|Where's Vivien? Seychelles|
|Travel diary: Island hopping in the Indian Ocean
Experience a super luxury cruise around the Seychelles.
By Vivien Devlin
I love the fine art of cruising. When I tell family and friends I have booked another cruise, they seem surprised and perplexed at my choice of vacation. I am neither an elderly senior citizen nor even approaching middle age. For non-cruisers, the general consensus is that cruising is for wealthy, white-haired retired ladies and gentlemen who desire a quiet holiday, lying on a deck lounger by day and dinner dances by night, while the ship sails away for days and days at sea. Non-cruisers believe they would feel trapped and claustrophobic or, in other words, "bored on board".
To believe this stereotypical image is to reject what could be the most enriching travel experience you may ever have. The cruise industry has changed enormously in the past decade. It's the fastest growing sector in tourism, with around 12.7 million passengers taking a cruise holiday in 2007 and estimated to boom by 2010 with 30 new ships currently in production. With a wide choice of size and style of ship, exciting itineraries and great value fares, more and more younger 20-, 30- and 40-something travelers are taking to the sea for a taste of luxury, relaxation and comfort: young couples, honeymooners, families with children are now all finding that cruising is the way to go. Perhaps my personal experience of a Silversea cruise will open your eyes to a very different and leisurely way of traveling and exploring the world. Just think -- what other form of travel allows you to wake up every morning to find a different view and new destination from your bedroom window?
The Italian-owned, US-based, Silversea cruise line was launched in 1984 as an innovative European style of all-inclusive, small scale, luxury cruising. For the past eight years, Silversea has been voted the world's best small ship cruise line by Condé Nast Traveller magazine, amongst numerous accolades and awards. Their four ships, Silver Cloud and Silver Wind (maximum 296 guests) and Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper (382) offer the intimacy and luxury of a private yacht with six-star hospitality and service. My partner Ken and I have already experienced two previous cruises on board Silver Whisper -- in 2004 for a culture-rich tropical adventure around Central and South America -- Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia -- and again in January 2007 for an exotic journey around South East Asia from Singapore to Bangkok visiting Brunei, Vietnam and Cambodia along the way. To experience all these cities and countries day by day was simply magical.
Having fallen in love with the Silversea concept of 6-star travel by sea, Ken and I were keen to book another cruise. In August 2007, an Emirates Tours brochure arrived in the post, combining Emirates flights with Silversea. The Sublime Seychelles vacation departing in November was rather enticing. This all-inclusive package featured Emirates business class flights from the UK via Dubai to the Seychelles, a seven-night island-hopping cruise on Silver Cloud as well as three nights at the Banyan Tree Resort, Mahe. It sounded like the perfect winter sun holiday. We booked up and soon began packing our swimsuits, evening gowns and tuxedo for another glamorously romantic Silversea cruise.
In 1985, Emirates was launched as the new international airline of the United Arab Emirates, owned by the government of Dubai. Now flying to more than 90 destinations worldwide (with new routes to Toronto and Houston), the aim is to provide a truly ‘top flight' experience, entertainment and comfort. First- and business-class passengers are offered a complimentary chauffeur drive from home to airport (depending on mileage) and exemplary hospitality. The route from Glasgow, Scotland to Dubai (with connecting flights across Asia, far east and Australia), has proved extremely popular and profitable and an ideal route for Scottish travelers to avoid a domestic flight to Heathrow for an onward flight.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 23
Our Emirates chauffeur arrives at 10am to drive us by smart Mercedes car from Edinburgh to Glasgow airport, 50 miles away. Our holiday has begun already. By 11.30am, we are checked in with boarding passes for seats 4 J and K. Our luggage will be transferred directly all the way from Glasgow to Mahe, Seychelles, while we have an overnight stopover in Dubai.
