The Middle East, Seabourn Style

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Our correspondent reports on her luxury cruise to Oman and Dubai aboard the ultra-luxe Seabourn Spirit.

When the travel documents for my Seabourn cruise arrived in an elegant black leather case embossed with the company's logo, I suspected that these guys were onto something. Even the accompanying luggage tags would have made a lovely keepsake, if a baggage handler along the way had not also appreciated (and appropriated) them.

Seabourn is one of the world's top luxury lines. Its ships are smaller than those of most of its competitors; the company's full name, The Yachts of Seabourn, captures both the luxury and intimacy of its vessels.

No Worries My itinerary on Seabourn Spirit -- called Egypt and Pearls of Arabia -- charted a course that was both thrilling and daunting to a Middle East neophyte. The ship was fully booked one month prior to sailing, but the fact that we then sailed with vacancies led me to conclude that I was not alone in harboring concerns about visiting the region. Fortunately, they were unwarranted. The trip was magnificent. (I didn't find out until I was on board that the Spirit had been attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia one year earlier. Seabourn wisely altered the route, swapping Kenya and the Seychelles for Oman and Dubai.)

We departed from Alexandria, Egypt, and made several stops in Egypt and one in Jordan before continuing on to Oman and Dubai. Hoping to spend a few hours in Alexandria, I had the brilliant idea of handling my own transportation. I took the train from Cairo to the station in Alexandria planning to take a cab to the port. After several extortionist offers, I accepted the lowest one from a young cab driver. Fifty feet later, the cab pulled up to a hotel. It turned out that my driver had a limited grasp of English and had agreed to drive me somewhere for 30 Egyptian pounds. He just didn't know where.

Salvation came in the form of man outside the hotel who helped me get through to the driver. The elderly man said "mena," which I now know means port. The driver, the gentleman and I all agreed that I wanted to go to the "mena." I breathed a sign of relief when I arrived at the port to see the Seabourn Spirit, my home for the next 16 days. Passengers who took the ship's transfer from the Four Seasons had a much easier go of it.

Sea Days There were two lecturers on the cruise: Ronnie Sampson, a Scottish historian; and Barbara Udell, an American psychologist. Sampson spoke eloquently on the history of the areas we visited, but it was his lecture on the great American naval hero, Stephen Decatur ("The Real Master and Commander") that introduced even the Americans to a little-known historical figure. Udell's health and wellness lectures were popular, but it was her informal conversation "Let's Talk" that gave her new fans an opportunity to really connect with her.

Seven sea days gave the ship's crew ample opportunities for creativity. A friend and I were invited to participate in the boutique's fashion show in exchange for a choice of a free hair styling or makeup application, 20% off a single purchase and 15% off a spa treatment. It worked like a charm as the black "flyaway travel pants" I modeled are now hanging in my closet. The day after the show, I followed my hair blow-out with a dramatic new haircut that elicited raves from fellow passengers and my friends back home.

Oh Man, Oman! After several days at sea, we reached Salalah, Oman. Two excursions were offered, and those of us who opted for the Sultanate Heritage tour over the Frankincense Trail were more satisfied. The Frankincense Trail included a visit to Job's Tomb (which my friend described as sand pit, though some consider it a sacred site) and an anticlimactic photo stop in which everyone huddled around a single frankincense tree. In fairness, when asked, the tour manager was quick to recommend Sultanate Heritage over the other one. Our first stop, on a beach overlooking the startling blue waters of the Indian Ocean, delighted all of us.

Oman, with its beautiful and varied terrain, is poised to be one of the world's great tourist destinations. And while the ancient town of Mirbat didn't offer much to see except for some ancient buildings, it was especially appreciated by amateur photographers like me. The fishery, where thousands of (thankfully, odorless) silvery sardines lay drying in the sun, was also a great photo op.

Our guide was knowledgeable and chatty, though neither I nor my fellow travelers shared his lustful appreciation for our bus driver's possession of three wives. "Each one lives in a different city!" We returned to the ship and as we sailed from Salalah, Seabourn threw a "Caviar Sail Away" party in the Sky Bar; chilled vodka and champagne were also served.

After two last sea days, our second stop in Oman was Khasab, a strategic peninsula jutting into the Straights of Hormuz, quite near Iran. The excursion manager stressed that there was little of interest in the city of Khasab, so I doubled up on excursions.

The morning offered a four-wheel-drive safari over "barren ridges with hairpin bends." The spine-tingling excursion lived up to its billing but it was worth every minute. The highlight came when we reached the top of a winding road with killer turns and were rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the Indian Ocean. The driver, who knew what was coming, looked over as the expressions of surprise and pleasure crossed our faces. Nonetheless, I was relieved to return to the ship in one piece.

Dress Code Since Oman is one of the most conservative countries in the Gulf, we were asked not to wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts. The dhow for our afternoon cruise through the fjords was supposed to come right up to the ship for guests to embark. Once it was determined that the seas were too choppy, and we would have to take the tender to shore and board the dhows there, we were sent scuttling to our rooms for long pants or sarongs so as not to offend the local residents.

The staff's sensitivity to local customs was respectful and especially appreciated by those of us who were new to the region. When we refueled off the coast of Jeddah, the crew comically rushed to sequester all alcohol and hide suggestive images (like the pictures of women in the spa and family photos from beach vacations). The cover of the book I was reading, Kinky Friedman's Mile High Club, showed a woman provocatively perched on the nose of a jetliner. It would have been considered so offensive, I thought maybe I should just burn it.

Cruising among the fjords of the Musandam Peninsula (Oman is sometimes called "the Norway of the Middle East") was spectacular. Pillows were placed around the ship and we leaned against them marveling at the mountains rising 2,000 out of the sea. We then stopped to enjoy the many dolphins frolicking by the boat and several guests took a swim in the surprisingly warm water. (This was billed as a snorkeling opportunity but there was little to see.) Returning to the ship as the sun set behind the mountains was sheer perfection.

Dubai Disembarkation After a short sail from Oman, the ship docked in Dubai on Sunday morning, but disembarkation wasn't until Monday, leaving us plenty of time to explore Dubai without the hassle of booking a hotel. During the day, most passengers took the City Tour, an overview that combined culture, sightseeing and shopping. Several guests had lunch or afternoon tea at the Dubai's impossibly glitzy hotel, the Burj al Arab.

The complimentary "Exclusively Seabourn" signature event in Dubai was a fitting finale to a magnificent cruise. We boarded four-wheel-drive vehicles and drove 45 minutes out of town to a beautifully-lit Bedouin campsite in the desert. There was an elaborate barbeque, but the evening's various entertainments were the highlight. Two women applied henna dye in record-setting time - an elaborately scrolled ankle tatoo was completed in under a minute. There was a tent offering sheesha - traditional Arabian water pipes. (Unless you like to smoke, you probably won't like it - but it's worth trying). Camels were available for rides (though be forewarned that camels sit down front legs first, making you feel like you're at the top of a roller coaster).

The evening's finale was a widely gyrating belly dancer who dazzled us by balancing a sword on various parts of her body as she danced. We returned to the ship blissfully content. Throughout the trip, we had been treated like kings and queens (or sheikhs and sheikhas). We had reveled in the warmth of our Arab hosts and the friendly professionalism of the ship's mostly European crew. We had slept, dined, relaxed and reveled in absolute luxury. We had seen a part of the world that gives many Americans pause and we left as ambassadors for the Middle East -- and for Seabourn.

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