A month at sea ends in Italy: Port of Civitaveccia and a rent car to Umbria

Drop-off point for shuttles to and from the Civitavecchia cruise port. Note Hertz sign circled in green across the street where rent car companies pick up their customers. Cruise shuttles let passengers off in a big parking lot to the right of where I’m standing to take this photo.

Our month cruise from Singapore to Italy was better than we could have hoped for, but now it was time to be back on our own and we were looking forward to it. Civitavecchia is the nearest port to Rome and most information about the port assumes people are going to Rome either to stay or to fly out of the airport. We’d used a driver in the past to get from the port to Rome, but this time we were skipping the Italian capital and heading north. I wanted to rent a car for the 2+ weeks we planned to tool around Umbria and Tuscany, but I had trouble finding clear info online. I knew the port was too big to walk out of and that passengers not wanting to rely on expensive cruise ship excursions and transfers needed to get out of the main port gate to get to other modes of transport–taxi, train, rent cars–but the info was vague. This short post is just to clarify transport options and the lay of the land at the Port of Civitavecchia.

The ship offered a free motor coach shuttle to an area just outside the port gates where other transportation is offered. Buses for the train station pick up here for €2 per person. Rent car pick up is just across the street. I’d booked us a Hertz rent car and emailed with them from the previous port. When we left the ship, I called them (Hooray again for T-Mobile international!) and a van arrived to pick us up shortly after we got off the ship’s shuttle. Another 5-minute drive and we were at the Hertz office in a nearby strip center where we did paperwork and were on our way in short order.

Port of Aqaba, Jordan: Petra!

The Treasury at Petra

I’d been longing to visit Petra for many years and at last we made it! Not wanting either a big group or to pay the cruise line’s exorbitant prices, I booked a private tour with Go Jordan, a company highly recommended on Tripadvisor. Using our Cruise Critic roll call message board, I found 4 other people to share the trip with us – another couple from Canada an a mother-daughter pair from Australia – which dropped the price from $185 to $149 per person. Not bad at all since the price included entry to Petra which costs 50 Jordanian dinar ($70.41) per person. [More practical info follows this post.]

Things got off a little slowly when Go Jordan was not among the many tour operators holding up signs when we debarked the ship at the port of Aqaba. They showed up within fifteen minutes, though, so it wasn’t a huge deal, just not ideal. The drive to Petra from the port is about 2 hours, and we sped along nice roads through desolate countryside much like we’d seen in Oman but with less imposing mountains in the background.

Pretty bleak en route to Petra from Aqaba, but the roads are nice

Around mid-way, we stopped at a shop with a terrace overlooking a magnificent canyon. I was tempted by the ornate knives on display, but put off by the triple digit prices for pocket knives, etc. Before getting back in the van, I asked our driver about water since none of us had brought any in reliance on Go Jordan’s promise to supply it. He went back into to buy bottled water without complaint, but I was surprised to find it wasn’t already stocked.

We drove through Wadi Musa, the town closest to Petra and our driver’s hometown. Our Australian companions had been to Petra nine years earlier and they noted that much had been built since then. Our guide asked us how long we wanted to spend in Petra asking if we wanted 3, 2, only 1 hour, maybe more? I expected more guidance from him and had no idea how long we might want. The Australian ladies were vague as well, possibly because neither of them was in good physical condition for much walking. In the end, we opted for 3 hours a choice I came to regret as we could have spent another hour or two and still gotten back to the ship in plenty of time.

Entrance to Petra

Parking near the entrance, our driver walked us into the Petra welcome center, an open complex surrounded by shops, a small shaded amphitheater, a museum and public toilets. The Australians remarked that all of this was new, there having been only a small, remote hut when they last visited. Our driver confirmed that the welcome center had just opened last year.

New welcome area just inside the main gate to Petra

Our driver went inside the visitor’s center to get us a guide and returned with Salim, someone he apparently knew as both are locals. Salim’s English was OK, but I wish we’d had another guide… or none at all!

Salim talking. Of course. (While not nearly as hot as we feared, his choice of a down vest was downright mystifying.)

Strike one for Salim came when he informed us that horses haltered near the entrance were free and included with our ticket to Petra. “Just tip them a dollar or two.” While being led on a horse a few hundred yards wasn’t particularly enticing, David and I decided to go for it as part of the experience. The ride was OK, but at the end we were beset by demands for much more than a dollar or two and we had to find Salim to deal with the angry horse handlers. Salim’s “solution” was to just pay them a couple of dollars and ignore them, but that really wouldn’t satisfy and we doubled that just to get away. Not exactly breaking the bank, but definitely not pleasant.

