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.

Port of Muscat, Oman: Excursion to Nizwah Fort and the Omani “Grand Canyon”

Old Muscat harbor

Sailing into the port of Muscat, Oman, for the first time is thrilling. I couldn’t help but think, “Now this is an exotic port!” The terrain is rugged rock, a uniform tan echoed in the watchtowers and fortification walls that guard the approach to the intimately-sized harbor. Our ship docked next to the royal yacht and another yacht used to provision the first. Colonial-style buildings with ornate balconies line the harbor front along a long corniche. A blue-domed mosque adds a colorful accent to the mostly-white buildings around it. A small stone fort perches at the far end of the corniche. I was looking forward to exploring this convenient and fascinating port, but we planned to save that for our return visit in a few days. (Since our month on the Celebrity “Constellation” from Singapore to Italy was actually two back-to-back cruises, the ship would retrace its path from Abu Dhabi –where the second cruise began– to Muscat.)

Approaching Muscat

Today was Friday, the Muslim holy day, so the Sultan Qaboos Mosque and much else would be closed. Better to save Muscat for our Tuesday return. Today, I’d booked our one and only cruise excursion for the month to Oman’s “Grand Canyon,” a trip to include a visit to the Round Fort, the Nizwah souk, and a picnic lunch atop Jebel Shams, the highest mountain in the Jebel Ahkbar mountain range. (“Jebel” just means “mountain” in Arabic.) Our excursion some 200 miles out into Oman also promised “Wadi Nakhr, in the depths of the canyon. Discover the quaint mountain village of Misfah and marvel at the breathtaking stone dwellings while learning about the region’s history. Admire the terraced farming village of Wadi Ghul before arriving at Jebel Shams….” All this was to be via 4-passenger SUV’s, too, so no big group in a motor coach. Sounds great, right? Well, the day turned out to be enjoyable, but not at all as billed … which in the end netted us a substantial refund and some nice apology gifts from the ship.

[Things got off on the wrong foot with this excursion the first day on the ship when I was informed that the already not-insubstantial price had gone up a lot from the time I’d called Celebrity some months before and been told to wait to book until I got on the ship to see if there was anyone else taking this excursion. The reason for not booking in advance was that the price was quoted per vehicle ($549) and we were only two people, not four. Once on the ship, the price had gone from $137.25 per person ($549/4) to $180. Hey, wait a minute! After much polite persistence, the difference was refunded to us prior to the excursion … and we made friends with a nice guy at the main desk. I’m a big believer in polite persistence!]

SUV’s waiting dockside by the port building in Muscat

The morning of the excursion, things started off less-than-perfectly when one of the SUV’s was late and we were left standing on the hot parking lot by the ship while confusion reigned. Eventually, we were put in an SUV with our two fellow travelers. We were then driven the 20 yards to the port terminal and told to exit again to clear security. David and I did, but our driver apparently then told the other two they could wait. So we went through security and they did not. And we could have left any contraband we wanted in the SUV. Pointless port bureaucracy, but not the excursion’s fault.

Once past charming Old Muscat near the port, we passed through gleaming, ritzy new Muscat with modern, ostentatious buildings sporting an almost Disney-esque Arabic flair. After that, the view gave way to a desolate tan moonscape dotted with white stucco villages and occasional oases. The rugged mountains beyond were obviously huge, but perspective was elusive with so few familiar objects to provide clues as to size. We asked questions of our driver, but soon learned he spoke virtually no English. So much for “learning much about the region’s history” from him.

At last we arrived in Nizwah where we got out in the huge parking lot of the Nizwah Souk. Hmm. This was a large, modern shopping complex made to look like an Arabic village.

Nizwah Souk

Nizwah Souk is sort of an outlet mall of souks (with an admittedly-fun room where we were free to taste a huge variety of dates as well as local coffee).

Coffee and dates on offer in Nizwah souk shop

A driver from one of the other two SUV’s traveling with us explained we were here to visit the souk and that those of us who wanted to visit Nizwah Fort which is adjacent to the souk were free to do so, but we’d be required to pay our own entrance. Wait a minute! We were supposed to visit the “Round Tower” fort as part of our excursion. Was this it? (Nizwah Fort does have a large round tower.) No, this wasn’t it and we weren’t going to visit a fort.

