Magical Mystery Cruise Ends with Touchdown CLE!

Something Cleveland Browns fans long for season after season are the words “Touchdown CLE!,” but these words took on a very special meaning for us as we made our way through the 42 hour journey from the Viking Sun to our home. Spoiler alert…we made it home, but the way forward, like life itself, didn’t turn out exactly the way we planned.

Armed with face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, all of our luggage, and a printout of our itinerary taking us from Dubai to JFK to Cleveland, we arrived at the Dubai airport on 3/22 at 11:00 pm and passed the first checkpoint health assessment. Since Dubai was not on our original itinerary and we didn’t have a visa, Viking had arranged for single-use transit visas that would allow us to get through the airport. We verified who we were, found our name on their list, made our way to the Emirates Airline ticket counter, and gave our printout to the ticketing agent. We were getting closer to being on our way! As she searched and searched, she began to look perplexed. “I don’t have a reservation in my system for you at all,” she politely said. In complete disbelief…after all, we had our printout that clearly said we had flights from DXB to JFK to CLE…we asked her to call her supervisor, who confirmed that we were, in fact, not in their system. Holding our ground, as well as our place in line, Denise whipped out her cell phone and called the Customer Service Desk at the Viking Sun to explain our dilemma. The ship got in touch with the folks at Viking Air who said they could see our reservation in their system, but Emirates simply didn’t have it. Going back to the ship wasn’t an option because we had used our one-time visa to get into the airport, so Denise went into “Denise mode” and that can get ugly for the target. “After all, we had our printout!” After much back and forth on this three-way call, the folks at Viking worked their magic and got us a reservation. However, when the ticketing agent pulled it up, it was for DXB to LAX to JFK! Trying to keep her cool with her head ready to explode, Denise told them to stop thinking about JFK and just figure out a way to get us to CLE! After much back and forth, they finally got us a reservation for a flight on 3/23 at 8:30 am. We checked our bags, got our boarding passes, grabbed our hand luggage, and found a quiet corner and some lounge chairs to wait the 8 hours for our flight. Under different circumstances, we would have enjoyed wandering around the many interesting shops in the Dubai airport, but by then we just wanted a quiet place to rest.

At around 6 am we decided to make our way to our gate. Just when we could see Gate 19, the hallway to it was cordoned off and the 500+ people in the airport were herded from wherever they were into a big room for “thermal screening.” Unsure of what that even meant, we followed the leader to a very crowded, disorganized area and waited…and waited. We were definitely NOT keeping our social distance as little kids wailed, tempers flared, elderly people struggled, and chaos prevailed.

We made it through thermal screening, and arrived at our gate. Again, the scene was pretty chaotic but we knew we were at the right gate and getting close. All of a sudden, the crowd began to move forward and Doug figured out that they were beginning the boarding process without any announcements, organized groups, etc. We got close to the gate and were told that because we had first class seats, we had to find the elevator to the second floor to board. Once again, herding cats!

This, however, is where, for the next 18 hours, the story takes a completely different turn as we entered a parallel dimension. First Class on Emirates is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives, and given the cost of the tickets (which were included in our cruise price) we won’t likely have this experience again. We were shown to our individual, private cubbies that were equipped with every amenity one could imagine. We hardly noticed that the plane remained on the ground for about two hours after pulling away from the gate, as it took that long to acclimate to our surroundings. The photos don’t do it justice, but there’s fresh orchids, an individual mini-bar, yummy snack basket, lighted vanity mirror with high-end lotions and oils including a sleep oil, gourmet food and beverage service on demand, a complimentary swag bag with soft, comfy pajamas, slippers, and a little travel bag containing every amenity one could need from toothbrush to hair brush to Borghese lotions, etc. When we were ready to sleep, the flight attendant turned our seats into actual beds with feather mattress, coverlet, and pillows.

