Updated: Jan 13, 2021
Well, where do I start? This one was a biggy, and one we had looked forward to
for quite some time.
"A Passage To India", read the newspaper advertisement :
"A journey through fabled waters and ancient wonders"...
Also, I might add, through troubled lands and pirated seas, so when I showed Trev and said,
"Wow look at this one, but its sounds dangerous", he simply replied;
"Looks awesome. Let's do it!"
A new cruise ship, currently being built at the time of booking, the Viking Orion ... the company's newest baby, was to be our ride...and as they have been renowned for their award winning river cruises in the past, Viking are now building a fleet of ocean liners.
And so they should.
Aside from our land based trips, this was our 10th cruise, awesome for us, but next to a lot of 20, 30 and 50+ cruisers, and I'm not talking ages here, we still feel like cruise newbies, eager to hear their stories and favourite destinations, over more than a couple of G & T's, ciders, and the odd failed attempt at trivia.
I'm starting to really love planning our itineraries, to the T, so knowing our ship was leaving from an overnight stopover in Athens, I proceeded to book a two night stay
on Santorini prior to boarding.
So, 30 hours after leaving Australia, oh joy, we made it to the tiny rocky isle, dotted in whitewashed walls and blue domes, just in time for the sunset.
Did you know, that during WW2, Hitler banned the flying of the Greek flag? So the clever and patriotic folk of Santorini decided to paint their town white and blue! Good on them I say, and the world is coming to see their sunsets amid the domes and bell chimes of the classic Grecian island skyline.
We stayed at the fabulous El Greco Hotel and Spa, on the main road by the cliffs, just about a 20 minute walk to the main area of Fira.
It was perfect.
Easy access, no trundling luggage over cobblestones and steps, just straight in.
Simply lovely, as we could happily leave the noisy revellers to their big nights out.
Gorgeous pools, bouganvilla wrapped apartments, exactly what you'd imagine,
you only have to wander up to Fira for the sunsets, drinks, dinners, shows, and OMG...SHOPS...soooo many lovely shops!
Oh, and as I'll try anything once, well, maybe anything...I saw you could place your feet in a fish tank and get your feet 'cleaned ' by a bunch of hungry little fish. Challenge accepted! I thought after 30 hours travelling, my cankles and cracked feet may have sent them cowering into the corners of the tank, or worse, dead. Nope! We were all happy campers after 15 minutes of 'tickles and nibbles'.
Our second day saw us think about hiring a quad bike, then thought better of it...Didn't want to test our luck right at the beginning of our holiday...
so we opted for a small car instead. Just as well, as it was searing hot, and the aircon was a relief.
So, after endless wrong turns and continual driving around the congested block, ( yeah, I know, pretty lame of us, hey...)
we finally found the only road that goes around the island towards the famous area of 'Oia'.
Half an hour or so later we scored a hotly contested carpark, and wandered up the hill to be met by the epitome of Santorini...
A wedding, the bells, the lookout, the windmill, gorgeous little shops
and even more restaurants with views they should really charge more for.
We were in heaven. No, but close.
We were in Oia!
That night, we enjoyed a great live theatre with canopés, drinks and show at The White Door, where we, the audience, were part of the act as guests at a Greek Wedding. It was fabulous with lots of drinking and dancing, Greek style.
A wonderful two day stay on Santorini.
Next stop: ATHENS
A 40 minute flight to Athens, heaven, (I wish they were ALL that short) and to be greeted on arrival at the airport by the Viking Cruise staff already having our luggage on the trolley, and ushering us to a Mercedes Benz for the hour's trip to the ship...we were like, ok, this is looking exceptional already! As we were overnighting onboard in Piraeus, we just enjoyed a leisurely afternoon, exploring this amazing new vessel, and everything it has to offer. The following day we headed back up to the Parthenon, atop the Acropolis...We were there just 2 years ago, and were more than happy for the revisit, it surely is amazing.
I think maybe a little bit of work had been done since our last visit...?
The Greeks don't like to rush these things! :)
Lunch saw us end up at the same restaurant as we visited before...such a great spot and equally great memories, then the hunt started for my bronze olympian statue that I fell in love with 2 years ago.
