Embark on an 18-day Middle East cruise from Athens to Dubai. Explore exotic ports, tour world-class destinations, and experience life aboard the Norwegian Jade.
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Note: This travelogue is a long-form, photo-intensive account of my experiences for readers who want to cruise virtually, as well as travelers seeking detailed information before booking an NCL Middle East cruise of their own. Please use the Table of Contents to navigate to sections of interest.
Table of Contents
- 1 An NCL Middle East Cruise
- 2 Athens, Greece
- 3 Norwegian Jade Embarkation
- 4 Kusadasi, Turkey
- 5 Santorini, Greece
- 6 Heraklion, Crete, Greece
- 7 Alexandria, Egypt
- 8 The Suez Canal
- 9 Safaga, Egypt
- 10 Petra, Jordan
- 11 Five Days at Sea
- 12 Muscat, Oman
- 13 Khasab, Oman
- 14 Dubai, United Arab Emirates
- 15 I Would Love to Hear From You
- 16 Pin This Post
An NCL Middle East Cruise
The opportunity to cruise the Middle East from Athens to Dubai on the NCL Jade literally took me by surprise.
I had completed my first cruise to Alaska on the NCL Encore just one month earlier, and I was already booked to sail the Eastern Caribbean on the NCL Escape in less than two months.
If I joined this Middle East cruise, I would fly out in eleven days. Was it too much, too soon?
This was an 18-day cruise porting in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and United Arab Emirates, with a full transit through the Suez Canal. I would visit multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I could book a balcony stateroom without paying a single supplement.
People cruise for many reasons, to party, gamble, enjoy spa treatments, experience fine dining, spend time with family, or to escape life for a few days. I cruise for port destinations, and NCL was making an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I second-guessed myself like I always do, but my closest confidants encouraged me to jump on it. This opportunity was too good to pass by.
So I picked up my phone and made the call.
Then, I booked my flight to Athens to arrive one day prior to departure as a precautionary measure should there be flight delays, and also to explore a bit of the Greek capital.
By the time I got checked in at my hotel, I only had a few hours in the afternoon to experience Athens. So I set out on foot to climb the Acropolis and see the Parthenon.
The forecast predicted cloudy weather, but I asked the Universe to clear it up so I could have some sun and blue skies in my pictures. My request was granted.
I also knew there would be tons of tourists everywhere, and as you know I don’t like strangers in my photos. There were a few times I had to wait for people to get out of the way, but surprisingly, I was able to get some great people-free shots.
Nothing compares to seeing historical sites in person, especially those I taught about for years in my world history classes.
In addition to the Parthenon, the Acropolis is home to the Theatre of Dionysus, the Odeon of Herod the Atticus, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion with its Porch of the Caryatids, and other structural ruins.
The Acropolis experience was freaking unbelievable.
Athens is a city made for walking. Winding roads and hidden alleyways carry you anywhere you want to go. Sidewalk cafés abound, and historical ruins are scattered everywhere, like pieces of a giant puzzle. There is so much more I want to explore. I will be back!
Norwegian Jade Embarkation
After breakfast, I had to admire the view of the Acropolis from the balcony of my room at Hotel Attalos one last time before heading to the Athens Port of Piraeus to board the Norwegian Jade.
On the drive to port, I spotted the Viking Sea, the ship that had carried me “Into the Midnight Sun” to Norway and the UK in 2018. This would not be the last sighting.
I arrived at the cruise terminal at 10:00 AM, passed the Covid antigen test, continued through all of the check-in procedures, and boarded the Norwegian Jade around noon.
Fresh off the brand-newish Norwegian Encore, it was immediately evident that the Jade was 16 years old, even though it had been refurbished in 2017. But I didn’t care. The dated decor was pleasant enough for me.
I stopped by my balcony stateroom to drop off my backpack. Later that evening I would unpack and fall in love with my comfy bed and cold, soft sheets. I would also develop a fondness for my spacious shower with its instant hot water and high-pressure flow.
I was about to learn that health protocols on the Jade were much more strict than they had been on the Encore.
Onboard Health Protocols
Entering the Garden Café, a friendly masked crew member directed me to “washy-washy” at the sink area. Another masked crew member handed me a plate and silverware wrapped in a linen napkin. On the Encore, the Garden Café had been a self-serve buffet. On the Jade, everything was served cafeteria style, including beverages and condiments.
We were required to wear a mask on board except when eating or drinking or in open air areas. On the Encore there had been open seating at the bars. On the Jade, all barstools were off limits. Lounge areas were open, and waiters circulated taking drink orders and serving beverages.
There were rumors that protocols would relax once we left European waters. Those rumors were wrong. In addition to the vaccination requirement and passing the antigen test immediately before boarding, there would be two more mandatory PCR tests and one more antigen test during the 18-day itinerary.
And honestly, I couldn’t have cared less.
I appreciated everything NCL did to protect guests, and I was especially grateful to be traveling the world once again.
