Doha Redux

I always make it a goal to never return to the same country twice, but when work makes you travel (and you make the most of that paid for travel) you get to live in the city of Doha for another 6 month stint. I was last here 4 years ago (see 2015 first impressions here) with time in-between spent finishing out my time in Europe, and moving to a small island in the Pacific (Guam)

I thought the last time I left, that I had left no-stone-unturned, that I had seen everything, but coming back for a second time has allowed me to see this international city in a completely new light. I have a new found appreciation for what the country has come from (literally nothing) to the vision it is building for the future.

While my recap of 48 hours in Doha still holds true as some of the best things to do in this city, the continuous construction project that is Doha means it is ever growing — starting with the 2022 World Cup.  I had the opportunity to take a personal tour of one of the stadiums purpose built but for the occasion, Al Wakrah stadium.

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Al Wakrah is just one of 9 new stadiums being built by Qatar. The whole complex is state of the art with a/c ventilation coming from each of the stadium seats, fresh grass specially designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the country and rows of seats that not only resemble the waves of the Gulf, but are removable. As a part of the bid to win the world cup, Qatar proposed to make the top half of the stadium movable. This portion of the stadium will be donated to less developed countries, furthering the international sport.

If you have read anything about the bid for Qatar to host the world cup, you are intimately familiar with the human rights accusations (violations) that country has been caught up in. In fact, I myself was surprised by all of the ‘other country national’ labor in 2015. Qataris, making only 10% of their own country, could not sustain all the construction – or any service for that matter – without all of their imported labor. There is certainly an obvious hierarchy that is extremely noticeable and unlike any I have experienced in the western world.

Questionable work force aside – I have been pleasantly surprised by the concerted effort in Qatar to make changes to their health and safety standards as a result of all the negative press.  The tour we took of the stadium was lead by ‘the’ health and safety guy who explained that their are now strict rules on not working 1000-1400 (hottest parts of the day) and continuous tracking on construction mishaps. Better, but still Middle Eastern labor rights standards.

90% of the population of Qatar come from 100 different nations. Doha is such an international mix of people that you get a completely different vantage point on the world. Texas Roadhouse sits right next to Papparoti (Malaysian bun bakery) across from Top Shop (British clothing company), juxtaposed to Zawaya (UAE perfume) all bundled up in one massive mall. In those malls, beautiful women clad in all black Hajibs shop for the latest fashion all the while leaving the air with the most wonderful scents. Nepal is a 4 hour $400 flight as is Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India. Arabic is spoken, but so is English, Tagali and French. It is everywhere, but still somehow Arabian at the same time.

Knowing what to expect out of the Gulf states (new money over historical artifacts), I feel like I am seeing Doha for the first time — rediscovering a place I have been before only to find that I have never actually seen it.

Let’s redux this adventure.

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Thailand 2008 v. 2018

I have been to Thailand twice, once in 2008 just as I was about to graduate from college, and almost exactly to the date 10 years later in 2018. You would think the country – or I  for that matter – would have changed at least somewhat drastically between those two periods, yet not much has. I feel the same as my 21 year old self seeing Southeast Asia for the first time. Yet in between, life has happened; 35+ countries and a husband later – I returned to the same spots with my life partner, and new friends re-experiencing this wondrous country.

It’s hard to write a post on Thailand that adds anything new to the body of travel writing dedicated to this beautiful country. Case in point: see here for Bangkok, here for Chang Mai and here for island hopping from Phuket – these three things are pretty much what anyone would recommend you do on your first trip to Thailand. This post will not cover these subjects; instead it is about traveling at large, with Thailand somehow sitting squarely at the intersection of then and now.

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I always tell people that I never knew (and still don’t really know) what I want to be when I grow up, but if there was one thing I do know — I want to travel. So I fed my wanderlust as early as possible. At 17 when other High School seniors were plotting their booze cruises to Cancun, I was working two jobs to go to Italy with my world history class. In college, rather than using my scholarship, grants and savings bonds for food and rent, I took three study abroad programs to Spain, Argentina, and Lao PDR. I threw myself into as much culture shock as humanly possible – and still try to, though the bar continues to get set higher and higher.

