Portholes on Arabia

By Heidi Douglas

A cruise through ancient lands exposes kids to a diverse culture and religion, writes Heidi Douglas.

Cruises bring Western visitors to the Sultanate of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, which has recently opened up to tourists.
Cruises bring Western visitors to the Sultanate of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, which has recently opened up to tourists.

I was never a big fan of cruise ships, mainly as a knee-jerk reaction to childhood cruises with my parents on ships filled with old people. But cruises have changed dramatically and can now make for a great holiday experience with children.

My husband and I embarked on a journey through unfamiliar countries with some very different customs and cultures, and we took along four little ones. The idea of a floating hotel with all you can eat, depositing you at your next destination while you sleep, is growing on me. Now that I have children, it's all making sense.

And so here we were, docking in the Sultanate of Oman. It's noon, and very hot and dusty. All around us are the brown cliffs that give the capital city its Arabic name, Muscat, which has only recently opened to tourism in the past six or seven years.

Oman has a long and fascinating history spanning more than 5000 years. As part of the greater Arabian Peninsula, it was part of the Persian empire; an outpost for the kingdom of Hormuz; and ruled by the Portuguese in the 1500s and the English in the 1800s.

The current Sultan, Qaboos Bin Said, has allied himself with the United States, which wants use of the country's military bases and access to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. No wonder Oman looks to be so prosperous - it controls some prime real estate.

Only half of Oman's gross national product is from oil, in stark contrast to the rest of the Middle East.

The Sultan has been wise in his rule thus far and is popular among his people. Over the last 30 years he has modernised the underdeveloped country to create an affluent, 21st-century nation. Literacy is at 98 per cent across the board and the majority of men and women are well educated.

Most of the population speaks, or is learning, English. They are also pursuing cleaner industries, like tourism, to bring in revenue. What a nice feeling it must be to be part of an up-and-coming nation that also has a rich superpower to back it up.

When we docked beneath Muscat's craggy hills, the air was heavy with humidity in contrast to the arid land. On the hills surrounding the town were old watchtowers built by the Portugese, and the town itself looked like it could be part of Disneyland: it was so clean and so orderly.

Everything looked new or at least well-maintained. It had a romantic air to it with the old Portuguese forts looking over the simple seaside town.

My husband and I, with our four children aged four to 11, took a taxi away from the downtown area, along the inland highways, to see the brand new Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Being Friday, the Muslim holy day, we were unable to tour inside but the view from the outside was enough to give us all a flavour of this amazing building.

The Sultan held nothing back in creating this mosque. It's made from gleaming stone and decorated with marble, carved wood and gold inlay, and Arabic inscriptions from the Koran are engraved everywhere. Happily, our taxi driver took our camera inside and got some excellent pictures for us.

Back in the main part of Muscat, we viewed the Al Alam Palace, the official residence of Sultan Qaboos, built in 1970 on the site of the old palace. With its splendid turquoise and gold oriental architecture, the palace faces the sparkling blue Bay of Muscat and is flanked by the forts of Al Jalali and Mirani, that were built to protect the town in the late-16th century.

Our driver dropped us off at the entrance to the Muttrah Souk, one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world, to the sound of the muezzins (mosque leaders) calling the faithful to prayer.

I explained to the kids what this was about. Our six-year-old, who is the spiritual one among my brood, was taken with the idea that people need to be reminded to pray.

"But why can't they just remember, Mummy?"

I wish I had an answer for her - why don't people remember to embrace the spiritual side of life without prompting? Personally, I would be glad to hear the muezzin's call during the day to make me spare a moment for reflection, even though I follow no religion.

With the Muttrah Souk reopening for the late afternoon, we spent two hours lost in its busy mazes. This is not as commercial as the souk in Dubai; the only tourists are from the cruise ship, and we stand out with our white skin and Western dress.

The girls were a huge hit, with their shining faces and golden red hair. They loved the attention and learned the art of haggling, although the four-year-old mainly used her big eyes to get what she wanted.

We ended up at the Gold Souk, where our oldest daughter bought some beautiful golden earrings and the children all bought various articles of traditional dress.

My own purchase was a bag of high-grade frankincense - actually a resin from the native Boswellia trees, and when it is burned it has the most amazing smell. During the time of Jesus Christ it was as valuable as gold - and it comes from Oman. This country not only has a long history, but a long history of lucrative trade.

Back on the ship, we sat in air-conditioned luxury while the stark cliffs of Muscat receded into the distance as we began our five-day journey around the Arabian Peninsula, through the Gulf of Aden and up the Red Sea to Jordan.

I had so many ideas in my head about what this part of the world would be like and, just like cruising, my expectations have been exceeded.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Etihad Airways' partnership with Air New Zealand connects from Auckland, via Australia, to Abu Dhabi.

Further information: United Travel has a seven-night Arabian Peninsula cruise out of Dubai, priced from $689pp, twin share (book by August 31 for a journey in December).

- NZ Herald

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