Visiting Havana under the new regulations

We’re just back from a short 4-night cruise, the highlight and point of which for us was to finally visit Havana, Cuba. We actually booked the same Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) cruise last summer, trying to beat the new Trump-imposed regulations on travel to Cuba, but were thwarted when Hurricane Irma canceled the cruise. This time, all went beautifully and we found our day in Havana to be fascinating and the travel easy and hassle-free.

I had lots of questions and some concerns about the new regulations, pre-trip, and learned a lot by researching online. Still, I had questions to which I could find no answers, so this post will have plenty of practical info and details that I wish I’d known in advance.

Choosing a Category of Travel Under New Restrictions: We settled on making our first visit to Cuba by cruise ship simply because it was easy and the most sure-fire way to travel there without worrying about U.S. restrictions on travel. These reasons seemed even more relevant after the new regulations went into effect, doing away with individual “People-to-People” travel which had previously been the main way for Americans to do a general visit to Cuba. “People-to-People” is just one of many so-called “licenses” that Americans much choose in order to travel legally to Cuba. This is a U.S. requirement and means nothing to Cuban authorities.

Group “People-to-People” is still allowed and that is the category under which most cruise-line-sponsored shore excursions fall. Given the ridiculously high prices and large-group/motor-coach nature of those ship-sponsored excursions, I wanted to book a private tour. Under the new regulations, the preferred license category for individual travel is now “Support for the Cuban People.” We checked that box on the form supplied by NCL used by them to obtain our visas, and in addition, checked “Journalism” as we both freelance from time to time in addition to writing this blog. Since we specifically wanted to visit and write about breweries and beer in addition to travel and that would comprise a part of our itinerary in addition to the basic “Support for the Cuban People,” we wanted to be sure we covered all our bases.

Private Tour with Havana Journeys: After doing my initial research, I chose Havana Journeys for our tour. At $120/100CUC for a 6-hour private tour (not including lunch which we paid for separately), it was one of the best prices I found, had solid reviews, included a vintage car for the driving portion of our tour, and offered to provide a written “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary. We paid a deposit of 20CUC online (which resulted in a modest extra processing fee) with the 80CUC balance due on arrival in Havana. Havana Journeys were very professional in the lead up to our trip, replying promptly to questions, sending a photo of our guide, Katiusca, and telling us where to meet her (“by the Chopin statue” in Plaza de San Franciso, just across the road from the pier). Our ship was scheduled to dock at 10am and we were concerned that formalities and money exchange (Cuba is a cash-only destination) would take time, so we agreed to meet Katiusca at 11am.

Tour Disaster Averted. The only issue that came up with Havana Journeys–and it could have been a huge one–was an unexplained change in the date of our tour. We were arriving on Wednesday the 12th. I initially requested that date and they confirmed the date, but somehow on the final itinerary document sent by Havana Journeys shortly before our departure, the date was changed to Tuesday the 11th. I totally missed the change, so bear some responsibility, but I simply never imagined such a change, this being a port stop set by the cruise line and fixed from the time we purchased the cruise months prior. We spent 11am-2pm Tuesday the 11th on NCL’s private island in the Bahamas, so had no Internet access although I’d bought ship wi-fi (something I not intended to do) due to a last-minute situation at home that required my availability. Thank God I did! When we returned to the ship Tuesday, I found I’d missed several WhatsApp calls and messages. Havana Journeys was trying desperately to reach me: The guide was waiting for us. Where were we? Katiusca would wait 1h45m for us before giving up…and that time was passed by the time I got the WhatsApp messages. What to do?? I quickly tried to call back, but got no answer. I emailed every address I had for Havana Journeys, wondering what we’d do if I couldn’t reach them…and very thankful I at least had the notice I did. If we’d just showed up the next day, ignorant of the situation, we’d have waited in the heat, wasting our precious time in Havana, and eventually going off in search of some way to reach Havana Journeys. I had contact numbers for them in the U.S. and mobile and land line numbers for the contact in Cuba, but not a number for the guide since we would not have phone service in Cuba or on the ship. Internet is scarce in Cuba, so we’d have had some problem finding wi-fi before I could even begin to try to contact someone. Thankfully, I did finally reach Havana Journeys by WhatsApp call. While I waited on the line, they rescheduled Katiusca for the original, correct date and we were back on. Whew! Moral of this Story (which I knew and didn’t do): CHECK AND RE-CHECK DATES.

Docking in Havana. Although scheduled to dock at 10am, we actually docked earlier, sailing past iconic landmarks I’d only see in photographs and video: El Moro fortress, the Hotel Nacional…It was thrilling. The cruise terminal in Havana is wonderfully convenient. We pulled in to “park” like a mammoth car, just across the street from lovely Plaza de San Francisco. We joined other passengers on the bow of our ship smiling and waving at the people just below and the vintage American cars gliding by. I could even spot the windows of the hotel in front of which sits the bronze Chopin statue were we were to meet our guide.

Looking over the bow of our ship toward Plaza de San Francisco. The Chopin statue where we met our guide is circled in yellow just above the white pole on the bow of the ship. (In the distance and hard to see, I know.)

