Middle East & Mediterranean, April 2017

Friday May 5, 2017

Lisbon

This morning we had a very exciting and impressive sail into the Tagus River leading to the Portuguese city of Lisbon.  Luckily our port side cabin afforded us magnificent views of the city and the various buildings right from our balcony.

We first spotted the strategically positioned 16th century Forte de São Julião da Barra.

Then came the Forte de São Bruno de Caxias, followed by the coastguard tower at the Praia de Algés.

The 16th century Torre de Belém (Belem Tower) or the Tower of St Vincent is a fortified tower and a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the significant role it played in the Portuguese maritime discoveries of the era of the Age of Discoveries. The tower was commissioned by King John II to be part of a defense system at the mouth of the Tagus River and a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.

Further along the river we passed the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the Monument of the Discoveries. The monument was constructed between 1958 and 1960; it’s made from cement and rose-tinted stone. The new project was enlarged from the original 1940 model that was used during the Words Fair as part of the commemorations to celebrate the fifth centennial of the death of Henry the Navigator. 

Looking back down the estuary we noticed ominous rain clods and a spectacular rainbow.

Next came a huge red bridge that reminded us of home; though unlike the Golden Gate, The Bridge of the 25th of April has two decks – with cars on the top and trains underneath. Built in 1966 the bridge was renamed in 1974 in honor of the Carnation Revolution that occurred on the 25th of April that year. The revolution overthrew the Estado Novo (2nd Republic) an authoritarian regime without a hardly any shots being fired, in fact the people on the streets put carnations in the gun barrels – hence the name Carnation Revolution.

Just before we docked we passed the Praça do Comércio (Commercial Square), a beautiful open area on the side of the river with a notable arch and statues.  More rain clouds provided some awesome rainbows.

The ship was docked very close to the city center and so we opted not to take a Cunard shore excursion for this port. Instead we planned to take a leisurely stroll through the city, we had no real plan.

The cruise terminal was still under construction so there were no facilities on the dock, though it was located right on a main road with a bus stop – so if needed passengers could get to anywhere in the city via its bus service. 

Dressed for a wet and blustery day we disembarked and walked about 5 minutes back down the dock to Commercial Square; along the way we were caught in a torrential downpour and strong winds, umbrellas blown backward. By the time we reached the square the storm had passed and we were able to un-hood and put away the brollies. We found the square to be largely empty and lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

The Arch of Rua Augusta was completed in 1875 and has beautiful sculpted figures; oddly enough the arch leads right into Rua Augusta (August Road). Rua Augusta is one of the main pedestrianized shopping streets leading away from the river and into the center of the city. The street is a popular spot, with many cafes that spill out into covered seating areas. We could not resist partaking of the famous Portuguese Tarts, so we sat outside with a coffee and amazingly only one tart each – but it proved to be a bit too chilly so we decamped into the interior of the café.

A block before the end of Rua Augusta we turned left and headed a couple of blocks to see the famous Elevador de Santa Justa (Santa Justa Lift); a cast-iron elevator with filigree details, built in 1902 to connect lower streets with Carmo Square. Given the long line and our limited time we decided not to ride the elevator.

Dating from the 13th century the Rossio Square is the popular name of the Pedro IV Square and it’s located at the end of Rua Augusta. The square is in the center of Lisbon and, for reference, an easy walk from the cruise terminal. With traffic on all sides and bustling with locals and tourists this is obviously the spot “to be seen” in Lisbon. The tree-lined square encloses a two impressive fountains and a column topped with a statue of Pedro IV, who was only king of Portugal for a few months in 1826 but reigned as the first emperor of Brazil from 1822 to 1831. I’m sure if Portugal had known how good Brazil was going to be at football they would have held on to it for a bit longer. Also of note is the amazing wavy mosaic tile patterns that make up the surface of The Rossio; perhaps a nod to Portugal’s former glory as a dominant naval power.

A short walk through a narrow street on the east side of The Rossio leads to the smaller but equally impressive Praça da Figueira or Square of the Fig Tree; the most dominant feature of this square is the large statue to King John I riding his horse.

As the morning wore on the weather brightened up a bit and our coats were becoming a burden, and so with the ship so close we headed back to dump our outerwear before continuing the exploration of Lisbon.

The afternoon found us ascending the cobbled street called Rua Augusto Rosa leading away from the cathedral in the direction of the castle that dominates the high landscape of Lisbon. We’d already climbed a few staircases to get to this point and with the weather warming up we were starting to lag a bit. We were searching for a lunch spot based on a Trip Advisor recommendation; the street changed to Largo Sao Martinho and we passed many small restaurants as our ascent continued but never did find the one were looking for – perhaps it was out of business.

By now we were approaching exasperation – not a place but rather a feeling of intense irritation or annoyance. Luckily at this point we came across a small pool with a nice sitting area overlooking the Tagus river estuary – we could see right down onto the Queen Mary 2. Unfortunately for me we also discovered in this area a modern elevator leading almost directly down to where we had started the afternoon’s uphill hike. Luckily I escaped with only minor bruising, to my ego. 

On the way back down towards the city center we stopped at a tiny café called Piri Piri; the outside seating area was perhaps ten feet square with really small seats. We took the last table for two and ordered from the set menu at 12 Euros each- this included bread, appetizers of olives and sardine pate, choice of main course, a tart and beer or wine or soft drink – what a deal. I had sardines and Sandra had a chicken kebab. Halfway through our lunch it started to rain and so we had to move inside to an equally small seating area. I had been looking forward to the sardines in Portugal for a long time; the preparation seems fairly simple – just brushed with olive oil and grilled over charcoal, they were outstanding!

At the end of Rua Augusto Rosa we admired Lisbon Cathedral or the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. Mary Major. Originally constructed in the year 1147, the building has been modified several times and survived many earthquakes. We admired the impressive twin towered façade with central circular stained glass window. Having agreed we were “churched out” we had made a pact not to go inside any churches on this port call – but it was just too tempting and so we had a quick shuffle inside before heading back to the ship.

The sail out of Lisbon afforded us views of the other side of the river that is much less built up. The most impressive thing on this side of the river is the Catholic statue dedicated to Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, inspired by Rio's Christ the Redeemer; just after the statue we once again passed under the Bridge of the 25th of April and out into the Atlantic Ocean for two days at sea before we reach Southampton and the end of our cruise on May 8th.


Thursday May 4, 2017

Straits of Gibraltar

After a couple of relaxing sea days today we are excited to be sailed out of the Mediterranean Sea through the Straits of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic Ocean. We’ve sailed through the straits before but last time it included a stop in Gibraltar and so somehow did not seem like a “proper” transit.

Around 5pm we popped up one deck from our cabin to the outdoor forward observation deck as the ship began to transit the straits. The weather was a bit overcast and so pictures were not the best, and even though the breeze was brisk it was not too cold. The straits are 8 miles wide with the sovereign British territory of Gibraltar on the east side (Europe) and Morocco (Africa) on the west side; it’s a very busy shipping lane with about half the world’s maritime traffic passing through every year.

I had this image of sailing really close to “the rock”, seeing the fortifications and the baboons waving to us – but in reality the rock was very distance as the ship stuck the sipping lane down the center of the straits. 


Tuesday May 2, 2017

Naples / Isle of Capri

On our last visit to Naples we took a trip to Pompeii and Sorrento, so this time – still working on the premise that there is not much to see in Naples itself – we are taking a trip across the bay to the beautiful island of Capri. 

Along with our friends Christine and Raymond we were excited to be escorted off the ship early at around 8am – it’s always good to get an early start to a long all-day shore excursion. Escorted by our guide, we made our way across the dock to the hydrofoil terminal where our excitement soon waned as we waited and waited to board the boat. I was left amazed at the incredible organizing skills that would march a group of tourists excitedly off a ship knowing full well that they would be waiting an hour on an overcast cold morning before their next departure. To top it off the guide seemed to disappear and when he was around was not forthcoming with any of the plans for the day, I could sense a small mutiny brewing - not a great start!