Round tower of Nizwah Fort

I’d snapped a photo of the excursion description and read it to the one English-speaking guide. He called his boss. Answer still “no.” Ticked off, but not wanting to miss what was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we paid our own entrance fee and visited the fort which turned out to be well worth it. The fort itself is extensive and open for exploring with museum-like displays of weapons in some rooms, women demonstrating cloth-work in another and so on.

Interior of Nizwah Fort’s round tower
Inside Nizwah Fort

Most rooms were open to visitors and the views were great. In the courtyard, a large group of me played instruments, chanted and staged mock battles with swords. All fun and interesting and we were glad we hadn’t missed Nizwah Fort. Still, we saved our ticket receipts for a little discussion with the Celebrity excursion desk.

 

Performers exit the fort in procession

From Nizwah, we drove further into the mountains past a ravine-side village and down into a sort of gulley where our little 3-vehicle convoy stopped for lunch. Hmm again. This was not “atop Jebel Shams” and we weren’t eating on a mat either; it was every person for themselves to claim a rock to sit on to eat.

There were some old ruins nearby which our one English-speaking guide informed us were “Persian ruins. They were destroyed.” So much for “learning about the region’s history.” Oh well, I finished up our hummus and sandwich lunch quickly and went on an explore. The ruins were open to anyone willing to scramble up the rocky, steep mountainside.

Having climbed as high as possible, I discovered a view of a broader canyon. A few children played on the opposite side. Later, a lone goat, a lost kid, wandered along the bottom of the ravine, bleating for its mother. Someone had spread elaborately woven straw mats in one of the stone huts that comprised the ruins.

 

We spotted caves and crevasses in the rock walls, some of which had clearly been used by humans at some point. A large lizard darted to hide under a rock; fiercely thorned bushes grabbed at our pant legs. This was what I’d hoped from this excursion, a chance to hike, climb and explore somewhere off the beaten path in Oman.

When it came time to head back to Muscat, we retraced our earlier route, flanked by those bleak, rugged mountains. We made an unexpected stop at the impressive Sultan Qaboos Mosque. As expected, it was closed to the public, but we were able to wander the grounds and peer through the high gates. We looked forward to going inside on our return visit, something that later seemed less appealing after visiting the magnificent Sultan Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

Sultan Qaboos Mosque

Car trouble in one of our fellow vehicles slowed our return to the ship, especially when the guides decided to take the battery from our SUV to swap with the other vehicle. No surprise, we soon found ourselves in the vehicle that wouldn’t budge. Cramming us into on of the operational vehicles, we made it back to the ship at the last possible moment. Another woman and I went straight to the excursion desk to report the day’s deviations from the advertised excursion. End the end, entry to the fort was reimbursed to us plus an additional $180 (50% of the shipboard fee for the excursion). With our initial reimbursement, this left us paying $47.25 apiece for the 9-hour tour, including entrance to Nizwah Fort. That I was happy with. When our new friend at the front desk topped things off with a bottle of wine, flowers,  choclate-dipped strawberries and a handwritten note, all was definitely forgiven. I do like Celebrity.

 

Port of Mumbai (Bombay), India

Victoria Station in Mumbai

We’d booked a small group (10 person) tour of the city of Mumbai with fellow Cruise Critic-ers. We were with the same group with whom we’d done the houseboat excursion in the Alappuzha Backwaters and Cochin so it felt like a group of old friends. The cruise terminal in Mumbai is not particularly large or impressive. They’ve broken ground on a new terminal or terminal extension just beside the existing one. Inside the terminal there is some duty free shops with scarves, jewelry and the like. There’s also another security check and immigration check before you can exit the far side.

This is not a port that you can walk out of. Only authorized vehicles are allowed just outside the main terminal door, although our private tour bus (the same company,  Muziris Heritage Day Tours, we used in Cochin–see practical info at the end of this post) was able to pick us up just beyond a barrier to the right as we exited (just in front of the construction site for the new terminal building).

Breaking ground on a new cruise port terminal next to the existing one

Unlike Cochin where we had a 10-passenger mini-bus, this time we were in a full-sized motor coach, a mixed bag. Our guide for the day was a diminutive older Indian woman with a sizable hunchback. Despite her infirmity and her petite size, she was spry and a quick walker. She also spoke excellent English and told us her name means monsoon rain.

