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Archive for November, 2006


6 shore excursions that say “Wow!”

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On November - 27 - 2006

Are you tired of the same old shore excursions? Do you yearn for something more exciting than a shopping trip or more enriching than a beach break? If you like living la vida loca, here’s a list of high-energy tours that will make you say “Wow!”

Helsinki, Finland: Lapland Expedition by Private Jet

The tour begins at the Helsinki airport, where participants board a private jet (one that is sometimes used by the Finnish president) and take off toward the Arctic Circle. Destination: Rovaniemi, the administrative capital of Lapland. Upon arrival, guests are met by local guides in traditional costumes, who escort the group on a short drive to the Kemijoki River. Here participants board a wooden riverboat and venture off to a reindeer ranch. Later, participants engage in an Arctic Circle crossing ceremony in a traditional dwelling and are presented with a reindeer bell as a memento. If you are bold, you can try to lasso some reindeer. After a Lapp lunch with Lapp folk dancing, you can visit the Arktikum, a museum and science center. The final, lighthearted stop of the journey is a trip to “Santa Claus Village,” located right on the Arctic Circle, for a visit with the jolly old elf himself and a chance to send a postcard from his post office. This tour is offered only by Seabourn.

Belize: Cave Tubing and Rain Forest Exploration

This is one of my favorite tours of all time. The tour begins with a one-hour drive north from Belize City through the lush Belizean countryside to the tiny resort of Jaguar Paw. After an orientation session, participants are fitted for an inner tube and headlamp, then trek 45 minutes through the rain forest to get to the river starting point. During the trek, guides point out the flora and fauna (yes, there are jaguars in the area, but sightings are rare). Upon arrival at the Caves Branch River, you leap off a 12-foot cliff into the river, then head for the underground streams. Once you are in the caves, you’ll be floating on your inner tube with only the headlamp and the dim jungle light to light your way. You’ll see stalagmites, stalactites, underground waterfalls and thousands of bats! A highlight of the trip is the Crystal Cathedral, said to be a spiritual center for the ancient Maya. Most cruise lines that call on Belize City offer this tour or another, similar one. It is available only during the rainy season, August through January.

Ketchikan, Alaska: Rain Forest Canopy Tour

If you’re up for something completely different, try getting in touch with your inner Tarzan. Alaska Canopy Adventures allows you to zip across Ketchikan’s rain forest 135 feet above the ground. There are seven zip-lines and 4,500 feet of cable strung across spruce, hemlock and cedar trees; distances between platforms range from 175 feet to 850 feet. There are also three rope bridges to navigate. If you are brave enough to look down, you might catch sight of a bear; glance upward and you might get a bird’s-eye view of a bald eagle. The tour is offered by Holland America Line, Princess Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: Bay Kayak Adventure

This tour lets you explore the caves and grottoes of Ha Long Bay off northeastern Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. Sheltering 1,969 stone islands of various sizes, the bay is world famous for its spectacular scenery; in fact, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tour members will paddle a two-person kayak into Thien Cung (Heavenly Residence Grotto) and Dau Go (Driftwood Grotto), then explore the famous Ba Hang (Three Caves) area. After a long morning and early afternoon of paddling, participants will board a junk for an authentic Vietnamese lunch. The tour is available only through Silversea Cruises on stops in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Huatulco, Mexico: Free the Turtles

Every year, for just a few evenings after each full moon, thousands of turtles swim to the west coast of Mexico and come ashore in the state of Oaxaca. Here they scoop out holes in the sand and lay their eggs. The eggs are protected by armed military patrols, as are the baby turtles, who are allowed to mature on the beach. In 1991, the National Mexican Turtle Center was established at Playa Mazunte, which was formerly a killing beach. The Center now arranges for young turtles to be taken to the port of Huatulco to be set free. Here, participants in the shore excursion have the unique opportunity to adopt a sea turtle and liberate it into the ocean with their own hands. The program is available only through Regent Seven Sea Cruises on ships with stops in Huatulco from June through February.