Later that evening, I met up for dinner at Alizar with my newest best friends from the Jade Facebook group. Throughout the cruise I enjoyed dinner dates with lots of people I met onboard. I also had the luxury of dining alone whenever I wanted.
With 895 guests on board, the Jade departed Athens at 7:00 PM and sailed for the port of Kusadasi, Turkey.
The NCL Jade arrived in the port of Kusadasi, Turkey, with its stately Pigeon Island fortress that dates to the 14th century and statue of Ataturk on the hill. We boarded tour buses in small groups to begin the day’s adventure.
House of the Virgin Mary
First up, was a visit to the Virgin Mary‘s final home. There is a small chapel and shrine at the site. Before his death on the cross, Jesus had entrusted Mary to the care of John the beloved disciple. John and Mary fled Jerusalem to this region of Asia Minor when the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem increased. John was also assigned to spread the gospel here.
Note the golden leaves of the mulberry trees. Silkworms eat these leaves exclusively, and then spin their cocoons, as you will see.
Ephesus is an ancient Greek and later Roman city located in modern Turkey that dates to the 10th century BC Crumbled from earthquakes, the site is one of the largest above-ground ruins in the world with much yet to be excavated. Ephesus was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015.
Put simply, I was blown away by the visible history, from the Odeon to the Temple of Domitian, the Hercules Gate, the Trajan Fountain, Hadrian’s Temple, the brothel, the public toilets, and the marble streets.
The Library of Celsus was the third-largest library in the Roman Empire, housing 12,000 scrolls. For centuries the library lay in ruins until archaeologists reconstructed the façade in the 1970s.
The grandest structure is the 24,000-seat theater. The venue is still used for concerts today. Elton John, Diana Ross, Sting, and other artists have performed there.
It is widely touted that the Apostle Paul preached in the theater, but the account in Acts 19 records another event. Read it for yourself!
The Apostle Paul lived in Ephesus from 52-54 AD. He attended the Jewish synagogue there and introduced twelve men to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote the epistle of 1 Corinthians in Ephesus and later wrote the epistle to the Ephesians while imprisoned in Rome around 62 AD. Ephesus is one of the seven churches of Asia mentioned by John in the Book of Revelation.
The Basilica of St. John
The Basilica of Saint John is a satellite location included in the Ephesus UNESCO World Heritage site. Now in ruins, the massive structure was constructed in the sixth century A.D. by Justinian I. The entrance to the site called the “Gate of Persecution” was constructed with materials scavenged from the stadium of ancient Ephesus in the 6th century AD.
There is evidence that the church was built on the site of John the Apostle’s grave.
As I mentioned earlier, John had fled from Jerusalem to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary. Later, he was exiled to the isle of Patmos by Roman Emperor Domitian. There he had the vision of the Apocalypse and wrote the book of Revelation. John was later pardoned by Emperor Nerva and he returned to Ephesus, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The Gospel of John and the three epistles of John are believed to have been written in Ephesus.
The Basilica’s baptistry appears to indicate that baptism by immersion was common practice at the time.
The Ayasuluk Citadel is situated on a hill to the north of the basilica.
To the south, lie the ruins of the Temple of Artemis. One of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, the temple originally had 127 columns. Only one column has been restored, and you can see it by zooming in the photo. The 12th century Isa Bey Mosque is located to the southwest. History on steroids!
Departing Ephesus, we headed to a buffet lunch of Turkish food. I sampled many dishes, but they were all bland with strange flavors. Not my favorite cuisine, although the desserts were interesting.
After lunch, we boarded the bus and returned to the port town of Kusadasi for a presentation about Turkish carpets. The demonstration showed the entire process of harvesting silk from silkworm cocoons, to weaving, to completed carpets. It was actually a sales pitch, but I found it quite informative and truly enjoyed learning what all goes into creating these lovely works of art.
Then it was back to the ship, the end of a memorable day in Turkey.
Touring the Greek island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea was everything it was cracked up to be and so much more. The archipelago of the Cyclades Islands are actually an ancient volcanic caldera as evidenced by the curvature of the steep coastlines.
Earlier that morning, I was surprised to discover that the Viking Sea, the ship that had carried me to Norway and the UK in 2018, was also anchored in the caldera.
To reach the island of Santorini, cruise ships must anchor in the caldera and guests then tender (transfer by boat) to shore. You have four options for ascending (and upon return descending) the 720-foot high cliff to the port village of Thìra: ride the steep winding road in a vehicle, take the cable car, hike the zig-zagging trail, or travel the same trail on the back of a donkey.
My group tour took a bus along multiple steep switchbacks to the top, which scared the crap out of me. I do not know how the bus driver navigated those sharp turns. It seemed like we could topple over the side at any moment.
After scaling the treacherous rock face at Thìra, the tour bus carried our group to the scenic cliffside village of Oia (pronounced ee-yah).
Our guide turned us loose to wander the winding streets and alleyways through the iconic whitewashed houses, blue-domed chapels, and Greek windmills.