The seating aboard the hydrofoil was basic but comfortable and reminded me of our trip to Macao from Hong Kong, but the Italian version seemed to go a lot slower – it took nearly 1 hour to reach Capri. The voyage was a little bumpy but otherwise uneventful – snacks and drinks were available from the bar, but no safety information or drill. 

On the dock at Capri there was mass confusion, many boats arriving, hundreds of people – again our guide was completely uninformative, no one in the group knew what to do or where to go. However this situation was completely offset by the stunning scenery of towering cliffs, small towns and narrow winding streets. 

We were eventually herded to the end of the pier where the group was broken up and squeezed on to several small buses for the short ride up to the town of Anacapri. At times the roadway appeared to be stuck to the side of the cliffs and only barely wide enough for two-way traffic at specific places. Lots of hairpin bends were successfully navigated with the aid of large appropriately placed mirrors – it was at times (many times) a bit scary. However most of the passengers were easily distracted by the amazing views across the bay to Naples. 

After about 10 minutes we pulled into a small bus station in Anacapri where many of the travellers made a beeline for the toilets where a stern faced attendant extracted 50c from everyone for access to the primitive but functional facilities.

Anacapri is a commune on the island of Capri, in the Metropolitan City of Naples, Italy. The Ancient Greek prefix ana- means "up" or "above", signifying that Anacapri is located at a higher elevation on the island than Capri (about 150 m higher on average). Administratively, it has a separate status from the city of Capri. The most significant site in the village is the Villa San Michele

Having approximately re-grouped his flock, our guide led us on a short uphill walk to the center of town where we were given 20 minutes of free time to explore the shops. We opted for a cappuccino and cannoli; we sat outside where the temperature was surprisingly chilly – but really sitting outside at an Italian café is just great, so we didn’t mind the cold.

Once again we were gathered together and this time were informed that we’d have a further hour at this location with the option of either taking the chairlift to 589-m Monte Solaro for picturesque views of the south-facing coast, or accompanying guide to the Villa San Michele. I think everyone opted to go with the guide.

A short saunter along a very narrow store-line street brought us to the entrance for the Villa San Michele. The Swedish physician and author Axel Munthe built the Villa San Michele around the turn of the 20th century. The villa sits on a ledge at the top of the Phoenician Steps, between Anacapri and Capri, at a height of 327 meters above sea level.

Villa San Michele was beautiful; many linked rooms as the villa had been expanded over time, filled with historical artifacts that Alex had collected included many from Roman times gathered on his property. The story of Munthe is well explained within the villa and the rooms are apparently left exactly as they were when he left to return to Sweden during World War 2. Munthe died before he could return and apparently had a ticket for Italy in his pocket at the time of his death – or maybe this is just a bit of embellishment invented by the tour guides. The views from the terrace of the villa are simply stunning and the gardens are incredible and very well maintained

We did a bit of shopping on the way back to the center of Anacapri where we found a really good chocolate shop and sampled Limoncello – that sweet Italian lemon liqueur.

Following another short but equally scary bus ride we arrived at the town of Capri where the entire tour group had lunch at a restaurant called La Pigna (The Pinecone). We sat on a huge but nice patio that was lightly covered to provide shade and had views across the bay. The food was not a buffet – unusual for these kinds of trips, we were served a light pasta lunch with terrible wine included. Unfortunately we got sat at a table with a pair of really annoying women who were very loud and opinionated – it never ceases to amaze me how some people can be so unaware of their demeanor. We struggled through, just barely avoiding a major incident.

More confusion after lunch regarding the plans for the afternoon – the guide eventually walked us to a small square at the top of the main street, Via Roma, and informed us we’d have about 2 ½ hours in the town of Capri. Options were to follow the guide to the other side of the island to visit some gardens, or wander on our own – we chose the latter.

The small Piazza Umberto at the top of the Via Roma and right adjacent to the clock tower was jammed with tourists; the street cafes were doing a roaring trade, the sun was out – it was a beautiful day. We sauntered down the Via Vittorio Emanuele where practically every shop was from the rich and famous collection; Prada, Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci – many with multiple locations. The streets in this area are extremely narrow, in fact no cars are allowed – deliverymen rushed by on specially adapted golf carts; given the nature of the shops I was surprised to not see specially adapted armed security vans. 

Eventually we took a break at a street side café called da Alberto; cappuccino, gelato, strawberry tart (tiny little strawberries) – we just sat and soaked up the atmosphere – this is the life!

At the appointed time we once again joined the tour group under the clock tower in the Piazza where we boarded the funicular railway to ride back down to the dock. 

More waiting around followed before we finally boarded the hydrofoil for the hour-long ride back to Naples. 


Monday May 1, 2017

Messina, Sicily.

Today was supposed we were supposed to sail passed the town of Messina and through the strait of the same name  - but as previously announced we are having an extra port day, a nice treat.

Scattered clouds in a bright blue sky provided for a perfect sail into Messina where we docked close to the center of town. The view from the top deck revealed a quaint little, town with a prominent cathedral, at the foot of the interior mountains. 

We really weren’t expecting to do a lot on this visit as today was a national holiday and all of the shops and many of the other attractions were closed. So our goal was to take a relaxing wander through the broad streets, with our shipmates Raymond and Christine, and try to find a nice spot for lunch. 

The architecture of Messina has a distinct French flare with broad tree-lined boulevards and wrought iron balconies, it reminded me a bit of New Orleans.

Around mid-morning we stopped for Cappuccinos in an area away from the tourists; we always try to find places like this – out on the sidewalk, very little English spoken, all locals – it really makes you feel like you are experiencing the local culture (unfortunately this often includes cigarette smoke!). E1.50 for a cappuccino – you can’t go wrong with that, and it is universally good all over Italy.

The one main attraction that was not closed today was in the main square; the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is located in the square along with the apparently famous clock tower. The current building is the final result of some twentieth century reconstructions, which took place following the disastrous earthquake that struck Messina in 1908 and the heavy damages happened during the World War II.

The tower is famous for the various mechanical display mechanisms located in recessed areas. The mechanical displays begin their performance at noon each day and so, along with the entire tourist population of the island, we made our way to the square and tried to find some shade – a pretty impossible task. Finally, right at noon, the show began and I have to say it was a bit of a let down; the roman soldiers walked out, the priests sauntered by, the grim reaper made an appearance and finally the lion roared – the thing just deemed to go on forever (it actually lasted 15 minutes). As we wandered off I could hear the question “that was it?” being asked in many languages.

Lunchtime, and having taken advice from the Trip Advisor website, we wandered out of the main square and off in the direction of Ruggeri restaurant. We arrived at the restaurant at 1pm and at first thought we were going to be disappointed as it appeared to be closed – just as we were about to give up Christine decided to give the door a push and to our surprise it swung open and were immediately greeted by the manager who warmly welcomed us. 

Ruggeri is a very small neighborhood restaurant, located just one block from the cruise ship dock, with only about 8 tables and a growing reputation for great food. As the first lunch time customers of the day the manager fussed over us and made every effort to ensure we understood the menu and were comfortable with out choices. The menu was written in Italian and the manager did not speak very much English – and between the four of us we knew about 6 words in Italian, but somehow we managed to place our orders.

The food was amazing; from the tiny complimentary tomato soup to the unique tomato, acacia honey and pine nut pie followed by superb fresh-made pasta and finished off with a panna cotta – everything was perfect.

Later that evening we sailed out into the Strait of Messina, the narrow passage between the eastern tip of Sicily and the western tip of Calabria in the south of Italy. It connects the Tyrrhenian Sea to the north with the Ionian Sea to the south. At its narrowest point, between Torre Faro and Villa San Giovanni, it is only 1.9 miles wide. 

Once through the strait we set a northwesterly course and soon passed the small island of Stromboli; with a population of 500 it is one of only 3 active volcanoes in Italy and is constantly active. As we passed, even in the fading light of early evening, I could see plumes of grey smoke rising from the peak of the volcano.


