April 15, 2023 – Saturday – Cartagena, Colombia

2023 Panama Canal Cruise

I am up by 6am to witness the beautiful sunrise as the ship enters Cartagena harbour. The ship docks in an industrial area called Manga, but it is not far from the city.

Sunrise over Manzanillo

I take the Land and Sail excursion, which tests my endurance since we start off by climbing to the top of the fortifications at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Thankfully, the bus driver has cold bottles of water waiting for us as we reboard. We are then dropped off at the old walled city, where our guide takes us to a couple of his “preferred” street vendors before we go to the Mister Emerald shop to cool off and use the washrooms. We are to meet back here in 35 minutes, so I immediately get out of that tourist trap and wander around the old city. I take photos of ornate doors, brass knockers, and beautiful old second story balconies that overhang the streets. Centro is a picturesque part of the city, but the heat and humidity are oppressive, and the street vendors are persistent.

Once we regroup, we walk a short distance past the Naval Museum to board a motorized catamaran which takes us on a tour of the Bahia de Cartagenas harbour area, where we see the modern side of the city. We are dropped off at a dock adjacent to our cruise ship, so it’s an easy walk from the end of our excursion. I’m exhausted, and so glad to board the air-conditioned ship, have some lunch, and then get freshened up!

I have a 6:30pm reservation for Nami Sushi this evening, but go to the Tamarind bar to have a pre-dinner Martini half an hour before being seated. Thankfully they are not hosting the martini hour today, so the service has returned to what I expect: a lovely quiet respite from the hustle and bustle of many of the other venues around the ship this afternoon.

Thai Basil Szechuan Shrimp

Once seated in Nami Sushi, I decide to try the Wasabi Cocktail – Momokawa Silver sake, lychee liqueur, sour mix, agave syrup, orange juice. It is sweet but has nice flavours. I have the Hamachi, Scallop & Salmon Ceviche to start, which is my fave, but not quite as good as I had on the Koningsdam last year. The Thai Basil Szechuan Shrimp with lobster rice is my main course – huge shrimp and perfect medium spiciness to the sauce. I don’t have room for dessert! The a-la-cart charge is US$24.78 instead of $38 at Tamarind. It’s pretty sparse in the restaurant this evening, probably because there is a Seafood Boil event happening in the Lido Market (which I’m avoiding, due to the expected crowds).

The captain made it clear with an earlier announcement that departing from Cartagena on time is important so we don’t miss the scheduled transit time for the Panama Canal tomorrow.


Jebel Shams to Muscat

February 21, 2015 – Saturday – Jebel Shams to Muscat

2015 Gems of Arabia

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 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.


Sharqiya Sands

February 18, 2015 – Wednesday – Sharqiya Sands

2015 Gems of Arabia

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,


2015 Gems of Arabia

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.


Musandam Peninsula

February 14, 2015 – Saturday – Musandam Peninsula, Oman

2015 Gems of Arabia

This morning we board a traditional Omani dhow for a half-day cruise into the Musandam Peninsula’s nearby fiords, or khawrs. Dolphins play in the wake of the boat as we travel along the tranquil waters. We arrive at Telegraph Island, which was a repeater station built in 1864 by the British to connect Bombay with Britain via an underwater and overland telegraph cable. Once the boat is anchored, I am the first one in to have a swim. The water is a bit cloudy, but it feels great, and floating is no problem in the very salty water.

We see the famous Sherry fish marinated and grilled for our hot buffet lunch, which is served aboard the dhow, and then we return the same way back to Khasab harbour. There are numerous fishing villages along the shoreline. Some have power, water and communications, while others don’t. As we return to Khasab harbour, we see Shinas, the fastest catamaran ferry in the world docked. It travels between Khasab and Muscat down the coast in about five hours.

This dhow cruise is one of the highlights of the tour for me!

In the afternoon, we take a 4×4 drive, climbing up into the mountains along steep gravel roads to Jebel Harim (1,800 metres or 5,900′ elevation), where we see a beautiful oasis and some petroglyphs. There are century-old villages built into the rocks on the sides of the wadis, including Bait ai-Qufl with its old stone houses, and the lush nature of Al Khalidiyyah Park with its many acacia trees, and interesting clam and oyster fossils.

The gravel roads throughout this mountainous region are very impressive, since they are very well engineered and maintained.



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

2015 Gems of Arabia

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. My room is quite luxurious…too bad we are only staying one night!