Just past the welcome area, heading into ancient Petra with horses waiting to the left and walkway on the right.
Only the locals get to ride on their own. Sitting atop a horse while some guy leads it by a halter is not riding…unless you’re 3-years old. (I’m from Texas, for crying out loud.) And then there’s the demand for a “tip.” Skip this one!

Strike two – a big one – came when Salim stopped our little group next to a trashcan by an ancient drainage tunnel just outside the enticing canyon walls of Petra to talk interminably about history, drainage, what we would see and on and on as our time slipped away. When we finally moved on, he quickly stopped us again to talk and talk.

Caleche and pedestrians in the early Petra canyons

While we did appreciate him pointing out some nearly invisible remains of large wall carvings, we found much of what he had to say superfluous, repetitive or of questionable scientific/historic accuracy. After a couple of more such long-winded stops, we called strike three and decided to leave the group. We left money for a tip just so the others wouldn’t feel obligated to make up our share and strode off to finally see the famous Treasury and explore the rest of Petra while we had time. Excellent decision. If only we’d done it from the start!

The crowd thickens at the first exciting glimpse of the Treasury
The size of the Treasury is hard to convey.

Petra itself is incredible. It bustled with people both local and western tourists like us. Horse-drawn caleche clattered along the stone pathway through the canyon. A camel lounged among a throng near the Treasury. Young locals hawked jewelry and other momentos. I couldn’t resist an exotic young woman dressed all in black with head scarf and eyes thickly lined with kohl. Ten US dollars bought me three necklaces, one she claimed was made of camel bone. Maybe. It didn’t really matter; the necklaces are pretty and will always remind me of Petra. A young boy among a flock of vendors that had gathered took heart when he saw my purchase and followed me for some time. I finally bought 3 “silver” bracelets from him for $5. Despite the steep entry fee to Petra, a little cash goes a very long way among most of the locals.

David and I took the canyon-like walkway to the right as you look at the Treasury, peeking into ancient doorways to find cave-like spaces offering no glimpse of their former function, now serving as dark makeshift stables, reeking of camel urine.

The walkway opened up into a wide space with a coliseum on the far side and ancient tombs carved into the steep hill to our right. We wandered, climbed and explored, passing a fascinating mix of people, camels and caleches.

Coliseum

Trinkets for sale on long tables; there were small cafés as well. We saw so much more ahead and were frustrated to know we had to turn back soon, to meet up with the others at our three hour deadline. Sadly, I had no way to contact them or our driver to beg for more time. Petra is one place I’d love to return to.

The ride back to Aqaba and the ship was uneventful save for one more stop at a tourist trap souvenir store of the spacious, “People’s Store” variety. We milled around browsing the wildly over-priced souvenirs while our driver had coffee, then were off.

Overpriced tourist store; typical waste of time hazard of so many tours

We turned down an offer (for a price) to do a jeep tour through Wadi Rum at sunset. (We had that much time.) None of us were interested, thanks in no small part to a growing sandstorm in that direction visible from the road.

Roadside camels
Beginnings of a sandstorm

Back at the ship, we found our T-Mobile phones, while not yet offering service in Jordan, did allow us to connect to via Israel, a short distance across the harbor. (Jordan is now covered by T-Mobile. We’re super happy with our new T-Mobile plans and how well and easily service picked up from one country to another. I’ll write more about that later.)

Looking across at Israel from the port of Aqaba, close enough for cell phone service

____________

Practical info: I wish I’d made note of the Celebrity excursion price for Petra, but it was considerably more expensive than Go Jordan Tours. Other Cruise Critic members booked larger buses which were cheaper than the cruise, but more expensive than what we paid. I booked Go Jordan via their website which has a page just for cruise excursions and found them to be quick to respond to my emails. My contacts were Haneen Al Helali and Fidaa Hlalatwho both responded to info@gojordantours.com. (Also, Tel: +962-3-215-5551| Fax: +962-3-215-9400)

I assured Go Jordan that I wanted this tour whether I found others to go with us or not. They required no prepayment. The pricing, inclusions and exclusions sent to me was:
“Rate per persons:
2 persons 3 persons 4 persons 5 persons 6 persons 7 persons
185 USD PP 155 USD PP 149 USD PP 135 USD PP 128 USD PP 123 USD PP

Price includes:
– Meet and assist upon arrival at the port in Aqaba
– Transfer in modern air-conditioned vehicle
– Entrance fee to Petra
– Local tour guide in Petra for 3h
– Mineral water in vehicle

Price excludes:
– Tips
– Personal expenses
– any optional tours
– Lunch”

Port of Muscat, Oman, the 2nd time. Wandering Old Muscat: the souk, a fort and an awesome restaurant with wi-fi

Muscat is an intriguing cruise port and turned out to be a favorite. Unlike the all-new mega city of Dubai that left me cold, history and local culture are still preserved and visible in the old port area of Muscat. The ship pulled into the ancient harbor dotted with old fortifications and traditional buildings with ornate wooden balconies. There’s not a skyscraper or gaudy new mega-structure in sight.

