Embarking the Silver Wind in Muscat
Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.
– Henry Miller
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Sunday, April 5, 2015
After 29 hours of travel, including three flights and stops in two airports on two separate continents, my Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul touched down at Muscat Seeb International Airport in the Sultanate of Oman shortly before two this morning. By the time I reached my hotel – the Shangri-La Barr al Jissah Muscat – it was closing in on three in the morning. It was a long journey, but worth it to reach Silversea’s elegant Silver Wind for her fascinating voyage through the Middle East.
Getting through customs in Muscat was surprisingly easy, even at two in the morning. A Visa-on-arrival program is in place for travellers from 65 different countries. Five Omani Rai gets you a 10-day visa, and a lot if scribbling in your passport. Unfortunately, the automated machines only take Omani Rai, which funnels a hefty portion of business to the nearby Travelex Exchange counter who will relieve you of any currency you may have – for a small commission, of course. You can also pay there by credit card.
At every step of the way, the Omanis I dealt with were kind and courteous. Some are dressed very traditionally, while others wear western-style pants and the white-collared shirts that seem to be ubiquitous with hotter climates. I asked my driver how much rain Oman gets; he told me he couldn’t remember the last rainfall. “Maybe one year, one year and a half ago?”, he questioned as we sped through the night to the Shangri-La. “But when it rains here, it pours. Everything floods. Last time, the whole city shut down for three days.”
It was then that I learned about Qaboos bin Said al Said – the Sultan of Oman, who is simply referred to as “His Majesty.” In power for 44 years, His Majesty is both revered and beloved by Omanis. He is the longest-serving ruler in the Middle East. He is also mysterious to a fault, never appearing in public with a wife or children and frequently retreating from public eye to one of his many palaces scattered across Oman and Europe Thus, no one quite knows where he is at any given time – or who will succeed the 74- year old Sultan when he eventually passes on.
Forget everything you know about the Middle East: it’s either inaccurate or doesn’t apply to Oman. Not that the Omanis don’t pay close attention to their petulant neighbour, Yemen; they do. But the plague that has infected many Middle Eastern countries has not done do here in Oman.
Some observations: Oman has better roads that any North American city I’ve ever seen. It’s also clean to a fault; trash and litter do not exist here. Kindness is prevalent here. People say ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘you’re welcome.’ When was the last time you heard those words in North America?
The Omani’s are well-informed – in many languages. Oman even has its own English-language newspaper, The Times of Oman. I learned more this morning about what is going on in the Middle East than by reading a year’s worth of papers in Canada. Much of it isn’t good, but some is encouraging: Oman is sending aid to Yemen. Egypt is working with Oman and other countries to ensure that Djibouti remains independent of ISIS, which is simply referred to here as IS.
Put another way: I felt more unsafe on my last visit to Los Angeles than I do here in the Sultanate of Oman.
I love Oman because it is different. There’s culture and tradition here. They may not be your culture and tradition, and you may not agree with everything (the Mosque, for instance, has space for 12,000 men and just 750 women), but there is no denying that Oman has a sense of place that is missing from some countries.
After a brief five hours of sleep, I was up and eating breakfast at the Shangri-La Barr al Jissah, a sprawling resort that actually encompasses three separate Shangri-La hotels. It’s not quite as elaborate as past Shangri-La’s I’ve stayed in (the Sydney, Australia location takes top prize there), but it is a high-quality property worthy of being Silversea’s pre-and-post hotel of choice in Muscat.
At the port, our coach paused for 15 minutes just inside the port gates in order to allow for passport formalities. This means that, at this point, you’ve technically exited the Sultanate of Oman, so don’t assume you can just go back into town – you can’t. When Silver Wind calls on Salalah in two days’ time, we’ll all be considered “in-transit” guests as far as the Omani authorities are concerned. Which means His Majesty got a heck of a good deal out of my 10-day visa that I used for all of ten hours.
People often ask me why I love sailing with Silversea so much, and for me, my answer always starts with embarkation. On big ships, you queue for hours with thousands of other hot, sweaty, and wholly annoyed guests, all of whom share the singular ambition of raiding the lunchtime buffet. Things are different on Silversea; aside from our 15-minute wait at passport control, embarkation took all of ten minutes: fill out a simple health questionnaire, check passport against ship’s manifest, receive keycard, walk up gangway, drink champagne. From there, you simply hand over your passport at the Reception Desk and put a credit card or some cash on file on your onboard account, and you’re done.
Formalities completed and champagne depleted, I was escorted – as every guest is – to my suite for the next 15 days: a spacious Silver Suite conveniently located amidships next to the forward staircase. My favorite category of suite aboard the line’s flagship, the 540-guest Silver Spirit, this is the first Silver Suite I’ve stayed in on any other class of ship, and it doesn’t fail to impress.
