Sunday, January 01, 2006

Travel: The Weekend FT, Cruising for Danger

By Julie Earle-Levine
Financial Times; Jan 29, 2005

Cruises to the Caribbeanand other exotic places such as Papeete, Tahiti are humdrum, that is, for those of us with a sense of adventure.

Sure, the beaches are gorgeous, but it doesn't compare with cruising and stopping off in say Libya rather than Los Angeles or Beirut instead of the Bahamas. Istanbul is a very different kind of sun-drenched beauty than that of Isla Margarita, especially considering US Department of State warnings of dangers to Americans visiting Turkey.

Wealthy, seasoned travellers are demanding to go to more stimulating places, and some cruise lines are listening.

One luxury cruise line in particular, Silversea Cruises, is going boldly where other lines won't, to keep their well-heeled passengers satisfied and coming back.

I joined a nine-day Silversea cruise from Athens that stopped in Beirut and ended up in Istanbul, shortly before the Nato summit there in June. The cruise also took us to Crete, Cyprus and other parts of Turkey. The Italian-owned Silversea, which is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is the only major luxury line that caters to Americans and Europeans wanting to visit Beirut.

Arriving in Beirut on the cruise line's maiden journey there, we pulled into port alongside the city centre. Gantry cranes towered overhead and city officials waited on shore. Passengers, about half of whom were American, were lined up, ready to hop off and explore. These are sophisticated travellers: an American hedge fund executive, the head of a major car company in the Far East, the owner of a spa consortium in Europe and affluent retirees.

I embarked on a tour of the capital, where new architecture stands next to bullet-holed buildings, and a large, empty space sits where the US embassy once was.
"Very few American tourists come now," our tour guide says. "I hope more will."

Travelling on the Damascus road to the Roman ruins at Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley, there were Hizbollah flags and military everywhere. The flags, showing a yellow field and a green Kalashnikov rifle, were displayed in the same way US flags wave over main streets in small-town America.

"Can you believe we are here," said one middle-aged Californian as we passed a military camp. "This is what this whole trip was about for me. My wife didn't want to come here, but it was my birthday so she agreed. I just had to see it."

Silversea did not initially expect Americans to book Beirut, but Manfredi Lefebvre, the company's chairman, and Albert Peter, the CEO, recognised the early interest and decided to make Beirut a port of call.

In Lebanon, US air carriers cannot use the Beirut international airport and Americans have been the targets of terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, it is a country many US and European citizens want to see.

"It shows there is a group of seasoned travelers out there that are always looking for bragging rights in regard to visiting new and unique places," says a Silversea spokesman.
I generally don't ignore travel warnings intended for westerners but living in a terrorist target like New York gave me a feeling of toughness and lessened my sense of danger.

Istanbul is another destination most cruise lines have avoided since the HSBC bank bombing in November 2003. The British consulate was also targeted, and 27 people were killed.
For me, Istanbul was one of the real highlights of this journey. I had been imagining sultans, harems, jewels of the imperial treasury and endless cups of sweet tea, and I got far more than expected.

On our first day at port, a bomb exploded on a public bus in Istanbul, killing four people. Our Italian captain Ignazio Tatulli greeted us on the loudspeaker.
It wasn't the usual chit-chat about the weather or what we should wear for that evening's activities (casual for the pool deck barbecue, black tie for any of the elegant restaurants). He was advising us to be cautious on shore.

Other than a strong police presence, there was little evidence of a recent bombing. I spent the day exploring the Grand Bazaar and returned to the boat laden with bags of spices and Turkish delight, pashmina scarves and a carpet or two.
The reaction among passengers was mixed. One New York couple stayed on board to get a better view of the Turkish military, in helicopters buzzing overhead and on speed boats. They called the setting "fascinating".

A young South American woman was indifferent to the apparent danger. At home, worried about possible kidnappings, she was normally surrounded by bodyguards. In Istanbul, she enjoyed her freedom.

I briefly considered the safety of the boat and tour buses, and whether to stay on board for the evening along with some of the other wary passengers. But I, like the majority of my seafaring companions, decided the beauty and chaos of the city were irresistible.

There was so much to see and no time to waste. We would leave this beautiful city early the next morning. A small group of us headed to a fish restaurant and a nightclub on the Bosphorus. After paying a $120 entrance fee for five to the throbbing open-air club Reina, we soon were dancing to the music of gangster New York rapper 50 Cent and rubbing shoulders with Turkish revellers.

An hour later, we reluctantly left the club for the airport, where security was tight.
Why do people want to travel to these destinations? For Silversea, whose passengers are currently 60 per cent American, many have seen the world a few times over. Several cruise lines point out that the interest in so-called "dangerous" places has been immense recently.

Silversea regularly visits popular ports like Venice and Athens, but it is constantly seeking new and emerging destinations. The company will add 30 new ports this year, including the Libyan ports of Benghazi and Tripoli, where early bookings have been strong.

Although the nation is commonly associated with the leadership of Muammer Gadaffi and its possible role in the Lockerbie disaster, Libya also houses some fantastic archaeological ruins dating from the Roman and Greek periods.

Silversea also plans to call at Tartous, Syria; Agadir, Morocco; and Dakar, Senegal.
Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, another luxury line whose passengers are 85 per cent American, will also visit Tripoli next year. It also cruises to Istanbul.

"If cruise lines listened to every travel advisory out there, there would be nowhere but the Caribbean to go to," said a Radisson spokesman. There are often warnings from the US Department of State and if a situation changes, the cruise line can reassess its ports of call.
A fellow Silversea passenger and veteran cruiser plans to sign up for Libya. "I wouldn't miss it for the world ...I have absolutely no desire to follow the masses. I want to see the unseen, and I want to do it in style."

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