Our tour followed an itinerary that seemed pretty prevalent: We drove through colonial English buildings to a main train station to watch the dabbawalas on their amazingly-organized daily delivery of lunch from home to Mumbai’s office workers.

Dabbawalas delivering lunches from the trains
Dabbawalas putting lunches on bikes for delivery to office workers
In a first class train car to Mahalaxmi

Then, we caught a local train for about a 15-minute ride to Mahalaxmi to view the huge outdoor laundry of Mumbai.

Mindboggling Mumbai laundry. Imagine trying to get each item back to its owner!

David and I both succumbed there to the impressive sales pitches of a young girl of 9 selling magnets and a lovely young teenage girl selling purses. They’d learned English, they said, selling on the streets. An impressive feat, and we could only wish the future held more real schooling for these bright, but poor, girls.

Selling magnets
Articulate young saleslady

Our bus picked us back up at the laundry and drove us to the Krishna Radhagopinath Temple to view a ceremony in progress.

Krishna Ceremony in Radhagopinath Temple

We rode along the seafront promenade to the Gateway of India, a 1924 triumphal arch built to commemorate the visit of English King George V and Queen Mary. Locals gathered at the large square in front of the arch, taking photos of themselves…and us. Throughout India, we were asked to pose for photos with locals. Our guide confirmed that the motivation was our “white skin.”

Gateway of India

After the Gateway, we had an hour to kill at the swank Taj Mahal Palacce Hotel. This was our least favorite part of the tour as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is Mumbai’s equivalent of the Ritz, with equivalent prices for restaurant options and high-end Western designer shops. There was nothing of interest to us there (other than the heavenly air conditioning and luxe restrooms).

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Our group split up here and David and I ended up ducking into Le 15 Café in Colaba, a French café just around the corner from the Taj Mahal Palace. It wasn’t the Indian food we’d envisioned for our last meal in India, but they did take credit cards (We had no rupees and didn’t want to change money this late in the game.), had great air conditioning, decent prices and good sandwiches. We also struck up a conversation with a young woman from New Jersey who’d moved back to her parents’ home city to try her luck starting an IT business.

Traffic in Mumbai: even worse than usual while roads are torn up to build a subway

After lunch, we battled our way through Mumbai traffic, past the University of Mumbai to a photo stop in front of the classic Victoria Station (see lead photo above), and on to Crawford Market, also known as Mahatma Jotibe Phule Market. The market was a large, bustling affair selling produce to locals as well as dry goods and spices to locals and tourists. Traffic is especially horrific in Mumbai now as the roads are torn up everywhere while the city installs a much-needed subway system.

Crawford Market, also known as Mahatma Jotibe Phule Market
Crawford Market a/k/a Mahatma Jotibe Phule Market

All in all, we enjoyed seeing Mumbai, although it was our least favorite India stop on this cruise. Unlike our other ports of call in India (Cochin and Goa), Mumbai has banned cows on the streets and tuk tuks. We saw lots of garbage and poverty as elsewhere in India, but there was definitely a more cosmopolitan, urbane vibe to Mumbai. Of course, this was a only brief glimpse of the city, so opinion here is limited to our experience and the tour we took in Mumbai versus what we did in the ports of Cochin and Goa.

I had mixed feelings overall about this tour of Mumbai. The main con for us was the lunch break at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I wasn’t wild about the larger motor coach, but watching taxis stuck in traffic, I couldn’t help but think we were cooler and more comfortable. Sitting higher also allowed us to see over the mass of cars (and we weren’t breathing exhaust fumes like many of the people we saw in cars, taxis and on motorcycles). The biggest pros were our knowledgeable guide, the professionalism of the tour company, and the quality of the bus. Our guide’s timing was excellent so that we managed to be on site just as the dabbawalas, those amazing lunch delivery men, began their routine near the train station. We also arrived just in time to watch a ceremony at the Krishna Radhagopinath Temple, remaining right up until the end. We passed another group of tourists on our way out whose guide had delivered them to the spot just in time to miss the ceremony entirely.

