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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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 . . . . . . . 

 

 

 

Greetings from Dubai – Day 2

Good morning, sports fans! It’s about 7:30 AM Dubai time as I share this entry with you. So I’ll try to be a bit brief – HAH! Do I even know the meaning of that word? – as we finish packing, grab some breakfast and then embark Seabourn Encore in just a few hours.

Before we do, however, I thought I’d tell you about the remainder of our visit to Dubai.

On Saturday evening, we had the pleasure of dining at Al Nafoorah, an excellent Lebanese restaurant, in the imposing Emirates Towers, another hotel located about 10 minutes from our temporary home, Raffles Dubai. It has been highly rated for both its food and service, so I thought we’d give it a go. And, besides, when in Rome, right?

Emirates Lobby
The lobby at Emirates Tower

Emirates Lobby - 01
Fabulous floral arrangement in the Emirates Tower Lobby

Al Nafoorah Dining Room
The Dining Room at Al Naforrah

Because it was a beautiful evening – only about 85 degrees, but very dry – we opted to dine al fresco on the restaurant’s terrace. Our waiter was wonderful and made sensible and delicious recommendations, as we’re somewhat unfamiliar with traditional Lebanese cuisine. He suggested that we try a sampling of hot and cold mezze and then see how it goes. We accompanied the food with a delicious Lebanese Cabernet Sauvignon.

Al Naforrah Hummus
Tasty hummus – not too much garlic for AAC, CPA

Al Nafoorah Chef Salad
The chef’s salad, with an amazing pomegranate dressing

Al Nafoorah Chicken Livers
Sensational sauteéd chicken livers with pomegranate sauce

We had a marvelous meal, but never got beyond the mezze – the portions were just too large. One of them, the sauteéd chicken livers in a pomegranate sauce, is a must if you go. We also enjoyed the labneh (cucumber/yogurt/olive oil), and the grilled halloumi. Again, the service was so good, and we really appreciated that the waiter realized – after finishing off the mezze – we had no room for more food (and told us so). However, he presented us with a complimentary dessert of incredibly fresh melons and pineapple, accompanied by a delicious Ashtha bin asail (fresh cream with almonds, honey and pistachios) – the perfect ending to our meal.

Al Nafoorah - 02
Al Nafoorah’s light dessert – perfect finish

DINING TIP: Al Nafoorah

In Dubai, the weekend is Friday and Saturday. Yesterday being Sunday, it was the first day of the work-week. We found that out as we Uber’ed over to the Jumeirah Mosque for a morning tour. For the first time, we had traffic issues, but that was OK.

The Jumeirah Mosque offers an English-speaking tour at 10:00 AM every day, except Friday, for a very nominal fee. When you arrive at the Visitor’s Center to check in, there’s also a complimentary buffet. The tour attracts a large crowd, which I’d estimate at close to 200 people yesterday morning.

Our tour guide – originally from England – was Latifah, also know as Terry. She was very engaging and approachable, and walked us through not only the 5 pillars of Islam but, also, explained how the Mosque (any mosque, actually) is used for the formalities that are a part of the experience, including the ritual washing before entering and the removal of shoes and, even, how one prays when inside. This particular mosque, btw, dates back to the mid-1970s, so it’s rather new, as mosques go.

In a way, the experience felt like a bit of propaganda, but in a smart and strategic way. Especially interesting is that, when Latifah had finished her remarks, she opened it up to questions and she said that nothing was off limits. The assembled crowed, however, was a bit tame, so the questions were mostly benign. All-in-all, it was 75 minutes well-spent with several takeaways for thought.

Jumeirah Mosque - 01
Jumeirah Mosque

Jumeirah Mosque AAC - 01
AAC, CPA inside the Mosque

Jumeirah Mosque - Latifah - Terry
Our tour guide, Latifah

Jumeirah Mosque - AAC - 02
AAC, CPA back in his shoes following our tour of the Mosque

SIGHTSEEING TIP: Jumeirah Mosque

Once we returned the hotel, we decided to visit the adjacent Wafi Mall, which was accessible through an interior entrance. While our visit the previous day to Dubai Mall was nothing short of overwhelming and created all kinds of sensory overload, the much smaller Wafi Mall was much less intimidating – and almost empty of customers!

But it was fun to walk through and see what was on display. Some of the big names were there, and some of the design elements were photo-worthy.