While each of these incredible experiences were a life education in their own right, Lao PDR open my eyes wide open. People often ask me what my favorite country is and I always answer with all of them. Every country has something different to offer you and much of your personal experience is shaped by the people you are traveling with (or not traveling with) – it is impossible to have a favorite. BUT I do have a favorite region of the world and that is Southeast Asia. It has everything you want when traveling – it is so incredibly different, safe, cheap, and rich in culture.

Lao PDR (or Laos) was a month of experiences you only get as a student trekking up the mountain side, meeting with local governments and knowing that your life was forever changed. Naturally when on this side of the world – it only makes sense to tack on the likes of Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Bangkok, Thailand.

What was Christina’s focus in Bangkok after just spending a month culturally immersing herself? Go out in Bangkok of course.

We stayed in a hostel (classic), went to moon bar and toured the local palaces.

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Charlies bar was a pop-up bar in the middle of an alley-way my #1 goal upon returning to Bangkok in 2018 was to find this backpacker hideout, but was unlucky. Moon bar, however, is still one of the top rooftop bars in the world. 

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What changed on the 2018 revisit? Not much! I traded 2 girls I randomly met on a study abroad trip for a burly Scotsman. We met up with another British couple, stayed on Khoa San road, ate scorpions and other amazing food.

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What has been fun is returning to the same countries or spots that I have been before only to discover that my first trip didn’t even begin to cover it. I make it a point to never go somewhere twice unless absolutely forced, but I might be reconsidering this stance in future years.

On the second round we did tack on an elephant sanctuary (another must) though the experience was more touristy than both my husband and I would have liked. Chiang Mai is a hipsters paradise, so we of course loved it. There are plenty of articles on which Elephant Sanctuary to support – though make sure to book early.

Thailand represents a crossroad between current travel with my life long love and the traveling I did in my early 20s either solo or with girlfriends. As a younger traveler I thought my wanderlust would be satiated with a few years of living abroad. Now into 10+ years of traveling and living abroad, I now know that wanderlust never goes away. It can never be satiated; it is a lifestyle, it is part of who you are.

Surprised that nothing much has changed in 10 years? Me too. Lets give it another 10.

Palau

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You want pristine waters, rich WWII history and the most amazing underwater rock walls you have ever seen? Yup, Palau has it all. Not only that, but it is also working to preserve its natural resources at a refreshing (but expensive) rate.

There are many options for exploring this gorgeous island. From kayaking in the rock islands to a walking WWII  tour of the Battle of Paleliu, snorkeling in Jelly Fish lake and of course, world class diving. Unlike some of the neighboring Micronesian islands, Palau is absolutely for the outdoor adventurer, not just the diver.

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Pictured: Kayaking in the rock islands where you can easily hop off snorkel among  beautiful coral and then hop back in for some more

GETTING THERE

As with most of Micronesia, it is not easily accessible from the mainland US. Your central hubs are from Manila ($400 roundtrip, ~3 hours), Guam ($1000, 2hrs), Taipei ($400, 4hrs) and Seoul ($600, 5hrs). I flew direct from Guam while living there and did a tour package through my local dive shop (MDA). If you have time, I would recommend stopping off in Guam to get over jetlag then going through either MDA or AXE MURDERS  – the two big dive shops on the island. Though, this is certainly not the cheapest route airfare-wise.

WHERE TO STAY

Palau has 340 islands in its stretch of the Carolina island chain; most major hotels, restaurants and dive companies operate out of the capital, Koror (also the airport) .

We stayed at Palau Central Hotel. Not a bad location or price (about a 15 min drive to the dive shop), though under construction while were there. Unlike Chuuk which is limited to 3 hotels on the island, Palau has plenty of options from high class resorts to inexpensive B&Bs (see here for good overview).

Liveaboards are also a great option to pack in as many dives as possible. Most avid divers coming out of Guam did Palau twice while living there, once on land and a second time on a liveaboard.

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Most divers can tell you when they decided they really got this diving thing. For me, I had a moment on the 200+ foot Peleliu Wall looking out at the expanse of coral, marine life and sheer calm when I just thought – wow. Walls are my thing.