The Emirates in-flight service in business class (a small cabin seating about 36 passengers) is attentive and leisurely. Before takeoff at 1:30pm, we are served a glass of champagne. This is the lifestyle to which I could so easily become accustomed. An aperitif and canapés before lunch: Smoked trout salad; scallops and prawns in saffron cream with tagliatelle; cheese plate, fresh fruit. More champagne, a glass or two of Chablis. Time for a movie. The Emirates ICE (information, communication, entertainment) system has won numerous awards. With your private monitor screen in the armrest, you can select from 100 new or classic films, as well as music/TV/game channels. The flight time from the UK to Dubai is around seven hours, so we are served a light snack (roast beef or poached salmon sandwich, pastries and coffee) before landing, Arrival time was 12:15am, although our bodies' clocks thought it was just 9:15pm.
After a tiring wait in the queue to get through passport control, (even the so called Fast Track lines for business and first class were long), we went to the Emirates Chauffeur desk to arrange a car to take us to our hotel. Due to the 10-hour stopover, Emirates offers a complimentary hotel room at Le Meridien, about a five-minute drive from Dubai airport. There is a dedicated Emirates reception desk and we are escorted to our rather spacious but old fashioned "corporate" suite. Generous hospitality -- a bottle of red wine (but no corkscrew!) and huge bowl of fruit await us, but all we want to do is sleep to be fresh for an early start and another flight the next morning.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 24
Our Emirates car arrives at 8:30am. At Dubai International Airport (DXB), there's a dedicated entrance for first and business class passengers. We sail through security and head for the comfort of the Emirates business class lounge. We take off on time at 10:30am and enjoy a comfortable flight. This is an older aircraft with a TV monitor on the seatback in front of you. When the passenger in front of me reclined his seat fully, my screen nearly touched the floor. I gave up watching a film and relaxed before drinks and lunch were served. Prawns, monkfish, green beans, risotto, champagne.
I read an article in the Emirates Open Skies magazine that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, stayed at the Northolme Resort, Seychelles for several months, inspired by the lifestyle to write Casino Royale and For Your Eyes Only. Today, the hotel celebrates the Bond connection. A dry Martini, shaken not stirred, perhaps?
After a four-hour flight, we arrive into Mahe International Airport, Seychelles at around 3pm. The weather forecast was cloudy with rain expected but a temperature of about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
The immigration procedure is seamless. A representative from Creole Tourism escorted us to collect our luggage and assisted us through passport control. This luxury package holiday includes all transfers between airports, hotels and the ship. All very stress-free. A chauffeur and car were waiting outside and very soon we are driving along the coastal road through tiny villages, skirting the edge of white sand beaches. We have arrived in the Seychelles.
This archipelago of 115 islands, just south of the equator, is often described as Paradise on Earth. Renowned for their legendary natural beauty -- perfect baby powder beaches, coconut palms, tropical forests and unique indigenous flora and fauna -- it is also believed that the magical, primeval island of Praslin is the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. The islands were uninhabited until the 17th century when Portuguese explorers mapped out the "Seven Sisters", later renamed after Jean Moreau de Sachelles from the French court of Louis XV.
Battle and blood, death and disease,
Upon the tainted tropic seas.
The cutthroat crew, the Captain's curse
The tempest blustering worse and worse ...
True to Robert Louis Stevenson's poetic imagination, intrepid pirates found secluded, secret hideouts around here to attack passing trade ships. The Seychellois believe treasure is buried on the islands of Mahe, Fregate and Praslin.
BANYAN TREE RESORT
It was a half hour drive to the Banyan Tree Resort on the south west coastline of Mahe, and suddenly we turned direction, past a lodge house and security guard and swept up the drive to reach the impressive hotel entrance, virtually "guarded" by a huge banyan tree right outside. Although built just five years ago, the architecture is reminiscent of a Victorian Colonial mansion house. Check-in was conducted in a calm and sophisticated manner: we sat on the veranda overlooking the curving bay of the beach, sipping fruity cocktails while completing registration. We were then driven by electric golf buggy up the steep hill, up and up we climbed to our villa, number 406. There are 60 private, enclosed villas, either high up on the hillside, "on the rocks" near the crashing waves or with direct access to the beach. It just depends what kind of natural environment you prefer. We loved the superb views over the palm trees down to the beach far below. Villas have a fabulous outdoor patio (sofa and daybed), plunge pool (large enough to swim in), glamorous bedroom and lounge (TV/DVD/Mini bar) and a large bathroom where the shower has a sea view. After settling into our temporary home, and relaxing after the flight, we watched the pink and golden sunset -- very suddenly -- just after 6pm.
