| Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2016
World Cruise Sector - Dubai to Southampton
Our cruise departed Dubai on Sunday 17 April, so our Cunard-organised flight left Gatwick on 16 April and we flew Emirates with a baggage allowance of 30kgs each. Clothes weighed 23kgs and the remaining 7kg was a soft bag of jumpers. The other suitcase was full of Pauline’s shoes with remaining bits in a wheely small case which would be used when disembarking for fragile stuff. We hope to bring back a few bottles of wine from Malta.
After enjoying 3 hours relaxing in the No 1 Lounge we boarded, were fed a reasonable dinner and then could sleep or watch movies with large personal screens. The Airbus 380 was good, 3-4-3 seating and our row was in zone F which boarded first. It is a big aircraft with a large Top Deck. We were impressed and plan to join their frequent flyers club.
Arrival in Dubai was generally efficient through passport control but our luggage was almost last to arrive. We wished we had stopped at the Duty Free shops for wine. We later went to the Duty Free shop at the Cruise Terminal but they did not sell alcohol although they did have cigarettes, electronics and souvenirs. To complete the story, we later found the shop on board ship would sell one bottle of alcohol per person to take to the cabin - a special offer only during the World Cruise.
Having arrived at Dubai airport at 0800 it was too early to go to the ship and we were taken to the Hyatt Creek Hotel for a buffet breakfast. At 1200 the buses came to take us all to the Cruise Terminal for checkin while our suitcases went directly to our cabin and were waiting for us. Our coach took us past the Queen Elizabeth 2 which is now berthed outside the old cruise terminal and she was easily visible from the Queen Elizabeth.
We had been allocated our favourite table in the restaurant, on 3 Deck and looking down over the rails. We had to eat early in the evening but there are only 6 port days on this cruise and the ship usually sails in the afternoon. The advantage of a late dinner is when the ship stays late in port.
Unpacking was completed quickly and we had time to go out and look at the Duty Free shops in the cruise terminal. They were a disappointment with the price of some of the souvenirs cheaper in the UK, and no alcohol for sale.
Flights were arriving in Dubai until late in the evening and sailing was not until 2330. We managed to stay awake for dinner but were soundly asleep when the gangway was raised and the ship departed. We were told that the Queen Elizabeth had greeted the Queen Mary 2 outside the port with the traditional exchange of whistles but we did not notice. The QM2 was due to arrive in Dubai on Monday.
It was good to spend the first day at sea, organising and planning. We had spent too much time rushing around in NZ and were glad to spend time relaxing in the sunshine. We liked our balcony stateroom on 6 Deck very much and soon treated our balcony as the priority place for sitting and reading. The climate in this part of the world is warm and dry and the floor of the balcony above gives good shade from direct sunshine. We booked tours in the next two ports and paid a deposit on another cruise - there is an extra 5% discount on cruises in 2017/18 if they are booked before 30 June. Before dinner we opened our complimentary bottle of sparkling wine and enjoyed the sunset.
This was our third trip to Muscat and it was an additional port when it was decided to cancel the visit to Sharm El Sheikh. Tourism seems to focus on visits to souks and to a selection of the many forts. Muscat is the modern capital of Oman and is a very large city stretching for some 10 miles along our road. The current ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, took power from his father in 1970 and has been carrying out a programme of modernisation and development. We drove along the new Muscat Expressway to visit Nakhl and the road makes the journey from Muscat to Dubai over 30 minutes shorter now it is completed. Meanwhile there are parts which are very uneven and there are also beautiful complicated intersections.
In 2010 we had very much enjoyed our tour to Nakhl and the Hot Springs and decided to repeat the trip. Nakhl is 90 minutes drive from Muscat. The Cunard tour from Muscat to Nakhl departed at 0830 so there was just enough time for an hour in the gym before breakfast. The tour was very similar to our previous trip, except that lunch was taken at a different resort hotel and the overall length of the trip was shorter.