Whether you choose to do a liveaboard or stay on the island, 4 days is the minimum you want to spend here. On your fly days, Kayaking the Rock islands and snorkeling Jellyfish lake are both musts. We chose to go over Thanksgiving weekend and even had an epic Thanksgiving meal right on the water with our fellow dive crew. Our specific itinerary we followed is here. Though there are many dive companies on the island, we had a great time with Fish’n Fins

A NOTE ON PERMITS AND FEES

Palau is pretty pricey to get to and dive. Beware that you also will have a number of permit fees to pay for entrance to their top spots.

Required for all persons ages 6 & up. Valid for 10 days.

  • Koror State permit w/ access to Jellyfish Lake – $100
  • Koror State Permit, no JFL – $50.00. Add JFL later: $75
  • Peleliu Diving permit: $30
  • Other Peleliu water use: $15
  • Land tour permit: $10

LANDSIDE – Peleliu

Many Americans forget that we fought a war on two fronts in WWII, one in Europe and one in the Pacific (see how this plays into the history of Guam and Chuuk). Japanese forces spread out over the Pacific islands making much of these tropical paradise’s prime targets for US-Japanese battles. What should have been a 4 day take over of the small island of Peleliu took over two months in a costly battle for both sides.

One of the key books written on this battle is With the Old Breed: Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge, a later University professor and marine with the 1st Marine Division in WWII. We took a walking tour of the island and hit the Peleliu Wall dive site in one epic day. Tours and dives are easily arranged through your dive shop (Fish’n Fins).

Funny how things go — My husband, an avid WWII buff, had read the book years prior to us even meeting. The most memorable part about getting a walking tour on the island of Peleliu? Him going “If you had told me I would one day be on the island of Peleliu 5 years ago, I would have never believed it.”

I couldn’t believe it either. Happy exploring!

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Chuuk (Truk Lagoon), FSM

If you talk to any avid wreck diver they will tell you Chuuk (Truk) is the place you want to go. Why? Because it has over 60 sunken ships from WWII. It is literally the mecca of wreck diving.

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Many Americans forget that we fought a war on two fronts in WWII, one in Europe and one in the Pacific (see how this plays into the history of Guam here). Chuuk Lagoon was one of the primary  hubs for the Japanese Imperial Navy to move resources from Japan to its bases in their ‘southern pacific mandate’ – islands that had been given to Japan post-WWI.

The US sought to crush this hub in a fierce campaign under OPERATION HAILSTONE, Feb 17-18 1944. While the Japanese had started to move its major battle ships to other harbors in the Pacific, the attack still devastated the imperial navy. Hitting over 60 sea vessels, 250 aircraft and killing over 4,500 people, this ‘underwater graveyard’ makes for an eerie playground including fully intact tanks still strapped to their cargo ships, jeeps, bombs – and – old bones with marked underwater grave sites.

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GETTING THERE

Prized diving spots are not often easy to get to and Chuuk is no exception.

The easiest way to get to Chuuk is via a straight flight from Guam via United – just under 2 hours and about $300 roundtrip.

From Hawaii, you can either fly directly to Guam or take the island hopper which is nearly the only lifeline to much of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Chuuk is the 5th stop on this 6 stop route which will cost you around $1K to take and is worth exploring. If able to set foot in Papa New Guinea, direct flights can also be found to Weno, the main island in the Chuuk atoll.

WHERE TO STAY AND WHAT TO DO

First things first, if you are not a diver, do not make the journey to Chuuk. Above water, the island is a stark reality of what much of Micronesia looks like – poverty stricken, little to no industry and remote. Honestly, I did not know what a ‘remote island’ felt like until I explored this region of the world (see Operation Christmas Drop for a better understanding).

There are literally only two places worth staying: Blue Lagoon Resort and Truk Stop Hotel. I would not recommend staying elsewhere; your hotel standards may be severely short of what you would normally expect. Additionally, both these locations cater to divers and have dive shops connected to them.

Liveaboards are also well worth your money here since you are not missing much on the islands themselves, although nearly all diving spots are easily accessible via shore.

