Flight Arrangements I am beginning this trip report long before the trip as this has been the hardest trip to arrange so far. The trip is basically a cruise on the Regent Voyager from Athens to Dubai with a few days in Athens before and one long day in Dubai at the end. The problem with the trip was arranging the air travel to the ship and then home after the cruise.
The original plan was to fly first class over and back. The trip from DFW to ATH was to be with BA from DFW to LHR then LHR to ATH. The return was to be with Emirates from DXB to JFK, then JFK to DFW with AA. I had the seats arranged, but not paid for through my travel agent. The first problem occurred when EK decided to withdraw the A380 from the DXB to JFK route. Well that was the whole point to taking that route as it was a chance to fly on an A380. Plan two was an EK 777 from DXB to IAH, then CO from IAH to DFW. That plan lasted for a while until the next problem or in this case opportunity occurred.
In May BA decided to have a two for one Club World sale. I calculated the savings at $16,000 over the F fares. I decided for $16,000 I could indeed fly in business class. The routing would now be DFW to LHR and LHR to ATH outbound then DXB to LHR and LHR to DFW back home. Outbound was still all BA. However, I found that EK runs an A380 from DXB to LHR. The arrival time would mean a stay overnight in London as a connection to the LHR to DFW flight with BA would not be possible on the same day.
Next problem. The original return date was October 28. However, changes at work pushed the date to October 25. Of course this would prompt a date change for the return leg of LHR to DFW.
Next problem. I kept looking at the cost to upgrade the TATL flights back to first. The flight from LHR to DFW is always a 777 with all classes except this one day. On the 25th of October the highest class is Club World. Well so much for going First the entire way. Besides the LHR to ATH segment was always only Club Europe as that is all they offer. So I decide to just make the entire trip in business after all.
Next problem. With these plans in mind the travel agent informs me that the Club World fare from DXB to LHR is higher than the First fare. What? Then I find that BA and American Express have made an agreement to allow one for one Membership Points to miles transfers. Hum, I have 138,000 points. I can use these to upgrade the back and forth flight on the LHR DFW segments.
Next problem. The American Express web site does not list BA as an airline to which such a transfer can be made. It seems this will be implemented some time before the end of the year. End of the year? I need it now. So now what? Back to CW over, CE down to ATH, F back to LHR from DXB, and CW on the TATL back to DFW. I am getting so confused. Even worse this is creating havoc with my OCD. I do like everything neatly organized and balanced. This is definitely not.
Next problem. After arranging everything else the only thing left to was to call BA to change the date of the DFW to LHR segment. On doing so they inform me that in addition to a $500 change fee per ticket I must pay the fare difference between the 2 for 1 price and the current ticket price. What? I could not see this anywhere on the rules for this promotion I printed in May.
Next problem. I decide to argue with BA one more time. Of course I got nowhere. However I did get a clear explanation of the problem and the only two solutions. Solution one as detailed above is to change now and pay the fare difference. This is because we are within some 42 advance purchase window. At a cost of $6,000 something dollars that is not an option. However, for reasons unclear to me if we take the first flight on the ticket, the DFW to LHR segment, then once again we can magically change the date of the return flight for just the change fee of $500 per person. As at this point as I do not entirely trust BA on this I had the TA purchase a discounted business class ticket for each of us on an AA two class flight on a 767 just in case. I will just cancel these tickets at a small cost if I can work out things with BA.
Next problem. Actually in this case it is another opportunity. One I was quick to take advantage of. Every few days I had been logging into ba.com to try some new scheme to do two things. First, change the return flight to the 25th without paying the fare difference now as opposed to doing this in London. Second, to upgrade the DFW to LHR segment in some way other than paying 8,600 something dollars per person. Today I was going to explore another way to buy BA miles to give me enough to upgrade. To my great surprise on going to Manage My Booking today up pops an offer to upgrade the DFW to LHR segment to First for $649 per person. $649? I can do that. Of course I click on the link to do this as it is a ba.com only offer to have the system say, sorry you cannot do this online, call reservations. So you cannot take advantage of an online only offer online. Hum, plan two, call BA. The nice gentleman on the other end says "I do not know. Let me consult a supervisor." Many minutes later back he comes to say, just hold on we are checking. More minutes go by then back he comes to say what credit card should this be charged to? Seconds pass, then he says you are all set. I am thinking great, but I must have seats 1E and 1F as Expert Flyer only shows 1E, 1F, 2E, and 2F available with 1A and 1K being blocked. Expert Flyer also shows F7 which makes no sense with that seat count. I ask to select the seats now over the phone as this is F. He says no you can only change the seats at check in. But you can see what seats have been assigned online now. I think, fine, let's go back online where I bet I can change seats. Sure enough we are in 1E and 1F, which I change to 2E and 2F. Within minutes a flurry of email messages arrive confirming all of these changes. All that is left is to see if this really happens on flight day. With the H1N1 flu panic and so forth, I have my doubts. I will report back.