Group tickets assigning debarkation times were to be handed out starting at 8:30am, but they started early and David was only able to get us in Group 4. This turned out to be a non-issue as they started calling groups before 10am, called Group 2 about 10 minutes after Group 1, then called Groups 3 and 4 together. We stepped off the ship at 10:02am. Despite our concerns, we breezed through customs, security and money changing and were out on the street 20 minutes after we exited the ship. At the customs booth, the agent took the paper tourist visa we’d been given by the ship, snapped a photo, stamped our passports and we were off. Security is just a standard airport-style x-ray machine. Money exchange is at the far end of the rectangular terminal building. Many people were on duty there and there was virtually no wait. The man we dealt with was friendly and spoke good English, and was very patient as we exchanged both the last of our euros and U.S. dollars. (There’s a 10% penalty for changing dollars due to the chilly relations between our countries, so the exchange rate is better for euros.) Despite being warned repeatedly that foreigners must change money to the local closed tourist currency, the CUC, we found out later that many individuals and places apparently do take foreign money. I wish we had known. Havana Journeys did, however, require us to pay the balance of the tour (80CUC) to Katiusca in CUC.

With nearly 40 minutes before we were scheduled to meet our guide, we opted to visit the 16th century basilica and the monastery of San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi) on Plaza de San Francisco. The building is undergoing renovation, but much is still open including the sanctuary, and two floors of the monastery surrounding an open central courtyard; it’s a lovely spot. A small orchestra playing in the main sanctuary added to the experience and the guides scattered throughout were helpful and friendly, even encouraging me to climb up on the wall of an upper floor terrace to take photo of the lovely square below where I could see the bronze Chopin statue where we were to meet our guide.

Our Tour Begins. Although our plan was to meet Katiusca by the Chopin statue, it was hot and humid and Chopin sits on his bench unprotected from the sun, so we waited on the steps of a nearby building in the shade along with other ship passengers looking for their guides. The photo Havana Journeys sent me showed a platinum blonde woman, so there was a little hesitation on my part when I first spotted a brunette that looked plausible. Sure enough, we’d made our connection and were off. She began by taking us to a free open-air art gallery just across from the basilica of San Francisco. The gallery boasts a beautiful and enormous wall sculpture composed of a number of 3-D clay tiles as well as other quirky works of art. Katiusca described the central role of art in Havana and the privileged life of some artists who are allowed to travel more than average citizens. She got side-tracked, though, when she realized that David and I are attorneys. She is an intellectual property attorney and we spent much time talking about Cuba’s legal system, the proposed new Cuban constitution and her hopes or lack thereof for any positive results. I finally suggested we walk while we talked, and we moved on to walk the remarkably clean streets of Old Havana from Plaza de San Francisco to Plaza Vieja.

 

Beer! Or not. One of the three small breweries we’d asked to visit Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja occupies one of many elegant colonial buildings on Plaza Vieja. We didn’t expect a lot of Cuban breweries based on what little we’d been able to find in our pre-trip research, but we were looking forward to trying the closest thing to local “craft” beer and talking with local brewers. This was something new for Katiusca, so she was intrigued, too.

David and Katiusca waiting for Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja to open

Although just opening, Katiusca was able to get brewer Nivaldo to talk with us and we got a private visit to the working area of the brewery. Nivaldo explained basic brewing with which we’re familiar, but was also able toa answer some of our questions about ingredients used in their three beers, uninspiringly labeled simply Clara, Oscura and Negra (light, medium and dark). Local yeast is provided by a Havana “Center of Research”and Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja uses local cane sugar, but that’s where any semblance of intriguing local ingredients ends. They use Austrian hops imported via Panama and there’s absolutely no attempt and innovation of flavors and techniques. Part of this is due to the sheer difficulty in obtaining supplies of all types given the U.S.-led embargo; part is due to government control and lack of vision. When we urged the use of rum barrels to age dark beer, local fruits for flavoring, brewery-collected wild yeast and the like, Nivaldo just shook his head. Katiusca, both translating for Nivaldo and adding her own input, tried to explain how completely stifled enterprise and innovation is in Cuba. We asked about maybe home brewing creative beers and they both said it would be impossible and illegal.

Nivaldo and David in a brewery with no beer of its own

So, while not expecting much, we were ready to try Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja’s beers. Not so fast. Nivaldo informed us that the equipment had been broken for seven days and they had none of their own beer. Maybe a local bar had some of their beer? No. And it would be 3 weeks before they could get the equipement fixed. Wow. We were disappointed, but Katiusca just shrugged, “That’s Cuba.” So, we’d have to visit one of the other breweries on our list that was nearby. Nivaldo informed us the equipment at that other brewery was broken, too, and that it broke at the same time and would be fixed around the same time. Maybe we misunderstood and it was the supply chain that was “broken.” No, it was the equipment. We were incredulous. How could that be? Another shrug. “It’s Cuba.” Hmm. This was turning into a beer story that wasn’t exactly about beer. We thanked Nivaldo for his time, slipped him a little compensation and continued our explore of Old Havana.

Old Havana is beautiful, parts of it are derelict, most of it is very clean. Lots of restoration has happened since Old Havana was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a whole lot more needs to be done. Some of the old colonial buildings look to be in great shape; others are literally falling down, and people live in both. The renovation is mandatory, so people are moved in and out as deemed necessary by the government. We passed or wandered briefly through hotels, art galleries, museums. There was so much more to see than we had time for and I was already thinking about coming back.

