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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 9: Friday, Crete, Heading Home from Piraeus
Crete, Heading Home from PiraeusOur last port of call was truly a Mediterranean experience. We anchored in the genuinely picturesque Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete (bigger ships tend to dock at the better-known city of Heraklion). And all day the atmosphere was more light hearted than it had been on the cruise so far.

Europa's officers brought out the ship's in-house Zodiacs, the soft motorboats, and offered all and sundry a ride around the island's sparkling waters. It was just the perfect day to poke around town, wander through narrow streets, shop for olive oil and artisan-made jewelry, lounge on the beach, sip a beer at a sidewalk cafe, and have a Greek lunch. There's history here, too, but I will confess that on this day we needed what I like to think of as a real "cruise" day: just fun, some sun and utter relaxation. In the end, despite having wished our itinerary had made time for one more Middle Eastern port (Alexandria?), our day on Crete was a great ending, like eating a sweet dessert after a mammoth Christmas dinner.

Yesterday, our last sea day as we traveled on the Mediterranean from Port Said to here, was filled with the usual winding up busy ness, packing and the like. There were, in the nearly two weeks we'd been onboard, time to develop rituals. For me, a swim in the lap pool was my favorite way to start the morning.

Anything but a buffet aficionado, I nevertheless adored Europa's Lido Cafe and had adopted a round table for two out on the aft deck that was "mine," where I could watch whatever was the scenery of the day, drink fresh orange juice, and dine simply on cheese, cold meats and very, very good bread. (We were amused to note, however, how many passengers made sandwiches out of the buffet offerings to tuck into carry-on bags on debarkation day. These are wealthy people, most of them; the thought that they'd go to this effort for a free lunch was, I'll admit, startling.)

The balcony was a favorite as well -- while all balconies tend to look alike, the furniture was what made the difference here and the lounge chair was decadently padded and covered with sunrise-colored cotton spread. The table was high enough to be useful.

And the pool deck, on sea days especially, was a particularly favorite hangout. Very relaxed, the entertainment revolved around conversation. There was a wacky (but comfy) swing seat on Deck 9, which ringed the pool area and was outfitted with festive umbrellas. There was, peacefully, no music but deck stewards would wander around with water in spray bottles to spritz your face. People didn't drink much -- but you could buy a cocktail from a rolling cart, stocked with vodka and campari.

I ventured back to Europa's Futuresse Spa for a massage. (There was an interesting moment when my male therapist asked "would you like me to leave while you disrobe?" That would be a resounding yes -- presumably German passengers aren't as, er, shy.)

During my treatment, I had time to reflect on the trip. Some thoughts:

Europa's almost more famous for being "famous" (i.e. being marked as the best ship in the world by Berlitz's cruise guidebook), at least among English-speaking passengers who prefer cruising's luxury lines but I will say: If you like a relatively formal cruise experience (i.e. dressing at night) in which service, cuisine and your surroundings are superb, forget that there's a German barrier. The ship really is fine (read our review here).

On any Middle East itinerary, even for independent travelers, I recommend that you stick with ship shore excursions or arrange, as we often did, for independent guides before you leave home. Especially, perhaps, for a first trip. I say this for a number of reasons. For most of us the culture and language of these places is very foreign to us. In others, sights to see are spread out or simply a long way away, and getting there is complicated (not like hopping on a safari bus in St. Thomas to get to Magen's Bay!).

If visiting Oman, don't forget that you should arrange for your visa beforehand.

Pack wisely. Sure a bathing suit and chic shorts are okay for midday at the pool deck but otherwise, and especially on shore, make sure you are amply covered. I brought a mix of linens, pants and tops with long sleeves that were relatively cool in the burnishing heat. The only trouble I ran into was at the mosque in Oman, where a staffer there decreed that my Capri pants didn't cover enough of my ankles (he wouldn't let me in until I pulled them down low enough!).

You will need a head scarf to visit some places -- particularly mosques -- and this isn't really the time to wear something really wildly patterned from Hermes. Simplicity is key. I bought mine at the first souk I visited (in Muscat), a gorgeous cream pashmina and not only did it serve me well, it became a treasured souvenir.

This may be a moot point anyway as few large ships ever trawl the waters of the Middle East but a smaller, more subtle cruise ship is a better choice than a 100,000-plus tonner! Europa was the perfect size. It didn't overwhelm harbors and the fact that we were only a few hundred strong meant that passengers didn't overwhelm ports of call, either.

Before I left I worried that traveling on a luxury ship through some of the world's poorer places was insensitive. Now that I've experienced the paradox I will say that there were many times, returning on board, that I was grateful to experience comfort and great service.

Jet lag was very difficult for me through the first full week of the trip. I'd regularly wake up at 4 a.m. and be near comatose by 9 p.m. (made it tough to get through dinner a few times!).

The end of our cruise, as we pulled into Piraeus, the port for Athens, was painless -- at least the debarkation part! There was no mandatory 6 a.m. "wake up, now get out" process as there is with so many ships geared toward North American cruisers. We headed to the Lido Cafe for a last breakfast and people were saying tearful goodbyes with lots of them adding "but we'll see you..." -- the line attracts repeaters in a huge way.

We said goodbye, too, and hope sincerely that the next time we want to take a cruise that's out of the ordinary -- both onboard and on shore -- we'll be back on Europa.
Day 8: Suez Canal red arrow  

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