Silver Whisper: Dubai to Athens, 4/20/08 - 5/5/08
Embarkation. It was a hot Sunday in Dubai and by mid-morning we were out of touring options, seriously jet lagged, with five hours to kill before our scheduled boarding. We hadn't purchased an early boarding permit but we decided to call the Silversea port agent to see if we could show up at the ship, pay the $100 per person fee, and proceed on board early. He said yes. By noon we were cheerfully received and directed to The Restaurant for a leisurely, delightful lunch. All the wait staff ambled over to our table to introduce themselves and welcome us aboard. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that when you board early they attempt to get you to your cabin early. By the end of lunch our cabin on deck eight was ready. We were unpacked and sipping our complimentary champagne when general boarding commenced. Under the circumstances we decided the $200 we splurged to board early was well spent. We would have spent $60pp for food and drink waiting at our hotel. For me, embarkation gets an A+.
The Ship. We were immensely impressed with the Silver Whisper. She is totally comfortable, spotless, and in top condition. Her public rooms are spacious and richly appointed without seeming the least bit stuffy and well disbursed throughout the ship so we never experienced a sense of crowding. We had 375 passengers on board but it seemed like only 75. Our standard cabin was excellent, ample space and storage, a very comfortable bed, and a large bath with double sinks and a separate tub and shower. The cabin furnishings were a bit worn, but in a homey comfortable sense. Getting about the ship was initially a bit of a challenge since some areas are accessible only by forward stairs and elevators and others by the aft stairs and elevators. But after charging down occasional dead ends, we mastered the territory and grew to love the ship's layout. For me, the ship gets an A+. She isn't new, but she wears her years oh so well!
Service. I have never experienced service of this quality. When we boarded early, the staff at Reception all but cheered. The waiters in The Restaurant were warm, welcoming, totally genuine and determined (successfully) to remember our names from that moment forward. Our cabin attendants treated us like visiting VIPs. They were simply perfection throughout the cruise. We found our cabin a bit warm when we moved in and inquired about the air conditioning. An engineer was quickly dispatched and determined, cheerfully, it was fine. The next morning, returning from breakfast, we encountered three teams of attendants working the cabins on our deck eight. They all knew us. They all stopped what they were doing to ask about our air conditioning. (It was fine.) This wasn't an accident. This was Silversea's commitment to passenger service at work. Wow! That evening, I walked into the Panorama Lounge after the show and ordered a cognac. This was our second night on the ship. My cognac was delivered in thirty seconds. My response: "That was fast!" My waitress casually responded: "The bartender saw you walk in." Business as usual!!!! That quality of service continued throughout our journey. In my opinion, A++. How could it get better?
Ports of Call. We usually decline ship's tours when we cruise to avoid Jake Snake from Serpent, Idaho who inevitably finds his way on to our bus. But given this itinerary, we decided to make this cruise an exception. We stuck with the ship's tours and we're glad we did. Jake found us only once, on our four-hour tour of Fujairah. (He snuck on the bus as a Brazilian in drag.) The tours were generally quite well done. We were highly impressed seeing the Whisper's Tour Desk personnel not only present but actively involved in all the tours. They were friendly, knowledgeable, and eager to please. Best Tour Desk we have experienced by far!
Dubai was, for me, a good place to get over jet lag, once. It's a massive desert construction zone with a flicker of native culture apparent if you look hard for it. We did a fascinating desert safari trip that was a gas—an hour of navigating desert sand dunes in a Range Rover with its tires partially deflated followed by dinner and belly dancing under the stars in a "native encampment." Our evening in the desert ended with an unplanned moment of magic. We were the first of about fifty Range Rovers to leave the encampment. As we drove in darkness across the sands a herd of several dozen camels appeared in our headlights, their ghost-like images a majestic and unforgettable sight. The camels proceeded calmly toward and around us on their way back to camp. (Daytime versions of the desert safari were offered as shore tours in Fujairah and Sharm El-Sheikh.) If you have unlimited amounts of money to squander, Dubai is ready and able to help you do it. If you like shopping for mostly familiar consumer goods in giant awesome ultra lavish shopping malls, you will find bliss in Dubai. If you like lounging on a beach or poolside, dozens of impressive five star properties are at your disposal in Dubai with many more on the way. For us, a day on the Ho Ho bus and an evening in the desert was enough.
Our first two ports of call were half-day stops, Fujairah, U.A.E, and Salalah, Oman. Both are beach resorts serving, largely, citizens of nearby nations. The ship's tours we took gave us a nice overview of what little there was to see. The busses were only half full and the guides pretty good. Some folks were disappointed but I didn't expect much and thought our four hours on shore was time well spent. It was like turning down a new road on a car trip just to see where it went.
