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Middle East Virtual
Day 1: Dubai
Day 2: Muscat
Day 3: Embarkation in Muscat
Day 4: At Sea
Day 5: Salalah
Day 6: Aden
Day 7: Aqaba
Day 8: Suez Canal
Day 9: Crete, Heading Home from Piraeus
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Day 2: Wednesday, Muscat
MuscatFolks who bought Europa's pre-cruise hotel package in Muscat, the capital of Oman, were housed at the Grand Hyatt and while that may seem a plain-Jane-vanilla choice in this unexpectedly exotic and tranquil place ... well, you'd be surprised.

Nothing (well, almost nothing save for the genuinely bland Holiday Inn in which I resided) is ordinary in Oman. The Grand Hyatt, for instance, reminded me of a sultan's palace ... on steroids! Picture a historic, modest mosque. Sure you'll find some but the only one you can visit is The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, and it's most definitely grand -- and it's also just about brand-new, having opened in 2001. On lovely Beach Road, which wraps like a ribbon around the waterfront near the Qurm district, the oddly incongruous site of men in Arabic attire sipping coffee at Starbucks is at once amusing and disturbing.

In fact, on first impression, this most contemporary city feels almost as modern as Dubai and, as well, as if history has been relegated to backstreets.

However, that's not really true here. Aside from its lushly irrigated public and private gardens, the over-the-top designs of some of its hotels (the ultra-Arabic Chedi Resort, the city's sleekest hotel, is another one that makes quite an otherworldly statement), and its contemporary business district, the ambience of this jewel of a city evokes a relative sense of peace. There's little glitter or glitz. Most of its residents are Omanis. A monarchy governed for a long time by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the country has experienced significant social and economic development over the past 30 years. Like Dubai, you might say, right? But here, oil is a piece of the economic pie as are a breadth of other industries; folks don't rely so heavily on tourism to make a living.

Oman lies south of the United Arab Emirates on the Gulf of Oman, and is also bordered to the west by Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Its history dates back to ancient times of course (whose doesn't in the Middle East!) but in its case, as far back as 5000 BC, it was known as a centerpoint in the trade of frankincense. For 150 years, from the 1500's, it was occupied by the Portuguese. These days it's considered one of the most innovative countries on the Arabian Peninsula, whether it's in business, social or educational development.

All of this is important to point out because, as a visitor, even for a short time, the sense of modest prosperity here is very pleasing. People are welcoming. It's easy enough to figure your way around (though English is less present than in Dubai). There are banks with ATM's through which you can extract Omani rial (1 Omani rial is worth approximately $2.60 U.S.).

Geographically, Muscat and its environs offer fabulous scenery and opportunities for wildlife explorations. On one hand you have gorgeous beaches and cliffside coasts of the urban area, and on the other there's a wild and mountainous interior (with the "Grand Canyon" of Arabia). But that will have to wait for a longer stay. Alas, with just a day or so to spend here, the city's charms call. But wait, before I forget, I must mention this very important thing: Americans need a visa to visit Muscat. Though you can buy it the airport, I highly recommend you get it before you leave home.

Muscat is city with a strange layout. First of all you'll need to rent a car (or hire a driver); everything's spread out. Start in Mutrah, where you'll find the heart of the old town with its fabulous souk, a chaotically traditional Arabic market. Some of the shops are veritable booths while others are like stores, complete with doors (and, ahhhh, air conditioning) and merchandise arrayed in an attractive order. It was in one of the latter that I found gorgeous pashmina scarves; the proprietor was asking $8 for one and I ultimately bargained, parting with $8.50 US for two (the scarves came in handy when we visited the mosque, as women must cover their heads). I was told by my guide that the better quality merchandise was found in the store-like establishments. You'll also find a gold souk here, a coffee shop, and plenty of places to buy frankincense (one of those tempting purchases that you look at once home and say "what was I thinking?").

The harbor scene here is equally energetic -- it's the working harbor of Muscat (indeed, cruise ships on port calls dock nearby, at the commercial terminal) and fisherman returning with their daily catches make this a particularly bustling spot before lunchtime.

Nearby -- though alas not within walking distance -- is the walled city of Muscat. Its principal attraction is the wacky, 1970's-esque Sultan's palace (note the mushroom-y pillars in blue and gold). You can't go in: The bachelor Sultan Qaboos bin Said really does live here! Nearby, is the diplomatic district -- so the ambience here is otherwise elegant and dignified (at least if you don't see the outskirts, which show some examples of the homes for folks who lead poorer lives). The walled city, unlike so many walled cities around the world, is not really a tourist area and you won't see places to sip overpriced coffee or buy postcards and souvenirs.

Omanis are justifiably proud of their showcase hotels, which include, beyond the Grand Hyatt and the Chedi, the internationally renowned Al Bustan Palace Hotel. While most are located around the Gulf of Oman, the Al Bustan is in the opposite direction -- closer to the Walled City -- and the imperial resort is tucked into a cove surrounded by rocky cliffs. We had tea there, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the lobby with locals who stopped by for a quick nip. A fabulous experience. You can also use their gorgeous beach and pool for a fee.

Another don't-miss experience is a visit to the The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It's located outside of town on the way to the airport and is open to the public from 9 until 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Wednesdays. The gardens are especially lush and lavish -- but of course so to is the prayer sanctum with its sprawling domed ceiling that inexplicably reminds me of Gothic-style cathedrals in England. In particular, take a close look at the prayer carpet -- all 263 square meters of it! The carpet, a blend of styles -- the classical Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan designs -- contains 1,700 million knots, weighs 21 tons and took four years to produce. It was also created as a single piece! And don't miss the elaborate chandeliers; there are 35 of them and they're made of Swarovski crystal. One other interesting fact: this mosque, unusually, includes a separate area in which women can pray (in Oman, women traditionally prayed at home).

This is a popular spot for cruise line city tour excursions -- we saw several buses in the parking lot that were designated for Europa folks who'd bought the pre-cruise stay in Muscat.

Tonight, we splurged on dinner at the Chedi's gourmet restaurant. It's quite the scene for up-and-coming Omanis and while it's not for penny pinchers, the elegant place -- with its four open kitchens, fabulous worldwide wine list, and menu featuring Arabic, Mediterranean, Asian and Indian cuisines -- offered such an awesome experience we simply wanted to check in and stay.

Next trip.
Day 1: Dubai red arrow Day 3: Embarkation in Muscat

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