Transport up and down to your villa is by buggy; you simply phone reception and a member of staff will come and drive you down to the hotel. There are three distinctive restaurants: Chez Lamar, Saffron and Au Jardin d'Epices. Tonight we sample a fabulous Creole tasting menu banquet, featuring 18 tiny courses, emphasizing local specialties such as smoked sailfish, prawns, octopus curry, avocado and passion fruit.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 25
A lazy, late breakfast (superb buffet) on the Restaurant Terrace above the beach. Then some free time to explore the resort and chill out before our transfer to the ship in the early afternoon. The resort has a spa, which we'll experience when we return to the Banyan Tree Resort for a two-night stay following the cruise. All packed up again, we set off on the 45-minute drive to the Port at Victoria, the capital city. Embarkation on board the Silver Cloud is easy -- our labeled luggage was taken from us and we walked up the gangplank. Uniformed waiters stood smiling with trays of champagne flutes. The perfect welcome.
SILVER CLOUD SAIL AWAY DAY
In the Venetian lounge, we exchange passports for stateroom keys and are personally escorted to our Veranda suite, 512, on the port side. (Do you know the derivation of the word POSH? -- Port out, Starboard home!). This is a compact, yet beautifully proportioned suite -- king-size bed, walk in wardrobe, bathroom (bathtub and shower), lounge/dining area (TV/DVD); veranda with two loungers. Homely comforts include white Frette sheets, soft duvets, goose down pillows, bathrobes and Bulgari or Acqua di Parma toiletries. A bottle of champagne sits in an ice bucket. The fridge is stocked daily with your choice of soft drinks, beer, spirits, champagne - all drinks on board are complimentary, part of Silversea's great value, all-inclusive ethos.
Coming back on board Silversea is a real joy. The design is similar on all four ships with private staterooms mainly at the bow end and public rooms, aft. Silver Cloud is like a floating Ritz Carlton resort hotel, so easy to stroll around from pool to spa, from champagne bar to restaurant. We feel quite at home immediately, unpack and stow away suitcases under the bed. Time to go up to the eighth deck for a drink at the pool bar. We perch on stools and order a margarita and a pina colada and soon begin chatting to a couple from New Zealand and a young guy (Fred) from San Francisco. Unlike a typical resort hotel, (where you may not actually meet or converse with other guests at all), on board a Silversea ship the ambience is friendly and sociable like a house party. The pool bar is a great "meeting point", a bar where people gather at noon for a pre-lunch snifter and again around 5pm for a "sail away" cocktail before sunset.
Tonight the dress code is casual (which in Silversea terms means smart/casual). We enjoy a couple of glasses of ice cold champagne in the bar, before heading to the restaurant around 9pm. Dining is open seating, with no reservations and by this later time Hedi, (the ultimate professional Maitre d') is able to find us a table at the window. The a la carte menu is superb with an impressively wide choice. More on eating and drinking later …
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 26
This seven-night itinerary will be a gentle cruise around a few neighboring islands: Praslin, La Digue, Curieuse, Silhouette and back to Mahe. But today is a day at sea and there's time to relax, sunbathe, book island trips and enjoy the leisurely lifestyle on board. A daily Chronicle (delivered to your suite each evening) lists all the activities, enrichment lectures, card games, fitness classes, golf tuition, shore excursions, restaurant, bar, casino, shop hours and cabaret entertainment.
We begin with a delicious breakfast in the Terrace restaurant sitting outside on the deck. It's only 9:45am but the sun is hot. The buffet display offers all the usual international favorites with a chef cracking eggs any which way. For me, a mango and banana fruit smoothie, scrambled egg with smoked salmon, orange juice and coffee.
