SILVERSEA SAILS THE PERSIAN GULF: A Luxury Cruise & Exotic Port Review
When our friends heard that we would spend our March, 2008, vacation on the Silver Cloud in the Persian Gulf, their first question was "Why Dubai?" and their second question was "Why Silversea?"
The first question is easy to answer. The Middle East is changing faster than any other part of the world. I am not talking about the destruction of Iraq (and our economy with it). I am talking about the construction of ultra-modern Arab emirate cities with enviable infrastructures and booming economies.
Imagine Walt Disney building a clean and modern Manhattan skyline in the middle of the desert. Add the traffic of Los Angeles, the beachfront of Miami, and the glitz of Las Vegas. Toss in the best shopping malls, the most exotic real estate developments, the tallest building, and the most expensive hotel in the world. Mix in 6 million visitors a year and you have an idea of what Dubai is like today.
And Dubai is just one of five Arab emirates (plus Iran) that we visited on our cruise. The oil in some emirates is already drying out, so they are turning to free trade, international finance, and tourism to secure their future. We wanted to see it all before it was too late - too late for our dollar, not their dirham.
The second question "Why Silversea?" is a bit more complex. We took our first luxury cruise on the Silver Whisper two years ago. It was a short cruise in the Caribbean, and to be honest, it did not meet our expectations (my review of that cruise may be available on this web site). Perhaps it was because we expected too much or perhaps it was because a four-day cruise sandwiched between private charters was too short for the crew to do their jobs really well. In any case, we decided to give Silversea another chance, and we are glad we did. We thoroughly enjoyed our Silver Cloud cruise in the Persian Gulf.
This review is a detailed summary of our Silver Cloud experience. Keep in mind that a luxury cruise is an investment of more than $10,000 per couple once airfare, pre-cruise hotel, and sightseeing are included, even when the pre- and post-cruise arrangements are made independently in economy and tourist class. Because a cruise like this is a major investment for most of us, this review is intended to give you extensive details to help you get a feeling whether a luxury cruise might be right for you.
Because of the length of this review, I will HIGHLIGHT various topics in all caps so that you can skim down to your own areas of special interest.
This review is divided into THREE PARTS - luxury cruises in general, our Silver Cloud cruise in particular, and independent (and inexpensive) sightseeing options in our Persian Gulf ports of call.
DISCLAIMER Please keep in mind that what follows are my personal observations. I am not in the travel business and I am not a cruise expert. If there are errors, I apologize in advance. Rely on your own reading and experience to form your own opinions, and you will end up choosing the right cruise style and cruise ship for yourself.
A GOOD BOOK In addition to cruise web sites, some of which seem to be losing speed and functionality because of their cluttered home pages and excessive advertisements, I highly recommend Douglas Ward's book Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships (2007, Berlitz). It has a wealth of information, both objective and subjective, to help you plan your next cruise.
PART 1: LUXURY CRUISING IN GENERAL
Everyone has his own idea of the perfect cruise. In the end, it probably is the cruise that makes a guest feel like a VIP and yet totally at ease. White glove service and high tea may not suit someone who prefers to amble in flip-flops and a T-shirt. Zodiac excursions and watersport decks may not suit someone who prefers to foxtrot in formal wear. That is probably why there are so many luxury (and luxury adventure) cruise options.
I mention luxury and adventure cruising in the same breath because the costs may be similar even though the styles are worlds apart. An interesting development in the luxury cruise industry is that some of the traditional luxury cruise lines are adding expeditionary ships (think ice-hardened hulls and polar itineraries) to their fleets. You will be reading more about these ships as they enter service. So far, our experience with adventure cruising has been limited to chartered yachts in the Galapagos Islands, so I will not cover that option here.
DEFINING LUXURY For me, several characteristics define a luxury cruise: the high level of attentive yet unobtrusive service; superior cuisine and fine wines without surcharge; sedate and spacious cabins and public areas; unusual itineraries with uncrowded or even undiscovered ports of call; the absence of noise, announcements, and waiting lines; enrichment lectures and interesting activities, with less emphasis on entertainment and more emphasis on learning; inclusive drinks and gratuities; and (we have been happy to experience) well-educated, friendly, and unpretentious fellow passengers.
SERVICE On mainstream cruise ships the service may sometimes be attentive, but it can sometimes seem informal and too chummy. Some luxury ships have a more traditional attitude toward service. We noticed that after the first day on the Silver Cloud our stewards and servers greeted us by surname, but they did not converse further unless we wanted to engage them in conversation. They anticipated most of our needs, and they responded quickly and positively when we had any questions or special requests. On a personal note, my wife was recovering from an illness during our Silver Cloud cruise, and she truly appreciated the kindness and attentiveness of the entire staff.
Good service during meals is silent and seamless. Courses are presented and cleared without flourish, and wine glasses are changed or refilled without intrusion. The service is so smooth that it is not noticeable. Part of this is due to good training, and part is due to the high crew to passenger ratios on luxury ships. Silversea, for example, has at least two crew members for every three passengers. The smaller size of the dining rooms and public areas adds to the quality of the service. There is no background noise to interfere with conversations, and servers very skillfully handle china and flatware to avoid making noise.
SPACE Space ratios are a measure of the volume of enclosed space on a ship, expressed in tonnage per passenger. In this case tonnage is a measure of volume, not weight. Mainstream cruise lines usually have space ratios in the high 30s or low 40s. Except for the smallest (Sea Dream and Seabourn) ships in this category, luxury ships generally have space ratios in the 50s or 60s. Silversea's newer ships, the Whisper and the Shadow, have space ratios in the 70s. When cruising this difference is very noticeable.
