South Africa

Cape Town South Africa

Cruising Jewish Cape Town

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Cultural sites underline contribution of influential community

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix – February 20, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa –With the dramatic flat-topped Table Mountain and Twelve Apostles mountain range looming over white-sand beaches and a stunning harbor, Cape Town, South Africa, has rightly earned a reputation as one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world.

It’s also been a hospitable home to Jews, who arrived in waves from Europe in the late 19th century, later played a leading role in the fight against apartheid, and today give more money per capita to Israel than any other Jewish community.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Cape Town and see its Jewish sites during a 16-day cruise aboard the Silversea Silver Wind that sailed from South Africa to Kenya.

Cape Town's Table Mountain

Cape Town’s dramatic Table Mountain overlooks the city’s harbor

Most of the important Jewish sites, including the South African Jewish Museum, the Gardens Shul, Cape Town Holocaust Center, and Gitlin Library, are located in the same complex on an outdoor square in the heart of downtown Cape Town, just four blocks from the South African Parliament.

My first stop was the Jewish Museum, which attracts about 15,000 people a year.  Visitors get a sense of the history of the Jewish community even before entering the building.

The entrance to the museum is through the exterior of the first synagogue built in South Africa, which was consecrated in 1863. Inside are the original wooden ark and mosaic floor and other artifacts from the synagogue.

I had arranged in advance to meet Shea (pronounced She-uh) Albert, the museum’s executive director. She was kind enough to show me around and pointed out that every window in the museum has a view of Table Mountain, which is what the Jewish immigrants first saw when arriving in Cape Town by ship.

cape town Jewish museum

The original wooden and mosaic floor from South Africa’s first synagogue

The museum depicts what life was like for those immigrants and does so with high-tech and interactive exhibits, including a bank of touch-screen computers where visitors can research their family roots.

“Other museums usually say, ‘Don’t touch,'” said Albert. “We say, ‘Please touch, please engage, please experience what the history really means.'”

I especially enjoyed a reconstructed shtetl from Riteve, Lithuania in the 1880s. Interestingly, more than 80 percent of the Jews now living in Cape Town have ancestors who emigrated from Lithuania. The shtetl exhibit features a scale model of a school, shop and modest house. Inside the home, the table is set for Shabbat dinner.

“People come to the shtetl and they actually cry sometimes because they can realize how it must have been and thereby feel closer to their grandparents,” said Albert.

Cape Town Gardens Shul

The Gardens Shul in Cape Town is South Africa’s oldest active synagogue

The museum also showcases the role played by Jews in the struggle against apartheid, including Isie Maisels, who was Nelson Mandela’s defense lawyer during the 1963 trial that led to Mandela’s incarceration for treason, and Helen Suzman, who for many years was the sole anti-apartheid voice in the South African Parliament.

Mandela was at the museum’s opening in 2000, and there is a quote from his autobiography displayed on one of the museum’s walls: “In my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Next door to the museum is the Gardens Shul, also known as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. It opened in 1905, making it the oldest active congregation in South Africa. It can seat more than 1,400 people.

Cape Town Holocaust Museum

Cape Town’s Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in Africa

About 15,000 Jews now live in Cape Town, which has a dozen synagogues. Many of them live in an area of town called Sea Point, a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown that has numerous apartment buildings overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I rode a tour bus through the area, which has a kosher butcher and deli.

Albert calls it “a cohesive community” that is deeply committed to the state of Israel and looking after its own sick and needy. “In that, it mirrors Jewish communities everywhere,” she said.

I also visited the Cape Town Holocaust Center, the only Holocaust museum in all of Africa. The Nazis’ rise to power is chronicled and there are vivid displays depicting concentration camps.

The facility also looks at the Holocaust from a South African perspective, comparing early Nazi Germany to the racial injustice of apartheid. To its credit, the government of South Africa now requires Holocaust education in all public schools.