Although time was limited, I exited the tourist-packed main streets and explored the empty side streets to my heart’s content. The views were breathtakingly beautiful, making Oia every bit the scenic wonder I expected it to be.
The tour bus transported us back to Thira where our guide released us to explore the village at our leisure and return the ship on our own.
I would have considered walking the path to the bottom, but there was no way you would get me on the back of a donkey to travel that freaky cliff. Our tour guide had given us complimentary tickets, so I took the cable car down and tendered back to ship.
Heraklion, Crete, Greece
SO, not all excursions are created equally.
After booking my cruise, I had made reservations for all of my group tours. When I arrived at my stateroom, I found an envelope containing all of my excursion tickets. There was a note stapled to the Heraklion ticket stating that it would be a 2-hour tour, but we would not actually be getting off the bus at any point. If I had a problem with that, I could visit the ship excursion desk and perhaps choose another tour.
I decided to take my chances. I mean, how bad could it be? I had done a similar tour of London years ago and loved it.
As it turned out, it was pretty bad.
Even though it was a hop-on-hop-off bus with multiple “stops” on the itinerary, we would only hop on and hop off once.
There were a few scenic and historical sites, such as the 16th century Koules Fortress, but frankly, taking pictures from an open-air moving bus sucks!
Well into our ride through the city, our tour guide announced that we had arrived at Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, also considered Europe’s oldest city.
The bus promptly circled the parking lot and came to a stop. But we would not be exiting the bus for a tour. It was so pathetic that everyone on the upper deck just started laughing. One lady cracked me up when she said this tour was like going to get gas together.
Oh, well! All of the previous excursions on this Middle East cruise itinerary had been amazing, so I could hardly complain. Lesson learned.
The Blazing Boots show later that night, and lunch at O’Sheehan’s Irish Pub the next day while cruising the Mediterranean, didn’t suck at all.
Cruising is a dynamic way to travel, meaning itineraries and excursions can change at a moment’s notice after booking.
The 18-day Middle East itinerary had been already been modified at least twice.
Prior to booking my cruise, the itinerary was scheduled to originate in Civitavecchia (Rome) and port in Ashdod (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) and Haifa, Israel. When Israel halted cruise ship entry due to C-19, the itinerary had to be revised. Many guests canceled their bookings. This change was not a problem with me because I had toured and studied in Israel for two weeks as a Holocaust educator in 2007.
The day I boarded the Norwegian Jade, there was an updated itinerary notification waiting in my stateroom. We would not be visiting the port of Salalah, Oman, due to a new required port in Alexandria, Egypt. The official communication I received stated the itinerary change was for “technical reasons.”
Before arriving in Alexandria, we had to do a PCR test and complete paperwork regarding C-19 as required by the Egyptian government. I heard through the grapevine that Egyptian officials would be boarding the ship to stamp our passports in advance of our passage through the Suez Canal and arrival in the port of Safaga, Egypt.
There were no excursions, and passengers were not allowed to disembark in Alexandria, but our arrival in port was dramatic, as a rainstorm rolled through.
Alexandria has a rich history. It is best known for the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, its Great Library (the largest in the ancient world), and the Necropolis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages. Many historical, architectural, and art treasures are submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean offshore. I could only imagine the treasures that lay beneath my feet.
To make the best of the situation, I circumnavigated the ship on various decks and captured a few shots of the port.
I was rewarded with a rainbow.
Dinner that night was at Moderno, a Brazilian-style churrasqueria. A server with an attitude (the only one I experienced on the cruise) served my salad bar plate. Of course she did not serve the amount of each item I wanted and did not place the items on the plate where I wanted them. My Sheldon Cooper persona did not appreciate it, but again, I was grateful to be cruising and dining in specialty restaurants.
I am an omnivore, but sampling from the twelve premium cuts was too much meat for me. I enjoyed the parmesan-crusted chicken drumettes and the grilled pineapple the most.
We would overnight in the Port of Alexandria, and depart the following day for Port Said at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal.
I don’t recall much from that day at sea, but according to the metadata dates on my photos, I went to the ship library. The library was a nice place to hang out and read or get online, but books were not available for check-out due to health protocols.
I dined solo that evening at Le Bistro, the NCL French specialty restaurant. Highlights were the Lobster Thermidor and Marquise au Chocolat dessert with French press coffee.
The Suez Canal
The Norwegian Jade was positioned near the northern terminus of the Suez Canal. We would begin our southbound transit after midnight and continue through to the southern terminus at the Gulf of Suez on the Red Sea around 2:00 PM.
I was excited about this day of scenic cruising. When I slid open my stateroom balcony door that morning, we were sailing beneath the Suez Canal Bridge, a four-lane road bridge connecting Asia and Africa. How cool is that?
Construction on the Suez Canal began in 1859, and the waterway officially opened in 1869. Don’t even ask me how they did it.
