A Cultural Detour Along the Way

Greetings, ladies and germs. I know it’s been awhile since TheCulturedTraveler has taken pen to paper (electronically speaking), and I apologize for being so missing in action.

There are extenuating circumstances and, before I tell you about the trip on which AAC CPA and I embarked just yesterday, I’ve decided to fess up and tell you know how I’ve been spending my time of late.

One might even say that I’ve been distracted with a different kind of culture, one that doesn’t necessarily pertain to travel except, perhaps, in one’s own mind.

Several months ago, I was invited to participate in the making of a Broadway show. While initially intrigued – but not really certain – at first I demurred. Eventually, the temptation was too great not to take a leap of faith and, so, I’ve just made my debut as a Broadway producer of a new production of David Henry Hwang’s groundbreaking play, M. Butterfly, now playing at the Cort Theatre.

Artwork

(Are you as astonished as I am?)

Before things get totally out of hand and you get the wrong impression, I am not THE producer but one of a group of them. One of our lead producers brought me aboard and it’s been an amazing journey so far.

You might be interested to know that the star of our play is the celebrated actor, Clive Owen, who I’m sure you’ll recognize from his many films including Gosford Park, The Bourne Identity, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Closer and the television series, The Knick.

Clive Owen - 03
Our star, Clive Owen

The production has been directed by the visionary Julie Taymor, who stunned audiences with her magnificent production of The Lion King, which just began its 21st year on Broadway.

David and Julie
Playwright David Henry Hwang with director Julie Taymor

If you are unfamiliar with the play, first produced in 1988, it’s based on an actual event about a low-level French diplomat in mid 1960s Peking who becomes intrigued and enamored with a beautiful and mysterious singer at the Peking Opera. They embark on a 20-year affair that ends up in Paris, where our diplomat learns that things are not as they appear to be when they are both charged with espionage and put on trial in a French court.

What’s amazing about David’s original play is that it was inspired by a one-column article he read in the New York Times in the mid-1980s. And because there was so little available information at the time, he had to make up just about the whole thing.

New York Times: The Real Story

As it turned out, almost everything he wrote turned out to have actually happened!

The original production, starring John Lithgow, caused a sensation, won that season’s Tony Award for best play and ran for nearly two years, before setting out on a national tour and was later adapted into a film starring Jeremy Irons. The play made an overnight star of B.D. Wong, who also won a Tony in his Broadway debut.

John Lithgow and BD Wong
BD Wong and John Lithgow in the original production

For this new production, David, with Julie’s encouragement, went back and decided to fill in some of the blanks from his original play by incorporating new information from actual court records and newspaper and magazine articles that had become available only after the original play had opened. He’s also deepened and created a more complex relationship between the diplomat and the singer.

The title of the play, M. Butterfly, is David’s metaphor. Using Puccini’s popular opera, Madama Butterfly, he challenges the audience to reconsider its assumptions regarding east versus west, gender identity and fluidity, and fantasy versus reality. The play is now more startling and revelatory than it was in its original form. It is also highly entertaining theater. At its very core, it’s a play about love, espionage and betrayal.

Jin and Ha - Flat
Jin Ha and Clive Owen

Our production of M. Butterfly went into rehearsal at the end of August, began previews on October 7th and opened on October 26th. I’ve seen the show about 9 times and I can tell you that audiences are riveted from the very opening moment until the play’s shattering conclusion two hours later.

Opening Night
David, Jin, Julie and Clive on Opening Night

Opening Night Playbill
Opening Night Playbill

Every element of the play has been carefully considered and brilliantly executed. Julie Taymor has assembled an extraordinary company of 11 truly gifted actors (Clive is backed up by Jin Ha (Broadway debut as Song Lilong), Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Enid Graham, Clea Alsip, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Jason Garcia Ignacio, Kristin Faith Dei and Scott Weber), creative designers – it’s a big play, with something like 60 scenes – and the work of Paul Steinberg (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Donald Holder (lighting) is especially noteworthy, as are the wonderful contributions by composer Elliot Goldenthal and choreographer Ma Cong. As far as I’m concerned – tho’ I may be somewhat biased – M. Butterfly is a show that cannot be missed by anyone who loves provocative and challenging theatre. But, most of all, it will be an experience that you will not easily forget; it’s a play that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

Clive Owen
Clive Owen as Rene Gallamard

Jin Ha as Song Lilong
Jin Ha’s Broadway debut as Song Lilong

In fact, I’ve been told so many times that, after leaving the theatre, our audiences go home and immediately onto Google to get more information about the play and the true story.

Butterfly Lovers
Butterfly Lovers

And so, should you find yourself coming to New York this fall or winter, I hope you’ll pay a little visit to our little show. I promise you an evening you will not soon forget.

CULTURAL TIP: M. Butterfly on Broadway

PS. In my next post, to be published very soon, I’ll get back to our latest travel adventure, currently underway. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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One Last Look At Where It All Began

In 1969, Stephen Sondheim was in a bind. He hadn’t been represented on Broadway since his collaboration with Richard Rodgers (a promise he’d made to his dying mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II, several years prior) on the ill-fated 1965 musical, Do I Hear a Waltz? And he hadn’t been heard as both composer and lyricist since the 1964 Anyone Can Whistle, which lasted all of 9 performances.

For the past several years, he and his collaborator, James Goldman, had been working on a new musical entitled The Girls Upstairs, which had been optioned by producer Stuart Ostrow. More recently, Sondheim and George Furth had started work on a new musical to be produced and directed by Sondheims’s long time friend, Harold Prince. At that point, it seemed that Sondheim would have two shows opening on Broadway during the 1969-70 season.

And then Ostrow let his option lapse on The Girls Upstairs. Sondheim lamented to Prince that he saw years of work going down the drain, to which Prince made the following proposition: If Sondheim would agree to finish the show with George Furth first, Prince would agree to produce and direct The Girls Upstairs as his next project.

Ever the pragmatist, Sondheim agreed, which turned out to be a stroke of profound good luck. The Sondheim-Furth collaboration turned out to be Company, which opened in April 1970 to strong reviews and potent box office. More importantly, the collaboration between Sondheim and Prince became a turning point in the American musical. Over the next eleven years, they would present six shows, all of them distinctly different from each other and, until the last of them, considered to be a high-water mark of musical theatre creativity, if not always commercially successful.

But back to The Girls Upstairs, which – to that point – told a realistic story of a reunion of former showgirls and their husbands and what had happened to them over the 30 years they had all known each other. The show also had hints of a possible murder mystery: during the first act, it developed that each of the four central characters had cause to commit murder; the second act would reveal why and what happened. But Hal Prince had other ideas.

He recalled a photograph that had been taken of Gloria Swanson in the ruins of New York’s Roxy Theater, which had been razed in 1960. Swanson had been one of the greatest silent film actresses and had fallen into obscurity until 1949, when Billy Wilder offered her the role of Norma Desmond in his masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, which was released in 1950. As Norma herself said, it wasn’t a comeback, it was “a return”. Now, some 11 years later, she was immortalized in that photograph. And it occurred to Prince that he didn’t want to direct a realistic story about former showgirls with murder on their minds; he had something much bigger in mind. And that’s when Follies was born.

Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson amid the rubble of the Roxy Theater, 1960

As a result, James Goldman jettisoned most of the original plot and, instead, created a mood piece in which the former showgirls and their husbands were now obsessed with life-altering decisions they had made decades before and the ramifications of those actions. The play would now take place inside a theatre on the eve of its demolition. Goldman and Sondheim had discovered early on that, as they eliminated plot points, the play became more interesting. Additionally, in earlier drafts, the 4 central characters lapsed into behavior as if they were 30 years younger. Now a consequential decision was made, instead, to have their younger selves portrayed as characters in the play. They would, literally, be beside themselves with grief.

This was precisely the kind of theater that lit a fire in Hal Prince. Recognizing that this production would be bigger and more demanding than anything he had done before, he decided to elevate his choreographer on Company – a young man named Michael Bennett – to serve with him as co-director. As the score was now approaching 22 musical numbers, there would be plenty for both of them to do: Bennett would be responsible for the musical staging and Prince would direct the book scenes.

It was to be the most expensive show to date to open on Broadway with an $800,000 budget. The celebrated scenic designer, Boris Aronson, would create the magnificent sets, Florence Klotz, the hundreds of costumes required, and Tharon Musser the intricate lighting.

Set Model - Boris Aronson
Boris Aronson’s set model for Follies – note the apparitions on the upper levels

Loveland - B&W
The main set transformed into “Loveland”

Final Scene.JPG
The final set piece – the theater is now partially demolished

Loveland Beauties
Florence Klotz’s Loveland beauties

The set, in fact, was so complicated and challenging to work upon that Prince decided to rehearse the show at the scenic shop in the Bronx so that the cast, some of whom were already in their 60s and 70s, could grow accustomed to the stage, thus saving valuable time when the show moved out of town. So, every day, the cast would board a bus in midtown Manhattan and travel uptown for intensive rehearsals. (This move also created additional pressure on the scenic shop, as it reduced the time it had to build the sets.)

There was some anxiety over the fact that the musical score hadn’t been completed when the show went into rehearsal. With the show’s new structure, the last half hour consisted of a Follies-esque sequence entitled Loveland, during which the 4 principal characters would each confront their personal bête noir in a song or production number. But some of these numbers couldn’t be staged, because they hadn’t been written. It is said that Michael Bennett had to order costumes for two of these numbers without actually knowing what they were going to be. As the rehearsal period drew to a close, Sondheim delivered the missing numbers, which were quickly staged.

The company traveled to Boston for its out-of-town tryout and played its first performance by the seat of its pants on a Saturday night in February 1971. The physical production was so complex that it wasn’t until the first performance that the show could be run start to finish without stops. There were other problems. The opening sequence – a prologue in which all the characters and their “ghosts” were introduced – was confusing to the audience. A number written for Yvonne De Carlo, cast as a former showgirl now turned television star, was a one-joke song and much too long. As the show was intended to play in one act without intermission, pacing and flow became an issue. Alexis Smith, who had been cast at the regal Phyllis Rogers Stone, hadn’t yet asserted herself and lacked the confidence to take center stage and deliver a star performance.

And there was one other major problem bubbling up to the surface: Michael Bennett didn’t like Goldman’s book, feeling that it was too dark and depressing. While it couldn’t be argued that Follies was a dark show (it was intentionally so), it offered at least the possibility of hope at the end of the evening. Bennett wanted a play doctor (Neil Simon was rumored to be his choice) to come to Boston and add some lightness to the proceedings. But he was overruled by his co-director, Hal Prince, who (not insignificantly) was the show’s producer and, therefore, the “muscle”. He liked the doom and gloom and felt – along with Goldman and Sondheim – that it served a larger purpose. The theme of the show was that one must learn to live with the decisions that you’ve made in life, rather than to dwell upon the past and become paralyzed by the mistakes you may have made along the way. “The Road You Didn’t Take” is not the end of the line; it’s a detour to someplace else.

One of the brilliant aspects of the original production was that, as stated in the playbill, it took place “tonight” and was set at “a party on the stage of the Weismann Theatre” – meaning right now and in real time. It therefore gave the show an immediacy that cannot be reproduced in revival. The show looked back to 1941 – the last year of the fictional Weismann Follies – and, thus, created a context for its audience in 1971. Thus, the references in the score, which today’s audiences might not grasp: Benda Frazier, Windsor and Wally, Pinko and stinko, Beeby’s Bathysphere, heebie jeebies – would be recognizable to 1971 audiences. They would also recognize Prince’s original cast as names from their collective past: Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, Yvonne De Carlo, Gene Nelson. And those with longer memories might dimly recall some of the supporting players: Ethel Shutta (herself a Ziegfeld girl), Fifi, D’Orsay, Mary McCarty. John McMartin, whose brilliant performance as Ben Stone has never been surpassed, was a journeyman actor but – at that point – didn’t have the name recognition of the other leading actors.

Dorothy Collins & Alexis Smith
Dorothy Collins and Alexis Smith

Gene Nelson and John McMartin
John McMartin and Gene Nelson

Yvonne De Carlo
Yvonne De Carlo

Ethel Shutta
Ethel Shutta, introducing and immortalizing “Broadway Baby” at age 74

Fifi D'Orsay - Ah! Paris
Fifi D’Orsay

Mary McCarty
Mary McCarty leads the ladies in “Who’s That Woman?”

During the four-week Boston tryout, many changes were made. It took Bennett until the very end of the Boston run to come up with the prologue that would stick and absolutely and unambiguously set the tone for the evening. Sondheim locked himself in his hotel room to come up with a replacement song for De Carlo, a little ditty called I’m Still Here, which is said to have been based on the life of Joan Crawford and has become an anthem for cabaret ladies of a certain age. The show was tightened and the production fine-tuned to the point that it became a very well-oiled machine.

More importantly, during the Boston run and as the show began previews in New York prior to its official opening, Alexis Smith began to deliver the performance Prince knew she was capable of. It started with a replacement production number for her in the Loveland sequence, along with a new costume, which was much more complimentary and showed off her fabulous gams. Things like that can make all the difference.

Lucy & Jessie - 02
Alexis Smith, new costume and new song, takes center stage

And so, on the evening of April 4, 1971 at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the house lights dimmed, an ominous drumroll sounded followed by 4 somber chords from the brass section as the curtain rose on an empty and darkened stage. Downstage center was a spectral apparition, an impossibly tall and beautiful showgirl. She slowly raised her arms toward the audience – in welcome or in supplication? Imperceptibly at first, she started to move as if in slow motion, soon to be joined by other spectral figures: more showgirls, a dance team, and a line of 6 chorus girls, also in slow motion and silently mouthing the words to some forgotten tune as they strutted slowly around the stage. Suddenly, a major domo and a waiter or two strode through the scene in real time, as unaware of the apparitions all around them as the apparitions were of them. And then, breathlessly running onto the stage, appeared Dorothy Collins, as former showgirl Sally Durant Plummer, announcing to no one in particular how thrilled she was to be at this party tonight. As she began speaking, one of the chorus girl ghosts was wrenched from her position in the line and stopped dead in her tracks as her eyes bore into Dorothy Collins’ Sally – she was the ghost of the younger Sally observing what became of herself thirty years later and, perhaps, not liking what she saw. And that was how Follies began.