Our ship docked close to the spiffy-looking Muscat cruise port terminal on both our visits to this exotic port. Nevertheless, passengers are forbidden from walking the 50 or so yards to the building, but must instead board a port shuttle (a big, air-conditioned motor coach) even if they just want to walk into nearby Old Muscat. When the shuttle bus is loaded, it drives the <20 seconds to the terminal building and everyone must disembark and go through security. The same routine is followed for ship excursions.

The terminal building had big signs proclaiming duty free shopping and “Wifi Hotspot.” However, in our quick walk through for security (a basic scanner) on both our stops, we found everything to be closed. Since we were on a 9-hour excursion the first time we stopped in Muscat (4 days before our return on the back-to-back we took), we’d hoped to use the wi-fi in the terminal. A fellow passenger informed us that she’d tried it on the first stop and found that only 7 people were allowed online at a time, so she spent most of her time waiting for a connection, despite paying a small fee for the wi-fi. We didn’t bother to even try on our 2nd stop, deciding we’d look for wi-fi in portside Old Muscat where we decided to spend a leisurely day exploring.

After security, the shuttle dropped us off near the port side of the main port gates. We walked through immigration to the left of the gate as we exited, showed our pink, credit-card-sized Omani shore pass (handed out by the ship when we disembarked), and moved right on.

Standing in the parking lot just outside the main port gate after passing immigration; the port gate is behind me to my right. The Fish and Produce Market can be seen in the distance, a short walk down the road exiting the port entrance (to the left as you leave).

Leaving the port parking lot, we headed left and followed the road a short distance to the big, air-conditioned fish and produce market under a large white roof on the left side of the road.

 After looking around the fish and produce market, we continued on along the water to the main waterfront promenade called locally by the French word, corniche.

On the corniche in Muscat
Buildings and mosque along the corniche, facing the harbor

Just past the blue-domed (Muslim-only) mosque (maybe a 10-minute walk from the port exit), we arrived at the first entrance to the large souk (market), called Souq Al-jumlah. It’s a beautiful, authentic souk, unlike the Disneyland tourist version in Nizwah we’d seen on our previous stop in Oman. Locals are actually shopping in the rabbit warren maze of shops where we saw clothing, hats, sandals, cookware and more along with items aimed at tourists including more clothes, local hats, spices, incense, jewelry, rugs, brass and silver goods and more.

Gorgeous ceiling at a main “intersection” in the Muscat souk

Souk Al-jumlah, not just for tourists

Free wi-fi is offered under a covered area near the center front of the souk, facing the corniche. Unfortunately, I was never able to access it since it required me to enter a code that the government-run service texted to me. Every time I opened the text to read the code, the window asking for the code closed itself and could not be retrieved. I had the same problem even when I tried using split-screen mode on my Android phone. David, however, was finally able to get it to work after many tries. (I’ll provide an easier solution to finding wifi below.)

Inside the souk

Leaving the souk, we continued along the increasingly hot corniche toward a fort perched on a hill overlooking the harbor. The temperature reached into the 90’s, but was actually comfortable whenever we could find a spot in the shade with a breeze. Barring that, it was stiflingly hot. Unable to see the entrance to the fort from the corniche, we asked inside the Modern Art Museum and were told to head up the hill on the road behind the museum for about 200 meters. There, on the right side of the road, we came to an empty parking lot where steps lead up to the fort.

A hot climb up the stairs to the fort

A couple of what looked to be fellow ship passengers were descending with a uniformed guard and we figured the fort must be closed. We decided to wait in the shade until they came down and ask to be sure. It turned out that the guard had opened the fort for them and just locked it. I thought we were out of luck, but he just said he was too tired to walk back up but that he’d give me the key and we were welcome to explore the fort on our own if we’d just lock up when we left and bring him back the key. Awesome! So, we got to explore the fort and enjoy the views alone, with no one to block our view, no lines and no entrance fee. There were even nice bathrooms available (albeit lacking in paper, as usual, in this part of the world–I always bring my own!).

Muscat fort on a hill overlooking the harbor
Old Muscat fort
View of Old Muscat from the fort

We strolled back along the corniche to duck into the souk once more before heading to a café we’d seen sporting a wi-fi sign. We didn’t expect much since it was located in a hotel, but I really needed a little time online and we figured we could at least buy a tea or water and a pastry if that was all that was on offer. We were charmed by Royal House Restaurant, a beautiful (and well-air-conditioned) restaurant offering Omani specialties as well as Indian dishes and more.