Measuring 541 square feet with a 92 square foot veranda, these Silver Suites are a fabulous cross between a Veranda Suite and the much-larger Royal Suites and Grand Suites that occupy the forward ends of Decks 6 and 7. Longtime readers might recall the gargantuan, almost cavernous Grand Suite that I occupied when I sailed aboard Silver Wind two years ago to South Africa; this Silver Suite is every bit as wonderful.
Aside from the expanded amenities that include a Bang & Olufsen sound system (or, in my suite, a Kenwood sound system), an Illy Espresso machine and two flat-panel televisions, what I love most about this suite is its layout. A main entry corridor gives way to the bathroom, walk-in closet and main living room, and a door can be opened to access the separate bedroom as well. If you’re entertaining guests, the door can shut to close off the bedroom area, which is attractively bordered by glass and wood-panelled French doors on the side facing the balcony. I’m keeping mine open (not much need to close them when you’re sailing solo), but they look fantastic when they’re shut, too – like some sort of elaborate sleeping car on a classic railroad.
Lights can be controlled in separate sections, allowing you to activate bedroom, living room, dining room, and hallway and accent lights independently of each other depending on your preference. There’s also no shortage of electrical outlets: the desk alone features two North American and two European-style plugs. If it’s enough for me with all my techie doodads, its surely enough for you!
My butler, Reynaldo and suite attendant Jenny both introduced themselves to me at this point, and Reynaldo uncorked the champagne for me. It’s a heck of a nice welcome. I know it’s coming, and I practically know what they’re going to say after a few Silversea cruises, but I still appreciate that they take the time to show me the suite and explain about what they can do. They can unpack your luggage, make dining reservations, handle drycleaning, room service, shore excursion bookings – the entire bit.
I also “shook things up” by straying from my normal Silversea routine and requested the Ferragamo toiletries in addition to my favorite Bulgari Green ones that come stocked by default. To me, the Bulgari Green scent has become synonymous with Silversea, and I have a hard time straying from it. In addition, Silversea also offers a hypoallergenic set of toiletries for guests with sensitivities to soaps.
Once I’d unpacked, I took the opportunity to settle in a little more by going down the Library on Deck 4 and checking out two DVD’s to play on my in-suite DVD player. I looked for, but could no longer find, the music CD’s that used to be in the Library. A quick inquiry at Reception told me that although the plastic jewel cases are no longer in the Library, the discs are still available for rent on a complimentary basis at Reception. If your suite comes with a CD system, just ask the Reception girls and they’ll give you the oversized CD wallet to browse through.
After the customary Lifeboat Drill at 6:00 p.m., guests began to settle into their shipboard routines. Most hail from the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia, but there is a healthy mix of Canadians and Americans onboard as well. The ship’s not quite full, either, which means even more space for guests to kick back and relax.
At 7:00 p.m. promptly, Silversea’s Silver Wind eased her way out of Muscat port, turned in the inner basin, and began her journey south to Salalah, Oman, where we will arrive on Wednesday. Silver Wind already feels like my home away from home, and I’ve already met numerous crew members I’ve sailed with on past Silversea trips that make it feel even moreso.
Tonight, I ate dinner in The Restaurant on Deck 4, which is still one of my favorite rooms on any of Silversea’s ships – particularly at night. I dined at a table of six with three Britons and two Americans, all of whom were fascinating and engaging people – in other words, the typical Silversea guest: interested, and interesting. The American gentleman, a man likely in his 80’s who hailed from Arizona, posed a question to me out of the blue. “Aaron,” he said, “have you ever met anyone who doesn’t understand your need to travel?” I had, and told him so. He nodded with ascent. “Me too,” he said. The table then descended into talk of why we travel, and why it’s so hard for non-travellers to understand our obsession with seeing the world.
That’s the thing I love most about Silversea: I meet the most interesting people onboard their ships. I’ve made more real, honest friends on Silversea than on any other line – and someday, I’d like to round them all up and sail around the world on one of Silver Whisper’s World Cruises with them. I suspect they’d get along famously; after all, here on Silversea, we’re all united by our love of ships and exploration.
Best of all, as I prepare to turn in for the night, I’m acutely aware that my latest adventure aboard “my” pathfinder, the Silver Wind, has only just begun.
Silver Wind Middle East Adventure
|April 5, 2015||Muscat, Oman||Embark Silver Wind||19:00|
|April 6||Day at Sea|
|April 7||Salalah, Oman||13:00||23:00|
|April 8||At Sea|
|April 9||At Sea|
|April 10||At Sea|
|April 11||At Sea|
|April 12||Safaga, Egypt||07:00||21:00|
|April 13||Aqaba, Jordan||09:30||21:00|
|April 14||Transiting the Suez Canal|
|April 15||Port Said, Egypt||08:00||17:00|
|April 16||Ashdod, Israel||08:00||23:00|
|April 17||Haifa, Israel||07:00||18:00|
|April 18||At Sea|
|April 19||Kusadasi, Turkey||08:00||17:00|
|April 20||Piraeus (Athens), Greece||07:00||Disembark; Live Voyage Recap|