We flew with BA from Manchester to Athens via Heathrow on 10 November as a prelude to joining Silver Wind on the 12th. We were living in trepidation because of the frequency of strikes in Greece and the severe impact this could have on our plans. Fortunately, the general strikes in Athens fell only days either side of our stay. We did, however, get caught up in the security clampdown around the Parliament building on the 11th when the elected representatives voted on further budget cuts.
As a result of tourists previously being ripped off, the Athens authorities had imposed a flat taxi fare of Euro35 between the airport and the city centre, some months prior to our trip. Before getting into our taxi at Athens airport, we told the driver we wanted the Hilton, which is central, and the fare should be Euro35 and he agreed. The journey took about 30 minutes and on arrival at the Hilton we gave the driver Euro40, which we judged fair for 3 passengers and a huge quantity of luggage. The driver was ecstatic and shook everyone's hand!
The Hilton likes to claim it is the haunt of the Athens glitterati and certainly we did saw one Greek senator. Although we had secured a good rate for room and breakfast, other food and especially spirits were very expensive. The hotel is in a very convenient, central location and we'd use it again, together with the mainly Italian-themed restaurant round the corner and overlooked from our room balcony.
We arranged a transfer to the ship with the hotel for Euro20. Other passengers staying at the Hilton and also on our cruise arranged a transfer separately, but seemingly paid more. We had used the Athens taxi driver well known on Trip Advisor during a previous stay in Athens, but his current prices for both the airport and ship transfers were way above the amounts we paid.
We toured the central Athens sites on foot on the 11th in fine, warm sunshine and embarkation day on the 12th was the same. Our Hilton-arranged cab was waiting ahead of the appointed time and we made the pier in about 25 minutes, tipping an extra Euro5 on top of the agreed Euro20. The driver and car were immaculately turned out and we had an interesting discourse on the current Greek situation during the journey, so justifying the tip. Interestingly he lived in Santorini, apparently a large percentage of workers in the capital do not reside in Athens, thereby swelling the number of commuters who travel to work in the capital, but who's main residence is elsewhere in Greece.
As always with Silversea, embarkation was a breeze, with Guest Relations manager, Tim, and International Hostess, Asta, pierside to supervise the local agent's staff with the formalities. After having our security photo taken on board, we did a tour of the ship to see if there had been changes since our last cruise on Silver Wind. The lift on the pool deck up to deck 9 had gone, thus removing an eyesore, which had been dubbed 'the bean can' by passengers. A wheelchair lift had been installed instead on the forward stairwell to enable those requiring assistance to reach deck 9. The Champagne restaurant had also been enlarged and now adjoins the restaurant. Otherwise, the ship seemed the same and looked to be in good order.
Going to our cabin, we were surprised that there was no bottle to welcome us on board, originally we were given champagne, then it became a bottle of Prosecco (we were told because it was in keeping of their Italian heritage!) and now there is nothing. This was however remedied by our butler later and the bottle of champagne appeared.
We had chosen cabin 727 because of its proximity to the forward stairwell and pool deck, which suits our lifestyle on sea days. We judge there to be two kinds of cruise passenger. There are lizards that bask all day in the sun, occasionally slithering into the pool to cool off, and this is us. Then there are the vampires, who you never seem to see during the day, but emerge at night to feed! By virtue of its size, nowhere is ever very far away on Silver Wind and this accounts for its popularity with passengers.
Gennaro Arma was the Captain, Flavio Gioia, the Hotel Director and Colin Brown the cruise director. All three were visible and approachable throughout the cruise and we dined with all of them.
"Socrafty" from Cruise Critic had originally posted a roll call for the cruise and about 15 CCs replied. We thought that in view of the numbers who had replied it would be nice to organise a gathering, and we arranged for canapes and drinks for respondees at 18.30 in the Panorama Lounge after sail away; and 12 passengers attended. This went down very well, particularly for the first timers to Silversea who thought it was a lovely welcome.