EXOTIC ITINERARIES Small luxury ships travel the world and are able to dock at unusual ports that have not yet been overrun by oversized cruise ships. This can be a negative, however, when inexperienced local immigration authorities make life difficult, or when the cruise line's central office is less than organized regarding visa or entry requirements for their exotic ports of call. Silversea's disorganization in this regard was a disappointment, but more about that later.
PEACE AND QUIET Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of a luxury cruise is the peace and quiet in the ship's public areas. For example, there is no pool-side music (except on special occasions), and the fitness area is equipped with headphones for the DVD players and TVs at each workout station. There is no muzak and there are minimal announcements. On mainstream cruise ships I sometimes end up wearing earplugs to gain some peace and quiet. On luxury ships this is unnecessary.
ENTERTAINMENT Because luxury ships are relatively small, entertainment tends to be intimate, usually soloists rather than production numbers. Personally, I would rather listen to a top-notch soloist in a small venue than watch a chorus line of singers and dancers in an over-amplified Broadway-type theater. Luxury ships tend to include enrichment programs, usually well known speakers on a variety of topics. Fortunately, mainstream cruise lines are finally adopting similar enrichment programs, which can make days at sea more enjoyable. A bonus on a small ship is the likelihood of meeting or dining with the guest lecturers and musicians, who can be very interesting conversationalists. They were on our cruise.
FELLOW PASSENGERS Yes, some luxury cruise passengers are very rich (on our cruise one big game hunter expressed his need for a Marco Polo sheep to make his trophy collection complete, and one car enthusiast wore his Ferrari-owners logo shirt), but most passengers are simply well-off, having saved wisely during their hard-working careers. Unlike private country or social clubs, wealth and status do not seem to be an issue on these cruises - fellow passengers are friendly and unpretentious. Dinner conversations can be the highlight of each day, since passengers come from such varied backgrounds. On mainstream cruises my wife and I often request a table for two. On luxury cruises we prefer to be seated at a large table because of the very interesting conversations.
SIZE Ship size and space ratios seem to be the greatest variables among luxury vessels. These ships range from small (100-400 passengers) such as Sea Dream, Europa, Seabourn, and Silversea; medium (400-800 passengers) such as Regent Seven Seas: large (800-1200 passengers) such as Crystal; and very large such as Cunard's Queen Mary 2 (2,600 passengers).
Some travelers feel that the former Renaissance vessels currently sailing with Oceania and Azamara are medium-sized luxury ships, but others prefer to categorize them as "deluxe" rather than luxury because of the smaller size of their cabins: 216 sq. ft. standard balcony cabins, 160 sq. ft. inside cabins, and some 143 sq. ft. obstructed-view outside cabins (10 sq. ft. approximately equal one sq. meter). Some feel that the very large ships of Cunard are hybrids with more than one level of food and service, and only their "grill class" qualifies as luxurious. Oceania, Azamara, and Cunard can be excellent options, however, when lower prices compensate for differences in cabin size or level of service.
THE FUTURE Luxury cruise lines are adding new-builds to their fleets. These new ships seem to show "bracket creep" and are larger than their older sister ships, perhaps because larger ships are more profitable to operate. Personally I regret this development, since I find the intimacy and personal attention of a smaller ship among the most enjoyable aspects of luxury cruising.
Whether the current economic downturn affects the luxury cruise market remains to be seen. Affluent passengers may be relatively insulated from market cycles, and luxury cruise prices may remain steady or may even increase in spite of a faltering economy. It is too soon to tell.
One thing that is likely is that small luxury ships will "follow the money". That means more cruises in the "euro zone" where the currency is not under the same downward momentum as the US dollar. After all, what cruise line wants to book a trip in dollars only to have the value of those dollars erode during the months between contracting and cruising? Perhaps the euro will become the shipboard currency on more ships in the future. Certainly the strength of the euro and the pound sterling means that European cruisers are getting a de facto discount that Americans are not. As a result, Americans accounted for fewer than 25% of the passengers on our cruise, the first time we have been in such a small minority on any of our twenty previous cruises.
HEALTH AND SAFETY A lesser known and perhaps just theoretical advantage of small luxury ships involves health and safety. Norovirus and more serious disease outbreaks begin with an index case and spread quickly in areas where people live and eat in close quarters. It seems logical that the risk of a disease outbreak would be much lower on smaller ships with fewer passengers.
Similarly, a small ship should be easier to re-route in case of terrorism or political turmoil, and easier to evacuate in case of an accident or fire. The latter may seem far-fetched, but cruise ships have run aground, been attacked by sea pirates, experienced a major fire, and have even sunk in the last few years. Again, these considerations are theoretical and are just as dependent on the training and ability of the cruise line administration and crew as on the size of the ship. A disorganized central office or an under-trained crew can theoretically negate the small ship advantage.
COST Price is probably the major factor for most travelers when considering a luxury cruise. I have not researched prices recently, but it is my impression that true luxury cruises are priced around 600-700 US dollars per person per day (pppd) for the least expensive cabin category (an outside suite, which may not include a balcony on some cruise lines such as Silversea), although discounts to $500 pppd seem reasonably common, and discounts to $400 pppd on repositioning or less popular itineraries are sometimes available.
VALUE I rationalize that if one takes the per diem cost of a standard cabin on a mainstream cruise ship; then adds the cost of gratuities, adds the cost of wine and other drinks, and adds the cost of better quality (surcharged) dining; then doubles this amount to cover the cost of higher space ratios and higher crew to passenger ratios on luxury ships, one has a reasonable price comparison for a luxury cruise of the same itinerary. Some would argue that large (300+ sq. ft.) suites with butler service on a mainstream cruise ship are directly comparable to a small ship luxury cruise, but I have never taken (or priced) that option.
