Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Sunset over the desert
Our stop in Dubai was planned as a 48-hour layover, en route to Prague. Wanting to maximize our experience in the city, we booked two tours to help accomplish this.  Once again entry to the country through the airport was easily handled due to all signage being in both Arabic and English.  Having prearranged a driver, we were driven to our hotel at the opposite side of the city near the Dubai Marina.   

Having a “Sunset Safari Tour” booked our first afternoon, we headed with a group of 5 others and a driver/guide out into the desert.  After a half-hour drive (at around 100+ mph) out of Dubai, we arrived at massive sand dunes.  Over the next 20 minutes, we experienced the thrill of our driver manuevering his vehicle at high speeds up, over and around the dunes.  

Next, we headed on to experience a camel ride and a sunset BBQ out in the middle of the desert.  Dozens of make shift open-air restaurants, hidden in the dunes, service hundreds of tourists brought by tour companies.  Entertainment, which is normally a part of the evening, was not available due to our visit’s timing, during Ramadan.  Henna tattoos and hakah smoking was also offered, but we didn’t take advantage of those.  The camel ride was interesting though not what you would call comfortable, and it’s hard to imagine traveling any distance on one of these gangly animals. 

The following morning we headed out for a private tour of the city.  Our Pakistani driver/guide provided a wealth of
Water taxis on the River
information about the history and government.  Population of the city, now around 2.78 million, was 90,000 in 1960.  We were told by both of our guides that less than 20% of those living in UAE are citizens eligible for free housing, education and health care, along with other perks.  The remaining populace comes from 147 other countries, with the majority from India and Pakistan.  We were driven out onto a major land reclamation project, Jumeirah Palm which was started in 2001.  It is an island (in the shape of the top of a palm tree) created in the sea, essentially from dumping tons of desert sand into the ocean and then building upward.  Of course, that is a major oversimplification of the engineering feat involved in this project.  The Palm consists of dozens of hotels, hundreds of businesses and thousands of residences.  Two additional Palms are currently under construction.  The two beaches we visited were mostly deserted, but our driver told us that in the evening, once the temperature begins to drop, that the beaches become a popular area for socializing.   

Shopping is a big deal here, and in fact many visitors come here especially for that purpose.  We are not shoppers, but the opportunity to visit two of their opulent malls gave us a peak at the goods offered and the high price tags that went with the items.  Visits to the gold and spice market were also included.  We saw a myriad of spices but since our driver had stayed with the car and we had no knowledge of what they were, we left that area empty handed. Gold displayed in the windows of the shops showed a level of ostentatiousness that is difficult to comprehend.

At the spice market
Hoping on a short ferry, from the Deira Old Souq Water Taxi Station next to the spice market, we traveled across the river, to the other side.  Cost per person, for a one-way trip, was 1 dirham (about 25 cents).  Water taxis lined the riverfront, along with dozens of cargo ships, heavily laden with goods.  

Temperatures for the day peaked at 101 F but a strong breeze kept us fairly comfortable when not inside the air-conditioned vehicle.  We were visiting during the spring off-season, when hotel costs were reasonable .  During high-season of December- February the rates can double or more.  Not only did we miss the “expensive” season, we missed the scorching heat which is experienced in the months from July to September when temperatures soar to 120 F or greater, with no breeze offering a relief.

It was perfect timing for our visit, but now we are traveling on to the Czech Republic.

Waterfront area deserted during the midday sun
Hundreds of beautiful mosques can be found scattered throughout the city
Gold jewelry on display 
Cargo boats along the waterfront
Entryway to the King's Palace
Cityscape through the dusty haze
Fountain show at one of the malls rivals the show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas
Our camel ride
Cityscape from the marina near our hotel
Guinness Book of World Records largest ring--weighs 140.77 pounds
We saw this at a jewelry store at the gold market

Knysna, South Africa--- On the Garden Route

View from top of The Heads
Staying in Knysna (pronounced nice-na) for 2 nights allowed a little slow down for us.  With a small one-bedroom apartment overlooking the Bay, we had a fabulous view of the estuary and the rocky inlet, said to be one of the most dangerous inlets in the world.  A drive and hike around The Heads provided spectacular views from the sandstone cliffs.  After watching boats maneuvering the inlet, we were happy to be on solid ground.

The waterfront/marina offers many shops, restaurants and water-oriented tours.  Alan enjoyed a “best-ever” pizza and beer, and I was even able to order a gluten-free version.  Oysters and calamari, which are both big in this area, were enjoyed the following day. 

Departing Knysna, we stopped at Birds of Eden, located near Plettenberg Bay.  As the world’s largest aviary, with 5-acres under a 165-foot high screen dome, we decided this would be a chance to see some of the South African birds we had missed in the wild.  Heavy vegetation and multi-level boardwalks allow visitors to rise up into the trees to see the birds and we saw dozens of gorgeous varieties.

Bloukrans Bridge, the world’s highest bridge for bungee jumping at 709 feet above the River, was our next stop.
Bungee jumping at the Bloukrans Bridge
We had no desire to join in the activity, but from a restaurant and other viewing platforms we could watch the jumpers and hear their screams as they plummeted.  A camera at the jump point provided a televised view so we could watch the final movements before the jump.  