Interior of the Royal House Restaurant
Mandi, an Omani chicken dish

Carved wooden benches with brightly-colored pillows provided the seating at heavy dark-wood tables. The food turned out to be fresh and delicious and the wi-fi reasonably good. We settled in happily. Royal House Restaurant accepts credit cards and also offers outdoor seating in the shade.

Royal House Restaurant is located at Muttrah Corniche, Al Bahri Road, Muscat 114, Oman. Phone: +968 9314 1672

Port of Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.: Louvre Abu Dhabi & the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Central courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

The one thing I was sure I wanted to see during our port stop in Abu Dhabi was the newly-opened (in November 2017) Louvre Abu Dhabi. With that in mind, I bought e-tickets online weeks before our arrival for 63 dirham (60+3 dirham tax or about $17.15 US each). Not wanting to use the ship’s overly-expensive and overly-structured excursions, the only question was what would we find in the way of local transportation, would we need local currency, and how would we get it if we did.

Abu Dhabi cruise port terminal

The cruise port terminal turned out to be spacious and modern with a very helpful, completely-fluent-in-American-English lady at the information desk. She told us taxis were available just outside and they were trustworthy and metered. She pointed to an ATM near her desk where we quickly got cash and headed out the main door. A minute in the taxi line and we were settled and on our way. Our cab driver spoke good English and in 15 minutes, we pulled into the Louvre Abu Dhabi parking lot. The ride cost 36 dirham (about $9).

(The Louvre Abu Dhabi is visible from the cruise port, but you have to go out and around the water to get to it. Walking is virtually impossible and absolutely impractical.)

Dome of the Louvre Abu Dhabi viewed from the cruise port; no way to walk there.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a must-see for its architecture alone. A huge metal latticework dome covers the airy white building, creating a delightful “terrace” area of dappled light. There’s an upscale restaurant as well as cafeteria with good sandwiches, salads and the like and large walls of glass looking onto the water and the city beyond.

Courtyard beneath the lattice-work dome; the café and restaurant are in the white structure.

The museum itself is set up as a sort of history of man with exhibitions of things like religion, motherhood, maps and navigation, views on death, etc. from all over the world. There are sarcophagi and statues from ancient Egypt, artifacts from ancient Greece and Arabia, African and Pacific masks and idols, Western paintings from the Impressionists to Pollack, Asian silks and statues and more. Items from various cultures are placed side-by-side to show how different peoples viewed or represented different ideas and ideals of similar subjects.

Similar objects from different places and times
Islamic “automaton” lion by a medieval European tapestry

Unlike Louvre Lens (in the north of France), which shows a timeline of history and where different cultures were developmentally at any given time, Louvre Abu Dhabi clusters items together to show the similarities–and differences– of humankind with items from vastly different locations and/or eras sometimes placed side-by-side. It’s fascinating.

After a leisurely museum visit and lunch in the cafeteria, we caught another taxi (plenty were waiting in the Louvre Abu Dhabi parking lot) and headed to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, about a 30-minute drive from the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The drive, along an excellent city highway, cost us 51.25 dirham (about $12). Our driver, from Pakistan, spoke fluent English and was eager to tell us about Abu Dhabi and how much he liked it because it was the “most peaceful place in the world.” We enjoyed visiting with him, but had to wonder about his claim that there is “no crime” in Abu Dhabi and “no punishment or prison”; “They just kick you out.” When we asked him about citizens (who comprise only about 10% of the UAE’s population), he claimed they never commit crimes because everyone has everything they need and gets the same amount from the government so there is no jealousy. Hmm.

Early view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Jaw-dropping.

I’m pretty sure my jaw literally dropped as we pulled up to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. I had no idea of the scale and grandeur of the place. I mean, wow. Taj Mahal-like with its gleaming white dome and minarets, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is nothing short of spectacular. And spectacularly beautiful. Our driver dropped us off near the front, assuring me that I didn’t need the sarong, long-sleeved shirt and headscarf I’d brought since the mosque would loan me an abaya.

45-minute complimentary tours are available at the mosque without reservation

David and I entered through separate men’s and women’s doors into the same room, but through different security scanners, and then I was directed to a small room in the back left where a lady chose an abaya for me from among a large collection hanging there. I pulled the dusty-blue hooded gown on over my street clothes and I was set. There is no charge to enter the mosque and no charge for use of an abaya. [Note: I had a pair of scissor-style tweezers in my purse that showed up on the scanner–never before a security problem–and I had to leave them in a box at the front and retrieve them when I left.] Also, those entering with tour groups through another entrance used their own headscarves, etc. and apparently either were not offered or weren’t required to use the borrowed abayas. I, personally, liked the abaya and felt more comfortable that I was respectfully dressed –and more part of the scene– wearing it. (I met at least one woman who found the required abaya a little offensive, but I didn’t feel that way at all. Everyone at the mosque was friendly and welcoming. I viewed it more as a “when in Rome” moment, no big deal … and actually kind of fun, almost like being in costume for a renaissance festival.) The only real downside is that the abaya added one more layer of clothing in heat that was pretty oppressive.

