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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 5: Monday, Salalah
SalalahSalalah, on Oman's southern coast -- and the country's second largest town -- felt very much like a dusty outpost from a U.S. country western flick. Like Muscat, it's ringed by the sea and by rocky mountains that frame the town and its remote-feeling countryside. Like Muscat, the Sultan of Oman has a palace here. But there are few other similarities between the two.

The most significant thing about Salalah, aside from the fact that it's been the world's major producer of frankincense for the last few centuries, is that it actually rains here! In fact, the season of the monsoon (from June 21 - September 21, according to our guide) is its major tourist draw! Everything turns green during the Khareef season, which was hard to imagine on this dusty, arid day. And it stays green until about December, so folks calling here on autumn Middle East itineraries will see Salalah at its most beautiful.

Salalah is also the country's biggest cargo port, and Europa docked on the edges of the industrial area, next to a handful of wooden dhows that had arrived from places like Somalia and were stocking up on supplies to take back home. For independent-minded travelers there was a free shuttle to the port's gate, where taxis were clustered, but I honestly don't recommend touring on your own. It's not a safety issue; rather, just as with Muscat, there's isn't one major center in which attractions are clustered.

A quick note: Beaches are beautiful in and around Salalah but beware -- the surf is pretty rough 'n' tumble. There's one exception to my earlier advice about heading off on your own: You can take a taxi to the Hilton, have lunch and hang out on the hotel's beach. The ship offered its own three-hour beach trip there. We checked it out -- if a beach stop is really important to you, then go for it. Otherwise, it's just a Hilton.

We arranged for a private, half-day tour of the area, but at every stop we pulled up behind a Europa motorcoach -- so we didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Well, with one exception. Our guide took us "off road" in a dusty, desert-y field to show us a tree. Yes, a frankincense tree. This part of Oman is located on the frankincense trail -- which, you may recall, was one of the world's most prized luxuries some 4,000 years ago. Indeed, Christian belief has it that the three wise men who headed to Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus bore gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense is an aromatic resin from gnarly trees and was pretty much the only attraction on this otherwise deserted patch of dust (well, it's also home to a shooting range for members of the Oman Army, but fortunately it wasn't in use at the time). The resin, still to this day harvested from this group of 20 trees and others located elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula, was used as an antidote to hemlock and to cure ulcers, nausea and fevers. Today it's principally used in the manufacturing of incense.

The centerpiece of Salalah's old town, beyond the Sultan's less whimsical "vacation" palace, is the Al-Husn Souq. While it lacks the history and moldering ambience of its counterpart in Muscat (and is, by and large, an all-outdoor establishment), what was interesting in this ring of small shops and booths was that women were the predominant sales people. Here they sold incense and perfumes (men still hawked the presumably more prestigious scarves), and the females were less inclined to hard sell, which we appreciated. Other items to buy include silver, spices and daggers.

We met one exotic Omani woman, riffling through her bowl of frankincense, who told us through our guide that she reflected heritages of Africa and of Oman. She's usually more interested in selling frankincense than in consorting with tourists, but business seemed slow today. To our polite request to take her photograph, she responded, grinning wickedly, that she'd only acquiesce for 3 rials -- about $8. She was had such an interesting face that we were happy to.

New Salalah is the more prosperous and more bustling part of the area, and here's where you'll find four- to five-story "high rise" headquarters for places like banks. The most interesting spot in town is the lobby of the Cultural Centre, which features a fascinating photo gallery depicting the adventurer Wilfred Thesiger's journey through Oman in the 1940's.

In a tour that was rather robotic, our guide, who spoke excellent English by the way (he'd learned it in Arkansas!), next took us to Job's Tomb. A 30-kilometer drive uphill, the tomb of the Prophet Job is housed in a basic structure. Women were required to don head scarves (throughout the entire trip I just carried mine everywhere because you just never knew) and we all took off our shoes. Prayer rugs surrounded the long tomb (the man was tall!) and occasionally, an Arabic man would come in to pray. Frankincense was burned.

Outside, the views over the Salalah plain and down to the sea were amazing (and I can only imagine how Wizard-of-Oz glittering they would be after the monsoons). Really, the most intriguing thing was to see signs on the road that outlined "camel crossings" -- and, indeed, camels were constantly plodding across the two-lane highways without a care in the world. At one point, we ran into a couple of camels with their babies. At another, a camel stood in the middle of the road, looking down his nose at us as if to say "we were here first; cars can wait." And we did!

Our last major foray was to the Cliffs, clear on the other side of Salalah. It's the kind of "attraction" you often find in places that don't have too many sightseeing options -- a huge rock out of which waves had carved a cave -- but after the dryness of the desert plains the turquoise and emerald hues were pleasant to see. The water was ferocious! The Big Sur-like mountain range that ran along one side of the sea coast boosted a handful of spots, from minimal to significant, where the force of the waves, over thousands of years, had cut holes into the rock.

Back onboard at lunchtime, we immediately headed up to the Lido for a casual lunch (after days of Indian and Arabian food I was craving a cheeseburger). For the first time the ship seemed crowded, with what amounted to nearly all the passengers trying to get lunch at the same time. One major plus about Europa is that all the restaurants -- even the alternative Italian and Asian -- are open for lunch as well as dinner. We headed down to Deck 5, and the restaurants there were all pretty quiet.

One oddity about this ship is that they won't pour water from the tap. Bottles of still and sparkling are offered at lunch and dinner, but ask for a simple glass of water and you'll be brought an Evian -- and then charged 2.20 euros for it.

Tonight, the Lido featured a fabulous tapas-like dinner with lots of small plates. And one nice touch was that the maitre d' took it upon himself to find us a couple with which to dine. The elderly folks, Portuguese academics, were full of fascinating stories about their world travels, and we had a lively evening.
Day 4: At Sea red arrow Day 6: Aden

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