The last stop on my tour of Jewish sites in Cape Town was the Jacob Gitlin Library, also housed on the campus adjacent to the Jewish Museum. Gitlin, who immigrated to South Africa from Lithuania in 1902, was a leader in the South African Zionist movement.

Silversea Silver Wind

The Silversea Silver Wind docked in Cape Town

The library contains about 20,000 Jewish-themed books, periodicals and audio-visual material in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The library also gives non-Jews a chance to learn about Jewish history, culture and traditions.

Once the Silver Wind departed Cape Town and sailed on to other ports in South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya, I focused on seeing animals in their natural habitats and learning more about the indigenous cultures in the region. But it wasn’t an end to my Jewish-related activities on this trip.

I was pleased that Silversea arranged Friday night Shabbat services for its passengers, providing prayer books, kippot, Shabbat candles, wine and challah. There were only about 200 passengers aboard this particular sailing, but we still had minyans on both Friday nights at sea. One of the Silver Wind’s senior officers, a Jew from Florida, prayed with our group of Americans and Brits.

Silver Wind Shabbat services

 Shabbat services onboard the Silver Wind

Indeed, I have found many cruise lines to be more than accommodating to Jewish passengers. Silversea, for instance, in addition to arranging Shabbat services, has a rabbi on board to host a Passover seder and to conduct services during the High Holidays.

“A good percentage of Silversea’s guests are Jewish,” noted Brad Ball, the company’s director of corporate communications, who was onboard our sailing.

For me, it meant a lot being able to recite familiar prayers with fellow Jews sailing the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Africa.  It made the distance from home seem not quite so far.

© 2010 Dan Fellner
Silversea Silver Wind

Silversea Cruises: You get what you pay for

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Passengers keep coming back for five-star luxury — Sept. 28, 2012


I started feeling pampered weeks before I even boarded the Silversea Silver Wind for a 16-day luxury cruise from Cape Town, South Africa to Mombasa, Kenya, with stops in-between in Mozambique, Madagascar and Tanzania.

The Silversea Silver Wind

The Silver Wind anchored off the coast of Madagascar

The cruise line sent me a guest information form asking me to choose one of four different types of pillows for my suite.  It was a tough decision, but I opted to eschew the firm goose down, synthetic hypoallergenic and therapeutic foam for the standard soft goose down pillow.

It was the first of many taxing decisions I was confronted with during the cruise, from whether to choose the caviar and condiments or rouleaux de feuilles de brick (that’s French for spring roll) as my appetizer during the first formal dinner at sea (I chose both), to which type of beer to have my cabin fridge stocked with (I chose Corona), to whether to stay up late for the 10 p.m. shows in the Parisian Theater or watch a movie in my suite and call it an early night (depended on the following day’s itinerary).

But on Silversea, which has carved out a niche at the high-end of the small-ship luxury cruise market, it’s virtually impossible to make a wrong choice.  That’s why the cruise line has been voted “World’s Best” nine times by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler and seven times by Travel + Leisure magazine in the “small ship” category.

It’s also why Silversea gets so many repeat customers. There were 210 passengers on the Cape Town-Mombasa sailing — mostly North Americans and Europeans — and it was hard to find someone who hadn’t sailed on Silversea in the past. Indeed, most people I spoke with had been on the line several times before and some even had sea days numbering in the hundreds.

Silver Wind Captain Gennaro Arma

 Capt. Gennaro Arma and his staff welcome passengers aboard the Silver Wind

They keep coming back for the food, service and one of the highest space-to-guest ratios in the industry. Silversea’s largest ships — the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper — hold only 382 guests. (In December 2009, Silversea debuted the Silver Spirit, which has a capacity of 540 guests, still a fraction of what the mass-market ships carry).

As for the Silver Wind, it has room for 296 passengers. But this particular sailing was only about 70 percent full, which meant there were actually more crew members (224) on board than guests.

No long lines at the lunch buffet, no endless waits to get off the ship in tender ports, and no fighting over deckchairs.