DFW to LHR Well, we're off. I still do not have the return flight arranged, but we did make it to ATH through LHR. The details are as follows.
The car service driver picked us up at 2 for a 5:35 pm flight from DFW Terminal D to LHR T5. I had advised him to bring the large vehicle as we ended up with eight pieces of luggage. Yes, eight. Four large bags, two carryon size bags, a combination messenger bag backpack, and a purse size bag for the leftovers. Somehow I think this is going to be a trend in packing for these trips.
At Terminal D we made a stop at the BA desk to see if the bags could be checked through to ATH as the tickets from DFW to LHR, then LHR to ATH were on separate records. Indeed they could be. After checking the bags we were invited to wait in the BA contract lounge in Terminal D. I had planned to wait in the Admirals Club. I decided I would be too nervous not being able to watch the departures board if we went to the Admirals Club. The BA lounge area is shared by several airlines. Each one has their own section. In the main part of the BA lounge there is a luggage drop, snacks and drinks, a TV area, tables, and chairs of various types. There is separate First Class section that is basically the same, except for less food. It is behind a door. Seems a little silly, but I have to admit I stayed in there rather than in the larger room.
The flight boarded on time. They called the First and Business class passengers first. The FA greeted Mrs. Paint Horse and I at the door. A colleague of his directed us to the seats in the middle of the middle row.
Once we were in our seats a predeparture drink was offered. For Mrs Paint Horse and I this was champagne. Being a philistine I did not ask the type. It was however very smooth. The amenity kit and pajamas were handed out while everyone else boarded. As this is a feed them, then put them to sleep flight no time was wasted. The crew on this flight was efficient and business like. They were just friendly enough to make the flight a pleasant experience. The only problem I noticed was the CSD did not introduce himself to anyone despite spending most of his time in the F section. He was an older man who should have known better.
Dinner was quite good for airline food. Dinner service was paced just right. The result being dinner was not hurried, but was provided quickly enough to allow everyone to maximize sleep time.
This being our first time over the Atlantic Mrs Paint Horse and I decided to use the change your clocks and your mind to the time it is at the end of the flight after boarding method. This meant we were eating dinner at 11:30 at night then going to bed. As this is not usual for us it worked quite well.
We did change into the pajamas before dinner in case of spills, as I am quite prone to this. All that was left before going to sleep was to clean up. As we did so the seats was converted to beds. I found the bed on this old style F seat to be very comfortable. The only thing I did not like was the lack of width on the inside. Despite the bed I did not sleep well. It seems I do not sleep well on aircraft whether sitting up or lying down.
About an hour before landing breakfast was served. Not knowing how much trouble we would have getting through LHR we went ahead and ate on the aircraft. Once again for aircraft food is was fine.
On arrival at LHR on time we taxied to a remote stand. On disembarking it was onto the buses. I do not like this method, but I must say it was not as bad as I expected.
On leaving the bus navigating for the first time through LHR was not as bad as I expected either. On leaving the bus we went up an escalator of course. This is LHR after all. This is somewhat tricky when one has two bags to tote around.
At the top of the escalator were BA ticket desks and the lanes to divide the passengers into lines based on where they were going. We stopped at the BA desk to see about changing the return flight from the 28th to the 25th. It was a bad sign when neither one of two ticket agents could locate the fare bucket in their system. So no change at LHR. Even worse the seat count in J had strangely gone from J7 to J0 in all CW categories within two days. I believe the AA backup plan will have to go into effect.
LHR to ATH After the ticket desk we were off again to a line for connecting passengers. This was quite easy as there were staff members at the entrance to answer questions about the correct queue one was to enter. Once again it was up an escalator with the bags. This is getting tiresome. At the top is the security check. I still do not understand why there is a security check for passengers getting off an aircraft in order to connect to another aircraft. It would make more sense to do this right before boarding instead of right after arriving. I must say the security staff were all friendly and helpful. This day it was bags in bins and shoes on. I managed to set off the metal detector. I do not recall why. The result was a pat down.
On collecting everything it was time to find the Concorde Room. I knew it was at one end or the other of the exit from the security area. Of course there were no signs indicating what was where. I soon found we had arrived at the south end of T5. So it was off to the north end. Sure enough at the north end of the floor we found the guarded door. Presentation of the F boarding pass for the just arrived on flight resulted in the dragon opening the door for us. While in the Concorde Room I took the time to examine the area. As others have described it consists of various sitting areas, a bar, a restaurant, the terrace, and the various washrooms. I found it interesting that the washrooms are all individual rooms. Very nice. The Cabanas are smaller than I expected, but adequate in size. All Mrs Paint Horse and I did was sit and drink as much caffeine as possible in order to overcome the lack of sleep on the flight over. I was pleased to see neither one of us experienced any jet lag. I found that odd considering the lack of sleep.