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Practical Stuff: We paid  Muziris Heritage Day Tours $80 per person for this tour. The bus was clean, in good condition, and well-air-conditioned. It arrived and dropped us off promptly. We were able to pay in US dollars at the end of the tour. They also accepted credit cards with a 3% surcharge.

Port of Mormugao (Goa), India: Old Goa and Colva Beach

Colva Beach in South Goa

I decided that Goa was the Indian port where we’d go it on our own. Researching ahead of the trip, I’d read warnings about Goa port taxis (the “taxi mafia”) and local newspapers decried the state of affairs at the port and the port authority’s slow pace at installing a promised taxi stand with fixed prices that cruise ship passengers could trust. Happily, we arrived to find that a taxi stand was now in place and the system works smoothly and cheaply. Goa turned out to be fun, cheap, and just what we wanted.

Immigration booths are set up on the dock just outside the ship’s ramps. Just beyond immigration is a money exchange that takes both cash and debit cards. Right next to the money exchange is the official taxi stand. Cash is required for the taxis. Eight tours are offered in guests’ choice of a compact car or SUV. Alternatively, you can create your own itinerary and rent either a car or SUV for 8 hours with either 100, 125 or 150 kilometers. Any overage is charged at a very reasonably 14 rupees/km to be paid directly to the driver. All vehicles are air-conditioned.

Ship-side immigration booths in Goa; convenient and fast

We opted for 8 hours with a compact taxi and 100 kilometers since I wanted to see Old Goa (“Velha Goa”) and then spend time on one of Goa’s famous beaches. (I calculated distance and drive time in advance using Google Maps: We’d basically be traveling a triangle with about 1 hour of driving on each leg.) Our total cost was 1700 rupees (just under $30), an awesome deal, especially when compared to the sky-high tour prices offered by Celebrity. (For example, Celebrity wanted $109.75 each–$219.50!–for transfer to and from a beach where we’d get 4 hours free time and lunch at a beach-side restaurant. And no Old Goa included in that excursion.)

Money changing under the blue tent to the right; taxi/tour vouchers for sale under the blue tent to the left
Simple, cheap options for hiring taxis and booking tours on the spot at the Mormugao (Goa) port dock

We paid for our taxi, got a voucher in exchange with the license plate number of our taxi and the driver’s name and were directed to walk to the nearby port gate where someone would help us find our taxi.

Voucher we gave to our taxi driver (with personal info redacted)

There’s a bit of a chaotic air outside the gate with lots of taxis and drivers milling about, but with the help of some of the drivers standing around, we quickly found our taxi.

Interesting traffic on a Goa road

I was a little worried at first when our driver brusquely shrugged off my first choice of a South Goa beach, saying he would take us to another just a bit farther on that was also on my list of 3 beaches I was interested in (provided by a native-Goan assistant waiter on the ship). Not absolutely wedded to my first choice, I went along with his suggestion. Our next point of contention came when we pulled out of the port and he seemed to disagree with David’s request to roll up the window and turn on the air conditioning. A crazy idea in the brutal heat! We told him we’d get out of the car if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning and he acceded. After those initial conflicts, I was worried we’d be stuck for the day with a surly driver, but he was fine after that and took good care of us for the rest of the day. His English was limited, so some of the subtleties were no doubted missed on all sides.

The main roads we traveled to Old Goa were in great shape and obviously newly paved and expanded. Still, it’s an hour drive from the port at Mormugao to Old Goa due to winding roads and small towns that we had to pass through. We drove through the city of Vasco da Gama, pausing for a quick visit at a Hindu temple before continuing to to Old Goa.

Hindu temple in Vasco da Gama

Our first stop in Old Goa was at the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the Portuguese. The sole remaining tower belfry created a dramatic highlight to the extensive ruins of the church and adjoining convent.