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Unfortunately, due to a lack of industry on the island, much of the population struggle with drug use and alcoholism.  As such, petty crime is a problem and leaving the resort area is not advisable at night. Take my word for it on this; one morning, I decided I would not be trapped in the confines of the resorts and went for a run. You would have thought I was a martian running around — on my way out, folks simply gave me long looks, but the time I turned around to head back it looked like the town was out to watch a parade. Also note, shorts are not a thing outside the confines of diving and the resort. Think developing country conservative clothing; long skirts (for women) with shoulders and chest covered.

BUT REALLY, LETS TALK ABOUT DIVING

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As with any place worth going, the 4 days I spent there was not enough. If you fly from halfway across the world then a week liveaboard is the minimum amount of time you want to spend here. I was an easy hop over on a 4 day weekend while living in Guam; enough to see the ‘big wrecks’ but probably not enough for the tech diver that flew over 20+ hours to get there.

My trip was organized through my local dive shop (MDA) on Guam. If you have time, I would recommend going through either MDA or AXE MURDERS  – the two big dive shops on the island. Both make trips out regularly to the neighboring islands and offer reasonable packages. It is worth stopping a few days in Guam to get over jet-lag before continuing on.

Safety Note: Make no mistake the local dive masters on Chuuk know these wrecks inside and out, but make sure you are comfortable with your level of diving before attempting. This trip held one of the most lax diving, and really no-where-near PADI safety standards. We had two Vietnam vets on our boat who were newly open water certified – not that the dive shop bothered to ask for our dive certs. One of these two 65+ gentlemen (mad respect for them but) ran out of air on his second dive and ended up shooting to the top with no safety stop. Our ‘guide’ provided zero pre-dive safety,  history or orientation brief. I am also not certain on his level of English. Watch your safety standards when diving here and step-up to lead the group through these if needed (which is what we ended up doing).

TOP WRECKS (we dived these and more)

1.Fujikawa Maru – “The Fujikawa Maru is often referred to as the “Showcase Wreck”and is easily dived as it lays between 9 and 33m. The bow gun is easily spotted. Interestingly, it was produced by a British manufacturer in 1899 during the Russo-Japanese War. There are fighter plane fuselages and other parts of planes in the holds and the superstructure is easily accessible. The telegraph annunciator is covered with beautiful corals. You can go down to the engine room through eerie staircases to see how a ship this size was powered. There is no light at such depths so the sense of mightiness is extreme. The Fujikawa is also famous for the air compressor warmly named R2D2 which features in many a diver’s photograph. A lot of small artifacts provide an insight into a Japanese warship. Hold No.2 contains parts and fuselage of Zero planes which can be seen up close.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

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2. Heian Maru – “This is one of the Must-Dive wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon as there are many relics and the interior is easy to penetrate. Inside, you can see a torpedo long lance, an innovation of the time in its ability to project the torpedoes much farther. The Heian was also carrying replacement periscopes. As most of the wrecks in Chuuk have been spared of major robbery, the ship propellers are still intact.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

3. Nippo Maru – “The Nippo Maru was originally a water and ammunition delivery ship. One of the most dived wrecks thanks to its relatively shallow location, the Nippo Maru contains a tank, coastal defense guns, mines, munitions, anti-tank guns and water tanks. Inside the forecastle are many personal effects of the crew in the silt. The forward hold contains mines, detonators, artillery shells and gas masks, one of the shocking diver images of this wreck.

Hold No.1 contains large bronze range finders and a tank that was probably transported in the event of a US ground invasion of Chuuk. Three howitzers are on the deck near Hold No.4 which is filled with lots of beer bottles, radio equipment and a variety of items.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

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4. The San Francisco – “It is considered one of the most incredible wrecks of Chuuk and often referred to as “The Million Dollar Wreck” because of the value of its cargo. This is also one of the best wreck dives in the world. The valuable cargo was there probably to defend from an American amphibian attack that never occurred.