After a couple of hours it was time to wander over to the departure gate for the flight to ATH. This was one of the most difficult parts of navigating around T5. The door dragon pointed us in the general direction, but we could not see the gate as it was hidden behind the shopping mall that inhabits most of T5. On the way to the gate we first entered a restaurant looking for the escalator down, yes another escalator. The restaurant staff pointed us to the other side of a store. After winding through a store the down escalator landed us in another store. But sure enough there hidden behind the cosmetics counter was the gate.
The flight to ATH left on time on a 763. I did not know this aircraft had more room in the middle section of CE. We were in the A and B seats. There was enough room, but the middle section would have been better. The flight proceeded without difficulty. On arrival at ATH to my surprise it was down the steps and onto another bus. What is this with BA and buses? Do they own a worldwide bus company?
At ATH it was into the terminal, through passport control, and to baggage claim. I see the Greeks are not really into border control. This was the most perfunctory examination and stamping of a passport I have seen so far. Baggage claim was a problem as the car service driver had to wait outside. This meant maneuvering eight bags from baggage claim to the nonsecured area. Carts were available at one Euro, of which I had none. Of course there is a currency exchange right there or should I say a highway robbery exchange right there. With one Euro in hand, which cost me two Euros, the bags were loaded.
Athens Outside we were met by the taxi drivers. Yes, taxi drivers - plural. You see a Mercedes-Benz E Class taxi as used in Greece cannot hold eight bags. Therefore, we had to form a caravan. Mrs. Overpacking Paint Horse, myself, and two bags in one car; the rest of the bags in the other car.
The trip from the airport to the hotel was interesting. Since Athens is so large traffic is quite thick. There are two primary methods used by then local drivers to manage this mass of traffic. First, they just go where they want to go regardless of who might already be there. At the last second if they perceive the other driver is more resolute than they are, then they change direction. The second method is to drive a motorcycle of some sort. Being small these weave in and out of traffic, make lanes out of the stripes on the road, and generally go whenever and wherever they wish. It works in Athens. If they tried this in Texas they would likely be shot.
The hotel in Athens was the Grand Bretagne. This is a very old, but well maintained, hotel in the center of the city. Being older the rooms are just typical size and layout hotel rooms, but well appointed. From the balcony of our room we could look left at the Parliament building, straight ahead at Constitution Square, and to the right at the Acropolis. These views at night were very pretty.
Before catching the ship in Piraeus the plan was to do as much touring as possible in two days. On the first day we made an early start with the tour guide to visit the Acropolis before the cruise ship tours arrived. This was the beginning of much walking that would be done in Athens. After climbing up, viewing, and climbing back down out the ruins of the Parthenon we went to the new museum to see the recovered artifacts in context. This is a very nice museum. While touring it the advance of a bevy of suits indicated the presence of someone special as one of the suits was the museum director. This group was escorting Queen Sophia of Spain through the museum.
The next stop was a walking tour of Plaka. This is tour included lunch. I can say with no hesitation that no one who visits Greece will ever leave hungry. Lunch consisted of dish after dish after dish.
After this first tour dinner was at Daphne's back in Plaka. The Concierge suggested we walk. I assume the city is safe at night or he would not have suggested so. Once again we found the food outstanding. This is an interesting restaurant. It is of course in an old building with part being inside and part outside. We sat at a table on a recessed patio.
On the second day a new guide took us off in another direction to see the old Agora. This tour ended with a visit to the Benaki museum and lunch on the top floor.
The guides had advised us, and we noticed the locals strictly adhered to, to never enter a traffic lane unless the green pedestrian sign was on. Otherwise you will become a mere speed bump for the many cars and motorcycles.
We noticed while leaving the hotel as well as touring central Athens that there are a number of stray dogs in the area. The guides said the city allows them to stake out a territory. The city then provides shots and neutering to them. There were two dogs that stay at the hotel. The first, Sweety, stayed near the front door mostly. The second one assisted the traffic police every day. You could see him running back and forth barking at the traffic during rush hour.
The last part of the tour commenced in the early evening with a drive to Cape Sounion. This allowed us to see some of the area outside of Athens as we drove to the temple at the cape. At the end of this dinner was at Ithaki. This is a restaurant in the Cape Sounion area that has received excellent reviews.
The restaurant did live up to its reviews as the food was excellent, as were the views from our table outside on a patio. In fact the entire restaurant was more or less outside as the large doors to the inside portion were open. As in Athens we could see that the Greeks have a very casual approach to critter control. As we were eating two then three cats wandered by. One decided I looked like an easy mark, which is correct. He took up a position between my chair and the retaining wall beside the table. He then gave me a I have not eaten in weeks look. I dropped a piece of Lobster Thermidor to him. Let me just say subsequent portions were feed to these cats by the waiter using a fork. These little guys just wander around the restaurant.