Stopping at Storm River Bridge, considered the end of the Garden route, I took walk over the bridge (as Alan watched from the side).  Then, we drove on to our stopping point for the day, Jeffery Bay.  Arriving after dark and departing in heavy early morning fog, we were never able to see the surfing beaches the area is noted for.  But, we were able to enjoy our final South African calamari and fish dinners.  Here they referred to calamari as “white gold”, and we have been spoiled; calamari has never been as tender and flavorful.

Departing the following morning from Port Elizabeth, we flew on to Cape Town and then to Dubai for a new adventure. 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Beach at The Heads 
Knysna turaco
Up in the trees at the aviary
South African White Spoonbill
Overlook at The Heads in Kenyans
Grey crowned crane

Mossel Bay, South Africa---On the Garden Route

The Caravel
Moving easterly from the wine district, our destination the following day was Mossel Bay, the starting point of the Garden Route.  Driving through mountains and heavy fog, there was little view.  On the flat lands beneath the mountains sheep and hay fields predominated with an occasional cattle farm.

By arriving in the late afternoon, darkness and fog obscured the beach the area is known for.  The following morning an even heavier layer of fog blocked the view.  In addition to beautiful beaches, the town is also known for cage shark diving, whale watching (June -Dec), and hiking in the surrounding mountains.

Historically, the Bay showed signs of modern human activity 165,000 years ago.  The first European explorers (Portugese) to arrive here were captained by Bartolemeu Dias in 1488.  An extensive museum complex located near the waterfront tells the story of the early explorers and also houses a replica of Dias' ship, the Caravel.  Despite intermittent stops at the Bay through the years, fueled by the spice trade, the area was not settled until the 1700’s by the Dutch.  

With heavy fog continuing to lay over the city at midday, we decided to move on to Knysna.  Along the N-2 Hwy., there are various aspects of the Garden Route National Park which offer opportunities to hike and explore.  Stopping at the Wilderness portion of the Park just east of the little community of Wilderness, we took advantage this. 
Crossing the Tuow

The Half-Collared Kingfisher Trail, followed the western bank of the Tuow River.  We crossed the river on a 3-person max, rope-pulled pontoon.  Parts of the trail were moderately difficult, but most was covered with a well-maintained wooden boardwalk.  With an early afternoon fog starting to roll in, we headed back to our vehicle.  Birds and monkeys, which are frequently seen on the walk, were missing during our 2-hour hike, but it was a pleasant outing nonetheless and time to move on.
Fog moving in

Stellenbosch, South Africa -- A Taste of the Wine District

While staying in Cape Town, we had befriended the executive chef at our hotel, Szabi.  Providing us with a map, winery suggestions, route info, and a hotel recommendation for the historical Hotel Stellenbosch, we were set for our visit to the area.  Even though most of the wine production in South Africa takes place near the Western Cape area, there are actually 27 diverse districts.  The tradition of wine making in this town goes back to the 17th century.  This region's combination of perfect rainfall and soil makes this a prime viticultural area and there are 170 wine estates here.  The local University is the only one in South Africa which offers a degree in viticulture and oenology.

Our hotel, built in the late 17th century, was centrally located in town surrounded by restaurants, shops and book stores.  Once again, with Szabi's guidance, we headed to the Jordan winery.  With such a huge choice of wineries to explore, it was helpful to have some prior direction rather than wandering aimlessly between the wine producers.  Alan’s preference is for Chardonnay and Jordan’s reputation for producing award winning vintages of this wine in addition to other white and red wines, was the reason for the recommendation.  Starting with a wine tasting, 6 for Alan and 3 for myself, we tried 8 different wines.  Our wine hostess explained the growing conditions, history of the vine and flavor notes on each wine with knowledge and friendly efficiency.  In the end, we left with a 2016 Sauvignon blanc, my choice.  Szabi has promised to ship our wine choices, so we were all set on that front.  

Moving to Jordan's restaurant we learned that during season reservations need to be made a few days in advance, but
we were easily seated.  2,3 or 4 course options were offered on the menu.  Choices were limited but varied and the food and presentation were outstanding.  I opted for Boerbok (goat) terrine with a prune puree and hake with a potato and truffle veloute.  Alan enjoyed a seafood tortellini followed by hake prepared with a parsley crust and fried calamari.

Deciding that we had experienced the best the area could offer and maxed out on wine for the day, we returned to town and called an end to the exploration of the wine district. 

Cape Peninsula and Simon's Town

Securing a rental car in Cape Town, we headed south to the Cape Peninsula.  Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope provide beautiful vantage points.  You can walk up to the lighthouse at Cape Point, or a funicular will whisk you to the top, for a fee.  We opted for neither, happy with the views at the base.  These locations are still considered part of the Table Mountain National Park, but require a separate entry fee.  The zebra, eland and antelope which are said to be in this portion of the park were hiding during our visit but we did see a number of Chacma Baboons.  Warning signs advise visitors that the baboons can be aggressive when food is involved and there is a 500 rand ($40) fine for feeding the animals.

