October 25, 2014

Cruising the Indian Ocean: Part 1

As the six-star Silver Wind sails to palm-fringed islands and wildlife
preserves, the threat of modern-day pirates is ever-present

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Cruising the Indian Ocean: Part 1
Alan Fox
Our flight from Dubai touched down on Mahe, the largest of more than 100 islands in the Seychelles, just after dawn, and we were driven to the Hilton Northolme Resort and Spa on the northwestern coast. Forty spacious bungalows are tucked into the trees overlooking the Indian Ocean, strewn with huge granite boulders and painted in shades of aqua and turquoise.

After an easy day and night, we were driven to the capital city of Victoria and the nearby port to board the gleaming Silver Wind, a six-star vessel operated by Silversea Cruises, carrying 296 passengers and 210 crew members. We stepped into our suite overlooking the bow of the ship and went out on our balcony to survey the harbor.

There was a freighter tied up directly ahead of us, and we noticed a large man holding the rail and gazing in our direction, motionless. On closer inspection, we realized it was a life-size, costumed mannequin, strapped to the rail and posed as if it was on lookout. We had just seen our first pirate scarecrow.

Mahe is about 850 miles from Somalia, the closest country on the African mainland. Somali pirates operate in a 1,000-mile radius around the island, and in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

In October of 2009, a British couple sailed their private yacht from this harbor toward Tanzania but made it only 60 miles before they were hijacked by pirates. They were held for more than a year in Somalia until their ransom was paid.

That was merely the best publicized of many pirate encounters in these waters. The Seychelles is a major yachting destination, known for secluded beaches and crystal-clear water, but pleasure craft visits are off substantially, as are calls from cruise ships and fishing vessels, dealing a blow to the local economy.

The country has responded by building a pirates-only prison and reportedly allowing spotter planes from the EU and drones from the U.S. to fly pirate patrols from Mahe.

Still, there are pirate attacks daily in the Indian Ocean, with at least six hijackings in the last 30 days. Pirates attack from small speedboats, and slow-moving, low-to-the-water and sparsely crewed freighters and fishing vessels are the primary targets.

After a night in port on Mahe, we sailed to the nearby island of Praslin, where we toured the famous Vallee de Mai, a tropical rain forest that is home to the rare Seychelles black parrot and the equally rare coco de mer, a palm tree that bears the world's largest fruit (up to 92 pounds) containing the world's heaviest seed (up to 39 pounds).

In the 1800s, Vallee de Mai was proclaimed to be the original Garden of Eden by imaginative British Maj. Gen. Charles George Gordon. It is an unusual place, but that is about as far as I'd go.

Yesterday morning, we were on the move again to the neighboring island of La Digue, known for its lack of cars, laid-back atmosphere and beautiful beaches. Unfortunately, clouds and steady rain throughout the day turned the water gray, and our catamaran and snorkeling excursion was canceled. I'll have to get back to you about the quality of La Digue's beaches, but at least we have a reason to return. This morning, our last in the Seychelles, we dropped anchor off the coast of Silhouette Island. Under glorious blue skies, we tendered to the shore, gazing up at the thick, green jungle on the steep slope beyond the beach. On the narrow strip of flat land beside the water, we found a paved path for golf carts, an old plantation house, a tortoise sanctuary and a sprawling, low-rise, luxury hotel.

Beyond this area, the island looked undeveloped, as wild as something out of "Jurassic Park." Enormous fruit bats or "flying foxes" soared just above the treetops, making me wonder whether to expect vampires or raptors to pop up next.

Silversea had arranged access to the hotel's facilities and beaches, and we spent our best day of the trip exploring the island. Hilton will take over management of the hotel in a few weeks and rename it the Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort and Spa. I'd like to come back someday for more hiking and diving on this tropical paradise.

In a few moments, we will leave this protected cluster of islands behind and set sail for Mombasa, Kenya. The next two days and nights on the open sea will take us closer to the lawless coast of Somalia, where more than 700 hostages and 31 hijacked vessels are currently being held for ransom.

We have received our piracy briefing on board, and we have been notified of our piracy muster stations and what to expect in the unlikely event that the ship comes under attack. A private security team is on board to assist the crew with pirate lookout, avoidance and deterrence.

NATO posts the location of pirate attacks and mother ships (hijacked freighters and fishing vessels used by pirates as a base of operations for further hijackings) on its website, and we are 350 nautical miles from a freshly hijacked vessel as I write this.

There are naval vessels from the United States and numerous other countries on patrol in these international waters, but with small bands of pirates roaming an area the size of Australia, there is only so much they can do. It may take the efforts of many nations, and a functioning government in Somalia, to end this scourge.

I love sea days on an extraordinary vessel like this one, meeting guests from around the world, attending lectures and enjoying the fine food and service. As we weigh anchor for our beeline to Mombasa, I am thankful to Silversea for not abandoning these waters, these places and these people, to thugs.

To view photos or a slideshow from this leg of my journey, please click here.

Mombasa and Zanzibar

After four ports in as many days in the Seychelles, our crossing to Mombasa was unhurried and pleasantly uneventful. We slept a little later both mornings, enjoying smooth seas, sunny skies and the warm summer breeze.

