Tag Archives: Middle East

A Wonderful Trip to the Sultanate of Oman

The idea of going to Oman came about largely as a result of a need to be uncomfortable. Each year we hold an overseas meeting and, more often than not, we put our overseas meeting in comfortable areas of Europe. But a friend of mine had told me that Oman was this extraordinary place. So, I did some research, worked with the government’s tourist authority, got an incredible deal, and decided that we would have our overseas meeting in a place we had never been to before. What a great decision.

Getting There

Oman is more complicated to get to than most places. But because of the exceptional service from Boston on Qatar to Doha or on Emirates to Dubai, you can do a lot on non-stop flights. From London, Muscat (the capital of Oman) is well-served by both Oman Airways and British Airways.

For the journey out, I chose to travel on British Airways on my favorite day flight from Boston. I spent one night in London and the following day flew on the overnight, non-stop flight from London to Muscat. Along the way, I picked up a few of our London staff and off we went on a journey unknown. Seven hours later we arrived in Muscat. Three time zones beyond London and eight time zones beyond Boston. While this was not my first time in the Middle East – I’ve been to Israel and Jordan – this was my first time so far east.

Oman requires you to get a visa for tourism travel which is relatively easy to get online. The process of entry was just about as smooth as any entry to any country I have ever been to. If you have ever tried to fly into Israel, you’ll know the interrogation you sometimes get at Israeli Immigration. Oman was polite, friendly, civilized, and more importantly, the toilets were fabulous in the arrival zone! First impressions are usually the toilets in any country that you arrive in. Oman was in the Real Madrid category of toilets!

Oman’s Landscape

Oman is an incredibly diverse country with a coastline of nearly 2,000 miles and an interior desert that is the sort of desert you only dream – imagine sweeping vistas of sand dunes constantly changing. Oman has mountains (and lots of them) with some of them as high as 10,000 feet. The canyons there are just as impressive as the Grand Canyon.

Oman has plenty of wadis – shallow, usually sharply defined, depressions in a desert region that are often dry except for the rainy season. These then form into a stunning oasis.

Oman has sinkholes and there are limestone crevices where you can swim close to, but yet remotely, from the ocean. In fact, the ocean there is amazing with some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world and beautiful, white sand beaches with turtles and dolphins.

Oman has fjords in the stunning northeast around the Straits of Hormuz. It is frequently called the Norway of Arabia. Not to mention that Oman also has castles, hot springs, forts, and is the largest producer of dates in the world. Oman has everything.

Its indigenous population represents about 50% of the five million people that call Oman home. The other 50% are immigrants, most of whom are from India and the Philippines, who work and build businesses in Oman but can never become citizens of Oman. The country has a high level of education, and both education and healthcare are free for everyone. The infrastructure in Oman (roads, sewage, bridges, electricity) is higher than that of most European countries. In addition, it has one of the highest salination projects in the world.

Muscat’s Shimmering Appeal

Oman is truly a jewel stuck between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Yemen is really on nobody’s bucket list and Saudi Arabia is impenetrable for most of the world…thankfully! The Emirates is a well-traveled route with an overdeveloped strip of seven emirates most famous for Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque, and Dubai with its ultra-modern Burj Khalifa Tower, shopping malls, and extravagant entertainment options. Oman is simply different. It is practically impossible to cover all of it in one journey.

The capital, Muscat, is relatively modern and sits with the backdrop of the Al Hajar Mountains dominating the landscape. However, the city is not very memorable because everything is so modern – even the mosques and the Al Alam Palace. But the hotels that are scattered along the beaches are phenomenal and the hospitality is incredible. Alcohol in Oman is often not available in restaurants but is always available in hotels and hotel bars. The souks, the traditional marketplaces, are more interesting in the ancient city of Nizwa, Oman’s cultural capital. Here you can buy pretty much anything you want.

For me, the highlights of Oman were the diversity, the warmth of the people, and those sheer travel moments when you simply cannot believe what you are seeing.

