Flying Island Airways turbo-props after a scenic 30-minute ride to the caldera-top Lanai Airport from busy Honolulu, the instant appeal and sense of new beginnings is obvious on this untrammeled Hawaiian island. Of all the inhabited islands of this mid-Pacific group, Lanai is a destination meant to let you re-connect with the natural world but in a style and with service at the very highest of levels. We stayed for five days on Lanai and found the stay far too short.
Amazon – Brazil’s special region. The city of Manaus is the jumping off point for cruises taken in the local Amazon region and in our case, the starting point for our cruise down the Amazon and out to the Atlantic. Sea Dream II sailed from Iquitos prior to our boarding to present the Amazon in its Fitzcarraldo type activities/experiences such as jungle exploration, hikes and tribal encounters along with interactions with nature.
This part of the journey on the mighty flowing Amazon was a chance to see how humans have learned to interact, use and sometimes mis-use this extraordinary natural wonder — a huge flow of fresh water larger than any other in the world and extending from the smallest rivulets at the western Andean beginnings to the vast expanses where the river finally empties into the salt seas.
Manaus, a former rubber baron boom town of the 19th century has remainders of this rich heritage still found scattered throughout town although its 21st century energy comes from tax free business, technology and IT development and a variety of small industries. The somewhat older, slightly seedy feel of the original riverside settlement hearkens back to the past and with the moist hot weather year-round has a feel of a slowly distintegrating past refreshed in places with some modern touches. It was Easter weekend when I was there, so services were held in one of the older churches alongside the famed Theatro Amazonas built in elegant 19th century fashion.
Boarding the Sea Dream II we left for the first of many downriver adventures: experiencing the “Meeting of the Rivers” just about sunset –the black waters of the Rio Negro parallelling for several miles the café au lait brown of the Amazonas River (also known as Rio Solimôes). As we were crusing towards the end of the wet season, the waters moved at a rapid 9km an hour carrying an occasional upriver log, patches of lush green plants in little “islands” all moving inexorably downstream.
Sea Dream II is a small vessel: 4,500 tonnes and only a maximum of 100 guests with 95 crew. Not a bad ratio. What makes the Sea Dream experience so wonderful is the yacht-feel, the incredible personable level of service, the ecletic, diverse main meal menus, and an overall ‘light touch’ between staff and guests. One quickly feels ‘at home’ — staff recognizes you quite quickly and gets to know one’s personal preferences almost before one knows them oneself. Hot spicy sauce with your eggs and main dishes appeared magically at each meal much to the satisfaction of one of my fellow guests. The Chef is up on deck every breakfast ensuring all is well; the Restaurant Manager keeps his eye out for any possible mis-steps although the team’s impeccable service makes that a challenge. The shipboard spa is marvelous and the newly redesigned workout room faces forward so that you can see the riverscapes pass by at the same time as spending an hour treading water (in a manner of speaking)
This trip included as a bonus: five naturalists, all with extensive Amazon experience, who led us out almost daily, morning and afternoon, in zodiacs to visit smaller parts of the river taking in the natural habitat and its inhabitants (plant, animal and human animal). Their sharp eyes, knowledge of the ecology, their sense of what makes the river special, allowed us to properly value what we came so far to see. Evening debriefings highlighted the “finds of the day” so that all groups and those who did not go out could have the same enjoyment of the river. What made the trip more special were shoreside visits to smaller communities including Parintins which has an amazing annual festival where two sides compete in dances honoring an old Amazon mythic tale. Because our group was too small for a shoreside presentation, the ship team specially arranged for a dance troupe to perform on board to demonstrate for us the traditional competitive routines.