Our trip to Nakhl and the Hot Springs was deliberately chosen in order to see some of the countryside outside Muscat. First we drove from the port through Downtown Muscat and on to the new motorway. It is a country where water is three times the price of oil, and families have 4 cars per household. There is no public transport and buses are only used to transport large foreign tourist groups; the few who do not have a car use shared taxis and we saw many of these. It is a country of inconsistencies -last time we passed the airport and were told that for reasons of the environment there are plans to limit the size of aircraft, particularly charter flights. It made an unusual policy contrast with allowing the vast number of cars on the roads. Nakhl is about 110 kms from Muscat and the drive was about 1.5 hours on good fast roads.
Nakhl Fort is on a hill and its foundations are believed to pre-date Islam. Golden brown in colour with six towers there are good views from the top in all directions over the town and oasis. Entry at the top of the steps was through a large double door with a small single cutout (like a catflap for people). Originally the fort was self-contained, with a well and storage rooms including one especially for dates. We were told that dates would have been kept until the date honey oozed out and was collected. There were thousands of date palms growing in all directions around the fort. The interior has been restored. We visited the rooms of the wali, the ruler, and his ladies and their children. There were carpets on the floor and cushions and an attempt to include typical articles: beds, mirrors, swords, books, and ceramics, There was a prison. Our guide gave a very good introduction to the history and recent developments in the country whilst on the journey and when showing us round.
Just 2 miles beyond we visited the Thowarah Hot Springs, a shady oasis with a stream running through date palms. We were encouraged to feel the temperature of the warm water from the hot springs, and even to cross the stream to the other side. There were many small fish which gathered round peoples toes and cleaned off the dead skin.
Retracing our route to the main road, we then turned along the coast, for a buffet lunch at the Al Nahda Resort, a pleasant 4* hotel about 30 minutes from the springs of Muscat which was in the middle of extensive road works. While not as good as lunch back on the QE it was satisfactory and had some local dishes. Beer and wine was available for foreign tourists, at extra cost, in spite of alcohol being difficult to purchase in Oman. The resort gardens were very extensive but could have easily been anywhere in the world. We explored and took a few pictures but it was not a place we would ever want to return to. Last time it had been the Al Sawadi Beach Resort & Spa which had much more local character - there Pete settled on the couch in the foyer to partake of the traditional coffee and dates. When visiting an islamic house the traditional hospitality involves a drink of tea or coffee and a light snack, and that was mimicked by the hotel. Gulf coffee is made from green coffee beans, is very strong, and flavoured with cardamom or saffron. Small cups were filled from a jug, and then rinsed in a bowl of water for the next person which put some people off but when in Rome.... The dates were excellent and Pete gorged himself and enjoyed the coffee although admits it is an acquired taste. A pity we did not go there this time.
Retracing our steps to Muscat we passed one of the camel 'stablings' - a racing camel is worth up to a million dollars. We were taken to see the stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. It can hold 20,000 worshippers and has two important features: the enormous chandeliers made of Austrian Swarovski crystal, and the vast carpet handmade in Iran. The mosque is only open to visitors in the morning, but we were able to walk to the entrance and admire the interior through the lattice fencing. It was obvious that no expense had been spared and everything we saw of the highest quality - the overall cost is a secret and at least 7 major international companies were involved - a visit would be a highlight of any tour to Oman.
Last time we had more time and we also passed the waterfront shops and the white incense burner monument above Riyam Park before driving through Kebir Gate, the main gate in the old city walls. Our final stop was in front of the modern Al Alam Palace, used by the Sultan for formal occasions.
It had been an good excursion which had reminded us of a lot of local history and customs. The guide was good and shared his insights on many matters - he was actually very well educated with at least a first university degree and we suspect he was only doing a guide job due to shortages due to the number of visitors. We were extremely luck to have someone with education, knowledge and the confidence to give so much potentially controversial information at a relatively younge age.
As we sat in the restaurant just after 1900 there was the sound of an engine nearby and the lights of a large, fast boat passed on the starboard side. Curious, we went outside and found that we were part of a pre-arranged naval exercise with HMS Defender. Her (Lynx) helicopter had been the noise as she passed at low level between the two ships.