Follies Showgirls
Ghostly apparitions appearing during the prologue

Two hours and twenty minutes later, the curtain fell on the opening night performance. Amid many cheers, there were dissenters who didn’t go for the show feeling that, like Company the season before, it was cold and off-putting. I can well imagine that middle-aged audiences were certainly dismayed by the notion of characters who felt they had made wrong turns in their lives when younger and were now paying the price. And then there were others who, perhaps having been beguiled by the title of the show, thought they were attending a light entertainment. After all, No, No Nanette had opened to great acclaim just 3 months earlier – wasn’t Follies supposed to be more of the same?

Opening Night Relief
The cast immediately after the opening night curtain fell

Actually, anyone who took the trouble to take even a cursory look at the original poster for Follies – a somber face resembling simultaneously a Follies-type showgirl and the Statue of Liberty, with an enormous crack running down the right side – must have realized that No, No Nanette this wasn’t going to be.

Byrd Poster
David Edward Byrd’s brilliant poster design

The reviews ran the gamut from A to Z, as Sondheim might have said. Some critics loved it, some respected it, some even understood it; others dismissed it, except for the extraordinary physical production, which couldn’t be faulted.

When awards season came around, Follies was nominated in multiple categories and seemed to be the show to beat. It ultimately won seven Tony Awards: Alexis Smith (Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical), Stephen Sondheim (Best Score), Harold Prince and Michael Bennett (Best Direction of a Musical), Michael Bennett again (Best Choreography), Boris Aronson (Best Scenic Design), Florence Klotz (Best Costume Design) and Tharon Musser (Best Lighting Design). With seven Tony Awards in the bag, it seemed inevitable that Follies was perfectly positioned to take the award for Best Musical of the season which went, instead, to Two Gentlemen of Verona, produced by Joseph Papp and originally presented in Central Park and later moved to Broadway. It is instructive to note, when discussing the history of Follies, that the two major Tony Awards it lost were for Best Musical and for Book of a Musical (which, ironically, also went to Two Gentlemen of Verona).

The show ran in New York for 522 performances and then went on the road, with almost the entire original cast, first for a week in St. Louis, and then to Los Angeles for an open-ended run to inaugurate the Shubert Theatre in Century City. The LA engagement was intended to be the first stop of a national tour. In LA, the show got the kind of reviews of which a producer can only dream. And yet, the show lasted not even 3 months before closing. In spite of the rave reviews, the show couldn’t establish an audience. And so, on October 1, 1972, the original production of Follies came to an end.

The production lost its entire investment.

For those of us who fondly remember that original production, we’ve waited for a new production to recapture the magic we experienced almost half a century ago. After many near misses and disappointments, it seems that lightning has struck again, this time at the National Theatre in London.

To be continued.

 

 

Report from London – The First 24 Hours

Good morning and greetings from a gloomy, cool and wet London. Our first two days here were gorgeous, sunny and warm. Such is the weather in the UK, I suppose. But a little gloom and doom will not prevent us from having a marvelous time.

Here’s my account of our first 24 hours:

2017-08-27 01 - BA Check-In
Check in at JFK was nasty and very slow. BA reports being “woefully understaffed”

Fortunately, once past check-in and security, the Concorde Room awaited, where we had a lovely pre-flight dinner.

2017-08-27 02 - Heirloom Tomato Burrata
Heirloom tomato and burrata salad – very tasty

2017-08-27 03 - Steak
Perfectly roasted sirloin accompanied by vegetables and a lovely 2013 St. Emilion

Just as we finished dining, it was time to board our flight. Nothing much to report, except to say that BA took very good care of us. Once we reached cruising altitude, our beds were made and we drifted off for about 4 hours of sleep. Before landing, we enjoyed a hot breakfast to start the day.

Our flight arrived on time and, once past customs and baggage claim, we headed for the Heathrow Express, perhaps the best (and certainly fastest) way to get into London – it’s a 15 minute trip. And, by the way, you can get a nice discount if you book your trip online at least 30 days in advance of your travel date.

2017-08-28 04 - Heathrow Express
The Heathrow Express, comfortable and fast

TRAVEL TIP: HEATHROW EXPRESS

The train dropped us off at Paddington Station and, from there, it was a quick 15 minute taxi ride to our hotel, the Shangri-La at the Shard, across the river and a stone’s throw from London Bridge. (Normally, the trip can take longer, but it was a bank holiday, so the streets were pretty empty.)

Shangri-La Shard Logo

We arrived at the hotel at about 10:00 AM and, very fortunately for us, our room was available. Not only that but, because we had booked through the AmEx Fine Hotels and Resorts Program, we were given an upgrade to the Iconic City View Room, which has the best views in the hotel. Thanks, Veronica!!

Iconic City View Room
Our Iconic City View Room – they weren’t kidding about the views

2017-08-28 05 - St. Paul
View #1 – St. Paul’s Cathedral (to the left)

2017-08-28 06 - London Bridge
View #2 – London Bridge (to the right)

TRAVEL TIP: The Shangri-La at the Shard

TRAVEL TIP: AmEx Fine Hotels and Resorts Program

Once we unpacked and got settled in, we decided to walk off the jet lag and grab a bite of lunch. Because we’re across the river from most (if not all) of the action, we took the tube over to  Leicester Square (in the heart of the West End), and started strolling.

Leicester Square
The tube delivered us to Leicester Square in the West End

From there, we walked through Trafalgar Square and over to Piccadilly.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square on a beautiful Monday morning in August

By the time we made our way over to Piccadilly, we were feeling a bit peckish, so we decided to stop in at one of our favorite restaurants in London, The Wolseley. 

A bit of history, courtesy of The Wolseley’s website: “In 1921, Wolseley Motors Limited commissioned the architect, William Curtis Green, to design a prestigious car showroom in London’s West End. He drew on Venetian and Florentine influences, as well as incorporating the Eastern exotic touches that were in fashion at the time. The grand, atmospheric interior with its towering pillars, arches and stairways was testament to the great ambitions of The Wolseley Car Company. The cars were displayed on the marble floor and cost between £225 – £1,300. Unfortunately, the cars did not sell well enough and by 1926 the Company was bankrupt.

Wolseley Showroom
The Wolseley Showroom, ca. 1921.

“Barclays Bank acquired the building and a new branch opened in April 1927. William Curtis Green was recalled to install managers’ offices on either side of the main entrance (now serving as a bar and salon) and a banking counter, further developing the Eastern lacquer theme. He also designed specialized furniture including a post box and stamp machine, still on display today.