The Desert Camp and the Fjords

The drive from Muscat to the Wahiba Sands and the Desert Camp took us along highways with sand on either side and free roaming camels.

The dunes, the undulating sands, and the wandering camels, were some of the most extraordinary sights I have ever encountered in travel. Watching the sunset from the top of the dunes and then the next morning climbing to watch the sun rise was one of the greatest travel moments I have ever had. The sands had an almost pink tint to them and constantly changed contour and shape with the wind and the weather.

The Wadi Shab took us on an incredible journey through a breathtaking mountain ravine where we swam in fresh water surrounded by sandstone walls of rock amidst date and banana plantations and waterfalls. In Jabal Akhdar, the breathtaking panorama and rugged mountains were extraordinary. Taking the hydrofoil from the Port of Sohar to Khasab in the Strait of Hormuz, with Iran flickering in the distant horizon, was amazing. Arriving in the tiny town of Kumzar, it felt like we had awoken a sleepy village. The trip on the dhow boat through the fjords and snorkeling with dolphins was like no other island cruise I have taken. The hotels in this area were magnificent and were not expensive.

The End of the Journey 

We then traveled from Oman to the UAE. The journey from Khasab to Dubai took only two hours in a car. It felt strange to arrive in Dubai, a glitzy, overbuilt, sky scraper-jammed panorama, with a souk that was pushy and irritating.

Honestly, I couldn’t wait to leave and head to the shopping mall and go skiing. Indeed, that is what I did! Two hours of skiing at Ski Dubai, located in a shopping mall, for $45 was one of the great moments of my life.

The next day, I took the 8:00 am non-stop flight on Emirates back to Boston in time to go to game two of the World Series and watch our victorious Red Sox begin their march to the championship. What a trip that was and what a country Oman is. I could not recommend it enough.

Israel Crossing Pietro Place

Bad News Returning to Israel

The news was bad.  The rains had washed away the border crossing and so there was no way back to Israel at the southern crossing.  Instead, we had to drive north to the Allenby Bridge crossing and we had to leave our hotel at 3 am.  It was sort of exciting because that particular crossing required a visa from Israel because it originated in the West Bank and there had been some issues at the crossing before.

We stopped along the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side at an awful café where I had a falafel and a coffee and was convinced I would have dysentery within the hour.  I laced my coffee with a Pepto-Bismol to ensure I made it.  I popped into the bathroom but simply could not stay.  It was dreadful and I felt myself longing for the souvenir shops with the toilets the day before.  Jordan was no Israel and I realized we had to get to the border crossing.  It was our only hope!

We organized a VIP status at the crossing and that expedited most things.  Again, it was as if we were in a spy movie – passports were exchanged, we said goodbye to our Jordanian guides, jumped into a neutral vehicle, crossed over, and our Israeli taxi driver was waiting for us.  We drove across the King Hussein Bridge and there was a primitive bunch of roadblocks with nails to stop anybody from hurling themselves into Israel.  The actual drive across the Jordan River seemed to last forever.  We spilled into Jericho and then drove past the settlements, through the West Bank, and into Jerusalem for a late stroll and another plate of hummus.

I was beginning to like hummus with a cappuccino. Am I really saying that? We were back in Israel and the toilets sure looked good to me.

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Petra Pietro Place


It was cloudy when we left Aqaba but all of the forecasts predicted that rain would cease around midday when we were set to arrive in the ancient city of Petra.  Situated in the Wadi Musa, Petra was established by the Nabateans around 400 years before Christ.  In its heyday, it was home to 30,000 people.

What happened here?

The Romans came and colonized and built their amphitheaters, baths, and shopping colonnades and then the earthquake took care of the rest. It was a well-kept secret for over 1,000 years until a Swiss explorer rode into the city disguised as a holy man.  The game was up and it was on the tourist map.  But this is no ordinary place.  Cut into the sandstone and chiseled into huge blocks of pink and red cliff, this place has everything….except decent places to grab a bite to eat and a cup of tea!

