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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 8: Thursday, Suez Canal
Suez CanalThis morning, hazy, hot sunlight poured through the windows earlier, it seemed, than usual -- and the view outside was another surprise. Late last night we had anchored off the city of Suez, which lies at the mouth of the world famous canal, and this morning, the sea resembled a maritime parking lot. Along with at least 20 other ships -- ranging from battered old freighters to sleek yachts and just about everything in between -- Europa was anchored in what seemed like an aimless fashion (a bit of a chaotic scene, with no evident rhyme or rhythm).

Even at 6:30 a.m. the ship was, unusually, bustling. There was a buzz of anticipation that you could feel as if it were physical. Out there, invisible in the haze, was a low-lying curve of land and somewhere in the midst of that began the Suez Canal.

While we waited, Europa's captain came on at various and frequent intervals to update us on our planned 8 a.m. transit. He told us that we'd be part of a convoy of 10 vessels (we were the only cruise ship, though a very sleek and expensive-looking private yacht followed us in the line). The ship would travel through the canal's 88 nautical miles in about 10 or 11 hours -- and it would be the most expensive port-to-port sailing not only on our itinerary but on any other Europa cruise this year. The Suez Canal is infamously pricey, which is one reason why some cruise lines bypass it and head between Europe and Asia on the much longer route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. The price tag? $80,000, a figure based on tonnage (bigger ships pay more).

For ship lovers, the view of all these vessels -- some bearing Arabic names, others hailing from Asia, and the occasional P&O, Hapag-Lloyd or MSC from Europe -- was intoxicating. It also underscored why the Suez Canal is the most important canal in the world. While considered a feat of engineering when it debuted in 1869 (some 45 years before the Panama Canal), there are no locks or dramatic vistas along the way. More than that, what's important is that this sometimes quite-narrow stretch of translucent green water actually divided one continent (Asia-Africa) into two and now facilitates sea-going travel between Asia, Africa and Europe.

Though anchored off the city of Suez, there were no tenders made available to us for shore explorations. Our time here really is all about transiting the canal.

Finally, at 9:30 a.m., 90 minutes behind schedule, we got the call to fall in line and cruised into the canal. The entrance on the south end is quite unremarkable though it seemed that every passenger on Europa had headed up to the outdoor observation area on Deck 8 outside the Belvedere lounge (crew had even put out padded benches for the comfort of folks). The land here is so flat you can't see the mouth of the Suez until you're literally in it.

As we began the journey, the scenery -- especially on the ship's port side -- showcased the nicest parts of Suez: public gardens, a mosque. Starboard, the canal's stone walls kept the desert at bay.

After a while, the desert returned with a vengeance on both sides of the canal; only occasionally was there anything of scenic interest along the way, save for the occasional military-sentry-with-rifle standing guard, or a small village. So attention on Europa turned inward. Passengers reclaimed their pool chaises (just like on big ships, some folks staked out their pool chairs before breakfast ... though to be fair passengers here really do spend the entire day, between meals, on this country-club-like sundeck). Chefs set up an outdoor buffet of frankfurters and burgers (the first seriously American style food I've seen!), the resident jazz band cranked out some tunes, and it felt like a holiday.

Maybe the vistas aren't as dramatic as the wild open sea or the craggy mountainous landscapes that have accompanied us for so much of our journey but I found that the placid waters and the genuinely easy-on-the-eyes desert landscape lulled me into a sense of relaxation. And that called for a long, lazy lunch, plus time to read a novel on the balcony just for fun (finally got around to finish Dan Brown's mesmerizing "The DaVinci Code") and even take a nap.

One aspect of the day's transit surprised me: Despite the wonderful chance to relax a bit on this otherwise frenetic journey, I was afflicted with a sense of quite unexpected melancholy. The feeling snuck up on me. Perhaps it's because there was so much anticipation -- I mean years, worth -- about visiting the Arabian peninsula ... and now that part of the trip was, for all intents and purposes, over.

The sadness stuck with me all day -- even if I was starting to feel excited about a relaxing stop at Crete, a Greek island, for sun and fun before our departure at Athens' Piraeus.

Indeed, I realized, while watching the desert slide by, that our exotic journey was slipping quickly into the past. We were no longer immersed in Arabia. Dubai, Oman, Aqaba -- the most delightful highlights had already begun to fade into the kind of snapshot memories you share later, with friends at home. Even those equally memorable ports that were more challenging than inspiring -- Yemen's Aden, Oman's Salalah and a very brief call at Egypt's Hurghada -- also grew dim.

After our 10-hour transit, we arrived in Port Said on Egypt's Mediterranean coast at sunset. This maritime crossroads marks the northern end of the Suez Canal and the captain extended our evening in port to make up for the delay. Port Said is a fabulous cross between Marseilles and Buenos Aires. It's full of intriguing old buildings, from elegant mosques to elegant apartment buildings with soaring windows. After escaping through the extra pushy gauntlet of souvenir sellers within the port's confines, we wandered through the city's main streets. So many locals were out, having a pre-dinner stroll and window-shopping amongst the city's plentiful boutiques. The women still adhered to some Muslim traditions but here their outfits, and head coverings, were colorful and fanciful -- elegant, too. For all the shops we passed hawking tchochkes, from souvenirs to useful household stuff to an awful lot of shoes, there were only a handful of cafes; all seemed to be occupied solely by men.

Ultimately, we made our way back to the ship. After passing through port security, we encountered the same wall of ultra-aggressive souvenir hawkers. In fact, so bold were they that one caught my husband's arm and literally pulled him a few hundred feet to his "shop" -- even as he visibly protested. I actually had to grab his arm and pull him away.

Back onboard, we headed upstairs to the fabulous Sansibar, where floor-to-ceiling windows had been pulled all the way back to offer its indoor-outdoor effect. We sipped riesling, and leaned on one of the cocktail tables, enjoying the hullabaloo of the souvenir sellers' dramas, playing out over and over as new meat -- I mean passengers -- passed through them on their way back to Europa.
Day 7: Aqaba red arrow Day 9: Crete, Heading Home from Piraeus

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