Friday April 28, 2016

Cypress

Docked at the port of Limassol.

Our shore excursion to Lanarka and Lefkara, departed at 9am and we drove through Limassol; we were immediately glad we had booked a shore excursion that went out of town. Limassol appears to be a vacation resort catering to the young British crowd; lots of bars, nightclubs (some very seedy looking), fast food outlets, rundown hotels. Though quite a bit of new construction and the recently completed seafront promenade looked nice. 

The tour guide talked non-stop and it was very soon apparent that we had been once again lumbered with an overly knowledgeable guide with a complete inability to understand her audience and pitch her information at the correct level. I knew we were in trouble when she started with the history of Cypress from 4000BC! We did hear the interesting, though well told, tale of king Richard the Lionheart of England and his stop off in Cypress on the way to the 3rd Crusade.

I was a bit surprised at the level of animosity that still exists on this half of the island towards the Turks who invaded Cypress in 1974 and still occupy the northeast portion of the island. A very large portion of the population of the Greek-speaking side of the island is refugees from the time of the war and still expect to get back and regain their property. When I think of it this way I suppose we should not be surprised at the ongoing animosity.

We headed east along the coast road to our first stop at Kiti village here we visited The Church of Angeloktisti, where tradition tells that the church was built by angels with its most famous feature being the mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Jesus Child that dates back to the 6th Century AD and is thought to be one of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics in existence. The church was very small with an original Byzantine domed bit and a much later Normal addition on the front. Our tour group completed filled the small church, which made it difficult to get any good pictures. In addition the famous mosaic was behind a screen and we had to line up for a quick peak and photo – no time to really study and appreciate it.

Back on the bus and off to the Hala Sultan Tekke and Salt Lake that is an Islamic shrine, unusual for the fact that it is dedicated to a woman. The Tekke overlooks a Salt Lake, a peaceful and beautiful spot for a mosque complex. The guide informed us that the lady enshrined here is Umm Haram and she was in fact the mother of the best friend of the prophet Mohammed. According to information that the Cypriot antiquities department received from the Islamic Center in Cairo, Umm Haram used to pick the lice from the head of the (soon to be) prophet. Umm Haram came to Cypress with the first Islamic invasion force dispatched by the prophet to spread the good word, she apparently fell off her donkey and “broke her delicate neck”.

The setting of the mosque beside the salt lake is very peaceful and the shrine is open to all, you just have to take off your shoes – the other usual mosque visiting requirements (no shorts, ladies headscarf etc.) are not enforced. In an unexpected twist, the grand mother of the late King Hussein of Jordan is also entombed in the mosque – it seems at the time of her death they were in exile and this being the only mosque on Cypress it ended up as her final resting place.

A short bus ride saw us enter the actual town of Lanarka; we drove through the crowded streets and along the sea front as our guide pointed out some of the spectacularly interesting sites – the post office, the police station, the hospital - yes not a lot in the way of interesting spots here. The one exception, and the real reason for our visit, is the late 9th century Church of St. Lazarus.

The Church of Saint Lazarus is named for New Testament figure Lazarus of Bethany, the subject of a miracle recounted in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus raises him from the dead. According to Orthodox tradition, sometime after the Resurrection of Christ, Lazarus was forced to flee Judea because of rumored plots on his life and came to Cyprus. There he was appointed as the first Bishop of Kition (present-day Larnaca). He is said to have lived for thirty more years and on his death was buried there for the second and last time. The Church of Agios Lazaros was built over the reputed (second) tomb of Lazarus.

Subsequent squabbles over his bones saw them moved (translated) to Constantinople, and in the ongoing various occupations of Cypress by Arabs and Christians the relics ended up in France and were lost. Much later, during renovations in 1972, a sarcophagus was found under the church and it contained a few bones (apparently not all of Lazarus’ bits were shipped off to Constantinople) – since the marble sarcophagus had the inscription “Lazarus, friend of Jesus” on the side it was naturally assumed that the bones inside were his. All a bit convenient I think. 

The Church of St. Lazarus was quite a bit larger than the Church of Angeloktisti but still small by cathedral standards. Filled with orthodox iconography and crammed with high-sided “pews” there is not a lot of room for visitors inside the church of St. Lazarus. Even among the tour groups I was still able to spot a few locals practicing the orthodox ritual of prayer interspersed with the kissing of the many icons.

Two highlights; first the very weirdly creepy display of the last bones of St. Lazarus including what looked like a bit of the top of his skull. The other highlight was the tomb area underneath the church; this was accessed via a short stairway into a very cramped space with a very low ceiling. 

The final stop of the day was in the town of Lefkara up in the foothills of the Troödos Mountains – famous for it’s lace, known as lefkaritika in and silver handicrafts.

Before starting our free time in the village we were treated to a snack of pita bread with Haloumi cheese – we’d tried this cheese a few months ago back home and our opinion of it did not improve after this second tasting. 

We were given an hour to wander the cobbled streets of Lefkara and take in the picturesque architecture – and of course to visit the many shops. As they have done for centuries, the women of Lefkara sit outside their shops creating the delicate embroidery by hand. We stopped at the first shop and began to show interest in the lady’s handiwork; this caused the little old lady to transform from craft icon into rabid saleswomen – continually pressing embroidery creations into Sandra’s hands and then adorning her with silver jewelry. We always find this kind of high-pressure sales a bit off-putting and any intention we had to make a purchase was soon a distant memory. I have to admit that the embroidery was really quite beautiful and given the many weeks of work that went into the creation of a single placemat size piece we were not surprised at the high price tag, about E150 – though I felt there was room for negotiation.

The other odd thing was the claim made by the embroidering shop owner that most of the silver jewelry in the store was made by her husband – odd because we saw exactly the same jewelry in many of the other shops along the street, maybe she’s married to factory worker in Shanghai! I’m probably being a bit harsh in my assessment – much of the jewelry was very nice and undoubtedly made in the village; it was just hard to separate the genuine from the factory made. In other shops we also found hand made embroidery mixed in with machine made – again, buyer beware.

Before making our way back to the bus we stopped for a coffee in an extremely pleasant outdoor café, with free Internet – not to mention the exceptional walnut cake.

Other than the overly detailed and somewhat annoying tour guide we found this 6-hour excursion to be very good – and very definitely preferred over spending time in Limassol.


Thursday April 27, 2017

Suez Canal

When we awoke at 4:45am the ship was already in the Suez Canal having departed around 4:15am. From our balcony we could the see that the canal was very straight with a sandy bank but them immediately inland the terrain was very lush and agricultural. It’s an amazing feeling to be on board such a huge ship in such a narrow waterway.

After a couple of hours we entered the Great Bitter Lake and the way ahead widened considerably; we could now see that we had a tug boat for an escort and another cruise ship was a mile or so behind us.

Around 8AM we transitioned from the Great Bitter Lake in to the new section of the canal. The new canal was constructed in 2016 and took only 2 years to complete at a cost of $8B and it runs parallel to the old one; the diggings have been used to create a “divided water highway” - northbound ships in the new canal and southbound in the old one.

Every now and again we came across car ferries waiting for us to pass before transporting their cargo from west to east. I even saw what looked like floating bridge components like those used to create the famous Mulberry Harbors during World War II to facilitate the rapid offloading of cargo onto beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Given the volume of ship traffic in the canal I can’t image when locals would find the time to assemble the floating bridges.

By early afternoon we exited the divided section and back into the original single lane canal and soon passed a huge new road bridge. Immediately north of the new bridge is the city of Ismailia, which was founded in 1863, during the construction of the Suez Canal, by Khedive Ismail the Magnificent, after whom the city is named. 

We noticed a walled compound and what looked like an army training camp and as we passed someone began to continuously read the Koran, in Arabic, through a PA system directed at the canal. Perhaps they were looking for converts?