An hour of searching with no luck, and pressed for time to catch the last bus back to the ship, I tried one final shop, and yes, there he was, on the bottom shelf.
The only one, and the lovely shop owner dropped the price from 185 Euro to 105,
so, even better. I was thrilled, so we named him Henry, and we unpacked him on board and he graced our stateroom for the next 3 weeks!.
Next stop: ISRAEL.
After a blissfully restful and kind of much needed sea day, we arrived in the
Israeli Port of Haifa. I pride myself on having quite a reasonable knowledge of various places, but this country, pleasantly, caught me totally by surprise.
Israel, to the locals, is 'a villa amongst the jungle'...'a safe haven in a dangerous neighbourhood'...They pay 80 % tax, whoa...and a lot of that goes to border defence,
yet we saw no army, no guards, just 'tourist police'.
Where we visited, it actually felt very safe.
The first day saw us on a 3 & 1/2 hour bus trip (the first of many of these long trips...), to Jerusalem, then a little further to Bethlehem in Palestine.
We strolled around the Gardens of Gethsemane, then off to enter the gates of
The Western Wall where Trev and I were separated
to go to the men's and women's side of the sacred Prayer Wall.
After which we wandered through the labyrinth of ancient Jerusalem, The Via Dolarosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulture..
Finally heading off to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity. I won't go into details, its a personal thing, but I did come away with a sense of peace.
Whilst in Israel still, the following day saw us explore the ancient city of Acre.
This is one place I wished I had of researched.
WOW. What a history!!! Exploring Templar Knights' tunnels and the secretive history of all that, I find utterly intriguing...The markets, the ancient harbour, the food, then up the cliffs to the
Baha'i Gardens that overlook the ocean.
Its a place that deserves more time to explore. If you like history...this is the oldest, still working port in the world.
Do yourself a favour, and go!
Next stop: CAIRO, EGYPT.
Docking in Port Said, right at the top of the Sinai, and gateway to the Suez Canal, (which we will be cruising the following day), it is the stepping stone to such ancient places as Alexandria and Cairo.
Today, is ALL about the Pyramids - and we can't wait!
This was going to be a process of security, to the enth degree.
We had 13 full sized coaches, each one with a security guard onboard, with his machine gun pistol, all leaving at the same time in convoy, with an armed escort at the front and rear of the buses. We literally stopped traffic.
It felt like a presidential motorcade!
After years of turmoil, Egypt treats tourism VERY seriously, and the safety of their foreign visitors is paramount to them.
We were in good hands.
Once again, the typical 3 and 1/2 hours on the bus, saw us espy the giant monuments through what I must admit, was a pretty dingy Cairo skyline...However, they were mesmerising, and we just couldn't wait to get amongst them.
To see something that enormous, still so complete, that is over 5000 years old, is more than a little humbling.
I always try to imagine the life we are visiting, as it was back then...be it Rome, Greece or Egypt...the opulence vs the poverty...
The gold, the lapis and the marble amid the dirt, dust and disease.
Sometimes I don't think we have changed that much.
Whoa, ok... back to being on holiday...
Let me add that it was the height of summer, and the temperature was pushing 45 degrees celcius, hence we were a cookin'! Many traders were hawking their goods - "One dollar, one dollar"...
Tip; make sure you have a bunch of US one dollar notes in your pocket, and you'll get some great trinkets to take home, although Trev was offered a million camels for his flame haired wife...I never felt more special, lol!
Next: THE SUEZ CANAL.
Booking passage on The Suez Canal, I can imagine, would be a complicated feat. Cruise ships, tankers and cargo ships, line up day and night to traverse this amazing engineering accomplishment that took only 10 years to build, back between 1859 and 1869, to connect The Red sea to The Mediterranean.
It has no locks, so it's a simple passage. 12 hrs per day- ships sail south, then 12 hours a day- ships sail north...they only pass each other in the 2 huge lakes that provide safe passing. Ships travel in convoy, 1 mile apart, and it was fascinating to see fertile farming on one side, and the stark Sinai Desert on the other.