Willemstad, Curacao: Animal Encounter

Want to hand-feed a shark without getting a bite back? The Curacao Sea Aquarium offers the chance to do just that with its adventure called “Animal Encounters,” the only program in the world to let you feed sharks and sea turtles in just one dive. A natural tidal pool near the edge of the aquarium is home to hundreds of tropical fish, including a group of sharks that lives behind a wire fence fitted with a Plexiglas window. The best thing about the tour is that both certified divers and novices can participate, so long as they are at least 12 years old. Participants who are not certified divers will take a special 30-minute PADI-approved immersion course. After a short animal briefing, bag of sardines in hand, participants can feed the sharks, turtles and many species of fish through small holes in the Plexiglas. The program is available through all cruise lines that dock in Willemstad.

Shore excursions don’t have to be a yawn. Check these out, then send me your own recommendations!

Filled Under Destinations

A trip to Egypt and Jordan

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On November - 13 - 2006

Last week I praised Silversea Cruises for the excellent service it provides on its cruise to ports in Egypt and Jordan aboard the luxury cruise ship Silver Whisper. It was a first-class experience from start to finish, and a good way to reach some key tourist spots without a lot of anxious overland travel with a military escort. This week, I’ll take you off the ship to visit some of those sites. For me, it was the trip of a lifetime.

Cairo and the Pyramids

Cairo is a vast and exotic city, the largest in the Middle East and Africa. It has more history in the sand on its streets than many destinations offer in their entirety.

My visit coincided with the holy days of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown. Interestingly, Egypt consumes more food during Ramadan than at any other time of year, and the citizens of Cairo certainly know how to celebrate the daily end of fast. As I walked through the streets, the sweet smells of grilling kabobs mingled with clouds of smoke from the men’s shisha pipes. Party boats cruised all along the Nile, as revelers danced and sang to thumping music.

I was surprised by the number of Cairenes who spoke English; they welcomed me to their city with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s good to see Americans visiting us again,” one man told me. Unfortunately, the happiest people to see me were crowds of aggressive souvenir hawkers and would-be guides, who depend on tourist dollars for their livelihoods. If you are interested in their merchandise or services, you must figure out a fair price and then hold your ground against their very insistent demands. If you are not interested, you must say so very firmly.

Just a few hours into my first Arabian night, I had an unexpected wakeup call. At 4:30 a.m., the mosque next door issued the morning call to prayer over its loudspeakers. I stepped out onto my balcony and watched as men dressed in pale blue robes put down their prayer rugs facing east, as they have for centuries.

Later that day I headed out to see the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Fortunately, these ancient wonders are built atop the Giza Plateau, well above Cairo’s gritty smog. Climbing the pyramids is forbidden, but those who are adventurous (and don’t have claustrophobia) can venture inside two of the pyramids and climb up to the large, empty burial chambers. The Sphinx is smaller than I expected, about the size of a large American house, but it is a fascinating sculpture to behold. During my tour, scaffolding was being erected in preparation for a Bon Jovi concert the next evening. A rock concert by the Sphinx — what would Cleopatra think?

Back in Cairo, I toured the vast, marble Egyptian Museum. There are 120,000 artifacts on display here, an amazing catalog of Egypt’s history. The most famous pieces are Tutankhamen’s famous golden death mask and the mummies of 11 kings and queens (yuck!).

Luxor

Egypt was once the most powerful civilization in the world, and there is no better place to experience that grandeur than Luxor. Not far from the banks of the Nile is Karnak Temple, the largest temple complex in the world — big enough to hold 10 Notre Dame Cathedrals and 20 Parthenons. Even today, in ruins, it is an awe-inspiring sight, even more so at night during the sound-and-light show. Other can’t-miss sights here include the temples of Habi and Queen Hatshepusut and the Valley of the Kings, with its colorful and dramatic tombs of Tutankhamen and Ramses. Luxor has the best-known collection of colorful hieroglyphics, and many Egyptologists believe more tombs and treasures will be unearthed here in the years ahead.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Egypt is also home to the oldest operating Christian church in the world, St. Catherine’s Monastery, which was built 1,500 years ago in the desert at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The church is sustained by about two dozen resident monks, who conduct five services a day in Byzantine Greek.

