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.

 

 

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 . . . . . . . 

 

 

 

First Sea Day and Doha Recap

Feeling very relaxed (nay, lazy) on this Wednesday afternoon as I begin this blog entry. It’s our first sea day, which is my favorite thing about being on a ship.

When last I wrote, we were in Doha, Qatar and I promised to tell you all about our all-too-brief visit.

Doha Morning Pic
Good morning, Doha – as seen from our suite

Well, in about 2 words: not much. Qatar is another of these Gulf states that, like Dubai, is a very modern and covered with skyscrapers and in constant construction mode. Unlike Dubai, however, it’s not quite as exciting and, at least where we were, there were no sidewalks for walking.

The one thing we were interested in seeing was I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art. Unfortunately, it’s closed on Tuesdays – bad luck for us. 

Museum of Islamic Art
I.M. Pei’s imposing Museum of Islamic Art – closed Tuesdays

Before checking out the sights, AAC enjoys his first breakfast on board:

AAC - 1st Breakfast

Having realized that the museum was not an option, we elected to go out for a nice lunch at Sridan, a restaurant within the Shangri-La Hotel. We’ve had the good fortune to visit several of the Shangri-La properties – in Tokyo, Paris and London – so we knew we’d be in for a good time.

As it turned out, the ship offered complimentary shuttle service to and from the City Center which, as it turned out, was a 3-minute walk to the Shangri-La. How convenient is that?

Doha City Center
Our drop off point – City Center – unsurprisingly in the center of the city

It was so convenient, in fact, that we didn’t feel the need to exchange our US dollars for the local currency in Qatar – the Dirham, the Qatari Riyal. We took a chance.

The Shangri-La in Doha is very much in keeping with their other properties around the world: Elegant, serene and very Zen. Upon entering their properties, you immediately sense a scent that is familiar to you, a nice touch.

Shangri-La-Hotel-Doha-Lobby
The lobby at the Shangri-La – spare and elegant

And look what else we found in the lobby:

Falconry
Yes, falconry at the Shangri-La

You probably won’t notice it, but the falcon was wearing a Shangri-La cap on his cute little head.

We headed upstairs to Sridan, which offers a spectacular daily buffet. Just what we need – more food, right?

Sridan Logo

Sridan - 01 - Mezze
Beautiful mezze station

Although there were Italian and American stations (which we could get anywhere), we opted for made-to-order kebabs from the Indian station. Fancy place: you order what you want and it’s brought to your table.

Sridan - 02
The Indian station

Sridan - 03 - Sweets
Did we leave room for sweets? Not really

Sridan - 04 - Coffee
Finishing off the meal with Arabic coffee – a taste sensation

Following our lunch, we were ready to get back onto the shuttle and return to the ship.

There was one big highlight on our shuttle ride back to the ship:

Kissing Camels
The Royal Camel brigade – or Kissing Kamels!

Encore in Port
Encore docked in Doha

We just lazed around on our terrace until it was time to sail at about 6:00 PM.

Doha Sunset - 01
Another beautiful sunset as we sail out to sea

And then it was time to get ready for cocktails and dinner. On several nights during the voyage, the Colonnade – which usually offers a casual buffet dinner – transforms itself into another Thomas Keller venue, offering a 4-course set menu. The concept is exactly the same as Keller’s casual restaurant in Yountville, California, Ad Hoc. For these evenings, advance reservations are required. It’s a really good deal: at Ad Hoc, the cost of the meal would be around $55 – 60, plus wine; on Encore, it’s all included.

Before dinner, however, we returned to the bar adjacent to the Thomas Keller Grill, probably the most elegant bar on the ship. We made friends with superstar Bobby the night before, and he promised to dazzle us with his mixologist talent. 

So last night, he prepared for me my very first Vesper (a/k/a the James Bond cocktail): Tanqeray 10, Ketel One, Lillet – iced up real well – stirred, never shaken. Poured into a Marie Antoinette glass and finished off with twist of lemon, it was a sight to behold. It was also an extremely potent libation. Kudos to Bobby!

Thomas Keller Cocktails
AAC, CPA’s Campari/Soda and my 1st-ever Vesper – a taste sensation

After enjoying our cocktails and schmoozing with Bobby, we climbed one deck to Colonnade, aft on Deck 9. It was such a beautiful night, that we opted to dine al fresco at the very back of the ship. The entire outside ceiling area is covered for our protection from the elements. It was simply magical.

Immediately upon being seated, we were brought the most delicious fresh baked bread and a glass of delicate Chardonnay.

As I already mentioned, these evenings are conceived in the same way as Chef Keller’s restaurant Ad Hoc in Yountville. 

Check out last night’s menu below:

Colonnade - Keller Menu.JPG
Are you licking your lips and salivating now?

And then the food – with wine pairings – started to arrive:

Colonnade - Course 1
Gem lettuce salad with beets and radishes and green goddess dressing

(Note the size of the portions for just the 2 of us!)

Colonnade - Course 2
Next up, the Hickory Smoked BBQ ribs with yummy sides

We were served a lovely Italian red to compliment the ribs. It did.

Colonnade - Course 3
The most delicate cheddar cheese I’ve ever had – served with flatbread and mustard

Colonnade - Course 4
Potted cheesecake with poached blueberries – did we have room for same?

The meal, the service, the ambience of dining al fresco in a beautiful setting was totally intoxicating – the perfect evening, in fact.

After that, there was nothing left to do but stagger back to our cabin and fall into bed.

So here we are on our first sea day, with all kinds of various activities, should we want to partake.

One interesting side note is that we found this letter in our cabin this morning:

Piracy Drill
Better safe than sorry, right?

At noon we tried our hand at team trivia to see how stupid we can be – no comment.