Silversea had latterly decided to split this 16-day voyage into 7 and 9 night itineraries, presumably to boost bookings. In round numbers, 220 sailed from Athens, 24 disembarked at Safaga, and a few boarded here. Some of those leaving at Safaga did not wish to sail through the Gulf of Aden, or Pirate Alley, but it was surprising to learn that quite a number of passengers were unaware of the piracy issue! Indeed some passengers seemed ignorant of the actual itinerary!! In round figures again, there were 50 from the UK, 38 German speakers (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and 30 from North America. Over 20 nationalities were represented.
Our practice is to dine in La Terrazza on the first night because this is frequently very popular during the cruise, and therefore not necessarily so easy to obtain a table, but it is less so on the first night. The menu rotates between one of four, typically every three or four days. Most nights we ate in the dining room, where there is now a dedicated and extensive cheese menu, which is extremely welcome (some waiters do not offer this with the dessert menu, so you may need to ask for it) -as well as the usual dessert one. On one occasion we dined at Hot Rocks, where the pool deck area is turned into a dining venue. The menu choices are limited and the idea is you cook your main course on a hot stone, typically steak, fish or prawns. We also ate in Le Champagne twice. Here the concept has changed. Out has gone the $200 wine pairing option and rotating regional themed menus for $30. Instead, for a flat $30, there is now a single menu with several choices, and complimentary house wine is available. Compared to previous dinners in Le Champagne, we judged the menu to be that bit less gourmet, and thus a little disappointing. In fairness, Le Champagne was better patronised than we have seen for some time.
With the exception of afternoon tea and dinner in our cabin, we sampled every dining venue. Consistent with previous cruises, the dining room was always quiet during the breakfast and lunch service. Overall, food quality and service were excellent. There were occasional disappointments, not being served fish hot, being the most notable one. On nights when we specifically wanted a fish main course, we opted for a table for two and this ensured it arrived hot. Robin and his team of wine waiters gave excellent service for our preferences. As part of the cutbacks we have noticed in recent years on Silversea, the dining room menu now groups the formerly separate soup, salad and pasta dishes under one heading.
We usually ate lunch on Pool Deck at the Grill. Whilst the menu is fixed it is reasonably extensive, which includes fish, burgers, pizzas, salads and sandwiches. The staff here, including the bar staff, who provided drinks around the pool during the day, were generally very helpful. It did not take more than a couple of days for the drinks stewards to know exactly what we wanted whilst sunbathing and to bring this with a nod of the head. Across all food and beverage venues we had no difficulty in being understood by any staff and our requirements were fulfilled with a smile.
As mentioned by many passengers on previous cruises, entertainment is not one of Silversea's strong points, and this cruise was no exception. Whilst the troupe of singers had good voices, the "shows" they produced, from Motown to Abba were not worthy of the name. They had little or no choreography, and the costumes such as they were, were nondescript. It was a great disappointment to learn that the company originally employed by Silversea, the Jean Ryan Production Company, who were incredibly slick and professional, with both good dancers and singers and lovely costumes; are now no longer employed by Silversea. This should be remedied as soon as possible. We were told by a well-informed source on board that this particular company cost Silversea more than Jean Ryan. We suggest Silversea save money forthwith! The other offerings, including a mentalist, were mediocre. As for the enhancement programme, unfortunately one was now too long in the tooth, and the other was too full of self-importance.
In common I imagine, with most well travelled Silversea passengers, we choose a cruise for the itinerary and the main attractions for this voyage were to transit the Suez Canal and to visit Luxor, neither of which we had previously experienced.
The first day was at sea, followed by a day in Alexandria.
As is usual, Silversea provided a shuttle bus into the town. Having been to this port before we knew exactly what we wished to achieve. Leaving the port area and out through the dock gates, we walked straight ahead down the main thoroughfare before turning right and heading into the market area. Here we searched successfully for black seed honey, produced locally, and renowned for its medicinal properties. We had a look round the rest of the market and then walked back to the ship. We had no hassle from taxi drivers and other locals, trying to take us on a tour, though others said they did. We think it comes down to a matter of how you deal with local vendors and judge many tourists can't hack being pestered. If you are not interested in their wares, just ignore them, and do not continue to talk to them -- they will soon disperse if they realise they are not going to make a sale. This is sad because, by staying on the ship, passengers miss genuine cultural experiences, like being thanked as we were by many random passers-by in Alexandria for coming to their city.
