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Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

February 13, 2015 – Friday – Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman

I get up a bit earlier this morning, since we are leaving early for the long drive north to cross the border into Oman. The breakfast buffet is very extensive, and they have cappuccino, which is always a big bonus in my books!

Before leaving Al Ain, we stop at their camel sale this morning, where there are hundreds of camels in sheds and open air pens, as well as sheep and goats. It is fun watching the haggling, but I finally go back to the bus early to get away from the heat and the smell. Kais tells me even city people buy camels and keep them outside the city, in order to maintain their connection with their culture…and no doubt some race them.

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

The steep road along the Musandam coastline

We drive along the expressway to the outskirts of Dubai, and then north to Ras al-Khaimah. Here we drive along the coastal highway to the border crossing, and leave both our UAE guide and driver. The border crossing process takes awhile, due to some confusion which I don’t fully understand. Our Omani driver and guide meet us, and we drive the beautiful and scenic highway along the Musandam coastline to Khasab.

Before we check-in to our hotel, we have a late lunch or early dinner at the Al Shamaliah Grill and Restaurant in the New Souk Area of Khasab. Since it is Friday, everyone is being called to evening prayers – the whole town is filled with wailing sing-song broadcast from the minarets on the mosques. Our hotel is the Atana Musandam, built right next to the harbour, and it is right next to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).

The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE, and is in a very strategically important location with the Strait of Hormuz separating Oman from Iran. Iranian smugglers pick up goods (mainly household appliances and cigarettes) in Khasab early every morning and zoom across the strait to customers in their country. The Musandam Peninsula is very arid and rocky, but features beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages, and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.

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Al-Ain

February 12, 2015 – Thursday – Liwa Oasis to Al-Ain

We leave early this morning for Al-Ain, so I gulp down some breakfast and coffee before boarding the bus. We drive down the main highway back to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and then take a freeway to Al-Ain. It takes over three hours for the trip with one rest stop.

The highways and expressways in UAE are superb. They have all been built within the last twenty years, so they are in great shape, and support high posted speeds. The interchanges and ramps rival or exceed any found elsewhere in the developed world.

After arriving in Al Ain, we have some time at the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. This was the residence of the sheik who unified and created the United Arab Emirates. I find it fascinating to walk through the formerly private rooms, and ask myself “if these walls could talk”. In particular, the Private Majlis meeting room must have seen some pretty important discussions during the unification process.

We go for lunch to nearby Foodworld Restaurant, which was a very nice meal. They handle our group of twenty and our drivers very promptly. Our final stop for the day is the Al-Ain Zoo. I’m not a big fan of zoos at the best of times, although this one has large enclosures for the animals. It appears they have a mix of indigenous species to the Arabian Peninsula, and also have some exotic (mainly big African) animals.

Our hotel in Al Ain is the Al Ain Rotana. This is a five star hotel…very posh. This is obviously the place to stay in Al Ain, since I see a couple of cars with government plates on them (a crest and three digit number). Despite this, our tour leader Michele has some trouble to contend with before we are all settled in our rooms, however I won’t publish the details online. I find my new room to be quite luxurious…too bad we are only staying one night!

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Liwa Oasis & sand dunes

February 11, 2015 – Wednesday – Liwa Oasis

Today we go on an early morning sunrise sand dune 4×4 adventure, and then again for sunset. Several vehicles get stuck in the sand, but eventually the drivers get them out either by towing, pushing, or rocking them. The morning sunrise is the most rewarding, since the light was just right, and our guide finds a relatively pristine location with no vehicle tracks or footprints visible.

I found hanging out during the midday at the Liwa Hotel to be very enjoyable. Several of us take advantage of the very nice pool at the hotel, which we have to ourselves. I have a nap in the afternoon, and then catch up with my journaling while drinking a cappuccino in the lobby bar.

We visit a camel farm in the late afternoon. Camels are used for meat, milk, and racing, and every Emirati family seem to own a camel, even city dwellers. One of our tour group samples the camel milk – a brave man, since there is no refrigeration.

The evening sunset is not very rewarding and it actually ends up being pretty stressful. The light is totally flat, and the wind is up causing sandstorm conditions. Our driver misses taking the correct track along one of the dunes, and we end up right on the edge of a big hole. I get out and climb in the soft sand to the top of a dune to watch, as do my two vehicle mates. The expert is called, and drives the 4×4 out with pushers behind. Our guide Kais rides a snowboard down a sand dune, which is fun to watch!