Standing by the main palace entrance, walking into the tombs, or wandering down the narrow, towering vertical walls are some of those extraordinary moments in travel when you pinch yourself. Running through the Siq is one of the great walks of travel. It is a walk of anticipation that was made into a sacred way by the Nabateans who had their eye for a dramatic moment or two clearly.

You don’t know whether to put your camera down or just keep hitting the shutter.  Then you spill out onto the masterpiece called the Treasury. It is like a movie set.  It is a movie set and the tour has not really begun.  We spent the best part of six hours there.

The houses carved into the cliffs go on and on.  You can get lost as you wander down that valley.  Imagine that this place was practically shut down for 1,500 years?  No water (the aqueducts were broken) and no civilization.  Just a few Bedouin’s holding one of the great secrets of time. Somehow most of it hung in there.  If you have never dreamed of going to Petra, go!  We came in on a horse and we left on a camel.  Incidentally, it was only an hour ride on the camel but it felt like a month.  I had so much more respect for Peter O’Toole than ever before!

Back to Aqaba for an evening dinner and an early departure.

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Wadi Araba Border Crossing

The Wadi Araba Border Crossing

It was a bit like one of those spy movies.  You arrive in the car, there’s no one there, the driver waits and has a cigarette, we hang around, and then out of nowhere, a van appears and another guy comes out.  A conversation takes place, passports are exchanged, and we are all walked to the border.  This was the Wadi Araba border crossing.  Our helper guide was an English guy who lived in Eilat.  He clearly did this all of the time, mainly for day trippers from Eilat, but we were going deeper; three nights at Aqaba, Jordan’s Red Sea resort.  The crossing did not take long.  We woke up a few border guards, walked our bags across a dead zone, and men in black and white camouflage fatigues welcomed us on behalf of the Jordanian Army.  Pictures of the Jordanian royal family were everywhere and on the other end a transit van, driver, and guide picked us up and drove us to the Kempinski Hotel.

The Red Sea.  There it was in between the lights of Eilat and the distant lights of the Sinai in Egypt.  We were in Jordan’s 22 kilometers of access to the open sea.  Welcome to Aqaba. 
Wadi Araba Border Crossing

Aqaba Pietro Place

A Night on the Town, Aqaba vs Eilat

If Eilat is a sprawling, disco inferno, dance until dawn, restaurant-infused, party machine, then Aqaba is not.  There is a bazaar, a few terrible restaurants, a pub called the Rover’s Return named after the pub on Britain’s long running soap opera, Coronation Street, for some reason, and a scattering of Chinese restaurants.  Finding any place that accepted credit cards or served fish was going to be challenging.  Of course, alcohol was often in short supply.

So this is the Jordanian Riviera – a sparkling mosque, some run down restaurants, and a couple of hotels that looked out of business.  Tomorrow it would be the Wadi Rum and the day after Petra.  But this evening, it would be a dodgy Chinese restaurant and a warm beer.  How I long for the lights of Eilat.

Aqaba Pietro Place

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The Coastal Road

The funny thing about Israel is that the roads are so darn good; Massachusetts Turnpike should take note.  The exit north of Tel Aviv was very smooth and we passed a whole bunch of mega factories and Silicon Valley-type high-tech places on the coastal road, close to very upmarket residential beach areas.

Today we had elected to drive as far north as we could get to check out a town called Akko.  In between we would pass the principal port of Israel, Haifa, which had been written up in my Lonely Planet book as a “very picturesque city with spectacular views from the top of Mount Carmel.”  The views were pretty nice and there is obviously history in the hills.  The Bahai Gardens are world famous and stunning.  But, at least on first reflection, it seemed like a good place to move on from.  Anyhow, our principal destination was Akko which is very close to the Lebanese border.