St. Augustine belfry
A nice visual aid at St. Augustine belfry

Convent ruins at St. Augustine

Our driver waited while we wandered the ruins, then informed us that we would stop at 3 shops before continuing on to the churches that form the center of Old Goa. We weren’t thrilled about the all-too-common store detour, but quickly realized this was something our driver needed to do. We gamely looked around the first store, a glitzy place reminiscent of People’s Stores in China, offering high-priced trinkets, jewelry, furniture and more. There were some lovely things, but we had absolutely no interest. Heck, most of our belongings are in storage during this vagabond period of our life! I tried to talk our driver out of the second store, but had no luck so we made an even shorter stop. (We ran into a group cruise excursion at that 2nd store and we were more than happy to be free to leave as they were stuck until the last person had made a purchase or made their way through the long line for the toilets.) Back in the taxi, I told our driver we would go in the last shop, but only “for him.” No, he insisted, “for you.” We back-and-forthed that a couple of times, but all in good humor. David and I made one last, speedy stop in a nearly empty store–taking advantage of the clean, western-style toilets and no line–and finally we were on our way the few blocks to the center of Old Goa.

Bom Jesus Basilica
Courtyard attached to Bom Jesus Basilica

Our driver let us off near some souvenir stalls, pointed the way to the Bom Jesus Basilica and then indicated how we should proceed to the other sites and where to meet him when we were through. He left the length of our visit entirely up to us.

With the Indian school summer vacation (April-May) in full swing, most of the tourists to the basilica appeared to be Indian families, although we spotted some fellow cruise ship passengers inside. We joined a line to file to the right of the main altar and to a back section of the church that held a holy relic, a large excessively-bloody crucifix and other religious items. We circled an inner courtyard before exiting the basilica to head across the road to the main grounds of the Archeological Survey of India, which consists of a manicured lawn area surrounding seven churches, cathedrals, the basilica and an archeological museum. We opted to skip the museum, but took in the grand Se’ Cathedral and the smaller, but beautifully-painted Church of St. Francis of Assisi (both free-of-charge).

Archaeological Monuments of Old Goa: Se’ Cathedral and the Church and Convent of St. Francis of Assisi
Detail of ceiling painting from Church of St. Francis of Assisi
Interior of Se’ Cathedral

Walking the short distance back to the road, we met our driver and started off on the approximately 1-hour drive to Colva Beach. I’d originally wanted to visit the smaller, less-visited Betelbatim Beach which is adjacent to Colva, but at our driver’s suggestion/insistence, Colva it was. At first, I was worried that he’d steered us to an over-crowded, cheesy touristy beach, thinking that was what we Westerners must want. The area just around the main access to the beach is dotted with tourist shops and little dive-y cafes. Lots of people milled about, too. Hmm. Not looking great. At least they were locals and we weren’t stuck in a Western-style resort. We walked over a small footbridge to the beach and saw that a string of casual waterfront restaurants spread out to our left along a naturally wide white-sand beach.

The beginning of restaurants along Colva Beach near main entry road

Happily, we could see that the throng thinned out pretty quickly further away from the main access road. We took off our shoes and strolled through the delightfully warm water to the last restaurant, Luke’s Place, attracted by both the look of the place and the location in spite of the uninspiring and less-than-exotic name.

Lots of free lounge chairs in front of Luke’s Place

Noticing another Western couple on two of a string of otherwise-unoccupied lounge chairs under an umbrella in front of the restaurant, I asked if they spoke English and discovered they were English and had been staying near this beach and frequenting this restaurant for two weeks. The woman was wearing a bikini and assured me I’d get no odd looks or hassles for wearing my bathing suit at Colva, despite the fact that all the local women were wading into the ocean in full saris. (I couldn’t believe how casually they treated those gorgeous dresses!) We did have the usual people wanting to take photos with us pale-skinned foreigners. I told David that in our “skimpy” Western bathing suits, it must be for them like Victorian travelers posing with topless natives! The Brits also informed us that the restaurant made excellent food, the large (strong) Kingfisher beer was a good buy, and that the owner would watch our things if we used the lounge chairs and they’d had absolutely no problems. Proving their point, they wandered off for a long stroll, leaving their belongings. This sounded perfect and turned out to be just that.

Luke’s Place, empty on an early afternoon on a weekday

We enjoyed a good, made-to-order Indian food meal (only Indian rupees accepted) with a great view, then planted ourselves on the cushioned loungers to sunbathe a little before swimming in the ocean. I lost my sunglasses to some great body-surfing and stupidity, but oh well. It was high time I retired those anyway…and I felt pretty sure I could find a cheap pair in India to tide me over until I got back home where I had a good pair waiting.