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was another matter entirely. It was an exotic, dramatic, highly memorable travel experience. Our sense of anticipation began several months before the cruise when Silversea alerted us to the fact that all women must wear an abaya in order the leave the ship. Several days before our arrival in Jeddah, the Tour Director gave us a thirty minute briefing (some would call it a rant) on the Jeddah stop. Not only did he reiterate dress requirements, he cited a laundry list of "stipulations" that would apply to all of us while in Saudi waters—all alcohol would be confiscated and placed under lock and key in the hold; strict manifests would be maintained for each tour bus; a variety of documents would need to be completed for each passenger for presentation to Saudi authorities upon arrival; our on shore tour the travel guides might not measure up to the standards we expect from Silversea since we would be only the third cruise ship to call at Jeddah; any infractions discovered by Saudi authorities, particularly the religious police, would prompt severe penalties, (The Cloud, which had visited Jeddah about three weeks ahead of us, received a $10,000 fine and was threatened with impoundment because a half bottle of wine was discovered in a crew cabin.), the Saudis were oh so difficult to deal with, and on it went. By the time we boarded our busses in Jeddah we were as excited and apprehensive as our mother hen Tour Director.
The guide on our bus wasn't much but was better than we had been lead to expect and somewhat of a jovial chap. His surprise of the morning: he informed all the abaya clad ladies "we Saudis aren't all that formal. Don't bother to cover your hair." Our first stop was the Qomosani House. To say this was a modest facility would be drowning it in praise. Then we were treated to a brief walk through the fascinating streets of old Jeddah, Al-Balad, to see some of the remaining early architecture. Next we proceeded on foot to the grand souk for more than an hour of independent shopping and people watching. I loved every minute of it. We then boarded the bus and drove along the Corniche, the new, modern waterfront of Jeddah stretching for many miles. It is punctuated with dozens of huge pieces of quite striking modern sculpture, a source of justifiable pride for the Saudis. From this point, those who booked a half-day trip were taken to the local fish market and then back to the ship. Unfortunately, the moment the half-day folks pulled up to the fish market the mid-day call to prayer began. They spent thirty minutes cooling their heels in the parking lot while the Saudis tended to Allah. The delay caused them to miss lunch back on the ship. Understandably, they were an unhappy lot.
Meanwhile, we had booked a full day tour so we were taken to a modern elegant Lebanese restaurant in a fancy neighborhood close to the Corniche for a dining experience I will never forget. Teams of young waiters descended upon us serving eighteen separate entrEes family style at tables of eight. It took two hours for us to devour this magnificent feast. The problem was the first entrEe was excellent and all that followed kept getting better. We departed the restaurant the happiest of sated campers. Then on to a most surprising and incongruous stop. We were taken to a fashion design studio, a women's studio in a land where women show only their hands and eyes in public. What a hoot watching dudes in dish-dashes touting sexy lingerie and related items of high fashion. Not a Saudi woman in site unless you count manikins! Go figure! Then we proceeded on to the Abdul Raouf Khalil's Museum. This magnificent facility is a beautiful and meticulously restored private mansion. It contains three stories of brilliantly presented art and artifacts of Saudi culture and history. I am not a museum person but I wanted much more time here. Our Tour Director said Silversea is considering this museum as a future "special Silversea event" site. They couldn't do better.
We were then hustled off to the local fish market which, at four in the afternoon, was well past its prime and then back to the ship. The Jeddah stop, in my opinion, was worth all the angst Silversea experienced in offering it to us. It was timely, truly unique, and exceptionally well done particularly in light of the "special circumstances" the Saudis currently impose on visiting cruise ships. I am sure Silversea will tweak the half-day itinerary to correct blatant deficiencies and all future visitors to Jeddah will be in for a treat.. We got our booze back at about 7:00 p.m., the moment we departed Saudi waters. Nirvana!
Our overnight to Luxor was quite well done. It's a three hour bus ride each way in a scheduled caravan with armed escort and an armed "minder" who catches up on his sleep on each bus. When you reach the Nile valley, about an hour before arriving at Luxor, you are treated to views of the Egypt that has existed for five thousand years. Fascinating. The temples of Karnak and Luxor are awesome, along with Petra the focal point of the cruise. No one was disappointed. Our hotel was the five-star Sonesta. It should have been called the Construction Zone since they were in the process of adding three new floors to the top of it. It was ok for one night, great setting right on the Nile. We were offered three beautiful, lavish but flavorless buffet meals. I found the Valley of the Kings to be annoying because of the crowds. Seeing one magnificent tomb was enough for me. Our guide, a university professor of antiquities from Cairo who was flown in by Silversea exclusively for this tour, was simply sensational. His commentary in excellent English perfectly embellished the sights and sounds of Egypt. I've never experienced better. We drove to Luxor thinking this would be our first and last visit to Egypt. We drove back to the ship determined to return.