The last day in Athens was consumed by repacking and traveling to the port of Piraeus to board the ship. The ship for the remainder of the surface borne trip was the Regent Voyager. The itinerary for the trip unfortunately placed most of the activities one after the other at the beginning of the trip.
Egypt After one sea day to transit from Greece to Egypt it was up early to take an overnight tour of Cairo. For this tour we drove through the eastern desert from Port Said to Cairo. The route took us down the side of the Suez Canal then over to Cairo. This was done as is typical in Egypt in a convoy with police at the front, back, and onboard each bus. You can always tell who the individual bus guards are as they wear a suit and tie regardless of the temperature. Under the jacket is a very large weapon. As this was our first experience with this it was more of a novelty at this point. The eeriness of this was to increase as we spent more and more time in Egypt.
The first stop near Cairo was to the Step Pyramid. This was done to show the development of construction techniques from this early pyramid to the later more extensive ones. As we left this site to drive to the hotel the unique qualities of Egypt began to come into view. The three things that stand out the most to the casual visitor to Cairo are this must be one of the filthiest cities in the world, it must also be one of the most inefficient economies in the world, and that the drivers on the roads are maniacs. Let me expand. First, there is nowhere in the Cairo area where you can go without seeing trash everywhere. Trash piles are along the sides of the roads, in the Nile, in the canals, and around the buildings. This makes seeing Cairo quite the Jekyll and Hyde experience. Here are the builders of the great pyramids surrounded by trash piles. Second, there are thousands of unfinished buildings everywhere. The explanation we were given is that these are squatters. They find a piece of land and start building a multistory building on it. They never finish the building since if they did so they would have to begin paying taxes on it. What? Who owns this land they just built on? If the entire country knows what the scam is, why don't they change the law? This is after all a dictatorship. Third, along every road near the Nile there are small inefficient farms. I assume these are left to give the lower classes something to do. But it must be terribly inefficient in such small parcels. All in all the Egyptians are quite strange. An interesting insight into how the country is run was provided by one of the tour guides while at lunch on the second day. I asked who would take over when Mubarak passes away. He stated that it would be one of his sons. I asked him how the country would take to this. He said it mattered more what the United States thought about it, then what the population of Egypt thought.
The final stop on the second day was to the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. I must say these are impressive structures. Of course the idiot wife had to ride a camel. This consisted of employing the tour guide to negotiate a rate for the ride as well as standing in the middle of a herd of smelly beasts. Those things do stink.
The hotel for the overnight in Cairo was the new Four Seasons across the street from the Nile. This is a very nice hotel. While watching the traffic on the street between the hotel and the Nile I finally understood why Egyptian drivers honk so much. It is because none of them stay in their lane. For example, while driving down one of the main multilane expressways around Cairo as we would approach a vehicle it would just slide over into part of our lane. The bus driver made a short honk. The other driver moved back in his lane. Then another vehicle would wander over into some other lane. They just pay no attention to the stripes on the road. To the Egyptian drivers a road is just one big, single lane. The location of this hotel is exceptional. Our room overlooked the Nile. Is was just the perfect experience to be standing on the balcony looking at the Nile as the sun went down with the call to prayer echoing across the city. This must be why people put up with the awful pollution in Cairo. It was so bad my nose ran the entire time we spent in the city.
The evening of the first day was spent at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. This was a private opening of the museum just for our group of about 50 or so people. Although the total time in the museum was limited the lack of crowds allowed us to spend a sufficient amount of time at each of the major exhibits. I understand that during standard opening hours the museum is so full that it is difficult to see the exhibits.
The last part of this stop was the drive to Suez to meet the ship. One more section of the eastern desert was visited during this transit. The boarding procedure at Suez was a bit odd. The Egyptians are just the opposite of the Greeks when it comes to passports and luggage. We first stopped at a warehouse in the port. We then proceeded to unload the luggage from the bus, walk into a warehouse where we passed it through an X-ray machine, then it was back on the bus to reload the luggage then drive a few feet to the dock. The ship did not dock in Suez so when it came time to examine the passports for exit from Egypt this was done on the dock in the dark. The only light the officials had was provided by cell phones. It seems we arrived a little later than expected. After some back and forth it turned out all they wanted to see was the Port Said entry stamp.
Jordan The ship next docked in Jordan for another overnight stay. The port city of Aqaba is not very large, nor does there seem to be much activity at the port. While driving through the city it is easy to see major differences between Egypt and Jordan. In Jordan the roads, at least the ones in Aqaba and up north toward Petra, are very well maintained. Trash everywhere as we saw in Egypt is not seen in Jordan. All in all the Jordanians seem to know what they are doing.