The ride back to the ship was about another hour and we rolled into the port parking lot, using all but about a half a kilometer of the 100 km we’d paid for. Not bad!

Port of Cochin, India: Houseboat through the Alappuzha Backwaters & Old Cochin

Our first stop in India was Cochin (a/k/a Kochi) in the state of Kerala on the southwest coast. My first time in India, Cochin was a port I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. We loved this stop! I used Cruise Critic connections to book us with a group of ten fellow cruise passengers on a full day tour, including lunch and a cruise on a traditional houseboat on the Alappuzha (a/k/a “Alleppey”) Backwaters near Cochin. (Find details at the end of this post.)

It’s about a 2-hour drive from the port of Cochin to the Alappuzha Backwaters where we boarded our houseboat. Kerala is one of the most prosperous and well-educated states in India with a nearly 94% literacy rate. Women have higher standing than elsewhere in India as it is a traditionally matrilineal society with inheritance following the female line and mothers the heads of households. While more than 50% Hindu, there are large populations of Muslims and Christians in Kerala. The drive to the Backwaters took us through lush green rural areas, small towns, markets, ubiquitous garbage and ramshackle buildings, as well as some upscale-looking homes and apartment buildings; the chaotic hodgepodge we came to expect of India.

Our Backwaters houseboat turned out to be a 2-bedroom, 1-story boat of the traditional type, in very good condition. We sat in the bow, just behind the captain at his wheel, on benches that ran along the sides of the boat under the shade of a canopy. Four chairs around a cocktail table and a large dining table occupied the center of the space.

We spent a couple of hours leisurely cruising the Backwaters, making a lazy loop that took us out into a big wide-open lake. We spent most of the time in narrower canals bordered by homes that sit below sea-level and flood regularly each year despite low dams built along stretches of the canals. We passed people bathing, doing laundry, fishing and, in general, going about their daily lives.

Life in the Alappuzha Backwaters
Fisherwoman and child
Duck farm

The call to prayer began as we passed a small mosque, music played from somewhere out of sight. Many other houseboats and smaller boats plied the waters. It’s a unique place and I really enjoyed the whole experience.

A cook prepared our Indian food lunch in the galley at the stern of the ship, then served us buffet-style on the dining table under the canopy. Due to recent regulations in Kerala, beer is not allowed and we were served juice and water. The food was good and plentiful, if not spicy enough for my tastes.

Alappuzha Houseboat buffet lunch
Boards served as walkways between houseboats which docked several deep.

After our Backwaters cruise, we drove back into Old Cochin. We visited the dhobi khana or town laundry operated by Tamil-speaking members of the Vannar Sangham community of untouchables whose ancestors were brought here by the Dutch in the 1700’s to wash army uniforms. (Even though our guide told us the caste system was no longer followed in Cochin, he seemed to think the Tamil origin of these people explained the difference.). The only woman ironing at the time was using an old ember-filled iron since the electricity was out due to a recent electrical storm. Old-fashioned, labor-intensive cleaning and ironing methods are used. Clothes are starched prior to ironing by dipping in rice water.

Ironing with an ember-filled iron
Each family of Vannar Sangham has their own washing station in the laundry

Washed clothes are hung to dry on wooden frames in a large field. In monsoon season, they use dryers, but it takes a long time as the workers hang the clothes out whenever they can so have to continually hang them and take them down. Washermen and women can lose half of their income during monsoon season.

No clothespins: Clothes are fastened for drying by tucking ends into twisted rope

We walked along the riverfront to view fishermen using “Chinese nets,” fishing nets of ancient design, operated with weighted structures of the size and shape of a fair-sized sailboat sail. Some of the seafood on offer was entirely new to us like weird, flathead “river lobsters.”

“Chinese net” and fishing boats
Framing photos wider shows the less-picturesque aspects of India
Flathead river lobsters (front left) were new to us

In another historic neighborhood, we took a short walk to the only remaining synagogue in Cochin which occupies a dead end on a shopping street. The Paradesi Synagogue was built in 1568 by descendants of Spanish, Dutch and other European Jews and is now maintained by the five remaining Jews in the city. A clock tower attached to the synagogue, built in 1760 and under restoration, adds the only architectural detail of interest visible from outside the plain blue synagogue (which is not open to the public). We had a little free time to explore the many shops on the street leading to the synagogue before heading back to the ship.