Meeting David after donning my abaya, we stepped outside to hear birds singing and a call to prayer  sounding over the loudspeaker. We continued on the long and incredibly hot (106F) walk around the huge mosque along a white marble walkway to the front entrance. With the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, we paused only briefly along the way to admire the many views of the mosque.

Decked out in my borrowed abaya

We deposited our sandals on shelves provided outside the main entrance before entering the reflecting-pool-lined arcade of arches that surrounds the sweeping, marble-paved inner courtyard of the mosque.

The central courtyard of the mosque

The floors of the arcade and courtyard are inlaid with colorful flower designs as are the columns of the arches that surround the courtyard. It is all exquisitely beautiful and struck me as very feminine.

At the far side of the courtyard, after strolling under the arched walkway, we entered the main area of the mosque (and were delighted to find it air-conditioned).

Antechamber leading to the interior hall

Inside, beyond a soaring antechamber with a large flower-like chandelier, the world’s largest carpet covers the massive 3-domed hall in elaborate patterns on a jade green background. Three truly enormous Swarovski crystal chandeliers hang under each dome, almost jarringly gaudy with their red and green crystals after the delicate floral beauty of the outer pillared arches and courtyard.

Main hall of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Detail of the largest carpet in the world

I’d wondered if the mosque was worth the trip. I can’t believe we even considered not going. It’s an easy, inexpensive cab ride and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is simply not to be missed when in Abu Dhabi!

[Practical note: There’s a modern gift shop and café near the exit to the mosque. It’s air conditioned and equipped with toilets and an ATM machine.]

Our taxi ride from the mosque back to the ship cost 53 dirham (about $13) and took about 30 minutes at around 4 – 4:30pm on a Sunday. Like Dubai, there are plenty of skyscrapers and modern architecture in Abu Dhabi as well as upscale homes our driver told us were provided to citizens by the government. Having only a brief glimpse of the city to base our opinion on, we came away with the impression of a more accessible, less over-the-top place than Dubai.

Intriguing architecture in Abu Dhabi

Back at the port, we browsed the shops in the cruise terminal, spending our last dirham on postcards and stamps and a bar of camel milk chocolate. Why not?!

Port of Dubai, U.A.E.: The world’s tallest building, malls and excess

Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building

Like everything else in Dubai, the port terminal is large and lavish with plenty of shopping available. Although the ship only told us about a shuttle to an out-of-the-way mall, the Information Desk in the terminal told us that Dubai Mall also offered a free shuttle from the port.

Dubai port facility

Dubai Mall is the city’s star mall and the location of the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The Dubai Mall shuttle is a black motor coach offering air conditioning and free wifi. Turn right after exiting the main doors of the cruise terminal; the Dubai Mall shuttle picks up at the first bus stop to your left. It runs every 30 minutes, returning from the mall to the port from the same spot it drops you off at, on the half hour. Our friendly driver even offered us free chilled water bottles on our return.

Tickets to the Burj Khalifa are for sale online 30 days prior to the visit date. I calendared that date and bought our tickets as soon as I could. It turned out to be a good idea as times were selling out when we got there. There are options to go to different levels and add-on experiences like snacks or a virtual reality experience. There’s a price break on the basic viewing deck ticket if you book an off-peak time. (Sunset is much in demand.) The Burj Khalifa is a huge tourist draw and extremely popular. There were 2 cruise ships in port when we were there, but the Dubai port reportedly can handle 6, so I can only imagine the crowds. The entry process was seemless; a woman scanned the QR code on my phone and handed me the paper tickets. I’d chosen a 3:30pm time slot, but when I showed up early to pick up the tickets, she told me we could go in any time until 3:30pm. (I think that may have been because the crowd was not overwhelming when we first got there.) There’s quite a line to go up with only 3 elevators running, and a substantial line to get back down, too, with only 2 elevators. We enjoyed our visit, but while it was slick and high-tech, we found it to be less-organized/slower and therefore less pleasant than the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. (Burj Khalifa s also much more expensive than the Petronas Towers.)

View from Burj Khalifa
Dubai seen from Burj Khalifa

From the Burj Khalifa, we could see the famous “7 star” Burj Al Arab hotel with its distinctive sail shape in the distance as well as the manmade palm- and globe-shaped residential islands of which Dubai is so proud. For me the most impressive thing about the view was the desert wasteland beyond the skyscraper-filled, mega-everything fantasy city that is Dubai. The juxtaposition with the city was jarring. Everything in Dubai is new or in the process of being built. Everything is enormous and excessively glitzy. It seems to be a sea of high-end malls offering the usual international labels and brands (Gucci and Pottery Barn, Bloomingdale’s and Samsonite, along with Japanese, English and other international chains and stores offering elegant Arabic ladies’ wear) and huge office and apartment buildings.

