February 21, 2015 – Saturday – Jebel Shams to Muscat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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).
The 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!
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. There is also a small train running between Mürren and Grutshalp. Unlike the packed gondolas to Shilthorn, the 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!
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 by the low prices for food and beverages in Italy. Even a coffee or cappuccino in our hotel is 5 CF (CD$6)!
After departing Monterosso, Cinque Terre, we drive past Genoa and Milan and cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano. There are lots of winding roads, tunnels, and mountain passes along the way. 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 make a short stop 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.
The above map doesn’t reflect our turnoff at Wassen to drive over the Sustenpass to Interlaken, so please refer below for a corrected version of that portion of our route.
After leaving Rome on the Autostrada, our first rest stop is a small AutoGrill, where many of the group rave about the fresh-squeezed orange juice. I have a cappuccino for 1.40 Euro – no tables, just a stand-up bar, Italian style. The area we drive through up the west coast is much drier than the areas of Italy we have traveled through up to now. This is where olives and grapes are grown.
Our midday break is in a little town called Massa Marittima, where we go for a wine, cheese and olive tasting at Il Baccino. Everyone on the bus does the tasting (modest extra charge) and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. We spend almost two hours in this beautiful little town, so there is plenty of time to soak up the Tuscan sunshine while we explore. It is an absolutely perfect day – blue sky and warm, but not too hot.
I walk uphill to the ancient Siennese wall, which runs through the town half way up the hill. It is 3 Euros to go up the clock tower and along a portion of the adjacent wall. It is well worth it to take in the wonderful views of the town from above, and appreciate the vistas of the whole glorious valley (see banner image above). I stroll back down the hill along the back alleys to the town square, where there is a troubadour playing some lovely music that echoes off the buildings. I have a simple lunch of prosciutto in a fresh crusty role, and sit outside Il Baccino with others in my group, soaking up the ambience of this Tuscan town. It simply doesn’t get much better than this!
As we drive the Autostrada north along the coast, we pass some interesting sights. There are resort areas all along the coast featuring cottages and recreational vehicle parks, a massive power station, endless vineyards and farms, and sales yards featuring beautiful white massive blocks of Carrara marble. The mountains where this well-known marble is quarried is visible inland across the valley. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci making the journey to these same quarries to select the marble for his famous statues.
Eventually we turn off the Autostrada, and drive down a steep valley to the Vernazza train station, 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.
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 out of Innsbruck through the Brenner Pass, 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.
We spend two nights in Routte, Austria at the Alpenhotel Ernberg hotel, but don’t see much of the country. Some of our group hike up to Ehrenberg Castle ruins, which are on top a hill near our hotel. We have our own dining room for the group dinner in the hotel each evening. Jennifer is a chef, and so is always on the lookout for regional food treats to share with the group. After one of our dinners, she serves Apple and Cheese Strudel for dessert.
September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy
We are listening to the Sound of Music on the bus audio system as we drive through the Austrian Tyrol on our way to Italy. The first hour reminds me of our mountain highways in British Columbia, Canada – winding, rocky, and steep hills. We descend into a long valley and take the Autobahn to the outskirts of Innsbruck.
We turn south and drive over the Brenner Pass, crossing the Alps into Italy. Border crossings in Europe are non-events, since all the countries except Switzerland and Sweden are in the European Union. Jennifer tells us we are following the original Roman road Via Claudia the whole way today. That road ends up in Rome, although our next stop is Venice.
February 20, 2014 – Thursday – The North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii
We arrive in Honolulu harbour on time this morning. The early morning approach offers some superb views of Diamond Head and the south shore of Waikiki and Honolulu before we slip into our dock at Pier 2.
I am on an excursion today, our first of two days in Honolulu. The Explore and Taste Oahu’s North Shore tour is a 6.5 hour all day affair run by Roberts Hawaii, which visits the tranquil Byodu Temple after we travel over the H3 freeway through the Koolau Mountains to Kaneohe. The temple is quite beautiful and tranquil despite the groups from the numerous tour buses wandering the grounds.
We then stop at Chinaman’s Hat Rock, which is a rock sticking out of Kaneohe Bay. We drive by the Crouching Lion restaurant (now closed), which my friends and I stopped at for lunch the last time I visited Oahu. Our stop at Malaekahana State Recreation Area offers a great view of the ocean and a spectacular beach, not often visited by tourists or locals. (It looks like Malaekahana is now operating as a campground and retreat.) As we pass the Polynesian Cultural Center, our guide explains how the students study at the Brigham Young University and the adjacent Latter Day Saints temple in Laie, and also work at the Polynesian Cultural Center to pay for their education.
Our destination for lunch is just up the road: Fumis Kahuku Shrimp (Yelp reviews), where we have a pre-ordered lunch of shrimp, cod, or chicken. Most people order the shrimp, which is a large portion that comes in a Styrofoam plate along with some salad and rice and a soft drink. I find the Lemon Pepper Shrimp to be very tasty. There is a washbasin to get the grease off after the meal is finished. Shave Ice can be purchased for dessert, for those so inclined. This is very casual dining, but the food is very good! The James Campbell Wildlife Refuge is visible out by the coastline from here, and the shrimp ponds where the shrimp are raised are right beside this roadside stop.
We carry on to see Sunset Beach for a quick 10-minute stop, then pass by Tunnel Beach, both of which are world-famous for surfing (see banner image above). There are lots of surfers riding the waves.
Waimea Bay Beach Park is the next stop to see the turtles in the bay feeding on the algae. We spot one turtle. We then turn away from the coastline, driving through the little town of Haeliwa, and make our final stop at the Dole Plantation. This is the typical tourist trap if ever I saw one, but thankfully it is only a 20-minute stop before we carry on back to Honolulu over the H2 and H1 freeways, passing Pearl Harbor along the way.
The ship stays at the dock overnight, so we sleep aboard.
February 21, 2014 – Friday – Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii
I don’t have any excursions booked for today, so I get up and have a leisurely breakfast in the Rotterdam Dining Room. I go ashore from Pier 2, walking a few blocks up South Street as far as the Mission Houses, the Kawaiaha’o Church, and then cross South King Street to see the State Capital and Iolani Palace.
I return to the Mission Houses for their tour of the inside, paying the $10 admission. It was very interesting hearing how the missionaries from Boston sailed around Cape Horn, to live and work in Hawaii. They supported themselves by printing and selling (or bartering) books and documents. They gave the Hawaiians their written language, introduced them to western music melody, and of course as missionaries, converted many of them to Christianity. I don’t have time to go into the Iolani Palace before it closes, so I return to the ship to freshen up and have some lunch.
I spend the afternoon aboard ship, swimming in the Ocean View Pool and generally relaxing. I am also taking advantage of the roaming package I purchased from Rogers, my cellular provider in Canada. The roaming package includes 15 minutes for voice calls, and also includes 200Mb of data. Since I have high speed LTE connectivity here, I can ignore the ship’s slow and expensive satellite Internet connection, and get a few things done online. I also call Harper’s Car Rentals to change my arrangements on the Big Island of Hawaii to a one-day rental with no drop off in Kona, which they happily do for me.