Luxury on the sea: a month-long cruise from Dubai to Cape Town

By Judith Anshin
This article appears on page 18 of the January 2019 issue.

The Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. Though less expensive, the high tea there was not up to the standard of that which we enjoyed at the Burj al Arab Jumeirah hotel.

Several years ago, I sailed on an expedition ship up the west coast of Africa, and it was the most difficult trip of my life. (The company even stopped offering it after our ordeal.) In 2017, I opted for a luxury cruise down the east coast of Africa, and it was the trip of a lifetime!

I decided to sail with Crystal Cruises (888/722-0021, www.crystalcruises.com) on the newly refurbished Crystal Symphony. My travel agent, Gina Morovati of NorthStar Cruises (Essex Falls, NJ; 800/249-9360), is a member of a trade group for agents who sell millions in travel each year, so she got me numerous discounts, shipboard credits and, serendipitously, an upgrade to the new Seabreeze Penthouse Suite… with a butler! It turned out to be the most luxurious 30 nights of my life.

I signed up for two cruise legs (November-December) and the 30 nights cost me $9,126, including port taxes. I suspect I won't find this kind of deal again anytime soon.

A few days in Dubai

My friend Karen accompanied me on the first leg of the cruise. Since she had never before been to Dubai, where we would board the ship, we went four nights early. While Karen took a couple of tours in Dubai, I only joined her for a day trip to Oman to snorkel, which we booked on Viatour.com (around $200 per person). I didn't know much about Oman before our tour and was surprised to find small mountains and fjords — a contrast to the desert landscape of the neighboring United Arab Emirates.

An area outside the galleries of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The pierced roof filtered the changing light throughout the day, giving it a magical quality.

Arriving in Oman after a 3-hour drive from Dubai, we boarded a traditional Omani wooden dhow and sailed to Khor ash Sham, a 16-kilometer-long sheltered fjord located in Musandam, known as the Norway of Arabia. As an avid snorkeler, having explored areas in the Pacific and Indian oceans, I feel Oman is not a destination for serious snorkelers, but this trip did make for a fun day.

Back in Dubai, Karen and I had booked an afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab Jumeirah, the famous sail-shaped hotel. It was extremely luxurious and beautiful, even a little "over the top."

Upon entering, we were confronted with a 2-story cascading fountain flanked by escalators and bordered by saltwater aquariums. Stingrays count as one of my favorite species to snorkel with, so seeing a very large one confined in the relatively small space of the tank was distressing.

Arriving at the Skyview Bar on the 27th floor, Karen and I were shown to our window table. Although reserving this table cost an extra 100 dirham ($27), it was worth it for the fabulous view. We could see the famous Palm Islands, The World Islands and more.

One of the first questions we were asked after being seated was, "Are you celebrating anything special?" Karen's birthday had been the day before, and mine was coming up in a few weeks, so we answered, "Our birthdays." This resulted in a special small birthday cake with gold-colored writing and very-long-stemmed red roses for each of us!

While the many courses of sandwiches and sweets were beautiful to look at and delicious to eat, the tea, itself, was the highlight for both of us.

From a long list of choices, we each selected the chocolate black tea. I have been to most of the notable tea-producing countries in the world and have drunk some great teas, but this was the best ever! It had only a hint of chocolate but was so smooth and delicious that we couldn't get enough. (I asked about whether we could buy some to take home but was told it was made in Sri Lanka only for the hotel, and purchasing even a small bag of leaves was, unfortunately, out of the question.)

The impeccable service, wonderful food and tea cost each of us just over $180, but both of us felt it was an outstanding value in this very expensive country and a perfect way to start our birthday-celebration cruise.

In the lap of luxury

At the new shopping mall near the port in Port Louis, Mauritius.

Boarding the ship was an easy process. I was very impressed with the Crystal crew, a feeling that continued throughout the voyage. Our suite was so comfortable and spacious, it immediately felt like home.

I had requested a starboard cabin mid-ship in order to take sunset shots from the verandah, so we were assigned cabin 9065. Subsequently, I viewed other cabins on an "open house" day and decided our cabin was the very best on the ship — even better than those in the highest category, one deck above ours.

The shower fixture was the best I have ever used, and the shower stall was quite large. Our spacious bathroom also had a washer/dryer combo, something even the higher-category cabins didn't have. We also had a big walk-in closet with a makeup dresser and more than enough drawers, shelves and clothes hangers.