As the spa is very popular (especially on days at sea), Ken and I made advance reservations for treatments a month before departure. The spa treatment menu is dedicated to wellness, health and beauty to soothe the body, mind and spirit; aromatherapy ocean seaweed wrap, coconut rub, reflexology, massages and manicures. I experienced an Elemis visible brilliance facial to help smooth and rejuvenate tired, stressed skin. My therapist Nicky has a soft, soothing approach, the atmosphere was calm and peaceful, with the sound of the fan feeling like the sea breeze. Meanwhile, Ken has enjoyed (!) an hour in the gym with a personal training session with Mylan, the fitness instructor -- a strenuous workout on treadmills, cross training and lifting weights. Many guests like to keep fit while on the cruise and it's useful to know that seven laps around the jogging/walking track on the top deck is one mile.
To illustrate the loyalty of Silversea fans, we have a surprise encounter in the spa with two guests from Connecticut whom we first met on the Silver Whisper cruise in 2004. We had been on the same adventurous shore excursion on an eight-seater plane to the Mayan temples at Chichen Itza, Yucatan. It's such fun to meet them again and we arrange to have dinner together the following night. Silversea truly is a worldwide family of travel lovers.
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 27
By early morning we are anchored just off shore from the island of Praslin. We are booked on the Vallee de Mai walking tour this morning and after a room service breakfast we meet the 40 or so excursion guests in the Venetian lounge at 8am. We are taken ashore by tender (lifeboat) and are met on the pier by Nadia of Mason's Tours; Silversea shore trips are meticulously arranged to ensure small groups and expert local guides. It's a 15-minute drive by minibus to the Praslin National Park, a World Heritage Site. At its centre is the Vallee de Mai, an ancient palm forest featuring the exotic coco de mer tree, a unique species found only on this island. Nadia is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, leading us through the jungle, pointing out jackfruit, boo boo birds and spices as well as the male and female coco de mer tree with its curiously shaped giant fruit.
Inspired by our magical walk in the Garden of Eden, we go to the enrichment lecture later that afternoon by Professor Stefan Buczacki, who presents a fascinating slideshow telling the history of the Seychelles islands, from the original explorers to its distinctive geology, natural history and French/Indian/African culture. Until the mid 19th century, the only inhabitants were crocodiles!
A BLACK TIE AFFAIR
Tonight is the first formal evening with a black tie dress code. Beforehand was Captain Tatulli's welcome cocktail party, (attended by all the officers) and a chance to mingle with new friends. From the passenger list, we see that guests come from across the world. We meet Fiona and Keith from Scotland who have been on the ship for ten days already, embarking in Mombasa, Kenya after a safari trip, combining two cruise itineraries. And then, it's off to dinner where a four-course feast is on offer: caviar with blinis or pan-fried goose liver; tagliatelle mare or wild mushroom consommé; fresh lobster, prime roasted rib of beef, or filet of veal; cheese trolley and delicious desserts. The sommelier offers tonight's selected white and red wine by the glass.
Under Head Chef, Erwin Unterberger, dining on board is six-star, Michelin star standard and an elegant affair. As well as the main restaurant, you may reserve a table at La Terrace, the intimate Italian trattoria, or for a special occasion, at La Saletta for gastronomic Relais & Chateaux cuisine with vintage wines (extra charge). Alternatively, arrange in-room dining for a romantic dinner a deux.
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28
It's another early morning start (to avoid the strong midday sun) when we set off on a snorkeling adventure. We go ashore to La Digue Island, which is famous for its gigantic granite rocks and breathtaking beach at Anse Source D'argent. The island's environment is protected by forbidding motor vehicles -- transport is by bicycle and ox cart. We then board a catamaran boat for a short "sail" down the coast to anchor just beside the tiny Coco Island surrounded by a coral reef. We are given snorkeling masks and flipper fins and invited to jump into the cool, turquoise water. The current is quite strong but we swim towards the island and soon find shoals of tropical fish -- zebra, parrot, purple and yellow fish. I literally find myself swimming alongside dozens of zebra fish, darting this way and that, as I observe the amazing thick coral on the seabed below. It's rather tiring swimming while breathing underwater, and in the shallow waters you must not put your feet down to stand as it will damage the coral. Back on the catamaran, it's fun to watch the snorkelers but watch out for all the fish near the surface. Suddenly, a woman shouts out that she can see a manta ray -- and sure enough, the large flat black fish with its wide sweeping wings appears in the clear water. It's a thrilling sight.