Ismailia is a large city and it was close enough to the canal to allow us to look right down and into the bustling neighborhoods – it was like a scene from a movie. To our surprise, the many mosques (dozens were visible) all began to announce the call to prayers at the same time; soon we were deafened by a cacophony of Arabic wailing – I found it to be an amazing experience and I could not help contemplating the contrast between the poor middle eastern neighborhoods on shore and the gigantic behemoth of western luxury sailing slowly by.

Extensive agriculture exits on the west side of the canal and irrigation ditches were visible which got me wondering how they segregate the salty canal from the fresh agricultural water?

Approaching to Port Said at the northern end, the canal again divided and we entered the Mediterranean Sea. Total transit time was about 10 hours.


Wednesday April 26, 2017


We’ve spent the day sailing south back down the Gulf of Aqaba eventually rounding the Sinai Peninsula with town of Sharm el-Sheikh to our north.

Exciting news today - the captain has announced that we will have an extra port of call at Messina in Sicily – this is great. In all our years of cruising we’ve never had a port added to the itinerary while we were on the ship

We continued north up the Gulf of Suez and towards the end of the day we began to approach the entrance to the Suez Canal. At 5:50pm we dropped anchor along with many other ships waiting to form a convoy to transit the Suez Canal, this should start early tomorrow morning.


Tuesday April 25, 2017

Petra

Today is the shore excursion highlight of the whole trip as are docked in the port of Aqaba, Jordan – with plans to visit the famous “lost city” of Petra. 

Aqaba is the only port in Jordan and sits on a really small piece of coastline – only a few miles wide. It was created as a result of a treaty negotiated with neighboring Saudi Arabia, Jordan giving up some interior land in exchange for a small piece of coastline. From the deck of the ship it was possible to see Egypt to the southwest, Israel to the west, Jordan to the north and Saudi Arabia to the east. While Aqaba is a major commercial port, exporting phosphates that are a major source of income for Jordan, it also has a nice beach and is a popular weekend getaway spot for Jordanians. 

The tour bus set out for the 2 hour journey to Petra and once clear of the port we entered a very modern freeway heading up the Valley of the Orphans – so named for the many casualties of flash flooding that occurred before the installation of modern drainage systems. This southern part of Jordan is very mountainous, arid and rocky; rainfall here is only 4 inches per year, it’s one of the driest places on earth – the scenery reminded us a bit of the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Nevada. There are large dark bands (seams) of copper and iron ore running through the mountains giving them a strange appearance. In fact the iron deposits are so heavy that they affect the earth’s magnetic field enough to interfere with aircraft navigation – for this reason airplanes avoid this region. 

Our guide is called Mohamed and he is narrating all of the way – very knowledgeable and very proud of his country. Mohamed provided some interesting statistics about Jordan; it ranks number one in the Arab world in education with 85% of high school kids going on to college, 60% of the population is less than 30 years old and 1/3 are refugees.

As we passed from the southern mountainous region deserts dominated the landscape with the occasional agricultural insert enabled by water from artesian wells. Mohamed explained that the over the past 50 years the native Bedouin tribes have been encouraged to give up their nomadic existence and move to purpose built towns; we passed a couple of these towns – concrete breeze block shanties with the obligatory mosque. The guide claimed the transition of the Bedouin had been a complete success and that there were no more nomadic tents, this despite the obviously visible (though not frequent) tents we saw as the bus progressed towards Petra.

Camels in Jordan do appear to have been entirely replaced by more modern means of transportation – now pretty much relegated to strictly tourist activities. We learned that in ancient times vast camel trains, with several thousand animals, were used to transport goods between cities. Only 1% of camels were found suitable for human transportation.

At one point as we continued north the freeway became very straight and a bit wider and our guide explained that this was the only backup landing strip in the country. A bit further along we were pulled over at a checkpoint and everyone was expecting to be asked for documentation – it was a bit of a let down when the police only questioned the driver and guide, I’m not sure if I saw money change hands but it would not have surprised me.

Eventually we turned off the freeway to the northwest and joined the Kings Highway, the oldest continually operating road on earth – people have been tramping along this way for 3400 years and at one point it was part of the famous Silk Road. The terrain became mountainous again and very dry with a few Bedouin tent encampments here and there. We crossed into the valley of Moses or Wadi Musa as it is known locally and noticed a white monument atop a distant mountain, apparently a shrine to the brother of the prophet Mohammed.

A small town, also called Wadi Musa, exists to support the tourist trade for Petra – it has a few hotels and trinket shops but we passed through and parked in one of the extensive lots near the entrance to the ruins. Passing through the gates there is an open courtyard with restrooms and a few shops on one side and the visitor center on the other – it’s all quite nicely done and looks to be very recently constructed. Our guide gathered the group together near a large map of the area, explained the general procedure and issued us with tickets.

The visit to Petra basically divides into three phases; the first is the walk from the visitor center to the cliffs that conceal the actual city, then there is a winding narrow passageway through the cliffs known as The Siq. Finally there is the City of Petra itself that consists of many buildings carved into the cliffs on each side of a long winding valley. 

Luckily we were one of the first tour groups to arrive at Petra that day; this early arrival resulted in a lower density of people and also lower temperatures – in fact several people wore jackets or sweaters. Exiting the visitor center we set off on the walk to The Siq; this consists of a slowly descending gravel path and we were immediately accosted by men on horses – no not the “stand and deliver variety”, but the pushy salesman variety. Our guide had warned us not to ride the horses or the two-wheeled carts – it being quite a distance to the nearest medical facility. Eventually the horsemen got the message and we were able to progress unimpeded. 

Even before we reached the Siq things were starting to get interesting with a few tombs built into the low cliffs and also strange gigantic cubes of rock that were some how used by the ancient people to measure rainfall. All throughout Petra there is evidence that the occupying tribes went to extreme lengths to channel and store what little rainfall they received. 

At the entrance to the Siq we came across a band of soldiers dressed in ancient outfits – it would have been quite convincing if the leader of the group had not been talking on his cell phone! The Siq is an amazing experience; it’s about a mile long and winds its way through the high cliffs, at times no more than 6ft wide with sides that soar skyward. The only caution here is to watch out for the horse drawn buggies that occasionally come hurtling along with little to no warning. The walkway is gravel and cobblestones and at times a bit uneven. There are benches every so often if you need a break. Tourism police are quite visible, but other than the odd waif trying to sell postcards we were never really bothered by anyone and felt quite safe. The place is very clean and well tended and there are even employees tasked with constantly scooping up the horse poo. 

The end of the Siq is really quite spectacular as you get a glimpse of one of the main attractions of the Petra, The Treasury, through the narrow slit that forms the exit of the Siq – Sandra said it was like looking through a keyhole back in time, and I could not agree more. 

After about half an hour we emerged from the Siq into an open valley with the treasury building directly in front and the way down into the rest of the city off to the right. It’s quite dark in the Siq and the small amount of the Treasury that is visible is very bright, stepping out reveals the Treasury in it’s entirety – it is breathtaking, awesome and staggering in its scale; my head was filled with questions about how and why such a structure was built.

Our guide gave us some background on Petra… 

Built around 312 BC by the Nabataeans who were a nomadic Arabic tribe known for their great ability in constructing efficient water-collecting methods in the barren deserts and their talent for carving structures into solid rock. Also known as The Rose City, Petra is one of the 7 wonders of the world and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.

No one really knows what the treasury was actually used for; it gains it name from the large carved urn near the top of the structure that the local 19th century tribesmen thought contained the lost treasury of the Pharaoh’s – they used to take potshots at it with their rifles and if you look carefully you can still see the bullet holes. About the only thing all the experts agree on is that the Treasury was never in fact used as a treasury – one popular theory has it as a library, but the latest thinking is that the façade was in fact used as a form of annual calendar.