Wafi Mall
Exterior entrance to Wafi Mall Souq

Wafi Mall Interior
Stained glass ceiling, consistent with Egyptian design 

We happened upon a wonderful venue – Wafi Gourmet – where one could shop or sit at one of several counters and enjoy a meal or a coffee or a sweet. It combined both modern and traditional kinds of merchandise.

Wafi Mall Spices
Fabulous selection of fresh spices at Wafi Gourmet

FOOD TIP: Wafi Gourmet

Having concluded our expeditions for the day, we hung around the suite and relaxed for a few hours.

Dubai Sunset
Another perfect Dubai sunset, as seen from our terrace

We elected to stay in the hotel on our 3rd and final night. We started off with cocktails at the Raffles Salon, located in the lobby.

Raffles Dubai Saloon
Raffles Dubai Salon

Cocktails - AAC
AAC, CPA anticipates his bespoke cocktail, the Gin and IT

While we awaited our cocktails, we had a chance, once again, to appreciate the lobby decor.

Raffles Lobby
The Raffles Dubai lobby – imposing but very welcoming, too

I’d like to be able to report to you that we enjoyed our cocktails but, alas, they were the one thing that let us down at this otherwise superb hotel. My Gordon’s martini was sorely lacking in gin, and I wasn’t exactly sure what the barman did to it; AAC, CPA’s Gin and IT, a concoction of gin, Martini Rosso and Angostura (as close to a Negroni as we were likely to get) was marginally better, but disappointing. The olives, however, were a smashing success. Dubai does olives really well.

As we left the Salon, we noticed the tea service (below), which is quite elegant. Note, if you can, the 3 miniature sand-timers in the lower part of the picture – to brew your tea for 3 or 4 or 5 minutes. Cool beans.

Raffles Tea Service

We then headed up to Raffles Gardens for dinner. Once again, we elected to dine outdoors as the weather was perfect for it.

Dinner Tent
Raffles Gardens

Dinner Tent - AAC
AAC, CPA inside our tent and anticipating more food

As the night before, we had a great waiter who helped us navigate the menu. This time we elected to share a mezze platter and a mixed grill, accompanied by a lovely bottle of rosé, perfect for a warm night.

Dinner Tent - Wine
A little underexposed, but you get the idea.

Raffles Night Exterior
Another view of the hotel from our tent in the gardens

After enjoying our food and wine, we returned to the suite for some final packing and preparation for today’s transfer to the ship.

As I contemplate our visit to Dubai, I’m so glad we had the opportunity to be here, even for only 2 full days. We had been told, from friends who had already been, to lower our expectations, that Dubai was some kind of Las Vegas on steroids. (There is, in fact, some truth to that.)

But we arrived with open minds and were not disappointed. It’s pretty amazing to be in a city which, until about 20 years ago, was almost nonexistent. The amount of building and infrastructure that has occurred here over that period of time is mind-boggling. When I consider the two “touristy” things we did here – visits to the Jumeirah Mosque and the Dubai Mall – it perfectly describes Dubai as a city of contrasts: the traditional versus the modern; the sacred versus the profane. Dubai attempts to have it both ways and, in many ways, succeeds.

Okay, kids, it’s time to get organized and on our way. The next time you hear from us, we’ll be aboard Seabourn Encore!

 

Greetings from Dubai – Day 1

I’m writing to you from the 12th floor of the fabulous Raffles Dubai. We checked in last night around 10:00 PM. More about that in a bit.

Thought I’d finish telling you about our Etihad experience yesterday. It was flawless – you actually wanted the flight to be LONGER!

As I signed off yesterday (during the flight and after my first meal service), I became filled with ennui (and extreme fatigue) – perhaps the combination of jet lag and alcoholic intake. One of the nicest features of The Apartment is that one side can be converted into a very comfortable bed. Even thought it was a relatively short flight, I thought that a brief nap could do me no harm. So I asked the purser to make up my bed.

ETIHAD Bed
My bed aboard the Etihad A380 – doesn’t it look delightful?

I climbed under the covers and it was so luxurious and extremely comfortable. I’ve had the good fortune to fly on numerous flights that feature “lie flat beds”, but none came remotely close to the comfort level this one had. I closed the doors to my suite, was out cold in 5 minutes and slept for about an hour. How lucky am I?