“Chris Corbin and Jeremy King secured the site in July 2003 and its restoration and renovation was overseen by David Collins Architects. The Wolseley opened in November 2003.”

Wolseley Cafe
The Wolseley today

The great thing about The Wolseley is that it’s open for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and post-theatre supper. So you can eat there just about any time of day.

We decided to share a couple of things:

2017-08-28 09 - Chicken Sandwich
AAC had a grilled chicken, bacon and avocado sandwich served on ciabatta

2017-08-28 08 - Salad Niçoise
I opted for the Salade Niçoise – a very sensible choice

The food at The Wolseley is always delicious and you’re in an unusual and beautiful dining room and, should you be interested, you’re directly across the street from the world-famous Ritz Hotel.

DINING TIP: The Wolseley

As we finished lunch, the jet lag hit us bigly. So we decided to tube it back to the hotel and take a substantial nap. It felt SO GOOD!

We awoke refreshed and ready to get cleaned up and changed and headed out for our first theatrical adventure of the trip: the West End revival of the 1963 musical, Half A Sixpence

On our way to the Noël Coward Theatre, we passed the Colisseum, home of ENO (the English National Opera). This fall, the company is presenting the world premiere of a new opera by Nico Muhly, Marnie. You may recognize the title from the 1960’s Hitchcock film of the same name, which starred Tippi Hedren (of The Birds fame) and the quintessential James Bond, Sean Connery. Well, ladies and gents, how lucky are we that AAC and I will be back in London for the 1st performance this coming November?

2017-08-28 10 - Marnie
AAC looks forward to Marnie – isn’t that an amazing poster?

Half A Sixpence is based, I kid you not, on the novel, Kipps, The Story of a Simple Soul, by none other than H.G. Wells. It has been said that some plot points in the novel are autobiographical. The musical was revived by Cameron Mackintosh and created a star with the astonishing peformance of 23-year old Charlie Stemp. The actor playing the leading role of Arthur Kipps must carry the show, as he is onstage almost nonstop and is featured in no less than 15 songs. Stemp’s performance is not only accomplished – he is an amazing dancer and constantly in motion – but he’s also genuinely charming in the role and the audience adores him. The show is a constant delight and has been given a lovely and very substantial production.

2017-08-28 11 - Half A Sixpence
AAC arrives for his first show of the trip: Half A Sixpence

Stemp - 01
A Star is Born: Charlie Stemp onstage as Arthur Kipps in Half A Sixpence

Stemp 3
Stemp and Company: Pick Out A Simple Tune

I only wish that I could recommend this delightful show to you as a CULTURAL TIP but, alas, the production closes this weekend. Oh well.

Following the performance, we were peckish again, and so we decided to drop in at another of our favorite culinary establishments (and one at which we dine every time we’re in town), The Ivy, which is celebrating its centenary this very year. Unusual for us, we arrived without a reservation, but we were very lucky to score a table.

The Ivy
The Ivy – a great place to sup post-theatre

DINING TIP: The Ivy

We had a lovely supper and The Ivy is always so friendly and welcoming. 

By the time we finished, it was almost midnight and our first day in London was drawing to a close. It was time to taxi back to the Shangri-La, take some lovely pharmaceuticals and drift off into a delightful sleep with visions of what we’d done that day dancing in our heads.

 

 

On the Road Again – August, 2017

Greetings and salutations, gentle readers! I know it’s been months since TCT posted; we’re just about to undertake our next travel adventure. We’ll be starting in a very familiar place and, after that, visiting some amazing places we’ve never been before. Added to which, we’ll be traveling like we’ve never done before.

Just about 24 hours from now, we’ll be arriving at JFK for an overnight flight to London, via British Airways. Once we’ve checked in, we’ll have the very good fortune to dine at the airport, courtesy of BA’s Concorde Room.

Concorde Room - JFK
Entrance to the Concorde Room, JFK

Here’s a sample menu from the Concorde Room:
Corcorde Room Sample Menu

Then it’s off to the gate to board our 747 chariot which will transport us across the pond:
British Airways

Because we’ll have already eaten, we’ll just climb under the covers and grab some zzzzzs.

Fortunately, we’ll get some “fuel” before landing at LHR:
British Airways Breakfast

One of our favorite ways to travel from LHR into Central London is to take the Heathrow Express. If you’re able to manage your own luggage, it’s a painless (and very economical) way to get there. And, best of all, it’s 15 minutes from the airport to Paddington Station. And then we’re just a short taxi ride from the station to our hotel.

Heathrow Express
The Heathrow Express – only 15 minutes from LHR to Central London!

This time, we’re back at the Shangri-La, atop the amazing Shard

Shangri-La - Shard
The Shangri-La at the Shard is a stone’s throw from London Bridge

Shangri-La - Guest Room
Guest rooms at the Shangri-La are spacious and have amazing views

While we’re in London, we’ll have having some new adventures, starting with London theatre. We’ll be checking out the following shows:

Dreamgirls
Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre

Follies
Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, Follies, at the National Theatre

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
The hardest ticket of all: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (in 2 parts)!

We’ll also have a few other adventures, whilst in London town.

Dulwich Picture Gallery - Exterior
The Dulwich Picture Gallery

Sargent - The Watercolours
Visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see “Sargent: The Watercolours”

Selfridges
Checking out the world-famous Selfridges – the real thing, not the TV series

Selfridges Roof Deck
Having a spot of lunch at Selfridges’ new dining venue, the Roof Deck

After spending the week in beautiful London, we’ll be heading back out to LHR and boarding a flight for Vienna – our 1st visit there.

Vienna
Vienna: City of My Dreams

So, you may ask, why have we chosen Vienna? Besides the fact that it’s one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with amazing culture and culinary treasures, and an incredible history all its own, it’s the place where we’ll start our next adventure:

Crystal Mozart
Crystal Mozart

Yes, we’re embarking on our first river cruise aboard the year-old Crystal Mozart. Although this boat is wider than just any other river boat (double width, in fact), it’s still a bit small by the standards to which we’ve become accustomed.

Crystal Mozart PH with French Balcony
Our cabin is a “Penthouse with French Balcony” – actually, there is no balcony.

The Mozart is a 4-deck boat, accommodating about 150 passengers, and carrying about 90 crew. That’s a lot of crew for 150 passengers!

Crystal Mozart Top Deck
Deck 4 of Crystal Mozart. When going under low crossings, everything on this
deck is hydraulically lowered – it’s magic.

Here’s a map of our itinerary:
Crystal Mozart Itinerary Map

As you can see, we’ll be visiting some interesting places, all new to us.

The river cruise will be 11 days and we’ll start and finish with an overnight in Vienna.

On the last evening of our cruise, we’ll be taken to the Belvedere Palace for champagne and a command performance, just for us and our fellow passengers.

