Jumping Onto a World Cruise - March 2011

In their biggest test of togetherness yet, Sandy and Mike took a month-long cruise in the Spring of 2011, accompanied by their friends Lee and Shirley. The ship was on an "around the world" trip, but that takes almost 4 months, so the travelers just picked the "segment" that was of greatest interest. They boarded Holland America's Amsterdam in Hong Kong, enjoyed lots of ports and days at sea with the other 1200 passengers (900 of whom were doing the whole round-the-world thing), and left the ship in Athens, Greece, 33 days later. The ship's route is in red on this map, with the sidetrips the travelers took shown in blue.

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Sandy and Mike have been in Hong Kong quite a few times in the past, but always enjoy a visit. It's one of the most scenic cities in the world, largely built on hills closely surrounding its big harbor.

Following Hong Kong, the ship headed for Saigon, Vietnam. Since they'd spent several days there only a few months ago, Mike and Sandy decided just to stay around the ship.

The third port call was Singapore, another Asian city where Mike quite frequently used to come for business. Singapore isn't quite as scenic as Hong Kong, but is vastly less chaotic, much cleaner, and maybe has better shopping! A highlight this visit was the enormous (55 stories) new building housing Singapore's first Las Vegas- style casino, hotel, and showrooms. It's "gee-whiz" feature is an enormous park, complete with swimming pool, picnic areas, playgrounds, etc. on the roof -- the skateboard-looking thing that spans the 3 tall towers.

After some days at sea, the first "highlight" of the trip was at hand -- India and the Taj Mahal. The ship docked at the old Portugese town of Cochin in the south of India, and the travelers left the ship, flying north to Delhi, the capital city. EARLY the next morning, they boarded an express train for Agra, which was India's capital for hundreds of years, and the site of the Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. Built in the early 1600's as a burial tomb for the Emperer of the Mughal Empire's beloved wife, its marble construction in a region mainly noted for sandstone makes it a visual stunner. Then as you get closer and see the detail work on inlays of semi-precious stones, you are really amazed. Before leaving Agra, the travelers also visited the Agra Fort, where the Emperor actually lived -- the outside isn't much, but lots of detail work again on the inside.

Several friends had suggested that the travelers return to Delhi in a van, rather than again taking the train, for some close-up "local color." Boy, did they see some -- even more than usual, thanks to the annual Holi Festival falling on the day they were there, and generating lots of crowds. One bit of resourcefulness - out in the countryside, poor people collect droppings from the numerous cows wandering about, dry them, and sell them cheap to other poor people who use them to build little roadside houses to live in.

After rejoining the ship, now docked at Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the travelers had a nice dinner and relaxed for sightseeing in Mumbai the next day. Mumbai is a rather modern city, and all of the damage (e.g., at the famous Taj Hotel) from the terrorist bombings of 2008 has been completely repaired (but heightened port security was still evident). Sights included a Jain Temple (another India-based religion) and a house where Ghandi lived for many years.

A couple more days at sea brought us to three more "also on the trip" ports: Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Muscat and Salalah, Oman.

Dubai was a bit of a surprise - of course it is known for having the tallest building in the world, and for its distinctive palm-shaped man-made islands, but it was much more westernized than expected. The travelers also took in a water show (think of the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, only bigger) and saw the indoor "ski in the desert" center. Mike and Sandy could have spent more time in Dubai, but on the other hand, both ports in Oman were interesting, but probably not worth a return visit.

Sandy and Mike had previously seen the big pyramids and the sphinx near Cairo but this was their opportunity to see the other big Egyptian historical sites along the Nile River about 450 miles south of Cairo. Arranged around the town of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings tombs are on one side of the river, and the Karnak Temple complex is on the other. The tombs, dug into the sides of this valley, replaced the pyramids as the preferred burial mode for pharohs and kings -- once buried, nearly impossible to find. Even today, the outsides are plain as can be, but the insides sure aren't. King Tut's tomb is here, but wasn't open the day the travelers visited the area. This was a great stop, with the only bad news being the 3+ hour each way bus trip from the port where the ship docked.

The next day the ship called at the next BIG stop, the Jordanian port of Aqaba, gateway to Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also one of the "7 new wonders of the world." Petra flourished as a city from around 600 BC to about 300 AD. The weather co-operated, making the hike into the long, narrow canyon quite tolerable. (Don't go here in August!) Words like stunning, breath-taking, awesome, wow, etc. were in the air all around.

Sandy and Mike have been through the Panama Canal several times, but the transit of the Suez Canal, to get up into the Mediterranean, was quite different in several ways. The terrain is flat, and there are no locks. One the west side of the canal are many towns and lots of agriculture, while the side to the east is mainly empty desert, with the odd military outpost. Little ferries scurry back and forth in between the ships, of which there are a lot, all in single file. (The canal isn't wide enough for ships to pass, except at one area about in the middle.)

Eight hours later, and back in the Mediterranean, the ship turned east towards Israel, a stop not on the original itinerary, but added at the last minute to replace the planned stop at Cairo, which the U.S. State Department felt was stll too unsettled for visitors. Sandy and Mike had been in Israel about 25 years ago, and enjoyed this unexpected addition to the trip, and seeing all the familiar sites.

From Israel, it was a quick run north up to Turkey, and the port of Kusadasi, where the local merchants still fondly remember Sandy from our last visit there in 2009. Most of the people on the ship headed for the ruins of nearby Ephesus, the most famous local attraction, but this time Sandy and Mike instead took a tour of three of the lesser-known ruins nearby: Priene, Miletos, and Didyma (known collectively to the tour guides as PMD). All of these were originally Greek towns, but later run by the Romans. Each has ruins of big amphitheaters, and various other buildings. At Didyma, the Temple of Apollo was one of the most sacred places in Greek times, and the baths the Romans added were still there.

The Amsterdam was a nice home-away-from-home, similar to past cruise ship experiences - great food, good entertainment, friendly staff, nice cruisers to meet, etc. But unique to this cruise, since our route took us near Somalia, were various anti-pirate measures, including a significantly faster than usual cruising speed, patrolling Navy war ships, the sound-blaster guns (so loud it causes pain and possible ear-drum damage up to 75 yards away), and the pre-positioned fire hoses and look-outs on both sides of the ship. We never saw any pirates -- only once did any small boats even come near us, although they were having a hard time even keeping up with us, and they seemed more like lost smugglers than hostile -- but it all provided a bit of mental excitement for the passengers.

Next port was Athens, where Mike and Sandy said goodbye to the ship, and flew up to London to spend the night at Heathrow Airport. (They liked the Holiday Inn Heathrow so much when they stayed there last summer that they tried it again.) The next morning took Sandy and Mike back home to California to start sorting through the 1500 pictures they took, catching up on laundry, mail, etc. 33 days is the longest they have ever been on a cruise ship, but the time went by quite fast -- their next cruise (Norway and the Artic) is only 15 days long, but who knows, maybe they could tolerate a 40 day trip sometime in the future.