Old Havana street; no trash in sight here

We met our driver, Danni, around 1pm and climbed into our big, gorgeous warm-brown-and-white 1955 Ford Fairlane. Havana Journeys offered us a convertible for an extra fee not understanding that I would have paid extra for an inclosed car. I know all about hot and humid and I wanted air conditioning. Boy, were we happy with our choice! We enjoyed watching other people in convertibles, but they can have them. Everyone we met who opted for a convertible was hot and sunburned. No thanks!

After rolling along the famed Malecon seawall, past the Hotel Nacional and Mafia-spawned hotels from the 40’s and 50’s, we drove down “5th Avenue” viewing mansions in the exclusive Miramar neighborhood before arriving at Buenaventura, a paladar (privately-owned restaurant) in the residential neighborhood of Marianao. Eating at this sort of restaurant was part of our “Support for the Cuban People” itinerary and the family-owned outdoor restaurant turned out to be nicer than expected. Prices are geared towards foreigners and are undoubtedly much, much higher than the average Cuban could afford. We paid 59.40CUC ($68.30) for lunch. Not cheap, but then again, we ate and drank well: a shared soup appetizer, rum-glazed lobster/langosta tail for David, pork ropa vieja for me, 2 mojitos and 2 piña coladas. At the end of the meal, we were comped 2 cigars and our choice of a small glass of coffee, chocolate or pineapple liqueur…while we enjoyed an impromptu music and dance performance by the owner and cooking staff. Good fun!

Santería. Our tour took an unexpected but fascinating turn after lunch when we made a stop at lush Parque Almendares on the Almendares River. Katiusca wanted us to see yet another side of Cuban culture; she told us some people hesitate to visit the park because of its popularity with practitioners of Santeria, a voodoo-like religion with roots in Africa and mingled with Catholicism. As she talked, two men on the waterfront held two for-the-moment-live chickens by their legs, moving back and forth between dipping the chickens towards bowls placed on the riverbank and wading into the flowing water. The squawking of the chickens was disturbing, and as we walked and Katiusca gestured, we realized the ground around us was literally covered with feathers and chicken bones. Grim. Katiusca said that Santería had bloomed after Russia pulled back from Cuba and, although the government had driven practitioners from the seafront, their numbers had grown. They met regularly at Parque Almendares and their children sported amulets and “protective” bracelets, despite laws prohibiting the wearing of religious iconography at schools.

Santería ritual in progress in Parque Almendares
Hot and sweaty for the moment, but a/c awaits in our beautifully preserved 1955 Ford Fairlane

Later in the afternoon, we visited Plaza de la Revolución a vast expanse of pavement bracketed by government buildings sporting giant metal portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos and the immense memorial to Jose Martí, the revered Cuban author and inspiration of Fidel Castro and so many others.

Jose Martí Memorial viewed from Plaza de la Revolución

Still No Beer. A stop at another small brewery at Antigua Almacén de la Madera y el Tabaco on our list confirmed that the equipment there was broken just as at Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja and none of their beer was available. “It’s Cuba.”

Katiusca encouraged us to buy tickets for a night of dancing at a “social club” claiming it was more authentic than elaborate shows at the Tropicana and the like. We swung by to look at the place, but decided against it. Located on the top floor of a 3-story building surrounding an open courtyard, the club shared the building with a girls’ school and an old theater. The middle floor was absolutely derelict, an unpleasant smell wafting up from the rubble and old theater chairs.

Third floor social club with view onto 2nd floor rubble; very Havana.

Life in Cuba. We discussed Cuban life with Katiusca and asked about the nearly empty shelves we’d seen in pharmacies. She explained the ramifications of the U.S.-led embargo and how many things were hard to get. I told her I wish I’d had a way to contact her before we came; we’d have been happy to bring hard-to-get items. Before our trip, I searched online regarding things to bring, having brought school supplies and the like on other trips to countries in need. I told Katiusca that some of what I read indicated that offering items might give offense, implying some sort of inferiority. Her response: “Cubans don’t take offense,” need trumping pride. At one point, I asked Katiusca if she thought things would get better for people in Cuba if relations with the U.S. normalized. “It would have to be better,” she answered. “It couldn’t be worse.”

Katiusca and Danni dropped us off back at the ship at 5pm, sweaty and tired. We opted to reboard to shower and eat before heading back out to wander Havana on our own. Katiusca assured us Old Havana was safe to wander on our own and that the buildings looked beautiful lit up at night.

On Our Own: Havana at Night. With the general idea of heading toward’s Hemingway-favorite El Floridita Bar and walking the wide Prado boulevard, both of which we’d passed with Katiusca, we left the ship and walked to Plaza Vieja. As promised, the elegant buildings looked pretty at night and cafés with outdoor seating boasted bands and couples dancing to Latin rhythms.