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Dubai to Abu Dhabi & Liwa Oasis

Burj Al Arab hotel and the adjacent beach

Burj Al Arab hotel and the adjacent beach

February 10, 2015 – Tuesday – Dubai to Abu Dhabi to Liwa Oasis

We leave our Dubai hotel this morning to drive along the coast to Abu Dhabi, largest of the emirates. First stop is along the beach to photograph the iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel. Unlike yesterday, the sky is blue and the haze hasn’t had a chance to gather, so we all get some good photos.

Our next stop is the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque), and it is indeed grand! Some of the women on the tour are hassled about not covering up enough when we arrive, but that is soon sorted out, and we enter the mosque. This is my first time inside a mosque. The floors and walls are decorated with beautiful inlaid flower patterns, and the main prayer hall has the largest silk carpet in the world (handmade in Iran), as well as the third largest chandelier in the world.

The outside of the mosque is all white marble, and the inside is also marble. The whiteness of the exterior hurts my eyes in the noon sunshine, even while wearing sunglasses. The Men’s Ablution (washrooms) are palatial – I take a photo! Members of my tour group who have visited the Taj Mahal tell me this mosque is grander…but who really knows?

We leave the coast and drive 240 kms into the desert to Liwa Oasis. There are villages and farms in this remote area, which hugs the edges of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter. We arrive a bit too late for our planned sunset 4×4 drive through the sand dunes, so that will be put off until tomorrow. I’m happy to have some down time at the Liwa Hotel this evening. It appears this hotel is the only accommodation of any consequence in this sleepy little village.

The oasis at sunset on the way back to Liwa Oasis

The oasis at sunset on the way to Liwa Oasis

 

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Old Dubai

February 9, 2015 – Monday – Old Dubai – first full day of the tour

I’m awakened by the 5:30AM call to prayer outside. I sleep a bit longer and then go to breakfast at 7AM, since we depart on tour at 8AM. The buffet breakfast served downstairs is great: lots of choices, freshly made hot and cold food, very good coffee, and great table service.

We meet our local guide Kais (or Qais) this morning as we board our bus outside our hotel. He is Tunisian, but has lived and worked in Dubai for the last 10 years with his wife and daughters.

This morning, we walk along the Creek in the historic Bastakia Quarter, which has souqs and some fascinating displays of Emirati culture. The Ruler’s Court is located in this area, which is where the sheik still receives delegations of local people. Vendors in the souqs in this area sell spices, gold, perfume, and more. We take an abra (small taxi boat) to cross the Creek, and have lots of time to explore all the nooks and back alleys – it’s like a shopping mall full of specialty shops!

We have lunch alongside The Creek at Al Bandar restaurant. We have a variety of salads, hummus & another spread, pita bread, grilled lamb sausage and chops, chicken chunks, vegetables, french fries, and non-alcoholic beverages and water. Fresh fruit is served for dessert. There are some scrawny small cats lurking around, loudly begging for table scraps. Our guide Kais smokes a hookah, and one of our group tries it too.

This afternoon we photograph the lovely exterior of Jumeirah Mosque and later drive through the ruling family’s residential area, making a stop at the famed Burj Al Arab hotel, supposedly the only seven-star hotel in the world. Driving out onto the Palm Jumeirah Island reveals a world unto itself: lush homes (all waterfront), very posh shopping districts, high end business offices and towers, and a still developing resort complex.

Rush hour traffic back into the city means it takes well over an hour for our final stop of the day in New Dubai’s Marina District. This is a superb example of beautiful modern architecture combined with futuristic urban planning – a dream come true for architects and community planners. We leave after the sun sets to return to our hotel, the Arabian Courtyard Hotel. By this time, most of us are sleeping in the bus due to jet lag.

There are only 950,000 Emirates citizens. The rest of the 9 million people living in the UAE are foreign workers. When asked on CNN why Dubai is so “over-the-top”, the current sheik states that he feels it is his obligation to give his people the very best of everything possible.

Dubai is one of several sheikdoms in the United Arab Emirates. Dubai only gets 5% of the oil revenues of the UAE, but is traditionally a trading centre, and specializes in transportation. The Dubai port and airport are the biggest hubs in this area, and support extensive business interests both here and abroad.

