Max­i­mum Mid­dle East

Port­hole gets fully im­mersed on Se­abourn En­core.

Porthole Cruise Magazine - - What’s Inside - BY FRAN GOLDEN

The scene was a cruise ship sail­ing in the Mid­dle East, but it felt more like a James Bond movie. While guests on the ul­tra-lux­u­ri­ous 600-pas­sen­ger

Se­abourn En­core were sip­ping mar­ti­nis and Cham­pagne around the pool, four burly armed guards ar­rived by small mo­tor­boat, un­der the cover of dark­ness.

The job of the guards was to pro­tect us as we sailed in the Gulf of Aden, and specif­i­cally off the coast of So­ma­lia, an area where pi­rates oc­ca­sion­ally at­tack cargo ships.

We never en­coun­tered any pi­rates — in­ci­dents are ex­tremely rare — but the sub­ject was much talked about as we ap­proached the dan­ger area. There had been spec­u­la­tion the guards would ar­rive by he­li­copter or even sub­ma­rine. We got drama, with­out drama, which was okay with ev­ery­one in­volved.

My hus­band and I joined Se­abourn En­core in Ash­dod, Is­rael, a week into a 21-day sail­ing from Rome. We cruised through the Suez Canal, around the Gulf of Aden and into the Ara­bian Sea and Per­sian Gulf to Dubai.

This is a cruise to see the re­li­gious sites in Jerusalem, the rose­hued ru­ins of Pe­tra in Jor­dan, items such as gold and frank­in­cense for sale in the souks in Oman, lo­cals cov­ered head-to-toe in tra­di­tional garb, and the ul­tra-mod­ern sky­scrapers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Ex­po­sure to cul­ture dif­fer­ent than your own is one of the at­trac­tions. You want to visit with Be­douins, hear mu­sic you’ve never heard be­fore, try new foods, get face-to-face with camels. But maybe you’re also wor­ried about lan­guage bar­ri­ers and mak­ing a faux pas, such as not wear­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate at­tire or sim­ply act­ing too Amer­i­can. Cruis­ers may even find them­selves hav­ing to ex­plain to friends and fam­ily back home why they would want to va­ca­tion in the Mid­dle East.

For all that, when the re­gion is sta­ble, the Mid­dle East is a de­sir­able warm-weather spot. Deal­ing with a lit­tle se­cu­rity is a mi­nor has­sle.

Add to the in­trigue com­pli­men­tary drinks, cui­sine by Thomas Keller, and the ex­tra­or­di­nary in­tu­itive ser­vice that Se­abourn pro­vides, and you get a touch of old Ara­bia and mod­ern Ara­bia de­liv­ered on a sil­ver plat­ter.

The Suez Canal

One of the lec­tur­ers on our ship joked there’s such a thing as canal col­lec­tors, or “canal- holics,” as he called them. Hav­ing done the Panama Canal, the Corinth in Greece and the Suez, I may be en­ter­ing that ter­ri­tory.

Com­merce is the main pur­pose of the 120- mile short­cut between the Mediter­ranean and Red Sea. Cruise ships con­voy through the sea- level, Vic­to­rian- era canal with oil tankers and con­tainer ships. Get­ting up early and sip­ping cof­fee on our suite bal­cony at 6 a. m. as we en­tered the canal may have been overkill. It takes a full- day to slowly tra­verse the Egyp­tian wa­ter­way. But if you get into the rhythms, what un­folds is sur­pris­ing.

As we cut through the Si­nai, there was sand — lots of sand — but also views of the ver­dant green of the Suez Delta. As we passed set­tle­ments, there were mosques and minarets, and our ears filled with the melo­di­ous sound of the Is­lamic call to prayer, broad­cast over loud speak­ers.

We smelled wood burn­ing, heard dogs bark­ing, and viewed armed guards at mil­i­tary out­posts. Fish­er­men greeted us by bang­ing on their boats. We passed Egyp­tian war memo­ri­als and un­der the mod­ern ex­panse of the Mubarak Peace Bridge, built with the help of the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment. When we ap­proached the widen­ing at Great Bit­ter Lake, there were com­mer­cial ships as far as the eye could see.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.

Above (clock­wise): Wadi Rum desert, Jor­dan; Se­abournEn­core; Jerusalem; Ma­hane Ye­huda Mar­ket, Jerusalem

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