The first day of this overnight trip consisted of leaving the ship in the afternoon to travel to Wadi Rum. On arriving at the visitor's center for this area we switched from a new, air conditioned bus, with nice seats to a beat up, falling apart piece of shit small truck. One must climb up over the tailgate to find a seat on one of the benches that lines the sides of the bed. Now keep in mind that this is a ship full of older folks for the most part. By older I mean 65 to 90. I do believe sticking these sorts of folks in such conditions is a major error. I know I was not very comfortable with the arrangements. However, in looking around I did not see any better vehicles anywhere.
Once onboard we proceeded to wander around the desert. There were several stops to climb small hills for a better view, look at various sand and rock formations, and examine the writings found in the area. Other than the poor quality of the transportation this was great fun.
As the sun set we arrived at a tent camp for dinner. Dinner consisted of salads of various sort, incredibly thin round bread, and various meats cooked on a grill or in a buried pot. As in Greece I see no one leaves Jordan hungry.
After dinner it was off to the Movenpick hotel at the entrance to Petra. This is a nice hotel with typical rooms.
The next morning it was off early to Petra to beat the crowds. The picture everyone sees of Petra is the Treasury. This is the most impressive structure. However, there are many others below it. To be sure we saw all of it the guide kept up a quick pace. It seems the round trip from the gate to the sign at the end that says to not enter without a guide back to the gate is six miles. The first three are downhill, but of course the other three are back up that same slope. I must say for the entire last mile my legs were quite tired. Petra is well worth the trek however.
There are numerous but well behaved vendors in several parts of Petra. They sell tourist junk, rides down or up, and beverages. Everything is one dollar or ten dollars or whatever amount they like to begin with. One must bargain. It was funny when we passed the small store at the entrance to Petra inside the park the vendor was saying water one dollar to everyone headed down. When I popped back out after several hours the same vendor looked at the exhausted woman beside me, then says water 20 million dollars. I think she would have paid it. After this tour and lunch at the hotel it was back to the ship for the second stop in Egypt.
The second stop in Egypt was at Safaga in order to drive to Luxor. This is a very long trip through an even more desolate part of the eastern desert than earlier. Once more we were off in a convoy. In Luxor we only had time for a few of the main sites due to the length of the drive there and back. It did not help that for this stop as well as the previous stop in Egypt we had the talkative guide. These two guides were both very knowledgeable. The problem was they wanted to transmit all of this knowledge to us before letting us go see what they were talking about. They talked so much we never had enough time to see anything. All in all I do not recommend using Safaga to access Luxor. It just does not allow enough time. We did do everything the tour description indicated, but at a shortened time at each stop.
The drive back was the most eerie part of the trip so far. We had to gather up all of the buses in a holding area before six in the evening as it seems they close the highway from Luxor to Safaga at least for tourist and it looked like commercial trucks at that time. On forming up it was off to Safaga. Especially in this part of Egypt I have never seen so many checkpoints. Most consists of small metal barricades that the traffic weaves through. At each one of these there is a group of either tourist police or what looks like members of a neighborhood crime watch as they are dressed in native costume. The police carry sidearms and sometimes rifles as well. The crime watch members each had a long gun strung over their shoulder. I am not sure what the Egyptians are afraid of. I am also not convinced that if trouble started these fellows would prove to be very effective. I must say though there are certainly plenty of them. The purpose of these checkpoints is not clear as at most of them no one checks anything. The police just stand there as the vehicles weave in and out of the barricades.
The drive back was the oddest experience of all the odd experiences in Egypt. On leaving Luxor we were the first bus right after the small security truck that led the way. At first this was a small Chevrolet pickup with no one in the back. Later it was a beat up issan pickup with two rifle toting fellows in the back. I assume this was actually a Nissan with the N missing. From Luxor we proceeded from the green zone along the Nile out to the desert. Periodically we would pass the small neighborhood stops as well as more formal checkpoints. The formal checkpoints recorded our arrival. The point being to check us in and out of each section of the route. If trouble occurs they know where to send help. Now how fast and effective that help would be I do not know. As we moved further out in the desert things became odder and odder. For example, about halfway across the desert section two busses that had been behind us somewhere came flying past our bus which was first. They then proceeded to cut into place between us and the lead truck. Now if you are in a convoy going the same speed to the same place what is the point. The busses travel about 60 km an hour about ten feet from each other. After the two maniacs got settled into place we stopped for a while at a large checkpoint. The point to this was said to be to allow some other busses to catch-up. Catch-up? Were we not supposed to be in a convoy? So how did anyone fall behind? After waiting for a while the last bus appeared. According to some other passengers I talked to later at this stop we exchanged escort trucks. I could not see this as we were now the third bus in line. After we left this checkpoint a few miles out in the desert something flashed by the right side of our bus. The bus in front pulled out suddenly into the opposing lane. We sashayed slightly sideways after sliding along the sand at the edge of the road. After all of this bouncing around everyone formed back up and motored on. Our driver engaged in some discussion with the tour guide in Arabic. Later I was told we were not expected at the last checkpoint. Hum, I thought we were being checked in and out of each checkpoint? The escort had to be awakened for us to continue the trip. This appeared to irritate them. The result being he decided to proceed at a slower pace than the lead bus driver wanted to go. So the lead driver just ran him off the road and went on. The escort truck was what flashed by our right side as he was traveling down the sand shoulder of the road at that point having been runoff the road by the lead bus. Crazy Egyptians. We finally made it back to Safaga without further incident except on hitting the city limit all discipline in the convoy broke down. The drivers began to race to see who could get to the dock's checkpoint first. As I said crazy Egyptians.