The 120-mile manmade channel with no locks was the brainchild of Ferdinand de Lesseps, to offer a direct route for seagoing vessels between the North Atlantic and the Indian Oceans by way of the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
It costs cruise lines $300 to $400 thousand for ships to transit the canal one way, so yeah, I think I got a pretty good deal on my booking.
We sailed through the Great Bitter Lake which serves as a passing lane for cargo and cruise ships.
During transit, I studied the Suez Canal from practically every viewpoint on board. For the final stretch, I made myself comfortable on the observation deck. The perspective was stellar!
We passed the location where the Ever Given container ship ran aground and blocked traffic last spring, but thankfully there were no slowdowns for us.
Although I never left the ship, I consider cruising the Suez Canal a destination, and one more amazing experience of a lifetime!
Touring Egypt by way of an ocean cruise comes with a lot of bureaucratic baggage. Immigration, security, and Covid protocols were a bit much. I fully support and cooperate with travel restrictions that ensure public safety, but not all of them seemed to add up.
Our arrival in Port Safaga was delayed several hours due to the overnight bunkering (refueling) process in Port Suez. I am still unclear whether this was on the part of NCL or Egyptian authorities or both, but it was what it was.
My excursion was originally scheduled to meet in the ship theater at 7:00 AM and later rescheduled for 10:00 AM, but that was just the first delay. The day was filled with lots of “hurry up and wait.”
It takes a lot of time to get all of the tour groups off the ship and loaded onto buses. A crew member stands on the stage and shouts instructions, warnings, reminders, and so on until you finally hear your group called. Everyone crowds through the bottleneck exit where they check your ticket and slap a group number on your shirt. Then you proceed down several flights of stairs to Deck 4 and enter the line to tap your keycards for exiting the ship. Then a government official examines your passport and sends you off in search of your tour guide and bus. After you board your coach, you sit and wait for it to move.
Port Safaga had one more unexpected protocol before we could get on the road. Our bus traveled several yards along the port pavement and came to a stop. We were directed to exit the bus and walk through security. Almost everyone left their belongings on the bus, and we got off and joined the queue of all the other tour buses to walk through the metal detectors and scanners and pat downs and eventually return to the bus. I really did not understand this step, because if anyone was carrying contraband, all they had to do was leave it on the bus.
We finally got on the road around 11:45 AM, for a 4-hour ride to our first destination. The drive through the desert was pleasant enough, but it was interrupted by many police checkpoints. The checkpoints continued and became even more frequent as we drove into urban areas. I don’t know if I have ever been through so many speed bumps in one trip, making it a very bumpy ride.
I hate trying to take pictures through a moving bus window. Photo quality is diminished and there is frequently a glare on the glass, but a few of them turned out okay.
Our route carried us along a highway that parallels the Nile River, although we could not yet see the legendary river itself. The land was fertile with many canals and irrigation channels, but in spite of the lush agriculture, the poverty of the locals was evident. Most of the concrete houses had rooftop supports with rebar sticking out the top. Our guide told us as long as the houses appeared unfinished, the owners did not have to pay property taxes.
Arriving in the city of Luxor, we crossed a bridge to the West Bank of the Nile River. I was surprised to see so many river cruise ships. A couple I met at dinner one night have done several Nile cruises and said they will be doing another. I definitely want to return for a Nile River cruise, hopefully with Viking.
On the West Bank of the Nile, we headed toward Valley of the Kings. Before long, I could see architectural structures in the distance, and then suddenly there were huge ancient statuary and archaeological dig sites as far as the eye could see. Using photo GPS metadata, I later learned the roadside statues called the Colossi of Memnon are depictions of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and date to 1350 BC.
Our guide pointed out the domed house of British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter up on a hill. Carter discovered the tomb of King Tut in 1922, and his home is now a museum open to the public.
Valley of the Kings
By the time we arrived at the Valley of the Kings, our first destination of the day, the sun had already gone behind the mountains. There was about an hour of daylight left.
The Valley of the Kings is situated on the West Bank of the Nile opposite Luxor. Tombs of pharaohs from Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.), such as Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses II were buried there alongside queens, high priests, and other elites of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties. At this writing, 67 tombs have been discovered.
The region of Egypt I would tour on this trip—Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis—was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
I would soon learn that although most of the major Egyptian archaeological sites are well-developed with modern facilities and museums, they are still heavily affected by local culture and authorities.
Before entering the visitor center, guests must walk through a passageway where they are intensely harassed by high-pressure, in-your-face vendors. I understand the value of contributing to the economy and helping locals make a living, but the unrelenting verbal and physical badgering is totally obnoxious and annoying and detracts from what is for many visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I thought it would be nice if vendors had a dedicated section away from the actual historical sites, but nobody asked me what I thought. I stuck my hands in my pockets and forced my way through the barrage.
General admission allows guests to enter three tombs. Other tombs may be visited for additional fees. Our group toured the tombs of Rameses I, Rameses III, and Rameses IX.
The art and hieroglyphics lining the walls of the tombs were beyond believable and exceeded every expectation.