As an example, the Costa Romantica sailed from Dubai on a similar but slightly shorter itinerary than the Silver Cloud's. The price pppd for a standard outside cabin with the usual surcharges on the Romantica was about half the price pppd of our cruise, so I felt we received a reasonable value for our money on the Silver Cloud.
For those travelers not used to spending $400 to $500 plus per day on themselves, it takes a bit of effort not to think of what one could be doing with that money instead, especially if one is traveling to third world countries where donating that amount might feed someone for an entire year. I have had those thoughts in the past and have acted on them, but now that I am older, I enjoy luxury cruises guilt-free. It is a personal issue that everyone must settle for him- or herself.
PART 2: OUR SILVER CLOUD CRUISE IN THE PERSIAN GULF
BOOKING We booked our March cruise in October of the previous year. Silversea requires a 10% deposit, with graduated cancellation penalties beginning 120 days prior to the cruise, and full payment due 90 days prior. They offer an extensive variety of booking options, including travel insurance, "reassurance" that allows one to cancel the cruise for any reason up to the day prior to cruising with 100% credit toward a future cruise, air programs at various classes of service, pre-cruise hotel programs, pre- and post-cruise extended stays, baggage forwarding to the cruise port, and private car transfers from your home to your nearest airport. As with our previous cruises, we chose to make our own air, land, and travel insurance arrangements independently.
INSURANCE Silversea offers its own insurance program. In the past we always avoided purchasing travel insurance since our own insurance covers medical care abroad (note that Medicare does not), and the likelihood of having to cancel a cruise close to the departure date (when the penalty becomes significant) was slim. More recently we have relied on internet insurance brokers which offer a variety of coverage from a variety of reputable travel insurance companies, often the same ones used by the cruise lines. We have only filed a claim once, and that was for an overnight travel delay on a return flight home. Our insurance policy covered the hotel cost and all meals and related expenses for which we could provide receipts. Our reimbursement was prompt.
An example of a travel insurance web site is insuremytrip.com, where one can easily compare levels of coverage and corresponding premium quotes from various insurers. Travel insurance can be especially useful when waivers for pre-existing medical conditions are needed, but one must read the policy summary to make certain it includes this. Again, older travelers should remember that Medicare does not cover medical costs when traveling abroad.
PRE-CRUISE AIR For Dubai we chose Delta Airlines because they have non-stop service from Atlanta to Dubai, which takes between 14 and 16 hours each way depending on the jetstream. Dubai's own Emirates Airlines has non-stops from Houston and New York JFK, but their prices are higher, and connections to those airports from our home airport are relatively poor.
When we originally booked our Delta flight we had an excellent connection from our home airport to Atlanta, with a 90 minute layover until the flight to Dubai. Several weeks prior to our departure, however, Delta dropped some of its regional services and gave us a 6 hour layover in Atlanta. In addition, Delta's non-stop Dubai service was curtailed from daily to twice a week, forcing us to return a day earlier than we had originally booked. We learned this only when we rechecked the flight schedule for our house sitter and saw a 24 hour layover in Atlanta between our return flights due to the curtailed service. We rebooked our return flight a day earlier and had to cancel the desert safari and Bedouin camp overnight that we had reserved for our final night in Dubai.
I mention these setbacks as an illustration of what is happening to air service in the U.S. as airlines face higher fuel costs and bigger deficits. Schedules are being pruned back and flights are being consolidated. One must be flexible when flying nowadays. We have taken six vacations in the last six months, and all six in a row have had major delays, cancellations, or involuntary re-routes due to missed connections. We no longer check bags, but instead travel with just a carry-on bag to give us more flexibility, even on this Silver Cloud cruise. We no longer feel safe arriving at a cruise port on the day of cruise departure.
PRE-CRUISE HOTEL Because we never know for certain when we will arrive at the cruise port, even at domestic cruise ports, we always book a hotel for one or more nights prior to a cruise. In this case, we stayed for three nights in the historic center of Dubai, in the Deira area near the spice and gold souks, across Dubai Creek from the museums and attractions of the Bur Dubai area.
Hotel rates in Dubai usually begin around $200 per night and can easily top $1,000 in the fancier hotels. Through the internet we found a real bargain - the Residence Deira apartments (which are run by the Le Meridien hotel chain) offered a three-nights-for-the-price-of-one package, since our reservation extended over a Friday night (the week-end in Islamic nations). Having an apartment with modern shops nearby gave us the option to make our own breakfasts and other meals if we wanted. Also, Le Meridien has a welcome counter at the airport with a free shuttle service between the airport and its apartments and hotels. It also has a free shuttle service between the apartments and Le Meridian's airport hotel for the use of the guest facilities there (spa, pool, and restaurants). I believe that Le Meridien airport hotel was used by Silversea for its own pre-cruise hotel program.
We are glad we spent extra pre-cruise time in Dubai, details of which follow in our port review section.
A SILVER BULLET The following topic is important but is somewhat detailed because I want to be fair and state the facts as clearly as possible. Skip to the next topic if you like.
I mentioned that visas may be a problem on exotic itineraries. We did not expect any problems since all of the ports on our cruise, with the possible exception of Bandar Abbas in Iran, are known to offer free or inexpensive visas on arrival.