You just picture Lawrence of Arabia!
Next stop: LUXOR
As we were cruising the Suez Canal, as opposed to The Nile, we docked at Safaga, and proceeded by bus, you guessed it, for 3 and 1/2 hours to Luxor, where Trev and I chose to visit Karnak Temple, then cross the mighty Nile to the Valley of The Kings.
Karnak Temple was truly breathtaking. Everything you have seen before in books, on TV or online, unfolded before your eyes. It really is something special. Another scorching hot summer's day...You could have popped a teabag in our water bottle and made a hot cup of tea!
( I really wouldn't recommend Egypt in the summer!)
This was our security detail...not only on the bus, but he brought up the tail on our tours. Cool dude, actually, and very polite and friendly. Which brings us to The Valley of The Kings.
After visiting a couple tombs together, Trev and I separated, where he went to the biggest one, and I actually went to the smallest. That was of King Tutankhamun. (Well, technically the smallest tomb belongs to a Pharaoh's favourite cat... named 'Meow'.)
What an honour it was, to visit this sacred site.
They are currently building an enormous new, state of the art museum right near The Pyramids, The Grand Egyptian Museum, which will have an entire wing dedicated to 'The Child King', Tutankhamen. (Although, whilst only 19 when he died, it seems he may have been quite the warrior.) Many artefacts that haven't even been seen since they were found in the tomb back in 1922, will be proudly on display.
Hard to believe they haven't found another complete tomb since! I wonder if there are more, just waiting. King Tut's tomb remained hidden, and hence undisturbed, for over 3000 years, as it was directly underneath another tomb. It still goes down as the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.
So, we look forward to returning one day, to see the Valley of The Queens, spectacular in it's own right, and of course, to explore the new museum.
My biggest blunder, and I'm still so mad at myself to this day, was walking past the ante chamber on the left, as I entered the sanctity of where his sarcophagus was found/ and displayed...further down, on the right. On your left as you walk down, you will see a guard on the left, with a coffin dispaying
'what I THOUGHT' was a reconstruction of Tutankamon... Nope.
It is him.
The child King was put back in his original resting place, to try to stop any further decomposition that occurred upon moving him. It's wonderful that he was placed back where he had been for 3000 years. SO PLEASE; take a moment, and pay your respects, and admire him. Unlike me, as I skipped past thinking he was a fake. Also, pay the measly $12 fee when you first enter the Valley, to be allowed to use your camera inside the tombs. They really get upset if you take photos in there without the said fee...they will demand to see your images - make you delete them, AND give you a fine. Pay the fee first.
Next stop: SHARM EL-SHEIKH
Back tracking northwards up the Red Sea, we headed for Sharm El-Sheikh, ( just known locally as Sharm ), right on the southern tip of The Sinai Peninsular. Known for it's incredible Red Sea snorkelling ,...second only to the Great Barrier Reef apparently... However, as Aussies who have dived the reef before, we chose to continue on with our history lessons and Unesco sightseeing.
Here, we hopped on a bus for another, yep, you got it, another 3 and 1/2 hours, to visit St Catherine's Monestary - at the base of Mount Sinai...a very famous place in the history of the Bible. Whether a believer or not, it's still a great historical journey of people, back in the day.
Here it is said, is where Moses saw the burning bush, and also climbed Mt Sinai to speak with God and return down with the stones tablets of the Ten Commandments, which he smashed and then they were put in The Ark of The Covenant...Yep, we are sure seeing all the places!!!
Right at the end of our time there, Trev and I thought we'd sneak in for one last look inside the chapel before they closed it at 11am...Literally, they closed the door behind us, and it was just us, and the priests inside. Quite the moment!
You can see the original 'ancient well 'still there, where it is said Moses first met his wife, Zipporah. It also houses a rare collection of ancient books and manuscripts, second only to the Vatican Archives. These are all on display and you can photograph them.
Next: AQABA, JORDAN. THE GATEWAY TO PETRA!
Nope, this time a short one...
just a 'quick' 2 and 1/2 hour bus ride to Petra! I think by now, I cottoned on to it, and we both took our squishy neck cushions that we fly with.