Despite popular belief (and ours prior to our visit) the actual southernmost point of Africa is 93 miles
Mother with one-year old juvenile
to the southeast at Cape Agulhas.  But it was a nice stop, irregardless.  However, our primary reason for driving south was to visit Simon's Town and Boulders Beach, located along False Bay.  This area is known as the home to over 2200 South African Penguins which started here in 1982 from 2 breeding pairs.  By arriving late in the afternoon, the penguins had returned from their daily fishing, one parent goes out daily to fish while the other takes care of the young.  The area was crowded with the noisy birds swimming in the Bay, walking around the beach and nestled down in their nests.  Originally called Jackass Penguins due to their donkey-like bray, the beach was filled with their humorous sound.

Though netting and fencing has been placed just above the beach area, we noticed several penguins walking the streets and sidewalks in town after sunset.  We were told a rescue vehicle rounds them up and takes them back to the beach.

It was a fun visit with the penguins, but now we are moving on to the wine district.
Sun-dried snoek at Kalk Bay 
Lighthouse at Cape Point
Cape of Good Hope
At Cape Point

At Boulder's Beach

Main Street Simon's Town

Cape Town

View from the top to Table Mountain
Even though Cape Peninsula was first settled by indigenous groups as far back as 2000 years ago, it was 1488 before the Portuguese discovered the area.  And it was over another 150 years before a European settlement was developed.  In 1652, the Dutch East Indian Company established a stopping point to provide water, produce and meat for ships traveling to Asia.  The impact of the Dutch settlers has been huge on the history, language, politics and architecture of South Africa, particularly in the southernmost region of the country.

South Africa has eleven official languages, with Zulu, being spoken by almost one fourth of the population.  Everyone we came in contact with spoke at least two or three languages, and English was widely spoken.  Afrikaans or African Dutch is the primary language through the Cape and lower portion of the country.  But, English is the dominant language in the government and the media, and traffic signs (throughout all portions of the country we traveled through) and menus were in English, so we had no language problems as we moved around.

Cape Town is a multicultural, modern city, known for its outstanding food scene.  Restaurants here
Fabulous kingklip dish at Harbor House at V&A waterfront
are considered to be the best on the continent, and we were repeatedly blown away by not only the quality but the reasonable pricing on food and wine.  A $10 glass of wine in the U.S. is $3 here and the wine is unquestionably superior.  Typically, I cook as we travel, and we had a full, well-equipped kitchen in our 1-bedroom apartment in Town ($74 a night), but the restaurant food was so impressive and inexpensive, I never even considered preparing our meals.  Fresh seafood is abundant and we were able to try a few types of fish we were unfamiliar with, hake, snoek (a bony, deepwater fish) and kingklip plus outstanding calamari, oysters and prawns.

Cable car to the top
With only two full days to explore the city, we narrowed down our travel choices.  Table Mountain National Park is the dominating presence in the city, and with a cable car ride to the top, it was our first destination.  Hiking up the 3500 feet, takes 2-4 hours, depending on the trail selected, but that was not on the agenda for us.  Views from the cable car were fantastic since Mother Nature had provided perfect weather for our visit.  We were on top within 15 minutes, including the wait in line.  Visiting during the off season, lines for our entry and ascend were minimal.  The floral diversity the Park is known for during the spring and summer were now gone due to our early winter timing.

Our next stop, the Cape Town waterfront was a functional harbor prior to 1989, and it is still a working harbor with fishing boats and container ships using the facilities.  However, that year marked the beginning of a major redevelopment of the
V & A Waterfront with Table Mountain in the background
area, now known as the Victoria and Alfred  Waterfront.  There are over 450 retail outlets, including dozens of restaurants.  Residential use is combined with the commercial.  The Clock Tower built in 1882, still graces the harbor located next to the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.

Robben Island--stark and wind swept--is a 30-45 minute ferry ride from the harbor and is best known as the place of incarceration for Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.  As far back as the 1700's the island was used as a prison, and then later as a leper colony and military site during World War 2.  From 1961 to 1991 the island was used for political and criminal prisoners, with political prisoners being removed in 1991.  The prison was closed in 1996 and in 1999 the island was declared a World Heritage Site.

Mandela's cell
Ferries run hourly to the island and the full tour takes about 2- 2 1/2 hours.  It includes a narrated bus trip around to historical sites, a stop at a rocky beach where we saw our first South African penguins, and then on to the prison.  Our guide for the prison was a former prisoner from 1977-1982.  Many of the guides are former inmates, so they can offer a personal  perspective.  Our guide displayed a calm, pleasant manner, solemn but with a quick smile.  The desolation of the island must have compounded the isolation of the men sentenced here.

Next, it time for us to move on down to the Cape Peninsula.
Looking down from the cable car 
Dassies-wildlife on Table Mountain
Protea--gorgeous flower which grow on Table Mountain (but not at this time of year)
Many entertainers are scattered through the Waterfront area, working for tips and selling their CDs 
Little breezy up top!
Lighthouse on Robben Island built in 1865
At the prison

Ghost ship under renovation in the harbor