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April 8th 2008
Published: April 9th 2008
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The United Arab Emirates are said to be moving ahead as they are attempting to stand still. That is Dubai in a nutshell. This Las Vegas on steroids has the biggest, newest, flashiest of everything except for the dancing showgirls. As we approached Port Rashid we could see the tall buildings glowing in the early light of sunrise. The iconic Burj Al Arab, which is modeled after the sail of a dhow, is purportedly the only seven star hotel in the world. The Burj Dubai, the tallest building on earth, is nearing completion. The three Palm developments are manmade islands rising up out of the Persian Gulf. The World project is a group of three hundred offshore islands constructed in the shape of the seven continents and is larger than Manhattan. It will offer the ultimate in luxury and privacy to the lucky owners. At completion, all of these reclaimed lands will provide hundreds of miles of added waterfront property to this desert Emirate. The ultra-modern shopping malls are works of art and architecture. The Mall of the Emirates houses five ski runs and will soon be joined by an Olympic size ice skating rink. But along side all of the modernism this is a country which still lives by the Islamic laws of Shariah. Women are shrouded and closeted and circumcised and their value is based on their ability to produce male offspring. The day to day retail life occurs in the souqs and five times a day the call to prayer rings out from the mosques. It is said that no male in Dubai lives more than five minutes from a mosque. A lasting image is one we saw several years ago at the Burj Al Arab Hotel—it was a young Arab woman wearing high heels, a bikini swimsuit and a headscarf and veil. In short, Dubai has to be seen to be believed—a dichotomy of old and new, secular and religious, desert and water, rich and poor.

Having seen much of the new Dubai we decided to spend our day visiting the old town built on the creek as a small trading center in the Middle East. We checked out the Dubai souq and the museum, a former fort which guarded the approaches to the city. All of the merchants are men with the exception of a few Chinese women selling Asian imports. We took an abra, which is a traditional water taxi, across the Dubai creek to the Deira side. We wanted to see more from the water, so we hired the same abra for half an hour of sightseeing. We visited the gold souk, the spice souk and the covered souq located in the small streets and alleyways of the old village. The tiny lanes are filled with the aromas of perfumes, spices and incense. The women shoppers are covered in long black abbayas and lihafs (scarves) while many of the men still dress in the traditional dishdasha. I kept expecting Lawrence of Arabia to step into the scene at any moment.

We were sharing the dock with the Residensea World and the Queen Victoria. The World is the condominium ship where passengers buy a 2 or 3 bedroom suites for several millions of dollars and then spend another several million to decorate them. We had visited the ship once when she was in San Francisco and I decided that if I ever win the lottery, I would buy a cabin. They have a grocery store on board so that passengers can get foodstuffs for cooking in their own kitchen—although I doubt if many of the residents cook for themselves. Some of the suites have Jacuzzis on their balconies. The World is a beautiful ship and the condo owners vote on the itineraries and the length of stays in port. Her stay in Dubai coincided with the Dubai Cup Horserace, which has the world’s biggest purse and is the social event of the year. That is why there were so many huge yachts in port. These Arab oilmen do have lots of money. One strange thing about the horse race is that betting is prohibited by Islamic law. Perhaps the ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum—we just call him Al-- must subsidize the deal.

The Queen Victoria is the newest ship in the Cunard fleet. She was launched in December 07 and is on her maiden voyage around the world. We met up with Bart who is hosting a group on her. Bart introduced us to our Burmese friend, Win, several years ago and we have been grateful to him ever since. As we were leaving Dubai, Captain Dag announced that we were going to salute the Queen Victoria since this is her maiden cruise. So we pulled along side her and sounded three horn blasts. She did not return the salute and that surprised us. It is a nautical courtesy to acknowledge a salute from another ship and we were let down when we didn’t hear the deep basso horn of a Cunard ship.

We cruised out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz to reach our next port of call, the Sultanate of Oman. This fairytale land is filled with friendly people and a landscape so picturesque, that Hollywood could have constructed it. There are forts, watchtowers and castles every where and the rugged sheer mountain backdrop of Muscat only adds to its beauty. This walled city is a thoroughly enchanting place and our favorite port in all of Arabia. Oman is virtually untouched by tourism—certainly there is no mass tourism here. The country was closed off to the world for most of the 20th Century. Sultan Qaboos bin Said shipped his father off to England in a bloodless coup and began an ambitious modernization program. Qaboos built schools, hospitals, mosques, museums and paved the roads over the last 30 years. While the women still dress very conservatively, they are allowed to vote, hold office and receive an education.

One of our friends, Suzanne, came with us as we walked from the port, stopping first at a very active fish and vegetable market. We walked along the lovely Corniche which surrounds the harbor overlooking the Gulf of Oman. Docked in the harbor are the three yachts of the Sultan. He has a beautiful traditional wooden dhow and a huge supply ship which carries his fleet of multicolored Mercedes Benz cars. His main yacht is a light blue ship probably several hundred feet in length. Everyone in the Sultanate is worried because he is still single and hasn’t produced an heir to the throne yet.

We spent several hours in our favorite souq as we were looking for party favors for our guests. This covered marketplace climbs up the hillside and is filled with small shops selling everything from antiques, to gold, silver, carpets, scarves, leather goods, frankincense and khanjars, the jeweled dagger which serves as the symbol of Oman. We ended up getting pashminas for the women and small leather wallets for the men.

We hired a taxi for several hours so we could see the eastern areas of Muscat and its neighbor Mutrah. We first drove by the Sultan’s residence, past the city gates and forts and then out into the desert countryside. Many of the major hotel chains can see the future demand for tourism to this fabled country and are busy constructing modern day resorts. Al-Bustan Palace Hotel, whose design evokes a mix of mosque and cathedral, is in the throes of updating it facilities. We stopped at the fabulous Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa. This is a Shangri-La property which is out of an Arabian night’s dream. With the temperature reaching 108 degrees (a dry heat—ha ha) we decided to dip our toes in one of the lovely pools to cool off. Many passengers and staff from the ship went on diving excursions in surrounding bays. Jamie, the Cruise Director, said the diving was great with the exception of his too close for comfort encounter with a sea snake. This area is also renowned for its large pods of spinner dolphins and whales.

We had a Cruise Specialists party the night we left Muscat. Billed as an Arabian Nights Sail Away, we held it out on the back deck. By departure time the temperature had dropped and it was perfect weather for an al fresco party which was capped by a lovely sunset behind the sheer cliffs of Oman. As we were leaving port, Captain Dag spun the ship around 360 degrees so everyone could get a better view of Sultan Qaboos’ palace, the forts and the Incense Burner monument. We dressed up in Omani outfits as did many of our guests and bid a memorable farewell to mystical Muscat.

Our stop in Salalah, Oman was cancelled due to the scheduling demands of the Suez Canal Authority. So we had five sea days as we made our way across the Arabian Ocean to Jordan and Egypt. After we had just passed out of the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea, we learned about the hijacking of a luxury sailing vessel by Somali pirates in the Gulf. The ship never sent out a distress call. Since we were less than 100 miles away at the time of the hijacking, our officers would have heard a call for help. Fortunately there were no passengers on Le Ponant. It is of great interest to see how this drama will unfold as the pirates are holding 30 crew members hostage. While visiting the bridge earlier in the week we read the alerts about pirates, issued by the International Maritime Bureau. They were recommending that all ships stay at least 200 miles off shore of Somalia. Apparently Le Ponant did not heed the warnings. We can only wish them god-speed and a safe release from captivity.

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