However, in early January, exactly sixty days prior to our departure for Dubai and half-way into the cancellation penalty period, we received a written notice from Silversea that "United States and Canadian passport holders must have an individual visa for Qatar prior to boarding. Guests without a visa for Qatar will be denied boarding."
Silversea provided the name of a visa service in Washington DC to obtain the required visa, which cost almost $200 per person including express shipping but not priority service. The visa took three weeks to obtain. For us this visa cost came to about $50 per person per hour that we were ashore in Qatar.
For some passengers this unexpected additional cost may be unimportant compared to the absence of their passports and inability to travel abroad for several weeks. We had previously booked back-to-back Caribbean cruises in January, which we had canceled. We had to obtain the required visa as soon as Silversea notified us in January because we had also previously booked a non-refundable trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories during February.
We were surprised when we ultimately boarded the Silver Cloud in Dubai, we found a written notice from Silversea stating that "With regard to our call at Doha, Qatar, all guests (all nationalities) going ashore in this port must have a valid visa. If you have not already arranged this in advance, we can obtain this on your behalf. The cost is $50 USD, which may be charged to your shipboard account. If you do not wish to go ashore on this day, but choose to remain onboard, then no visa will be required."
You can imagine how angry this revelation made cruise passengers who had followed Silversea's original instructions. I think Silversea may have lost future customers because of their handling of this visa issue. It certainly made their central office look disorganized.
I was angry when I outlined the above events to the ship's immigration officer shortly after boarding. We were later invited to dine with him, where we learned that the poor fellow had only joined the cruise line a month before and was not responsible for the visa misinformation. I had expressed my frustration to the very person who was not responsible.
A BOMBSHELL Exactly seven days prior to our departure for Dubai we received another written notice from Silversea stating "…that United Arab Emirates Immigration authorities may not allow passengers with an Israeli stamp or visa in their passports to enter the country, go ashore, or debark the vessel…. Silversea will not be held responsible nor will Silversea make a refund or be otherwise liable to any guest for such denial of entry…."
That denial of liability would be logical if Silversea had notified passengers of this possibility well in advance. After all, they planned this itinerary more than a year in advance. Notifying passengers only days prior to cruise departure and then denying any refunds speaks for itself. We were fortunate that our passports had not been stamped in Israel or the Palestinian Territories when we traveled there the month before our cruise.
In the end, one has sympathy for cruise lines that are at the mercy of government authorities, but this sympathy evaporates if the cruise lines do not perform due diligence in notifying their passengers in a timely fashion. I assume that similar problems will not recur now that the Silver Cloud has a new immigration officer.
EMBARKATION As part of its drive to attract tourism, Dubai has built a beautiful new cruise terminal. It is designed to resemble a ship, and provides air-conditioning, comfortable seating, and even a snack bar for waiting cruise passengers. On most cruises Silversea embarkations take place from 3pm to 5pm. Earlier boarding costs $100 per person and includes lunch. I did not meet anyone on our cruise who chose this option.
The boarding process could not have been simpler or more pleasant. All necessary documentation had been completed prior to the cruise, and at 3pm we were simply invited to walk the red carpet (literally) along the dock to our ship. We then handed our cruise ticket to the ship's officer who greeted us, and we climbed the gangway to board.
We had experienced a delayed boarding and a disorganized reception on our previous Silver Whisper cruise, but the staff of the Silver Cloud handled this embarkation beautifully. We were offered a glass of champagne when we boarded, then proceeded to the show lounge where we gave up our passports for the duration of the cruise, and then were escorted to our cabin where an additional bottle of the house Nicolas Feuillate NV Brut champagne was waiting on ice.
VISTA SUITE Our cabin on this cruise was a Vista Suite, which is the least expensive Silversea category. It has a large window but no balcony. On the Silver Cloud this category suite measures 240 sq. ft. On the newer Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper this category suite measures 287 sq. ft. The difference is not noticeable in the sitting and sleeping areas, but it is noticeable in the bathroom. The Silver Cloud bathroom is functional, with a single sink and a combo tub and shower. The Silver Whisper bathroom has double sinks and a separate tub and shower. The walk-in closets are also slightly larger on the Silver Whisper than on the Silver Cloud, but both are generous enough, even for over-packers.
We found our Vista Suite very comfortable and attractive. A nice feature is the pair of dining chairs (in addition to a couch) and a table that converts in size and height from a small coffee table into a full dining table. This was especially useful for meals ordered from room service. The full restaurant menu is available during regular dining hours, and it is served course by course with beautiful linen and crystal. In addition to the included drinks stored in the cabin's mini-bar, caviar was available for purchase, with prices ranging from $60 to $400 for a small container, depending on the fish species.
The only cabin feature that really needs updating is the television, which is quite small and is hidden almost at floor level in a cabinet below the desk, making it inconvenient to watch the available satellite TV or DVDs. A flat panel wall-mounted television of larger size, preferably with internet access, would be more appropriate. I heard that a dry dock is planned for the Silver Cloud in 2009, and perhaps flat screen TVs will be included in the updates.
CABIN STEWARDESSES Our cabin stewardesses were both from the Philippines and were both sunshine personified. They always greeted us by surname and kept our cabin spotless. On our arrival they inquired how we would like our refrigerator stocked (we requested champagne and various white wines) and which bath amenities we preferred - Bulgari or Acqua di Parma (we tried both).
PUBLIC AREAS As I mentioned, the Silver Cloud's public areas are spacious, although not as large as those on the Silver Whisper. The décor is pleasant, with decorative but not innovative art works. Smoking is allowed in a few areas, but it was not a problem on our cruise except in the dance area near the bar. Even though most passengers were European, few smoked. Images of Silver Cloud's public areas are available from Silversea's brochures and web site, or on the very useful web site cruiseclues.com, which provides links to other web sites for information about almost every cruise ship afloat.
