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Dubai to Victoria

February 23, 2015 – Dubai to Atlanta

Aurora out the aircraft window
Aurora out the aircraft window

Our Gems of Arabia tour group arrive about three hours before our flight leaves the Dubai airport at 11PM, so we have plenty of time to get through the check-in process and find our gate. The flight to Atlanta takes 16 hours and 4 minutes according to the pilot. I see the aurora out the aircraft window over Denmark and take some photographs. Oddly enough, by the time we fly over Greenland, the aurora is gone. I then briefly spot bright aurora again over Newfoundland.

Dubai - Atlanta - Seattle flight map
Dubai – Atlanta – Seattle flight map

February 24, 2015 – Atlanta

It is 6:25AM (3:25PM Dubai time) when we land in Atlanta. I quickly clear customs and immigration, since Atlanta has the same kiosks for US and Canadian citizens to use as SeaTac. Dealing with a customs agent after that only takes a few seconds, and then I reclaim my bag and say my goodbyes to the tour group. The sign outside says “Hotel Shuttles – call for pickup”, however what actually happens is that a shuttle transfers everyone from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, where the hotel shuttles are located.

I am overnighting again at the Hyatt Place Atlanta Airport-South hotel near the Atlanta airport, taking tomorrow’s flight to Seattle and then to Victoria. The hotel doesn’t have any rooms available when I arrive at 8AM, since people are still having breakfast before they check out. I check my big bag and wait in the lobby while sipping on a cappuccino, so I’m relatively happy. After my room is ready, I have a shower and then draw the drapes and sleep for about 6 hours. I order some dinner and a cappuccino and take it back to my room, and then go back to bed and sleep through to 5am.

February 25, 2015 – Atlanta to Victoria, Canada

I had a good sleep at the airport hotel, but get up early since I’m still not fully adjusted to the time zone change from Arabia. I kill a couple of hours in the room, and then go down for breakfast and also have that essential cappuccino. I then return to my room and put in some time on the computer. I make some good progress on my travel photos.

I decide to kill time at the airport, rather than pay for a late check-out, so I leave at noon and have to sit around in the domestic terminal until 3PM, when Alaska Airlines will allow me to check my bag. I then have a bit more freedom, so clear security, ride the train to my terminal area and find my gate. Atlanta airport is certainly a great deal bigger than the last time I flew through it. There are two main terminals (domestic and international), and each of those terminals are huge in their own right.

The Alaska Airlines 737-900 appears at the gate on time, and we board on time, but then the screw-ups start. First up is rearranging the luggage in the hold, and then they pull back into the Jetway to let a passenger board. Apparently his dogs made it onboard in cargo, but he didn’t make the connection. The airline decides it is quicker and easier to pull back in to board him rather than send his dogs on ahead of him. I guess there is a first for everything! The pilot previously told us they would have to de-ice before taking off, and so after we pull away from the gate, the aircraft taxies over to a designated area for deicing. I remember from previous flights that deicing took place at the gate, but obviously ATL has different protocols. By the time all this transpires, we are an hour late leaving. It’s a good thing I have 2 hours and 15 minutes layover in SeaTac.

As it turns out, I have plenty of time to find the gate at SeaTac for the flight to Victoria, which is in a different terminal. Alaska Airlines announces Victoria airport is experiencing foggy conditions, so they will attempt to land, but if the flight crew doesn’t feel it’s safe, we will return to Seatac for an overnight stay. The weather is fine when we land in Victoria. My bag is one of the first to appear on the belt, I clear customs and immigration, take a taxi home and go to bed by 1:30AM. My trip to Arabia is over!

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New Dubai

February 23, 2015 – New Dubai – last day of the tour

Today is a free day to do what we want in Dubai, since our flight home doesn’t depart until 11PM. We have a 6PM late check-out from the hotel arranged.

Joe takes a selfie on the Observation Deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai
Joe takes a selfie on the Observation Deck of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Last night I booked a ticket for the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck (140AED or CD$50). When I initially went online, the standard tickets were booked until the mid-afternoon, however when I selected having a cappuccino and a cake for 15AED more, I suddenly had my choice of time slots!

So this morning I navigate my way through the Dubai Mall to the observation deck entrance at 9:30AM. The elevator zooms up to level 124, and I experience the tallest building in the world! There are inside displays and an outside deck. Although the deck is glassed in, there are gaps in the glass so photographs can be taken without window reflections. As I sip my cappuccino and pastry from the coffee shop below, I gaze up a this imposing building. It is visible from virtually anywhere in the city of Dubai, and casts its shadow for blocks.

Most people on the tour are shopping in the Dubai Mall, which is right across the street from our hotel. Since I’m not into shopping and I’m feeling it’s time to return home, I spend the afternoon in my hotel room packing, napping, cruising the Internet, and annotating my many photographs from the trip.

 
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Our bags are picked up at 5PM and we depart the hotel at 6PM for our farewell dinner. The restaurant is near the airport, and the food is underwhelming, so I won’t mention the name. I guess we have been spoiled with all the good food we have had on our tour. Our flight leaves the airport at 11PM, so we have plenty of time to wait. After boarding, our pilot says the flight to Atlanta will take 16 hours and 4 minutes.

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Muscat to Dubai

February 22, 2015 – Muscat, Oman to New Dubai, U.A.E.

I get up at 6AM this morning, since our bag pickup is 6:30AM and we leave on the bus at 7:30AM. We have five hours of driving time to Dubai, and the time we spend at the border will add to that elapsed time.