In the Dubai Mall
Fountains by Dubai Mall with the sea of skyscrapers that is Dubai
There are exotic goods in Dubai Mall in addition to the familiar western storefronts

Dubai is clean and the roads and everything else are very nice; it’s very international and cosmopolitan, but there’s not a breath of history to it; no sign of a “real” city that grew organically from where people settled long ago. It’s just my personal taste, but Dubai felt 100% fake and left me cold. It might be fun to live in for some people, and we met a couple who went to Dubai every year for Christmas, so to each their own. I’m glad I went, but can’t imagine wanting to go back, certainly never as a destination in and of itself.

Note: Tickets to the observation decks of the Burj Khalifa run  to 135 to 370 AED ($36.75 to $100.71) per adult. The $36.75 is for off-peak hours which vary by season. Prime hours are 210 AED ($57.17) per adult; the 370 AED price is for the SKY deck which is even higher than the main observation deck. There are price breaks for children and substantial add-ons available. Check the Burj Khalifa ticket site for details.

Off the ship and back on our own tomorrow

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Naha, Okinawa: Naminoue Beach with Naminoue Shrine in the background to the right

We’re off the RCL Mariner of the Seas tomorrow and back on our own. I haven’t written travelogues about the cruise portion of our 2.5 month odyssey just because I don’t know that I’ve got much new or useful to offer. It’s been fun and we loved the itinerary–both for the ports and for its transportation value as part of our overall trip, but the ship’s service has been a let-down, not nearly as good as we experienced on our trans-Pacific crossing on the Celebrity Millennium. It was my first time on RCL, and I’d heard good things, so maybe this is just a function of changes as the ship has been fairly-recently based out of China. Definitely, cultural and language aspects were a challenge, but food, service, efficiency of on- and off-boarding left a lot to be desired. Oh well, hardly a hardship, just a little disappointing. Still, it’s been nice to have this 10-night break with someone else in charge of our itinerary before we begin our last month of travel through southeast Asia.

In the spirit of completeness, I hit on a few highlights below from our ports-of-call with Mariner that might be of interest to someone doing this cruise or making these stops:

First up was Naha, Okinawa. It was good to be back in Japan, but while we avoided the forecast rain, the sunny day brought some pretty serious heat and humidity. The highlight was definitely the hatagashira parade on Kokusai street, part of an annual festival and prelude to world’s largest tug-of-war set to take place the following day. Groups of costumed young men performed amazing balancing acts with decorated 10m poles called hatagashira to the chanting of crowds:

I couldn’t find much information about the Naha cruise port itself, so am happy to report that we docked at the Wakasa Berth, much closer in than I’d feared. (Apparently, it is possible for a ship to dock in the “spare cruise ship berth” on the far side of the container port that lies behind Wakasa Berth.) The small cruise terminal offers ATM machines, free wi-fi, helpful information staff, and plenty of taxis. There’s a nice little beach (see photo above) not 10 minutes’ walk from the the dock (walk to the right out of the port, cross the street, and take the path on the side of, not over, the bridge), or you can skip the beach and shrine and walk directly to the monorail (to Shuri Castle) and main shopping street, Kokusai Street, in about 20 minutes. Stopping at lovely Fukushuen Garden along the way will slow you down, but is worth the delay. Just beyond the beach, and accessible from the beach by a flight of stairs, is a pretty Buddhist Shrine. The surprise gem of our visit came when we cut through a park just to our left as we descended the main shrine stairs. We were just planning to cut back to the street leading from the port to Kokusai Dori Street. The park turned out to be a memorial park adjacent to the Tsushima-Maru Memorial Museum to the mostly-children who lost their lives when the ship on which they were being evacuated was torpedoed by an American ship. Like the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, this little museum is dedicated to providing rest to the souls of those who died, to memorializing their lives, and to displaying the consequences of war. It’s a sad, but welcoming little tribute with children’s belonging and a recreated classroom. Everything save a video with English subtitles and the transcript of messages from the American warship (targeting the destroyers and military personnel accompanying the evacuation, and apparently unaware of the children) is in Japanese…so the nice lady at the desk refused to accept our payment for tickets and allowed us in free. The video alone was worth the stop. (And the air conditioning is welcome, too.)

