We elected to include the two trip extensions offered: an extra day in Dubai at the beginning of the trip and an additional four days in the interior of Oman. These extensions were actually our favorite parts of the trip (except for the Al Shaqab visit in Qatar -- at least for me).

Picture

Narrative

Lunch

Dubai is the most populous city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and was the start of our journey.

The high point of the first day was our visit to the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum Centre for Cultural Understanding. There was much about this visit that was interesting, but my favorite part was the food, which was delicious, and the discussion of the different styles of dress. There are subtle differences in the dishdasha (or thawb) as worn in the various Gulf States and the ghutrah or headdress. (Both of these are known by other names.) The agal, or cord worn around the ghutrah was designed to double as hobbles for camels or horses.

Spices

In the afternoon we took some boats across the creek to visit the spice and gold souks. These colorful spices caught my eye. The sellers in the gold souk were, of course, very insistent on catching your eye. One enterprising soul kept pestering Jim with his offerings. Jim always responded, "I don't want any." He finally asked, "well, what DO you want?" Jim said: "Nothing."

"I've got nothing!" was the retort, delivered with a big grin! Jim still says he wished he had some cash to give him for such a smart aleck response.

Burj Khalifa

The next morning the main tour began. The highlight of the morning was a visit to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It is truly a beautiful building.

I took the elevator up to the outdoor observation deck on the 124th floor. The building has 163 floors in all, but the top eight floors are dedicated to mechanical needs and communications.

Jim stayed down below and wandered through the attached shopping center. We suspect that the Dubai government subsidizes many, if not all, of the stores.

Ski Dubai

Our favorite attraction though was Ski Dubai! We were all issued ankle-length warm coats, boots and gloves before going inside. They even supply socks for those who don't have them. (We got to keep the gloves!)

A few of our number rented skis and took a run or two. They said it was a legitimate ski slope. I'm sure there are smaller slopes in Virginia.

In addition to skiing there were various kinds of tubing attractions, ice sculptures, and a penguin march at scheduled times.

Dune bashing

The next morning we were docked in Doha, Qatar. Our adventure for the day included "dune bashing" in the area south of town. Buses took us to our rendezvous with a fleet of 4WD vehicles to take us into the sand. We were divided into an "A" group for aggressive bashing, "B" for moderate bashing, and "C" for those who would really rather take the Interstate.

After the bashing we all gathered at a camp on the beach where we were entertained by a troupe of singers. There were a number of activities available, including swimming, followed by a barbecue meal. The 4WD vehicles took us back along the beach to meet our buses to return to the ship for the evening.

Al Shaqab

Our second day in Doha started with a visit to Al Shaqab, a premier show and breeding location for Arabian horses in the Gulf States. I expect I was the only person in our group who had ever heard of it before and I was really thrilled to see it. Of the various horses that were brought out to be presented at liberty, I preferred this lovely mare. Why? She reminds me of my Bella, of course!

I was a bit disappointed that we didn't get to visit their endurance training area, but it might not have been as interesting to the non-horsy folks.

Museum of Islamic Art

The afternoon's highlight was a visit to the Museum of Islamic Art. The collection was superb, but the draw for me was the building itself -- one of the last major works by I. M. Pei. The exterior is beautiful and the interior spaces are truly breathtaking.

One of our lecturers, Professor Tarek Swelim, had prepared us for this visit by giving an overview of the design process of the building.

Bahrain Fort

The next morning found us in Bahrain. A sizeable contingent of our companions departed early in the morning for Saudi Arabia. We elected to skip that excursion. That turned out to be an excellent choice because the others spent much of their time waiting at various border checkpoints while we got to enjoy the morning touring Bahrain.

The Qal'at al-Bahrain is the original settlement area on the island and dates back to the ancient Dilmun civilization. Fresh water springs located nearby hold the key to the long occupation of this island, which some maintain was the prototype for the Garden of Eden.

The towers of modern Manama can be seen in the background.

Suiting up for the mosque

The visit to the Al-Fateh Grand Mosque required all of us ladies to don one of their extensive selection of abayas and headscarves. Gents of course did not have such a requirement, although there was a dress code for them as well.

We saw many mosques on our travels with the various jurisdictions striving to outdo each other in the size, lavish decoration, etc. of their places of worship. The guides at each of them also tried to overcome the negative image that Islam has received as a result of the vicious actions of terror groups that claim the mantle of jihad. Although it was great to hear sincere Muslim individuals decry the violence of the few, I would prefer to see the greater Muslim community rise up and loudly denounce ISIL, the Taliban, and other extremist factions.

