Sands of Time

Published on Thursday, March 31, 2011

  • Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Abu Dhabi

  • Sir Bani Yas Island

  • Sir Bani Yas Island

  • Sir Bani Yas Island

  • Doha, Qatar

  • Doha

  • Doha

  • Sharjah, UAE

  • Sharjah

  • Musandam Peninsula, Oman

  • Musandam Peninsula

  • Musandam Peninsula

  • Musandam Peninsula

  • Fujairah, UAE

  • Fujairah

  • Fujairah

  • Muscat, Oman

  • Muscat

  • Muscat

  • Muscat

  • Muscat

  • Nizwa

  • Nizwa

  • Nizwa

  • Nizwa

  • Nizwa

  • Nizwa

  • Sur

  • Sur

  • Nakhl

Friday, February 18, 2011 - Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE): Our Arabian adventures began with arrivals throughout the day and night, and an excellent buffet dinner in the Pearl Room of the Hyatt Regency. Our intrepid Iranian pre-extension group, led by Ron Wixman and Michael Moore, also arrived safely in the wee hours of the morning.

Saturday, February 19 - Dubai / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Driving west along the coastline, away from the old city of the creek and the gold and spice souks, we made our way towards Jumeirah, where our first stop was the exquisite exterior of the Jumeirah Mosque. Continuing along the coast, we passed high-rise condominiums, hotels, and office blocks before our first glimpse of the 1,053-foot Burj al-Arab with its iconic sail, developed by the Nakheel Corporation.

Having made a photo stop and dallied beside Wild Wadi Water World, we had time to explore the neighboring Madinat Jumeirah. This complex of souks, restaurants, hotels, and theaters is built around a network of canals. Completed in 2004, the architecture features classic designs, such as abras, traditional wind towers. We then drove through Dubai Marina, and east to the Dubai Mall and the breathtaking Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at over 2,625 feet, with 160 stories.

After an Arabic-style buffet lunch, we boarded a local dhow for a scenic and relaxing cruise along bustling Dubai Creek. Our final stop for the day was the informative Dubai Museum which is housed in Al Fahidi Fort, built in the late 18th century. The museum has a fascinating display of archeological finds that date back some 5,000 years. After a full day, we headed to Port Rashid where we embarked the Clipper Odyssey and set sail for Abu Dhabi.

Sunday, February 20 - Abu Dhabi: Our day began with a visit to the fish market and the color-coded workers; blue-clad workers sell the fish, red-clad workers clean the fish, and yellow-clad workers move the fish. Driving through the city we saw the gold domed Presidential Palace and passed the imposing façade of the Emirates Palace Hotel.

At the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, we were permitted to enter as long as the gentlemen were conservatively dressed and the ladies donned the mosque’s black dresses (abaya) and wore a headscarf (shella). The mosque was opened in 2007 and can accommodate up to 40,000 worshippers. 

Our final stop of the morning was at the Abu Dhabi Emirates Heritage Village. This charming site not only affords a fabulous view of Abu Dhabi’s corniche and skyline, but also showcases the history and traditional life of the country and the fast disappearing work of traditional local artisans.

Following lunch aboard the ship, we drove southeast through mangrove swamps to Yas Island where we visited Yas Mall, Ferrari World, and the prestigious Yas Marina Grand Prix circuit. A somewhat bewildering experience was made crystal clear with a visit to the Emirates Palace Hotel to see the 2030 Sadiyat Island Cultural exhibition. This excellent exhibition showcased the future plans for the entire area, including a state of the art National Museum and cultural venues. In order to secure our entry into the world-renowned and ever so exclusive Emirates Palace Hotel, Lynne Greig and John Yersin had organized a surprise High Tea. What a highlight, with three tiers of assorted sandwiches, scones, and cakes served on fine white china edged with gold. The only question was how to round off such a splendid day—with Captain Alan McCarty’s welcome cocktail party and dinner, of course.

Monday, February 21 - Abu Dhabi: Our second day in Abu Dhabi provided the opportunity to drive east through the desert. When cruising along a coastline it is so easy to forget that most of the interior is dry sand and stone desert occasionally punctuated with an oasis. It is no wonder that the favorite color in the region is green. Our destination was the oasis of Al Ain, ‘the Spring,’ birthplace of Sheikh Zayed. Originally a five-day journey by camel, it is now two hours along the date palm-lined highway.

An interesting juxtaposition of a modern mall, complete with Starbucks and Marks & Spencer next to the local camel and goat market, made for a good comfort stop and some really great photographs. Wonderfully satiated by the enormous and delicious lunch provided at the Al-Ain Hilton Hotel we enjoyed our first true oasis experience, a walk through plantations of date palms. The traditional irrigation system, or falaj, is interesting to see firsthand. However, climbing a date palm is about as easy as climbing a coconut palm as both John and Michael discovered. As they climbed, we watched and munched away on fresh dates. Dates are such an important part of desert survival that the Bedu, or Bedouin, will never throw a pit away.

