Grand Voyage around ancient Arabia, India and the Mediterranean
In the autumn of 2019 departing in early October, Fred. Olsen is launching a Grand Voyage. For five and a half months (168 days), their ship Boudicca will sail from Dover down the coasts of Spain and Africa to Madagascar and the Seychelles, then on to Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and Indonesia, followed by a circumnavigation (almost) of Australia, then on to Papua New Guinea and back through Myanmar, India, Dubai, Oman and Jordan to cruise through the Suez Canal into the Med and then home via Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Spain and Portugal.
Phew! By any measure, this is quite a trip and I was fortunate enough to try out a part of it this winter, joining the ship in Sri Lanka, then visiting India, Dubai, Oman and Jordan. This was a cruise full of contrasts. For me, Oman and Jordan are old friends, two of my favourite countries, but Sri Lanka was entirely new (and almost certainly a new favourite – I need to discover more).
And the countries themselves are full of contrasts, too. Sri Lanka is simply lovely – very quiet, with gentle welcoming people and a fascinating history with Buddhist and Hindu temples to explore, tea plantations high in the hills and, of course, lots of elephants, monkeys and water buffalo. The loudest noise seems to come from those darned screeching peacocks, sitting in the trees, their tails trailing to the ground.
Just a day’s sail away, we come to our first port in India, Cochin (or Kochi – locals use both names), and, after Sri Lanka, it’s very full on – there’s the noise level for a start. But also many more people, so much busier, more traffic but it’s full of surprises and a lot of history, too. Most people think of the British ruling in India – but we weren’t there first. The Dutch and the Portuguese arrived before we did and left some fascinating sites behind them: a palace built for the local Maharajah now a museum with weapons, costumes and palanquins; or a tiny synagogue built in 1568 with a floor made of blue and white porcelain tiles from China. And speaking of China, you can’t miss the Chinese fishing nets, as they are known. Fixed on the land, the nets are vast and graceful, hovering above the water when not in use, rather like billowing sails at sea. They were introduced by traders from the Court of Kublai Khan. This is one of the best natural harbours in the Arabian Sea and so much trade passed through here, every nation leaving its stamp.
Two days later, and we’re in Mumbai and I’ve opted for another walking tour – always a good way to get the feel of a city. The tour starts at Horniman Circle Gardens and it looks familiar (it would – it’s based on Park Crescent in Regent’s Park). Then there are museums, cathedrals, universities and a town hall (now a library) all built by the Brits on an imperial scale. There’s a Victorian Gothic railway station, street markets and street food and the Gateway of India built in 1911 to welcome King George V and Queen Mary – it was the departure point, too, for the last ships to leave at the end of British rule. Opposite is the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – the perfect place for a positively Raj-style G&T!
Then it’s time for a few days at sea, the Arabian Sea, in fact. Flying fish leap along the sides of the ship and during baking January days, passengers are misted on their loungers to help them tolerate the heat. We are en route to Dubai, a place that prides itself on everything that it can label the biggest or the most expensive – buildings, yachts, golden domes, you name it. Among other items, it has the largest empty picture frame in the world – erected apparently without irony, surely a perfect symbol for the place.
Then, we’re off to Oman and truly it couldn’t be more different. Here, there are no skyscrapers – everything is lower than the minaret on the Sultan Qaboos mosque – and all the buildings have an arabesque style. It is spotlessly clean (they polish the rather beautiful street lamps), there’s virtually no crime and definitely no drugs. Education (including university) is free, as is health care and there are no taxes. Obviously it’s all paid for by oil and gas but the transformation Sultan Qaboos has wrought over almost 50 years has been extraordinary. To say he is revered is an understatement. He deposed his father (who quite literally shot himself in the foot during an otherwise bloodless coup) in 1970 and sent him into exile (a suite in the Dorchester).
Our first stop in Oman is in the Musandam Peninsula and I leave Boudicca for a much smaller scale cruise – on a dhow. This part of the country is separated from the rest by the UAE and consists of fjords – it’s sometimes called the “Norway of Arabia”. The mountains drop straight down into the Gulf of Oman and you are pretty much guaranteed to see dolphins. The water is warm and the perfect spot for a swim. The high red cliffs (actually they change colour throughout the day) against the turquoise water are surely one of the natural highlights of the cruise.
The next day, we’re in the capital, Muscat, the harbour dominated by a pair of forts, the same terracotta colour as the surrounding mountains. This is a beautiful city with a magnificent new opera house, the vast Sultan Qaboos mosque and a great souk if you’re looking for scarves, jewellery or frankincense – the resin crystals that brought about Oman’s wealth in the ancient world. The frankincense trees grow only down in the south of the country in the Dhofar region – our third stop in Oman. For an exploration of this wild and mountainous region, we jumped into 4x4s and headed for the Grand Canyon-style landscape, where camels and goats graze. The ancient city of Sumhuram has been discovered in the last few years and it dates back to the 2nd century BC. Once thought to be the summer palace of the Queen of Sheba, it is now recognised as a major port built for the frankincense trade.
And, after a few more days at sea, we arrive in Jordan and the port of Aqaba where we leave the ship for the delights of Petra and the Dead Sea before flying home to a London winter. Of course, on this autumn’s Grand Voyage, there would still be plenty more to come. Tempting.
World Cruise Itinerary
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