After lunch we "set sail" to return to the UAE for our next port of call: Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital. Our departure was significantly delayed by the late return of the Saudi contingent, but they eventually made it onboard.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is truly over-the-top in its decoration. The floors, columns, walls and ceilings are lavished with marble inlays, hand-knotted carpets, enormous crystal chandeliers, and other touches.

We didn't have to don abayas here, but I did get sent back to the bus for my raincoat because my lightweight long-sleeved sweater was deemed "transparent" by the security police. One other lady in our group had the same challenge, but our leader had brought a spare abaya or two so she was also able to pass muster.

I was interested to learn that the shape of the mihrab was originally designed to act as a soundboard to amplify the voice of the prayer leader, who faced away from the congregation toward Mecca. Nowadays electronic amplification, especially in the larger mosques, makes this unnecessary, but the tradition continues.

Dolphin

Overnight we sailed to the Musandam peninsula of Oman. This enclave jutting out into the Strait of Hormuz is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE. It has a culture all its own.

In the morning we explored the craggy fjords from large motorized dhows. Our goal was a snorkeling site, but on the way we encountered a pod of endangered humpback dolphins. They even included a mother and her young calf.

The snorkeling location was Telegraph Island. It contains the remnants of a 19th century repeater station used to boost the telegraph signals on the London to Karachi cable.

As we returned from our expedition we passed Iranian smugglers who were headed home in a small fast boat. Since the smugglers pay all applicable Omani taxes, our guides told us that their operations are pretty above-board, at least in Khasab. They gave us a big wave.

Khasab Castle

Our next destination was Khasab Castle. There were interesting displays here showing traditional lifestyles of the area. Two that I particularly liked were varying responses to the intense summer heat. One was a store house partially dug into the ground. The other was a raised platform dwelling with walls and flooring of open-weave palm branches. Two very different styles with the same goal. Caves are also used.

We then loaded into buses for a short excursion into the countryside to visit a small village.

Muscat

The following afternoon we arrived in Muscat, Oman. This is an overview of the original Muscat harbor guarded by the two fortresses, which can be seen in the background. The Al Mirani fort is closer and Al Jalali is partially behind it. Neither of the forts is open for tours.

We did get a chance to walk around the harbor area.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was the highlight of the last day's tour with the full group. It was not the largest or the most opulent of the mosques that we visited, but it was the loveliest in my opinion.

It is the only mosque in Oman that is open to non-Muslims.

Island Sky in Port

The next day we bade the Island Sky and many of our companions goodbye. Jim and I continued with the post-trip excursion into Oman, most of the passengers returned home by various routes, and the ship proceeded to the Indian Ocean with a new set of travellers.

Our ship is in the new harbor: the Sultan Qaboos port in Muttrah. The Island Sky is the small blue and white ship in the background. The larger white ship in the foreground is the Al Said, one of the sultan's yachts. The newer Fulk Al Salamah, even larger, is on the other side of it and isn't visible from this angle.

Jigsaw Puzzle

The last thing that I attempted to do on the ship before leaving, however, was finish this fiendish jigsaw puzzle. Several of us had worked on it over the voyage and it was almost done. At about 10pm, however, I decided to bag it and get some sleep. The next morning, magically, it was completed!

We expect a bored crew member who had night duty finished it up. Whatever the answer to the mystery, I'm glad it got finished. In spite of our unanimous agreement that many pieces were missing, they were all there. There was even an extra!

Nizwa Goat Souk

Our first destination on the extension was the Nizwa Goat Market. We were visiting on Friday, which is the busiest day. There were goats aplenty as well as cattle plus a couple of camels in the parking lot. The locals were milling around buying and selling with a few tourists taking pictures. This was a quiet corner.

I must say that the goats that we saw here were a step above the goats that roamed the highways and towns pruning the trees and shrubs.

Elsewhere in the souk were birds (songbirds in addition to poultry), produce, pottery, guns, rope -- you name it.

Nizwa Fort

The other attraction in Nizwa was the fort. It was extensive in size and had many interesting exhibits. The city was the capital of Oman in the 6th & 7th centuries and was the place that first welcomed Islam into the area.

