post

Singapore

Feb 29, 2016 – Singapore

We arrive early this morning in Singapore’s cruise ship terminal. We have a day in port and then overnight aboard the ship this evening. Most of the passengers are disembarking tomorrow morning, but I’m one of the 175 who are staying on board for the next cruise segment.

I take the Best of Singapore excursion today. It is an exhausting 8 hour tour, but we cover a great deal of ground, and I take some good photos and video. Our guide takes us to the City Gallery, where there are some wonderful scale models of the city and the whole country of Singapore. It shows just how much of Singapore is dedicated to gardens and other non-developed land, including the reservoir system for their water supply.

We take an electric-powered riverboat ride down the Kallang River and into Marina Bay, past Merlion Park. The Merlion fountain statue was erected as a symbol of welcome to visitors; the lion statue is emblematic of Singapore itself. We also see the historic Fullerton Hotel, on our way to the three towers that make up the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the observation deck, 200 metres (650 feet) above sea level, perched on Tower 3 of the hotel. I manage to photograph the amazing infinity pool (reserved for hotel guests) by leaning out from the observing deck to grab a shot. The view of Gardens by the Bay below the towers, as well as the city and harbour are fantastic from this vantage point. The Marina Bay Sands hotel has one of only two casinos, and a huge number of high end shops in a vast mall under the main hotel.

Our bus takes us to the entrance to Gardens by the Bay – a 100 hectare (250 acre) spectacularly designed park, home to an amazing variety of rare plants housed in giant, innovative domed conservatories. There are several different regions and ecosystems to discover, but we only have time to explore two: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.

The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions, and showcases flora that thrive in these conditions. Oddly enough, cactus and succulents, as well as Baobab trees are included in this ecosystem. True to its name, the Flower Dome showcases massive numbers of flowers from all over the world. As we move into the mist-veiled Cloud Forest, we feel the climate change to warmer and moister conditions. The 35 metre (115 foot) tall mountain showcases the world’s tallest indoor waterfall and presents plant life from tropical ecosystems, and is nothing short of spectacular.

We stop for a family-style Chinese lunch in a restaurant in Chinatown, which offers us a welcome air-conditioned respite from the heat and humidity on Singapore’s streets after seeing the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The gold-domed Masjid Sultan Mosque is the centre of Muslim culture in the city, and nearby Arab Street offers lots of carpet dealers. Shopping in Little India is interesting, and there are bargains to be had here when compared with Singapore’s more upscale (and expensive) shopping areas.

We finish our day at the legendary Raffles Hotel. I have a Singapore Sling cocktail where it was originally invented in Raffles’ Long Bar. Named after the British designer of modern-day Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, this property is one of the world’s finest and most famous hotels. The high ceilings and colonial architecture reflect the era of British rule (1819-1963). There is no public access to the lobby and other guest areas, however the Long Bar and shops are accessible to the public.

post

Muscat

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat

Musandam peninsula coastline from the air

Musandam peninsula coastline from the air

After spending the morning seeing some sights around Khasab, we take a noon Oman Air flight to Muscat, Oman’s capital city. As the flight takes off in a northerly direction, it circles over Khasab and the harbour before turning south, flying over the wadis we drove through yesterday on our way up the mountains to Jebel Harim.

The flight to Muscat gives me a good opportunity to take some aerial photos, especially of the harbour, coastline, and the dams in the wadis, which are obviously for flood control, since Khasab and the suburbs are all built in the valley floor on low ground. It takes about an hour to arrive in Muscat, and shortly after leaving Khasab I don’t see much, since it is cloudy the whole way.

After landing, we meet our Omani guide Yacoob, who will be with us until we leave Oman. The bus takes us to the City Seasons Hotel in Muscat, where we have the afternoon to ourselves. I catch up on my travel journal and photos, and have a nap this afternoon. We have a sumptuous and extensive dinner buffet in the hotel, consisting of western, Indian, and Omani food. Table service is top notch, and the desserts are amazing! The Al-Zawawi Mosque is nearby and is beautifully lit at night, so several of us find a good vantage point to take photos.

February 16, 2015 – Monday – Muscat

This morning we visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: a beautiful example of Islamic architecture with exquisite crystal chandeliers, stained glass windows, wonderful flower gardens, and a beautiful exterior design. Arriving early means we are ahead of the cruise ship tours, so it’s nice to have lots of room and few crowds for the first 45 minutes. The whole experience at the mosque is peaceful and sublime. I am most impressed with this Grand Mosque, since it is a bit less gaudy than the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan Mosque (Grand Mosque) which we saw in Abu Dhabi.

After leaving the Grand Mosque, we drive down to the harbour, which is the Mutrah area of Muscat – an attractive corniche of latticed buildings and mosques. The Sultan’s very impressive yacht pulls into the harbour while we are there. This souq is the same as all the others we have visited, so after a quick walk through, I sit in the shade waiting for the group to reassemble. Our next stop is the nearby Sultan’s Al-Alam Palace, which has a beautiful plaza with flowers everywhere. The palace is very small…obviously for ceremonies only. We are not allowed inside, but we have fun taking photos of the grounds, the plaza, and Michele directs our guide Yaqoob (as our ever-willing model) to add some interest to the scenes by walking in front of the palace and along a colonnaded breezeway. Yaqoob (and our drivers) are always impeccably dressed in turbans (or hats) and robes.

Later, we also see the Portuguese-built Mirani and Jalali forts at either end of the harbour, which the Palace is also located on. Jalali was a prison and is now a museum of Omani heritage. Mirani fort guarded the harbour entrance. Neither fort is open to the public, so we take a few photos of the beautiful harbour setting with the forts on either side and then return to our hotel. We indulge in another sumptuous and extensive dinner buffet in the hotel.

2015.02.17 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

We leave Muscat this morning, driving south along the coast for most of the day to Desert Nights Camp. We are in 4×4 vehicles (3 per car) for the rest of our time in Oman.

post

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.

post

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

 

post

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.