Each late afternoon, our butler brought us canapés, and often he served us breakfast in our suite. A treat!

The Crystal Symphony has endless eating venues, including a main dining room with open seating for all three meals, with the usual buffets at breakfast and lunch; evening Brazilian churrascaria; restaurants featuring Chinese, Japanese and Italian menus, and a grill offering soup, wraps, burgers and a buffet of fruits. Next to that, the Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar was a huge hit.

One could eat at any time of the day or night, as some place was always open. In addition, the quality in each place was extremely high.

The lecturers on board were also of the highest quality. One could attend in person or watch on the in-suite TV, either live or at a later time. Lecturers included a geography professor/lawyer, a retired diplomat, a movie producer, a wildlife photographer and more. I listened to each lecture and was always impressed.

Classes on crocheting, computers, bridge and more were also offered. Even when there were several days at sea, I never felt a moment of boredom.

Museum visits

Leaving Dubai, we sailed to Doha, Qatar. I had arranged for a private guide for us, and a couple from Hong Kong, whom I met through a CruiseCritic.com message board, joined us.

We spent five hours or so touring Doha and seeing the city's stunning modern buildings and its extremely large souq, ending at the Museum of Islamic Art. Famed architect I.M. Pei was coaxed out of retirement to design the museum building, and it, alone, was worth the visit.

Opened in 2008, it featured 14 centuries of Islamic art. The exhibits were beautifully organized and displayed. The glass and ceramic pieces — always my favorite category of Islamic art — were intricate, colorful and beautiful.

We were there on a Friday, a day of rest in Arabic countries, so many families were visiting the museum and grounds. By the time we finished there in the late afternoon, we were all ready to get back to the ship and collapse.

The 2-story atrium on the Crystal Symphony.

Doha is as modern and gorgeous as any of the places in the UAE, and I really enjoyed the day there.

The next morning we docked in Abu Dhabi, and Karen, my Hong Kong friends and I had all booked tickets for the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi (louvreabudhabi.ae). Situated on Saadiyat Island, not far from the harbor, it was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, who designed the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.

Designed to be a seemingly floating dome, the building is spectacular, with the sun filling the spaces as if it were filtered through palm trees. It featured both permanent and temporary exhibitions, and it could take an entire day for one to see it adequately.

Since it had been open only two weeks when we arrived, it was very popular. We got there just as it opened and had no problem walking right in, but as we left, some hours later, we saw a very, very long line of people waiting to enter.

The building also had a café, a restaurant, an auditorium and a nice gift shop. The incorporation of water features within the building added such a feeling of serenity.

A few disappointing days

Leaving Abu Dhabi, we had several sea days before arriving in Seychelles. I had been there on a 2-week snorkeling trip just a year before, so I wasn't as excited about this port stop. Originally, we were scheduled to visit for just 1½ days, but several scheduled stops in Madagascar were canceled due to a plague epidemic, so we had three days in Seychelles.

My one planned snorkel trip in Mahé was canceled because of rain and cloudy seas, but with all the movies and lectures on the TV, I enjoyed catching up on the ship after taking a short walk on the island.

Réunion Island was our next port and, I think, the worst stop of the entire cruise. ATM machines in town would not work for any of us (except those with British bank cards), and, we learned later, the only bank that would exchange cash for euros was at the airport, but one couldn't take a taxi to get there without euros!

It was too hot and humid to walk about very much, so we eventually gave up and returned to the ship. Many of us told the concierge on the ship that skipping Réunion Island in the future would be a good idea.

Mauritius was the last stop for the first leg of the cruise, so Karen flew out and Melva, my roommate for the second leg of the cruise, flew in to sail down to Cape Town with me.

But before she left, Karen joined me and others I had met via Cruise Critic on a privately booked snorkel trip ($140 per person) to Ile des Deux Cocos, a small island about 90 minutes from the port.

Waiting for us on the dock, the guide and driver from Tourinco.com were excellent. (Other friends and I used them again the next day for a tour to the southern part of the island.) We were given a very large, comfortable cabana, and the service on the island, along with the enormous buffet lunch and open bar, made for a nice day.

We snorkeled for only about 60 minutes, and there wasn't as much coral or fish as I have found on other trips, but it felt so good to be back in the water. (I originally had three snorkel trips booked for the cruise, but this was the only one that actually happened.)