Everyone was ready for cocktails and recap after a thirsty day in the desert. It is no wonder that Arabian hospitality is so special; today’s guest may indeed be tomorrow’s host in the desert. Joe Valencic also entertained us with fascinating insight into his work on developing robot jockeys for camel racing. Whatever will they think of next here?

Tuesday, February 22 - Sir Bani Yas Island: At the heart of Sir Bani Yas Island is the Arabian Wildlife Park. Covering over 4,100 hectares, it provides a protective environment for the rare Arabian oryx. The brainchild of former President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan as part of his ‘Greening the Desert’ Program, the Park is part of the Desert Islands group which comprise Sir Bani Yas Island, Dalma Island, and Discovery Islands in the Arabian Gulf.

In covered safari Jeeps accompanied by expert naturalists who work in the reserve, we were able to tour the Island and see several thousand free-roaming animals native to the Arabian Peninsula, including Arabian (mountain) gazelle, Indian gazelle, and red deer. We also saw Arabian oryx, which has become extinct in the wild, Arabian leopards, gemsbok, beisa oryx, blackbuck, common eland, llama, ostrich, and reticulated giraffes.

The flora of the island includes umbrella thorn acacia trees, ghaf trees, gum Arabic trees, frankincense trees, toothbrush trees, grey mangrove, and Christ’s thorn trees.  Around the island there is a large non-fishing marine zone frequented by dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles, and exotic fish species. To accommodate everyone on the Sir Bani Yas island safari, there were two morning departures by Zodiac and a wonderful lecture from Stanford Professor Lina Khatib, who presented her fascinating take on The Changing Face of Arab Cities to both groups.

An afternoon at sea en route to Qatar, afforded the opportunity to continue our education by hearing from both Michel Behar on the Geopolitics in the Persian Gulf and from Ron on Islam in the Middle East, both vital and fascinating topics for our understanding and appreciation of the region.

Wednesday, February 23 - Doha, Qatar: Like many of the coastal Arab cities Doha has a 4-mile Al Corniche, or beachfront esplanade, and its harbor is home to distinctive Arab dhows.

The atmospheric Souk Waqif is located in the old part of the city. Our visit there started with a stop at the Falcon Shop for a talk about one of the oldest and best-loved pastimes in the Gulf, and to see some of the highly prized falcons. The falcon trade involves huge investment not only for the birds themselves but for their upkeep, training, and trappings including hoods and gloves. The saker (saqr) is the most popular bird followed by the smaller peregrine falcon (shahin) and the lanner (shahin wakri).

In addition to camel racing and falconry, horse racing and equestrian events are very popular throughout the Gulf States. Our next stop was the most impressive Qatar Equestrian Center at Al Rayyan to see both the purebred European and the smaller Arabian horses that live in air-conditioned stables. Two of the most prestigious trophies for horse racing are the Qatar International Cup and the Emir’s Cup.

Following lunch aboard the Clipper Odyssey there was a choice between two afternoon activities. The Sand Dune Safari proved to be very popular, and gave people the opportunity to drive inland to indulge in some exciting wadi-bashing using 4x4’s. Wadi-bashing depends on tire pressure as much as driving skill, and is a great way to experience the raw beauty of the desert.

The other option was one of culture rather than nature, a visit to the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art. The Museum’s collection is outstandingly beautiful, with priceless artifacts from three continents spanning Spain to Central Asia. Some date back to the 7th century and items include ceramics, manuscripts, scientific instruments, jewelry, carpets, and textiles.

Thursday, February 24 - Sharjah, UAE: A welcome morning at sea presented the opportunity for more lectures. Joe gave a fascinating insight into the building of the eighth wonder of the world in Dubai, ‘The Palm,’ and the plans for the building of ‘The World’ and the US$2 billion ‘Palm Two’ in his talk entitled A Modern Marvel in an Ancient World. As an oceanographer and consultant in Dubai, Joe’s hands-on insider view was most illuminating. Continuing with our educational experience Ron spoke about The Breakup of the Middle East giving us all a clear picture of the history behind the makeup and subsequent breakup of the region.

The local motto is ‘Smile you are in Sharjah,’ and to ensure that we did smile we received a very warm welcome from the Sharjah Tourism Board who showered us with gifts and souvenirs.

Our afternoon excursion began with a visit to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, opened in 1987. Located in a beautiful building built originally as a souk, the museum showcases a collection of some 5,000 artifacts from all over the Islamic world and includes handwritten Qurans, letters from the Prophet Muhammad, and various artifacts from the holy city of Mecca. Other exhibits included a wonderful display of Arabian handicrafts.

