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A cruise aboard the sumptuous Silver Whisper introduces us to the richly varied countries and cultures of the Arabian Peninsula.  Words: Sally Macmillan

Never having encountered a butler before, it is interesting, to say the least, to have two at my service within 24 hours of arriving in Dubai. The first, Ayman, greets me in my vast, elegant suite in Raffles Dubai when I arrive at the spectacular Egyptian-themed hotel on a Monday evening to join Silver Whisper the following afternoon. He could not have been more attentive, and makes sure my English-language newspaper and glass of freshly squeezed melon juice are delivered first thing in the morning as requested.

Raffles Dubai – like much of this glittering, ultra-modern desert city – has to be experienced to be believed. A quick inspection of one of the hotel’s four top Presidential suites – each of which is themed around one of the elements: air, water, earth and fire – reveals the level of sophisticated luxury in which visiting royalty, diplomats and dignitaries can indulge. Suffice to say, the bed alone in the Air Presidential Suite is big enough to accommodate about eight people.

While I could have lingered all day checking out the spa, pool and adjoining Wafi shopping mall, I have a four-hour city tour booked courtesy of the much-recommended tour operator Arabian Adventures. Carlos, our articulate Brazilian guide, gives a running commentary on the history of Dubai as we visit several key historic and modern landmarks.

In a nutshell: the UAE was formed in 1971 and the seven emirates comprise Abu Dhabi, the federal capital and the largest, richest emirate; Dubai, the second-largest, known as the ‘Manhattan of the Middle East’; Sharjah, the cultural capital where, according to Carlos, having a beer is your “passport to the police station”; Ajman, the smallest emirate; Fujairah; Umm Al Quwain; and Ras Al Khaimah.

Dubai is ruled by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE. He is a member of the Al Maktoum dynasty, which has been responsible for the city’s meteoric growth since the discovery of oil just offshore in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the soaring skyscrapers you see in Dubai today weren’t even built 10 years ago.

The city is divided into two parts by Bur Dubai Creek: Deira is the airport side; Bur Dubai was originally the city’s trading district. A trip across the creek in a local water taxi, an abra, after a walk around the old souk (market) district, which overflows with gold, textiles and spices, offers scenic snapshots of wooden dhows, massive high-rises and attractive waterfront buildings.

Nearby Bastakiya is a restored, 19th-century area of traditional houses, distinctive wind-towers (an ingenious precursor to air conditioning), atmospheric alleyways and restaurants: it is well worth a visit. We skip the Dubai Museum – “too small and crowded”, says our guide – and instead visit Sheikh Saeed House.

This was once the current ruler’s grandfather’s home and for me, a highlight of the visit is seeing a collection of black-and-white photographs of Bedouin life last century. Some are the work of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, distinguished explorer and travel writer. His book Arabian Sands (1959) was deemed “probably the finest book ever written about Arabia and a tribute to a world now lost forever” in one of the many obituaries published when Sir Wilfred died, aged 93, in 2003.

What would Sir Wilfred, or Mubarak bin London, as he was sometimes known, have made of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower; of the extraordinary pink Atlantis resort on Palm Jumeirah; or of any of the extravagant mega-malls now dotted throughout the city?

Abu Dhabi

Embarking Silver Whisper at Port Rashid is an effortless affair – and how odd to see the famous QE2 docked nearby, her future still undecided. Our bags are whisked off to our Veranda Suites while we enjoy a welcome-aboard glass of Champagne in reception. Then I meet my second butler: Nataliya, from the Ukraine, a highly efficient young woman whose job involves everything from unpacking luggage to replenishing the fridge with our favourite tipples (all included in the overall tariff), not to mention fulfilling more unusual requests, such as removing splinters from one past passenger’s derrière. Nothing is too much trouble – it’s a hallmark of Silversea Cruises’ service.

Our first port of call is Abu Dhabi, where there’s a choice of two shore tours: a Dune Safari and a guided tour of Abu Dhabi. I plump for the Dune Safari. A convoy of Toyota 4WDs sets forth from the quay at 8.30am, a driver and guide in each vehicle. We’re whisked along wide, tree-lined streets flanked by gleaming skyscrapers and manicured parks – the desalination plants are surely working overtime to produce such extravagant lushness.

We stop briefly at the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, known to local residents as the Grand Mosque: an impressive gleaming-white edifice with 24-carat gold crescents and 24-carat gold spires atop the classic domes. Two of my colleagues who took the city tour said later that their (much longer) visit to the Grand Mosque was well worth taking. It’s always difficult to decide what to see when time is limited; however, the 90-minute drive to the desert region of Al Khatim gives us an insight into the history and traditions of this now immensely rich country. Ancient and modern sometimes sit strangely together here: at a later stop along the highway, the muezzin call to midday prayers is broadcast from above a Southern Fried Chicken outlet.