It is located pretty deep at 48m for the main deck, so you must be a technical diver. There is a 3” bow gun encrusted with corals. Hold No.1 contains spherical sea mines and their detonators and “horns” for detonation on contact in boxes nearby. In Hold No.2 there are several trucks, a favourite with divers, barrels of fuel and aerial bombs. The bridge area is intact and the crew quarters have all sorts of utensils and china.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

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5. The Shinkoko Maru – “One of the “Must-dive sites” in Chuuk Lagoon is the Shinkoku Maru, a tanker measuring 152m and found at 12m, bottoming up at 36m that requires multiple dives to explore. The deck, where many of the interesting bits are found, is only 18m deep. Look out for the operating table and medicine bottles, some bones, toilets and a Japanese style tiled bath. The telegraph and the wheelhouse can be accessed through a stairwell.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

If you are in love with wreck diving there is no doubt Chuuk is the place to be. Happy exploring!!

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Moving to Guam

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So you are coming to Guam?

When I found out my follow-on assignment from Belgium was to be a small territory in Southeast Asia, I was ecstatic. What is more perfect than living on a tropical island where everything is in English, currency is in dollars and you are just a 4 hour flight to the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea?!

Not surprisingly, Guam is also a huge tourist destination for Japan and Korea being only a few hours away and having the allure of America + a tropical island. You could forget you were physically in Asia except for all the Asian tourists and commercialism in Hangul/Japanese.

If you like to dive, hike and/or have a general sense of outdoor/tropical island adventure – Guam is the place for you. If you are into none of those things … then pick one up or it will be a long ride (if living here). I met two kinds of people while living on this tropical island for two years – the kind that come to Guam and never want to leave, and the kind that are counting down their time to leave. You choose which you want to be.

TRAVELING FROM GUAM

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Guam is a tropical island in the middle of pacific. Hopping around Asia is not as easy as you would think given its location, but it is a better location to travel around Asia than Hawaii (which is not close – 7 hour plane ride). The following Asian cities have direct, cheap flights ($300-400 round-trip): Hong Kong, Manila, Taipei, Seoul, Tokyo and Osaka (checkout skyscanner for the best deals). If you get into diving (which is a must) there are also direct flights to normally hard-to-get-to WORLD CLASS diving spots. United is your main carrier for these islands – spots include: Palau, Chuuk, Yap, Kosrae, Pohnpei, Cairns, as well as, the neighboring islands of Tainan (WWII history), Rota and Saipan.

Anywhere else will most likely be a connecting flight. Get used to that one; to get anywhere (including the continental United States) it will take you at least a day of travel.

What does it mean to be Chamorro?

After living in Guam for two years and traveling much of Micronesia, I have a new found appreciation for what it means to be a Pacific Islander. All islands have very similar nuances such as traditional dancing, the love of flower crowns and a sense of remoteness that both preserves the island way of living, but also holds it back from progressing into the future. Yet despite these similarities, Guam stands out from its neighboring islands in many different ways.

First and foremost, Guam is the largest island within a radius of 1,300 miles of open ocean – and you can feel that ocean. Guam is also a US territory and the wealthiest island within 1,300 miles (or arguably more) which makes it a mecca for the neighboring islanders to squat. Guam has also been heavily influenced by the Spanish (16th century – 19th century) which left their surnames, language and an unwavering dedication to Catholicism.

Not advertised often, but a fact – America attempted its own little imperial conquest in the late 19th, early 20th century. With the loss of the Spanish in the Spanish-American war, the US took over the island of Guam (as well as the Philippines) under the Treaty of Paris in 1898. This not only brought the island to where it is today, but caught the attention of a neighboring empire looking to expand its influence.

WWII into Today

Fact: Guam has the highest percentage of people who have served in the military in any one place. This is for many reasons, one being it is about the only way to afford to live on this island, but second and more importantly, due to WWII.

The Japanese not only looked to Pearl Harbor as an easy target to hit initiate a war, they also hit hard in the territorial areas of the Philippines, Guam and Palau. Occupying Guam from 1941-1944, the Japanese are not remembered fondly during that time. Setting up outposts using labor camps and comfort women, Chamorros resisted the occupation as best they could until American forces reached the island in 1944.

When the US finally arrived on July 21st and overrun the imperial army by August 10th, there was no prouder American than those on the island of Guam. Liberation Day (not the 4th of July) is still highly celebrated today with parades, military marches and family BBQs.