Pausing to watch the dancers at a restaurant just down from Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja, we found ourselves in an extended conversation with Alejandro, a 28-year old who’d initially just been trying to lure us into the Italian-owned café. More than eager to talk, he vented his frustration at opportunities in Cuba. Despite his IT Engineering degree, he found the pay much better at the café. He confirmed what Nivaldo and Katiusca told us about the impossibility of starting a business like the craft brewing we’d imagined (then added that the beers at Cervecería Factoría Plaza Vieja were “very, very, very bad”). He expected no improvement whatsoever from the new Cuban constitution being developed and thought nothing would change for the better going forward. He said his mother had felt the same way when she was his age…and now here he was. Nothing changes. He wanted to emigrate to the U.S. (His brother was in Florida.), Canada, Europe, Australia, anywhere.

Finally bidding Alejandro goodnight, we decided to walk down Teniente Rey towards the Capitol. Katiusca had indicated that was the way to walk towards the social club, so we figured it would be a nice stroll. Teniente Rey between Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja was clean and beautifully restored; we expected the same continuing on the street on the other side of Plaza Vieja. Boy, were we wrong. With each block, the road got seedier and the lack of street lights made it more uninviting. People were scattered about, clumped in small groups; occasionally, children joined the mix. For blocks, there were no open restaurants, clubs or shops. At one intersection, we looked up to see the second floor of a building completely collapsed…and fresh laundry hanging on lines amongst the rubble. I’d have loved to have photographed the area, but felt it wiser to keep striding along. People called out to us from time to time, offering taxis, usually, but we just said “No, gracias,” and no one hassled us. Beyond a small, public wi-fi-equipped square crowded with people looking at their phones, we finally reached the Capitol and shortly thereafter a livelier area and Floridita.

El Floridita, self-proclaimed birthplace of the daquiri, exceeded expectations. It’s a pretty period bar with bartenders inverting two rum bottles at a time into perpetually busy blenders. Decorated in red, beige and black with a long dark wood bar, the place was full, but not unpleasantly packed, and a great little band by the front door added to the experience.

We staked out a spot at the bar and ordered a couple of the famous daquiris, striking up a conversation with another couple from the ship. We had to step aside every so often to let people pass who wanted to pose with the bronze statue of Hemingway propped against the far edge of the bar. When a woman singer began to belt out classic Spanish songs in a clear, strong voice, we ordered another round. Floridita may be a tourist staple, but the old lady has class and we had fun.

Leaving El Floridita, passed the Hotel Inglaterra and the ornate Gran Teatro de la Havana. Strolling down the wide, paved median of the boulevard Prado, I found myself pulled into an impromptu street dance with a man whose dark features blended with the night. Scattered along the median people sat and talked, danced and drank. A group of young people did tricks on skateboards.

The Prado
Neighbors chatting in a building on the Prado

People in once-elegant buildings in various stages of repair along the way looked out of windows and rooftops or chatted with neighbors across balconies. When the Prado reached the water of the Canal de Entrada, we turned right to stroll the seawall towards the port, passing a Spanish fortress and small fishing boats anchored and bobbing with the huge statue of Christ of Havana lit brightly and shining on the far bank. We reached the Cruise Terminal at midnight to find it well-lit and security and immigration waiting to pass us quickly back to the ship.

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More Practical Info:

Katiusca would like to book tours individually. She can be reached by email at katiusca77@nauta.cu and I’ve found her quick to reply. I can highly recommend her as a guide. In addition to being an attorney, she’s the mother of two teenage daughters and needs the guide work to support her family. Her English is excellent and she’s very knowledgeable about Cuban history and culture.

Despite the date mix-up, I’m happy with Havana Journeys and recommend them as well for those more comfortable with a go-between.

Click here for a fascinating and not-so-clear list of examples of what does and does not qualify as “Support for the Cuban People.”

Click here for a list Cuban government- and or military-owned entities and subentities with which Americans are forbidden to have direct financial transactions. Note: “Entities or subentities owned or controlled by another entity or subentity on this list are not treated as restricted unless also specified by name on the list.” Many bars, restaurants and shops are thus not covered by this restriction.

We did everything we could to qualify under the “Support for the Cuban People” category of “license,” and I feel comfortable we met the somewhat nebulous requirements. Still, I see very little chance of anyone questioning tour qualifications for the “Support for the Cuban People” category. Simply check that category on the cruise line affidavit that arrives well before departure, the cruise line will then obtain a tourist visa which says absolutely nothing about why you’re in Cuba. Local Cuban authorities only look to see that there is a visa. Upon returning to the U.S. (the only country that cares about the “Support for the Cuban People” and other “license” requirements), we were just one of hundreds getting off a cruise ship from Cuba. We went through passport control in Miami without question. We are, of course, keeping all our records for 5 years as required, but it seems like a pointless exercise. I’d like to return to Cuba for a longer stay someday and feel comfortable about doing so, even under the new regulations.

Trying out De Waterbus in Antwerp, Belgium: Daytrip on the Schelde River to Kruibeke Polder and Castle Wissekerke

De Waterbus at Steenplein in Antwerp

We got our first chance to try De Waterbus yesterday, the river bus that leaves from Antwerp’s Steenplein and makes a 30-minute run to nearby Hemiksem via Kruibeke. De Waterbus is new as of July 2017 so not yet in service when we were here last spring and not so appealing during the cold days when we were in Antwerp last October-November. Yesterday, however, was perfect: warm and sunny; just right for an explore.