High-pressure tactics continued beyond the gates. It was difficult to distinguish between employees wearing caftans and turbans and other shady characters. While visiting one tomb, a man grabbed me tightly around the waist and told another woman to take our picture. I told him she was not my wife. For a moment, I thought he was going to reach his arm all the way around and into my pocket for my wallet.
When I exited another tomb, the ticket-puncher had his hand out, blatantly begging for “baksheesh” (tips). In my opinion, it was all totally inappropriate for guests who had already spent a ton of money for the opportunity to tour a world-class destination.
There was an additional fee of $20 to enter the tomb of Tutankhamen “King Tut.” I typically bite the bullet and spend the money on such “extras,” but our guide said it was not worth it, and something about the charge rubbed me the wrong way. So I just took a picture with the sign.
I am blessed and grateful to be able to travel the world and visit such amazing sites, but I don’t want to present the experiences through rose-colored glasses. At the risk of being called a whiner and complainer, I believe I owe it to readers and potential travelers to authentically portray both the positive and negative sides of the traveling life.
After touring three tombs in the Valley of the Kings, we reboarded the bus and drove to the East Bank of the Nile to tour the Temple of Luxor.
Temple of Luxor by Night
Although we got a late start, visiting Luxor Temple after dark was an incredible experience. It was a Monday night, and the place was packed with tourist buses and wall-to-wall people. The celebration was in anticipation of re-opening the 1.7-mile Avenue of the Sphinxes between Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple, just two days away. Temporary staging was in various phases of construction. Although the framework detracted from the archaeological site, it was worth it to experience the pride of the Egyptian people.
The façade of the temple features two pylons fronted by six statues of Ramses II, two seated and four standing. There were originally two 80-foot obelisks at the entrance to the temple, but only one remains.
Founded in 1400 BC, this temple dedicated to the rejuvenation of kingship, was constructed in various stages by Tutankhamen, Ramses II, Amenhotep III, and Alexander. Elements of Greek and Roman architecture are also evident in the ruins. One of the most obvious examples I observed is where Roman frescoes have crumbled to reveal Egyptian carvings on the walls.
The active Abu Haggag Mosque was built onsite directly above Coptic and ancient Egyptian foundations, making it a continuous place of worship for various religions dating back 3400 years.
Regrettably, due to the delayed departure, we did not get to tour three of the archaeological sites on our tour itinerary; the Temple of Hathor, the Habu Temple, and the Temple of Hatshepsut. I was most disappointed in not getting to see the latter, a majestic mortuary built during the reign of the famed female pharaoh.
Note: I visited the excursion desk to request a credit for the sites we did not visit. Days later, I and other guests whose excursions were negatively impacted due to the delay received fair adjustments to our shipboard accounts.
After a buffet dinner, there was a 4-hour bus ride back to the ship, transit through all of the security and immigration protocols, and three hours of sleep before waking to begin the process all over again. But like I always say, “I’m here now.” I wasn’t about to let exhaustion stop me from touring the wonders of Egypt.
The next day, our tour went as scheduled, beginning with the off boarding protocols and the 4-hour commute from Port Safaga back to Luxor.
The Luxor Museum
Our first stop was the Luxor Museum, a small repository on the East Bank of the Nile with an impressive collection of mostly local antiquities unearthed from the nearby Theban temples and necropolis. The museum pieces have amazing stories all their own, as with the artifacts gathered from the 18th dynasty tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen.
Prominently displayed, are a group of 26 New Kingdom statues discovered in a cache of the solar court of the nearby Luxor Temple in 1989.
A royal mummy believed to be Ramses I lies in state in a darkened room. Stolen by graverobbers in 1860, the mummy was eventually acquired by the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in 1999. In 2003, as an act of good will, the MCCM returned the mummy to its rightful homeland. The ancient remains were repatriated with full official honors. The attached interpretive plate at the museum reads “. . . a gift from the people of Atlanta to the people of Egypt.”
I found this story intriguing because I have toured the Egyptian collection at the Carlos Museum on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta.
The Temple of Luxor by Day
There was an overlap in the itinerary for the second day, and I found myself back at the Temple of Luxor. Although staging construction for the event was still in progress, the site was far less crowded than during my previous night visit.
In addition to the opportunity to tour the antiquities of Luxor Temple in daylight hours, I was also able to catch a glimpse of the incredible Avenue of the Sphinxes.
After another hotel buffet lunch, we boarded the bus for a short drive to our third and final destination of the day.
The Karnak Temple Complex
The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor dates from approximately 2055 BC to 100 AD. At 200 acres, it is the largest religious site ever constructed, and it is dedicated to the Egyptian gods Amun, Mut, and Khonsu. From what I understand, the section we toured is only one of four major sites at Karnak, the only one open to the public.
I have read and studied ancient Egypt throughout my life, but I never grasped the grand scale of these archaeological sites until I saw them with my own eyes. There are standing ruins and architectural fragments scattered across the ground as far as the eye can see, and more yet to be unearthed, all waiting to be re-assembled. Most will probably never be put back together.