And then there’s the food! The entire menu, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks is available 24/7. During the course of our journey, we enjoyed caviar and Dom Perignon, a delicious Arabic mezze (an assortment of Arabic delicacies), fresh prawn salad, and breakfast. In between, we sipped on tea, cappuccino, and biscotti. Everything is beautifully served on a white tablecloth and lovely china. After a restful sleep, we were able to take a shower, again with all the amenities. Each passenger is given 25 minutes in the spa-like shower room, and nothing could have been more refreshing. When we got back to our cabins, there was a fresh fruit plate waiting for us. And tiny chocolates are the final treat at the end of every meal.

Upon arrival in LAX, US customs and immigration were pretty straightforward, and with the airport so empty, we got through without too much hassle. We were surprised that although they asked a few questions about where we were and how we felt, there was no real health screening. We found a United Club with an outdoor seating area, and waited the 6.5 hours until our red-eye flight. It was comforting to see our plane just below, knowing that we were getting closer to home. The plane was almost empty, but it got the job done!

As we touched down in CLE in the early morning hours, we were a bit emotional (OK, Denise was more emotional than Doug.) We had left this airport almost three months ago with dreams of an incredible four month world cruise. We experienced 81 days of some of the highest of highs along with some low points to keep us grounded. The things for which Cleveland is known gave us comfort. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Superman, Duck Tape, the guitar that Denise’s former employer sponsored for Guitar Mania, our world class health, education, and cultural institutions all have airport signs to welcome us home. Indeed, there’s no place like home!

Gina and Matt brought our car to the airport for us, and we couldn’t have been happier to see them. Although our real embraces will wait til we know we’re healthy (we feel fine, by the way, but who knows what we might have come across during the past 42 hours!), there is very real joy in our return. Gina might have a future with Emirates, as she thought of EVERYTHING! She filled our fridge with staples, prepared food, yummy snacks, and even some frozen beef from Matt’s dad’s farm. She sorted our mail into neat piles, kept almost all of our plants healthy, and put beautiful yellow tulips on our table. And our grandson Lewi made us the best sign ever, which we shared at the top of this post!

We are grateful for our wonderful family and friends. We know we gave you some moments of heartburn over the past few months, and we thank you for your prayers, thoughts, and love. We’ll be staying home for a while, and happily so. Hints of spring are all around us, and with that comes the hope that someone will find a cure for COVID-19 soon. Cyclones, a world pandemic, rough seas, and political realities intervened, but nothing can take our experiences away from us. We were happy to share them with you, and looking forward to our next adventure! Since the primary categories for this blog are travel, family and friends, and food, be on the lookout for some future posts that cover these topics…probably just food in the foreseeable future!

Departure from Dubai

Just when we were comfortable with our decision to stay on the Viking Sun until we reached the US, word from the Coast Guard about US port closings and an advisory from the State Department led to the decision to end the Viking World Wonders Cruise, disembark ALL passengers in Dubai, and fly us home. This left us shaking our heads, as we could quite possibly be among the only 300 Americans who have not even tangentially been exposed to COVID-19, but they have have no choice but to follow the State Department directives. The theme of this cruise has been “It is what it is,” and as we write this we’re packing our bags for a 2:30 am flight to JFK. Since we’ll already likely be exposed by then, we plan to fly to Cleveland from there and head home. Our daughter Gina and her husband Matt will drive one of our cars to the airport where they’ll park our car and let us know where it is. That way we’ll avoid exposing her and her family, and we’ll head home. We can’t thank Gina enough for keeping up with our house, mail, plants, cars, etc. while we’ve been gone.

As we look around the Dubai Cruise Terminal at Port Rashid, we count 8 luxury cruise ship docked along the port along with row upon row of brand new white cars and vans. With over 500,000 annual visitors, the cruise terminal is considered to be one of the top 5 most luxurious ports in the world. We won’t see much of the terminal…or the rest of Dubai for that matter…as we will be taken directly to the airport via shuttle without a shore excursion!

We’d be lying if we said we aren’t more than a little bit anxious about navigating through 3 airports to get home, but we’re armed with masks, gloves, and antiseptic wipes, and we promise not to touch anything above our shoulders without washing our hands before and after.