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Naha, Okinawa, Japan: Hatagashira parade on Kokusai Dori Street

Our next port-of-call was Hong Kong. I’d long wanted to visit, and had been disappointed when a schedule change left us with only 10 hours in port, rather than the two days initially planned. Still, we made the most of our time. The new cruise port is at the old airport and, while the terminal is huge and modern, it’s an inconvenient location and the massive size just makes for a lot of walking through empty spaces. (I measured .4 miles on my Fitbit from the shuttle bus to the ship on our return, 90% of that simply walking back and forth through the maze-like terminal.) Despite my misgivings about the location, free shuttles provided by local malls turned out to be a really convenient launch to our day. We chose a shuttle that dropped off at Hollywood Plaza mall, and after snaking through a Marks & Spencer (weird), we ended up in a mall by multiple ATM’s, grabbed some cash, then descended an escalator to the Diamond Hill subway station. We bought tickets at machines (that require bills of 50HKD or less) and give change. For less than a couple of US dollars apiece, we rode all the way to Central station on Hong Kong Island (starting on the green line, then changing at Mong Kok so that we just had to step across the platform and onto the red line). From Central station, we took Exit J and followed signs to the Peak Tram, rode ding ding double-decker trams along Bank Street, then caught the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. We checked out the famous high tea at The Peninsula, but opted for a drink at the Intercontinental with its spectacular view of Victoria Harbor as evening fell and the lights came on.

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Hong Kong: Beautiful Victoria Harbor

After Hong Kong, we had our first stop in Vietnam. The port at Chan May is a very industrial port, a long way from anything of interest to most travelers. The nearest tourist destinations: Danang, Hoi An and the former imperial city of Hue are all worth seeing, though. In fact, the hard part is choosing which to see since Hoi An and Hue are in opposite directions. There’s no cruise terminal. Knowing we needed to make plans (and not a fan of large cruise ship excursions), I’d signed us up for a private tour via Tommytours with people I’d met on Cruise Critic. [If you don’t know Cruise Critic and you cruise or plan to cruise, you need to get familiar with it. Join your ship’s “roll call,” sign up for the Meet & Greet on-board, read tips from your fellow cruisers, pool resources for tours. You’ll meet a lot of people who want to do nothing but cruise which may not be your thing, but they know the ropes of their chosen line and they’re good friends to have: We boarded with Diamond-Plus level friends, so were 5th and 6th on the ship, avoiding lines and getting to settle in early.] The Chan May port charged $25pp for a tour company to drive in to pick up, so we walked out of the port to meet our guide. I’d been leaning towards Hue, but David was taken with photos of Hoi An, a small group tour was available to Hoi An, so that’s what we did. Hoi An has the advantage of being a lovely city that was saved from destruction during the war. Heavily reliant on tourism, it’s still a beautiful glimpse at an older way of life and we really enjoyed our visit. Hue, site of the Tet Offensive, was destroyed and the former “forbidden city” is a reconstruction of the original. Our guide picked us up in a brand new, 16-seat van with great air conditioning and 2 fast wi-fi hotspots. Cold water and cold towels made the van a delightful refuge from the humidity and passing showers. On the way to Hoi An, we stopped at Danang Beach where some of our group bought live crabs to be cooked later for lunch. Our next stop en route was at the Marble Mountain area which actually consists of 5 holy mountains representing the 5 elements of local religion: metal, wood, fire, water and earth. We rode a free-standing elevator up to Water Mountain. A sudden downpour left only David and me with the guide to explore the pagoda, temple and cave shrines on the mountain. (We had rain gear while our companions did not. Although the guide handed out ponchos, the others were already wet and wearing shoes that couldn’t handle the sudden rushing water that cascaded down the steps and paths of the mountain. David and I wore made-for-fly-fishing Teva sandals–our faves for such travel–and just waded on until the cloudburst ended.) Hoi An turned out to be the kind of place where you just want to ramble. Our guide took us through a Buddhist Temple and classic long, narrow, two-story house with balcony overlooking the bustling street. We walked past river boats and through an ancient Japanese covered bridge before David and I ducked out for a little time on our own. Back with the group, we enjoyed at 7-course feast of Vietnamese food on an open-air veranda by the river. Back at the ship, our guide was able to drive into the port, bypass tour buses and drop us off right at the ship. This was a good thing, since a storm had rolled in. It was pouring raining and howling wind. David and I were fine in our rain gear, but a lot of people were drenched in the unsheltered line trying to get back on the boat.–The poor organization of Mariner striking again. [We used Tommy Tours for our Hoi An tour. You can find Tommy at: http://tommydaotours.com/. Ty (prounounced “Tee”) was our guide. They were very professional. The only slight negatives I’d point out are that lunch was very late in the day, 2pm, so we were hungry after our early start, and Ty’s accent sometimes left us guessing, but we’ve found that to be a very common problem in Asia. We paid $75 apiece and did tip.]