Belvedere Palace Vienna
Belvedere Palace

When we disembark in Vienna at the conclusion of our cruise, we’ll remain for a few days so that we can really experience the city.

Ritz-Carlton Vienna
Our digs in Vienna: The Ritz-Carlton

Ritz-Carlton Junior Suite
One of the Junior Suites at the Ritz-Carlton

Ritz Carlton Junior Suite Bathroom
Dreamy and well-stocked bathroom at the Ritz-Carlton

Things to do while we’re in Vienna:

Schönbrunn Palace
Schönbrunn Palace (seeing how the other half lives)

St Stephen's Cathedral
The magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Cafe Demel Vienna
“Caffee mit schlag” at Cafe Demel

Spanish Riding School
Seeing the horses rehearse at the Spanish Riding School

Steirereck - Vienna
Dining at the multi-Michelin starred Steirereck

Musikverein
Attending an all-Mozart concert at the beautiful Musikverein

And, most improbably, we’ll be paying a visit to Vienna’s Volksoper (The People’s Opera), where you can hear opera, operetta, concerts and, in our case, something completely surprising and unexpected:

Gypsy
Arthur Laurents’, Jule Styne’s and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy – in German!

All-in-all, it’s going to be a very interesting trip. We’ll be gone for about 3 weeks, and I hope to post for you while we’re away.

In the meantime, ta-ta and auf wiedersehn for now.

 

 

Aqaba, Petra, Wadi Rum: A Magical Mystical Day

Where to begin? Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll be given a gift, a memento, an experience that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Yesterday, AAC and I were given all that – and more.

When we planned this trip almost two years ago, we knew that our visit to Aqaba and, from there, to the lost city of Petra and then to Wadi Rum, would undoubtedly be the highlight. Even our trip last year to Antarctica did not quite match up to our expectations of this journey, which were more than fulfilled.

Aqaba - Arrival
Early morning arrival in Aqaba

Our day began when we docked at Aqaba shortly after 7:00 AM. Because of its strategic location, Aqaba has, for many centuries, been a link in trade routes from Asia to Africa and, also, as a rest stop for pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Many moviegoers will remember Aqaba as a major location in the film, Lawrence of Arabia, which depicted the history of the Arab Revolt, almost exactly 100 years ago. The first half of the film, in fact, relates how the Arabs hatched a daring and unexpected plan to take this stronghold by attacking from the desert, rather than from the sea.

When you enter the port of Aqaba, you’ll see an immense flag atop a 400 foot flagpole – it is the flag of the Arab Revolt.

Aqaba - Departure - Arab Revolt Flag

Because Seabourn Encore was in port for only 11 hours, we elected to take a private excursion to insure that we had sufficient time to visit both Petra and Wadi Rum. The driving time alone from Aqaba to Petra was at least 2 hours, another 90 minutes from there to Wadi Rum and, finally, another hour back to the ship. As our excursion was scheduled to last about 9½ hours, that left 5 hours for seeing the sights – an almost impossibly short amount of time.

Our car was waiting for us as we disembarked the ship. The weather was absolutely perfect: warm, but not hot and a crystal clear blue sky. A quick introduction to our guide, Aziz, our driver Mustafa, and we were off.

Aqaba Jordan Map
A map of Jordan showing Aqaba, Petra and Wadi Rum

Petra - AAC Aziz Mustafa
The A Team: Aziz (our guide), Mustafa (our driver) and AAC, CPA

In order to keep this entry manageable and so I can share lots of photos with you, my narrative today will be brief. Here’s what you should know about Petra:

Designated as a UNESCO world Heritage site in 1985, Petra is one of the world’s richest and most unique archeological sites. In order to access the city, you must proceed through a narrow gorge (sometimes only 10 feet wide) called the Bab as-Siq (“Gateway of the Gorge”) which is about a mile in length. While most visitors will walk the gorge, others will choose to travel by donkey or by horse-drawn carriage – and they don’t stop for pedestrians, so be prepared to get out of the way.

Petra was founded by a mysterious nomadic tribe called the Nabateans, who began a gradual migration from Arabia during the 6th century BC. It is thought that, at one time, they lived near Yemen for reasons that will be explained. Because of the relative protection of the Bab as-Siq, they settled in what was to become Petra sometime around 312 BC. The city the Nabateans were to create was carved from solid sandstone. Being in a totally isolated location created many challenges, most especially, creating a viable system to collect and distribute water, and this is where the Nabatean’s connection to Yemen becomes apparent: It is thought that they learned from the Yemenites how to excel in matters of water conservation, became highly skilled water engineers, and were able to irrigate the city with an extensive system of dams, canals and reservoirs.

Of equal importance, the Nabateans constructed a wall to fortify the city, notwithstanding the fact that Petra was almost (but not completely) defended by the surrounding sandstone mountains.

What made the Nabateans the envy of the region was their reputation as incredibly talented traders, who facilitated commerce between China, India, the Far East, Egypt, Syria, Greece and, even, Rome.

The Nabateans prevailed at Petra for many centuries. Although not militarily strong, they found a way, through cunning negotiation, to survive one way or another. It wasn’t until 106 AD that the Romans claimed the Nabatean Kingdom, which they renamed Arabia Petrea. Eventually the city fell into obscurity, known only to the Bedouins, until it was discovered by Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Although the city had fallen into disrepair over the centuries, it wasn’t until over 100 years later – in 1929 – that a team, consisting of folklore expert, Dr. Tawfiq Canaan, Danish scholar, Dr. Ditlef Nielsen and British archeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, began the arduous process of excavating and surveying Petra. 

Excavations have continued over the past century and important discoveries have been found as recently as 2004. 

OK – enough of that. Let’s get to the pictures!

Petra Siq - 03 - AAC Aziz
Aziz leading the way; AAC, CPA following

Petra Siq - 02
Entering the Bab as-Siq: one mile through the gorge to Petra

Petra Siq - 04
The continually changing and surprising Siq

Petra Siq - 05

Petra Siq - 07 - Sculpture
One of many carvings found along the way

Finally, we come to a narrow passage with something in front of us:

Our exit from the Siq and entrance into Petra

(I shot that video myself!)

I would have to say that that short walk of about 100 or so feet from the Siq into the city was one of the most impressive that I’ve ever taken. As you can see, the first site you view when stepping into the city is the iconic Treasury.

Petra - 02 - Treasury

Petra - 01 - AAC Treasury
AAC, CPA in front of the Treasury

Petra - 06 - Cave Colors
Extraordinary colors in the sandstone at Petra – all natural

The Nabateans were heavily influenced by the Greeks and built an amphitheater at which the great Greek plays would be performed.

Petra - 08 - Amiptheater
The amphitheater at Petra

Petra - 09 - Tombs
The royal tombs

Petra - 10 - Camels
Camels are available for riding

We spent about an hour walking around and seeing the various sites of this amazing city.