Upon awakening, I felt that it was time to eat again. Why, I can’t possibly tell you. But I’d been told that the Etihad Steak Sandwich was a must, so I ordered one straightaway. In order to mitigate the damage, I invited AAC, CPA to join me and share the meal.

2nd Meal Service
Table for 2 at 36,000 feet

AAC wants food
AAC, CPA needs feeding

AAC happy
Etihad steak sandwich for 2 – AAC, CPA happy

The sandwich was accompanied by a truffled mayonnaise and warm garlic chips. And, of course, Eren (our food and beverage manager) paired the sandwich with a delicious Rioja. Somehow we devoured the sandwich in record time.

AAC, CPA wasn’t quite finished, however. He requested a plate of sweets to finish off the meal.

Dessert
Our totally unnecessary dessert – but delicious, nevertheless

By the time we finished stuffing ourselves, we were about 45 minutes from landing. Our flight crew – chef, food & beverage manager, purser and attendant – couldn’t have been nicer and we’ve never had better service in the air.

So thus say I: If you ever have the opportunity to fly Etihad in The Apartments, jump at it! We did it on AAdvantage miles – 110,000 each (BA from JFK – LHR; Etihad from LHR to AUH, tho’ after June 1st, nonstop Etihad award flights from JFK – AUH will be a bit more available due to the additional A380 daily flight for the same 110,000 miles). We would never pay for such a flight – the nonstop from JFK will currently set you back $15,881 PER PERSON!!!! – but the award is very achievable, provided that you can plan about 3 months ahead of your travel date, which is when the awards seem to appear.

TRAVEL TIP: Etihad Airways: Flying Reimagined

We had arranged with our hotel – Raffles Dubai – for a car to meet our flight and drive us to Dubai. We were lucky to be given “fast track” cards for border control, and we were sped through. Our luggage came up almost immediately and, before we knew it, we were met by a driver and hotel greeter and quickly en route to Dubai – about an 80 minute drive.

When we were about 5 minutes from the hotel, our greeter contacted them so that we’d be met upon arrival. As we got out of the car, Anita was waiting for us, whisked us through the lobby and took us immediately up to our suite to check us in.

We reserved one of the Landmark Suites, situated on the 12th floor of the pyramid-shaped hotel. It’s a sprawling space, with a huge living/dining area, wet bar, bedroom with separate dressing area, beautiful master bath with a jacuzzi and, finally, a powder room. Oh, and did I mention that we have 2 terraces?

An added benefit of being in the Landmark Suite is that you have access to the Raffles Lounge down on the 10th floor. It offers complimentary continental breakfast, afternoon tea and evening canapes and cocktails. It’s a nice extra.

Welcome to Raffles
Welcome sweets from the hotel

Living Room - Night
Our living and dining area with wet bar behind

Bedroom - Night
Our bedroom

It was well after midnight by the time we’d settled in, and we weren’t even really unpacking – we’re saving most of our things for the ship on Monday, and we’re just in Dubai for 2 full days. Finally, we passed out and got a relatively good night’s sleep.

We were up fairly bright and early this morning. We took our time waking up, as we’ve raced through 8 times zones since leaving New York on Wednesday night.

Dubai by Day
Good morning, Dubai – the view from our suite

Terrace - 01
Terrace #1 off the living room

Terrace - 02
Terrace #2 off the bedroom

Eventually we made our way down to breakfast at Azur, which features an extensive buffet of Eastern and Western dishes. If you book this hotel through the AmEx FHR program, breakfast is included, as is a $100 food and beverage credit. Thanks, Veronica!

HOTEL TIP: Raffles Dubai

Did I mention that it’s really hot here? During the day, the temperature climbs to about 100 degrees and barely dips below 80 at night. Although the skies are clear, there seems to be a haze around everything – not sure why that is.

Because of the heat, we were a bit concerned about getting around while we’re here. The hotel – lovely as it is – is not convenient to anything, so one would have to walk quite a distance just to find public transportation. We checked with the hotel’s concierge and found out that taxis and/or Uber are both viable ways to get around. We opted for Uber.

We decided to make a trip over to one of Dubai’s most famous destinations: Dubai Mall. For all of you mall-goers who shop ’til you drop, you may have think you’ve been to the mall. But not in your wildest imagination have you ever been to something like the one in Dubai. There are something like 1,200 stores, restaurants, cafes, etc., located in this one place. I’m not that much of a shopper, but I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the place. Oh, and if you want to put on the blades, there’s a skating rink!