Our visit to the Bait Al Naboodah, the former residence of the pearl trading Al Shamsi family, built in 1845, gave us the opportunity to discover what the home of a wealthy trading family would have looked like and how it was constructed. There was an opportunity to try Arabian coffee and dates before delving into the treasures of the neighboring older, but recently restored, Al-Arsah souk that offered a glimpse of a way of life that has all but disappeared. The arish (palm frond) roof and wooden doors and pillars give it a feel of tradition and authenticity as does the public coffee house.

Friday, February 25 - Al Khasab / Musandam Peninsula, Oman: Geographically and geologically, the Musandam Peninsula is a jagged massif of sedimentary limestone and shale which has been forced downwards creating magnificent fjords.  As we cruised through the drowned valleys and sat upon crates on the deck of our Arab dhows, we enjoyed the dramatic landscape punctuated by bottlenose and humpbacked dolphins coming to play in the wake of the boat.

At Telegraph Island there was an opportunity to swim in the clear turquoise waters teeming with the banana-eating sergeant major damsel fish.

Arabian hospitality abounded aboard our dhow starting with cardamom-flavored Omani coffee served with dates and followed by a sumptuous lunch of Arabian appetizers (mezze): chicken biryani (Qabooli), vegetable curry (Marak), and freshly caught and grilled king fish (Mashuai).

We then visited the city of Al Khasab, located at the head of a steep, rocky wadi, including Khasab Fort. Built in the time of Al Bu Said, the Fort houses an excellent ethnographic exhibition, including traditional costumes, boats, weapons, and jewelry and documents the local way of life. Our land excursion from Khasab headed northwest over the mountains and along the coast to Bukha. Along the route there are magnificent views over Quida Bay and at the 400-meter summit of Al Harf, a spectacular view of the Straits of Hormuz. Bukha is located on the Gulf Coast of Musandam and has an interesting fort, with a pear-shaped tower designed to deflect cannon balls. It is surrounded by a large Muslim cemetery. On the way back to Khasab we made a short stop at the 300-year-old village of Mukhi. Many of the old dry-stone houses are now deserted but serve as a reminder of what coastal village life was and is still like on the Musandam Peninsula.

Saturday, February 26 - Fujairah, UAE: The Masafi Friday Fruit, Vegetable, and Carpet Market is open all week round. A linear market surrounded by deep wadis and the Hajar Mountains, the market is a popular shopping haunt for Fujairah citizens en route to Dubai or vice versa. Roadside stalls groan with produce imported from neighboring countries such as pomegranates, quinces, many different varieties of bananas, and of course, dates. Here it was also possible to buy palm hearts, which are believed to be an aphrodisiac. Whilst shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables it was also possible to pick up a factory-made carpet for the house and snack on char-grilled maize or chili popcorn.

Continuing our desert drive north brought us back to the coast at Dibba which is now part of Fujairah, Sharjah, and Oman. From here we turned south and made our way along the coast to the historic town of Bidihya, home to the oldest mosque in the UAE and the old capital of Oman. The small sand-colored mosque made of stone, mud brick, and gypsum was built in the 7th century and is still in use. Above the building and on the coastal hills surrounding it are several watchtowers.

After a delicious Arabic-style buffet lunch at Le Meridien Al Aqah, located on the breathtaking Gulf of Oman coastline we continued our drive south back towards Fujairah. On the road at Qidifa there is a small circle of land on the right which is a neutral zone and part of Oman. Virtually every oil company one could think of was represented along the developing coastal oil refining zone north of Fujairah.

Lina gave us a very interesting dialogue on The Media in the Arab World upon our return to the ship.

Sunday, February 27 - Muscat, Oman: There are 40,000 mosques in Oman. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was completed after six years of building, and can accommodate 20,000 worshippers. The focal point of the main prayer hall is the 21-ton handmade Persian carpet woven in one piece by 600 female weavers. In the center of the ceiling is a magnificent chandelier. Next we toured the Bait Al Zubair Museum, dedicated to showcasing the important ethnographic artifacts of Omani culture and craftsmanship. It is housed in an old traditional merchant’s house and a typical Omani village has been reconstructed in the grounds complete with a Majlis (a traditional meeting place for men) and the falaj irrigation system.

Muttrah Souk is one of the best and most traditional souks in the Middle East and consists of a maze of tiny shops and alleyways full of handicrafts, fragrances, including frankincense for which Muscat is famous, and Omani silver jewelry. A short drive to the Shangri-la Barr Al Jissah Resort brought us to the spectacular coastline for a delicious Arabic-style lunch.