The Waterbus leaves every 30 minutes on the hour and half-hour from Steenplein (the pier where the free cross-river ferry to Linkeroever docks, near Het Steen castle). The cost is 3 for a one-way trip or 5, round-trip. De Waterbus has plenty of room and racks for bikes and a nice, air-conditioned interior and public toilets.

It’s fun to watch the bustling water traffic on the Schelde while the banks are mostly high water reeds and grasses or industrial structures. Antwerp is the second largest port in Europe after all.

The Waterbus made a quick stop on the right bank at Kruibeke, but we stayed on to Hemiksem on the opposite bank where walked a short distance to De Veertoren Taverne a pub I’d spotted online for lunch. There’s nothing else near the dock save tidy new homes.

Terrace at De Veertoren
Wednesday lunch special at De Veertoren: a hearty and tasty steak/frites

After a nice lunch of steak, frites, salad and ice cold Gouden Carolus Tripels, we hopped the free cross-river ferry to the Kruibeke side of the river. (This ferry runs every half hour on the 14 and 45.) I’d seen Castle Wissekerke in the village of Bezel online and wanted to visit, but had been discouraged in the past by the apparent need for a car. I was excited to realize we could actually walk from a Waterbus stop. Checking Google Maps, I saw it’s actually a much shorter walk to the castle from the bank opposite Hemiksem (2 km) than it is from the Kruibeke Waterbus stop (2.5 miles) even though Bezel is in the Kruibeke municipality. The ferry dropped us off at a small parking lot that gave way immediately to the bike trails of the Kruibeke Polder. “Polders” are manmade emergency flood plains that also serve as extensive biking trails connecting towns throughout Flanders and the Netherlands as well as being nature preserves and walking paths. We were the only pedestrians getting off the ferry and we would have loved to have bikes, but it’s still a nice walk and we enjoyed our stroll through wild wetlands and marshy forest. The bikes are routed away from the cobblestone walking path which is an added benefit for those on foot.

Kruibeke Polder just off the cross-river ferry from Hemiksem
Walking path in Kruibeke Polder
Marshy alder tree forest in Kruibeke polder
Sluice in Kruibeke Polder

In no time, we arrived at picturesque Castle Wissekerke surrounded by a little lake populated with swans, geese and ducks.

Castle Wissekerke

Entrance is 5/adult and happily included an English-language booklet with two paths through the castle, one for the nobility and one for servants. We were turned loose to explore the castle which we had almost entirely to ourselves. It was fun and refreshing to be allowed to look through documents, open secret doors, climb a bell turret, descend to the medieval cellar and kitchen, and generally wander and indulge our curiosity with minimal restraint. (There’s a children’s academy of some sort using a portion of the building and that was one of the few areas we weren’t encouraged to visit.)

“Vestibule” of Castle Wissekerke
Gothic-style living apartment, a change from the majority Napoleonic/Empire decor
Servant’s stairway to bell tower

The castle was the home of the family of Count Philippe Vilain XIII and is mostly decorated in restored Napoleonic glory. There are many original items as well as period pieces. Although the castle dates back to the middle ages, it’s current iteration is more a mansion than a fortification. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Wissekerke and are happy the Waterbus and ferry made it doable on foot from Antwerp.

Neglected belfry
Dining room with original china, crystal and silver on display
Chapel of Castle Wissekerke

We wandered through the terrace of a charming café called Bistro Den Duiventoren next door to the castle and peeked in a little “free museum” and bar across the street which is only open on the weekends before retracing our steps to the cross-river ferry and then catching De Waterbus back to Antwerp.

Cross-river ferry dock at Kruibeke Polder with ferry visible on opposite bank at Hemiksem

Posted June 7, 2018

Port of Piraeus, Greece: Athens

On the Acropolis: The Erechtheion and its beautiful caryatids

After transiting the Suez Canal, our first port in Europe was Piraeus, Greece, the nearest port to Athens. I’d been to Athens a couple of times before, but it had been awhile and I’d never been with David, so we were both really looking forward the day. We wanted to do Athens on our own, though, and planned to take advantage of the Metro system. Not only did the Metro offer freedom of movement, but it is also very cost-effective, particularly when compared with exorbitant cruise line excursions.

Celebrity “Constellation” docked at Terminal C, Gate E12 of the Port of Piraeus

Our ship docked at Cruise Terminal C “Alkimos” of the massive Piraeus port. Our Gate was E12, although the gate itself referenced Terminal B “Themistocles” which I think was the terminal building just next to ours where another Celebrity ship was docked. In any event, cruise ships dock at Gates E11 and E12; Gates E1-E10 are docks for the many ferries that service Greece’s scattered islands. The Piraeus Metro station is near Gate E6, a walk we made in about 30-35 minutes. There are buses that run between the far gates and the Metro Station and nearby train station, but we had too little information regarding buses at that point to be sure which one to choose (although we could have asked a driver or waiting passengers) and we were curious to at least see a little of Piraeus before we headed into Athens for the main show.

We started walking down this road from Gate E12 towards the Metro and train stations. The water is on the left here. To catch a bus going to the stations, we would have had to wait at a stop on the opposite side of the road from the bus approaching in the photo.