We were glad to have another day at sea so we could relax and start writing our diary of the voyage. This area until 23 April has risks of piracy and there was a full crew and passenger Exercise this morning. Equipment had already been installed at the aft of 3 Deck and there were additional men on board to help the officers and crew in case of problems. Apparently there had been a reduction in piracy in the last three years. One consequence of the security concerns is that we will not be able to enjoy sitting on our balcony after sunset. The ship has to be darkened until 23 April when we are through the area of risk.
Today is the actual 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth although her official birthday is not until June. Cunard celebrates special occasions and today there were several special events. The officers and crew had stood on the bow and posed for a group photo which was sent to her, by the hand of the British ambassador who would be visiting the ship for lunch with other local dignatories.
We had chosen a morning tour and were pleased that we had done so. The taxi drivers in Salalah were reported to be charging stupid prices to take people from the port gate to Salalah city. It is only 6 miles and we heard of prices of $56 to go there and $100 to come back.
Salalah is the capital of the southern region of Dhofar and has a different climate to Muscat. The area is famous for the frankinsense tree, which grows well in the damper, cooler climate. Surprisingly although it is more southerly than Muscat it is much cooler during the summer months due to the monsoon rains which also bring tropical weather. The range of mountains contrast with the arid desert inland, the Empty Quarter, named because no one lives there and Oman owns one quarter of this arid desert. Salalah city is on the coast with coconut groves and banana plantations. As we left the port it was clear that building new dual carriageway roads was a priority, and there were many new detached houses in the process of construction along the new roads.
The area alongside the road was flat and rough ground punctuated with roundabouts planted with grass and trees. There were a few camels next to tents and later there was a racing track. Our tour first went to the Ain Razat Springs which were underground springs on the edge of the mountains and next to lovely gardens. The area was quiet in the early morning with only a few workers brushing and cleaning the pebbles in the pool. We walked up to a cave in the hillside for a better view of the gardens which are closed on Thursday.
The next visit was to the ancient ruins of Khor Rohri which are being excavated and restored. The site looks down onto a lagoon with flamingos and other sea birds, and then across a sand bar to the ocean. In olden days it was an important port for export of frankincense. Our tour description stated that it was the site of the Palace of the legendary Queen of Sheba but recent research does not confirm this dating. The site is being extended in the original building style and there are useful information boards. There is a toilet and cafe building close to completion and it will surely become a popular site for tourists. When we visited it was quiet and there were only tours from our ship and a few local taxis.
The next stop was in the city of Taqah. Again we saw lots of empty plots and bulding of new houses. People from Muscat and other places in the north come to Salalah in the summer to escape the hot weather, and this includes the Sultan who has a large and walled palace near the main road and owns a farm nearby. Each new house is built inside a wall and some walled areas contain several identical houses. Our guide explained that each wife must be treated equally and so each wife has an identical house. The limit is 4 wives and we saw one group of four identical houses.
Taqah is an unspoilt coastal town with a sandy beach and a few small fishing boats. There were no people on the beach and warnings that it was dangerous to swim. We parked next to the mosque where the mother of the Sultan and other family members were buried. Taqah Castle dates from the 19th century and has been restored and filled with objects. The town did not target tourists and there were no postcard sellers, cold drinks vendors or ice cream stalls. McDonalds has not yet reached Oman. We saw few people, and then generally only the men who worked in the local shops. There is no public transport and so everyone needs to travel by car but surprisingly the town was quiet. Petrol is less than half the price of the UK which is still expensive given what we had been told about salaries in Muscat.