Dubai Mall
Dubai Mall – Something for Everyone

Aquarium
Or maybe you’d like to visit an aquarium?

Ice Rink - 02
Or take a spin on the ice when it’s 98 degrees outside?

AAC - Garrett's
The Dubai Mall even has Garrett popcorn – a Chicago institution!

Shake Shack
Unlike in NYC, there’s no waiting here – step right in!

IHop
Or, perhaps, something very retro?

Diver Wall Sculpture - 02
Very cool art and so reminiscent of Rosa Mexicano in New York City

SIGHTSEEING TIP: THE DUBAI MALL

After about 90 minutes – when our eyes began to cross from all the different shops – we Uber’ed it back to the hotel. Oh, and entre nous, Uber is extremely affordable here and, so far, the drivers have all been great and very friendly.

Back at the hotel, we decided to sample the complimentary afternoon tea at the Raffles Lounge (which we needed like a hole in the head). But it was quite nice, as you will see below.

Afternoon Tea
AAC, CPA is happy again

After that, there was nothing else to do, except to laze on our terraces, which had just begun to move into the shade. While it was hot, it was also kind of dreamy just hanging around and taking in the sights. 

And then we passed out for an hour!

As I put the finishing touches on this entry, AAC, CPA is showering up in preparation for dinner at the beautiful Al Nafoorah Restaurant, located in the Emirates Tower. More about that later.

But here’s one last image for today – sunset in beautiful and exotic Dubai:

 

Sunset
“The sun sits low, (almost) as low as it’s going to go”
Wadaeaan al’an!

On the Road Again – Part Three

Greetings from the Concorde Room at JFK, which is the 1st class lounge for British Airways passengers. The great thing about this lounge is that you can have a lovely dinner on the ground before you board your flight. We’ve just finished a 3-course meal and have about an hour before we board our flight to London Heathrow (which you probably already know).

Before we got to the airport, though, here’s our intrepid AAC, CPA with the baggage (no, not me), whilst waiting for our car to arrive:

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AAC, CPA with the bags

CONCORDE ROOM ENTRANCE
The dapper (and hungry) AAC, CPA arrives at the Concorde Room

The meal was quite delicious:

Artichoke
A grilled artichoke and frisee salad for AAC, CPA

Gravlax
A delicious gravlax with pickled fennel and lemon Greek yogurt for me

Sirloin
We both had the Szechuan Crusted NY Sirloin with Sauteed Baby Bok Choy

Mille Feuille
And we each had the Raspberry Mille Feuille with White Chocolate Ice Cream

Each course came with the appropriate wine pairings and we are both now very relaxed and satisfied. Can’t wait to board the plane and climb under the covers!

Getting back to business:

Now that I’ve told you about how we’re getting to Dubai and also about Seabourn Encore, I thought you might like to know our cruise itinerary. Although there are 9 sea days – the entire cruise is 19 days! – it is, especially for us, port intensive. And all of them are new to us, so it’s a good thing that we’ve done our homework and brought along sensible shoes!

We will sail from Dubai next Monday at approximately 5:00 PM. Here’s a look at our cruise itinerary:

Cruise Itinerary
Map courtesy of Seabourn

As you can see, our first stop will be Doha, Qatar. One of the things we were most looking forward to seeing was to visit the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by the renowned architect, I.M. Pei. As luck would have it, the museum is closed on Tuesdays which is, of course, the day we’ll be in port. (Grrrrr.) We will, however, most likely visit the famous Souq Waqif, the central market, which has served the city for many centuries. If falconry is your thing, the Falcon Souq is just next door!

Doha - Museum of Islamic Art - IM Pei
I.M. Pei designed the Museum of Islamic Art – closed on Tuesdays!

Doha - Souq Waqif
The Souq Waqif – centuries old

Following our depature from Doha, we’ll enjoy our first day at sea (my fave!)

Our next port is Muscat, Oman, the “Pearl of Mystic Arabia”. Muscat is a city of untold riches, as personified by such sites as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the recently built Muscat Royal Opera House, which attracts many of the world’s finest singers. Unfortunately, there will be no performances while we’re in town, but we hope to take a tour and see the opera house for ourselves.