But the luxury and intimate surroundings on Silversea don’t come cheap. Some of the nicer suites can cost well more than $1,000 per person per day.

Silver Wind pool

A day at sea. No fighting over deckchairs on a ship with only 210 passengers

It’s true what they say, though — you get what you pay for. The cabins are huge and all have an ocean view; most have balconies. The French cuisine is five-star and the ship’s restaurants offer open seating, meaning you can dine when and with whom you want.

Silversea bills itself as the most all-inclusive cruise line in the industry. A lot of things that cost extra on other lines, like beverages — alcoholic and otherwise — are included in the fare.

“Even though you may not be a big alcohol drinker, those Diet Cokes and cappuccinos and bottled waters add up on other cruise lines, and at the end of the cruise, you’re hit with sticker shock,” said Silversea spokesman Brad Ball, who was aboard the Silver Wind on the Cape Town-Mombasa sailing and answered my questions in the ship’s quiet card room.

Silver Wind lunch buffet

Executive Chef Laurent Austrui prepares the lunch buffet in the ship’s galley

“With Silversea, you know right up front what you’re going to pay, and what your budget is for that trip.”

Gratuities are also included and the cruise line provides complimentary shuttle buses from the ship into town in most ports. While we were docked next to an MSC cruise ship in Maputo, Mozambique, I looked out the window of our shuttle bus taking us into town to see MSC passengers walking in the same direction in the heat and humidity.

I wondered if the economic downturn has hurt the high-end cruise market. Surprisingly, Ball said it hasn’t and that Silversea’s bookings are “at plan.”

“You’re dealing with the very affluent,” he said of the line’s passengers. “Whether they’re business owners, or professionals, or lawyers or doctors, they know the investments are going to be up, and they’re going to be down. And once they become accustomed to this standard of travel, they don’t sacrifice.”

Ball also noted that since Silversea is more international than most cruise lines, it can better withstand a slump in one part of the world. “If the economy is soft in the U.S., there is always another economy in the world that is doing a little better,” he said.

Having said that, Ball acknowledges that Silversea has now had to begin offering a number of booking incentives, including free air for select sailings and early booking discounts.

“When Silversea was launched, we were proud to be the most expensive, and if you had to ask how much it cost, you couldn’t afford it,” said Ball. “That has changed. Value is very important to our clients these days.”

Silver Wind veranda suite

 A spacious veranda suite

No matter how wealthy, everyone likes a deal. I found it interesting that couples who didn’t mind shelling out $25,000 or more for the cruise were so pleased to be saving a few bucks with free laundry service, a perk Silversea gives to repeat passengers.

And there was a good-sized group — me among them — who regularly participated in trivia, golf-putting and other contests to win “Silversea points,” which we lined up to redeem for t-shirts, key-chains, bookmarks and other trinkets at the end of the cruise.

Silversea is not for cruisers accustomed to non-stop activities you’ll find on the bigger ships. There wasn’t a whole lot going on during days at sea, other than fascinating 45-minute “enrichment” lectures on African politics and wildlife by a professional safari guide.

A dermatologist onboard, noting the dearth of activities, volunteered to give a lecture on preventing skin cancer, certainly a relevant topic on a cruise off the coast of Africa not far from the equator. His talk was very well-attended.

The nightly entertainment featured competent performers but lacked the glitz and variety I’ve seen on other ships. And the casino, if it could be called that, consisted of a few slot machines and a couple of tables, which rarely saw much action.

But most passengers didn’t seem to mind foregoing high-stakes bingo, art auctions, parades of sparkler-carrying waiters bearing trays of baked Alaska, or the old cruise-ship standby — “The Not-So-Newlywed Game.”

They were more than content reading by the pool, soaking up the sun and contemplating whether to have a pina colada or strawberry daiquiri, and what time to head back to the cabin to get ready for dinner.

Decisions, decisions …

© 2012 Dan Fellner