A fast sail brought us to Port Said around midnight, where we dropped anchor to await the start of our Suez Canal transit. Ships travel in convoys, two south, and one north daily, and they pass in Bitter Lakes. Departure time appears dependent on the Egyptian authorities and we weighed anchor at 01.30, passing the Port Said cruise terminal just after 02.00. Unfortunately, the northern half of the canal is the more interesting and we traversed much of this in darkness, though it was late morning by the time we reached Bitter Lakes. From here, we took the lead position in the convoy for the remainder of the transit. At Sokhna, the port at the southern end, we hove to, to await a tender bringing our passengers returning from an overnight trip to Cairo. Disappointingly, a commentary about the canal given by enrichment lecturer, Larry, was poor.
Sharm El Sheikh - Egypt
The following day we had reached the southern end of the Sinai peninsular and Sharm El Sheikh. Docking at the old town, we took advantage of the free shuttle to the main beach area-- Naama Bay. This is now a popular 365-day destination for those wishing to 'upgrade' from a "Spanish Costa" and is renowned for the diving and snorkelling offered by its reef. We had considered a snorkel break here and this visit was a perfect opportunity to make an assessment. We won't be returning! The beachfront is a succession of tacky hotel bars with sardine-like sun loungers. These are nominally private beaches, but access is unrestricted from the coastal public pathway that winds along the coast; check it out on Google Earth. To the left of this path are the hotels and their grounds. Most of the hotel beach bars were playing loud music. Many provided 'snakes', floating pontoons to enable people to move between beach and reef, the only problem being these sway in the waves and are not easy to walk along. Beachside bars and restaurants appeared expensive. Ship passengers who took a snorkel tour gave mixed verdicts for varying reasons. Those that took desert or St Catherine's monastery tours seemed more satisfied.
Docking in Aqaba for two days, enabled passengers to visit both Petra and the Dead Sea. With three ships in port, we drew the short straw and were put in the commercial harbour, whilst the other two were closer into town. We had visited Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum previously and so took the ship's shuttle into town on both days. The Gateway Mall mentioned on various travel sites as having 33 outlets, was closed, seemingly mainly restaurants and bars, which wouldn't be open during the daytime. We did however visit the Jerusalem Bazaar, where we managed very successfully to haggle for spices, incense, and Arabic perfume (non-alcoholic, but pure essential oils).
Safaga for Luxor Egypt
Next came Safaga, where we disembarked for Luxor. 24 of us opted for the overnight visit and a further 58 chose the 13-hour day trip instead. The road to Luxor through the Eastern desert is generally good but unmetalled in places and the journey took three and half-hours of hard driving. Every so often we slowed down at checkpoints, and I assumed that it was for security, but not in the way I had expected. According to our guide, who came from Cairo, vehicle makes and numbers are taken, and then ticked off at the following checkpoint. If one of these does not appear, a searchparty would be sent out in case the vehicle was in trouble. Along with our Egyptian guide, Simona from the ship's tour desk took care of 'behind-the-scenes' tasks, and both worked well. We started our tour at the Luxor Temple, located in the centre of Luxor, which is exceedingly well preserved, before an indifferent lunch at the Sheraton. After lunch we visited the Temple of Karnak, which covers a vast area with 134 huge columns, then to the Hilton for check in for our overnight stay. This hotel fronts the Nile and has extensive grounds. The impression was that there were more staff than guests, and ours was the largest party. We took the optional sound-and light show that involved walking around in complete darkness between each segment before a final seated presentation. Anyone considering this show should take a torch because much of the ground is uneven and is traversed by moonlight. We returned to a good buffet dinner at the hotel. Two brave souls took an optional dawn balloon trip over the Nile, which involved rising at 03.30! We had originally intended to do this, but that start time was just a bridge too far!! They thoroughly enjoyed their experience and were pleased they had done so. The rest of us rose, breakfasted and set off at 07.00 for the Valley of the Kings and the west bank of the Nile. These visits are usually done as early in the day as possible to avoid the midday heat. We visited four tombs, including King Tut's where he currently reposes. After a short visit to Queen Hatshespsut's temple it was back to the hotel for lunch and a late checkout of our rooms. All meals at the hotel were both extensive and plentiful, and our room on the third floor was very comfortable and had a little Juliet balcony with a corner view of the Nile. Indeed, we were very impressed with the Hilton and would stay there again. By 13.00 we were on our way back to Safaga and Silver Wind.