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Despite this proud liberation moment, self-determination was on the mind of many Chamorros after too long of a history in foreign occupation. In 1950, the Guam Organic Act lead the way for Guam to be an official US territory with representation in congress (though no vote), relative self-determination in terms of its own government, and set of independent laws.

Lingering military presence, though, is still very much a part of the island today. Nearly 30% of the best beaches and other parts of this small island, are owned by the US government. With a strong presence from the Air Force, Navy – and soon to be moving from Okinawa – the Marines, there is no doubt that Guam serves a strong strategic location in terms of military prowess.

The result of this history creates a perfect stronghold for America’s national interests, an expansive jungle, water ecosystem and diverse culture all packed into on this tiny island of 27 by 8 miles.

 

Oman

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I have always been fascinated by the Middle East. I am not sure if it is the geometric art, although admittedly repetitive, somehow intricately beautiful. Or maybe it is the impossible to read, but beautifully intertwined script that is as much a piece of artwork as it is written word. Whatever the reason is, this region provides a certain sense of exotic adventure that just makes you want to see more.

What I quickly learned is that not every Middle Eastern has that ‘old world’ era feel that makes you feel like you are escaping back in time (see an example with Qatar here). Luckily, if you are looking for a trip to Oman you have come to the right combination of modern meets preserved history.

I went to Oman in April of 2017 on an annual birthday girls trip. We tied the trip in with a few days in United Arab Emirates (UAE) using Sex and the City as our inspiration. Lets just say it did not disappoint.

Oman has been influenced by the Portuguese, Persians and British. Since the early 1900’s, however, it has been able to maintain a caliphate preserving the countries culture as well as its crucial position in the Persian Gulf. We had less time than I would have liked in the country, but unlike its flashy neighbor in the UAE, Oman seems to have maintained more of its core culture.

GENERAL INFORMATION WHEN TRAVELING IN THE MIDDLE EAST (GULF STATES)

Clothing: As one can expect, conservative clothing is a must when traveling in the middle east. Some places are more liberal than others, but generally knees, shoulders and neckline should be covered at all times. That goes for women and men – men’s shorts are generally ok, but the nicer you are dressed, the better service you will receive. Long loose clothing is also simply the most comfortable when traveling in this hot and arid climate.

Getting around: Renting a car from the airport is the most efficient, easy and best way to cut down on expensive costs of booking multiple tour packages to get around. This is how we got around in Oman. Most countries require a slightly aggressive driving style, but generally it is the best (and easiest) way to get around. Download google maps to your phone and you are golden.

Visas: Check out your country requirements, however, most visas can be easily purchased on arrival at the airport

Day 1-3 – Muscat, Stay at Somerset Panorama

Musts in Muscat: Muttrah Souq, thought to be one of the oldest markets in the world

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, check the times for when you want to go. Non-Muslims can come to visit the Grand Mosque from 8am to 11am from Saturday to Thursday, while the library is open from 9am to 2am and 4pm to 9pm Saturday to Wednesday (on Thursday the library is open for the morning session only). *Visitors must dress conservatively especially women who must cover their hair, shoulders, and arms when they visit the mosque.* If you didn’t come prepared, not to worry they have stalls with hajib to wear while in the

See a show at the Royal Opera House

Eat your heart away at one of these amazing top 18 restaurants

Other great ideas found on the Culture Trip

Day 3-4  – Nizwa, Bahla Fort

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Nizwa is one of the oldest cities in Oman and a great stopover point on your way to see UNESCO heritage site Bahla Fort. After a full day of self-touring we stayed at:

Misfah Old house hidden away in the Hajar mountains.

NOTE: We were only able to stay one night at this lovely guesthouse but if you are able to take at least a few nights, it is well worth your stay. The house itself is very basic accommodation (floor mats), but the authentic experience of being in this small village town is well worth your time!

Day 5 – Hike the Hajar Mountain range

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We organized a walking tour through the hotel that took us to a local village at the top of the mountain where we learned about the local people, how they lived and even had the opportunity to ask questions over coffee and dates. Note — If you aren’t tired of dates and coffee by the end of the trip you haven’t done enough! They are served for literally everything and will continually be offered to you went entering someones home.