All in all I am not sure what to make of all of this tourist related security. It is certainly entertaining. I am just not certain how effective it is in either deterring attacks or in responding to one. Being a heavily armed Texan I would prefer to just pack my own firearms and watch out for myself.
As we did not leave Egypt until the afternoon of the next day Mrs Paint Horse and I decided to try snorkeling in the Red Sea. We have done this quite a bit in the Caribbean. I must say the little we did in the Red Sea was better. The fish are everywhere as are interesting coral formations.
Safaga itself offers nothing I can see to induce anyone to visit despite the interesting water. I was surprised to see several hotels on the beach. You could not pay me enough money to vacation in Safaga. Not only do you have to fly into Cairo you must then fly to Hurghada, and from there drive to Safaga. The water is nice, but not that nice.
In summary Egypt was worth the short visit. However, Mrs Paint Horse and I do not appear to get along to well with this country. On arrival in Cairo my nose started running and itching. It continued this until we left. I assume I was allergic to the pollution. I have never seen such thick haze. On leaving Safaga I developed diarrhea and the Mrs Paint Horse a sinus infection. I have no idea where either one of these maladies came from. It is interesting to note that in the few blocks of the city we passed from the ship to the dive center we passed six pharmacies. It makes me wonder if they have a built-in business. When the ship left I was more than ready to go.
Sea Day After the intensive number of ports visited at the beginning of this voyage it was thankfully time for three sea days as we transited through the Red Sea and on to Oman. The first sea day was spent recovering from Egypt. The only thing I did was write this trip report and attend a presentation on the security that would be in effect as we sailed through the Gulf of Aden.
Regent arranged for a Royal Navy Commander to travel with us from Safaga. He held a talk on the state of the piracy problem in the area. His main point was if there was any danger to this ship, he would not have come aboard. As the route we traveled through the area is far from the trouble zone there is no reason for concern. Besides a cruise ship is an undesirable target for pirates. It travels too fast, the freeboard is too high, and there are way too many people to try to control. Besides if pirates actually succeeded in boarding a cruise ship holding some 1,500 passengers and crew every warship and aircraft in the region would surround them. The only security detail he would provide was to explain that the desired way to travel through the 26 hour danger zone is to group ships of like speed together. They then proceed as a mass. By the time they reach the main problem area all of the ships of various speeds end up together. In our case our speed is higher than any other ship so we proceeded at high-speed alone, but in the same area as everyone else. It was an interesting talk. Later in the day the ship's newsletter announced that access to the lower outside decks would be cutoff until we had passed the danger area. This was the only obvious security measure the ship took.
This day also demonstrated the advantage to traveling by cruise ship. As mentioned above my wife came down with a bad case of sinusitis and I with a mild case of diarrhea. No doubt from merely being in Safaga. With a doctor onboard the ship it was a simple, but expensive, matter of treatment for both conditions. It is good these problems happened on the first of three sea days.
A disadvantage of traveling by ship also appeared tonight when a massive amount of bubbles of some sort came boiling up out of the tub, shower, and bidet. Being on a ship in the middle of the Red Sea it is difficult to change rooms or hotels.
All in all it was an exciting day I must say.
Sea Day At breakfast on the second sea day I noticed the staff were serving the items on the buffet rather than the guests doing so. I learned later than there were now several cases of GI problems on board. This procedure along with a stronger sanitizing solution all over the ship was directed at stopping any spread of this.
The plumber dropped by to clean out the pipes. The result was some but not much improvement in the bubbles in the bathroom.
Sea Day The last sea day was spent in the Gulf of Aden. The number of ship sightings went way up. This must be a busy place. Some ships passed us going west while we passed other slower vessels headed east.
We also picked up a naval escort which stayed just off our stern for several hours.
Right before dark as we were exited the Gulf of Aden a military helicopter circled us several times. It then hovered off the port side so everyone could take a photograph. I assume this was to prove to us that the military was on the job.
