construct edifices which became burial tombs. Beautifully preserved, these structures in Greek and Roman style remain today to astonish tourists.

After the excursion, we returned to the ship, but part of our group went on to the Dead Sea. They said they had a great time, laughing as they bobbed around uncontrollably in the inland sea’s high salinity.

Aqaba, which is growing rapidly, opening five-star hotels along the Red Sea, is taking on a new look. Long in the shadow of sister city Eilat, Israel, across the bay, Aqaba now looks to get its piece of the “tourist pie.”

It was Good Friday, second day in port, as we drove along the shore to a snorkel spot, our taxi driver found himself in heavy traffic. He informed us that this was the the start of the four-day Easter/Mohammed weekend. Citizens were streaming in for the four-day holiday, mostly from the capital Amman. It was interesting to learn that Easter is also a holiday in this part of the world.

After two days, the Silver Whisper was off to transition through the Suez Canal. As the ship approached, all sorts of vessels were queued up, waiting to enter. While we sailed, loudspeakers broadcast the history of the canal. As the ship made its leisurely voyage up to the Mediterranean, we observed the placid daily life on each side of the narrow canal.
After we disembarked, we planned to spend the day touring Alexandria, before leaving in late afternoon for the Cairo airport. It was Monday, however, the last of the four-day holiday. Most attractions were closed, and we didn’t get a chance to see the famous library, nor the museum nor the Roman ruins-just like being in Paris on a day when the Louvre is closed. Oh well, this is one of vagaries of travel.