Paradesi Synagogue clock tower
Old Cochin shopping street viewed with the synagogue’s blue wall on the right
Spice shop. What great smells from this place!

Practical info: Our tour operator was Muziris Heritage Day ToursOur pre-trip contact (not our guide) was Lijo Jose who was recommended by a fellow cruiser who’d used him before. The company apparently does a lot of cruise excursions and their site has a whole section on those. They were waiting to meet us, holding signs, as we debarked. They did several similar-sized tours on the day we were in port, so have the capability to handle a fair number of customers. We were very happy with the tour, pre-trip communication, houseboat, and the value (especially when compared to the cruise price and product as discussed below). The only snafu in the tour came at the very end when we spent about 15 minutes parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere while we waited for someone from the tour company to arrive with a credit card machine for those wishing to pay by card. (We paid cash in U.S. dollars. There was a small charge for credit cards, I believe 3%.)

To give you an idea of just how outrageous cruise excursion prices usually are: We paid $80 each versus the $220.75 apiece the cruise ship wanted for the same itinerary. We had ten people in a very nice, mini-van-style small bus vs. a cruise excursion which would have been 40 or so people on a motor coach. From complaints we heard later, our houseboat was nicer than what the cruise excursion people got. The only downside to our mini-bus was that, while we had three “captain’s chairs” on either side of our main aisle, the remaining four us had to take the four seats across the back that were not as spacious. We had a great group with us, though, and volunteers swapped the front seats for the back seats on the return ride. Given the huge price difference, the small size of our group, and the quality of the tour, we were more than happy.

Port of Colombo, Sri Lanka: Daytrip to Colonial Galle and the Galle Fort

Galle Lighthouse

In doing my pre-trip research about Colombo, Sri Lanka, I found little specifics on the port itself and not too much about the city of Colombo that inclined me to want to spend much time there. The one universal bit of info I came across was that traffic in and around Colombo (and much of Sri Lanka) was usually awful. Once again, cruise excursions did nothing to tempt me, but as always, I scanned them to see what the cruise line thought was worth a visit. I decided on the town of Galle as our destination and concluded that a local driver/guide was the way to go. Reviews lead me to choose Sanki Leisure and I found them easy and prompt to deal with by email. I paid 50% down via PayPal (a compromise I proposed when they first suggested an online payment company I wasn’t familiar with and read mixed reviews of).

We were to meet our guide at Gate 02 of the Port of Colombo. I knew it was a big industrial port with no walk-out allowed or doable, but I had no idea what would be offered in the way of transport upon our arrival. It turns out that the Port provided free motor coach shuttles to Gate 01, but the driver was happy to let us off a gate earlier at Gate 02 after instructing us to be sure to go to Gate 01 for our return shuttle back to the ship.

View from the Port of Colombo shuttle; not a walkable port

Sure enough, our Sanki guide was waiting as promised with an air-conditioned car. He did not, however, speak more than a few words of English. So much for a driver/guide; we had a driver. Oh well, it would have to do.

We did a quick stop off at Independence Memorial Hall on our way out of Colombo, then quickly found ourselves caught in a traffic and pedestrian snarl among shops thronged with people celebrating the Hindu New Year.

Independence Memorial Hall in Colombo
Colombo taxis
Colombo taxi driver and passengers

While the scene was fascinating to watch, that famous Colombo traffic was now all that much worse. The plan was to make Galle our primary destination–I really hoped to see those iconic fishermen perched on stilts above the water and the Galle Fort and colonial Old Galle looked intriguing. If we got back to Colombo with enough time, we’d take in the sights there, but if not, Galle was our priority.

Colombo traffic

Once we finally got out of Colombo, we opted for the wide inland highway rather than the probably more-scenic coastal road since that would shave an hour off our travel time. The highway was in great shape and offered a smooth journey through lush hills dotted with rubber trees and tea plantations. We made pretty good time once David convinced our driver to at least drive the speed limit of 100km/h rather than the 80km/h he seemed inclined to do.