After an hour or so, the tour guide calls everyone back and counts us all very carefully on board to check no one is left swimming in the sea. Thankfully, we all arrive safely back on board Silver Cloud, feeling rather weary, hot and very hungry after our sporting exertion. Time for shower, change and then lunch al fresco - prawn salad, freshly baked pizza with a glass of ice cold white wine sitting on the pool deck. Bliss.
Lazy afternoon -- tea and cucumber sandwiches at 4pm in traditional British style -- and later a sail away deck party with glass of champagne in hand. Tonight, we have reservations at La Terrace to sample specialty Italian regional cuisine from Puglia: antipasti salads, spinach and ricotta tortellini with sage butter, rare tuna steak: a candlelit, romantic dining experience.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 29
Another day, another island. We are moored off Curieuse -- a curious island indeed. This was a leper colony during the 19th century until 1965. Only one square mile, it's now a nature reserve to protect the endemic wildlife -- blue pigeon, black parrot, hawksbill turtle, lizards, crabs and giant tortoises. The tender boats motor back and forward from ship to shore during the day for people to explore the island on a guided tour by marine park rangers. This is virtually a desert island - we landed on the beach, paddling ashore on to the pristine white sand. As this was turtle nesting season (September to February) only a limited number of us were allowed to take the arduous trail through thick forest, over a steep hill and across a mangrove swamp to observe the female turtles laying their eggs. They find a hideaway site to bury 100-120 eggs in the sand beneath the shade of a bush and then wander back to the sea. This was indeed nature in the wild - as seen on TV documentaries - and the absolute highlight of the cruise so far.
Another fascinating attraction on Curieuse was to see the former Doctor's House, now the island visitor centre. Dr. William McGregor from Aberdeen, Scotland, lived here with his wife and daughter, caring for his leprosy patients. He built this magnificent plantation house in 1873. The preserved house is now a museum to commemorate his dedicated work as the medical officer for the Seychelles islands.
A pink Cosmopolitan cocktail on deck for "sail away" at 5pm. We head out to sea as the golden sun begins to set. Next port of call, Silhouette.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 30
On some cruises, Silversea offers guests a complimentary shore excursion, The Silversea Experience. Today, we are being treated to a barbecue lunch. Tables are set up in the garden of the Labriz Resort Hotel on the island of Silhouette; we enjoy a sumptuous buffet of local tuna, chicken, sweet potato, salads and fruit with beer and wine. The sun is exceptionally hot but we manage to find a table in the shade of a marquee, wearing hats and sunshades.
On Silhouette we are in for another exciting treat - a Giant Tortoise Sanctuary. An English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gerlach, who have lived here for 10 years, run this important conservation project. They rear baby tortoises, nurturing their growth until they reach 20lbs and are then released (tagged and numbered) into the wild. We saw a cage of dozens of tiny tortoises as well as a couple of giant tortoises, estimated to be about 125 years old.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 1
Moored this morning at the Victoria dock, Mahe, we have one final trip booked today to the St. Anne Marine Park with the opportunity to go snorkeling, swimming and observe fish from a semi-submersible glass bottomed boat. There are only 25 of us on this catamaran boat trip -- including our new friend Fred from San Francisco. Anchored way out near the coral reef, we are given bread to feed the fish, which come jumping to the surface. Sailing on to Moyenne Island, we are given snorkels and fins to enjoy excellent swimming with the fish in clear warm water. We learn that parrotfish can change sex. If a shoal is all female, one dominant fish will change into a male! We hear that Moyenne is owned by an Englishman, Brendon Grimshaw, aged 80, who lives there by himself. A true Robinson Crusoe existence. We have a fabulous full day out, cruising around the tiny islands with the thrill of seeing two dolphins diving together in unison, swimming alongside the bow of the boat.
Tonight is our last night on board Silver Cloud and we decide to enjoy all the entertainment to the last minute. Every night there has been a singer, movies or musicians including Polish pianist Philip Wojichowski, playing Chopin and Gershwin favorites. Tonight there's a pre-dinner cabaret with Giselle Summers, who treats us to a neat Barbara Streisand tribute show. In the bar, we meet a Swiss couple who are staying on for another month, (as are a few dozen other guests) spending Christmas and New Year's on board, disembarking in Cape Town. That is serious cruising!
