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Shhh! Silversea’s Whisper is wonderful

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.
Silversea's Silver Whisper out for a cruise
Silversea's Silver Whisper out for a cruiseSilversea Cruises
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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.

Anita Dunham-Potter is a Pittsburgh-based travel journalist specializing in cruise travel. Anita's columns have appeared in major newspapers and many Internet outlets, and she is a contributor to Fodor's "Complete Guide to Caribbean Cruises 2006." or visit her Web site .