We walked on a wide sidewalk with the water of the port on our left. The Metro station was eventually on our right, across a broad street. There is usually a pedestrian bridge over the road to the Metro station and nearby train station, but it was closed due to construction along that stretch of the road. Still, between Google Maps (thanks to our T-Mobile international data plans) and following the crowds of people moving with the purposefulness of commuters, it was easy to find the crossing to the station. Just inside the station, we split up with me heading to a bank of ticket machines to the left of the main doors and David getting in line for a live teller to the right. I was easily the “winner” and flagged him away from his slow-moving line as soon as I had our 5-ride passes in hand.

Live tellers to the right as we entered the Piraeus Metro Station
Ticket machines to the left of the Piraeus Metro Station doors as we entered

Since Piraeus is the terminus of the Green Line 1 of the Athens Metro system, there was nothing to picking the right train. Metro Line 1 that runs between Piraeus and Athens is the descendent of a steam railway opened between the two cities in 1869. It’s the only one of the three Athens Metro lines that runs primarily above ground. The cars are nice and modern, although on our return to Piraeus in the late afternoon our car lacked adequate air conditioning and I was too warm until I could move into a seat where a breeze through a high, open blew directly on me.

All departing Metro trains in Piraeus are going to Athens

Hoping to beat the worst of the day’s heat, we wanted to check the Acropolis off our list first. We rode the Green Line 1 eight stops to Omonia and changed there for the Red Line to ride three stops to the Akropoli Metro station. We just followed signs and found navigating the Athens Metro to be easy.

Athens Metro signs are easy to follow

The escalator from the Metro station opened onto a cobblestoned, mostly-pedestrian street. A short walk straight ahead in the direction we exited the Metro and a turn to the left found us at the entrance to the Acropolis. Unfortunately, a not insubstantial line was already formed. Given the docking time of our ship, the 8am opening time at the Acropolis, and the travel time to Athens (which was not appreciably longer by Metro than it would have been by bus or car through traffic), we knew there was no way to beat the crowds, but this was daunting.

Line for tickets to the Acropolis

The hold-up appeared to be only two tellers and an inefficient charging system. Guides hawked tours, promising to the ability to cut the line, and we considered it, although we didn’t want a guide, just the cut. A nearby sign tantalized with the information that online tickets to the Acropolis will be available soon. Oh well, we just waited. It actually wasn’t too bad and we through the line in about twenty minutes. (It did get warm in the sun, though, even in early May. An umbrella/parasol wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially if you find yourself at the Acropolis in the summer.)  Although a €20 ticket for just the Acropolis and its slopes is available, we opted for the €30 package ticket that includes the Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library and more.

Crowds were spread out across the expansive slopes and walkways leading up to the Acropolis, so we could view the approach, theater/odeon, etc. relatively comfortably. But, crowds were funneled back together at the main stairs.

Southwestern slopes leading to the Acropolis
Odeon of Herodes Atticus

This is one of the frustrating facts of visiting someplace on a cruise or when a cruise ship or ships are in port: hordes of people wanting to visit a major site all at once. Having visited on much less crowded occasions, I regretted that this was David’s first glimpse of the famous ruins.

Hordes on the main stairs to the Acropolis

Moreover, extensive work is being done on the Parthenon and other structures, so large areas are cordoned off and work-in-progress is visible from nearly every part of the Acropolis. Despite the drawbacks, it is still one of the great wonders of the ancient world and it was good to be back.

Parthenon
Parthenon

Descending from the Acropolis, we headed north this time, following signs to the Roman Agora. We wandered this small rectangle of ruins, admiring its unique octagonal Horlogion or Tower of the Winds which once housed a 2nd century BC water clock.

Inside the Roman Agora with the octagonal Horologion of Andronikos of Kyrrhos a/k/a Tower of the Winds in the background

Leaving the Roman Agora, we walked down a street bordering a fenced off area containing the ruins of the Library of Pantainos, then turned right down a street (Vriskaiou) drowning in graffiti towards the ancient Plaka district and the much larger grounds of the Ancient Agora.

Acropolis beyond the ruins of the Library of Pantainos
Vriskaiou Street

Like the Roman Agora, the Ancient Agora was included in the combination ticket we’d bought at the Acropolis. Highlights of the Ancient Agora area include the massive Temple of Hesphaestus and the beautifully rebuilt Stoa of Attalos, a many-pillared, 2-story building with long open porticos and which houses a small museum.

Temple of Hesphaestus
Looking over the Ancient Agora with the Stoa of Attalos to the left and the Acropolis in the distance
Lower portico of the Stoa of Attalos (The museum is inside to the left.)

The grounds are also lovely with paths wandering through flowering plants. There’s also a small Byzantine church on the site dating back to the 11th century, The Church of the Holy Apostles, with stunning wall paintings once hidden beneath plaster.

Frescoes inside the Church of the Holy Apostles

Hungry after our busy morning and ready for a break from the heat, we chose a restaurant, To Uovli, just outside the entrance gate to the Ancient Agora. Their lunch special offered “homemade” fare, including great bread, a hearty Greek salad for 2, moussaka and chicken gyros plus two glasses of beer for €28. Sitting outside in the shade and overlooking the Ancient Agora, it was a near-perfect break, marred only a tiny bit by the too-dry gyros.