Our final destination was the Frankincense souk in Salalah. It is one of the remaining old areas of the town. There is much new housing under construction and a row of old coastal properties nearby have been purchased and emptied so they can be demolished and replaced by new modern hotels. The souk was several rows of little shops around an empty courtyard. Our bus parked on an empty rough parking by the ocean. A new resort hotel was being built and we glimpsed the tower of the Sultan's palace beyond. Salalah is doing a lot of building of resort hotels as well as all the new housing. Shopping in the souq was mainly for frankincense, decorated burners, and other perfumes. We escaped before Pauline started sneezing. The souq also sold cashmere shawls, luggage and some clothing. Fruit and vegetables can be purchased from stalls on the side of the road and each neighbourhood seemed to have a small food supermarket, co-op size.
Driving back to the port we passed the entrance to the Sultan's palace which was in a large walled compound on the coast. The Sultan has several palaces in Oman, and also in London and Germany. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is said to be worth visiting but overall it is a difficult port to explore independently on foot. The Hilton Hotel, close to the port, was the preferred destination of the crew and tours went to the Salalah Rotana Resort and the Salalah Crowne Plaza Beach Resort.
Returning to the ship the front of 5 Deck was decorated with Union Jack bunting and there was a BBQ party for the crew. Selected local dignitaries were eating in the Verandah restaurant. Sailway was at 1630 and we arrived at the Lido pool to find everyone waving union jacks and dancing. There is always a sailaway party but this was special. The Queen's birthday was celebrated by singing the national anthem and then singing Happy Birthday to her before continuing with other patriotic songs - Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. As the party slowed down it was time for dinner and we were given a glass of Champagne for the Royal toast, followed by another rendition of Happy Birthday. The Captain was joined in the restaurant by Captain Jerry Kyd of the "other " Queen Elizabeth, our new aircraft carrier. This voyage does have a strong presence by our Navy.
A pleasant day at sea with time spent enjoying the sunshine in deck, then lunch in the Verandah restaurant.
Lunch was followed by a CWC wine tasting of South African wines - sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, cabernet sauvignon and pinotage. We might try them later and are pleased that the wine tasting was at the start of our cruise because then if we find something we like we can then purchase it. The cabernet sauvignon was not pleasant and we heard later than it is unfiltered and can deposit a sediment, it looked clear but that might still explain why we disliked the wine as it could have been shaken up on the ship but others thought it was good. The two whites were good value, around $30, and we liked the pinotage at just under $50. There are also some bin ends on special offer, many from The Lane which is a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills in Australia. We presume they came on board earlier in the voyage to showcase their wines and because they are not normal stock for Cunard they are being sold at special prices.
Yealands have their sauvignon blanc on board too, and our wine waiter said they came on board in New Zealand. We wondered how he knew so much about Yealands and their use of special small sheep for controlling the grass. Having been to the vineyard after tasting their trophy pinot gris and riesling wines we had also spent time on the self - guided drive around the vines and seen the sheep and also the mounds of special fertiliser from shells and grape waste. In the Verandah we had earlier discussed the merits of playing classical music to the vines with the Head Sommelier. Yealands certainly have some new methods which seem to be winning judging by the prizes they have been awarded.
A quiet day doing the laundry before breakfast and then catching up with diary and photos. For the evening we booked the speciality Mexican restaurant, Aztec. The meal began with a bowl of tortilla chips accompanied with guacamole, salsa pasilia de caxaca and salsa de tomatilo habanero. The starters were plated together : tamales (steamed corn dumpling), chile relleno de espinaca, taquitos de tingo, and cactus salad. The main course was a choice between beef tenderloin, capas de camaron (crepes with shrimp), chicken breast and pork and chirozo skewer. We chose the crepes and the skewer which we shared - it was a good combination and the mildess of the shrimp was balanced by the spicey chorizo. Desserts were less interesting - chocolate and mango tart, panna cotta or churros. The tart was good and came with excellent caramelised macadamia nut ice cream as is the Tequila and Lime Panna Cotta with Blood Orange Compote Pete does not much like dark chocolate but was happy with two scoops of macadamia nut ice cream instead!
The weather in this area is warm and best early in the morning. It is perfect for having breakfast on the balcony and today was the start of this regular habit. We hope to continue when we get back home.