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Winter Boating: Remote Cultures and Creatures Aboard 5 Star Comfort

When we put our boat to sleep for the winter it is not the best of days for us. We love anything that has to do with the water and count the months to boating season starting in November. For the past three winters, we have made it a goal to be on the seas for a couple of weeks during the winter months and share our story. For our third annual winter boating story we went a bit exotic departing from the ancient trading port of Stonetown, Zanzibar. For 16 days we let the captain of the expedition ship Silversea Discoverer do the skippering as we called on remote places in East Africa. Our destinations included the coasts of Tanzania and Mozambique and the west coast and inland forests of the island nation of Madagascar. Before disembarking we finished with a game drive in South Africa. Floating on tropical waters to learn about some unique cultures, animals and the regional style of boats beat the winter blues at home. Expedition cruising is a unique way of getting to places not easily accessible. Many of our 95 fellow passengers said they would never set foot on the large ship because they did not have the desire to be with 4000 of their new best friends dressing for dinner and stopping at well-visited islands or ports. Expedition ships are small and are about adventure. Unlike cruise ships, the Discoverer did not have an entertainment staff but did have several expedition leaders with expertise in biology, birds, botany, history and culture. They lead expeditions ashore and gave lectures. Going ashore was via zodiac for the sometimes bouncy but fun ride to the place less traveled. Going ashore was either a “dry” landing if there was a dock or a wet landing on a beach. Sometimes we would get to a place only to find the dock washed away making it a wet landing. No one minded because expedition cruising is expecting changes. Arriving at a village a couple of times was a lot of fun because we were met by half the residences because they never saw a passenger ship. Sometimes we had school kids meet us at the beach singing local songs. Landing ashore was always a different experience. Some highlights are listed below: At Kilwa Kisiwani we walked through the barely visited ruins of their UNESCO World Heritage site. This included a first of its kind designed 900-year-old mosque, 600-year sultan palace and a 500-year-old Portuguese fort. Getting there had us walk through the village passing the well where everyone took their water. Madagascar is where we spent most of our time during our cruise. As boaters, we enjoyed a visit to the small and special village of Belo Sur Mer where fishing and boat building is the main industry. Here we watched a very basic 50-foot fishing schooner being built with hand tools and regional wood by two men and learned it would take almost 3 years to finish and sell for $3000. (For $3000 you received a basic handmade hull, masts and decking). Items like heads, electronics and blenders are something not even thought about. Launching their boat would bring the entire village down to party with free food and drink. In return, all the villagers would roll the boat into the water. Another popular boat built here is a ten-foot fishing outrigger canoe that takes two weeks to produce and sells for $300. From the two-man factory, we walked the sandy main street to the village school to observe the children who learn from a chalkboard as books and paper are not affordable. Madagascar, unfortunately, is 80% deforested. To get to the forest we had to leave our five-star floating bubble twice for long non-air conditioned rides in SUV’s or large vans on some very bumpy roads. To get inland we passed the crowded market streets, human powered rickshaws and the many three wheel tuck-tucks. We also passed an occasional river where woman would do their laundry, people would bathe and young men would screen the sand for sapphires. At the forests, we took guided hikes to observe lemurs and other wildlife found only in Madagascar. Lemurs act a bit like monkeys but have their own unique look and way of leaping between trees. A third hike took us through a river valley ending at waterfalls with a refreshing swimming hole. One of Madagascar’s most famous places is called the Avenue of the Baobabs. The Baobab is a usual tall tree that looks like it is upside down when the leaves are off. The avenue is really a main dirt road where you can see a dozen of them on either side. After plenty of photos and viewing these majestic trees, Silversea’s had arranged with the local conservation group for each guest to plant a tree not far from the avenue. It was nice to know that what we planted may be around for the next 500 years. When not going ashore for wildlife or culture we did take advantage of our small size by pulling up to a tiny island with picture perfect sandy beaches for a swim in the warm seas. Some of these islands were nothing more than a dot on the nautical chart, barely a half mile long and several feet high. On one island, the staff brought along a beach bar. Our island visits were never crowded due to our small group size. To understand what the local workhorse of boats in the region is all about, Silversea’s arranged for several dhows to pull alongside so all the guests can be given a ride to a nearby island. A dhow is a sailboat believed to have been designed over 2000 years ago in India and was used for trade and fishing between India, the Arab trading world and East Africa. It is still hand built and used today for fishing, local light freight, along with a basic and crowded short passenger service. Tacking these boats takes a few extra steps because of their simple rigging. With four days at sea, we almost forgot how we winterized our boat just a couple of months earlier and how great it was to be on the water in the middle of the winter. Silversea’s makes it easy with an all-inclusive package of gourmet food, open bar, butler service, room service, gratuities and shore excursions. Their bar and serving staff knows everyone’s name by the second day along with any special things you prefer. The onboard sommelier was always around offering different wines as well as finding that special bottle in the ships store you may like. (On the second day, a bottle of Patron for me and Kettle One for Maureen appeared in our cabin). With 95 passengers on board, everyone got to know each other fairly quickly over open seating dining, the post day briefing cocktails and on the zodiacs. People got comfortable quick and it would not be uncommon to see guests barefoot and in bathrobes walking to the fancy coffee machine in the deck four lounge before breakfast. (Of course, they had the option to have their butler bring it if they had wanted to) If you have a craving for luxury at sea and a sense of adventure Silversea’s expedition ships operate in every ocean visiting remote ports of call. For information go to www.silversea.com.

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