Next morning we had a mandatory briefing by the Captain in advance of our transit of the Gulf of Aden. This lasted an hour and needed only to have been half that duration. Only a few parts of the ship were put off-limits, the forward and aft outdoor parts of the top deck and the outside deck space behind the Panorama lounge on deck 8, and the Terrace cafe on deck 7. Sun loungers were only available around the pool and not on deck 9. Otherwise it was business as usual. Ships travel in convoys based on their speed. We appeared to be the only vessel in the fast 18knot convoy but noted air support by a Japanese military helicopter in a similar convoy travelling at only 12 knots.
After 5Â½ days at sea we reached Muscat, Oman. By now, the passengers had bonded together very well and there was a very convivial atmosphere. Many of the ship's crew had learned passengers' names too, plus preferences for drinks. The hotel director told us the crew are expected to learn passengers' names from their security photos, and are tested on them after three days. A crew member told us that there is peer pressure to be good at this!
It was disappointing to reach Muscat so late (15.00), particularly as one of the highlights to visit is the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, which closes at 11.00 am, thereby precluding those who had not been to Muscat before, the opportunity to see inside this beautiful building. A couple of months before the cruise we queried with Silversea why it was still offering full-day tours here. Two weeks later Silversea revised the tours to reflect the short time in port! Having been here before, we went to the souk in search of local items. With a late departure, the farrago of the deck barbeque took place. This is so much effort for both the waiters and the galley staff but the inevitable result is sharp-elbowed passengers forming a disorderly melee around the food, peering in the darkness to identify the dishes on offer. Sorry Silversea, this does not work for us, and we ate with another couple in the dining room.
Fujairah, one of the United Arab Emirates was the last port visited on voyage 2235, prior to arrival in Dubai. We'd also been here before and so just took the ship's shuttle to town, and were deposited at Lulu's supermarket. We learned that Silversea's free shuttles are often provided by a shopping mall to entice cruise passengers. This hypermarket, owned by an Indian businessman based in Abu Dhabi has 104 stores in 22 countries across the whole of the Middle East, and Africa as well as the Far East. . As with 99% of shops in this area -- from Kuwait to Oman via Dubai -- all the staff were from the Indian sub-continent, with varying degrees of poor English. Dinner associates from the previous night wanted to buy perfume similar to that which we had purchased in Muscat, but we were unable to get anyone from security, customer services or indeed any of the retail staff to understand. Finally asking two Arab lady shoppers with my pidgin Arabic, got us our directions to a long "mall" running along the main street which led from an old (closed) cinema. A taxi (driven by an Indian) took us for $5. The shops offered a mixture of goods and there was an Internet cafe charging $2 for an hour. David Bilsland, Silversea's executive training chef who was running cookery classes on board, bought some herbs and spices from Lulu's, which he used in his demonstration the next day. All his demonstrations were enlightening, he is not only a very good chef with a great personality, but he also has the ability to explain with clarity and patience, complex cooking techniques. All attendees are given recipe cards at the end, with ingredients and detailed cooking instructions.
Turnaround day is always different. The crew have to work really hard for long hours, unloading luggage for disembarking passengers, then repeating the process in reverse. Meeting, greeting and settling-in the new arrivals. There were too few 'in transit' (Silversea's phrase) back-to-back passengers (just eight) for Silversea to arrange a shuttle into the centre of Dubai, the turnaround port for voyages 2235 and 2236. Fortunately we know Dubai well, so the lack of a shuttle was of no consequence. We went shoreside to check out taxi fares to the airport and a cab driver quoted $25 or Euro20. This was to enable us to judge whether to use a ship's transfer at the end of voyage 2236.