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Hoi An, Vietnam

Our next port, Phuy My, Vietnam, was as industrial and remote as Chan May, also offering no cruise terminal, but at least a few vendors under tents. The place to see here is Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the former Saigon. Knowing it was a nearly 2-hour drive, I debated whether we wanted to make the trip at all, but decided it made no sense not to. One again, we pooled with some Cruise Critic friends, walking out of the port to board another private van (booked through Tours By Locals). Another 16-seater, this van had great a/c, but only room temperature water and a non-functional wi-fi hotspot. Not as nice as the Hoi An set up, but our guide, Tam, turned out to be very interesting. The son and relative of many refugees (aunts and uncles escaping to Australia and his father imprisoned for 5 years after a failed attempt with the 6-year old Tam), his family suffered punishments in the past and job discrimination that continued. Still, he was upbeat and informative. Braced for the bustle of the big city, we were still blown away by the massive, chaotic crowds of scooters that swarmed the streets darting between trucks, buses and cars. Tam assured us traffic was actually light since it was a Saturday. Oh, good Lord, I could only imagine “rush hour!” We peered out the windows of the van, fascinated as we moved past the Saigon River from large roads to narrow, byzantine streets filled with shops offering nothing but scissors, others offered dragon costumes, medicinal herbs, and so much more. Stepping out of the van for the first time, I was hit by the smell of incense, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Tam let us down a narrow passage between buildings to arrive at the courtyard of a 300 year old Buddhist temple. The smell of incense definitely emanated from the building, growing to a cloud as we moved past a raging fire in a big free-standing “furnace” in the middle of a second courtyard. The temple bustled with activity, worshippers lighting 1 or 3 (never 2) sticks of incense and waving them before them before planting them before altars to bow and pray. Overhead, a myriad of spiral, cone-shaped incense burned, adding to the thick atmosphere. Ceramic statues crowded the roof of the temple, ornate and beautiful in a way completely unlike the temples we’d seen in Japan and Korea. After the temple, we visited the biggest, dirtiest market I’ve ever had the fascinating but dubious pleasure to visit. This place offered wholesale goods only and burst with hats, clothes, food, herbs, sugar and more, overflowing from an enormous covered area to sprawl into trash-strewn streets alive with pedestrians, porters with every imaginable bundle, and–of course–scooters. It was a relief to return to the sanctuary of the van for the drive to the War Remnants Museum. This museum, surrounded by captured American military vehicles, gives the (mostly-Northern) Vietnamese view of the Vietnam War. It’s uncomfortable to see, particularly the many photos of those injured by Agent Orange and the horrible birth defects suffered by multiple generations of those exposed. The famous “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” quote is displayed with jarring impact. The culpability of the North is glossed over (much like we saw in the Military Museum in Belgrade, Serbia, and unlike the more balanced approach of the Hiroshima Peace Museum), but it’s still worth seeing and acknowledging the horrible price of war. We moved from war to lunch, pushing away for a time thoughts of man’s inhumanity to man. We’d asked Tam for a local food lunch and he delivered with a noisy Vietnamese “pancake” restaurant. Crispy shrimp and pork “pancakes” cooked outside in iron skillets were served piping hot and folded over bean sprouts. We broke off pieces, rolled them in lettuce leaves and dipped in a special sauce. Delicious! Other courses included crab spring rolls and small beef rolls served with dry rice paper for rolling with various condiments and yet another sauce. We had pho and local beer and deep red watermelon, too. Messy, but fun, and lots of new things to try. We ended our day with visits to the French colonial-era Notre Dame cathedral, post office, opera house, city hall, and the classic Rex Hotel. It was a fascinating day and fun; I’m so glad we went…and I doubt I’ll need to do it again. [Tam a/k/a “Tony” can be reached at http://www.saigonmekongtours.com and sales@saigonmekongtours.com. Split 8 ways, we paid $75 apiece for all transportation, entries, and lunch and did tip afterwards. The tour lasted approximately 8 hours. Tony did a good job despite a few language/accent struggles for us, but again, we’ve found that to be the norm in Asia.]

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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

So, now I’ve caught this blog up to date. We know that when we get off the ship tomorrow, we’re probably in for more travel uncertainty than in more-developed Japan and South Korea, but we’re excited…Besides, we definitely won’t be roughing it our first couple of nights in Singapore. We’ve booked the Intercontinental, courtesy of easy points via an IHG promotion and David’s IHG credit card. (The promotion ended before I started blogging or I would have definitely shared. I got over 60,000 IHG points for sending in some postcards, enough for a night at the Intercontinental. David racked up points with postcards, too, then scooped up the rest with a credit card signing bonus.) After Singapore, we’re off to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, before heading to Cambodia and beyond. Here’s hoping the adventures that lie ahead are good ones!