We remain grateful for the incredible experiences we’ve had and the friends we’ve made on this cruise. Last night our incomparable crew gave us a wonderful farewell party, complete with a guest appearance by our multi-talented cruise director Beven accompanied by our rock star captain Lars. The entire crew came onto the stage to say goodbye amidst thunderous applause and no small amount of tears. With all of the changes and uncertainties we faced together, we got very close to many of our fellow guests and crew, and we wish them all healthy, safe returns to their homes.

We have so much more to share with you about the ship, entertainment, food, crew, etc. and thought there would be time to do so as we sailed home. Perhaps one day we’ll finish this story, but for now please know how grateful we have been for all of you who have been following along with us. We felt your presence and your support as we navigated these waters, and we hope to finish this story one day.

Until then, we wish you all a sailor’s blessing for “Fair winds and following seas and long may your big jib draw!” 

Muscat, Oman and Another Change in Plans

Capital of the oil-rich nation of Oman, Muscat is the country’s political, economic, and commercial hub. Situated between the Arabian Sea and the rocky Western Al Hajar Mountains, Muscat is described in the travel literature as “an exciting mix of medieval, traditional, and modern architecture with an ambiance all its own.” The local pilot is refusing to come on board to guide us into and out of the port, so Captain Lars brought us into Port Sultan Qaboos with an expert and steady hand. The dry, rocky hills dwarf the city below, but impressive forts, mosques, and incredible private yachts can be seen from the ship. Unfortunately, this is just about all we’ll see of Muscat, as this has turned into another “technical stop” where we’ll pick up supplies and fuel. It’s a beautiful day here, so here are a few pictures from the sun deck. It looks like a pretty nice place to visit!

We haven’t posted for a few days for several reasons. First, the wi-fi has been very sketchy through the Arabian Sea. Two days ago, the crew added razor wire to the perimeter of the second floor and private armed security will be with us as we navigate the waters where there is a risk of pirate activity (one more thing!) This is done with an abundance of caution, and shouldn’t raise any more concern than everything else that’s going on in the world. In addition, our itinerary and plans continue to be very fluid, and we didn’t want to share anything until we had a pretty firm idea of what Viking is planning for us going forward.

But before we share the latest, please allow us to reiterate how wonderful Viking has been through all of this. Port after port has denied us entry, and yet the competent, cheerful crew continues to go far above and beyond to ensure our health, safety, and comfort. Overall, the mood is upbeat and people are making the best of it (not really difficult on a luxury cruise ship with a current crew/passenger ratio of about 1.5/1!)

We’ve been through multiple health screenings, and since no new passengers have been allowed to come on-board since Sydney on February 12th, we believe we might just be the healthiest place in the world right now! A wise decision was made several days ago to cancel plans for any more sightseeing ports. And yesterday, another really difficult decision was made, again putting our health and safety paramount. After today’s supply stop in Muscat, we will sail directly to Dubai. All non-US citizens (about 50 passengers, mostly Aussies) will disembark to fly home. We were given the option to fly all the way to the US as well, but quite frankly, given the risks of taking multiple long flights through contaminated airports and rapidly closing borders, we decided to take option B along with about 300 other Americans. After Dubai, the Viking Sun will sail through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea making technical stops as needed. After that, we will make a trans-Atlantic crossing to a US port on the east coast that has yet to be determined. This, we all believe, will optimize the likelihood that we will reach the US without contamination of COVID-19. Once we reach the US, we’ll see what’s next. Of course, all of this is subject to change, but this is another area in which Viking has excelled. We’re getting frequent updates as circumstances change, and the ship’s executives have been available and accessible, especially when the news isn’t great and passengers have difficult questions.