Surfing the sand dunes is heart-stopping at times but we are assured our driver has undergone thorough training to gain his licence as a ‘dune driver’. He’s from the Yemen – ‘local’ Emirati people number less than 20 per cent of the population of the United Arab Emirates, which comprises more than 200 different nationalities.

Stepping out onto the sand in 36°C to check out a herd of camels is – well, hot, and quite aromatic. The camels are sweet, curious creatures and we learn that they do not spit to 30 metres – that’s what their relations, the llamas, do – and they don’t store water in their humps but at the top of their legs. They also like being tickled under their necks.

Sea Day

There is a huge range of activities on the menu, starting with walking the decks at 7.30am, pilates, Mass with Father Brian (an Australian) and various language classes – and this is all before 9am. At 11am, there is a cooking demonstration in the Viennese Lounge in which French executive chef Lionel Lavergne and Italian chef Alessandro Dal Zotto prep and cook a four-course meal that looks deceptively easy.

After the culinary demo I take a ballroom dancing class. Aleksandro from Belarus proves a very patient teacher of the basic three-step waltz. One frequent Silversea cruiser is disappointed there are no ‘gentlemen hosts’ to dance with on this voyage but gracefully partners me around the floor for our lesson.

A sea day gives everyone the opportunity to relax by the pool, visit the beauty salon to prepare for the Captain’s cocktail party, take in a lecture or explore the ship. A group of us takes a tour of Silver Whisper’s most exclusive accommodation, including the Grand Suite (the biggest, at 133 square metres) and the Owner’s Suite on Deck 7. These impeccably appointed suites can be configured as one- or two-bedroom accommodations. Naturally, all the bathrooms are marble-clad, whatever size your suite, and the products by Bvlgari.

The Captain’s cocktail reception (dress code: formal) is held in the Viennese Lounge. It’s good to put a face to the mellifluous voice we hear every day reporting on the sea and weather conditions. Captain Arma has been with Silversea Cruises since 1998 and is permanent captain of Silver Whisper – or as he calls her in Italian, Sussurro Argente.

Dinner is a grand affair in The Restaurant on Deck 4 – I’ve never eaten so much caviar in my life as I do on this cruise – but the menus in all the ship’s dining venues are exceptional. Breakfast in a shady spot on the deck of La Terrazza is always a pleasure; lunches at the Pool Grill are as healthy or substantial as you like; and dinners at La Terrazza are less formal and more fun than those at The Restaurant. We save dinner at Le Champagne, a six-course Burgundy degustation menu, for our last evening.

Fujairah

Somewhat confusingly located between the tip and the rest of the Sultanate of Oman, Fujairah is the only emirate on the Gulf of Oman, the region’s eastern coast. As our guide on the bus puts it, “East coast is complicated: sometimes Oman, sometimes Fujairah, sometimes Sharjah”. We drive north from Fujairah port along a stunning coastal road with a dramatic backdrop of volcanic mountains that is quite unlike the desert landscapes enveloping Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Hotel developments are sprouting up along the beachfronts but the primary industries here are still fishing, boatbuilding and agriculture.

We pass through a checkpoint to enter Oman, then pull in at the divided town of Dibba, where we board dhows for a trip into the fjords. Ours is fairly basic, with an astroturf-clad top deck and plenty of cushions for lounging on, but the surrounding scenery is quite breathtaking. Sheer cliffs plunge down to clear, turquoise water and there is a powerful sense of remoteness from the rest of the world. We make a couple of stops for swimming and snorkelling, then lunch on a spread of Middle Eastern fare that seems to appear from nowhere on the deck.

On the way back to the ship, we stop at Al Bidya Mosque, said to be the oldest place of worship in the UAE. Built from stone and mud bricks and covered in layers of whitewashed plaster, it is thought to date back to 1446AD. The mosque is overlooked by a fort and is a popular spot for worshippers and tourists alike, particularly as the main highway now runs straight past it. In these parts, driving can be hair-raising and accidents common: as we make our way back to our bus, parked beside the mosque, a 4WD veers across the traffic, smacks into the side of the bus and races off at high speed. Fortunately, no-one is hurt.

Later, over pre-dinner drinks at our favourite shipboard bar, La Grappa, we surmise that the hit-and-run driver, once caught, will be imprisoned, then immediately deported, as is common practice with law-breakers in the UAE.