Al Hambra

Our next stop was this overlook of Al-Hamra, the "red city" so called because of the darker buildings on the other side of the date palm plantation. They are many hundreds of years old and we will be visiting a house museum there illustrating traditional practices.

This area is blessed with ample spring water that has, since ancient times, been channeled for irrigation by way of a aflaj system. The system is still in use.

Oman Mountains

After our visit to Al Hamra, we began the long climb up Jabal Akhdar to our home for the next two nights -- the Alila Jabal Akhdar. There is a checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain to ensure that everyone has four-wheel drive before starting up the mountain. The main roads were steep but in good repair so the 4WD requirement wasn't strictly needed for them. I expect the secondary roads, however, may be more treacherous.

The hotel was spectacular in itself and the views were reminiscent of our Grand Canyon.

Wadi Bani Habib

The following morning we piled back into our 4WD vehicles for a visit that started with Wadi Bani Habib. To my frustration we were not allowed the time to walk down into the wadi to explore the abandoned villages directly.

Most of the villages were deserted because of easier jobs and better housing in the cities, but we were told that this one had additionally suffered from British air strikes during the Dhofar Rebellion, which began in the 1960s. The rebellion eventually ended when the current sultan deposed his father and organized both a better military response and a successful "hearts and minds" campaign to unify the country.

Al Ayn

I was able to get my wish of a good walk when we drove to the nearby village of al Ayn, seen here above its extensive terraces, mostly gone fallow. Although this area is still occupied and actively farmed -- the cash crop is roses used to produce rose water -- many of the inhabitants have moved on to easier lifestyles.

We started our walk at this village and have proceeded along the mountain side (protected by a sturdy chain-link fence) to the next village, behind me. It was a rugged walk at times and it felt good to stretch my legs. Jim enjoyed it too although it was rougher than expected.

Yoga Platform

After our walk and lunch at the beautiful new Anantara Resort Hotel we returned to Alila. This platform overlooking the canyons is used for dawn and dusk yoga sessions. Three guests joined the leader to experience the sunset.

It was a beautiful location and even though I'm not a yoga practitioner I enjoyed watching the sun go down over the valley.

Clouds

The next morning we departed the mountains for the desert dunes. The drive down was spectacular with cloud banks throughout the mountain valleys.

I had not expected Oman to be so beautiful!

Bedou camp

We eventually reached the Wahiba Sands where we were expecting to make a home visit with a Bedouin family. As it happened, we visited what appeared to be their "shop" and were given ample opportunity to purchase a variety of hand-made goods and trinkets. The encampment was located between the dunes and the oasis village. We were told that most families had elected to purchase a village house although many would still venture into the desert from time to time with their stock.

Their primary occupation is raising valuable racing camels.

Dunes

After checking into the Desert Nights Camp where we would be spending the night and taking some time to relax, we piled back into our vehicles to drive deeper into the dunes to observe the sunset.

The dunes were lovely and made of a very fine reddish sand. In many places there were grasses growing in the sand. Down in the lower areas we could see herds of camels grazing on the sparse greenery.

Most of us tourists preferred to wander along the dunes, but most of our drivers immediately departed to "dune bash" to their hearts' content. There were few places among the dunes that didn't have car tracks.

Wadi Bani Khalid

The next morning our group began to break up. Some folks left really early for morning flights home. Others had afternoon flights and spent a leisurely morning at the camp before transferring directly to the airport in Muscat. We joined others with late-night flights for an additional day of touring along the "wadi route" and the seacoast.

The most beautiful of the lovely wadis was Wadi Bani Khalid, shown here. We drove up a fertile valley and through several villages to reach a series of clear ponds. Our tour leader, Harry, was even tempted to strip to his skivvies for a brief swim in the warm waters (in spite of multiple "no swimming" signs).

We were told that on a weekend or holiday this area would be jammed with local tourists. I can believe it!

Sur

We reached the coast at Sur, a ship-building center south of Muscat. The drive up the coast with stops to visit a dhow factory and then a picnic lunch at another lush wadi was a fitting farewell to Oman. It was definitely the highlight of our Gulf vacation and I would recommend it to anyone traveling in the area. There was much more to see and I wouldn't mind returning -- if it weren't so far away!

Virginia

As always, the best part of any travel is returning home. I will hold up western Virginia to anywhere on earth for beauty as this view from McAfee Knob shows. I climbed up with our local Newcomers' Club hiking group not long before we left for our Gulf trip.

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