Silversea cruise a way to see the Middle East in style

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Mention the Middle East and multiple opinions arise about the wisdom and worth of traveling there. When the opportunity arrived, I jumped at it. 

Silversea Cruises offers spring and fall itineraries to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan, Egypt and a daylong Suez Canal transit, an itinerary I sailed in late March.

I joined the Silver Whisper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where I didn't need a visa to enter the country. A Silversea representative greeted us and arranged for transportation to the ship.

After settling into our suite, we went to Deira, a warren of streets where the world's goods are exchanged along Dubai Creek. Traditional Arab dhows, or boats, take on cargo here, while sacks of basmati rice, boxes of housewares and automobile tires are transferred from trucks to the backs of porters. 

The next morning, a Silversea coach tour took us along the coast to the Burj al Arab Hotel with its billowing sail design.

Taking a 12-lane highway, we passed through a towering residential, hotel and commercial center where the world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, or Dubai Tower, is being built.

At noon, we sailed toward the Strait of Hormuz and into the Arabian Sea to dock at Muscat, the capital of Oman.

What a difference a day makes.

All architecture in Oman conforms to an approved Arab design executed in white or beige with no building exceeding six stories. The city seemed as safe as it did when I was last there in 1970.

The shore excursion highlight was a visit to the Carrara marble Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, completed in 1979 for up to 20,000 worshippers and set amid beautiful gardens.

Over two nights cruising the Indian Ocean, we settled into a daily routine that started with breakfast in the suite, a morning read in a sheltered deck location, lunch on the after deck, a nap and a swim in the pool before dinner.

Dinner was open seating in the main restaurant or reservation-only La Terrazza, which offered a changing Italian menu.

Service on Silversea is tops; the staff often greeted us by name. Breakfast and lunch buffets offered wonderful variety, and dinners were well prepared. Silversea's prime rib was the best I had ever tasted. Some repeat passengers remarked that meals were not especially memorable but expressed no complaints.

Silversea provides both a social and a private experience, and tables for two are nearly always available.

In the Omani port of Salalah, located near the Yemen border, a tour visited the frankincense market, which seemed to be the only reason to stop in the town.

We stopped at Al Baleed to wander through the ruins of a 12th century trading center and explored a 12th century castle in the town of Mirbat.

Some children along the way gave us the middle finger, but otherwise we experienced no anti-Western incidents anywhere.

Americans made up the largest group of the 21 nationalities represented onboard but were less than half the total number of passengers. British and Australians were the next largest groups. A few Europeans remarked that the lack of Americans was due to their poor sense of geography, thinking that the Middle East as a whole was unsafe. Americans I encountered felt that if Silversea chose to cruise these waters, that was all they needed to know.

During four days at sea, the onboard lectures were popular. An entertaining rabbi and professor talked about Islam, Middle Eastern history and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A prolific New York author gave talks about his writing life and the history of the east African safari.

In advance of the two-day excursion to the Nile Valley, we received a detailed itinerary and some historical background.

From Safaga, Egypt, three half-filled motor coaches, accompanied by the Silver Whisper's nurse and security officer, set out under police escort for a three-hour drive through the desert to the Nile Valley for a visit to the temples of Karnak and Luxor. The next day, we visited the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

The guides were terrific, but the tourist crowds in the tombs did try one's patience. Military and police checkpoints were encountered everywhere. For the trip back to the coast, our three motorcoaches joined the mandatory 2 p.m. escorted convoy.

We sailed overnight to Aqaba at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba where Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia meet. Most passengers booked the one-day excursion to Petra, Jordan, a 2,000-year-old trading center built by the Nabateans in the second century B.C.

Reached by walking through a narrow, mile-long gorge, the "treasury," a burial chamber carved out of the sandstone cliff, suddenly appeared before us. The valley opened up to reveal more tombs cut into the hillside, an 8,000-seat stadium, and the remains of temples and a Crusader fort.

After a long ride over a bone-dry landscape, we arrived at an intersection just short of Amman, Jordan's capital, where road signs pointed ahead to Lebanon and Syria and to the right to Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Most passengers expressed a sense of excitement by our location rather than concern about the proximity of these other countries. 

During the day at sea en route to the Suez Canal, the New York lecturer related the canal's history, which was more interesting than actually cruising the canal itself, a 100-mile, well-fortified ditch in the desert.

On the 15th morning, the ship berthed at Alexandria, an Egyptian city that exudes a faded grandeur apart from the new, architecturally innovative library. 

Leaving Alexandria by car for Cairo, we threaded along a busy, one-way street only to find trams traveling in both directions.

Trolley-dodging proved to be a nail-biting experience, the only nervous moment during the entire two-week cruise.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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