This was a place I had longed to visit.
But first, let's get the 'look' right...
My brother came here in the early 80's, back in the days of NO tourist onslaughts...and he told me they arrived at night, and slept on the ground ...however, they failed to mention to them about the scorpions in the sand, till the next day.
That said, they were visited overnight by travelling Bedouins with their camels, and they shared tea and stories with them.
How cool is that?
The next morning they awoke with the sun's early rays illuminating the Treasury, carved into the rock cliff. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out!
Okay, fast forward 38 years, (wow, that long??) , so we caught a bus there, and parked it in the carpark with a myriad of others. But I didn't care.
We were there!
We escaped our tour group...the best thing ever. Took that voice out of our ear plugs, and enjoyed the 2 kilometre walk down in silence, first over sand, then through the most amazing tall narrow gorge of wave styled sandstone. The silence was beautiful, and often, we found ourselves alone. That was, until we reached the end.
One of my life highlights was to walk down and see a glimpse of that iconic walled carving, The Treasury of Petra, through that very tall, narrow and recognisable opening in the rock wall...
Now, I must add, that another life's dream of mine, (I have plenty! ) was to ride a camel to the Treasury. Well, we walked to it, however, we managed to haggle a 40 minute camel ride down to the Roman Ruins and back again to the Treasury...for $20, and yep, on VISA, even better! We teamed up with a fellow cruiser, Libby, who's travel buddy was quarantined on the ship with an illness, poor bugger, and wasn't allowed off ship. I'll have to post the video, 'Camel Cam' later...it was hilarious! Still, a life highlight for me!
Another offer to Trev...this time the 'going rate' of 12 camels, from our camel guide,
to part with me so I could live with this '20 something', (a really sweet guy actually)
in his cave, because he particularly liked my hair. Oh, to be visible again! lol!!!!
I may, or may not have, kinda asked a dude to scoot for a minute,
so I could get this shot all by myself. It was worth the cheek. ;) (Great pic, thanks Libby!)
Next: CRUISING THE PIRATED WATERS OF THE RED SEA, for 4 days.
We welcomed the rest! We were knackered!!!!!!
Oh, and cue the anti boarding pirate protection for the next 6 days... Wow, they weren't kidding! We were all told to keep an eye out... I tell you...if there were any sign of hostiles, you would see most of the passengers, and probably crew, out there filming with their Phones, me included...rather than taking cover...
With the wrapping of the vessel in razor wire, we also noticed a bunch of men board at Aqaba, very inconspicuous on a cruise...they were all under 35, fit, handsome, phew, clearly not passengers...need I say more?
So, other than a little gastro bug that put the ship in a code red lock down
for a couple of days, we were all good to go! Pirates? No.
After 4 lazy days of lobster, crab legs and wine, oh my...we cruised safely out of pirated waters, and towards our next country, Oman.
Viking created, I think, the first infinity pools on a cruise ship. Definitely our go-to place at the end of the day.
Next two stops: SALALAH AND MUSCAT, OMAN.
Generally not one for liking long stretches at sea...these past 4 days on this particular ship were definitely not hard to take one bit.
However, we were still looking forward to going ashore and exploring a new place.
The Omani city of Salalah is situated on the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, and was a major port on the 13th-century Frankincense Route.
Only a short shore visit today, so we just took in the local sights...fresh food roadside stalls, the High Walled 'got to see nothing' Palace, a local souk with the heady aroma of frankincense wafting through the air,
and The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which was closed. Our lucky day! LOL.
We did know the ship was in need of a fuel stop, so they did their best to take us somewhere interesting, a place still renown for its diving and snorkelling. Inland from Salalah, is the second largest 'Grand Canyon' in the world, which certainly would be worth visiting if you had more time.
After another sea day, we arrived in the thriving Middle Eastern Port capital of Muscat.
This is what I'm talking about!
Set against the pointy peaks of the Western Al Hajar Mountains, Muscat is a rich aromatic canvas of treasure packed souks... shopping heaven, filled with traders itching to 'give you best price', although, to be honest, they weren't very cheap...
traditional dhow fishing boats bobbing on the harbour, ancient fortresses set high as lookouts in the cliffs, and another Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque that was closed again.