Back on board, we were fortunate that the pool had not been drained for maintenance and so settled down here in the sun, being the only occupants of the pool. We had to change cabins and our butler handled the move so we didn't have to pack. We now had a Medallion suite on deck 8, which had a double-length balcony and had two full-sized sun loungers and a dining table. The location was great for us, straight off pool deck. Further along the short corridor was the door to the bridge and senior officers' cabins. We joked with the captain that he should avoid late night parties disturbing passengers!
That evening, cruise director Colin hosted a dinner in La Terrazza for the in-transit passengers. The pasta dishes here we found to be superior to those served in the main dining room, probably because they were not left lying around.
Voyage 2236 had a quite different passenger mix to 2235, with some 250 now aboard. This time, German, Austrian and Swiss nationals were in the majority (over 60), with 50 Americans, 38 Belgians and 30 British. Unlike on 2235, this cruise had a distinct national divide, with no integration. The short -- 7-day -- duration also didn't help. Silversea is obviously marketing strongly to the German-speaking countries, maybe of necessity because of the sharp decline in US custom. In the next cabin to us was Silversea's main representative in Germany accompanying twenty of the top travel agents in that country.
Next day we were in Abu Dhabi, the nominal capital of the UAE and the second largest in terms of population, and the largest of the seven Emirates. We took the shuttle to the same mall we had visited previously and then took a cab for the approximate one mile to the heritage centre. This differs from the one in Dubai by giving some insight into the tent-dwelling life of the Arabs, plus offering locally made (Indian sub-continent labour again!) handicrafts. We were also able to watch a powerboat race from here that generated such road traffic as to clog up the highway for hours. Two young Arab women asked if they could take our photo!
Inevitably, the one full sea day saw deck loungers at a premium. At that night's formal dinner there was a poor showing of formal attire. In fact, it was notable how many men were turned away from the dining room because they were not dressed in even a jacket! La Terrazza and room service are available for those not wishing to abide by the ship's dress code.
Next day was Silversea's first call into Kuwait City. The very high price of shore trips (Kuwait is expensive) meant most of these were cancelled, as the minimum number of participants had not been reached. Most passengers took the shuttle to the mall, which was adjacent to Ikea and near Debenhams. We got a cab with another couple into the old town centre. Here the other couple wandered off and we explored the souk on our own. This was quite busy, with sections for fruit & vegetables (good produce), meat, fish (not smelly, so very fresh) and general merchandise. The souk was clean and busy, with mainly Arab men shopping.
Al Manama Bahrain
With quite a lot of unspent onboard credit, we took a ship's tour here in order to spend some of it. This afternoon trip gave an overview of the territory and we visited the main mosque (very disappointing and not a patch on others in the Gulf States). Despite all the female passengers being dressed extremely modestly, with arms covered to the wrists, and mostly wearing trousers, we were made to put on abayas and headscarves, albeit seemingly freshly laundered. Many passengers refused and did not enter the mosque, however they didn't miss much! We also visited a camel farm owned by Sheikh Al Khalifa with over 100 tethered animals kept and bred for racing, and the Fort originally built by the Portuguese in the 14th century. It was unfortunate that by the time we reached here, it was going dark and a very cold wind was blowing so we didn't see as much as we might have done. The museum proved more interesting than expected, was very large, and was definitely the highlight of this tour. It helped us appreciate the ancient ties between the cradle of civilisation in (what is now) southern Iraq along the Tigres and Euphrates rivers with the Dilmun people of the Bahrain region and India.
The free shuttle provided by Silversea ran to a city mall, near the market.