With their inherent time constraints, cruise ship excursions rarely provide in-depth exploration of tour destinations. They are typically introductions, overviews, or what I call CliffsNotes experiences. And they almost always leave me with a longing to return for more.
Somewhere along the way, I heard a rumor that there was an armed security guard accompanying us on our tours. On the first day, this person must have flown beneath my radar. But on the second day I did notice a serious man on the bus and at the sites who appeared to be discreetly keeping an eye on us.
Touring Egypt for two days was an unforgettable adventure, and I am grateful for the opportunity to visit some of the world’s most amazing historical sites and the privilege of viewing countless antiquities and rare treasures of art.
For some reason, on day two, the commute back to ship was quicker, taking just over three hours. I went through all the boarding protocols, but before eating dinner, I had to wait in an interminable line for another antigen test. But it was all good. I would be touring Petra the next day.
If you visit only one archaeological site in your life, make it Petra. Jordan’s “Red Rose City” is by far the most amazing scenic destination with human influence I have ever toured. Perhaps that is why Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
Petra was the capital of the Nabataean Empire and a thriving center of trade along the Silk Road beginning in 400 BC. The Roman Empire conquered Petra in 106 AD and ruled it for the next 300 years.
To reach the center of the archaeological site requires a hike along a 1-mile trail. Ground transportation by golf cart is available for an additional fee, or by horseback for a “baksheesh.”
The first half of the trail is open air, and the second half is through the Siq, a 250-foot-high sandstone slot canyon. The picturesque route is populated with stone carvings, caves, and remains of the ancient irrigation system.
Near the end of the trail, the walls of the Siq begin to open and reveal glimpses of Petra’s greatest treasure.
“The Treasury” is easily Petra’’s most iconic and recognizable example of rock-cut architecture, but it is only one of more than 500 temples, tombs, mausoleums, a theater, and other structures carved into the red sandstone mountain walls.
Resident archaeologist Zeidoun Al-Muheisen maintains that only 15-percent of Petra has been uncovered. The vast majority remains underground and untouched.
Scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and many other Hollywood blockbusters were shot on location here.
Our cruise ship excursion allowed for nearly 4 hours of guided tour and independent exploration, which was pretty good considering we had a two-hour bus transit each way between the cruise port in Aqaba and historical Petra, plus an hour or so for lunch.
I could have easily spent a full day exploring the massive archaeological site on my own, and I regret that I did not have time to climb the 850 steps to tour Petra’s Monastery.
I also did not take the trail up into the mountain overlooking The Treasury for a photo op. I won’t belabor the point, but like sites in Egypt, Petra was also packed with tourists and vendors and guides hawking their wares and services. Young Jordanian men crowded around me insisting that I hire them as a guide to take me up the mountain. I had no way of knowing who was legit, and I didn’t understand the protocol, so I just didn’t do it.
That said, I would revisit the world wonder of Petra in a heartbeat, scheduling at least one more day to also tour the lovely desert wilderness of Wadi Rum.
Back on ship, it was Surf & Turf for dinner at Cagney’s steakhouse with one of my newest friends.
Five Days at Sea
Three days of intensive tours in Egypt and Jordan were followed by five days at sea, as we sailed around the Arabian Peninsula to Oman.
Because I cruise for port destinations, I always believed I would get bored with days at sea. That didn’t happen. I read, explored the ship, walked the Deck 7 promenade listening to music with earbuds, and enjoyed dinner with friends.
The pool deck was nice, but I don’t worship the sun. I also did not indulge myself with treatments in the Mandara Thermal spa or lose money in the casino.
The Great Outdoors
On my sailings with Viking Ocean Cruises, my favorite hangout is the bar and alfresco dining area on the Aquavit Terrace. I was disappointed that the NCL Encore did not have a similar area on my Alaska cruise, but grateful to discover the NCL Jade had a comparable location called the Great Outdoors.
O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill
O’Sheehan’s Bar & Grill was my frequent hangout onboard, especially after hitting it off with Patrica, whose winning personality quickly made her my best crew friend.
I started most mornings walking the hallway from my stateroom on Deck 8 to O’Sheehan’s for a breakfast of champions. My standard order was two eggs sunnyside-up, bacon, oatmeal, and coffee.
One evening I joined four friends for dinner at Teppanyaki, the Jade’s Japanese steakhouse. The chefs put on a great show, but the combined singing and utensil clattering from four stations in a small room was much too loud for me. I wasn’t big on the show, but the steak and shrimp with fried rice was incredibly delicious.
My favorite meal of the cruise was at La Cucina, the Italian specialty restaurant. The pear walnut gorgonzola salad, spaghetti carbonara, and tenderloin with ravioli were all utter perfection. So good that I had the same meal twice.
The ship’s satellite Wi-Fi was not the best, but I splurged on the $500+ premium unlimited package to stay connected. You can use Wi-Fi on more than one device, but only one device at a time. Although the signal was spotty and slow, I was able to upload photos to Facebook and stream videos.