Then it was time to retrace our steps through the Siq, have a quick lunch and head towards our next stop, Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum – Valley of the Moon – is located in Southern Jordan and lies about 37 miles east of Aqaba. Going all the way back to prehistoric times, it has been inhabited by many different cultures – including the Nabateans. Today is it home almost exclusively to the Zalabia Bedouin. Again, thanks to the worldwide popularity of the film Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum is the 2nd most popular tourist attraction (after, of course, Petra). In the movie, Wadi Rum was depicted as the summer camp of the great Howeitat warrior, Auda Abu Tayi. Auda was, in fact, a significant player in the Arab revolt as his tribesmen were thought to be the fiercest fighters in the desert. 

Auda Abu Tayi - 2
Famed Howeitat chieftain: Auda Abu Tayi

But enough of Audi – back to Wadi Rum. From Petra, we drove for almost 90 minutes before arriving at the Visitors Center at Wadi Rum. You can see the wadi as you approach and it’s everything you imagined it would be – and more.

To get around the wadi, we transferred to what appeared to be a 4-wheel pickup truck. Our driver and Aziz sat in the front and we were in the back. We were shaded by a blanket and there were 2 metal-type benches on either side of the truck with some upholstered padding. Once we got settled in, we were off.

Wadi Rum - 09 - Truck
Our transportation which transported us through Wadi Rum

We were grateful for the padding, but there were a lot of bumps and bouncing around during our time in the wadi – and it was totally worth it.

The weather was absolutely perfect: bright blue skies, temperatures around 80 degrees and a moderate breeze, which kept us cool and comfortable.

From the valley floor, you are astounded at the height of the many rock formations. The highest of them, Jabal Umm ad Dami is over 6,000 feet high. The wadi floor is already at an elevation of 2,000 feet.

Our first stop, less than 10 minutes from where we started, was directly in front of, arguably, the most famous site at Wadi Rum: the rock formation popularly known as Seven Pillars of Wisdom (taken from Lawrence’s epic account of the Arab Revolt):

Wadi Rum - 02 - MAJESTIC
We were literally several hundred feet away from this famed formation

Just behind us was a sandy path leading several hundred feet up to a perfect spot for viewing the entire area.

Wadi Rum - 04A - AAC Climbs
AAC, CPA climbs in the sand (our truck below him in the distance)

Wadi Rum - 06 - MAJESTIC HEIGHT
The view from the top – our truck is far below in the distance

360 Degrees of Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum - 08 - AAC Desert
AAC, CPA climbing down from the heights

Notice, if you will, that we seem to be completely alone in the wadi – for almost the entire time we were there, it was as if Wadi Rum was this well-kept secret just for us (and the few people we met there).

Wadi Rum - 07 - Desert Sagebrush
Desert sagebrush: so reminiscent of desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia

Once we climbed back down to the wadi, we drove on for about 10 minutes to another site.

Wadi Rum - 11 - Graffiti
This graffiti – found on a rock formation – was a way for caravans
to communicate with one another

Wadi Rum - 03 - AAC Aziz Truck
AAC, CPA and our intrepid guide, Aziz

We next stopped at a functioning Bedouin camp. When researching our excursion to Wadi Rum, I came across many references to this visit, and I was somewhat hesitant, as it seemed like a really touristy thing to do (which turned out not to be the case at all).

Wadi Rum - 13 - Lawrence Frieze
At the entrance to the camp, we discovered this frieze of T.E. Lawrence,
dating back to 1917 – the height of the Arab Revolt

From there, it was a few steps to the Bedouin tent.

Wadi Rum - 14 - Bedouin Camp Entrance
Aziz and AAC, CPA enter the Bedouin tent

We were welcomed and offered a refreshing and stimulating glass of herbal tea. The tea was being brewed in what appeared to be a wood-burning fire pit. 

Wadi Rum - 14A - Bedouin Camp - Stove
The “stove” inside the Bedouin tent

Except for the footwear being worn by the Bedouins (Nikes, perhaps?), we felt that it could have been 100 or 300 years ago, sitting in this tent, sipping hot tea, relaxing. Our hosts asked for nothing, would not accept our money for the tea, and were happy for us to stay for as long as we liked. In full disclosure, there was a table of wares and souvenirs close by, but no reference was made to them, nor were we encouraged to look at them. I believe that it would have been considered bad manners if our hosts were to make an issue of it.

Wadi Rum - 17 - Bedouin AAC Aziz and more
Our driver chats with one of the Bedouins, Aziz and AAC, CPA
contemplate their tea

After awhile, we thanked our hosts and took our leave. AAC, CPA and I climbed into the back of the truck for the last time and we headed back to the Visitor’s Center. We took a slightly different route, which enabled us to see more of the rock formations.

Wadi Rum - 19 - AAC in Truck Alternate
AAC, CPA in the back of the truck, taking in the wondrous sites of Wadi Rum

And then, we were at the back of the Visitors Center and pouring desert sand out of our shoes. It was now time to return to the ship and reflect upon the day’s activities.

The drive back to Aqaba took about an hour and it was now very quiet in the car, each of us lost in our own thoughts and reminiscences. 

For myself, I am keenly aware of how lucky I’ve been to be able to have these kinds of experiences. When we were planning this excursion, it was very important that we would be able to visit both Petra and Wadi Rum. We were well aware that yesterday might have been our only opportunity to get to these landmark places.

If you were to ask me which one was my favorite, I realize that it would not be difficult to answer. Petra was as I expected it to be: a miracle of construction and execution, dating back over 2,000 years. But the thing about Wadi Rum, which will stay with me for the rest of my life is that it felt like it was in existence just for us. If you can imagine this vast space, which was totally quiet and devoid of all life, except for the four of us and the few Bedouins we met along the way, it was mystical in a way.

And then it occurred to me that this is the very place where world history has happened, not just Lawrence and Auda a hundred years ago, but prophets and characters from the bible whose footprints were in the very same sand where AAC, CPA and I walked yesterday. The desert has always been a mystical and spiritual place, where great men and heroes have trod. While I am not particularly religious, I do have faith, and it’s easy to understand that momentous events have taken place in this very spot. 

I know that we each have our own bucket list items, but I would strongly encourage you to make an addendum to your list and include Wadi Rum and Petra. It’s an arduous journey, and you will not regret it at all.

Wadi Rum - 12 - MAJESTIC from Truck
One last look at Wadi Rum from the back of the truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seabourn Encore – The Reason We’re Never Hungry

Good afternoon and greetings once more from somewhere between Salaleh, Oman and Aqaba, Jordan. We had an internet outage last night for a number of hours, so it was as if someone had cut off my right arm. Peace (and internet service) has been restored and all is well with the world.

2017-04-25 - 01 - View
Tuesday morning view from our terrace as we sail towards Aqaba

We’ve been aboard the beautiful Seabourn Encore for 8 days now and I thought I should give you a sense of what it’s been like on board. As I think about this particular entry, it’s going to focus mostly on food, as that’s one of the main features of traveling by ship. There may be a couple of detours along the way, but our main focus will be grub.