Salalah After three sea days the next stop was the first of two in Oman. This first stop was in Salalah at the southern end of Oman. This is basically a container port city. We docked at the far end of the container port. As the ship was late in arriving, we have an Italian captain you see, the tour of the city was somewhat abbreviated. The main point was to get an overview of the city. For this tour we visited the museum. This provided a look at the history of Oman both on land and sea. We also stopped at a fruit and vegetable market, as well as a souk. The main point to the souk visit was to buy frankincense. Oman is a new tourist stop. As such there is not much infrastructure for visitors just yet. The city leaves a very good impression on one however.
Sea Day As it is six hundred miles to the next Oman stop at Muscat a sea day is required. Most of this day was spent reading and doing research for an article on wireless Internet access onboard ships.
Muscat Muscat is a very nice city. As tourism in Oman is new there is also little infrastructure for tourist here. But the city is certainly worth a visit. At a minimum one should visit the Grand Mosque. This tour allows you to tour the entire site including inside the worship areas. There is also a museum that discusses the history of Oman similar to the one in Salalah. The souk near the waterfront is one of the more interesting ones we visited in the Middle East. It has the winding closed in look one expects of this type of market. Of course most of the things for sale are junk, but it is interesting nevertheless.
Overall Oman is the cleanest, best run country we visited. It is an excellent example of how well a country can function when it has a benevolent despot as the head of the country.
Dubai The last stop was Dubai. This is a much larger city than I thought it would be. We docked at the far end of the city in an industrial area. As it is very hazy photographs are difficult to take here.
The ship stayed docked overnight after arriving about 2 pm. As we were to disembark the next day the first task was to pack the eight bags we brought onboard two weeks ago. After the repacking we took the ship provided shuttle to the Mall of the Emirates. This is now the second largest mall in the UAE. This is indeed a massive place. Inside is a sky slope. After buying several pieces of junk it was back to the ship.
On the next day we left the ship. In between leaving the ship and boarding the DXB to LHR flight we toured Dubai with a tour guide. This high speed tour went from one end of the city to the other. Stops included an excellent museum in the old section, a ride on a water taxi, strolls through the spice and jewelry souks, drives though the main sections of the city, lunch at KFC, and a stop at the Atlantis hotel for a visit to the aquarium.
English and American Culture At each stop I was amazed at how pervasive the English language and American culture are. In many of the countries English is more widely spoken than the native language due to the large number of immigrants. An example of the use of English and American culture was the lunch stop in Dubai at the KFC. The menu is in English with only a few Arabic subtitles. Ordering is done entirely in English. This was true to some extent or the other in every country we visited.
DXB to LHR The flight from DXB to LHR was to be in F in the nose of a BA 747 in seats 2A and 3A. The only problem with the flight was the revised departure time from 2 to 3 am. Yes, 3 am in the morning.
As the tour of Dubai ended at 6 pm I arranged to stay and eat dinner at a hotel. The Park Hyatt although lower in cost than most hotels I looked at in Dubai proved to be very nice, except for the lack of light. This seems to be a trend in hotel design. We arrived after dark. The hotel lobby was dark. All of the hallways were dark. In many cases the only light was provided by candles. The room was very dark as there are no overhead lights. Just dim lamps. The room itself was odd as well. On checking in the desk clerk stated we had been upgraded to a spa room. This room proved to be a slightly larger room with a spa table near the door. Beside the spa table was a sink which made sense. However, on the other side of the room was another sink. This one was between the desk and the window. Now what the purpose of it was is beyond me. In addition the shower could have held at least ten people standing or sitting on the bench that went all the way around the walls of the shower. I would certainly stay at this Hyatt again, but only if I pack several lanterns. The view from the room faced the creek that separates the city.
We ate at the restaurant on site. This is the Cafe Arabesque. It features selections from several Middle Eastern countries. The food is very well prepared.
At the airport things began to deteriorate. First I find that at DXB one submits their own bags for the security check. This meant maneuvering all eight bags through a long line to a scanner machine. Once there you must place each one on the conveyor. Then after the scan each bags must be loaded back up for the trip to the check in desk. Quite odd. At the check in desk I showed the agent the paper showing both the BA and the AA flights on the same record. He seemed a little uncertain about checking the bags all the way through to DFW, but he managed to produce a label with LHR and DFW both on it. He even issued the AA boarding passes. The next step was to walk from the check in desk, inside a secured area remember, to the gate while passing yourself and the carryon bags through not one, but three security checks in different parts of the terminal. At the last one the scanner operator objected to the sharp points on the 3/8ths inch long blades on the cuticle scissors I have passed through various airports with for years. Now what someone would do with cuticle scissors is beyond me. After walking for miles we arrived at the BA lounge which is also several miles past the gate for the flight. This must be one of the most dismal lounges in the BA system. It is small. No one cleans the tables off. But most of all it is way too crowded.
Once at the gate when they called the flight to begin boarding I found that the entire population of the back of the aircraft was composed of gate lice as they paid no attention to the loading order.
