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Jebel Shams to Muscat

February 21, 2015 – Saturday – Jebel Shams to Muscat

JoeTourist: Jebel Akhdar &emdash; Beehive tombs on the ridgeline

Beehive tombs on the ridgeline at Al Ayn

After driving down the steep roads from Jebel Shams, we visit the beehive tombs at Al Ayn.These tombs are about 5,000 years old, although not much is known about them. This means the necropolises were built in the same era as the Egyptian pyramids. The tombs are fascinating and quite photogenic, however as we descend from the ridge to return to our 4x4s, the wind picks up and a sand storm blasts everyone as we hurry to get back inside our vehicles.

Next stop is Jabrin Castle, which was built by the Yaruba dynasty Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan, who ruled from 1679 to 1692. This is without a doubt the most impressive castle or fortification we have visited in Oman. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is beautifully restored, and is surrounded by groves of palm trees in a lush valley. The castle has impressive wooden painted ceilings in some rooms.

After driving back along the highway to Muscat, we say goodbye to our driver Ali, who drops us off at our hotel, the City Seasons Hotel. He has been an excellent driver; taking us over sand dunes at Sharqiya Sands, along back roads to Bedouin camps, and zooming up and down expressways and mountain roads. It has been a wonderful driving adventure in our 4x4s over the last five days. Tomorrow, we drive from Muscat back to Dubai (in a bus) for our final day in Arabia before returning home.

Our travels in Oman

Our travels in Oman

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Jebel Shams

February 20, 2015 – Friday – Nizwa to Jebel Shams

After lunch in the Al Hamra oasis, we make a brief stop to see the abandoned Persian village of Ghul before climbing 2,000 metres up into the mountains. Our destination is Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun),  Oman’s highest mountain at 3,028 metres (just over 10,000 feet). We stay at the Jebel Shams Resort, which is at the end of a long, winding and steep road. The resort is situated a few hundred metres from Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

I walk over from the resort to the rim of the canyon before dinner, and find a spectacular sight that is much deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I peer over the edge of Wadi Ghul to a small abandoned village barely visible almost 1,000 metres below! The wind is terribly strong, but at least it is blowing up the canyon and over the rim, so it isn’t a safety hazard. I find taking photos of the canyon in the late afternoon very challenging, and resort to bracketed photos and HDR settings.

Jebel Shams Resort has pretty basic accommodation compared to the luxury we have had so far on the tour. I keep the electric heater going in my room, since at this elevation, it gets very cold at night. The Internet connection is down, so I use my time this evening to catch up on my journal and tag my photos with locations and titles.

February 21, 2015 – Jebel Shams to Muscat

I get up before dawn this morning and take some photos of the mountains bathed in the pre-dawn light. The pre-dawn view of the mountains, the Earth’s shadow and the Belt of Venus is spectacular! After an early breakfast, we drive (as a group) the short distance from the resort to see and photograph Wadi Ghul after sunrise, and then drive down the mountain and onto the wadi and other sights before returning to Muscat and civilization.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Nizwa

February 20, 2015 – Friday – Nizwa to Jebel Shams

It is another full day today, beginning with a visit to yet another souq: the Nizwa Souq. This souq is perhaps the most interesting of them all, since it is huge, and offers an amazing variety: cattle and goat market, butchered meat, fruit and vegetables, silver jewelry (especially silver khanjars – traditional daggers of Oman) and crafts. The Halwa shop (Omani sweets) is undoubtedly the busiest place in the whole souq. However, there are no camels at this livestock sale. In addition to the large number of locals, there are lots of tourists at the souq…and everyone arrives early!

I have lots of time to people watch, and yet I see only one woman the whole time I’m there. Omani men (and their sons) are doing the shopping, at least at the souq. Nizwa’s fort is on the edge of the souq. It was built in the 17th century, and dominates the city with a 40 metre (125 foot) high huge round tower. I walk the back streets to see where the residents live. It is considerably quieter away from the souq, and the city appears to be very well developed, and offers its residents a good quality of life.

