By Terence Smith
It could have been a cruise from hell: 17 days from Athens-to-Dubai through three active war zones just as the fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and continued in Somalia and Yemen. Instead, it was smooth sailing, as the newly refurbished Crystal Symphony skillfully glided through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea and east to Dubai.
Compliments to the Captain, who stuck to the scheduled itinerary despite ongoing civil wars off to port and starboard. The only deviation was off the coast of Yemen, not to avoid the Houthis, but to wisely escape a cyclone hurtling up from the Indian Ocean. By the time the storm lashed the Yemeni coastline, we were rolling just a bit as we skimmed eastward along the coast of Oman, on our way to the capital, Muscat. The only casualty: a scheduled stop at Salalah, the famous home of the Frankincense Trail.
We even avoided a boarding from the famous Somali pirates, a la the Tom Hanks film, Captain Phillips, who have been known to assault and clamber aboard ships just off the Somali coast and seize their cargo and crew. Crystal had an armed security team aboard equipped with a high-powered laser and strong water cannons to protect us against pirates who never ventured out to meet us. Instead, we were treated to stunning sunsets over Somalia. There was neither sound nor sight of the internecine fighting that has been raging in Somalia for years.
The cruise departed Athens enroute Dubai on October 9, just two days after the gruesome Hamas surprise attacks in southern Israel that killed some 1,400 men, women and children, most of them civilians. Israel had already launched its heavy and deadly air raids on Gaza in preparation for its major ground offensive. The whole region was heating up with skirmishes on the Lebanese border between Hezbollah and Israel and escalating violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank.
After a stop in Rhodes, lovely Rhodos, where we could see the Turkish coastline a few miles to the east, Crystal Symphony sailed over night to the northern end of the Suez Canal. We anchored perhaps 120 miles west of the ever-intensifying fighting in Gaza, waiting for our appointed time to begin the journey south through the Canal. After dark, I scanned the eastern sky looking for any sight or sound of air action over Gaza. Nothing. In our cabin, we could turn on BBC World News and see that fighting was raging in Gaza. But looking east, we saw and heard nothing. Nor did we see anything of the two U.S. Navy carrier groups that moved into the Eastern Mediterranean. All was peaceful. Truly bizarre.
Crystal Symphony raised anchor and headed south through the Suez Canal on schedule early the next morning. We passed Ismailiyah and memorials commemorating the battles that took place between Israel and Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I had covered both wars for The New York Times and, as luck would have it, I was aboard Crystal Symphony as a speaker to share my experiences: old war stories that now seemed much more relevant. I had crossed the Canal repeatedly during those wars, but had never sailed its length before. Now I could appreciate it as the extraordinary, beautiful engineering achievement that it is.
The only even slightly unusual sight we saw was a single SUV marked “Police,” that motored slowly down the road on the west bank of the Canal, staying just abreast of the ship. That protection may be routine in Egypt, where tourists have been targets, but to us, it reflected the troubled times raging all around us.
For the next several days, we cruised south and east through the beautiful Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden into the Arabian Sea under cloudless skies. Off to the east, the Houthis in Yemen fired four missiles towards southern Israel; only to have them shot down by a U.S. warship. We heard and saw nothing and only learned of the incident from the BBC. Unreal. Off to thAe west, the Somali civil war raged., out of sight and sound.
Finally, we docked in Dubai, that megalopolis in the desert, where oil and gas money has been converted into stunning skyscrapers, including the world’s tallest, the 163-story Burj al Khalifa, reaching into the sky..
Rather than a cruise from hell, our journey turned out to be an undisturbed glide through three active war zones that we never saw or felt. Totally unreal.