After leaving Belém (our last stop on the river), we headed out along the eastern side of South America up to French Guiana (visiting the islands which make up the triad of the Devil’s Island group), then to the smaller island of Tobago and into Mayreau (part of St Vincent-Grenadines group) and finally ended the voyage in Bridgetown, Barbados. Leaving the ship is always a bittersweet experience. The last full day on board ship, there is usually a Champagne-Caviar splash celebration on the beach. A surfboard is used to hold a huge tin of caviar, and the Chef, Restaurant Manager and Bar Manager stand waist deep in the water at beachside, dishing out dollops of caviar on mini-blinis or small toast points, while champagne is served much to all of our delights. It is a signature celebration of Sea Dream. Always a great hit!
No, we were not in the Middle East. No, were were not in the Gulf region. We were crossing the desert border from Abu Dhabi into a country not so well known and whose history is separate, distinct and both inward and outward facing in the 21st century. Where is Oman?? It is located on the eastern/north-eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula facing across the Arabian Sea towards the Indian subcontinent.
OMAN is a wonderful place with a wide variety of faces … from mountainous regions of the north spinning southward to divide coastal plain from desert interior, across large expanses of high sand dunes of the Sahara, to oases of cultivated date palms kept lush and green by ancient water channels bringing the elixir of life to parched areas, to seawater rich scalloped shorelines rich with marine life and now dotted with luxurious resorts catering to a world-wide audience.
What makes this country even more special are its people … regionally diverse with Bedouin, coastal plains dwellers and urban sophisticates experiencing a flourishing and developing modern life. Omanis are some of the loveliest, quietly expressive people I have met in my many years of travel. Family is very important; education a priority. The future with expanding horizons along with respect for traditions and the Omani way of life are part of the dynamic here in Oman.
Since 1970 when Sultan Qaboos took over the reins of power, his emphasis has been to husband into being an improving health care system throughout Oman, free and supported education for all men and women, growing the infra-structure and investing in the potential of his hard-working and well-grounded populace. Where in today’s modern world do you hear volunteered by young people, words of respect and compliments for a leader’s wisdom and true care for his people?? This was something I heard over and over again in conversation with a variety of Omanis I met along the way.
In our relatively short visit here, we experienced a night “under the stars” in a tented desert camp, dining in an open-sided pavillion followed the next day by some “dune bashing” under skilled driver’s hands at the wheel of a 4 x 4. We visited a bedouin traditional tented camp and saw their newly built ’structured homes” where the Sultan has provided permanent locations for these desert families although often they take off for time back “home in the desert.” We sampled delicate fragrances at Amouage, a famed perfume manufacturer, whose showroom rivals any for diverse and seductive fragrances, and dined in a variety of places from a local streetside café to elegant 5* resort restaurants laden with buffet choices comprising local and international cuisine.
NIZWA: the old inland capital of Muscat has one of the most impressive of desert round fortresses maintained in excellent condition with many informational displays housed within its enormous presence. Just nearby is a local market with the freshest of locally produced fruits and vegetables along with a specialty fish market selling only the freshest newly-caught tuna as its only offering. Although seemingly “away from the sea” the closeness of the coastline allowed this anomaly of fish in the desert.
MUSCAT: The current capital is made up of several areas including the original port town along with the newer developed areas for government administration, shopping outlets and resort living at luxury hotels located just to the south, as well as to the north and west along a softer coastal plain. The famed Grand Mosque shows influences from the Indian sub-continent with whom Oman has traded for many years and is both impressive and understated in a grand fashion.
The Bait al Zubair Museum in town gives an excellent overview of the artistic, historic traditions of arts/crafts along with excellent dioramas / vitrines showing Omani culture and lifestyles. The Muttrah Souq in old Muscat town are the best way to get a feeling of “old Oman” which thrived for hundreds of years as it did trade up and down the coastline of eastern Africa and across the Arabian Sea. We were able to take time following dolphins off the southern shores of old Muscat looking back at dramatic cliffs and brilliant hillsides which protect and surround this area of Oman.
These few paragraphs can only “pull back the curtain” a very little bit on this less well-known but fascinating country. For the people alone, the country is worth the visit; for the nature and the courtesy, for small surprises and big expanses of environment; for the small touches and delicious cuisine, Oman is certainly a place to go without hesitation.