Within its giant, fortified walls are a church, a mosque and many biblical touchstones, including the well where Moses is said to have met Zipporah, whom he would marry, as well as a large collection of ancient biblical manuscripts that is second only to that of the Vatican. But the monastery is most famous for having the “Burning Bush,” in which Moses heard the voice of God. Oddly, the bush is a species of wild raspberry that is not native to the desert. The monks claim that the monastery’s bush is the actual burning bush from 3,000 years ago; others say it is a descendant of the original burning bush. In either case, the monastery is protecting the bush against all eventualities, human or divine: You can’t miss the bright-red fire extinguisher close by.

Touring Egypt

One thing that may take you aback when touring Egypt is the constant presence of armed tourist policeman on every bus and van. If you are touring in a very large group, as I was, you will travel together in a convoy with a military escort at either end. An armed police presence is necessary as tourist attractions have been the targets of bomb attacks in Egypt. The most recent attack occurred in April 2006 in the Sinai resort town of Dahab, and it killed 23 people, mostly Egyptians.

So why go? Why take a chance? My experience in Egypt was a pleasant one and uneventful, and everyone I met was terrific. I look forward to returning someday. But safety is certainly an issue, and it’s important to tour with reputable tour operators and experienced guides; they are your best safety net.

Jordan

Touring Jordan is a little more relaxed. There are no armed guards on tour buses, and while there is a military presence, it is not nearly as overwhelming as in Egypt. Indeed, the Jordanians are the peacekeepers in this tumultuous region; they have graciously taken in refugees from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and Jordan is home to more than a million displaced Palestinians. Our Jordanian guide told us that Jordan welcomed all to their country and wanted only peace.

Petra

The most famous tourist attraction in Jordan is the ancient stone city of Petra, built some 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, a nomadic and trading people. What makes Petra so special is the vividly contrasting colors of the stone, which range from rose to apricot to ochre to brilliant white. The colors change around every turn and are especially spectacular when it rains.

The best way to get into the city is to take the one-mile hike through the narrow canyon called the Siq and, oh!, what an entrance it is! Nobody forgets his first view of Petra. I’ve never experienced anything like it; it literally takes your breath away. My experience was almost ruined by a pesky vendor hawking necklaces. I tried repeatedly to dismiss him but eventually lost it and shouted, “You’re ruining my moment, man!” The subsequent echo through the canyon scared the vendor, made a donkey jump and had fellow tourists laughing.

The signature monument in Petra, called the “Treasury” but more likely a royal tomb, is carved directly from the sandstone cliff. It’s so magnificent that it looks like a movie set. In fact, it was used for the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” But wait, aren’t those columns Greek? Yes. The builders of Petra borrowed from the Greeks and from other civilizations as they constructed their city, which eventually comprised 400 square miles. The site also includes some 20,000 caves, some of which were used by Bedouins for shelter until 1990, when the Bedouins were moved to a new village. Now these last of the Petra dwellers come only to hawk their wares.

Wadi Rum

About 40 miles from Petra is Wadi Rum, the most spectacular stretch of sand on earth. The area was made famous by T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) in his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Lawrence described the area as “vast, echoing and God-like,” and as our Bedouin guide sped across the sands in a Land Rover, I knew exactly what he meant. The hypnotic dunescapes of apricot-colored sands and the hulking, sheer-rock formations rising to 5,000 feet dwarf all human enterprise.