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Victoria to Dubai

February 6, 2015 – Friday – Victoria to Atlanta

I’m out the door at my home and in a taxi to the airport by 4AM.  The United counter Victoria airport opens at 5AM (2 hours before flight time). Once my bag is checked through to Atlanta (US$25+tax), I clear security and grab a cappuccino from the Spinnaker’s On The Fly restaurant in the boarding lounge. My flight for San Francisco leaves at 7AM, so I have some time to kill. Once the flight to San Francisco departs on time I can relax, since there is nothing further I can do about anything except find my gates at each airport along the way. I’m flying through San Francisco and Houston to get to Atlanta today.

I only have an hour to find the gate in Houston for the final leg to Atlanta, but I catch a break. The flight arrives on time, the aircraft isn’t full so unloading goes well, and the next gate turns out to be in the same terminal. So instead of rushing around, I have a few minutes to spare.

Atlanta’s domestic terminal is under construction, and is a mess both inside the terminal buildings and outside with the access roads. I finally find the hotel shuttle and arrive the Hyatt Place at South Terminal. This hotel is a pretty good choice. Although the room fixtures are starting to show wear and tear, check-in is quick, and it is clean, quiet, and well-run.

February 7, 2015 – Saturday – Atlanta to Dubai

Today is a lazy day to start with, since my flight to Dubai doesn’t leave Atlanta airport until 9:45PM. I have a leisurely breakfast in the hotel lobby, fool around on the Internet for awhile, and then go for a walk in the sunshine along a local bike trail. I pay the hotel an extra charge so I can stay in my room until 6PM, since it makes no sense to spend an extra half day in an airport when I’m facing a 14 hour flight later today. I have a shower and sleep in the afternoon, and put on some fresh clothes before catching the airport shuttle at 5:30PM. The shuttle takes me to the domestic terminal parking area, where I have to transfer to the International terminal shuttle, which takes a good 20 minutes. I remember Atlanta airport being big, but not quite this big!

I check in at the Delta self-serve kiosks and give my tagged bag (Dubai-DXB) to the check-in clerk. Since I am “TSA Pre-cleared”, I breeze through security and onward to the concourse and find our gate by 7PM. An hour later I meet the tour group near the gate for the flight to Dubai. Of course it is a blur of introductions; names I will not remember for a few days yet. Boarding is disorganized, and it is a full flight on a Boeing 777-200SP. I purchased Economy Comfort in order to get an additional 4” of legroom and more seat recline, so I am in the Group 1 boarding. It’s nice to get onboard ahead of about half of the passengers for this 14 hour direct flight.

Flight path from Atlanta to Dubai

Flight path from Atlanta to Dubai

The captain announces we will arrive in Dubai a few minutes ahead of schedule. Our route is up the Atlantic coast, past Newfoundland, south of Greenland and Iceland, and over Western Europe. Let’s hope we steer clear of Syria on our way down to Dubai!

February 8, 2015 – Sunday – Atlanta to Dubai

7AM (Azores Time) I take a guess at the time zone as we are south of Iceland when the Sun rises. Sunrise over the North Atlantic is spectacular from my SE-facing window seat, and of course I take lots of photos since I’m such a sucker for sunrises and sunsets. I’m the only one with my window shutters open, but I can’t sleep and want to look out the window. We are served a cold breakfast bun and some coffee, and then everyone goes to back to sleep, except me of course. A flight attendant comes by and asks me to close one window and keep the other one half-shaded, so I finally give up and close them both and try to sleep as we fly over Europe. Now I’m sitting here typing this journal entry in the dark cabin while it’s full sunshine outside as we pass Sicily, crossing the Mediterranean on our way to the Middle East. Four hours and 15 minutes to Dubai.

We are now 1 hour 50 minutes from Dubai, flying across the Arabian Peninsula. The cabin is still dark despite it being early evening outside…bizarre! We are served another meal before our 9PM arrival in Dubai. The airport is controlled chaos as our group retrieve our bags and walk at least a kilometre (no people movers) to clear immigration, and then wheel our bags out to the waiting bus. We are staying in the old part of the city at the Arabian Courtyard Hotel, which is an older hotel, but I like it. My room is very nice, they have a couple of restaurants and a bar, and the location is ideal for shopping and sightseeing.

