Silversea Makes History

Silver Cloud calls in Libya, first for Western ship

By: Norman Sklarewitz

The North African country of Libya holds some of the most spectacular ancient sites in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, those sites have been inaccessible to Americans for the past 20 years, thanks to the country’s rogue state status, which prompted travel restrictions. But, just about a year ago, the U.S. government lifted those restrictions, after Libya’s Col. Muammar al-Qadhafi settled long outstanding issues with the U.S. and the United Nations.

That’s when Silversea Cruises sprung into action. The ultra-luxury line known for frequenting an ever-changing array of exotic ports of call drew up plans to include Libya in its Mediterranean itineraries as quickly as possible.

The distinction of being the first cruise ship serving the American market to visit Libya in two decades fell on Silversea’s Silver Cloud. The specific itinerary was a 12-day Mediterranean passage that sailed from Port Said, Egypt, April 12. The majority of the passengers, including myself, were interested in this particular itinerary because of its historic visit to Libya.

Of course, the thought of being pampered in Silversea’s inimitable style, which the line has branded “intimate Italian cruising,” was another big incentive. The 296-passenger Silver Cloud, with its excellent staff, superior dining facilities and all-inclusive service, was a haven as we sailed into ports unknown (to Americans, at least) for 20 years.

Most of the cruise passengers arrived in Egypt at least a day early, taking advantage of Silversea’s optional pre-cruise tour package with the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo in the Giza District. The hotel’s airport transfer service arranged for the necessary Egyptian visas upon our arrival. The next day, a hotel coach escorted by armed military guards took us to Port Said, to begin our historic journey.

The Silver Cloud reached the Libyan port of Derna on April 15. I thought we’d be greeted with the traditional fanfare that accompanies a ship’s first port call, but the Libyans don’t go for that sort of thing, apparently. They will, in time, realize the value of international tourism, and perhaps, future ships will have a welcome banner, or a band of musicians to hail their arrival. Immigration regulations and quirky camera fees were a tad confusing, as well. But we took it in stride, thankful for the help of Silversea’s patient chief purser, Manette Griffoen, to give us instructions.

One of the most unusual aspects of the Libyan visit came in the form of alcohol policies. Libya, of course, is dry, but even in strict Muslim countries, hotels catering to foreigners generally can serve liquor. Not in Libya.

So, when the Silver Cloud sailed into Libyan territorial waters, Captain Marco Sangiacomo had to temporarily suspend serving all alcohol in the dining rooms and lounges. That didn’t prevent the Silver Cloud’s worldly and intrepid passengers from taking bottles into their suites and enjoying cocktails behind closed doors while the ship was in port. It was a bit like Prohibition but without the Charleston and flappers.

If passengers were disappointed at the lack of fanfare and the various goofy regulations imposed by Libyan authorities, I didn’t detect any sign of it. Almost half of them were from Europe, Australia, Korea and Canada among other countries; the rest were Americans. All were seasoned travelers, clearly accustomed to such vagaries. This was a group that faithfully attended the onboard presentations by our guest lecturer. During shore excursions, passengers were intently interested in the archaeological wonders before them, some taking notes as well as pictures.

This spirit of adventure, and sense of wonder was rewarded as the first tours headed off. On Silversea’s Libya voyages, the line offers guests a diverse selection of optional shore excursions available for purchase. From Derna, I chose an excursion to the tiny town of Susah. There, we made our way through the ruins of ancient Apollonia, built by the Greeks in the 7th century B.C. Another shore excursion went to Cyrene, founded by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C. and now recognized as a World Heritage Site.

Two days later, the Silver Cloud pulled into Libya’s capital city Tripoli. A 90-minute drive from Tripoli brought us to Lepis Magna, a spectacular Roman city and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What struck us at these awesome ruins was the fact that the Silver Cloud passengers were almost the only visitors admiring the triumphant arch honoring the Roman emperor Septimius Severus or the great coliseum.

Not only were there few other visitors but there were no hawkers spoiling the emotional experience by pestering us to buy things. Most of us realized that as Libya continues to open up to tourism, these optimal conditions are certain to diminish. It won’t be like this much longer, one of my fellow passengers remarked.

Archaeological treasures are clearly the primary reason to venture to what has been one of the last countries previously forbidden to adventurous American cruisers. The strong response from Silversea’s upscale clientele is proof of this. The two cruises that followed the April inaugural run were sold out, and it’s easy to understand why.

It’s the journey of a lifetime, even without the brass band greeting at the dock.


Company: Silversea Cruises
Ship: M/V Silver Cloud
Size: 16,800 tons
Capacity: 296 passengers; 148 suites
Year Built:1994
Plugging In: Staterooms have outlets for both 110- and 200-volt appliances. There is a computer room equipped with five PCs for Internet access.
Hits: The Silver Cloud’s extremely personable staff offers attentive, efficient service without being the least bit obsequious.
Misses: Bedside clocks lack luminescent dials making it impossible to check time at night without turning on suite lights.
Itinerary: Silversea Cruises will call in Libya on four cruises in 2005. Still available this year is the Oct. 26 sailing of the Silver Wind between Monte Carlo and Port Said with Libyan calls in Tripoli and Benghazi. In 2006, Silversea will call in Libya on nine cruises.
Cost: $6,995-$17,395 per person, double occupancy. An early booking incentive discount of 20 percent is offered (capacity controlled).
Commission: Starts at 10 percent