The next day, five of us took a private tour that included visits to Grand Bassin Sacred Lake, Chamarel Coloured Earth (aka Seven Coloured Earths) and an extinct volcano as well as a wonderful creole lunch. The drive through the countryside was interesting, and we could stop whenever we wished to take pictures. I especially enjoyed the Coloured Earth stop, where one could walk around a large area where the earth is multicolored due to different minerals.

The other four tour members were then dropped off at the airport for an early-evening flight, and I returned to the ship.

Melva and I booked with the ship for the next morning a tour of Port Louis, Mauritius' capital city. While it was interesting, the guide was not good. I think Tourinco would have done a much better job.

Mozambique

Prior to leaving the US, we had been advised to obtain visas in advance if we planned to take a ship excursion in Maputo, Mozambique. We weren't really interested in any of the excursions the ship offered, so when we discovered it would cost us nearly $300 each for a visa, we decided we would skip going ashore there.

A white rhino in the Lalibela Game Reserve, outside Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

However, in speaking with Crystal Cruises' excursion department a few weeks before I left home, I was advised that on the ship, the visa would be cheaper, so we each decided to get the visa on board. It cost only $51 and took very little time because Mozambique Immigration officials sailed with us three days before our arrival. When we reached Mozambique, we were able to leave the ship by 10 a.m. and take the shuttle to the handicraft market.

The ride took about 25 minutes, and we felt we saw quite a bit of the city along the way, so we decided against hiring a taxi to take a city tour on our own. I was interested, instead, in seeing the train station designed by Gustave Eiffel, and, serendipitously, it was located just outside the port. In fact, I could see the roof and tower from my suite!

The handicraft market was quite large, and Melva about finished her Christmas shopping there. One local artist had a beautiful display of his work, and I purchased a flat mask made of metal and fabric for $22, which I considered quite a find. Collecting unusual pieces, whether art or jewelry, is one my favorite things to do when traveling, and this trip did not disappoint!

Both of us were so happy we had been able to visit Maputo. Everyone with whom we came into contact was friendly and engaging, making the visit a highlight of the cruise.

Along the coast

Our next three stops were on the east coast of South Africa. In Durban, a ship excursion to see the city was interesting enough (our guide was quite good, so we learned a lot about the area), but I found Durban to be the least attractive of the many cities and towns I've visited in South Africa over the years.

Another ship's excursion, a safari in Port Elizabeth, took us to Lalibela Game Reserve. While we saw quite a few animals, there were some problems.

We had to leave the ship quite early, so when we arrived at the reserve, we expected to go right out on a game drive. Unfortunately, we were told we had to wait more than an hour because the vehicles were out on drives for those who were staying at the lodge there.

There also was a rather dangerous path to get to the toilets. It was quite steep and paved with stones set in concrete, with no usable railing to hold onto. Many of us creeped down the path hoping we wouldn't fall. The gradient coming back up was also quite challenging.

Luckily, the game vehicles came back earlier than announced, and we were off. My vehicle had as the driver/guide a young woman from Dallas, which surprised us.

Being in the bush was wonderful, but the vehicles had no canvas roof to protect us from the sun. On the early-morning game drives, that wouldn't be needed, but as we went out after 10 and came back about 1 p.m., we were broiling in the sun.

A buffet lunch awaited us back at the lodge, and the included beer or wine was perfect for washing away the dryness of the bush.

Despite the little problems, I so enjoyed seeing the wildlife. We were able to spot hippos, elephants, many antelope and a small yellow Labrador retriever; she was part of the antipoaching patrol and seemed happy to be doing her job.

Coming to a close

A day at sea coincided with my birthday, and many people told me I had to have the special Crystal birthday breakfast (no additional cost). It was served in the main dining room and consisted of several courses, including caviar, filet mignon, eggs and many other wonderful items. Melva and I were quite happy we had decided to do it.

Docking in Cape Town late in the afternoon, we took the shuttle to the V&A Waterfront and did a little bit of last-minute shopping. We had to leave the ship by 6 the next morning and would be in transit for nearly 48 hours, so we didn't want a late night.

Our last evening on board was quite bittersweet for me. While I did miss my little dog at home, I had enjoyed the voyage and ship more than anything I had done in recent years. Of course, the decadence of having a huge suite and a butler was a big part of it. What an adjustment it has been to be back to shopping, cooking and cleaning up!

Now when I have trouble sleeping, I find myself imagining being rocked to sleep on the ship and being spoiled every minute of the day.

I am happy to answer any questions by email (penguinatlaw@gmail.com). Please put "ITN" in the subject line.