So that’s the latest! We’re watching the world news carefully, and thinking good thoughts and saying prayers for our loved ones back home. We’re proud of your resilience in dealing with the risks, ambiguities, shortages, and other difficulties you’re enduring in your efforts to flatten the curve. We’re especially grateful to all of our relatives and friends in healthcare and other essential jobs who are putting everything on the line every day so that others can live. Know that you hold a special place in our hearts and prayers. This isn’t the season any of us planned, but it’s the one we’re given while so many around the world, and even in our own communities, don’t have the options we have. We’ll post from time to time so that you know where we are and what we’re up to. And we’ll close this post with the same advice our dear captain has been giving us at the end of each of his messages: Take care of yourselves, and take care of one another!

Sri Lanka: Overnight Technical Stop and An Update

Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia located in the Indian Ocean between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. We were supposed to spend several days on this picturesque (at least according to the travel websites) island, but once again, COVID-19 is keeping us out. We were, however, allowed a “technical stop” to pick up some supplies and fuel, and we’re grateful for that. Arriving at sunset, we were aware of the presence of armed guards (in masks, of course!) throughout the pier. We weren’t entirely sure if they were to keep us out or to keep others away from us, but whatever their role, we were on our best behavior. We also noticed some dock workers who were apparently on break, but who were we to tell!

The Port of Colombo is the largest and busiest port in Sri Lanka. Located on the southwestern shores on the Kelani River, it serves as an important terminal in Asia due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. The port was busy all night, and although it made for a somewhat noisy evening, we were grateful for the fuel and supplies. In the morning, a thick haze enveloped the skyline and a pungent smell of smoke filled the air. We have no idea what was going on, but the skyline was somewhat obscured from view on the port side of the Viking Sun. The whole port operation is pretty impressive, and we spent a long time watching the loading and unloading of countless containers, causing us to wonder what was in them and where they were heading.

The very tall structure to the left of the Colombo skyline is the new Lotus Tower. An impressive 1,168 feet tall, the tower was opened in the fall of 2019. According to reports, the 7 year construction of Lotus Tower was funded by the government of China at a cost equal to $104.3 million USD. The tower’s main purpose is to function as a single transmission hub for telecommunications, digital TV, and radio. In addition to functioning as a TV Tower, the Lotus Tower includes a hotel, restaurant, communication museum, supermarkets, food courts, ballrooms, a conference center, and a shopping mall. The design of this building is inspired by the lotus flower, which symbolizes purity within Sri Lankan culture. Although we were docked quite far from the tower, it looks beautiful on the skyline, and would have been a great place to visit if we had been allowed.

So our overnight technical stop in Sri Lanka didn’t give us a whole lot to talk about, but we wanted to let our followers know that we’re still well and hanging in there. We’re painfully aware of the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on our loved ones and others throughout the world. For now, the impact on us has been primarily been related to the disruption of our world cruise…kind of pales by comparison. We’re proud to read that our home State of Ohio is leading the way with pro-active efforts to lower the curve and contain this beast. And we’re equally proud of the Cleveland Clinic’s heroic efforts to provide drive-thru access to testing with rapid turnaround. While we wouldn’t advise surviving a pandemic on board a cruise ship, and definitely wouldn’t recommend boarding a cruise ship today, we just wanted to let you know we’re safe, well, and still enjoying great service, delicious food, good wine, and entertainment. We’re getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, and Viking has gone beyond belief to ensure our comfort and safety. With each and every reminder to “wash, wash, wash,” our Captain Lars ends his comments with “take care of each other.” That’s what we’re trying our best to do, and that’s our advice to all of you. We’ll be at sea for the next three days en route to our next technical stop in Muscat, Oman. After that, we really don’t know, but we’ll let you know as soon as we do! Meanwhile, you’re in our thoughts, prayers, and hearts! Here are a few shots from last night to prove we’re OK!

Beautiful Bali

Driving through the Port of Benoa, we were struck by the hustle and bustle of this busy port town. People were taking a variety of modes of transportation, from cars, to scooters, to trucks, to small canal boats, to the occasional traditional horse-drawn carriage.