However, as on the NCL Encore, my iPhone photos would not upload to iCloud. When you are a travel blogger, this is not a good thing. If something happened to my iPhone, my photos would be lost forever. The internet support agent tried to help me, but to no avail. In the end, he issued me a credit to the basic unlimited plan, and I backed-up my photos to my laptop.
If you travel with only a carry-on and backpack, you can be pretty sure you will have to do laundry on an 18-day cruise. On my 14-day Viking cruise to Norway and the UK, I had washed my own clothes at the deck laundry located just steps from my stateroom.
On the NCL Jade do-it-yourself laundry was not an option. I had seen the laundry order form and sending it out was not cheap. One day my room steward left a large paper bag lying on my bed with a $29 special. I was not ready to do laundry, so I waited for the offer to come around again. That day I filled the bag with 23 articles of clothing. If I had sent my laundry out on any other day, it would have cost me $80.85. So there’s that.
My biggest gripe with NCL is their handling of drinking water. Water is a basic human need, and guests should not be forced to buy bottled water. And on NCL, water is not cheap. I drink soluble fiber every day to stay regular, and so I go through a lot of water. I placed an order for six 1-liter cartons of water. The price was $16.95, plus a 20% service charge, totaling $20.34. When it posted to my shipboard account, I did not smile. Twelve half-liter cartons were delivered to my room, which was fine.
On excursion days, while waiting in the theater for our tour groups to be called, the announcer pushed water sales, telling us that water would not be available on our tours. Not true! Tour guides distributed water on most excursions and bottled water was on our tables during meals. We were instructed not to bring bottled water back on the ship, but I did it anyway.
And then someone told me you could refill water bottles in the fitness center. The first time I went down to fill my bottle, I noticed a small placard that stated, “Please do not refill water bottles here.” I wondered, well if it was such a serious offense, why didn’t they remove the bottle refill faucet, as I promptly refilled my bottle.
And of course drinking water is served in all the ship bars and restaurants. NCL’s much-ado-about-drinking water made no sense.
As we cruised through the Gulf of Aden and into the Arabian Sea, I was blissfully unaware that we were sailing through pirate territory. Somehow I missed the captain’s announcement that deck lights would be dimmed from dusk to dawn and that four security guards armed with “tools” were traveling with us. These were, after all, the same waters off the Horn of Africa where Somali pirates had boarded the MV Maersk Alabama container vessel and taken Captain Phillips and crew hostage.
I have read that cruise ships sail faster than cargo ships and that they have several lines of defense against piracy, some that they do not care to reveal. We were probably never in danger, but I did not learn about it until it was all over.
I witnessed several spectacular sunrises and sunsets while at sea. One day while out walking the promenade, I was reminded of a line from King David’s Psalm 139. I had always thought it a lovely, poetic passage, but this time it resonated perfectly.
“If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
After five days at sea, we sailed into the port of Muscat, capital city of the Sultanate of Oman.
It was good to get back to port excursions. but unfortunately, the tour guide for my group was not the best. He was a nice man, but I don’t think he had been trained to communicate tour basics with his group, such as where we are headed, how long we will be there, whether to leave our things on the bus, and when to report back on the bus.
That said, we visited some pretty smashing sites, and the first was Nakhal Fort in Barka, a Pre-Arabian fortress that dates to the 9th century.
Next we headed to Nakhal Springs, a wadi (valley) with a rocky creek fed by hot mineral springs. Some people kicked their shoes off to enjoy a minnow pedicure in the shallow waters.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said built the Said Bin Taimur Mosque in memory of his father. It was constructed in the style of Turkish Ottoman mosques and opened in 1999.
The mosque is not open to non-Muslims, but we were able to take exterior photos. Honestly, it felt as if I were walking the grounds of a Christian megachurch in the US. Religion is religion.
Lunch was another buffet, typical of cruise ship excursions, but this one was the best so far. The Al Bustan Palace Ritz Carlton is a 5-star luxury resort set against the Al Hajar mountains and overlooking the Sea of Oman.
Outdoor dining on the terrace of the Al Khiran Kitchen restaurant was an experience with a magnificent view.
Not surprising that we did not get invited inside for a tour of the Sultan’s Al Alam palace, but the complex was an eyeful, designed on the grandest of scales and flanked by the historic Forts Jalalai and Mirani.
I could have spent a couple of hours perusing Bait Al Zubair, an Omani cultural museum. As it were, again typical of cruise excursions, we only had 15 or 20 minutes to blaze through.
Today was a day spent on the water, times three. We sailed into the port of Khasam, Oman, tendered to shore because another cruise ship was already docked, and boarded a “dhow” Arabian boat for (unlike Gilligan) a 4-hour tour.
Not sure who decided that a tour where old people have to sit on floor cushions was a good idea, especially without letting them know in advance. But the aged clientele adjusted famously and an incredible time was enjoyed by all.
It was a lovely ride into the stunning Omani fjords.
