Cruising: Pirates? What pirates? ...

By Diana Balham

Diana Balham cruises through a danger zone without a scratch.

Diana Balham has a relaxing time aboard the Seabourn Pride. Photo / Derek Watts
Diana Balham has a relaxing time aboard the Seabourn Pride. Photo / Derek Watts

My child become quite excited when I told him I would be sailing the Arabian Sea through pirate-infested waters. A combination of way too much Tintin and just enough Pirates of the Caribbean had left him with the impression that baddies on the high seas all wore high buckled boots and carried cutlasses.

But perhaps it was baddies on land that could be the problem. After all, our cruise was taking us from Dubai past Oman (no worries), then Yemen (deep in political strife) on one side and Somalia (pirate country) on the other, Ethiopia (too poor to have boats!), Sudan (business as usual) then Egypt (two months out of a revolution) and into the Mediterranean, bound for Italy. Maybe the Seabourn Pride would be half-empty, as nervous Americans, Antipodeans and Europeans defected to "safer" waters.

As it turned out, our ship, which caters for 200 guests, was carrying around 150, with slightly more crew. That's more than one Mariska, Matthew or Zoltan for every person on board. And, believe me, they are everywhere: thoughtfully opening doors, wishing you a happy day, carrying your plate and folding your towels into ingenious animal shapes.

Sometimes, two-plus weeks where the most strenuous thing you have to do is haul your bottom out of a spa pool is just what you need. The Seabourn line is top-shelf cruising where everything - including extra security personnel - is thrown in.

Half-a-dozen beefy, bullet-headed ex-army Brits embarked in the Omani port of Muscat. Their job was to stop any pirates getting on board (and shoot them if they did), although we were told that even a small cruise ship like ours could outrun a Somali vessel.

There was razor wire decorating the lower regions of the ship and a sound cannon designed to burst pirate eardrums with pinpoint accuracy if they got too close. But the only things that moved with speed alongside our ship were huge flocks of flying fish.

Somewhere in the Red Sea, two small, grey boats appeared up ahead of us, anchored in the open water. Were they full of Somalis, ready to hold us to ransom and steal our Cartier watches? Would the security guys have to leap around in their blue jumpsuits? Well, no. They climbed into the grey boats, waved goodbye and sped off, having escorted us through Pirate Alley without incident.

Given the difficulties of landing in many of the countries we were passing, our ports of call were well spread, with nothing between Salalah in Oman and Safaga in Egypt. In Salalah, we frolicked on a perfect white-sand beach in the middle of the day with not another soul in sight.

We bought gold perfume bottles, frankincense and, yes, myrrh in Egypt. We haggled for scarves and jewellery in the old souk then listened to the Muslim call to prayer as we sat under a tree and contemplated an enormous mosque. There were mangy tomcats and expensive cars, camels running wild and men in dishdashas but hardly any women.

Our days at sea were hot and tranquil and neatly divided by extremely good breakfasts, lunches and dinners - from modern fusion to haute cuisine. And no drink is too frivolous on Seabourn. You'll only pay if your tastes run to 90-year-old Scotch or similar.

Stopovers in Egypt, Jordan and then Egypt again passed too quickly, but in Safaga, we taxied the 172km to Luxor and stayed overnight in a brilliantly dingy budget hotel overlooking the Temple of Luxor and down the road from the Temple of Karnak. These marvels - and the Valley of the Kings, magnificent Petra in Jordan and the wonders of Cairo - need their own story. Suffice to say, I'll explore them one day at my own pace.

The Pride has an "avant-garde" restaurant called Tastings @2, where you are served seven small courses - a wealth of sometimes surprising combinations but never enough to really satisfy you. A cruise is a bit like this: everything you see is oh, so scrummy but maddeningly brief.

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Further information: The Seabourn Pride's 18-day Dubai to Rome cruise, via Oman, Egypt and Jordan, is from NZ$8973 per person on special and includes all meals, drinks and oceanview accommodation. On board are a medical facility, self-service laundry, gym, outdoor pool and spa pools, beauty salon and health spa, casino, boutique, library, business centre and watersports marina. Emirates flies to Dubai three times daily ex Auckland and daily ex Christchurch from $2275 return. Emirates connects to Rome daily from $2322 return to Auckland.

Diana Balham travelled as a guest of Seabourn Cruises and Emirates airline.

- NZ Herald

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