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Rue Cler neighborhood in Paris

September 21, 2014 – Sunday – Paris, France

People scramble to get out of the rain on Rue Cler

People scramble to get out of the rain on Rue Cler

It is raining quite hard this morning as I have breakfast in the hotel atrium. I try to check my flights online, but neither the Air France nor the Delta websites work for me, so I will just show up at the airport tomorrow morning and check in at the self-serve kiosks or counter.

Some of my group are still staying in the hotel, and they have plans to see various sights. However since it is raining today, I plan to stay in the hotel until it clears, and have my meals in nearby restaurants. It is almost noon before the Sun appears, so I grab my camera and walk over to the nearby Rue Cler area. Locals are out shopping this Sunday morning, having brunch in the restaurants, and simply enjoying themselves.

I have lunch at a creperie, but have moussaka and a Retsina wine since Greeks run the place. As I sit there sipping a cappuccino after lunch, it starts pouring rain again. I don’t have anything planned for the afternoon, so I just stay there and enjoy watching people dash between the canopies. Most of the shops close at 1:30PM, but some restaurants and gift shops remain open. I walk back to the hotel in the sunshine after the clouds break, and have an afternoon nap in my room.

When I go down to the lobby with my notebook to work on my travel blog this afternoon, several of the group are around. We decide to walk to Rue Cler later and have a nice dinner in a local restaurant. The waiter speaks English and they even have English menus! The waiter splits the bill for us, which rarely happens in Europe. Several of the group want crepes for dessert, so I say my goodbyes and walk back to the hotel and pack my bags for the last time. I’m glad to be going home, and anxious to see my family.

Paris is such a livable city. When traveling, I always ask myself the question “Could I live here?” I really surprised myself by answering an enthusiastic “Yes” to the question. Paris offers its citizens so much of the good life, and yet is a very big city. I would be fun to rent a furnished apartment for a month, to stay and experience the city as a local.

 

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Walking tour & Paris at Night

September 18, 2014 – Thursday – Beaune to Paris, France

We leave the hotel in Beaune this morning and make the short drive to Paris, catching our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Sylvain drops us off a block away from our hotel and drives away for the last time. He was a great driver and was very good-humoured as well. Hotel Muguet is probably the nicest hotel we have stayed at on the entire trip, and I get to stay two extra nights here, leaving for home on Monday. I have a room facing the courtyard, so it is nice and quiet, and it’s air conditioned, which is needed to cope with Paris’ muggy weather right now.

We arrive a bit after noon, drop our bags off at the hotel, and quickly regroup to go on a walking tour of Paris and get an orientation of how to use the Paris Metro. First stop is Sainte Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel, located near the Palais de la Cité (City Hall), on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Paris. It is currently being restored, but is very impressive both inside and out. It was built to house Louis IX’s collection of relics of Christ, and functioned as his personal chapel.  It is very ornate inside; decorated in gold and huge stained glass windows.

Map of photos taken in Paris

Map of photos taken in Paris

Next stop is Notre Dame Cathedral, an historic Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité. It is huge, and is an example of French Gothic Architecture, but not as impressively decorated inside as Sainte Chapelle. In fact, the interior is rather shabby in spots, showing the wear of so many people trouping through it. It was among the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses (arched exterior supports), which are particularly spectacular when the building it lit at night. There is a huge plaza in front of the cathedral. We regroup here and take the bridge across the Seine to the Latin Quarter.

We have dinner on our own in the Latin Quarter before regrouping at Pont Neuf for an evening river cruise on the Seine. We see many of the bridges on the Seine lit up at night, as well as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and a multitude of bridges as we cruise along the river. There are huge numbers of people partying along the river. Many are just hanging out with bottles of wine, while others are in semi-organized dances.

The cruise along the Seine at night makes for an impressive end to a very long and tiring day. After returning on the Metro, we are all glad to arrive back at our hotel.

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Cinque Terra

September 13, 2014 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

JoeTourist: Cinque Terre &emdash; Seafood stew cooked in an amphora
After driving from Rome, we turn off the Autostrada and drive down a steep valley to Vernazza, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights. Since today is Saturday, there are lots of Italians here on weekend get-aways. We are staying in the Hotel Punta Mesco, a nice hotel located about a block off the main street, so it is nice and quiet.