Considering how popular this spot is it was not over crowded, we again felt lucky to have arrived early in the day. Camels were parked in the center of the narrow valley between the Siq and the Treasury, a few brave owners tried in vain to get us to go for a ride but we were just too awestruck with the whole scene to think about getting on the back of one of these large smelly, grumpy animals. Amazingly there is a large tourist trinket stall off to the side of the Treasury, a kind of Woolworths of Petra.

We headed off down the valley and further into the center of the city; passing the Street of Facades the valley opens up quite wide and you can see structures carved into the cliffs on both sides. The site contains a very impressive amphitheater that was modified and used by the Romans during a period of occupation after the Nabataeans had declined. Off across the valley we got a great view of the royal tombs that occupy and entire cliff side. Things were warming up so we stopped for a cool drink in a tent café – this hit the spot and set us up for the hike back to the visitor center.

The return journey was a bit more tiring than the hike in; in the excitement of all the sites we did not realize how much of a downward grade there was to the valley and of course we now found ourselves hiking back up this long gentle slope and it now being early afternoon the temperature was up a bit. It took us about an hour, but with frequent rest stops, we made it back to the visitor center OK. In all we’d spent about 4 hours visiting the ancient city.

Our Cunard shore excursion included a late lunch in the Movenpick Hotel located right across the street from the visitor center. The large buffet with many Middle Eastern dishes was surprisingly good and we sat down to tuck in along side our fellow Cunarders. One of our tablemates was in fact the head of security for the Queen Mary 2 and he was quite forth coming about recent exciting events – including the fact that because of our transit of the pirate zone the ship had taken on extra ammunition, a thousand rounds in fact, along with the aforementioned navel contingent. We questioned whether such precautions were really necessary and he assured us they were – citing the fact that only two nights ago pirates had tried unsuccessfully to board a tanker located just 12 miles behind us.

The bus left Petra around 4:30 with a very tired contingent of travellers. After about half an hour we stopped to get a spectacular view of the Wadi Musa and to browse a trinket shop. On the way out we bought some baklava and other sweet goodies from a girl who had set up a tiny stall at the entrance to the shop – we can never pass good baklava.

Back along the Kings Highway again through the dry, barren, rocky landscape dotted with the occasional Bedouin tent. I noticed a Toyota Prius off in the distance parked in the middle of a rock field, parents and small child picnicking in the shadow of the car – and I was struck with how the Jordanians know how to make the most of what they’ve got.

We arrived back at the ship around 7:15pm just as the sun was setting and were surprised by the welcoming reception consisting of wait staff and ships’ officers on the dock with champagne for the weary travellers – this was a really nice touch.


Monday April 24, 2017

We’ve spent the last few days sailing the Arabian Sea southwest from Oman with Yemen to the north; we then entered the Gulf of Aden before passing through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and into the Red Sea – surprise, surprise it’s not actually red.

There are many oilrigs in the Red Sea, it never occurred to me that this would be the case – given the image we have of the Middle East with the huge oil fields in the desert.

We continued north with Saudi Arabia on our East and Eritrea and then Egypt on our West.

At the northern end of the Red sea we entered the Gulf of Aqaba for our passage up to the port of the same name


Friday April 21, 2017

Today we entered the official “red” security zone – this is the area around the south of the Arabian peninsular extending into the Red Sea where there is a higher probability of pirate activity. The ship has a small contingent of Royal Navy personnel on board including a liaison officer. In addition QM2 security personnel are stationed on watch duty 24 hours a day on the promenade deck; this deck is also closed to passengers after dark. We have also been instructed to extinguish all balcony lights and keep our cabin curtains drawn; I believe this is to allow the infrared imaging devices that are in use to operate more effectively.

While the QM2 is a big target it is also a very fast and high-sided ship. As we progressed through this area we passed many cargo and tanker ships; these ships are generally heavily loaded and run much lower in the water. I noted that the captain kept the ship going at over 24 knots while in the red zone; we passed dozens of other ships but not a single ship passed us during this time.

The red zone is also patrolled by a multi-national contingent of military ships and aircraft under a UN mandate. We were told that we might get a visit from a Royal Navy frigate and helicopter during the day, but then plans changed and they were tasked to another location.


Thursday April 20, 2017

Muscat, Oman.

Overnight the ship sailed along the Arabian peninsular to the country next door to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and docked at the capital Muscat.

Out on the balcony to get some views of the city I was immediately hit with the dry, oppressive, heat of >100F at 9am. This was going to be hot day!

We had decided not to do a Cunard shore excursion for this stop and instead, based on a little pre-trip research we planned to visit the city’s main mosque and the central market. The ship was running a shuttle bus to town and so we hopped on for the 10-minute ride out of the port and along the seafront to the center of the city.

The main Sultan Quaboos Mosque is about 25 minutes outside the center of the city and so I negotiated a deal with a local taxi driver who was waiting as we got off the shuttle bus. The young mans name was Moussa and we agreed on $50 / hour for his small min-van; two other passengers overheard our conversion and asked if they could also share the van, so along with our friends Ray and Christine that made 6. 

Non-Muslims are only allowed into the mosque before 11am and time was running short, so part of the deal with Moussa depended on him getting us into the Mosque before closing time. Moussa appeared to be a budding racing driver; I think his van had a digital accelerator – it was either stop or foot to the floor! 

Leaving the port area we were soon on modern city roads with up-to-date office buildings – quite surprising. The bulk of the journey to the mosque was via a very modern freeway (motorway), with Moussa weaving in and out of lanes – we just hung on and at times closed our eyes. 

Somehow we made it in one piece and with about 5 minutes to spare; Moussa parked the van and to my surprise jumped out and proceeded to lead us to the mosque entrance. Knowing that this was a very strict mosque we had dressed appropriately with long trousers and sleeves, and headscarf for Sandra. After hurriedly depositing our shoes in one the hundreds of marble shoe-cubbies we successfully passed inspection (they have a little team at the entrance) and were allowed to enter the mosque. 

Moussa acted as a guide and explained the basics of the facility; the huge carpet that had taken X women X years to weave, the massive chandelier and prayer process. He was also a very willing photographer and also did not mind being in a few pictures himself – as did his cousin who jovially appeared from nowhere.

The main claim to fame for this mosque is its size; the central hall can accommodate 10000 worshippers and a further 10000 can tune in outside. The place is also a study in marble architecture – it seems that every last little feature is made from marble. 

Back into the blistering heat for the drive back to the city – and a nice touch from Moussa he stopped for gas and while the van was filling up he went and purchased bottled water for all of us!

We stopped briefly at the beautiful Royal Opera House – another huge marble affair. This stop was Moussa’s idea and we did not object as it gave us the opportunity to utilize the restroom facilities and check out the small high-end shopping mall that is part of the complex. 

A note about information given out by the tour office on board the ship – it’s generally crap. Before leaving this morning I was told that the only to get to the mosque was via a taxi (good so far) and that the one-way fare would be $45 – clearly a load of rubbish. In addition we were informed via the printed Cunard-supplied port guide that the main market would close at noon. As we hurtled back to the city Moussa told us not to panic as the market stayed open all day when there was a ship in port.

Moussa dropped us right at the entrance to the Mutrah Souk (market) and we agreed to pay him $80; we felt this was fair since we’d been gone more than an hour and he had been a superb guide (note he did not ask for more than the agreed $50).

The Mutrah Souk is the main market in Muscat, and while it is geared for tourists, it is also widely used by the locals. The souk consists of one central covered long street with a few offshoots, quire small compared to others we’ve visited. The traders were out in force, but unlike most other middle-eastern countries they were not very pushy – one firm “not interested” generally resulted in a smile and a few kind words. 

Our friend Ray wanted to buy some frankincense, it was readily available in this souk; other than hearing of it in the bible I had no idea what it was – it apparently is a form of extracted tree sap that hardens into a crystal like substance. There are a few different forms of frankincense - one for chewing and one for burning (like incense). Ray tried the chewing kind and reported it tasted like candle wax – I’ve no idea how he knew what candle wax tasted like. 