Akko is a town that Marco Polo passed through and it was mentioned in sacred Egyptian texts and in Greek mythology.  From a history buffs point of view, Akko has it all – Alexander the Great, the Egyptians, the Romans, and the Arabs who conquered Akko in 638 AD until the nasty Crusaders came by and seized the city in 1100 AD.  It was the principal port of access contested by Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and Philip II of France.

Today, Akko is a very mixed city – 70% of the residents are Jews and 30% are Arabs – but the population of the old city with its winding souks is about 95% Arab.  Akko has a seawall, ramparts you can walk on top of, and a dry moat.  We dove into the towering Knights’ Hall built 800 years ago and a tunnel just big enough for one person that leads out into the bazaar.  You can also take the Templar Tunnel which is around 350 meters long.  Suffice to say, this place is a treasure trove of history and worth a visit, if not an entire day.

We headed down to Caesarea to look at the amphitheater and the aqueduct and walk the sandy beaches.  In less than an hour, we would be back in Tel Aviv.  Everything in Israel is close by.  Every piece of history and every conflict is no more than an hour and a half away.  For better or worse, for richer or poorer.



Juant in the Desert

Jaunt in the Desert

The excursion spiel was that we would ride four-wheel trucks in convoy, in a jaunt in the desert.  It frankly sounded like the caravan of gondolas that you see when you walk across the bridges of Venice and look down as 100 tourists are being serenaded by disinterested gondolieri.  In other words, I had my gondolieri radar on high alert.  We put on our helmets, submitted our driver’s licenses dutifully, piled into a whole bunch of trucks, and off we went.  After all, we were in the West Bank and there was nobody around except for us.  It was amazing.  Not a tour I had thought.

We took pictures and of course there was, out of nowhere, a Bedouin and his son with two camels.  That took us on a short journey and back.  There were some caves, a lookout point across the hills to Jerusalem and on the other side to Jericho.  For some reason, we lost the light and ended up driving back in the darkness, passing a couple of Bedouin villages and feeling a little vulnerable I must confess.  A couple of the cars broke down but were easily repaired.  At some point, we had to bail out of the desert and get onto the super highway to cut short the trip because we had run out of time and daylight.  Imagine a trail of vehicles doing 20 mph on a 70 mph modern highway.  It was a funny end to a phenomenal day.  We concluded with a campfire and a typical dinner with what looked like roasted lamb but could have been goat and had been cooked in a clay oven.  That, and the usual lashings of hummus, and I must say, it was a perfect day.

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Dead Sea Pietro Place

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is something that you just have to go to once in your life.  The surface is 428 meters below sea level – the lowest point on the face of the Earth.  It’s part of the Great Rift Valley and is fed by the Jordan River to the north.  Its salt content, because of the lack of outflow, is about 34% or 10 times more than the normal salty ocean that we swim in.  Essentially, it is two lakes held together by a thin thread in the middle.  There are “health resorts” on the Jordanian and Israeli side which promote all sorts of minerals that are supposed to make you young again.  Yeah, right.

There is actually nothing quite like going into this hyper-salty lake/sea.  It is very difficult to stand up and for the most part it is pretty uncomfortable to hang around for more than about 15 minutes.  If you shave the night before, you are in for a rough time, and if you have a cut, think pain.  There is no way out in this bathtub.  It will attack you wherever it sees a weakness and if you make the mistake of putting your eyes in the water, you will suffer temporary blindness.  Yep – it was a lot of fun.  Probably the greatest single moment was that moment when you get to stand under the fresh water shower and remove the salty deposits.  That will keep your hair looking strange for several days no matter what.

As for reading the newspaper, it is easy to do.  Swimming is impossible, floating is fun, and more importantly, if there is anybody in your party that cannot swim, they will overcome their fear of water and swim.  This has to be the place where Jesus walked on water.

There were Russian groups here that were all staying at the hotels by the beach.  You had to be a hardcore salt water person for that.  For me, been there, done that, great stories, funny photos, but I couldn’t wait to get to the shower.

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