Muscat - Sultan Taymoor Grand Mosque
The fantastic Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Muscat - Royal Opera House
The Muscat Royal Opera House

Muscat - Royal Opera House Interior
Interior of the Opera House

Following another sea day, we land in Salalah, Oman’s ancient incense capital and an oasis of lush vegetation, unlike the otherwise arid landscapes of the Arabian peninsula. One of the excursions offered will include a visit to Job’s tomb: a sacred site of pilgrimage for Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike.

Salalah
Salalah, Oman

SONY DSC
A sacred biblical site: Job’s tomb

Once we depart from Salalah, we will then have 5 full sea days, giving us a chance to become really well acquainted with Encore and its passengers and crew. Hopefully, we’ll have good internet service during those seas days so that I can keep you up to date with all of our on board adventures.

Our next port – and the highlight of the trip for us – is Aqaba, Jordan which, for those of you who are Lawrence of Arabia fans, played a major role in the Arab revolt during World War I. Nowadays, the port serves as Jordan’s only deep water port and, as important, is the place from which you can get to Petra, the country’s most important historical attraction.

Because we are in port for only 11 hours, it was necessary for us to book a private car and guide, as we wanted to visit not only Petra but, also, Wadi Rum, which was also one of the primary locations in Lawrence of Arabia. This excursion will be very intensive, but also very exciting.

Long considered the Lost City, Petra is one of the most spectacular sights in all antiquity, a city carved out of solid sandstone, and lost to all but the most intrepid Bedouins until 1812, and excavation of the site didn’t begin until more than a full century later. To get to the main city, you walk on foot (or via a horse-drawn carriage for hire) through a narrow gorge, a mile-long siq. We’re told that a vist to Petra is an experience that you will not easily forget.

Petra Souq
You walk through the extremely narrow siq to get to Petra

Petra Treasury
Petra’s most famous landmark – the Treasury, carved out of sandstone

Once we’ve visited Petra, we’ll return through the gorge to our waiting car. As time is so short, we’ll have a box lunch en route to our next site, the majestic Wadi Rum, about an hour away. Indeed, we’ll be transported back to the time of T.E. Lawrence, Auda Abu Tayi, Prince Faisal and the fearless Bedouins who particpated in the Arab Revolt.

Wadi Rum
The majestic Wadi Rum

Wadi Rum - TE Lawrence
Memorial Carving of T.E. Lawrence at Wadi Rum

Following our visit to Wadi Rum, it’s back to the ship. I believe that this excursion will be one of the most memorable we’ve ever experienced.

Another sea day and, then, the ship will transit the Suez Canal. Having already been through the Panama Canal a few years ago, it will be very interesting to compare and contrast the experience. 

Suez Canal opening
The Suez Canal opened to traffic in 1869Suez Canal Modern
A more modern look at the Suez Canal

The following day, we land at Ashdod, the largest port in Israel and the main gateway to Jerusalem. From the port, it’s about a 75-minute drive (in good traffic!) to this sacred city. Again, because time is short, we’ve elected to hire a car and guide/driver to take us from the ship through the Judean Hills to Jerusalem. I visited Israel many years ago (let’s just say not in this millennium) but AAC, CPA has never been. So I’ve chosen what I believe to be the most important sites for us to see: the Old City (in quadrants for the many faiths who live and worship there), the Wailing Wall (the holiest Jewish site in the World) and the Dome of the Rock (the holiest of all Muslim shrines). 

AShdod
The port city of Ashdod, Israel

Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount
Jerusalem

Thanks to our good friend, Yaniv, who has been so generous in suggesting things to do while we’re in Israel, we’ve also scored a reservation for lunch at one of the city’s finest restaurants, Machneyuda, adjacent to the world-famous Mahane Yehuda Market. It seems that Israel has become a place for foodies!

Machneyuda
Machneyuda for lunch!

Mahane Yehuda Market
The Mahane Yehuda Market next door

After our return to the ship, Encore will reposition over to Haifa, Israel’s primary port and located about an hour away (by train) from Tel Aviv. AAC CPA and I have decided that we’ll venture out on our own, starting with a train ride and then visiting Yafo (Jaffa), the Old City, much of which has become a cultural enclave and also has wonderful cafes and restaurants. 

Tel Aviv - Yaffo
Yafo

So we’ll spend our day in Tel Aviv strolling around the city and taking in the sights. Then we’ll get back on the train to Haifa and return to the ship.