Muscat and Nizwa, Oman

We enter Muscat, capital of Oman, early in the morning. It is our most exotic-looking port of call thus far. Muscat is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and, while the large, modern Sultan Qaboos Port was officially opened in 1974, the city has been a thriving port for centuries. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Oman in the late 15th century, en route to India, paving the way for a later Portuguese invasion of the country. The spectacular medieval forts of Al Jalali and Al Mirani that tower above Muscat’s rocky harbour are evidence of the city’s rich history and were built by the Portuguese on the sites of much older Omani fortifications.

It would take several days of exploring the old walled city of Muscat, its spectacular gateways, moat and museums, to do it any sort of justice as a visitor. This time, however, we have just one day here, and our charming hosts from Oman World Tourism offer us a private 4WD tour to Nizwa, former capital of Oman and home of the historic Nizwa Fort.

The drive, through the Western Hajar mountain range along a road so fast and well maintained that it puts Australia’s highways to shame, takes about two hours. Oman is ruled by Sultan Sayyed Qaboos bin Said, a member of the Al Busaidi dynasty that has ruled Oman since the mid-18th century. Since he ascended to the throne in 1970, the sultan has been responsible for taking a country that had no secondary and only two primary schools and just 10 kilometres of sealed roads to a state that gracefully combines history and modernity.

Our first stop is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Al Hudaybi, a magnificent monument to Islam. It was built in 2005 and almost destroyed by a hurricane in 2007; hundreds of gardeners are employed by the sultan of Oman to keep the lush green gardens immaculate. The dress code for entry is strictly enforced: if you’ve forgotten your headscarf (women)
you can rent or buy a scarf, or even a full-length abaya or shela at the mosque shop. Men’s and women’s trousers must be full-length to ensure your ankles are covered.

The Grand Mosque can accommodate 20,000 worshippers within its main prayer hall (musalla), women’s musalla, interior and exterior courtyards and passageways. To give a sense of the mosque’s dimensions, the 70-by-60-metre carpet that covers the floor of the main musalla is the second-largest handwoven floor-rug in the world (Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque boasts the biggest) and took 600 Iranian women four years to make. The massive gold-and-crystal chandelier is 14 metres high and eight metres in diameter, and the ceiling of the main minaret soars to 90 metres high.

Our next stop is on a rocky hilltop overlooking the picturesque village of Birkat al Mawz (translation: banana pools), named for its dense grove of banana palms. Its traditional Omani houses blend into the mountainside and, if time permits, you can visit the fortified house of Bait Al Radidah and walk through the plantations.

As you enter Nizwa, you see the walls of the souk beneath the fort – unfortunately, we arrive too late to wander through its traditional-style alleyways, stalls and workshops (shops and businesses throughout the Middle East typically close from 1pm to 4 or 5pm because of the heat), but I have it on good authority that it is a fascinating place to visit and shop for silver jewellery, copper goods and woven goods.

The city’s imposing fort is one of the oldest in Oman and one of several built by Imam Sultan bin Seif bin Malik al Ya’arubi, the ruler who was responsible for ousting the Portuguese invaders in the mid-17th century. Nizwa was an administrative and arts centre as well as a strategic defence site. Even today, two cannons guard the entrance to the fort, which houses a maze of rooms, high-ceilinged halls, doorways, terraces, narrow staircases and corridors. There are hundreds of fascinating museum exhibits – and who would have thought date syrup could be a lethal weapon? Apparently it was, when boiled and poured from the ramparts onto marauding invaders.

We lunch in a nearby restaurant, where we sit on the floor and are served dish after delicious dish: hummus, yogurt and green salads, spicy fish and chicken curries. No-one, however, is game to sample the habsha makhli (fried intestine and bread).

When we arrive back in Muscat, we have an hour or so to spare before we are due to board the ship: just enough time to check out the wares in the attractive waterfront souk. There’s a tempting array of local clothing, silverware, fabulous chunky turquoise, amber and semiprecious-stone jewellery, raffia baskets, pashminas by the truckload and much more on offer. Haggling is essential. I now rather regret not buying an antique silver evening bag: clearly, I will have to return to the city with more time and more spending money.

We sail out of Muscat in the early evening. It’s a beautiful, romantic sight as the sun sets and the city’s lights illuminate the winding corniche, the dramatic mountains that sweep to the water’s edge and the majestic forts guarding the harbour. No wonder Oman is fast becoming the holiday destination of choice for discerning travellers and cruisers the world over.

Bandar Abbas, Iran

Having travelled through Iran many years ago, stopping in Teheran and Mashad on the hippie trail from England to India, I was keen to return and visit the country’s largest port city. Bandar Abbas is only 60 kilometres from Oman across the Straits of Hormuz, but some differences between the wealthy Emirati states and this populous country are evident immediately. For example, though it is common sense when visiting Middle Eastern countries to dress appropriately, the dress code in Iran is very strict. All the women passengers are covered from head to foot before we even step off the ship.