As on all Silversea ships, most of Silver Cloud's public areas are located at the stern of the ship and cabins are located forward, making it easy to find one's way to any venue. There is one staircase forward and there are four elevators and one staircase midship. The elevators were so efficient that we rarely had to wait for one. Two wheelchair accessible Vista Suites are adjacent to the elevators, although I did not see a wheelchair or electric cart on our cruise. Although we did not tender at any port, the gangway was sometimes three decks high, which can be difficult for the mobility impaired.
There was a small CASINO that was only open when we were at sea, but it did not seem heavily used. There were two SHOPS - one featured Steiner jewelry (which had stiff competition from the extravagant jewelry shops in Dubai), and the other featured Silversea logo-wear and sundry items. There was no photo gallery because there was no official photographer, and no art gallery because there were no art auctions.
A pleasant LIBRARY provided a small but current selection of books and newspapers in several languages. Full page faxes of major international newspapers could be delivered to one's cabin for a surcharge. A well-equipped INTERNET CENTER was said to have good response times, but I did not use it because of the cost (fifty cents per minute, with somewhat lower fees for pre-paid packages). We found internet shops ashore with very quick response times and fees around two cents per minute.
The swimming POOL was a delight. It is small but has very clean saltwater, with minimal chemicals since there are virtually no children on these cruises. (There was a very well behaved toddler on our cruise, but children in diapers are not allowed in the pool or hot tubs.) A pool grill and bar provided simple fare during the afternoon, but the food was far better in the other dining venues.
One minor problem with the pool deck was that pool attendants did not clear used towels from lounge chairs. Most cruises have "pool pigs" who leave towels and possessions on lounge chairs to reserve them for the day, even when not in use. No one did that on this cruise, but few passengers made the effort to clear their own towels after use, hence many lounge chairs had a residual towel and remained empty. Pool attendants provided drinks if asked but otherwise did not offer them. They did not always clear empty glasses from the area, some of which remained next to empty chairs.
One disappointment that we experienced in the public areas was the generally uncomfortable seating. The lounges and theater had armchairs with almost vertical backs, providing little comfort or low back support for people of average size and weight. Perhaps this will be remedied during the next dry dock.
FITNESS Ironically the fitness center on the Silver Cloud seemed larger and more pleasant than on the newer and larger Silver Whisper, perhaps because on the Silver Cloud it is in a traditional forward upper deck location with wrap around windows. The ceiling is quite low, which may be a problem for taller passengers when using the treadmills. The gym was reasonably well equipped for a ship this size, with several treadmills, an elliptical trainer, a recumbent bicycle, several weight machines, and numerous dumbbells (some large enough that it would take two crew members to lift them). As I mentioned, the best feature of the gym was the absence of music - instead there were headphones for the personal TVs and DVD players. An astroturf jogging/walking track is also located on the top deck.
SPA We did not sample any of the spa or hair salon treatments that were listed on a menu in our cabin. Most ranged from $2 to $3 per minute, which seems standard on cruise ships.
DINING For many cruise passengers dining is the highlight of each day. This cruise was no exception. The Silver Cloud has a large main restaurant (the "Restaurant"), an alternative mid-sized restaurant which also serves as the buffet during breakfast and lunch (the "Terrazza"), and a small restaurant which provides a tasting menu with wine pairings and occasional meals for select passengers (the "Saletta"). Very enjoyable wines are included with meals, and premium wines are also available for a surcharge.
The SALETTA tasting menu with paired wines is surcharged at $200 per person, and the tasting menu without paired wines is available for $30 (complimentary wines are not available with the tasting menu). A recent review of tasting menus at several Manhattan restaurants published in the Wall Street Journal had an average cost of $150 for the menu and $150 for the paired wines, so the Saletta's surcharges appear appropriate. The tasting menu and paired wine list are displayed outside the Saletta each day so that one can decide whether to participate.
The TERRAZZA breakfast and lunch buffets were very popular on our cruise, in part because of the fine weather and the adjoining open deck dining (hence the name Terrazza). The buffet selections mirrored the menu in the main restaurant and gave one the opportunity to sample widely or to "specialize" in one course (you dessert addicts know who we are). We tended to go to the Terrazza early to obtain outside seating and to avoid the rush that follows shore excursions. Also, at breakfast and lunch the open deck tends to have the more experienced waiters from the main restaurant.
The Terrazza buffet maintains a refined atmosphere. When you reach the end of the buffet line, a waiter will take your plate and follow you to your table. Unfortunately this service doubles the number of people in the aisles, which are already a bit narrow, and distracts waiters from their job of clearing empty plates and refilling empty drinks. The omelet (pasta at lunch) station is in the center of the room. If one tries to place an order directly, one is politely told to take one's seat and order through a waiter. Unfortunately the single omelet chef could not keep up with orders. My omelet usually arrived near the end of breakfast when I was about ready to leave, and once did not arrive at all.
The Terrazza's evening meal is not surcharged but is by reservation only. It features the cuisine of a different region of Italy each evening. This seems appropriate since Silversea is an Italian-owned cruise line. On our previous Silver Whisper cruise we were unable to obtain any Terrazza dinner reservations. On this cruise we went to the Terrazza immediately after boarding and had no trouble reserving a table for one night. We thought we would give other passengers the chance to make reservations before we booked more nights, but within a few days the Terrazza was fully booked and we were unable to return. I regretted my this when we later met a couple who had made Terrazza reservations for every evening of the cruise and who only ate in the main restaurant on the one evening when they were invited to dine with one of the officers.