Day 6-8 – Camp out Bedouin style in Rub’ al Khali Desert

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al Khali is the ‘largest contiguous sand desert in the world’. If camping in the middle of all that sand doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, check out this 5 star resort which gives you the Bedouin experience with a/c, activities and built in adventure: Desert Nights Camp 

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Side story: Don’t ever forget you are in the desert, despite the luxury around you. Although unlikely to happen to you, we found this little critter exploring around in our room. After my two (very tough) girlfriends jumped onto their beds to get away from this guy (not more than 3 inches), I was able to trap him using our water glass. Good thing we caught him because the nearest hospital is a solid hours drive from the desert camp. What’s camping without a little adventure?

Day 8 – Bimmah Sinkhole on your way back to Muscat

Jump off into the clear blue water in this easy stop off point on your way back to Muscat from the desert. Click here – for everything you wanted to know about visiting.

My time in Oman was not nearly enough. If you have longer, looking into great diving , water activities and some of the better beaches and watering holes, including Wadi Bani Khalid.

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Christmas in Salzburg, New Years in Vienna

No one does Christmas better than Europe. I am not sure if it’s the lack of a thanksgiving that makes Christmas more grandiose or if its old, quant wooden structures and roaring fires that just make everything feel right. Regardless, theres no better place to spend your festive period – and it’s really hard to go wrong on a location.
Nearly every capital city has a fantastic Christmas market where you
can get handmade crafts all the while eating bratwurst and drinking
mulled wine. All European countries do Christmas well, but one region
does it better than anywhere else.
The Habsburgs ruled much of modern day Central Europe including parts of Germany, Hungry, Switzerland and Austria – with expansions reaching as far The Netherlands and Romania. Their cultural mark can be seen in iconic crisscross wooden architecture, schnitzel and most notably in timeless musicians such as Strauss, Mozart, and Beethoven.
So engrained in the culture of modern day Austria, compulsory music
and art courses are taught in both primary and secondary school.
Austria – This is the place to spend your Christmas holiday.
Whether skiing in the Alps is your thing, or you tend to be more into
the arts, there is something for everyone. We spent Christmas in 2016
doing a road trip through Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia. Check out
the packed itinerary at the bottom of the post for our 12 day
schedule.

While I always wish I had more time, we did a few things that you must include in your trip to Austria: Christmas Eve Mozart concert in the Salzburg Fortress, concert at the Vienna state opera and brought in
the New Year at the annual Hofburg Palace Ball, Vienna.
Activities do get booked up quickly, so planning at least 4 months in advance will allow you to choose from all the activities available. Surprisingly getting tickets to Mozart in Salzburg and a performance at the Vienna state opera was relatively easy and didn’t require much booking ahead of time despite the time of year. I was surprised to see tickets being sold outside the Vienna state opera for day of deals, though the seat quality cannot be guaranteed. See below itinerary for links on where to book tickets.
The one activity that did require extensive planning was, not surprisingly, New Years Eve. Our original plan was to watch the philharmonic orchestra or see an opera on New Years Eve leading up to midnight; I was disappointed to find out that tickets for the orchestra go by a raffle system that starts 2 Jan -28 Feb every year (so start planning a year out if this is your goal). Tickets to the opera are significantly less difficult for New Years, but do book early for the classic performance of Die Fledermaus, an Austrian comedy must, performed every New Year’s Eve.
https://www.wienerphilharmoniker.at/new-years-concert/the-new-years-concert
https://www.viennaclassic.com/en/oper/state-opera

 

Skip the opera – Go to the Ball
If you really want to go big this New Years, however, take a look at
the Hofburg Silverster Ball. This New Years celebration is held every
year within the walls of the hofburg palace itself and offers a range
of tickets for every pocketbook (though the cheapest starts at $300pp). We opted for the cheaper tickets, but if you splurge on the grand ballroom seats – it is well worth the money spent.