We sailed through aquamarine waters, dolphins cruised in our wake, reef sharks scurried beneath the surface, and we spotted remote fishing villages only accessible by boat or helicopter.
We anchored off Telegraph Island where the British installed a repeater station to boost telegraphic messages along the Persian Gulf submarine cable between London and Karachi in 1864.
Some guests went for a swim in the clear waters while schools of multicolored fish aggressively fought over bits of banana.
I give my highest recommendation to Khasab Travel & Tours. The guides were friendly and immediately responsive to the needs of guests, serving bottled water, soft drinks, tea and coffee, fresh fruit, two varieties of dates, sharing maps and field guides, and answering the dumbest of questions.
At $79 it was one of the best and least expensive cruise excursions ever.
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Day 1 World Expo 2020 Dubai
For reasons unknown to me, NCL canceled the port of Abu Dhabi and instead sailed into Dubai, United Arab Emirates, one day early. With a day to kill, I decided to head out to Expo 2020 Dubai, delayed to 2021 and 2022 due to the global pandemic. Old people like me, will remember World’s Fairs from past decades. It is the same institution.
Rather than deal with crowds and routes on the Metro, I took a taxi from the port to the Expo.
It is truly synchronistic how I always land at destinations on special days. Today was the 50th Anniversary of the United Arab Emirates National Day. I arrived early, and by the time I entered I had acquired three tickets, one free ticket for age 60+ visitors when I registered online, one general admission ticket given at immigration when they stamped my passport, and an additional ticket because today was free admission for everyone, due to the national holiday.
I knew there was no way I could experience everything, but there were a handful of pavilions I could not miss. First up, I went in search of the Paraguay pavilion. While viewing the cultural exhibits and in conversation with the representatives, memories of the country where I lived during my teen years came flooding back. I was a wreck! I literally bawled the entire time, overcome with emotion for my second home.
“Por siempre rohayhu Paraguay . . . .”
I couldn’t very well visit the World Expo and not represent at the USA Pavilion. There I met up virtually with my BEST buds Joe and Kamala!
The morning was amazing, but then the blazing sun came out and zillions of locals converged at the Expo with free admission. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, but people who know me best know heat and crowds are my cues to exit.
Day 2 Disembarkation & Dubai Excursion
My 18-day Middle East cruise on the Norwegian Jade came to an end the next morning. I disembarked and joined my final excursion, a 6-hour tour of Dubai. We spent a lot of time riding around on a bus while the guide pointed out sites of interest, but as you know, taking pictures from a moving vehicle is no fun. This time, however, we did make a few stops.
The United Arab Emirates gained independence from the UK in 1971, and with the wealth derived from petroleum and natural gas, everything in its most populous city is over the top.
First stop was at the Jumeirah Mosque, one of the most adored landmarks in the UAE, constructed by the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. We did not go inside.
Note: I was under the impression that shorts were not acceptable articles of clothing for men in many parts of the Middle East. I was wrong. I saw men, both locals and tourists, wearing shorts in the Arab countries. Shorts are not appropriate dress for visiting mosques, which my groups never did.
Next was a roadside pullover to view the Burj Al-Arab, the only 7-star hotel in the world. It is designed to resemble the sail of a ship, and there is a helipad near the top of the building. Owned by the sheik, rooms and suites range from $5000-$28,000 per night. I felt a little silly joining throngs of tourists trying to get a peek through the gated entry.
We drove past the Dubai Frame, a controversial award-winning structure, and the Burj Khalifa, at just over a half-mile high, the tallest building in the world.
The Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood is a government-funded restoration project that includes ruins of the Wall of Old Dubai, vintage sailing vessels, and a Bedouin camp.
We drove by the Al Fahidi Fort. Built in 1787, it is the oldest existing building in Dubai.
My favorite part of the tour was taking a water taxi across Dubai Creek. The “creek” is a natural saltwater inlet that extends nine miles inland.
Lunch, once again, was a hotel buffet.
Our final stop was at the Spice and Gold Souks (markets). The jewelry was eye-catching, but the colorful bowls of herbs, spices, nuts, and dried fruits were even more beautiful to me. The vendors were persistent, but not annoying as in Egypt and Jordan.
The tour bus dropped us off at the airport at 4:00 PM local time. Check-in would not begin until 7:55 PM, and my flight would not depart until 11:55 PM. Fortunately, I got to hang out with one of my friends from the NCL Jade. There would be a 15-hour flight from Dubai to Toronto and a 3-hour connecting flight to Tampa.
I met so many wonderful people—guests, crew, and locals—and made so many new friends on the NCL Jade, and I am eternally grateful for my spur-of-the-moment opportunity to tour the Middle East.
I Would Love to Hear From You
I enjoy dialogue with Backroad Planet readers, especially when they share off-the-beaten-path destinations and useful travel tips. Have you ever done a Middle East cruise? If so, I would love to hear about your experience. I invite you to leave your comments and questions below, and I always respond!
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