After leaving the souq, we visit the oasis village of Al Hamra, at the foot of the Hajar Mountains. This village is one of the oldest in Oman, and has a well-preserved row of two- and three-story mud-brick houses built in the old Yemeni style. We visit a traditional Omani house (Beit al-Safa) and have lunch in the oasis.

After leaving the oasis, we climb 2,000 metres up the tallest mountain in Oman, Jebel Shams. We are staying at Jebel Shams Resort, situated across the road from Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

February 17, 2015 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

We drive from Muscat along a new inland road to our lunch stop in Sur at an Indian restaurant. Our first stop is to see a large sink hole, where some people are swimming. The Bimmah Sinkhole is in Muntazah Hawit Najam Park. This otherwise sun parched area obviously has water below ground, since there is vegetation here and I even spot some birds.

Our next stop is Wadi Tiwi, which is a lush river valley just a short distance from the coastline. The plantations and a string of emerald pools in the narrow valley are especially beautiful as we walk along the narrow road as it winds up the valley from village to village.

We stop for lunch in the sleepy little town of Sur, located right on the coast. There is a wonderful view across Sur’s corniche, beach and fisherman’s boats to the nearby village of Ayjah, with its whitewashed houses and dhow-building yard.

A couple of hours later we approach the little town of Bidiyah, and turn off the main road to drive across a sand road for about 11km to Desert Nights Camp, where we will stay for two nights. It is pretty luxurious considering it is setup in the desert along with another more modest camp about a kilometre away. Sharqiya Sands (aka Wahiba Sands) is a large area of rosy-hued dunes, some of which are over 100 metres high. We quickly get settled and then go out on a dune ride to see the sun set over the sand dunes.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

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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.

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Shilthorn & Swiss Alps

September 16, 2014 – Tuesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Alps, Switzerland

Technically, today is a free day in Switzerland, however Jennifer has organized a wonderful activity for anyone who wants to go: a gondola ride up to the Shilthorn peak, a walk along a ridgeline pathway from Mürren to Grutshalp, and a gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen. Then everyone is on their own to take the poste bus back to Stechelberg and our hotel (the bus terminus).

JoeTourist: Shilthorn &emdash; Lauterbrunnen valleyThe mountains surrounding the Lauterbrunnen Valley are so steep, the mountain peaks are not visible from the valley floor. Since so many of us are signed up for this activity today, Sylvain drives us the short distance to the gondola station near Stechelberg, and Jennifer gets a group rate of 57 CF (CD$70) for the gondola rides. The first of four gondolas takes us from the valley floor, over the ridgeline to Gimmelwald, a small mountain community. The second gondola takes us to Mürren, a bigger mountain community. The third gondola takes us a long way up the mountain to Birg, which has a few houses, but is essentially a transfer station to the last gondola, which takes us almost straight up to the Shilthorn peak.

The Shilthorn is famous for being the location where some scenes of James Bond movies were shot, where James skis down a steep snowy slope being chased by the bad guys, and takes a luge down the mountain. The weather is totally clear when we arrive, and we have a good hour before some clouds come in and partially obscure the view. At this point, I go inside and have a hot chocolate in the revolving restaurant and post some selfie photos to my facebook page. There is free Wi-fi and good cellular coverage on the peak as well as at each gondola station thanks to Swiss efficiency!

Contented Swiss cows heading for the alpine meadow near Grutschalp

Contented Swiss cows heading for the alpine meadow near Grutschalp

We regroup in Mürren, and then hike along a ridge line pathway to Grutshalp. The grade on the pathway is easy, but it is a two hour hike to the gondola station. The views along the way are spectacular: there seem to be new views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks at every turn in the path.