We had a great day, partly exploring on our own, and partly getting a 'highlights' tour of the city. I just love souks, and could have bought much more, but I find souvenir shopping these days a little tedious, and forever trying to keep under the baggage limits on the plane
I did however, purchase a lovely set of black and white sketches, of Bedouins with their horses and camels. Seeing that I breed Arabian horses, it was right up my alley. And, easy and light to pack.
They are at home now, still waiting to be framed...
Next stop: INDIA!
This time, a two days at sea stretch was welcomed, as our time onboard this amazing ship, coupled with such an extensive bucket list of destinations as well as new found friends, is sadly coming to an end.
We, for the first time on a cruise, didn't want to leave.
The Viking Orion is continuing on its global journey, sadly, without us...
Soooo, last stop before we head out on our own for a bit, is an overnight stay in the Port of Mumbai, the former Bombay.
Get ready for a culture shock when you hit India. By 2020, it is estimated that India's population will overtake that of China.
No 'one child rule' in this Hindu nation.
THE CROWDS!!! Holy dooley!!
THE TRAFFIC!!! Holy moly!!
If you hit the roads in Mumbai, prepare for it to take an age.
If you're on a bus, sit back and enjoy the sights, and keep your camera handy.
We did a 'city highlight' tour, which took us into 'the Father of modern India', Gandi's, house. Complete access to where and how simply he lived...and yes he really does look like Ben Kingsley... ;)
The English influence in the architecture is everywhere, blended nicely with the intricacies of the East. The Victoria Train Station is a classic example.
Elaborate, and beautiful. The traffic was that bad, we were able to pile off for photos, and re board, without holding up the already gridlocked mess of vehicles...
However, the poverty and their standard of living in a lot of areas, is sadly appalling.
Driving past the laundry slums of Mumbai...picture 'Slumdog Millionaire'...is eye-opening...you'd have to be resilient to survive here, that's for sure. They had all the washing (that they get paid to do), hanging from everywhere...and I honestly have never seen whiter whites!
How do they do it??
Saying goodbye to Mumbai, as well as bidding adios to our new mates that were great company onboard...(love this part of cruising - we continue to stay in touch with so many we have met on cruises)... before leaving tomorrow for the airport to fly to Delhi.
We will be sad to go.
Nevertheless, the Taj awaits!
Next: DELHI, AGRA AND THE TAJ MAHAL.
Onto the last part of our epic journey...Delhi, Agra and The Taj Mahal.
We had booked a 3 day private tour with Adventure World, our first time using this company, and they surely had it covered. They met us off the ship, took us to the surprisingly fancy Mumbai airport, and had a guide and driver waiting for us at the other end in Delhi to take us to our first stop, The Park Hotel. How nice! :)
Located in the central area near Connaught Place, we were a handy walking distance to local markets, (where we were pretty much the only non-locals), as well as high end brand name stores.
We could hear hordes of people yelling, and what sounded like a protest, so naturally we wandered up towards the noise.
As you do, right?
Here we found hundreds of people, flags and loud speakers on street posts, protesting goodness knows what...so we thought better of getting any closer incase it became a police action and the rubber bullets and water cannons came out... I'm sure that is a full on exaggeration, but I could just see the news clip back in Australia, 5 stories in..."Two Australians caught up in deadly Indian protest"... Yup, no thanks.
Checking out the next morning saw us met again by our driver to take us to Agra..yup, guess what? Another 3 and 1/2 to 4 hour drive.
Cue - squishy pillows...and a picnic box of yummies.
Once out of the city, and onto a toll road, we saw the end of the traffic.
The countryside, after the wet season, was green and lush.
You could be anywhere!
Local women on the side of the highway were on their hands and knees, cutting grass to take back for their precious and sacred cows.
They pile enormous mounds of the fodder on their heads, and they do this every day.
The cows are fat. The people are not.
Arriving in Agra, the gateway to the Taj, and the traffic was back.
This time much different to the major cities. Now, its more tuk-tuks, bicycles, motorbikes and mopeds, a lot of which were carrying families of four on them...the ladies often riding 'side saddle' as they are dressed in saris.