Happiness is a great Greek salad and ice cold beer in the shade on a beautiful day in Athens

Sated, cool and happy, we headed off after lunch to explore the rabbit warren of shops in the Plaka a we made our way to the Athens Flea Market.

Old mosque near the flea market

Syntagma Square and the hourly changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building was my ultimate destination. There was no way I would let David miss that unique ceremony!

We arrived at the front of the Parliament right on schedule and staked out a spot at the front of a growing group of people. The ceremony was everything I’d remembered from previous visits, the unusual uniforms, over-sized pom-pom-bedecked shoes, and almost-absurdly-stylized steps a unique mix of solemn and almost funny. I couldn’t shake images of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks no matter how hard I tried to focus on the somber symbolism of the ceremony and the eternal flame in front of the tomb of an unknown World War II soldier.

After the ceremony, we ducked into the iconic Hotel Grande Bretagne to admire the beautiful lobby before taking an elevator upstairs to admire the view over Syntagma Square from the top-floor bar. (We also availed ourselves of very nice bathroom facilities. An early lesson I taught my sons when traveling with them: You can often skip unpleasant–and often for-pay–public bathrooms by dressing neatly and walking confidently into a high end hotel. I’ve never been stopped.)

View from the Hotel Grande Bretagne’s rooftop bar: Parliament, Syntagma Square, and the Acropolis

Happy with our day and ready to head back to the ship, we got on the Metro at the Syntagma station, rode two stops to Omonia and changed to Green Line 1 for Piraeus. Scanning a bus schedule at the Piraeus Station, we saw we had several options for buses back to the ship. We walked back to the main road on the waterfront to a nearby bus stop and caught bus 843 which dropped us off in less than 10 minutes right at Gate E12 and our ship.

Piraeus bus to Gate E12; enough English to get us there

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Practical info: The Athens Metro/Tram/Bus tickets cost €1.40/ride and are sold on a non-personalized ticket for €7 for 5 rides in 24 hours and €14 for 10 rides in 3 days. You can reload the cards at machines in every Metro station. I had no trouble paying at the machine in Piraeus with my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card.

The Acropolis is open 8am-8pm with the last entrance at 7:30pm. Tickets to the Acropolis and its slopes are 20 and the combination tickets are 30 and include 1. Acropolis and its slopes, 2. Ancient Agora and the museum at the Stoa of Attalos, 3. Roman Agora, 4. Hadrian’s Library, 5. Olympieion, 6. Kerameikos (Archaeological Site and Museum), and 7. Aristotle’s Lykeion. Pay in cash or card and the entrance to the Acropolis. Hopefully, TICKETS SHOULD AVAILABLE ONLINE SOON to avoid the long queues.

By way of comparison, Celebrity offered a 6h45m excursion which included motor coach transportation, entry to the Acropolis, the New Acropolis Museum (which we decided to skip in favor of the Agoras and Syntagma, but which does look excellent), a souvlaki lunch and free time in Plaka for $179/adult and $159/child. We spent €102 (about $119) in total for our day (Metro/bus tickets, Acropolis combination tickets and lunch).

Transiting the Suez Canal

A highlight for me of taking a ship from Singapore to Europe was getting to go through the Suez Canal, one of the manmade wonders of the world. The canal opened in 1869 and has been expanded several times over the years, most recently by a 22-mile expansion opened in 2015. Our journey through the Suez Canal turned out to be a fascinating, nearly 11-hour transit (just over twice the length of the Panama Canal).

Ships gathered pre-dawn, waiting to enter the Suez Canal

We arrived at the south entrance to the canal in the wee hours of the morning and joined a group of ships waiting to enter the canal. Because stretches of the canal are too narrow for ships to pass, vessels must join a convoy and go through with others headed their way. We ended up joining a convoy of thirty ships headed north. One of the largest container ships in the world was just ahead of us.

Barren banks near the southern entrance to the Suez Canal

The Suez Canal is much more than a simple waterway. We entered the canal at a narrow stretch of tan and nearly barren banks with glimpses of towns, minarets and palm trees beyond. Less than halfway through our passage, the canal entered the Great Bitter Lake and we passed lovely lakeside homes and hotels. Great Bitter Lake is a saltwater lake since there are no locks in the Suez Canal and water flows freely through the lake between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

On Great Bitter Lake

North of Great Bitter Lake, the canal separates into parallel waterways, the eastern canal with northbound traffic and the western canal supporting southbound vessels. We could see other ships heading south in the distance beyond the sandy expanse between us. It was an odd effect with the other ships seeming to glide across the sand. We could also see the towers of the city of Ismail in the distance although only the west portion of the canal runs directly past that city.

A container ship passing in the southbound lane at a spot where the two lanes are particularly close to each other
Looking off the stern along the northbound lane of the Suez canal with southbound traffic visible to the right

We did not sail right past Ismail because our south-to-north journey put us on the new portion of the canal opened in 2015. We passed monuments standing at the mouth of the smaller new canal that connects the north- and southbound “lanes” of the Suez Canal at the level of Ismail. This new canal was opened in 2015 to free ships from the necessity of joining convoys, at least for a portion of the canal.

Monumental statuary on either side of the smaller new canal connecting the two larger canals
Smaller new canal with Ismail in the distance

One of the monuments is a pharonic-style winged figure of Isis positioned in front of an obelisk and flanked by small sphinxes. Another statue celebrates the workers who built the canal. A large sign in front of a ferry dock proclaimed this the “Suez Canal,” lest we had any doubts.