Another sea day and then we’ll travel to the Greek Islands. We’ll visit two ports: Rhodes and Santorini, both of which have rich histories and are extremely picturesque. Although excursions are available, I think we’ll opt for “independent activities”, checking out the sites, taking in the cafes, and just soaking up the atmosphere.

Rhodes
Rhodes

Santorini
The magical island of Santorini

We’ll depart Santorini late in the afternoon – it’s our last port and we’ll sail over to Piraeus (Athens), where we’ll disembark after our 19-day adventure aboard the beautiful Seabourn Encore and transfer to Athens International for our flights home – and to reality – and to getting on the scale to see how much damage we’ve done. 🙂

How lucky are we that we get to travel to these fabulous places? Stay tuned for my reports as we experience them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Road Again – Part Two

Greetings from a fabulously warm and sunny day in New York City. The last time I checked, the Fahrenheit was sitting at a sumptuous and dreamy 78. At least for now, Spring has sprung.

Our countdown clock now stands at about T-28 hours, which marks our departure for JFK, where we’ll catch our overnight chariot to LHR. As you already know, we’ll have a 22-hour layover and then catch a flight to Abu Dhabi and then we transfer to Dubai for a long weekend.

The reason that we’re jumping through all of these lovely hoops is that, on April 17th, we’re boarding the almost brand new Seabourn Encore, which launched this past January. AAC CPA and I are Seabourn newbies, but we’ve been told that it’s a superior line with excellent service and attention to detail.

The newest addition to the Seabourn fleet , Encore introduces a new class of ship (indeed, the “Encore-class”), and is about 26% larger than the three “Odyssey-class” vessels. Built in Italy at the famed Fincantieri shipyard, Encore carries just 600 passengers in 300 suites.

While the vessel has many of the familiar features and venues of past Seabourn ships, Encore has been totally rethought by famed designer Adam D. Tihany and, from what we’ve heard, the ship operates more like an elegant yacht than a more formal vessel. 

So far, all of our dealings with the line have been terrific. One funny thing that happened was that, the day after we booked the cruise, we heard from our travel agents that Seabourn had added an extra day to our cruise at no extra cost to us, which was quite lovely. This cruise – from beginning to end – will last 19 days (9 of which will be sea days), making it the longest time we’ve ever been on a ship. (We’ve already packed some trousers with elasticized waistlines, just in case.)

An important benefit of the Seabourn line is that it is all-inclusive (although excursions are an add-on) and, unlike Crystal or Cunard, every night is a casual night. We’ve heard that the ship will have 1 or 2 optional formal nights, but that will just be in the main restaurant. We’ve been able to eliminate one piece of luggage simply from not having to schlep the formalwear. 

Another innovation on Encore – which will be extended to the other Seabourn ships is the new partnership with famed California chef, Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame, as well as many other establishments). The Grill by Thomas Keller can be booked online one time prior to boarding and, as I understand it, there is no surcharge to dine there, unless you want to order from the premium wine list. We’re already set and will dine there the 3rd night of our voyage. 

One unfortunate and truly bizarre situation occurred in February when Encore was docked in Timaru, New Zealand. A sudden change in weather – high winds – caused the ship to lose its moorings, and the ship started to drift away (almost in slow motion) from its berth. Take a look at the following youtube video to see what happened next.

Seabourn Encore gets a boo-boo

We were all relieved to hear that, following a thorough inspection, Encore was cleared to depart on schedule and continued to its next scheduled port. The extremely minor damage was repaired very soon thereafter.

As this is just a preview and, since we don’t embark until next Monday, that’s all I have to say about the ship right now. 

In the meantime, I thought you might like to see some photos and renderings of the ship. It looks quite gorgeous and, rest assured, I’ll have more to share with you once we’re on board.

Seabourn Encore
The beautiful new Seabourn Encore

Atrium
The ship’s atrium – are we dizzy yet?

Observation Bar
The Observation Bar – high up on deck 11

null
The pool deck – there’s also a bar around there somewhere, as well as a casual restaurant

The Colonnade
The Colonnade serves up tasty buffets for breakfast and lunch

The Colonnade
The Colonnade also provides dining al fresco

Seabourn Square
Seabourn Square – the center of the ship

The Restuarant
Encore’s main restaurant – all open seating

The Retreat
One of the few add-ons: the Retreat – private cabañas rented by the day

Sushi
A new Seabourn dining venue: Sushi, open for lunch and dinner

Thomas Keller Lounge
Before dining at the Grill, stop by the adjacent watering hole for a cocktail

The Grill by Thomas Keller
After whetting your whistle, enjoy your dinner at the Grill by Thomas Keller

So now you have a bit of an overview for our home starting next Monday.