Negotiations over the frankincense led us into one of the stores, where of course the traders tried to sell us other things. Before leaving on this trip I had mentioned to Sandra that it might be fun to purchase one of those very sharp looking Arab gowns that all the men wear (insert name XXX). The traders insisted on dressing Ray and I in the Arab gowns along with the traditional headdress – this consists of a small cap that acts as the base around which is wrapped a decorated cloth. It was a lot of fun and the Sandra and Christine were in fits of laughter as we sat patiently and allowed the traders to do their best. I think the gown and cap cost me around $30, after a little haggling (but not much). Note that all of the shops in the souk accept USD.

We ended our shore visit with a cold mange juice at a street-side café while we waited for the shuttle bus to take us back to the ship. In the roasting heat the cold drink was a welcome relief – even though I don’t really like mangoes. We waited ages for the bus and in the end we couldn’t take it any longer and I found a taxi driver who was willing to drive us the short distance back to the ship – for fee of course. 

Sailing out of Muscat was quite spectacular – the evening light was just right for some nice shots of the shoreline.


Wednesday April 19, 2017

Leaving Dubai

Sandra has decided that she needs another pair of shoes and so we took a taxi back to the Dubai Mall and visited the Level 8 shoe shop. We had just enough time to grab a coffee, buy the shoes and take a taxi back to the ship.

The afternoon sail away was rather poignant as we passed the old QE2 and the captain blew all of the horns onboard QM2 in tribute to her famous predecessor. Sandra had actually seen the QE2 sail down the river Clyde in Glasgow just after she was launched and watched her dock in Greenock to be outfitted.


Tuesday April 18, 2017

Dubai

Embarkation day and we arranged for a car from the hotel to take us to Port Rashid to board the Queen Mary 2. The journey took about 45 minutes but could probably have been accomplished in half that time if not for the heavy traffic. Much of the traffic congestion is caused by ongoing construction and as previously mentioned there is a lot of construction happening in Dubai. I would say that you could be any place in Dubai and not throw a stone without hitting a construction site. Our driver tells us that Dubai has been selected to host some kind of business convention in 2020, and the emirate is investing $20B to get ready (yes that is a B!). 

I’ve been looking at the construction sites while we’ve been here and a couple of things struck me (not literally). The first is that many of the projects are operating 24x7 – well the one directly opposite our hotel was. Also they use a gigantic amount of manual labor and this seems to be preferred over large earthmoving equipment; I saw 20 guys digging a 20 foot trench with shovels (I’m not kidding) – and this in 100+F temperatures. Our driver told us that all of the construction workers are brought in from other countries, Indian and Bangladesh for example. 

On the way into the cruise terminal we passed a sad sight – the old QE2 that has been moored here for many years awaiting a future as a conference center or hotel or a trip to the breakers yard. 

The cruise terminal at Port Rashid is quite modern and cavernous; after depositing our luggage with a local porter who stood with his hand out waiting for a tip refusing to move off  – and this from a guy with “THIS IS A FREE SERVICE” emblazoned on the back of his coveralls. I weighed the risk of our luggage being mysteriously lost, or dropped in the water, against the nominal tip and quickly handed over a few bucks.

Normally the Cunard onboarding process is very well run and smooth – on this occasion it was absolute pandemonium. The officials did not seem to know what was going on and gave out conflicting information about where to line up and what to do. Eventually we made it onto the ship and immediately felt a sense of relief and relaxation. 

We had no trouble locating or cabin (13014) up on deck 13 via the lift at stairwell A. This cabin is one of a small number of cabins that were newly installed on deck 13 during the major refit of the ship in the summer of 2016. This is also our first experience with a Britannia Club Balcony cabin; this level of booking is a little more expensive that a regular balcony cabin and for this you get a slightly larger cabin and the privilege of dining in the Britannia Club Dining Room. The club dining room is located just aft of the regular dining room and the main advantage here is the option to dine at any time you like between 6:30pm and 9:30pm – rather than dining at one of the two pre-set times in the regular dining room. Our table in the club restaurant was also available for breakfast and lunch, but we also had the option of taking these meals in the regular dining room if we wanted. At the time we made our booking there were no regular balcony cabins available and so this is how we ended up in a Britannia Club Balcony cabin. We actually preferred the openness and layout of the regular dining room. 

Given that it was practically brand new, 13014 was very nicely appointed – we noted new style cabinetry, flat screen TV, granite counters, a glassed in shower stall (a big improvement over the old style curtained variety) and a kettle! While we awaited the delivery of our luggage we took the time to re-familiarize ourselves with the QM2 and check out the other changes that were made during the refit of last year – most notably the removal of the glass elevators from the grand lobby and the complete redesign of the Kings Court Buffet on deck 7. There other much-welcomed change was the make over of the old Winter Garden into the new Carinthia Lounge – this seemed like a really obvious change as the old area just did not work and I don’t we every saw more than a handful of passengers using it in all the times we’ve sailed on QM2. The new Carinthia is very popular, as were to find out later.

My tip to the porter must have paid off as our bags did eventually arrive in the cabin and this enabled us to dress and head for a pre-dinner drink. We met up with our friends Ray and Christine who have been on the ship for 3 weeks already and we’ll be sailing with them all the way back to Southampton – unfortunately they are dining in the regular room so we’ll miss the nightly raucous events, though we do plan to eat together for several night in the various specialty restaurants.

We turned in and planned another quick trip into Dubai tomorrow before the ship departs for Oman.

 

Monday April 17, 2017

Dubai

Dubai has an impressive and modern light rail (metro) system and this morning we took the metro to the Mall of the Emirates. Using the metro is very easy; we bought a 1-day pass for a very small amount (so small I can’t even remember the amount) and the system only has one mainline and a couple of branch lines – so navigation is very simple. Emirates Towers is a stop on the main line and the station was about a two-minute walk from our hotel. The train was packed and we had to stand for the entire ride that was 6 stops, about 15 minutes. 

  

The station at the Mall of the Emirates is actually connected to the mall and so it was a short air-conditioned walk to get to the shopping area. The multi-level shopping mall currently has more than 630 retail outlets, over 100 restaurants & cafes, 80 luxury stores and 250 flagship stores. It also hosts family leisure activities including Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort and snow park.

We walked and gawked, and did actually make some purchases – just about every major branded store has a shop in the Mall of the Emirates. We capped off the morning with a light lunch at Al Halabi a great Lebanese restaurant.

   

In the afternoon and evening we visited the Dubai Mall, the biggest shopping mall in the world with over 1200 shops! The primary reason for our visit to this mall was to get to the top of the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the world at 830M. The taxi dropped us off underneath the mall and it took us a while to navigate to the ticket office for the tower where we picked up our pre-purchased tickets. It is essential to buy tickets ahead of time to avoid the constant long lines.

To truly be on the world's highest observation platform, we had bought the “At the Top Sky” on the 148th floor (555m). A visit here is set up like a hosted VIP experience, with refreshments and a guided tour. Our ticket time was for 5:30pm and we waited in a small room with the rest of our group where we were offered tea and a snack; soon our guide arrived and walked us passed all of the long lines and straight to the elevators. It took less than 2 hear-popping minutes to reach the 125th floor where we exited the main elevator and entered a smaller one to take us on up to the 148th floor. 

Waiters greeted us with trays of soft drinks in a lounge area in the center of the 148th floor – this was a really nice touch and encouraged everyone to slow down and not rush to the windows. The viewing areas are accessed via a revolving door this is because they are technically outside; in actual fact there are windows all around the platforms but they have gaps in them to allow for better photography. Again there was quite a bit of humidity in the air and this did not make good conditions for photography – nevertheless the view from the top of the Burj is pretty incredible. 

Our visit was timed so that we could experience the view in daylight and also catch the sunset; previous research had indicated this was the best way to experience the tower. So we hung around in the lounge area waiting for the sun to go down, which seemed to take ages. Eventually we gathered with the crowd on the west side of the tower but the conditions were cloudy and the sunset was not the best so we made our way back down to ground level.