The famous contented Swiss cows with the bells around their necks are roaming the steep alpine meadows, and we stop for yogurt and other dairy snacks along the way. The gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen isn’t crowded. Some of the group stay in town to have lunch or shop, but I am tired, so I take the poste bus back to the hotel. Even the bus offers free Wi-fi while aboard!

 

Today is without a doubt one of the highlights of the tour for me!

 

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Lauterbrunnen Valley

September 15, 2014 – Monday – Cinque Terre, Italy to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland

Sustenpass turnoff

Sustenpass turnoff

Once we go past Genoa and Milan, we cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano, and encounter winding roads, lots of tunnels, and mountain passes. We take the Gotthard Tunnel, the third longest tunnel in the world, and cross over the Sustenpass, where we have a quick rest stop. After descending a steep, winding road, we are finally in the valley at Interlaken where we stop for a bit less than an hour, mainly so everyone can withdraw some Swiss Francs (CF) from the ATMs and banks. One Canadian Dollar equals 0.85 CF, or about CD$1.20 to buy a Swiss Franc.

We drive along the Lauterbrunnen Valley to the town of Stechelberg, and then further to the end of the road to our hotel, Hotel Stechelberg. I draw a single room with a sink in it. The toilet and shower are in the hall (one for men and one for women) and shared by 6 others. So this is the most basic accommodation on the tour. I would judge it to be equivalent to a hostel. There is a group dinner provided at the hotel for both nights, since the nearest restaurant is some distance away. Otto, the owner (and chef) of the hotel starts us off this evening with a demonstration of how to make authentic Swiss cheese fondue, and then we follow that up with dinner.

September 16, 2014 – Tuesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley and the Alps, Switzerland

Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks, alpine meadow and the railway

Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau peaks, alpine meadow and the railway

Technically, today is a free day in Switzerland, however Jennifer has organized a wonderful activity which most of us go on: a gondola ride up to the Shilthorn peak, a walk along a ridge line pathway from Mürren to Grutshalp, and a gondola ride down to the town of Lauterbrunnen.

Shilthorn & Swiss Alps

After we return from our adventures in the Alps, we have dinner at the hotel. I have Weisswurst sausage and the Swiss version of fried potatoes, but don’t have any wine or beer since it is so expensive. I guess we were spoiled in Italy by the low prices for food and beverages. Even a coffee or cappuccino in the hotel is 5 CF (CD$6)!

September 17, 2014 – Wednesday – Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland to Beaune, France

We depart early this morning after having breakfast at the hotel. The light is gorgeous as we drive out of the valley and onto the Autobahn. Our first rest stop is still in Switzerland in the Bern area. I buy nothing at the rest stop since the prices are very high. I have spent all my CF coins, and I don’t want to break another bill, since I can sell those back to my Canadian bank when I return home. As we pass through the French border, there are no formalities. We stop at a mall for lunch, and find the prices much more reasonable since we are now in France.

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South Tyrol

September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy

As we leave Austria, Jennifer tells us we will be following the original Roman road (Via Claudia) the whole way today. The road ends up in Rome, although obviously we won’t be traveling that far today, since our destination is Venice. We travel through the Brenner Pass out of Innsbruck across the Alps and into Italy. Crossing borders in Europe are non-events, since all the countries except Switzerland and Sweden are in the European Union.

The scenery in this part of Italy is nothing short of stunning. There are villages nestled in beautiful green valleys, with tall mountains behind. Vineyards are common in the valley bottoms, although this region must get quite cold and experience snow in the winter months. The Italians in this part of the country (South Tyrol) speak German first and Italian is their second language. At our lunch stop in Neumarkt-Egna (both German and Italian names for the town) there is a concert going on in the town square in front of our restaurant. The men are wearing lederhosen, and the women are wearing long medieval dresses. I have my first glass of Italian wine at lunch for only 1.10 Euro.

“The sweetness of doing nothing” – Italian philosophy

After our leisurely lunch, we drive south along the Autostrada (expressway or freeway) to Venice, where we will stay for the next two nights.