After dinner (beef tartare, crab cake, sole Florentine, pistachio and chocolate parfait) we have a nightcap glass of champagne (or two). The gathering of guests in the bar turns into a lively party, as we dance the night away to The Silver Cloud jazz Quartet into the wee hours.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2
Disembarkation begins immediately after breakfast as guests head off to the airport or hotels around Mahe. Our chauffeur and car is waiting on the dockside to drive us back to the Banyan Tree for a two-night stay, (as are six other Silversea couples). Time to chill out after our island-hopping adventure. This time our hillside villa is number 408, surrounded by palm trees, which attract fruit bats at dusk. The painterly sunsets are spectacular.
Sitting having tea on the hotel terrace one afternoon we catch sight of a turtle clambering up the beach to find a nesting site. She hides amongst the bushes and eventually, having laid her eggs, slowly crawls back to the sea.
The spa at the Banyan Tree is exquisite, built in the shade of the tropical jungle with open-air treatment rooms. The therapists are specialist Thai masseuses and my 90-minute Island Dew full body massage is simply fabulous. I lie being pampered with sweet smelling aromatherapy oils, incense burning, a warm breeze rustles the trees, and all I hear is the sound of birds and the distant rolling of the waves on the beach.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 3
An early morning Emirates flight from Mahe to Dubai, where we have another overnight stay before our flight home to Scotland. We stay at the stylish Park Hyatt, in a lavish suite with a veranda overlooking the yachting marina on the creek. We take a three-hour guided tour by car around the city to see the sights: a Mosque, the Arabian gulf beach, spice souk, Iranian trade ships, the famous Burj al Arab hotel and the new Burj Dubai -- now under construction, aiming to be the tallest building in the world. Like a 21st century Las Vegas, (without the casinos), Dubai is a glitzy, glamorous tourist destination emerging out of the Arabian Desert.
Dinner tonight at the Traiteur restaurant at the Park Hyatt is truly sensational -- ambience, service, innovative food.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 4
Our Emirates flight EK025 Dubai to Glasgow departs at 7:50am so it's yet another early start for the final leg of our journey home. As soon as we take our seats (3A &B), we are offered a Buck's Fizz (mimosa) by our charming steward, Chris, from New Zealand. He hopes to be promoted to First Class soon. His attentive manner is utterly professional and he deserves the upgrade. We are served a continental breakfast, then at 12 noon drinks and canapés followed by a superb lunch (Arabic mezze, pan seared sea-bass with eggplant). With movies and music entertainment, the time flies by.
At Glasgow Airport, our Emirates chauffeur is waiting in the arrivals hall. An hour's drive and we are home again in Edinburgh.
For me, cruising is carefree, fun and relaxing. In our modern, pressurized techno-world of time-watching and jet setting, we need the chance to slow down and recharge. Stop the clock for a while. Luxury travel means the pleasure of a leisurely cruise. Instead of visiting one destination, the unique beauty of a cruise is that you wake up each day in a different country, a new island or exciting port of call - but you only need to unpack once!
What I love about Silversea cruises is the blend of quiet sophistication, exemplary six-star hospitality, gracious living and superb value, all-inclusive fares. Be as lazy or active, private or sociable as you wish. It's a floating house party amongst like-minded fellow guests, (all nationalities and ages), on an oversized yacht. And to summarize the sun-drenched Seychelles? The ultimate natural wonderland untouched by time and tide. In a word, Paradise.
Vivien Devlin is an international arts and travel writer, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. She specialises in writing about Scotland - hotels, golf and spa resorts, city guides, islands, heritage, culture and arts festivals. She has travelled widely around Europe, United States, Canada, SE Asia and luxury resort islands from the Caribbean to the Seychelles. Cruising is her favourite way to travel, unpacking once and then sailing off on a fabulous journey of different destinations and ports of call every day.
Note: This trip was sponsored in part by Silversea, Emirates Tours, Banyan Tree Mahe, Dubai Tourism.
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