   

Seeking somewhere to eat can be quite daunting in the Dubai Mall as there are so many choices but somehow we stumbled into a place called Eataly, which of course served Italian food. Eataly, which is actually a combination restaurant and food market, is located in a large bright warehouse-like space. The central seating area is surrounded by various food stalls and cooking stations – it’s a unique setup. We ordered pasta and risotto and both were cooked perfectly. 

Sandra was on a mission to buy shoes and so we wandered the mall taking in the sites and looking for shoe shops. One interesting feature is the massive fish tank, very reminiscent of the Monterey Bay Aquarium – incredible to have something like this is a shopping mall! Another section of the mall is made up to look like an old style souk (market) complete with full size fake dinosaur skeleton. 

This being the biggest mall in the world we should not have been surprised to discovery it housed the biggest shoe shop in the world. The Level 8 shoe shop is actually a huge space that contains many individual shoe shops – it’s like a department store but just for shoes, all of the major high-end brands are here.

We found the particular brand that Sandra was looking for, but they did not have the style she wanted, so she left a little disappointed. However a little later we discovered that there was a second store in the mall and with a bit of nifty navigation I was able to track it down and she got what she wanted, and I left with a sizable hole in my wallet.

Another feature of the Dubai Mall is the spectacular water fountains located just outside; at pre-set times the fountains erupt into an amazing water, light and music show that would make Disney proud. 

  


Sunday April 16, 2017

Dubai

We opted for a very easygoing morning for our first day in Dubai; this included a breeze through the extensive and well-provisioned buffet breakfast at the hotel and a walk through the shopping area on the lower levels. Our first site experience of the modern Arab culture of Dubai; very affluent, smartly dressed – most men in the traditional Arab dishdahsa, a long flowing white smock-like garment and topped with the traditional headdress. 


  

In the afternoon we went on a guided tour that we had previously booked online through Viator – a company we’ve used many times for these kinds of tours. The tour did not get off to a good start; the bus was an hour later than scheduled – and even though the local tour company had called to let us know, it was still caused us to lose a precious hour of our limited time in Dubai. It turned out that this particular issue was the least of the problems we would encounter! 

We are used to the tour bus making a few stops to pick up other customers on these tours – but in this case, between the heavy traffic (it’s always bad in Dubai) and the various stops, it was 1 ½ hours before we got to the point where the tour actually started. We were trying to be upbeat, but it was really hard. 

The first stop was at the Dubai Public Beach, this is adjacent to the famous Burj Al Arab hotel – the one that sits on its own island and looks like a sail. The point of this stop is to take pictures of the hotel; but the weather was so humid that the hotel was just a distant blur. Sandra did not even get off the bus.

The bus followed the coast road back towards the center of Dubai – not a lot to report except that Dubai is one gigantic building site. Cranes and construction work everywhere, also there are many billboards with headshots of what must be the political leaders or royalty all looking sternly off into the distance. 

About 30 minutes later the bus stopped at the Jumeirah Grand Mosque - we’ve been to a few mosques on our travels and unfortunately this one did was just plain in comparison. The experience was not enhanced by us not being able to enter the mosque; I think this was a tour guide restriction not something that the mosque was enforcing. We took pictures in the blistering heat, it was 100F – and the locals were keen to inform us we should be thankful we were not visiting in the hot season! 

Back on the bus our guide started to download some of the pertinent facts about Dubai; it’s one of 7 emirates in the United Arab Emirates, in fact they refer to it as the 2nd emirate behind Abu Dhabi that is number one. The oil beneath Dubai will run out in about 8 years (Abu Dhabi’s will last another 150 years) hence the investment to diversify the economy. The investment is staggering – no aspect of the infrastructure has not been enhanced; roads, airport, seaport, Internet, light rail, water, power and of course the many office building and hotels. Dubai has a very strict immigration policy; foreign workers (and investment) are welcome and visas seem to be readily available – but they do not grant citizenship or permanent residency to anyone.

Our next stop was at the Dubai Museum, housed in a small ancient fort – a quite impressive building. That was about all that was impressive about this stop; while the exhibits attempted to show a glimpse into Dubai before all the modernization there were in fact very few actual curated historical items. Instead the museum contains mostly crude and amateurish mock-ups – it felt a bit like a high school art project, complete with fake camel! 

  

The Dubai Creek is actually a fairly sizable river and the entire tour group now boarded two boats for a 5-minute ride across to the old souk (market) area. Our guide herded the group into a small spice store and we were asked to stand and listen to the storekeeper explain each spice one by one; there were about 50 spices. The store had a barely working air conditioner and a fair amount of flies – I think we made it to spice number 4 before we bailed out. Wandering the small spice souk we got a better feel for the place and how the locals use the market. The souk is a warren of tight knit stalls; many seemed to be selling the same kinds of spices – and all are displayed in large bulk containers. It’s hard to imagine the demand for such a large amount of spices. 

We were given about 30 minutes of “free” time to wander the gold souk, which is located almost next door to the spice souk. The gold souk had more of a bazaar feel to it – a bit (a very small bit) like the grand bazaar in Istanbul. More tourists than locals with stall after stall selling all manner of gold jewelry and watches. Hawkers spilled out into the walkways offering “incredible deals” but most backed off after one simple refusal.

  

After a 45-minute delay, standing in the unbearable heat, while our guide tried unsuccessfully to hunt down a few wayward members of our group, we set off for the bus. For some unknown reason our driver had chosen to park the bus at the far end of a fairly busy highway, forcing us to finish off our tour with a very uncomfortable hike. There followed a long slow meander around the various hotels in Dubai before, after over an hour, we were finally deposited at our hotel. 

This was not a tour we’d recommend, I think we spent more time on the bus than visiting the advertised locations – and the places we did visit were just not that interesting.

We finished the night with a nice meal in the bar on the top floor of our hotel; for most of the time we were the only customers in the place – in fact the staff looked surprised to see as we stepped out of the lift. Nevertheless the food and service were very good. 


Saturday April 15, 2017

Leaving London

Following a leisurely buffet breakfast we checked out of the Paddington Hilton and took the Heathrow Express to Heathrow Airport; another advantage of staying at this hotel is the excellent porter service – for a modest tip the porter took our luggage from the lobby and walked with us to the train where we efficiently stored the bags while we took our seats. 

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Terminal 3 and checked in for our 2:15pm A380 Emirates Airlines flight to Dubai. A little disappointment followed as we discovered that our upgraded ticket did not include access to the business class lounge – I even offered to pay for access but there was no budging the polite but firm employee.

While we found British Airway business class to be extremely good, Emirates was even a notch higher. Located on the upper deck, our seats were side by side and fitted with excellent features; large screen TV, personal mini-bar, small-size tablet that could be used to control the TV and the seat – and of course the fold flat seat. We felt like royalty! 

The service and food was outstanding – including beer, wine. It’s so nice to be served a meal with real cutlery and a tablecloth.

 

 

After the meal service we settled down for some sleep; the seats fold completely flat and if desired the flight attendants would issue you with at actual thin quilted matrass – a very nice touch. The flight was very smooth and we arrived on time into Dubai at around 12:15am on Sunday April 16. 

We cleared the airport in about 45 minutes and were at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel by about 1:30am. Cabs were readily available at the airport – we had no trouble explaining where we wanted to go and the cost was equivalent to about $15 on the meter, we paid cash (having brought some local currency with us).

The Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel is located close to the popular Jumeirah beach and consists of two separate towers – the hotel is in one tower and offices occupy the other. A small shopping mall is located on the lower levels. Check-in was uneventful and we were soon in our upper level spacious room.

 

Friday April 14, 2017

London

Our plan for today included taking a boat down the Regents Canal to Camden Market, followed by a visit to the Imperial War Museum and some shopping on Oxford Street. 