On the short bus-ride to the city centre, we notice that the streets aren’t as clean, green and ordered as they are in Muscat, Abu Dhabi and Fujairah; the cars are older and the buildings more utilitarian and scrawled with graffiti. This is a country with thousands of years of history, however, and it is a privilege to get even a brief glimpse into another culture.

We visit the beautiful, blue-and-turquoise-tiled Shiite Seyed Mozaffar mosque near the main bazaar; inside the women’s prayer hall, women lie on the floor, sleeping off the afternoon heat or leafing through the Koran. Next stop is the fish market, which might be historic but I will never know, as the pungent smell is too much even for my hardy constitution. More palatable are our visits to the Geledary public bathhouse, now a museum, and the Anthropological Museum of Bandar Abbas. The bathhouse is an early version of the modern spa, where local citizens could enjoy body treatments along with a good old gossip. The museum contains a series of dusty dioramas depicting traditional Persian life and a collection of pots (some containing human bones), tiles and manuscripts. The air conditioning is as much of an attraction as the exhibits – it’s pushing 40ºC outside.

We’re then whisked off to a lively restaurant, where we enjoy fruit, tea and melt-in-the-mouth macaroons that are brought around by a succession of waiters – and, unexpectedly, waitresses. The decor is fabulously kitsch with lots of plastic vines, ornate wrought iron and water features. And how delicious it is to return ‘home’ to our ship and the Poolside Bar for a thoroughly decadent mai tai.

Khasab, Oman

We sail out of Bandar Abbas late that night after a lively, if somewhat incongruous – considering we are still in Iran – fiesta-themed dance session and a barbecue on the pool deck. At eight in the morning we dock at Khasab, a small port town on the tip of Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. It’s our last day and as it turns out, the highlight of the cruise.

We take a short drive around the harbour to board our dhow: a jaunty turquoise vessel crewed by the captain, his first mate and Ahmed, the fast-talking tour guide whose immaculate white dishdasha somehow remains immaculate all day. The deck is furnished with cushions for lounging on and there is ample space for the 10 passengers.

We head towards Khor Sham, a long fjord that carves through limestone cliffs bristling with seabirds, emptying into a waterscape of incredible colour and beauty. With Arabic music playing in the background and dolphins cavorting among the other dhows plying the fjord, it really feels as though we’re in another world. We stop briefly some way off Qanaha, a small fishing village where about 50 people live in simple stone houses during the cooler months – in summer, they decamp to Khasab to work on date plantations. In a remarkable feat of engineering, electricity and fresh water are supplied from Khasab to this remote and largely inaccessible region.

At Telegraph Island, so called because of the telegraph station the British built there in 1864 as part of its communications system between England and India, our captain anchors the dhow alongside several others and we dive overboard to swim and snorkel in the pristine water. We spot a few large blue parrot-fish but not much else, until the first mate dives in and comes up with a sea anemone that he puts into our nervous hands. Turtles and whale sharks also inhabit these waters but the only sharks we see are some enormous specimens being unloaded from remarkably small boats onto a truck back at the port.

Cold drinks and hot cardamom tea are served at regular intervals before and after an excellent lunch. Ahmed whistles to attract dolphins and tells us about village life.  It’s a supremely relaxing day and it occurs to the small-yacht sailors among us that this would be a wonderful place to charter a yacht for a week or two.

We spend the last few hours of our Middle Eastern adventure back in Dubai, based at Raffles Dubai. Ayman, the butler who looked after me a week ago, greets me by name and with a glass of, you guessed, fresh melon juice – my life as a working mother of two teenage sons seems a long way away. And the fantasy lasts over a lavish dinner at the hotel’s Fire & Ice restaurant, and onwards to Sydney in the business class section of an Emirates A380 airbus. As I sink back into near horizontal position, glass of French bubbly at hand, I think of what my father used to say about me: Champagne lifestyle, beer salary. Cheers, Dad!

FACT FILE

Cruise line: Silversea Cruises
Vessel: Silver Whisper
Star rating:
5
Max pax capacity:
382
Total crew:
295
Passenger decks:
7
GRT:
28,258 tons
Entered service:
July 2001
Facilities:
194 suites, 4 restaurants (incl. Le Champagne), pool, fitness centre, beauty salon, library & internet café, show lounge, casino, 3 bars, boutiques.
Highs:
Awe-inspiring mosques; Middle Eastern food; cuisine onboard Silver Whisper; impeccable, friendly service at all levels.
Lows:
Excursions could have been better timed, as businesses shut in the afternoons; shows were a little dated; local driving.