Boats on a Galle beach. Hard to believe that it would be pouring rain in a few hours!
Fishmonger and his wares

When we arrived in Galle, our driver informed me that the stilt fishermen would not be out at this time of day and it was for tourists anyway. To alleviate my disappointment, I guess, we made a couple of stops along the roadside beach to watch groups of fishermen hauling in big nets from far out in the harbor and then to explore the adjacent fish markets.

Fishermen pulling in big nets
Fish market

From the largest of the fish markets, it was a short drive to the entrance to the ruins of Galle Fort where our driver dropped us off. Surprised to find no entry fee, we wandered into the fort then along the seaside fortifications mingling with tourists and locals strolling and picnicking in the sweltering heat. Hearing English, we joined a group that had spotted a sea turtle in the surf below then checked out a large iguana-like lizard that appeared over the wall nearby.

Clock tower and entry to Galle Fort

Inside Galle Fort

Lizard on a fort wall

Rather than a separate structure, it turns out that Galle Fort actually encompasses Old Town Galle that lies within the protective walls. The original Portuguese fort was apparently more of a separate structure. The Dutch captured Galle in 1640, though, and later they expanded its walls to encompass the town and the entire peninsula creating a major stronghold. The fort and Old Town Galle are now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Old Town Galle viewed from a fort seawall

Rejoining our driver, he drove us a block or two within Old Town to Elita Restaurant, a café clearly geared to tourists, but offering really delicious seafood (at tourist prices). The chef is a local guy who trained in Belgium. We’d hoped for Sri Lankan food, but couldn’t find it in ourselves to be the least disappointed in fresh tuna steak and shrimp … and cold Lion beer!

We sat on a pretty front porch, painted bright yellow, where a wall-mounted oscillating fan offered fleeting, heavenly respite from the heat. While sipping our beers and waiting on lunch, we chatted with a pair of young Belgian women who’d been traveling in Sri Lanka for three weeks. Their glowing reports combined with similar we’d heard from a German man we met in Munduk (who’d spent a month in Sri Lanka and raved about the wildlife) were definite enticements to return for a real stay.

David at our table under cover of the porch with the Belgians braving the darkening skies. (They soon moved up to share the shelter from the rain… and the ceiling fan.)

Post lunch, we were driven another few blocks to the Galle lighthouse. The sunny day had given way to drizzle while we ate and a major storm was gathering in the distance, so we grabbed our umbrellas before walking along a jetty-like wall to the lighthouse then set out to explore the shops and old buildings of Old Galle.

To the Galle Lighthouse
Storm clouds gathering at a beach by the Galle Lighthouse, prelude to a downpour

Spices, tea and jewelry are major commodities in Sri Lanka and on offer in nearly every Galle shop. Needing nothing but a little nutmeg for rum punches aboard the ship, we bought only a pack of 5 fresh nutmeg pods.

Old Galle

Back on the street, we kept exploring the narrow roadways of Old Galle until increasing rain led us to take shelter in a little free museum called the Historical Mansion. The cluttered museum is a lure for jewelry shops, but it’s interesting nonetheless set in an old Portuguese building and displaying artifacts from colonial days, an old kitchen, and a central courtyard complete with well. A jewelry maker demonstrated metal work beside the courtyard where a deluge of rain now created waterfalls from the roof. We briefly browsed the jewelry–some of it of impressive quality–then set out into the downpour and booming thunder to find our driver since it was time to head back to Colombo.

Historical Mansion in Old Galle
Cluttered museum area of the Historic Mansion
A jewelry maker works beside the Historic Mansion courtyard as heavy rain falls.

Heading back to the carHeavy rain continued all the way back into Colombo and we declined the chance to visit a Hindu temple in the deluge, opting to head back to the ship nearly an hour early. Oh well, we got to see Galle in sunny weather and do most of what we wanted, so overall, we counted the day a success. We saw just enough of Sri Lanka to leave us pondering a return visit when we’re back in this part of the world next spring. The Port shuttle was waiting as promised when we arrived at Gate 01 .

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Practical info: We paid Sanki Leisure a total of $195 US for our private driver/”guide” for the day. I paid $98 deposit via PayPal and the balance in cash (US dollars) to the driver upon arrival. For comparison’s sake, Celebrity wanted $179.75 per person for a daytrip to Galle which included lunch at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel and a folk museum.