 

OUR ITINERARY: 12 days, 3 countries – and the annual Hofburg Palace SIlverster Ball

Day 1 – Arrival in Vienna, 1 hr drive to Melk
Stay at: Pension Marillenhof
Johann-Steinböckstrasse 2, 3390 Melk, Austria
Day 2: Melk Abbey – Schedule tour through website
http://www.stiftmelk.at/englisch/
*Drive to Salzburg following tour

Day 3/4: Salzburg – Christmas Markets & Mozart concert
Stay at: Has am Moos (a BnB outsidet the main city)
Moosstraße 186a, Leopoldskron-Moos, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Christmas Markets!
https://www.salzburg.info/en/salzburg/advent/salzburg-christmas-market

Day 3: Christmas Eve
Morning — Self guided walking tour:
http://www.bigboytravel.com/europe/austria/salzburg/freewalkingtour/
Places to visit: Nonnberg Nunnery (where the nuns sing “Maria”),
Mirabell Castle and Mirabell Gardens (the place where Maria and the
children sing “Do-Re-Mi”), and the Felsenreitschule and Festival Halls
(the stage where the Trapps perform during the Salzburg Festival).
http://www.visit-salzburg.net/travel/soundofmusic_locations.htm
LUNCH & CHRISTMAS CONCERT
SALZBURG MOZART ENSEMBLE

24th December 2016 / 1:00pm
Festung Hohensalzburg, Burgsaal, Festungsgasse / Mönchsberg 34, 5020 Salzburg
To get you in the mood for Christmas Eve, a traditional Christmas
Concert takes place in the festively decorated Castle Hall on Salzburg
Fortress on 24th December at 3pm. The well-known Salzburg Mozart
Ensemble will be performing for you.
F. Schubert: Minuetts
W.A. Mozart: Clarinette Quintette
W.A. Mozart: A Little Night Music
https://www.salzburghighlights.at/en/ticket/DinnerAdvent-andChristmasConcerts

Day 4: Christmas Day
Travel from Salzburg to Bled (2hrs 40 min)
Stay at: Carmen guesthouse
Cesta Svobode 37, 4260 Bled, Slovenia
Stop off in Bled for a hike/stretch legs. Ideas for hikes:

Winter Hiking

Winter adventures

Day 5: Ljubljana
Optional (we decided to cut out due to time):
Postojna caves nativity scene + castle (10am)

http://www.postojnska-jama.eu/en/home/
Onward to Ljubljana (30min)

Alo apartments: Staretova ulica 25, 1000 Ljubljana, Slovenia
Evening (5pm): Ljubljana Christmas Spirit Foodie Walk Combined with Boat Ride
Day 6: 1000 – Skocjan caves (50min) then to Vikolínec, Slovakia (8hrs)
Čremošná 8684, Ružomberok, 034 06 Ružomberok, Slovaki
Day 7/8 – Vikolinec Village & search for wooden churches:
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1273
*Note we encountered significant snow and a long drive to get here. I
would recommend adding at least a day or two if you make the trip up
to the mountains; if you are limited on time, skip it all together and
save your energy with just seeing Bratislava
Map of mountain trails: http://www.discoverzakopane.com/tatramap.html
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/622

Hiking


Leštiny, Slovakia http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/site.php?id=1273-004
Stop at Čičmany, Slovakia – Preserved cabins with painting – on way to
Bratislava
http://piestany.danubiushotels.com/

Day 9 – Bratislava
Apartment pressburg – Železničiarska 7, Stare Mesto, 811 04 Bratislava, Slovakia
11 or 1500 – free walking tour
http://www.befreetours.com/

Day 10: Drive to Vienna

Day 11: Opera/concert, Vienna State opera
*Can also buy tickets day of directly from the opera house, but we
opted to buy ahead of time online
Pre-concert cocktails/cigar: Krugers American Bar

Day 12: New Year’s Eve

Morning: free walking tour

Afternoon: Schoenbrunn Palace
https://www.schoenbrunn.at/en/our-tickets-and-prices/all-tickets-prices/#winterpass-plus
New Year’s Eve party: Hofburg Silverster Ball
https://www.hofburgsilvesterball.com/english/

Day 13: Fly home 😦