Most of all, we reveled in the Silver Wind. It just doesn't get any better than traveling the world on this vessel.

The food and service in each of the ship's three restaurants are truly outstanding. None of those venues assign tablemates or dining times, which makes it easy to get together with new friends. Wine, beer and cocktails are included in the up-front cruise price, as are gratuities.

Only a day or two into the cruise, the dining room staff began to greet individual guests by name, a hallmark of an exceptionally well-run ship.

Every room on the Silver Wind is a suite, and every suite has a butler in addition to the room steward. Our butler, Diah, is cheerful and enthusiastic despite long days and demanding guests and being away from home for months at a time. I appreciate how tough her job must be and admire her for how well she pulls it off.

A show lounge offers nightly entertainment, and when it's time to retire, you'll retreat to a suite complete with European bath amenities, fine bed linens with pillow choice, plush robes, personalized stationery and nightly turndown service.

It's sometimes hard to find time for the gym at home in Houston, so an unhurried morning workout in the fitness center of the Silver Wind is one of the luxuries of being on vacation. Throw in water volleyball in the ship's pool, a lecture and a visit to the spa -- does anyone really miss seeing land at this stage?

We saw no pirates en route to Mombasa, and the private security team and crew were always on the lookout. A searchlight probed the water near the ship at night. In fact, I saw no other ships or boats at all until we neared the mainland, which made me wonder if we were avoiding everything on radar.

According to the NATO anti-piracy website, no vessel moving faster than 18 knots has ever been boarded by pirates, and I've been pleased to see our speed exceeding that level each time I have checked.

After our crossing, we had two full days on the island of Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city, which is separated by creeks from the mainland. On the first day, we bused north two hours for a game drive through Tsavo East National Park, where we saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, impalas, ostriches, baboons and more.

On the second day, we went south for another game drive through Shimba Hills, a smaller and heavily forested national park. There we saw rare sable antelope, giraffes, Cape buffalo and other animals, and we had lunch at the rustic Shimba Forest Lodge, a four-story tree house built on stilts, with tree trunks and limbs bursting through the floors and ceilings.

The lodge has guest rooms, an open-air restaurant and an elevated wooden walkway that leads out to a watering hole. We watched an African fish eagle swooping low over that water for his lunch.

Our excursion ended with an afternoon visit to the surprisingly upscale Diani Reef Beach Resort and Spa, with manicured grounds and white-sand beaches and attentive staff. If you ever need a place to stay in this part of the world, this one is worth considering.

Mombasa's port is not pretty but industrial, and busy, and the summers are hot and humid. Leaving the city on our drive to Tsavo, we passed miles of roadside shacks made of wood or red mud and a bit of tin. Scrawny goats grazed on weeds and garbage while children, unwatched and barefoot, played unfazed in the trash by the road.

This is my fourth trip to Africa, and I'd have to say the squalor on that road, in and near the city, matched any I have ever seen, including that in the "informal settlements" of refugees outside Johannesburg, South Africa. It is a disheartening experience, one that puts many questions in your head but few solutions.

Our next stop, the "spice island" of Zanzibar, 22 miles off the coast of mainland Tanzania, had long been on my wish list. Zanzibar is the larger of the two main islands that, along with numerous small islands, form the Zanzibar archipelago.

At times ruled by the Portuguese, the Omani Arabs and later England, Zanzibar became an important trade center in the late 17th century, exporting commodities such as ivory and spices.

Zanzibar also became the primary clearinghouse for slaves captured along the East African coast during the Arab slave trade. Tens of thousands of men, women and children were transported here and confined underground before being sold to the highest bidder at the infamous slave market. An Anglican cathedral and memorial now stand as stark reminders of the torture and barbaric conditions endured by so many.

The area around the port is densely populated, colorful, noisy and dirty. While Christians outnumber Muslims on the mainland of Tanzania, Zanzibar is 99 percent Muslim, so women here are covered, some in burqas that reveal only the eyes.

We bused for an hour to the Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, for a walk through a tropical forest and close encounters with red colobus monkeys and black monkeys. The former were particularly approachable, generally on the move but pausing and posing just long enough for photos.

By the time we got back to the ship, we had barely an hour to explore the souvenirs assembled by local merchants on the dock before the Silver Wind was again headed to sea.

It's hard for me to pass up an opportunity to see and photograph rare wildlife that is new to me, but after talking to other passengers, I regret not having made it to the nearby historical area, Stone Town. If there is a valid knock on cruising it is this, that there are some places where a single day does not satisfy the curiosity.

Still, only by ship can one visit so many incredibly different places so effortlessly, a new country and culture pulling alongside your vessel every day or two.

This evening, we are en route to Madagascar, moving away from Somalia but still well within the region prowled by pirates. For the first time on this voyage, long swells raise and lower our ship, reminding us that we are at sea.

A few minutes ago, we watched from our balcony as the sun disappeared into the ocean. In the civil twilight, there is peace and calm upon the water.

But out there, beyond the horizon, there are more adventures waiting to unfold.

To view photos or a slideshow from the second leg of my journey, please click here.

To read part 2 of Cruising the Indian Ocean, click here.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2011. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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