And yet the Bedouin call it home. Spotting one of their simple black tents — so tiny against a huge outcropping of boulders — gives one perspective on life. For thousands of years the Bedouin have been the masters of desert survival, and that day I was thankful we had a Bedouin driver at the wheel. When our Land Rover got stuck in the sand, he used a clever tumbleweed technique to free the vehicle. As we paused at sunset to watch the colors of the rocks and dunes burn bright, he told us that at night, the stars light up the sky.

Between the war in Iraq and the recent 34-day “conflict” between Lebanon and Israel, it’s easy to have second thoughts about visiting the Middle East. Take your time if you have to, but keep Egypt and Jordan on your travel list. These are truly sights you must see.

Filled Under Destinations

Shhh! Silversea’s Whisper is wonderful

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On November - 6 - 2006

Traveling to the Middle East and Africa can be daunting, especially in times of political instability, and I had been putting off my lifelong dream vacation to Egypt for a long time. Then it hit me: Do it as a cruise, not a land tour. It’s safe and it’s easy — all the intrigue without the hassle. I chose Silversea Cruises, which offers a cruise of the Middle East aboard its luxury ship Silver Whisper. It was a red-carpet experience all the way, and one I will never forget.

Personalized Voyage

I chose Silversea because it offers a “Personalized Voyage” program that allows guests to choose their on and off points on most voyages, provided the cruise portion of the trip lasts at least five days. This flexibility is a wonderful option for people like me who cannot travel for weeks at a time. I decided to take a pre-cruise tour of Cairo then joined the ship in Port Said for a five-day cruise (including a transit of the Suez Canal and port calls in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and Aqaba, Jordan) before disembarking at Safaga, Egypt, for a two-day post-cruise tour of Luxor — in all, an 11-day customized cruise/tour that was everything I could wish for.

Silversea’s red carpet was rolled out immediately upon my arrival in Cairo. As I stepped off the plane with a group of Silversea passengers, I was greeted by the cruise line’s Egyptian agent, who was ready to assist with visas and transportation into the city. Help was certainly welcome, not only because we’d been on a plane for 16 hours, but because the airport is hectic and is run by the Egyptian military (although not with military precision). The sea of white-uniformed, armed military police was intimidating, but the Silversea guide escorted our group to a special area, where we made our way quickly through immigration. After getting my passport stamped, I looked back at the sea of waiting passengers, thankful I wasn’t one of them.

It was then that I discovered that my luggage had misconnected on my Lufthansa flight. The Silversea guide stepped up again, this time to track down the bag (it was in Frankfurt) and to help me fill out the claim forms, which were all in Arabic. I saw him again 12 hours later, when he personally delivered the suitcase to my hotel.

Luxury of the Middle East

By the time I was done with my tour of Cairo and the Pyramids, I was already feeling like a whirling dervish and was grateful to settle in on the ship. Every cruise line boasts about its service, but Silversea truly takes service to perfection. From the time the stewardess escorted me to my suite, champagne in hand, to the time I left the ship in Safaga, I never once heard the word “no.”

Launched in 2001, the Silver Whisper is a ship of clean lines and no glitz; it’s classy and simple. A central staircase leads guests to the main areas of the ship, including the purser’s and shore excursion desks, several lounges, and the bars and dining rooms. Since the ship carries only 382 people, everything is close and guests learn the layout very quickly. The shipboard atmosphere is yacht-like with an elegant Italian style.

Guest accommodations are forward on seven decks; the public areas extend from midship aft. This arrangement allows for a peaceful environment in every suite. All accommodations have ocean views, and most have private verandas. The 180 suites are arranged with separate bedroom and living areas, a generous walk-in closet, and a spacious, marble-tiled bathroom with full-size tub (whirlpool tubs in larger suites) and separate shower. The furnishings are elegant, with detailing in mahogany. Each suite is fully stocked with high-quality bath products, and beds are wrapped in the finest linens topped with fluffy down pillows and duvets. The bar and fruit basket are stocked to your specification and are refilled daily. There are seven stateroom categories ranging from 287 square feet all the way up to a palatial 1,435-square-foot suite.