Pre-trip research had pointed us to the London Waterbus Company that runs boats from an area near Paddington called Little Venice to Camden Market and locks. Following the signs for “Canal” in Paddington Station we emerged right on to the bank of the Regents Canal. This was a total surprise as the area is really rather “hip” with a nice canal-side walkway, restaurants and businesses. A short walk brought us to the embarkation point for the London Waterbus Company, only to find that the next boat would not be for an hour and there was already a sizable queue forming up. So we explored the Little Venice area, which is very picturesque, then headed to the nearest tube station where we took a tube to Camden. Our plan was to see if the queues for the boat at the Camden end might be smaller – and we could ride it back to Little Venice. 

Good Friday, the Friday before Easter Sunday, is a holiday in the UK and so the Camden Market area was buzzing with crowds. We wandered down the main street and gawked at the shops with goods that spilled out on to the sidewalk; mostly the typical market knick-knack stuff. The street eventually crosses the canal and there is a great view of the lock. Just off the main street at the canal end is the proper market area; a series of indoor market stalls and street-food outlets – again the place was very busy but it had a nice atmosphere. 

 

 

By chance we happened upon another boat company at the Camden Lock (W.E Walker) with a boat just leaving for Little Venice so we jumped on The Jenny Wren and headed out. The 30 minute narrated boat ride was a very pleasant surprise; we passed large old houses with beautiful gardens and even a section of the zoo – all along the young narrator told us about the history of the canal and how it had changed over time. Near the Little Venice end we transited a fairly long tunnel and for a time we were in complete darkness. We had a light lunch at a canal side café in Little Venice to round out a very pleasant morning.

 

For our afternoon excursion we visited the Imperial War Museum, via the tube. We had visited this museum several years ago but it was a whistle stop and also they change their exhibits quite often so we deemed it was worth revisiting.

The walk up to the entrance of the Imperial War Museum is dominated by two gigantic 15 Inch 1914 era naval guns. Each of these guns weighs 100 tons and can fire a 1938lb shell 16 ¼ miles. 

The Imperial War Museum has a fairly simple layout with a large central atrium that extends up to the top of the building and is rimmed by 5 floors  each devoted to a particular aspect of British military conflict from the 19th and 20th centuries. The central atrium is filled with the largest exhibits including a Supermarine Spitfire, German V1 and V2 rockets, a Russian T2 tank and a Harrier Jump Jet amongst others. The top floor was devoted to a special Holocaust exhibit (no pictures allowed); we found this exhibit to be very well done and undoubtedly emotional – but nothing compares to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Trusty Oyster Card in hand we headed for the tube and navigated our way to Oxford Street for a spot of shopping to round out the day. All the major department store chains have their flagships located on Oxford Street and we emerged from the tube station into the bright warmth of the spring day and slipped into the already sizable Friday afternoon crowd. With fairly strict baggage weight limits on our next flight we were restricted in our purchasing ability – but to be honest we did not find anything that jumped off the shelf at us, being particularly disappointed in the quality and style of clothing from Marks and Spencer, normally a go-to store for us. We settled for a cup of tea and a cake.

As the sun set we opted to take a 30 minute walk back to the Paddington Hilton from Oxford Street and we finished off the evening with dinner at an Italian Restaurant on the canal by the station, it was OK.

Later that night we check email and discovered that Emirates Airlines was offering us a fairly priced upgrade to Business Class for our flight to Dubai; I think it took less than a millisecond to decide to take the offer.


Thursday April 13, 2017

London.

Following our very relaxing business class flight we arrived into London’s Heathrow Airport at around 2:15pm. We have visited London many times and for the past few years we have made the Paddington Hilton Hotel our go-to place to stay. The convenience of the Heathrow Express train connection, whisking you into London in 15 minutes, and the fact that the hotel is actually part of the Paddington train station, outweigh the fact that the hotel is not the most centrally located. In addition there is a tube station in Paddington so this gets you access to anywhere in London. The hotel itself is a mix of old and modern and we’ve always found the rooms to be more than adequate; buffet breakfast is also typically included – we’ve found the quality here to have slipped a bit over the years, but it certainly is convenient and takes away the potential for an extended early morning debate about where to eat breakfast.

We checked in, dropped off our bags and headed out for a coffee to a Costa Coffee shop just along the street from the hotel. Costa is a dominant coffee house chain in the UK and many parts of the world though has no presence in the US – we have generally found the quality and service to be good (though not so at this particular location). We settled down to plan our itinerary for our short stay in London; our focus for this trip is to try and visit places we had either not been to before or had not visited for quite some time. For the remainder of the afternoon and evening we decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery, have a walk along the Thames Embankment and finish off with an Indian meal.

However, out first task was to purchase multi-use pay cards for the London Underground (the tube), the so-called Oyster Cards. The Oyster Cards can be purchased from machines in most tube stations; you basically tell the machine how much money you want to put on the card, slip on your credit card (or cash) and it issues you the Oyster Card. Note that there is an additional deposit of 5GBP that is charged to your card and this is refunded to you when you turn in the card after you are finished with it. When the value of your card runs down it can also be “topped up” at the same machines in the tube stations. The Oyster cards are a much more convenient way to use the tube network than having to buy a new ticket for each journey. 

Another great tip to make the tube easier to use is to down load one of the many cellphone apps that help you plan the most efficient way to get from one station to another. Several of the apps are free, though they do have pop-up adds and some of the functionality is restricted unless your buy the proper version. I use Tube Map and find it works extremely well; you tell the app where you are and where you want to go and it tells you which tube lines to take, where to change trains and how long the journey will take (based on real time information).

The National Portrait Gallery is located just off Trafalgar Square and is round the corner from its larger cousin The National Gallery that forms one side of the famous square. The idea of the portrait gallery is to chronicle the history of Britain through portraits of it’s most important and significant people – there are a lot of portraits. The gallery is well laid out and the portraits are expertly displayed, and given that the admission is free (like most museums in London) its well worth a visit. 

 

Another tip for London; you don’t always have to take the tube to get to your destination. You have to realize that the tube map is a schematic representation of reality – its drawn that way to fit it into a small space and show the logical connections between the stations. The length of the lines on the map do not represent real distances; and so in many cases it is actually quicker to walk than to take the tube. Walking also lets you discover some of the amazing things that London has to offer.

So from the National Portrait Gallery we chose to walk down to the river Thames and along the way discovered a gem of a park; the small but beautiful Victoria Embankment Park.

We crossed the river via the Golden Jubilee Pedestrian Bridge and fought our way through the crowds around the London Eye Ferris wheel. Emerging onto Westminster Bridge we took time to stop and view the many flower bouquets that had been laid in tribute to those who were killed just the week before in a terrorist attack. A quick walk around Parliament Square concluded our afternoon in London.


 

Later that night we went to a very small indian restaurant called Flavors of India just down the road from the Paddington Hilton hotel; we had been to this place last time we were in London and it was just as good the second time. 

 


Wednesday April 12, 2017

Our vacation this year takes us on another cruise; this time from Dubai to Southampton via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Queen Mary 2.

To break up the long flight from San Francisco to Dubai we are spending a few nights in London; and as a special treat (since today is our anniversary) we upgraded the flight to Business Class aboard a British Airways A380, a first for us. 

Sandra especially enjoyed her window seat with extra storage. The service was outstanding and the food was more than edible, in fact it really was quite good – and I’ve never said that before about airline food. We took some time to explore the upper deck of the A380 where our seats were located and discovered a gigantic bathroom at the front of the cabin and an actual bar / communal area at the back – really cool. Since our flight departed at 7:30pm, after dinner was served, we took advantage of the flat folding seats and actually managed to get some sleep before arriving in London. The only weird thing about the business class seat configuration in this plane is that, when in the bed position, the aisle seat “traps” the window seat occupant from freely exiting into the aisle – forcing the occupant to step over the bottom of the aisle seat bed. All in all though the flight and service were excellent and we arrived refreshed and ready to