In our opinion, Petra is equal to all the superlatives applied to it. We will visit it again so we can enjoy it in the early morning before the crowds arrive and again in the evening twilight. Our tour was well done and the drive to Petra much more interesting than I had anticipated.
Sharm el-Sheikh is a popular, tried and true resort stop, beautiful beaches with world class diving opportunities. We skipped a ship's tour here and had a good time simply walking the beach. The final highlight of our cruise was the Suez Canal passage. It was great fun rising early to view scores of ships waiting to take their place in our northbound caravan. I had planned to do a video piece entitled "Images on the Suez Canal." Unfortunately, I discovered while really interesting images are there to see they are few and far between since the canal is nothing more than a lengthy ditch cut through the desert. The world will have to wait for a more patient videographer to produce "Images."
The ports and tours get an A.
Entertainment. I've always assumed the larger the ship the better the entertainment. The Whisper reminded me not necessarily so. I was totally pleased by the entertainment offered on board. During the first half of the cruise we were entertained by a magician, an excellent Irish flautist, an equally excellent singer-impressionist as well as our Cruise Director Simon Heath, a respectable singer himself. On the second half of the cruise, Simon was joined by a pair of versatile pianists, a superb vocalist and an excellent violinist. The Silver Whisper Quartet played daily on the Pool Deck at lunch, before and after dinner in The Bar, and ably backed up several of the entertainers. They were versatile and most enjoyable. And our lounge lizard was also a solid performer. We weren't offered a production show but I didn't expect it or miss it.
One of the highlights of this cruise was our Enrichment Lecturer, Dr. Richard Atkins. A retired academic and brilliant speaker, his presentations on Islam, Saudi Arabia, "The Curse of Oil," our Greek and Roman cultural heritage and the Suez Canal perfectly enhanced our tour experiences. His lectures were very well attended and enthusiastically received. Best lecturer I've experienced on a cruise ship!
Our Guest Chef, Jeffrey Bates, was, to me, a disappointment. His presentations were a mix of thirty minutes of tedious patter with fifteen minutes of cooking demonstration. I probably expect too much since I regularly watch the stars do this stuff really well on the Food Channel. I loved the fact that his demonstrations ended with a stream of waiters passing out a taster plate to everyone in the audience. Overall, the entertainment and enhancement package gets yet another A.
The Dining Experience. I regret I must rate the dining experience on Whisper only a B. When it was good it was very good indeed. And it was frequently very good. On our first formal night, dinner was perfection: caviar, assiette of artichokes, fresh lobster, and a magnificent chocolate plate. The chef was bolder with flavoring than most ship chef's we've experienced, with outstanding results. But the galley produced far too many failures for a luxury cruise. Here are a few examples. One night, three at our table were served beautifully plated empty mussel shells. On another night, two at our table were served souffles that were so undercooked they were runny on the bottom. On another night, one person was served an ice cream dessert that was so melted the ice cream had lost its shape. I ordered a medium rare sirloin steak. It was tasteless and served at nearly room temperature and well done. The Spanakopita was all filo dough, almost no filling. At our last dinner, I was served risotto that was flavorless because it had been rushed. You can't rush risotto. And three folks at our table ordered the pork tenderloin and ate only one bite. Furthermore, the wait staff were consistently superb but frequently too rushed. During one lunch we noticed our wonderful Bulgarian waitress literally running in order to keep up. That shouldn't happen. That afternoon there was one sommelier serving the entire dining room. She fell woefully behind. The sommeliers on Whisper are instructed to fill your wine glass no more than a third full. That's ok by me. But the policy requires the sommeliers to make frequent table visits in order to keep up. Our wine glasses remained empty much of the time because the sommelier had no hope of keeping up. Unacceptable!
We met lots of Silversea regulars on this cruise. All with the exception of one English couple agreed the galley had problems and assured us this was an exception to the rule. The delightful English couple thought the galley was doing just fine.
Disembarkation. The marvelous crew of Whisper made leaving the ship as painless as possible. The luggage was promptly transferred to the Athens terminal. They then hovered around the gangway offering to carry anything we had in our hands. I was more than able to handle my camera. Crew members stood every few hundred feet lining the route to our luggage. Everyone was off the ship by nine. Another A for the Whisper.
This was our first Silversea cruise. We loved every bit of it and plan to book another Silversea cruise in the near future. We are Regent regulars and found Silversea to be a worthy competitor indeed. The larger Regent ships offer a few more entertainment and dining options than Whisper, but less of the sense of intimacy we enjoyed on Whisper. While Regent service is excellent, we found the service on Silversea even better. This was most noticeable at the Reception and Tour Desks. The dining experience on Regent is consistently excellent. That wasn't the case on Whisper but Silversea regulars aboard convinced us to give Silversea another try and that we will!