The weather at the north end of the Arabian Gulf (was chilly out of the sun, a cold wind striking down from Iran in the north. Thus in both Kuwait and Bahrain, and even during the day at sea, you needed a change of clothes after swimming, because the sun was not hot enough to dry one's swimwear. A programmed late departure from Bahrain was to allow for the deck bbq. As we headed ashore for our afternoon tour, we commented it would be too cold for the bbq that evening. Nevertheless, organisation went ahead and the plug only pulled in the early evening because it was so cold and windy, and a galley dinner was substituted. So all the "gannets" were well ensconced in the dining room when we arrived at 8pm, with hardly an empty table. Gosh, it must have been at least five hours since those passengers last filled their stomachs!
Another ship's tour in Qatar the next day had its disappointments. The dhow boat yard and scenic drive were good but there was an international climate change conference taking place in the museum of Islamic art, a high spot of Qatar, and so we could not visit. Instead, we were taken to a building site that will eventually become a hotel, leisure and recreation centre and taken round in golf carts. The hour's visit to the (very traditional) souk was cut to 25 minutes and the visit to the equestrian centre skipped altogether in order to visit the aforementioned building site. On returning to the ship, we were not alone in registering our disappointment and received a very fair 50% refund.
It appears that Doha is vying with Dubai on land reclamation and glitzy upmarket shopping complexes and expensive real estate. We were actually taken to one of the latter, Palm City, which whilst it is attractive and overlooks manicured gardens, is soulless. Interestingly, I wonder if one was in New York, they would take visitors to view apartments overlooking Central Park, or in London, Berkeley Square, or Docklands?!
Reviewing all the Arab states visited on voyages 2235 and 2236, only Oman has any 'traditional' feel. Oman is not so much like the rest, in vying for the biggest this, or brashest that, usually mosques or hotels, all also wanting to become international business centres with futuristic office skylines. One of the most notable features of all the Gulf States is their cleanliness, and the complete absence of litter in the streets. The souks are often the only places to sample Arab culture but even here one finds Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis doing the work.
Sailing from Qatar we had the morning at sea on a beautifully warm day before reaching Khasab in Oman. Having done the fjord dolphin cruise before, we took the ship's 4x4 (SUV) tour into the mountains. There were eight vehicles travelling in convoy, four passengers plus driver in each. We climbed high up into the Musandam Mountains, in the far north of the Sultantate, to Jebel Harim, (the Mountain of Women). This is the tallest peak in the region at over 2000 metres and we stopped along the way to see rock fossils. Several Americans had clearly seen nothing like these before and thought they were paintings! Leaving the ship in shorts, we packed warm clothing in the correct anticipation it would be cold high up in the mountains.
Descending to Khasab, we ran into a terrific thunder and rainstorm. There had been nothing like it for two years, according to our driver, and the roads turned into wadis, with the police warning of deep surface water. The high ground clearance of our vehicles meant we had no difficulty. Arriving back at the port, it hadn't rained but this had been a truly spectacular excursion.
We finished our, not inconsiderable packing, dined 'a deux' for speed and said some farewells before bed well after midnight. Next morning, by prior arrangement, Julie, the executive sous chef came to the Terrace cafe to cook an omelette and bid us 'au revoir' (Julie is Parisienne). The HR manager also came to find us and bid us bon voyage because she should have been flying home on our plane but had to stay onboard for a couple of extra days.
Being on board for 23 days certainly helped us build a rapport with many of the crew at all levels. This meant they got to know our likes and dislikes. This resulted in a better cruise experience for us. We could have fun with the crew members who like a joke and were teased in return. The onboard service was up to Silversea's usual standard and the food probably slightly better than some. Silversea delivered and we will be back on the line next March on the Spirit. We crossed the 100 Silversea day mark during these cruises and now quality for an extra 5% discount on cruise fares, plus free laundry. In the event, we booked two more voyages whilst onboard.
Finally, one very large brickbat -- Silversea no long produces a ship's passenger list, and this was universally condemned by all passengers. Contrary to the suggestion that it was another one of the cutbacks, (saving stationery), we were told the reason was because one American did not wish their name to be included on this list. They had threatened to sue if their name appeared. If this is indeed factual, perhaps Silversea could enquire of all passengers in advance, whether or not they wish their name to be included, and restore what all passengers of all nationalities have said they miss.