This evening, we have a group meal at Ristorante Belvedere in old town. They cook a rich seafood stew of squid, fish, and mussels in an amphora and then pour it out into big bowls and we serve ourselves family-style.

2014.09.14 – Sunday – Cinque Terre, Italy

JoeTourist: Cinque Terre &emdash; Riomaggiore village
Today is our “vacation from our vacation”…in other words, a free day. I take the little ferry on a round trip from Monterosso al Mare, where out hotel is located, and go to Vernazza, Corniglia (hill town, no ferry stop), and Riomaggiore. On the way back, the ferry stops at Manarola and Vernazza, before terminating at Monterosso. I had planned to get off in Vernazza, see the town and walk back to Monterosso, but after seeing the crowds in the square at Vernazza, I decided to stay on the ferry and return to Monterosso.

I have lunch with a couple from our group, and then just chill out in my hotel room for a while. My ground floor room has a small patio, so I catch up on some journaling and annotate my photos while sitting outside. Our hotel hosts a Happy Hour this afternoon for our group – pizza, cheese, cold meats, bread, wine, and Limonchella. I fill up on the delicious pizza since they have lots, and skip dinner!

2014.09.15 – Monday – Cinque Terre, Italy to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

After leaving the Cinque Terre this morning, we bypass Genoa and Milan and we cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano.

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Rome

September 11, 2014 – Thursday – Florence to Rome

Upon our arrival in Rome, our driver Sylvain has to maneuver through some pretty challenging turns and narrow streets to get us to the drop off point in the city at Repubblica Square. Driving a vehicle that large in Rome is a real challenge! After we schlepp our bags a few blocks to Hotel Nardizzi Americana in sprinkling rain, a bunch of us have lunch on our own at a nearby salad bar deli. I have a delicious prosciutto panino (we say Panini in North America, which is actually the plural form of panino in Italian).

We go on an extensive walking tour of Rome this afternoon from with a local guide. She succeeds in bringing the Colliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon alive for us all. Several of us are tired after all the walking this afternoon, so we return to the hotel on our own using the Rome subway. Jennifer taught us well earlier in the day when we started our tour by taking the subway, so we have no problem reversing the route.

Three of us have dinner at Ristorante Esperia, which is a trattoria only a couple of blocks away from our hotel. I have Spaghetti Carbonara, which is very rich and tasty. We all enjoy our meals, although the wine is a bit expensive.

September 12, 2014 – Friday – Vatican City

After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we take the subway to the Vatican to take an escorted tour of the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and other amazing displays. I missed the Vatican Museum last time I was in Rome in 2006 due to a screw up with the arrangements, so it is great to finally see this astounding collection of friezes, tapestries, and paintings. Actually, I find the opulence to be obscene. I am fascinated with the painted maps of Italy in one hallway, since they were created so long ago and yet are very detailed.

Bernini's Baldachino in St. Peter's Basilica

Bernini’s Baldachino in St. Peter’s Basilica

We are then led through a side entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, where we are on our own for the rest of the day. I think there is more lighting than the last time I was in St. Peter’s in 2006, which makes taking photos easier. I still find the place rather creepy, especially seeing the popes and cardinals who are embalmed and on display in crypts with glass windows in the side so they can be viewed. There are several worship services going on as I walk through the basilica taking photos.

I meet up with several members of my tour group in St. Peter’s Square, and we return to the hotel on our own using the subway ticket Jennifer gave us earlier. I’m completely bagged, so I have a two-hour nap this afternoon. I had great plans to work on my travel journal, but that doesn’t happen!

Nine of us go to the Oratorio Bistrot for dinner this evening, which is in the same block as our hotel. They have a wine bar downstairs and they have an upstairs patio where lunch and dinner is served. It is very nice on the covered patio, and the meals are very tasty. I have rolled veal with bacon as a main, and start with grilled zucchini, which turns out to be more of an omelet. I have an Italian beer with dinner, but the rest of the group order two glasses of wine each, since they don’t seem to have house wines served in jugs like the other restaurants we have eaten at up to now.

September 13, 2014 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy

We have breakfast in our hotel and then everyone walks a couple of blocks to the bus, which is waiting for us at Repubblica Square with the beautiful fountain and the metro station beneath. We drive by St. Peter’s on our way out of the city, and pass Civitavecchia as we drive up the coast. This is where the cruise ships dock, and then the passengers are transferred by bus to Rome for the day.