Due to our abbreviated time in Bali, we confined our visit to the southern region, starting with the capital city of Denspar. Founded as a market town (its name translates into “north market”), Denspar offers bright, bustling markets as well as serene, elegant temples. A visit to the local markets offers an almost overwhelming array of colors, sights, sounds, smells, and products. The food market has floors for “wet goods” such as meat and fish and “dry goods” such as fruits and vegetables. While we were able to identify much of it, some of the more exotic items were simply delightful to look at.

We browsed the galleries at the Bali Museum featuring local art and rich history. While we were there, a number of beautiful young couples were taking pre-wedding photos in traditional Balinese garb. We understand that these photos will be utilized on their wedding invitations. With permission, we captured some of these precious moments.

On Denspar’s north side, we visited the temple of Jagatnatha, the most important Hindu Kahyangan temple in the city. Dedicated to the existence of the supreme God, Sanghyang Widi, it is elaborately decorated with carvings symbolizing Balinese Hinduism.

We then traveled to the southernmost part of Bali where we stopped at Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK) Park, one of Bali’s most iconic landmarks. The GWK statue depicts Wisnu riding Garuda. In Hindu mythology, Lord Wisnu is seen as the protector of the Universe, while his trusted companion, the mighty eagle-like Garuda represents loyalty and selfless devotion. Kencana means gold, and both are adorned in crowns of gold mosaic. The Garuda is also the national emblem of Indonesia and represents freedom. Designed by renowned Balinese artist Nyoman Nuarta, the statue is made of copper and brass. It stands 397 feet high and has a wingspan of 210 feet. Its distinct green color comes from oxidization as the copper ages. In addition to the magnificent, imposing statue, the GWK Park includes beautiful gardens, a lotus pond, theaters, cinema, food court, and a commercial strip. Traditional Balinese performances and parades are offered throughout the day, making this a delightful place to learn more about Balinese culture.

We traveled a bit further south to Pura Luhur Uluwatu, site of the magnificent Uluwatu Temple. Renowned for its picturesque location 250 feet above the Indian Ocean, Uluwatu is surrounded by a small forest where hundreds of monkeys dwell. It is believed that these monkeys guard the temple from any bad spirits. But our guide gave us a strong warning to remove our glasses, earrings, and any other tempting adornments, as the monkeys are quite aggressive and have been known to steal glasses and jewelry with great skill! We saw one help himself to a can of soda and an egg, but we’re not sure where that egg came from! At this temple, we were asked to wear a kamben, a sarong that is worn to cover the lower part of the body. We were told that the kamben is tied around the waist and should fall just below the knees. For men, it is customary to wrap from left to right, representing the good (dharma.) Men’s kambens are a bit longer, suggesting that men should cover more ground in supporting their families. Women tie their kambens from right to left as a sign that women are saktis, keeping the men balanced. Dating back to the 11th century, this beautiful example of Balinese architecture is adorned with traditional gateways and ancient sculptures, but it’s the location that makes it truly special.

After our visit to Uluwatu, we traveled to the tranquil Jimbaran Bay for a traditional Balinese seafood dinner on the beach, a fitting end to an incredible day.

After a very busy day of sightseeing, we opted for a drive to the beach at a popular resort in Nusa Dua. The white sandy beach provided a tranquil end for our two days in Bali, and the ride gave us a different perspective on this lush, beautiful island as we saw pretty parts of Bali that are very popular with tourists.

Not sure where we’re headed next, but our two days in Bali were full and fun. We’re so grateful to have had the chance to experience the beauty of Bali.