We then visited the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace, built in 1972; it features an elaborate blue and gold façade, and is flanked on either side by the historic and imposing Portuguese-built forts of Mirani and Jalali, completed in the late 16th century.

Staying alongside in Muscat overnight afforded the opportunity to eat ashore either at the best Indian restaurant in Muscat, the Mumtaz Mahal or the Left Bank Restaurant for western cuisine.

Monday, February 28 - Muscat / Nizwa: Upon visiting Nizwa in 1350, a Moroccan geographer commented on its massive fort, magnificent souk, and the large number of mosques and madrassas (religious schools). Nizwa fort has foundations with 400 gun placements. Beside the fort is the souk and Nizwa Mosque with its distinctive blue dome.

After an Arabian buffet lunch at the Golden Tulip, we continued on to the historic settlement at Birkat Al Mauz. The name literally translates as Lake of Bananas. Only three families remain in the old town in houses made of mud and clay. Many of the traditional homes are now crumbling into dust and people have moved to more modern houses at the foot of the hill. The date palm plantation was a shady, green oasis of calm, followed by a pleasant walk after the heat and dust of the hillside settlement.

Our late afternoon return to the ship was followed by a thought-provoking lecture on Politics and Poetry in the Arab World.

Tuesday, March 1 – Sur: Today we watched the habitual craftsmen of Sur at work in the dhow ship yards. Traditionally they used no drawings and hand tools such as the chisel, adze, hammer, or bow drill. The teak hull was either stitched together or pegged with wooden pegs. Today, bolts and electric power tools are used to strengthen the hull against engine vibration, but the hulls are still sealed with shark fat and gypsum. However, the craftsmanship is still exquisite and elaborately decorated model dhows are made in addition to the full-sized ones.

The local fish market was a hive of activity with a huge variety of fish for sale, including black-tipped reef sharks and rays.

Bilad and Sunaysilah are the forts which guard Sur; the latter is the main one, and was built in the 17th century. It played an important role in the defense system of Sur and the coastline.

Once back aboard it was full speed ahead back to Muscat. We enjoyed a pool deck barbeque, an ice-cream social and a very meaningful question and answer session with a lecture on Diplomacy in the Arab World and the Middle East today.

Wednesday, March 2 - Muscat and Nakhl: Once safely back in Muscat, we were able to spend a day exploring more of the desert scenery. Driving north along the Batinah coastline towards Barka, famous for its bull butting fights, we detoured inland across a limestone plain dotted with Saumur trees, related to the acacia family, and into the date plantation oasis of Nakhl.

After visiting the impressive Nakhl Fort, the only fort in Oman with six watchtowers, we changed our mindset to pure relaxation at the A’Thowrah Hot Spring, a popular destination for local visitors who dip their feet in the water to be cleaned by the little fish that inhabit the river. The spring emerges from the wadi walls and is channeled into a falaj to irrigate the 25,000 date palms in the oasis.

Following lunch aboard the Clipper Odyssey was an afternoon at leisure gainfully spent returning to the souk or packing. The highlight of the afternoon for many was an impromptu visit to the TCG Giresun, a Turkish warship moored in Muscat Harbour. The TCG Giresun, along with warships from Greece, Spain, and Germany, are part of an anti-piracy patrol in the region. The Turkish crew extended an exceptionally warm welcome to all of our passengers and proudly showed off their guns and helicopters. They were so delighted that we were interested in what they were doing and why they were there. We in turn were able to see an anti-piracy patrol ship firsthand and to thank the crew for their efforts in making these waters safer for everyone.

The captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner rounded off the evening and our Arabian adventures.

Thursday, March 3 - Muscat / Disembark Clipper Odyssey: Lynne, as always, had organized our disembarkation with military precision. With color-coded bag tags we boarded our respective buses and set off for the morning tour. The first stop was the Muttrah Fish Market which was a hive of activity.

This was followed by the Bait Al Baranda Museum and the Bait Al Adam Museum. The Bait Al Baranda showcased the history of Muscat, while the Bait Al Adam, located in a very prestigious suburban area of Muscat, housed a private collection of Omani maps, prints, coins, and jewelry. The owner of the museum showed us around and explained the artifacts. This was followed by Omani coffee served with dates in the petunia-filled garden. An excellent Arabic-style lunch was served at the Kageen Restaurant. The Khoubiz, Arabic bread, was baked right before our eyes and the central feature was the national dish of Arabia—Lamb Mansaf.

After lunch we bade farewell to some of our fellow travelers who were heading off to the airport, other hotels, and more adventures. The remaining half of the group went to the Grand Hyatt to enjoy day rooms for the afternoon, a dip in the green Arabian Sea, and a walk along the beach before later homeward flights—our thirteen Arabian nights sadly over.