The evening meal at the Terrazza is somewhat less formal than in the main restaurant, which may be attractive to those men who wear a suit rather than tuxedo on formal nights (most men wore tuxedos). It is candlelit and intimate, with smaller tables than in the main restaurant. The evening that we ate there the sauces seemed somewhat richer and the meat even more tender than in the main restaurant, but this may vary with the daily menu.
The main RESTAURANT is on a single level and is very attractive. The linens and crystal are especially elegant. Wine glasses are changed to match the wines selected, and flatware is changed with each course rather than being laid out prior to the meal. The water is bottled and is available still or carbonated. This is an improvement over some ships, since wine glasses may magnify the chlorinated taste of some tap water.
The Restaurant menu offers enough selections that it is rarely necessary to request one of the "always available" alternatives such as poached salmon or signature pasta. The dishes were uniformly interesting, delicious, and beautifully plated. As part of our pre-cruise information, I told Silversea that my wife has a mild lactose intolerance. On arrival in our cabin we found a letter from the chef suggesting we meet with him personally to clarify any special dietary needs. This was very thoughtful but was not necessary because of the wide selection available on each menu.
It impressed me that a restaurant at sea serving 200 people with open seating could maintain such high standards day after day. The service was impeccable, as I described at the beginning of this review. The Restaurant maitre d' contributed to our pleasure by seating us at tables with enjoyable conversationalists. All of our fellow diners were English speaking and very interesting, but surprisingly we dined with no other Americans during our entire cruise. By nature, maitre d's tend to play favorites when seating guests (it is their job), but we never had that sense in the Restaurant. We dined with different passengers at every meal, and enjoyed them all. By chance we saw our Maitre d' in the Dubai airport heading home on the same day we did, but we did not get a chance to thank him for a job well done.
DANCING Some cruise passengers enjoy dancing before or after the evening meal. That was not the case on the Silver Cloud. Even though the ship's trio and the pianist alternated venues and were very talented, the dance floor was very small and was located on the smoking side of the bar. We saw no one dance on our cruise, but we did not stay up late enough to see possible night owls.
ENTERTAINMENT Our cruise featured concerts by very talented soloists who were also very enjoyable cruise mates. Over the eight days of our cruise there were two concerts each by a British vocalist, a Polish pianist , and an Anglo-American clarinetist, each of whom had stellar performance backgrounds. In addition, there were lectures by a former ambassador who had retired from the American State Department. On several occasions he provided interesting background for the countries we visited and for Middle East politics in general.
CRUISE DIRECTOR At this point a special thanks to our talented cruise director, Judie Abbott, is appropriate. She admits to being a lady of a "certain age" who began as a singer in West End musicals then later became an entertainer and cruise director on various cruise lines. On our cruise she handled everything from shore announcements to entertainment schedules to guest relations. She was also a delightful dinner companion. She has enough energy and good spirits to put all of us to shame.
SHORE EXCURSIONS Although most shore excursions available from cruise lines are worthwhile, we prefer to explore ports of call on our own. Silversea deserves a special commendation for providing a complimentary shuttle bus between the cruise piers (which may be quite isolated) and the town centers. This made it easy for us to sightsee on our own, which is safe and easy in the Persian Gulf. I will tell you more about this in the next section of this review.
Silversea's own excursions ranged from an inexpensive four hour city tour ($48 per person) to a very expensive 45 minute helicopter ride ($2,687 per person, subsequent lunch included). The shore excursions seemed quite popular on our cruise, and I did not hear about any problems or disappointments with them.
Which brings us to the third part of this review.
PART 3: VISITING PERSIAN GULF PORTS OF CALL ON YOUR OWN
GUIDEBOOKS Having a good guidebook on any cruise will help you enjoy your ports of call. Even if you purchase a shore excursion, a guidebook will provide historical and cultural background and will help you decide which excursion to select. If you prefer to explore on your own, a guidebook with good maps is essential.
For our Persian Gulf ports I highly recommend Lonely Planet's Oman, UAE, and Arabian Peninsula. For more detailed information about hotels, shopping, and trendy restaurants I recommend Time Out's Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the UAE.
Purchase and read these books in advance of your cruise since they list supplemental reading and resources you might enjoy, and they will help you with packing and other aspects of your trip. Photocopy specific maps and sightseeing information if you do not want to carry the entire book ashore.
MONEY All of the United Arab Emirates use the dirham, but non-UAE nations like Qatar, Bahrain, and Iran have their own currencies. We used U.S. dollars for our few small expenses when UAE dirhams were not accepted. The Wall Street Journal or the FXconverter section of the website oanda.com provides current exchange rates. We did not use credit cards, but they should be acceptable in larger stores and shopping malls.
DUBAI (UAE) The emirate and city of Dubai is not what one would expect to find in a desert. Fifty years ago it was a backwater fishing and pearl diving village. Today it is a futuristic metropolis with enough sights and activities to keep one busy for a week.
Perhaps the easiest way to orient oneself on arrival is to spend an entire day on the Big Bus hop-on hop-off tour (bigbustours.com/eng/dubai). For about $50 per ticket one can ride for a day in an open-top double-deck bus on either or both of two tour circuits, one covering the historic city center and the other extending westward to the beach resorts and some major shopping malls. In addition, the ticket includes an hour-long boat ride on Dubai Creek (which can be done at a later date) and a short escorted walking tour of the historic district. There will not be enough time to enjoy all the bus stops, but at least this tour will give an introduction to the city. One warning, however: the air in Dubai can be filled with dust and exhaust fumes. I recommend moving inside the bus when traveling on the expressways (to and from the beach and shopping centers). We stayed outside and coughed up pollutants for the next several days. Also wear adequate sun protection when riding in the open air.