Unlike UAE citizens, Omanis work in service jobs. Our guide Yacoob shares with us that he worked as an airport bus driver, then a switchboard operator before learning enough English to become a guide. He has six children and is also a grandfather at 42 years of age. He lives in Muscat.

Today is the first day it is cloudy and it might rain. We have had very good weather so far, with every day being clear. We are not stopping for lunch today, so I saved a few snacks from the hotel buffets last night and this morning to eat along the way. We drive along route 1 from Muscat, through Sohar, Bani’ Umar, then inland to the border, continuing to Dubai. We get some rain along the coastal route. Although we are on an expressway, there are some roundabouts along the way. We stop at 10:30AM for a rest break in Sohar.

Crossing the UAE-Oman border 3 times - map
Crossing the UAE-Oman border 3 times

Our bus takes Route 5 in Oman and E44 in UAE (green arrows) which looks more direct to Dubai than the route chosen by Google Maps (blue), but it means crossing the border between the two countries three times! Obviously, crossing a border once takes a lot less time, even if the distance travelled is a bit longer. This concept escaped our travel company’s planning process…however we arrived in Dubai unscathed, albeit a bit later than planned.

We are staying in the new section of Dubai at the Manzil Hotel, which is across the street from the massive Dubai Mall, and within walking distance to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

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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.

 
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After driving back along the highway to Muscat, we say goodbye to our driver Ali, who drops us off at 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 both expressways and mountain roads. It has been a wonderful driving adventure in our 4x4s over the last five days. Tomorrow, we return to Dubai by bus for our final day in Arabia before returning home.

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Jebel Shams

February 20, 2015 – Friday – Nizwa to Jebel Shams

Omani man eating some dates - lunch stop, Al Hamra oasis
Omani man eating some dates – lunch stop, Al Hamra oasis

After leaving our palatial hotel in Nizwa, we stop for lunch in the Al Hamra oasis, and 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.

 
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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.

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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!

 
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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.

The oasis at Al Hamra
The oasis at Al Hamra

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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Jebel Akhdar

February 19, 2015 – Sharqiya Sands to Nizwa

A camel in the back of a pickup truck & a goat being led away at the Sinaw Thursday Souq
A camel in the back of a pickup truck & a goat being led away at the Sinaw Thursday Souq

We depart our desert camp early this morning for Sinaw, whose Thursday souq attracts many Bedu from Sharqiya Sands. Omani women who are Bedouin have more visible social roles than other Omani women. They wear brightly coloured costumes with peaked masks and an abeyya of gauze. I find some shade while we are at the souq in Sinaw and spend my time taking people photos using my long telephoto zoom, since the people here are camera-shy.

After leaving the souq, we climb some roads near Birkat Al Mouz which are controlled by the army for some reason. The road is extremely steep and also has sharp curves, so our 4x4s get a good workout today on Oman’s spectacular mountain highways! Two of our 4×4 vehicles have broken down so far, but the local tour company is replacing them with no delays. We drive through the lower plateau of Jebel Akhdar, where most of the market-gardening happens in terraced plots in small villages clinging to the steep hillsides. We have a wonderful buffet lunch at the very remote Jabal Akdhar Hotel., which is 2,000 metres above sea level.

Our final destination today is Nizwa, a large city which lies on a plain surrounded by a palm oasis and some of Oman’s highest mountains. Our Golden Tulip Nizwa Hotel is quite palatial!

 
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Sharqiya Sands

February 18, 2015 – Wednesday – Sharqiya Sands

The Wednesday Woman's Souq in Ibra
The Wednesday Woman’s Souq in Ibra

We drive out of the desert camp and take the highway to Ibra, where we wander around the Wednesday Woman’s Souq. On the way back, we see the 400 year old town and fortifications of al-Mudayrib, where the buildings are made out of mud.

Old wooden doors, Al Mudhaireb
Old wooden doors, Al Mudhaireb
A Bedouin man in his living room - Sharqiya Sands
A Bedouin man in his living room – Sharqiya Sands

We travel across the dunes once again to a Bedouin camp, where we see some of their handicrafts (some people buy), and have a traditional lunch under the shade inside their reed houses. A couple of our group have a ride on a camel.

It’s very hot by this time, so we are all glad to climb back into our air-conditioned vehicles for the ride back to our air conditioned rooms and nice showers at our luxurious desert camp!

Oman & UAE group photo at Sharqiya Sands
Oman & UAE group photo at Sharqiya Sands

Our tour leader Michele organizes a group photo in front of the sand dunes late this afternoon. We manage to find a camel to stand behind, and it behaves itself very nicely while we pose in the afternoon heat. I opt out of this evening’s 4×4 drive to the sand dunes at sunset, since I need some down time.

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

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,
Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

We drive from Muscat along a new inland road to our first stop to see a large sink hole, where some people are swimming – 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-coloured pools in the narrow valley are especially beautiful as we walk along the narrow road, which winds up the valley from village to village.

We stop for lunch in the sleepy little seaside town of Sur. 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 (see banner image above).

 
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Desert Nights Camp at sunrise - Sharqiya Sands
Desert Nights Camp at sunrise – Sharqiya Sands

A couple of hours later we approach the small town of Bidiyah, where we turn off the main road to drive across a sand road for about 11km to Desert Nights Camp, where we 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.

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Muscat

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat

Dessert buffet at the City Seasons Hotel
Dessert buffet at the City Seasons Hotel

After our flight lands in Muscat, 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 the city, 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 over 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.

Al Alam Palace
Al Alam Palace

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.

Fort Jalali and the harbour
Fort Jalali and the harbour

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.

 
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