There are five dining venues on the ship:

  • The Restaurant
  • The Colonnade
  • Sushi
  • The Patio
  • The Grill by Thomas Keller

(There is also, of course, in-room dining 24/7.)

Of these venues, both Sushi (midship on deck 8) and, most importantly, The Grill by Thomas Keller (aft on deck 8) are new to Seabourn. In fact, Seabourn has entered into an agreement with Keller to provide venues on each of the Seabourn ships. For those of you “in the know”, Thomas Keller is an internationally renowned chef, whose flagship restaurant is the French Landry in Yountville, California. Just down the street and within walking distance are Ad Hoc and Bouchon, two less formal and more affordable restaurants. He also opened Per Se in New York in 2005. He is a big deal.

Sushi is the smallest dining venue and is open for lunch (Bento boxes) and for dinner (sushi and sashimi).

The Restaurant, located midship on deck 4, is the main dining venue, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Colonnade, aft on deck 9, is a casual dining venue, offering breakfast and lunch buffets. In the evening, it offers a theme cuisine and, on certain nights, it features a set menu by Thomas Keller and is by reservation only. The concept is a spinoff of the Ad Hoc experience in Yountville.  

The Patio is the most casual venue located poolside on deck 7. It’s the go-to place for burgers and hot dogs at lunch, light snacks, but also offers a dinner buffet each evening.

Arguably the prime dining experience is The Grill by Thomas Keller and is the only venue requiring advance reservations. When you’ve booked passage and paid for your cruise, you may make one online reservation to dine there. Once you’re onboard, you can then make a 2nd reservation and, if your cruise exceeds 2 weeks, you may request a 3rd reservation, which will only be guaranteed the night before. The menu offers many of Keller’s favorites and every ingredient is sourced from a purveyor with whom Keller and his team has had a long-term relationship. So, for instance, if lamb is on the menu, it will be sourced from Keith Martin’s Elysian Fields Farm; if it’s butter, then Keller uses the entire annual production of Diane St. Claire’s inventory. (According to Keller, St. Claire’s expansion has been specifically to accommodate Keller’s needs.)

So, without further ado, I’d like to share with you some of our onboard culinary adventures over the past week:

Night #2: Dinner at the Colonnade featuring a 4-course set menu by Thomas Keller:

Located aft on deck 9, the Colonnade features both inside and outside dining. In the evening, it’s so pleasant to eat al fresco as a gentle breeze keeps you cool and comfortable.

2017-04-18 - 02 - AAC - Keller Colonnade - 01
AAC, CPA anticipates his candlelit dinner, courtesy of Thomas Keller

2017-04-18 - 03 - Keller Colonnade Menu
The menu for this evening’s feast

Over the course of this voyage, The Colonnade will present 3 different Thomas Keller 4-course menus. The others feature ribeye steak and a traditional clambake.

2017-04-18 - 04 - Keller Colonnade Gem Lettuce
First course: gem lettuce with green goddess dressing – huge portion!

2017-04-18 - 05 - Keller Colonnade Ribs
Hickory smoked BBQ ribs with deeeelicious sides

2017-04-18 - 06 - Keller Colonnade Cheese
Cheese course with amazing honey

2017-04-18 - 07 - Keller Colonnade Potted Cheesecake
Save room for potted cheesecake with poached blueberries

Before going any further, I must mention the excellent service at all dining venues. It is friendly, genuine and very professional. Within a day or so, all of the servers knew us by name and they have, without fail, delivered every time.

Night #3: Dinner at The Grill by Thomas Keller

Having made an online reservation in advance, we were delighted to be able to dine at the Grill so early in the cruise. Before dinner, however, we stopped by the bar adjacent to the Grill so that our new BFF, head mixologist Bobby, could create some fabulous libation for us. 

2017-04-19 - 02 - Bobby
Bobby’s amazing Negronis – our fave cocktail

2017-04-19 - 10 - Bobby
And the man himself, Bobby, hard at work doing his magic

After enjoying our Negronis, it was time for the main event.

2017-04-19 - 03 - AAC Thomas Keller Grill
AAC, CPA seated and anticipating dinner

2017-04-19 - 05 - Thomas Keller Grill - 02 - Caesar Salad
Caesar Salad prepared tableside – hearts of romaine only, please

2017-04-19 - 06 - Thomas Keller Grill - 03 - Veal T-Bone
For me, the broiled and naturally fed veal T-bone with a silky bernaise

2017-04-19 - 07 - Thomas Keller Grill - 04 - Lamb Medallions
For AAC, CPA Elysian Fields Farm lamb medallions with herb crust

Although wine and spirits are all-inclusive, we decided to spring for a bottle from the premium wine list as a fond reminder of a wonderful Malbec we had last year in Buenos Aires.

2017-04-18-11 - Catena
A lovely 2013 Catena Alta Zapata Malbec from the Mendoza region

2017-04-19 - 08 - Thomas Keller Grill - 05 - Chocolate Cake
How about a slice of dark chocolate layer cake for dessert?

Let me again commend the entire wait staff – the service was absolutely first rate and we enjoyed our meal immensely.

Day #6: Lunch at Home

We decided on Saturday that we wanted to eat on our terrace for lunch. We were docked that day in Salalah, and decided not to leave the ship.

2017-04-22 - 01 - Lunch at Home - 01
We craved club sandwiches and pommes frites – tablecloth included

2017-04-22 - 02 - Lunch at Home - 02
And, for dessert, my fave: mint chip chocolate ice cream and cookies

(And they even brought us chocolate sauce for the ice cream!!)

Detour #1:

The reason we ate at home was that we needed to do some laundry. One of the few flaws in Encore’s design (which we’re told will be remedied in about 3 weeks) is that there is no self-service laundry. Now I know that it may strike you as strange that something like that would be an issue with us, but the fact is that AAC, CPA likes to do his own laundry. We were told that we could stuff a laundry bag with as much as it would hold and it would only cost $50!! AAC, CPA took that as a challenge and he determined that we would do it ourselves and pocket the $50.

2017-04-23 - 01 - Laundry Day
Laundry day aboard Seabourn Encore

Detour #2:

And, for no particular reason, here’s another photo of the fabulous sunsets we’re enjoying every evening. Because we’re sailing westward and our cabin is at the very front of the ship, it’s as if we’re getting a front-row seat.

2017-04-23 - 02 - Sunset
Another fabulous sunset 

2017-04-23 - 03 - Sunset AAC
AAC, CPA enjoying the sunset with glass in hand

EVENING #8: Sushi for One (or “If you knew sushi, like I know sushi”)

For those of you have been with me for the long haul, you may recall that our very own AAC, CPA has some food quirks – his likes and DISlikes are legion. Sad to tell, he intensely hates sushi – not that he’s ever tried it, I’m pretty sure. As Sushi (the dining venue) serves only sushi and sashimi at dinner time, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll give it a shot.

Therefore, I decided to go all by my lonesome last night, just for a pre-dinner hors d’eauvre. I sat at the sushi bar and, once again, had wonderful service and a delicious sampling of the menu, accompanied by a lovely French Sauvignon Blanc.