Next time, I’ll tell you more about the fascinating itinerary and the many unique places we’ll be visiting over the next few weeks.

To be continued!!

Au revoir, Paris: Our Photo Album

Bon soir, mes amis! This will be my last entry on our holiday trip to Paris and, instead of a lot of gabbing, it’s just going to be photos taken while we were there. Some you may have seen in earlier entries but there are some new ones here, too.

Enjoy!

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Friday evening: British Airways offers on-the-ground-buffet dining for some overnight flights

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AAC, CPA taking advantage of same

open-skies-04-biz-bed
Our Open Skies cabin

peninsula-lobby
Saturday morning: Checking into the fabulous Peninsula Paris

aac-arch-de-triumph
Saturday afternoon: AAC, CPA arrives at the Arch de Triomphe: Bon jour, Paris!

laduree-02-interior
And then grabs lunch at Ladurée just down the Champs Elysses

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Classic Club Ladurée

stockings
The hotel provides us with our own stockings

peninsula-bar-kleber-negronis
Saturday evening: Negronis at Bar Kléber at the Peninsula

bistrot-table
Followed by Christmas Eve dinner at Bistrot de L’Oulette

peninsula-breakfast-aac
Sunday morning: Christmas continental breakfast at Le Lobby

four-seasons-04-lobby
Sunday afternoon: checking out the competition – Four Seasons George V

lopera-entrance-aac
Sunday evening: Pre-opera dinner at L’Opera

pg-aac-enters
Followed by AAC, CPA at the Palais Garnier

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The grand foyer and Christmas tree at the Palais Garnier

pg-curtain-call
Iphigénie en Tauride curtain call

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Christmas Night: the Champs Elysses all gussied up

louvre-aac-and-irina
Monday morning: Irina, of Paris Muse, shows us the Louvre

aac-mona-lisa
And we get to see the Mona Lisa. Wait, what???

aac-arrives-at-lgf
Monday evening: AAC, CPA arrives at Le Grand Véfour

dining-room-02
The jewel-box dining room at Le Grand Véfour

fois-gras-ravioli
Sensational duck liver ravioli – one of their “Classics”

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Post-dinner view from our Uber on the way back to the hotel

aac-metro-ride
Tuesday morning: AAC, CPA takes Le Metro to our next Paris Muse tour

notre-dame-aac
AAC, CPA outside of Notre Dame Cathedral

notre-dame-aac-and-jason
And with our terrific Paris Muse guide, Jason

monsieur-bleu-cocktails
Tuesday evening: Cocktails and dinner at Monsieur Bleu

monsieur-bleu-light-fixtures
Cool light fixtures at Monsieur Bleu

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View from the best tables at Monsieur Bleu

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Wednesday afternoon: Lunch at Caviar Kaspia

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You always get pickles with your caviar – a Russian thing?

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2nd course of “The Rasputin Set” – caviar with a baked potato

madeline-wednesday
Famous sites on the way back to the hotel: the Madeline

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Place de la Concorde – late afternoon

chatelet-04-interior
Wednesday evening: 42nd Street at Théâtre du Châtelet

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AAC, CPA at Théâtre du Châtelet

Forty Second Street - UK Productions
42nd Street onstage at Théâtre du Châtelet

jeu-de-paume-thursday
Thursday morning: Paying a visit to Jeu de Paume

conflicts
Seeing the exhibit “Uprisings”

biblioteque
Thursday afternoon: And now over to Bibliothèque nationale de France

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AAC, CPA pays homage to Richard Avedon and Audrey Hepburn

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Part of the Avedon exhibit at Bibliothèque nationale de France

loiseau-blanc
Thursday evening: Gala farewell dinner at L’Oiseau Blanc atop the Peninsula Paris

loiseau-blanc-00-eiffel-tower
The view from our table at L’Oiseau Blanc

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AAC, CPA takes a picture at L’Oiseau Blanc

loiseau-blanc-07-plane
A replica of the actual L’Oiseau Blanc (The White Bird)

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Friday morning: AAC, CPA heads back to reality and New York City

That’s all, folks!!