 

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Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia

March 9, 2014 – Sunday –Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Group, French Polynesia

I wake up very early and look out the cabin window to see that the ship is very close to the coast of Nuku Hiva. I grab my camera and go out on the Promenade Deck to take some photos as we enter Taiohae harbour. The light is wonderful, and a rainbow appears as the ship anchors in the harbour.

My excursion assembles in the Showroom so early, so I don’t have time for breakfast or even a coffee. I’ll just have to suck it up and survive, since the tour will end mid-morning. Private vehicles are waiting to take us for a drive, since Nuku Hiva lacks the tourist infrastructure the main French Polynesian Islands have. I luck out on two counts: our driver speaks some English, and I get the front passenger seat in the new Ford Explorer 4X4. Our driver owns the car rental agency on the island, and has worked in Honolulu.

We drive away from the harbour, over the mountain ridge, and into the next harbour and valley. It is a pretty drive, and we stop for two photo opportunities along the way. The first stop is a lookout high over the harbour. The second stop highlights the Survivor Marquesas location, and gives us great views of a long inlet with very pretty colours and interesting topography, with a community at the head of the inlet.

We drive down to sea level through the Taipivai valley and the community of same name. A river runs beside the community, and we eventually come to the head of an inlet called Comptroller Bay, where there is a little community called Houmi. There is a nice beach and a single sailboat is anchored in the sheltered bay. Our stop here includes fresh fruit snacks, and the obligatory crafts for sale. Since it is Sunday, most people are attending church this morning.

Map of the locations of my photos of Nuku Hiva

Map of the locations of my photos of Nuku Hiva

We then return along the same route back to the main town of Taiohae, stopping at the local historic Notre Dame Cathedral, and return to the departure point near the tender dock.

By this time, it is starting to heat up, so I’ve had enough and head straight back to the ship on the next available tender. As always, it’s great to be back aboard the ship, where I can shower, change clothes, and have some lunch in the Rotterdam dining room, and have that much-needed cappuccino afterwards!

The ship departs on time at 3PM, cruising along the coast of Nuku Hiva before setting a course for San Diego, which will take us six days.

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Tahiti, French Polynesia

March 5, 2014 – Wednesday – Tahiti, French Polynesia

My excursion this morning is called Off the Beaten Track: Tahiti by 4-Wheel Drive, which is another tour using 4X4 trucks, but this time to explore the interior of Tahiti. We drive along the north coast of Tahiti from Papeete to the Papenoo Valley, and then head inland up to the base of one of the volcano calderas, now covered in lush tropical vegetation, with a river and waterfalls. The river is used for hydropower generation, although the dams, reservoirs and power stations are very small by British Columbia standards. We return using the same route, marvelling at the huge rough surf crashing on the rocks and shoreline. Our final stop is at an outlook over Mataval Bay and its black beach, with the capital of Papeete and island of Moorea behind.

After lunch, I venture out to walk around Papeete for a few blocks. Everything is closed today, since it is Ash Wednesday (and Missionary Day), both a civic and religious holiday. There are a few restaurants open and a few tourist shops, but otherwise the city is closed for the day. The Vaima Shopping Center was newly opened when I was here in 1978, but it is closed for the holiday like most other retail. The afternoon heat is a killer, so I return to the air-conditioned ship.

JoeTourist: Tahiti &emdash; Tahiti Ora folkloric dance troupeThis evening there is a special folkloric Tahitian dance troupe the Showroom aboard ship: Tahiti Ora. They are top-notch, high-energy performers, and the room is packed for their single performance. After the show, the rain is pouring down outside. We have been incredibly lucky during out time in French Polynesia, since this is their rainy season. We seem to have been perpetually a day ahead of serious-looking rainstorms. See my photos of our scenic cruise along Raiatea and Taha’a for some major clouds and even a funnel cloud!