Once onboard I found another excellent BA crew including a CSD who introduced herself to everyone in the F cabin. As this was a 3 am in the morning flight all I did was wait for takeoff, then change clothes to sleep. Sleep I did on an aircraft for once. I did not eat on awakening as the plan was to wait until the Arrivals Lounge in T5 was reached. I was pleased to actually arrive at a gate instead of a remote stand requiring a bus. However, I had noticed that the terminal building seemed somewhat small. Sure enough we had arrived at T5B. The journey to T5 required a train ride. This was short and easy. Once in T5 proper the next step was to find the Arrivals Lounge. This turned out to require a trip through Border Control as the lounge is outside the secured area. The officer at the desk was quite alright with our six hour visit to the United Kingdom.
The Arrivals Lounge was located with a couple of more questions of various staff members I accosted. Breakfast was soon served inside the Concorde Dining Room. While small it is nicer than the plastic tables and chairs in the main eating area. After breakfast we tried out various chairs in the lounge while waiting for time to move on to T3.
LHR to DFW The return flight from LHR to DFW was on AA as the BA flight was full for some strange reason. On Sundays AA has two flights within a few hours of each other. The first one is three class service on a 777. The second one is two class on a 767. I do not know why they run two so different flights.
After sitting for a few hours in the Arrivals Lounge in T5 it was time to navigate to T3. Not knowing how long it would take I allowed two hours. The method suggested by the BA staff in the lounge was to take the Heathrow Express. This is a subway. On arriving at the station we were directed to the front of the train as we were to get off at Heathrow Central. The ride was free, and only took a few minutes. The only trick is to be sure you get off at the first stop. Otherwise you will find yourself at Paddington Station in London. On arriving at the central station I assumed we would board another train. You do not. Instead there is a lengthy hike from the station up to the outside of T3. This is quite a walk. On arriving outside T3 the sign boards provide direction to which section of the building to go to for the airline of interest. In this case it was B for AA. In Section B the AA gates are 1-42. I could only find one very, very busy security area. As we walked past the extremely long line I spotted a Fast Track section. This line was about 1/20th the length of the other line.
Despite the complaints I have found the BAA security staff to be very helpful. More so than the US staff. In this case we managed to have an oversized bottle confiscated, a watch run through by itself, and myself patted down and wanded. I told my wife the bottle was twice the acceptable size. Nevertheless she tried sneaking it through. If they had not shifted the staff around just as we approached it would have worked. Unfortunately the Sikh gentleman was more observant than his predecessor. I set of the detector as I forgot to remove a watch from my pocket. This resulted in a pat down and wanding. Just to be thorough they ran the watch through the scanner by itself. The pat down was proper but quite comprehensive shall we say.
I must say for all of the abuse of the BAA staff I have read on FT in all cases the BAA staff at LHR could not have been more friendly or helpful. For example, Mrs Paint Horse is quit worn out. I should have traded her in long ago. She has a bad back and bad knees among other problems. Walking is difficult at times. A cane helps somewhat. As we traversed the marathon to gate 42 she asked a BA staff member if a cart ride could be arranged. She explained that they did not do that. It was another agency, in other words BAA. She did ask a BAA staff member walking by if they would take us to the gate, which they did.
The AA flight also required a procedure I had not seen before. All of the passengers were required to check in at the gate desk even if you already had the boarding pass. This was required at least in our case in order to have the bags loaded on the aircraft. Gate lice were not in evidence at LHR. After boarding we once again found ourselves on a full AA flight. Despite reading this morning that AA has lost quite a bit of money in the latest quarter once again we found a completely full flight.
At ten hours this is the longest flight I have been on. I was somewhat concerned at spending this time in a J seat, but I found the current J seats to be just fine for this daylight flight. I understand that there not being fully flat some find sleeping in them to be difficult. As I did not sleep they were fine.
The flight was also made more pleasant by the best crew I have ever seen on any aircraft from the beginning of time to date. The purser in particular was friendly, funny, and informative. Although a J class cabin was the highest on this flight the crew served the lunch and before landing snack from the galley course by course, even using a blue tablecloth over the seat tray. The food was of course airline food, but not bad. Desert was the famous sundae. After lunch they dimmed the cabin for those who wanted to sleep such as Mrs Paint Horse. Following my adjust to the arrival city time to avoid jet lag plan I treated this as daytime for the whole way. As we droned on the cabin crew made numerous checks through the cabin. They even enforced the use the lavatory in your own section rule. Quite a good crew.
The arrival at DFW brought once more new experience. On leaving the aircraft I found that one clears customs and border control with the declaration form then you must proceed to collect the bags for one more screening. This once again meant hauling all eight bags from the baggage claim to the outside world. Sure enough despite my concern not only did the bags arrive, but so did the car service. At last we were back home. I do believe the thing I missed most was being able to get a full glass of ice with someone looking at me as if I were crazy. It must be a Texas thing as we are always hot you see.