Then lunch in the restaurant at the invitation of the head sommelier – he wants to discuss wine with us – we’re all in.

And then a duplicate bridge game to keep the little gray cells working.

Later, ‘gator!!

 

 

Greetings from Doha, Qatar

Good afternoon from Doha, Qatar. We’ve been on board the beautiful Seabourn Encore for a little over 24 hours as I type to you. We landed in Doha this morning around 8:00 AM and will be setting sail at about 5:00 PM and tomorrow will be our first (of nine) sea day(s). More about Doha in my next blog entry but, first, I thought I’d show you the ship.

Embarkation yesterday was easy as pie. Seabourn had provided us with a private transfer from our hotel in Dubai to the dock. Due to a little scheduling snafu, our car and driver showed up about 45 minutes early! Good think we were ready to rumble, so we just got on the road a bit earlier.

AAC embarks Encore
AAC, CPA about to embark Encore

Within 15 minutes of arriving at the pier to check-in, we were aboard. There was something akin to a receiving line at the gangplank – lots of Seabourn crew, introducing themselves and welcoming us aboard. It was extremely nice.

We were onboard at about 12:45 PM and were told that our cabin would, most likely, not be ready until around 2:00 PM, but that we were invited to visit the Colonnade for a lunch buffet.

A little ship tip: we’re often told that the cabin isn’t ready, although many times it is! Because we were carrying valuables and wanted to get them into our safe, we decided to take a look-see. Wouldn’t you know: the cabin was, indeed, awaiting us. However, we walked in on an Australian couple, traipsing about and taking pictures of our suite. We caught them red-handed, which was pretty hilarious. They told us that there were just having a look around, as they wanted to see what the suite was like. That was fine by us, and they made a quick exit, embarrassed by their pluck. We loaded up the safe, dropped off our carry-ons, and made a hasty retreat.

Funnily enough, as we were leaving our cabin, we ran into our stewardess, Simone, introduced ourselves, and warned her not to be alarmed, should she find our stuff in our closet. She took it all in stride.

On the way to the Colonnade, we made a stop at Seabourn Square, the central hub of the ship that provides, reception, concierge, computer and excursion services, as well as a barista and light snacks, pastries and gelato service.

We met with William, as we wanted to get our wi-fi accounts up and running. Then we wanted to see if we could make additional reservations at the Thomas Keller Grill, the only dining venue on the ship that requires advance planning. (Actually, the Colonnade has “special nights” that require reservations, too, but that’s another story.) Done and done and with a smile, if you please.

Then we really did make our way to the Colonnade, aft on deck 9 for some lunch. It was a lovely setup with lots of delicious food and sommeliers wondering around pouring complimentary wine and champagne, if you were in the mood to imbibe.

By the time we finished eating, our cabin was “officially” ready. Our luggage had been delivered so we got settled in. We’re lucky that our cabin has a walk-in closet with plenty of storage, as well as additional nooks and crannies in the living room.

I know what you’re really interested in is our cabin, right?

Take a gander and tell me what you think:

900 - Entry
Entry to our cabin

900 - Living Room
The living room

900 - Dining Area
Dining area

900 - Bar
Bar setup

900 - Bedroom
Bedroom

900 - Bathroom
Master bath (with jacuzzi, separate WC and walk-in shower)

900 - Closet
Walk-in closet

Balcony - AAC
AAC, CPA on our wraparound terrace. It’s so big!

Balcony
More terrace!

So that’s our home away from home for the 19-day cruise. Nice, right?

Once we were unpacked and had changed out of our traveling clothes, it was time to go exploring. In a word, the ship is gorgeous. Designer Adam Tihany’s concept is that Encore should feel more like a yacht than a passenger ship. And that’s how it feels. Nothing is too large but feels intimate and just right – inevitable, in fact.

Check it out for yourselves:

Encore Atrium
The famed atrium – extending 6 or 7 decks

Encore Seabourn Square - AAC
Seabourn Square – aft on Deck 7; gelato a-go-go

Encore Dining Room - 01
The Restaurant (main dining venue), aft on Deck 4

Encore Dining Room - 02
Another view of The Restaurant

Encore Card Room
The card room (for duplicate bridge on sea days)

Encore Thomas Keller Grill - 2
Thomas Keller Grill – by reservation only – aft on Deck 8

Encore Thomas Keller Bar - AAC
AAC, CPA checking out the bar at Thomas Keller Grill – see and be seen!

Encore Retreat - 01
The Retreat – rent a private cabaña for the day ($349!!)

So that’ll give you a bit of an idea about Encore. Our sailaway was scheduled for about 5:00 PM, so we came back to the cabin and hung out on our immense terrace. Just when the ship started to move, we popped the cork on our complimentary bottle of champagne and toasted the voyage and each other.

Sailaway - AAC - 01
AAC, CPA is ready to go sailing

Sailaway - 02
We’re moving now with the sun reflected in our cabin window

As we sailed out to open sea, we passed by an important piece of maritime history. Following its illustrious career as one of the last true ocean liners, Cunard’s QE2 was sold, in 2007, to an investment company in Dubai, whose plan it was to convert the famed liner into a floating hotel. Alas, the plan was never realized. Due to the 2008 financial crisis, and a string of bad luck, the liner sits in disrepair in Port Rashid. We snapped this photo as we passed by her while Encore sailed out to sea. In my opinion, the captain should have sounded the ship’s whistle as a sign of respect to a former beauty.

QE2 
A former beauty, QE2, destined to sit abandoned in Port Rashid

Oh well, on to happier thoughts.

As we passed into open waters, we sailed into another glorious sunset.

Sunset - 02
They certainly have amazing sunsets in this part of the world

More tomorrow, when I’ll tell you about our 1st dinner aboard and the short visit we made today in Doha Qatar.

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!