Silversea cultivates a refined, small-ship atmosphere and does not offer tons of wacky activities, so guests need to be able to entertain themselves much of the time. On the top deck, guests will find a swimming pool, several whirlpools and plenty of space to relax on plush-covered teak loungers. An inviting library with a small reading area was popular among guests who borrowed books, DVDs and board games. A small business center offered Internet access, and the game room was frequented by several guests who played a mean game of chess.

Boutiques offer fine jewelry and a selection of clothes. There is a small casino, and the full-service Mandara Spa offers up amazing Asian-inspired spa treatments; next door, the gym features the latest exercise equipment and offers Pilates, yoga and aerobics classes. The Observation Lounge, with its 180-degree views, was highly popular during port arrivals and also served as the venue for trivia contests and afternoon tea.

Special programming tended toward cultured entertainment and destination lectures. In the evenings, for example, there were song-and-dance ensembles and musical trios in the Viennese Lounge. But there was some mass cruise-line influence on board, too, especially in the “Movies under the Stars” program on the Pool Deck. Even that is done in Silversea style. After a day spent touring the ancient ruins of Petra in Jordan, for example, we watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” on plush lounge chairs with soft woolen throws and were served flavored popcorn in silver bowls along with champagne in fluted glasses. It was the biggest entertainment hit of the cruise.

The ship’s main dining room, The Restaurant, served the sophisticated and artful fare of Chef Laurent; I had a whole-roasted Guinea fowl that was exquisite. Even the French citizens on board were impressed by the cuisine. While the ship places a hefty emphasis on formal nights, there are casual dining options in the intimate La Terraza Café, which offers Tuscan-themed dining. In addition, there were Relais & Chateaux wine lists in Le Champagne restaurant where, for an additional fee of $150 per person, you could indulge in nouvelle cuisine while sipping wines costing over $1,000 a bottle. The ship’s gastronomic delights extended even to the room-service menu, where you could order anything off the dining room menu — or get yourself a portion of good, old comfort food, including a great cheeseburger and fries.

Silversea’s all-inclusive policy means I never had to pull out my wallet after a post-dinner cognac at the Panorama Lounge; nor did I have to worry about tipping. The only extras to pay for are spa services, tours and Le Champagne. After a few days on Silver Whisper you begin to take for granted the fine touches: ever-chilled bottles of champagne, caviar on demand and the lacquered tray in which my laundry returned pressed, folded, wrapped in white tissue and sealed with a silver Silversea sticker. Unwrapping my undies felt just like Christmas!

Discerning travelers

Silversea draws its full share of mature travelers, and is now trying to attract more affluent baby boomers. Mature couples and returning guests made up most of the passengers on my cruise, but some younger couples in their 40s and 30s could also be found. This was my third voyage with Silversea, and I felt at ease this time around (on my first cruise I felt like Gilligan’s Mary Anne set adrift among a host of Thurston Howells and Loveys).

My fellow travelers were a diverse and friendly lot — more than 200 passengers from 22 countries ranging from Kenya to Malaysia. What they had in common was an interest in travel and a desire to mingle with like-minded professional people. We talked a lot about travel. I commiserated with a Swedish traveler when we discovered the Egyptians had hogged up two pages of our passports; both of us were out of pages and we wondered how to get more pages … quick! We talked at length about our destinations, and gossiped about the ship’s $150,000 toll to transit the Suez Canal. People couldn’t say enough good things about the ship.

Silvesea’s guests demand the finer things in life, and they attach high value to excellent and personalized service. They are willing to pay for it, too, shelling out several hundred to several thousand dollars per person per day for the privilege of being treated beautifully. Silversea’s Egypt and Jordan cruise certainly offers a lot of luxury and a memorable, if hectic, itinerary. I found it a very enjoyable and the most unique cruise experience yet.

More about Egypt and Jordan next week …

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