What I did notice a lot, was the parents wore helmets, whilst the kids did not...
Often you find yourself dodging cows and donkeys that just hang out in the middle
of the street. These cows are free.
They have been let go by their keepers, as they no longer produce milk or offspring. The locals still feed them as they are sacred, and hence they are some of the fattest, most 'chilled out' cows in the world. They don't 'mooooove' for anyone.
Oh, I neglected to mention the constant sounding of the horn. How could I forget that?
However, it's not in rage like it is in most western countries;
it's more like a 'toot-toot, excuse me' kind of meaning.
Four lanes of traffic easily translates to six lanes of assorted vehicles, so it's more of a 'look-out, I'm coming through'...to which there is NO road rage...
It all seems to work.
They say in India, you only need three things to drive:
Good roads, good horn and good luck!
Which brings us to our first true taste of Indian cuisine. Our driver had us in Agra in plenty of time, so he dropped us off at a local restaurant....one we would never had noticed amongst the chaos of the town, plus, we were the only patrons... but holy snapping naan bread...this ended up being the best Indian food we had ever had! They kindly took the heat down a few notches for our pretty delicate western palettes,
lol, and it was amazing.
Indian wine? Yeah, not so much... ;)
Arriving in our hotel, The Clarks Shiraz Agra, with a Taj view room no less, was simply, 'yippee'! How cool is that? And this chap... :)
We chilled for a bit until we headed back downstairs to meet up with our Agra guide, Armand, for an afternoon's tour of firstly,'The Red Taj' - Hessing's Tomb, followed by the amazing Agra Fort...which is the former Royal Palace, and now part tourist attraction,
but mostly still a military fort.
SO MUCH history here!
I had heard a little about 'The Red Taj'...but that's it...just a little. The funny part, was the old wooden door into the grounds was locked...but hey, it's India...and our guide was a local. However, instead of getting a key, we had to squeeze through what looked like a cat door, or perhaps, a Hobbit's entrance...
It was hilarious!
At least we knew there'd be no crowds...
All I can say is thank goodness Trev had to help me get through this gap that wasn't built for western boobs and butts, (picture Homer Simpson getting stuck in a water slide)...otherwise I'm sure he would've revelled in taking the most unflattering photos.
Once inside, other than a few teenagers, (who were probably up to some cheeky dares amongst the many tombstones), a couple of sari'ed ladies and a groundskeeper, we were the only ones. Wonderful!
I had decided to wear one of my blingy silk kaftans with matching harem pants today...well, well, well, didn't that cause a stir! Firstly here, then later on at The Agra Fort.
I think the locals thought I was some sort of imported, redheaded Bollywood star, and if they weren't taking sneaky selfies with me in the background, they were smiling and giggling like they knew something I didn't. I got the gist of it all, and by the end of the day it was a wonder I wasn't signing autographs. Hehe.
I loved getting into photos with them, their reactions were adorable and they were just so sweet! My 15 minutes of fame so to speak...I know that will stop as soon as I got back to Australia, so I just ran with it!
This is a Roman Catholic graveyard, with the centrepiece being the tomb of John Hessing, built by his wife. Like a reverse of the Taj!
The red sandstone that is used here, and at Agra Fort, is indigenous only to this area. It was beautiful, and a great prelude of what was to come.
Surprisingly, arriving at Agra Fort, it wasn't too crowded. And even more of an eye- opener, was the notable lack of western tourists.
It was mostly visited by local Indian folk.
If you EVER visit the Taj Mahal, you must come here first.
It's only a very short drive away, and plays an important part of the history of the Royal family, particularly the last of them, at the time of the building of the Taj itself.
Let me share with you the tragic story of love, sadness and betrayal, of the great Shah Jahan - The Shah who ordered the construction of The Taj Mahal in 1632.
Shah Jahan had 3 wives, but wife number 2 was his darling - his favourite -betrothed to him since she was 12, a promise...she was to be his everything.
Poets wrote of her exquiste beauty...an Indian version,
I'm thinking, of Helen of Troy.