For those who enjoy cultural and historical sights, staying in the Deira or Bur Dubai districts rather than the beach resorts is best. In Bur Dubai one finds the Bastakia Quarter, a historic reconstruction of old Dubai with narrow lanes and typical wind towers (the best way to cool homes before the days of air conditioning). This quarter now houses several modern art galleries, a few small hotels, and a branch of the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding, which provides an introduction to local food in its weekly lunches and provides an introduction to Islam in its tours of the Jumeirah mosque, which is some distance away.
Also in Bur Dubai is the national museum, which is housed in the city's original fort and has an extensive underground display area. Adjacent to the museum is the textile souk (market) and not far away is the abra (water taxi) station for transport across Dubai Creek to the Deira section of the city.
In Deira one finds the gold souk, the perfume souk, and the spice souk, among others. The gold souk is especially enjoyable since it is covered from the sun and has benches for people-watching in front of the numerous small jewelry shops.
A walk along either shore of Dubai Creek is enjoyable. The Deira side has numerous traditional dhows (Arab boats) being loaded with goods for outlying ports. The Bur Dubai side has several small parks with benches and shade. The abra (water taxi) between the two sides costs only one dirham (30 cents US), and the above described sites are all within walking distance for someone in reasonable shape. One can take a metered taxi from the cruise port to the old fort and national museum for about 20 dirhams (about $6) each way.
For those who prefer to shop, Dubai offers endless opportunities. The shopping malls are on the periphery of the city to the west and south. The cruise terminal offers free shuttle buses to two of the southern ones - Deira Center and Wafi Center. We enjoyed the latter for its elegant shops, its over-the-top Egyptian décor, and its khan (a traditional market with carved wood screens and stained glass ceilings). Keep in mind that the prices in Dubai can be daunting. While browsing in the Escada shop at the Wafi Mall, my wife came upon a small jacket that she really liked. She lost interest when I converted the price tag for her - it was exactly $10,000 U.S.
Not on the free shuttle route but on the Big Bus tour is the Madinat Shopping Center, which is built in a traditional Arab style and is surrounded by picturesque plazas and canals that connect to an adjacent hotel. It also provides fine views of the nearby Burj al Arab, the world's only (self-appointed) seven star hotel, with prices to match. For those who cannot afford an overnight, afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab costs a little over $100 per person, is served from 3-5 pm in the view restaurant, and requires advance reservations).
Also on the Big Bus tour is the Mall of the Emirates. This is a must-see for its incredible indoor ski hill and toboggan run. It has hundreds of stores and provides excellent people watching in air-conditioned comfort.
Another favorite mall, which we did not visit, is the Ibn Battuta Mall, which is the farthest west and requires a taxi to reach. It is named after an historic Arabian traveler and features architecture and décor from all over the Arabic traders' world, from Spain to China. Within the next few years several even larger and more exotic malls are scheduled to open.
I highly recommend spending at least half a day visiting Dubai's malls, even if one is not a shopper. Shopping malls are museums of our times, and these malls provide the most amazing displays of consumer culture (and sometimes the lack of it) in the world.
Fujairah is probably the least wealthy and least developed of the emirates, and offers little of interest near the port. In fact, your cruise ship may stop here mainly to refuel since it is one of the most active refueling ports in the world.
The area is best known for the beach resorts and diving opportunities that lie some distance north of the main city, and for the low Hajar mountains and hiking opportunities that lie some distance to the west.
A taxi ride from the port (too far to walk) is a picturesque old fort (currently undergoing restoration) and nearby is a modest museum of local history and culture. In the modern town are a few shopping centers (such as the Lulu mall) with very reasonable prices for essentials that one may have forgotten to pack, but the luxurious malls of Dubai are absent.
ABU DHABI (UAE)
Abu Dhabi is the largest and one of the wealthiest of the emirates. While Dubai is known for its nightlife and glitz, Abu Dhabi seems proud to be more cultured and sedate. Enormous sums have been spent to turn Abu Dhabi city into a lush green urban oasis with parks and playgrounds next to futuristic skyscrapers. Walking along the corniche (waterfront) and through the many gardens can be an enjoyable way to spend a warm winter day (walking in the summer in any of the emirates is virtually impossible due to the heat).
The port is a few miles east of the city center, and it is necessary to take a taxi or ship shuttle bus into town. In the center of town a few blocks from the corniche is a fine Cultural Foundation, which provides major exhibits and concerts by international stars. When we were there, we saw a very nice exhibit of treasures from Sudan, similar to those from ancient Egypt. Upstairs is a café and an adjacent handicraft center (the larger and more active Women's Handicraft Center is several miles south).
From there we took a taxi to the Emirates Palace Hotel on the western edge of the city. In contrast to Dubai's Burj al Arab Hotel, the Emirates Palace Hotel seems to welcome tourists who are interested in seeing its extravagant lobby or having tea in its café. In the far distant corner as one enters the hotel is an exhibition area (the hotel is so massive that one of the employees will be happy to walk you there). When we were there it featured an Arabic calligraphy show, but only my wife got to see it since that afternoon was reserved for women only (as are some beaches and some taxis in the emirates). Instead, I spent an hour in an adjacent exhibition on the various new architectural projects planned for the city, including maquettes by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and other architectural superstars. It becomes quite obvious from the enormous public building projects that Abu Dhabi, like the other emirates, is working hard to convert its massive dollar reserves into hard assets.