Statue honoring workers who built the Suez Canal

All along the east bank of our “lane” of the canal near Ismail, new building stretched as far as the eye could see. It seemed a sea of apartments and/or hotels. Despite the mind-boggling expanse of new buildings, on-going construction was everywhere. It made me think of the movie tagline: “If you build it, they will come.”

New apartments and/or resorts along the new portion of the canal as far as the eye can see

With such a long transit, we had time to vary our viewing positions between our own port-side balcony and the upper decks and dining areas. The effect on the upper decks was strange as we seemed to sail through sand rather than water.

On upper decks at a narrow stretch, the ship seems to glide through sand

We dropped in for a portion of a lecture on the history and engineering of the canal, made all the more interesting as we were able to continue watching our passage through the surrounding windows of a forward lounge. The Suez Canal was designed and built under the direction of Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps who obtained a concession from Sa’id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan. The canal opened under French control. It was interesting to learn that British prime minister Disraeli originally opposed the canal, objecting to forced labor and sending agents to stir up revolt among workers, but possibly more motivated by the threat to British naval dominance for the long ship journey around Africa. In 1875, when the Egyptian government faced financial difficulties require the sale of shares in the Suez Canal, Disraeli bought up shares conveying 44% ownership of the canal to Britain.

Crossing under the suspension bridge at El-Qantara el-Sharqîya; viewed from a dining area on our ship
El-Qantara el-Sharqîya

Just past halfway through the canal, we crossed under the impressive suspension bridge that connects the two sides of the city of El-Qantara el-Sharqîya. We had fun sitting on our balcony, binoculars in hand, observing snatches of local life. I was intrigued by large conical structures punctured with patterns of holes. I soon realized they were dovecotes. An internet search (thanks to T-Mobile’s international data coverage) revealed that pigeons are a popular in the diet of many Egyptians and the mud pigeon houses are iconic in certain regions. Bird droppings are also a valuable fertilizer source.

Ferry dock with the El-Qantara el-Sharqîya suspension bridge in the distance
From time to tme, local boat traffic mixed with the ships moving through the canal

There was less to see as we neared the exit of the canal into the Mediterranean Sea near Port Said. All along our transit through the canal, we would see people come out to wave. So it was nice as we neared the end to see a small, well-worn boat with “Electrician” printed in English on the wheelhouse pull alongside and the captain and his mate step out to wave farewell.

Waving goodbye

With such a long transit, I can’t say that every single minute is riveting, but overall, cruising through the Suez Canal is a fascinating and unique experience.

Pirate Drills and Snipers: Cruising the Gulf of Aden

Cruising from the Middle East to Europe via the Suez Canal means going through the Gulf of Aden. Unfortunately, that also means passing through waters plagued by Somali pirates. After a relatively peaceful period, pirates have increased their activity in the area again. I knew this before we booked our cruise and knew there would be blackouts imposed for the nights we crossed, but still, it was strange to return from a day in Muscat, Oman, to find a letter in our cabin from the captain describing mandatory upcoming “pirate drills.”

Sure enough, the  speakers soon blared, “Safe Haven, Safe Haven, Safe Haven…” and we exited our balcony cabin to join our outward-facing neighbors in the hall. For several nights, we made sure our curtains were drawn tight and the balcony light extinguished. Other than that and darkened, roped-off upper decks, there was not much to the pirate precautions.

The letter also warned that we might need to take evasive action if a smaller vessel pulled too close. We’d seen the same thing with Indian fishing vessels in the Laccadive Sea that came right along side our ship, shouting greetings, waving and taking photos while passengers on our ship did the same. Our captain hadn’t worried about those boats, but he’d have to be more wary in the Gulf of Aden. As it turned out, no vessels approached ours and we had an uneventful passage through the gulf… save for spotting whales breaching off the coast of Oman, an unexpected treat.

Fishermen in the Laccadive Sea; they came right along side our ship then drifted behind us. The zigzag wake of our ship shows how the captain tried to avoid them and discourage them from coming too close.

Our favorite guest relations officer had also told us there would be snipers brought on board during our time in the Gulf of Aden. Sure enough, we ended up on an elevator with one of these guys, a heavily-muscled man with buzz cut and skull tattoo wearing a black polo with the name of a security outfit stitched on his shoulder. Other than that, the snipers stayed out of sight until the day they left.

We came up on deck several days into this period to see people gathered at the port rails. Joining them, we saw an inflatable heading towards a small ship floating not far away. At first, we wondered whether this was security checking out out a suspicious boat, but that seemed improbable. Why get down there on the level of such a small vessel that we could easily outrun and avoid? It turned out, this was our some of our security taking the guns off the cruise ship to the smaller vessel which would then run the weapons back to another passenger ship about to begin its voyage across the Gulf of Aden. It was a neat way to avoid taking weapons through customs of the ports on either side of the gulf.

It was interesting to see how the cruise lines view and handle the pirate situation. We never really considered ourselves in any danger, but it was good to be out of the Gulf of Aden nonetheless. Next up, the Suez Canal!

 

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

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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.

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.