2017-04-24 - 01 - Sushi - 01
Nigiri – Akami and Safe (tuna and salmon)

2017-04-24 - 02 - Sushi - 01
An Okayo signature roll (salmon, asparagus, avocado, salmon roe)

2017-04-24 - 03 - Sushi - 01
And our sushi chefs – hamming it up for the camera

So there you have it, a small sampling of our culinary adventures thus far. And I haven’t even mentioned any of the buffets yet!

More to follow!

PS. Look what just sailed by us:

IMG_4927
Friend or foe, I wonder?

 

 

Muscat, Oman: The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (and other places of interest)

Good morning and greetings as the beautiful Seabourn Encore approaches the harbor at Salalah, Oman. I’ve fallen behind on my blog entries, and I hope you’ll be generous about my laziness.

Salalah Harbor
The not very picturesque entry into the port at Salalah, Oman

On Thursday, we had the great good fortune to visit Muscat. As you know, AAC, CPA and I are not big on group tours and usually prefer to go off exploring on our own. After talking it over with the outstanding and indispensable Guest Services Team aboard Encore, we decided to take the complimentary ship’s shuttle service into town and hire a taxi to squire us around. Interestingly, you haggle over the rate, which is exactly what we did, ending up with a young local and his somewhat dilapidated car. No matter: we were in for an adventure.

Medid & AAC
Our intrepid guide/driver, Medid with the equally intrepid AAC, CPA

Muscat Taxi
Our fancy wheels – the AC worked just fine

There were 2 things that we wanted to see: the  Royal Opera House Muscat and, more importantly, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It’s probably one of the most imposing structures in all of the Arab states. It certainly took our breath away. The Mosque is open daily to tourists, but only until 11:00 AM, so we made it our first stop.

A few facts about the construction of the Mosque:

  • Construction took over 6 years and the Mosque was completed in 2001;
  • It was a gift from the Sultan Qaboos to mark the 30th year of his reign;
  • The entire site covers over 102 acres;
  • The Mosque was built from 300,000 tons of Indian Sandstone;
  • Between the main musalla (prayer hall) and other areas, the Mosque can accommodate over 20,000 worshipers simultaneously;
  • The private musalla – the first prayer hall through which you pass – is for women only and can accommodate up to 750 at a time;
  • The main musalla is for men only and accommodates over 6,500 at a time;
  • The main musalla measures over 46,700 square feet;
  • The prayer carpet in the musalla took over 4 years to complete and weighs over 21 tons. It was weaved by over 600 women and contains 1,700,000,000 knots;
  • It is the 2nd largest hand-loomed Iranian carpet in the world;
  • The chandelier – considered to be the largest in the world – weighs 8.5 tons; 
  • The chandelier hangs over 26 feet from the dome and is trimmed with over 600,000 Swarovski crystals and features ornate gold plated metalwork.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - 01
Approaching the Mosque – the 5 minarets each represent 1 pillar of Islam

 

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA shoeless and at the Mosque

Sultan Qabass Grand Mosque Ablution
Before entering the Mosque, men come here for the ritual cleansing

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - Entry
Entering the Mosque

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Exterior - 04
The tallest of the 5 minarets rises 300 feet into the air

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - AAC - 03
AAC, CPA with one of the minarets in the background

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - 01
The private musalla – for women only – accommodates up to 750 at a time

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - 02
The private musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - 03
Another view of the private musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Main - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA inside the private musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - Middle - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA in a covered area between the private musalla and the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque - AAC - 04 - Entry
AAC, CPA outside the entrance to the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 02
Inside the main musalla, which accommodates over 6,500 men at a time

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 03
Another view of the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 06
One more view of the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 01
The main chandelier and dome inside the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA inside the main musalla

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque Interior - 05
Ornate stonework at the eastern wall of the main musalla

Suffice it to say that we were dazzled by visiting this famous mosque. Interestingly, nowhere in my research could I find any estimates of the cost to build it. I guess that, if you have to ask . . . . . . . . 

From the mosque, we made a quick visit to the Royal Opera House Muscat, the only opera house in the Arab states. In 2001, the Sultan Qaboos – this guy has lots of sway and, obviously, lots of swag – determined that Muscat should have its own opera house. Ten years later, on October 11, 2001, the opera house gave its inaugural performance: Puccini’s Turandot, in a spectacular production designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli (a production which had originally been seen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera). Legendary tenor/baritone/conductor, Placido Domingo, was on the podium for this performance. Needless to say, it was a big deal.

Unfortunately, there was an onstage rehearsal when we arrived, so it was not possible to go inside to see the auditorium. 

Muscat Royal Opera House - 02
Royal Opera House Muscat

Muscat Royal Opera House - 02 - AAC
AAC, CPA in front of the opera house

Turandot
Spectacular production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Royal Opera House

Interestingly, just a few yards away stood a familiar sight:

Opera House - Fauchon - 01
Yes, it’s Fauchon in Muscat!!

Opera House Shops - Fauchon - 03
And a really cool (as in beautifully air-conditioned) indoor cafe

Also attached to the opera house complex was a very upscale mall with several dozen high end stores and at least one restaurant. Our driver encouraged us to take a stroll, mostly to enjoy the air conditioning before we soldiered on.

From there, we drove to the Al Alam (Flag) Royal Palace, the ceremonial palace to the Sultan Qaboos. It’s quite a sprawling amalgam of buildings but here we are at the official entrance.

Royal Palace - 04
Entrance to the royal palace

Royal Palace - 01 - AAC
AAC, CPA plays the palace yet again

Royal Palace - 03 - Gate Detail
Ornate gate detail (note TheCulturedTraveler reflected in same)

By then, it was time to think about returning to the ship – we’d visited what we most wanted to see, it was blazingly hot, and our time with Medid was running out. He dropped us off at City Center, where we hopped back onto the shuttle which would return us to the ship.

Encore Docked
Encore as seen from City Center

Seabourn does it so well – when we returned to the ship, look what was awaiting us:

Encore Welcome Back Beverage
Yummy, yummy, yummy

So, if you are fortunate enough to find yourself in Muscat, please do yourself a big favor and visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – it is, without fail, the highlight of anything we’ve seen while we’ve been here. Imposing, beautifully designed, of great architectural value and an important religious landmark. Highly recommended.

Meanwhile, here we are in Salalah, Oman, our last port before 5 glorious sea days and then – SPOILER ALERT!! – Aqaba, Jordan, from which we’ll visit Wadi Rum and the lost city of Petra: for us, I think it’ll be the highlight of the cruise.

(Don’t tell anyone – shhhhh – but AAC, CPA and I are going to play hookey today and remain on the ship. I think, maybe a little room service – we’ll have club sandwiches and fries on our ginormous terrace – and just laze around all day.)

In the meantime, I’ll share some more stories with you about the amazing time we’re having on this very lovely ship, Encore.

Until next time . . . . . . .