From the Emirates Palace Hotel it is a pleasant walk to the Marina Mall (exit the lobby front, walk down through the gardens past the water features, exit the main gate, and then turn left outside the garden wall turning north past the VIP gate). There will be beautiful views across the gulf to the back of the hotel, which is far more massive than it appears from the front.
The Marina Mall is very similar to the modern upscale malls of Dubai. A viewing tower in the mall was not open when we were there. From the mall it is a taxi or shuttle ride back across the city to the port. The taxi stand is well organized. Fares should be metered (in UAE dirhams), but are reasonable even if negotiated.
Qatar is not a member of the United Arab Emirates and therefore has its own currency (the riyal, which is almost equivalent in value to the UAE dirham). When we visited Doha, the capital of Qatar, our ship provided a free shuttle into the center of town and the several sights we saw were all free and within walking distance of each other. The only cost was the Qatar visa (almost $200 each in our case), but that issue was already discussed in my Silver Cloud cruise review.
Qatar is completing a beautiful new Islamic museum, a national library, a national museum, and a photography museum, but none of these was open in March 2008 when we visited. Instead, the ship's free shuttle bus dropped us off at the nicely reconstructed Souq (traditional shopping area) Waqif. This provides many small shops with handicrafts, spices, and inexpensive souvenirs. Nearby is a large mosque with a spiral minaret. When we ventured in, we were welcomed by guides who took us to the modern prayer room upstairs and provided us with extensive free booklets about Islam and a copy of the Koran itself. Downstairs was a very interesting photo exhibition of Islamic calligraphy, and a resident calligrapher wrote our (transliterated) names as a free souvenir of our visit.
Until the major new museums are completed, there is not much else to do in Doha, although the nearby corniche (waterfront) provides a pleasant walk on mild winter days.
Like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Bahrain is undergoing an economic boom, with futuristic skyscrapers and massive public works. Ships dock several miles south of the Manama city center, and the free shuttle bus from the port to the Bahrain Gate (Bab al Bahrain) was very useful. However, rush hour can mean gridlock, and some of our cruise mates spent more than an hour on the bus traveling those few miles. Fortunately we disembarked early, as soon as the ship cleared immigration formalities, when traffic was still light.
The highlight of Manama for us was the free Koran Museum (Beit al Quran), about a mile east of the Gate, not far from the new National Museum. This provides beautifully displayed examples of rare and modern Korans and related Arabic calligraphy. While we were there, large tour groups from the Costa Romantica passed through in waves. The groups seemed too large to enjoy the exhibits, and we were glad to have the museum to ourselves between groups.
An easy walk (with some frightening intersections) to the east is the modern National Museum, which provides beautiful cultural and historical displays pertaining to Bahrain. The entry fee is about $3 US ( 1 Bahraini dinar) for two people. The ticket seller accepted US cash. The museum is well worth a visit.
BANDAR ABBAS (Iran)
This was the first time that Silversea stopped at a mainland Iran port (Bandar Abbas is Iran's largest gulf port and is a major naval station). Some passengers were apprehensive about stopping there, but the welcome could not have been warmer. In fact, we were greeted dockside by a group of young children in ethnic (Bandar) costumes as local newsmen hovered in the background taking photos.
As in other ports, the ship provided a free shuttle to the town center, which is several miles to the east of the port. The local escorts seemed hesitant to let us wander on our own, not because of any travel restrictions but simply because they felt responsible for our well-being in the crowded markets. Fortunately a group of Turkish passengers (perhaps Persian emigres) spoke Farsi and explained to the guides that we would be fine on our own, so off we went.
There is little in the way of museums or major sights in Bandar Abbas, which is not known as a tourist center. However, the several traditional covered markets, small modern shopping centers, and outdoor farmers markets provided enough color to make the port a very enjoyable and photogenic stop. Unlike their Arab neighbors, the Persians did not seem to mind being photographed, although we always asked permission first.
In one modern shopping center we found a small internet café. We had no Iranian currency, so I offered the owner a handful of euros, dollars, and dirhams. He took two dollars (for half an hour of internet time), and even though our currency was probably worthless to him, he wanted to gives us change in Iranian rials, which we declined.
Whatever one may read in the news about Iran as a nation, the people of Bandar Abbas were exceptionally friendly and seemed surprised to see us. One senses the financial constraints they are under (there were some beggars but no apparent urban squalor), but still they managed to smile and were happy to help us when possible. Their Persian ancestry is quite distinct from their Arabic neighbors across the Persian (called Arabian by the Arabs) Gulf. One hopes that tourism to Iran will flourish when current political issues stabilize.
Two weeks after our Persian Gulf cruise on the Silver Cloud my wife and I took a Panama Canal cruise on a premium mainstream cruise line. Although we found that canal cruise very enjoyable, with fine food and good service, the large ship (2,000 passengers) seemed noisy, crowded, and impersonal when compared with our experience on the Silver Cloud. Whether the difference between luxury and mainstream cruise lines is worth the difference in cruise price is a personal question. You will have to try a luxury cruise to answer that question for yourself.
When choosing a cruise style, for us the answer remains "all of the above". We will continue to cruise on a variety of cruise lines in a variety of cruise styles, enjoying each for what it does best. Similarly, over the years we have owned economical compact cars, high performance sports cars, and luxury sedans. Wouldn't life be boring if we were all limited to one type of car -- or one type of cruise ship?