Magical Mystery Tour Update

Since our last post on “fake news,” we sailed on to Bali, where we were assured that because everyone had passed the previous health screening, we would be allowed to disembark. After being turned away in Semarang and Surabaya, Java, we were excited about the prospect of spending three beautiful days in Benoa. Upon arrival, we anchored off this southern port and awaited the “All Ashore.” Several hours later, as we continued to wait, we were informed that the governor and representatives of the health department were meeting with staff from the US, Canadian, and several other consulates; leadership from Viking; and others to reconsider our fate. Just before dinner, after waiting around all day, we were notified that if all 1300+ passengers and crew passed yet another screening, we would be able to disembark. So throughout the dinner hour, we were summoned to the theater floor by floor. And once again, miraculously NOT ONE temperature…a testament to all of our nurse pals who have forever been telling us to “WASH YOUR HANDS!” We went to bed not knowing if the Balinese authorities were going to make good on their word. At 7:00 am, we learned that we would, in fact, be able to go ashore in Bali, and all of our excursions would proceed as planned. We were also warned that the media would be there, as this had become big, if fake, news. The paparazzi, wearing masks, were lined up with cameras at the ready.

As all of this was going on, guests and crew were making a difficult decision. While some passengers were scheduled to disembark (originally in Hong Kong, but now in Bali), Viking had offered the rest of us a refund of the balance of the cost of the cruise as well as a future cruise credit to compensate for the missed ports. Crew were also given an option to disembark if they had concerns. The other big question among passengers was how Viking planned to screen new passengers and crew scheduled to board in Bali, and later in Mumbai.

Early on Sunday, before our tours began, we were called to a meeting. On stage were Viking Sun Captain Lars Kjeldsen, General Manager Norbert Tesch, Cruise Director Beven Addinsall, and Viking Operations Director Karl Eckert, who traveled to Bali to help with the situation. Rumors were flying around the room, as passengers speculated on what they might have to say.

Their message was clear and concise. They thanked everyone for their full cooperation and understanding during this difficult time, and reiterated their sincere concern for the guests and crew on board. They informed us that Viking is offering the remaining guests and crew the opportunity to remain on board for a cruise “from Bali to somewhere!” Although additional passengers were scheduled to board in Bali and Mumbai, they had been notified that they would not be joining the cruise, as Viking had no way of assuring their health status. And they gave guests and crew one last chance to disembark. While about 400 guests got off the ship, we decided to stay and enjoy the adventure.

So as it stands, we’re not sure how many will be on board…we’re not sure where we’re going…and today everyone who’s staying is calling the Viking Sun our “private yacht!” This, we were told, will be the first and only time Viking will do this, but it’s being done with our health and well being at the forefront of their decision making, and we are grateful for that. These leaders also gave great kudos to the crew, who have been incredible throughout. As we reflect on how this could have been handled, we realize we’re witnessing great leadership at work. Viking is doing the right thing for the right reasons.

So we’re fine… everyone on board is fine…and we hope you’ll continue to follow our journey. As one dear friend said, “You wanted an adventure!” And adventure is what we’re getting! Today’s daily bulletin says “Welcome to the Viking World Magical Mystery Tour! Bali to Somewhere!”🤣

But for today, we’re off to enjoy another day in Bali.

Fake News…Not the Virus!

Today our ship anchored just off the port of Semarang, Java bright and early. The evening before, we had received a two-sided health screening form, and were informed that we should complete the form and report to our designated Assembly Station at 6:30 am. There, we were to be met by the Indonesian Health Department authorities for temperature checks and health screenings. We were all there ready to go when we were informed that the authorities would be late. We waited…and waited…and then the incredible Viking Sun servers showed up with trays of mimosas and sparkling wine to brighten the mood! The authorities arrived at about 8:30, and EVERY guest and crew member sailed through the screening. The 12 authorities who had come on board stayed for lunch, and shortly thereafter cleared us to arrive in the port of Semarang. And we waited…and waited…and waited. It seems that the authorities in Surabaya, Java (the port we were scheduled to visit the NEXT day) had picked up a fake news story about our visit to Komodo the previous day. The story reported that based on the health screenings performed in Komodo, two possible cases of coronavirus might be on board our ship. The story was entirely false, as everyone had passed the health screenings in Komodo as well. However, based on that information, Surabaya decided we could not come. And based on Surabaya’s decision, the local authorities in Semarang overrode the authorization we had been given by the Indonesian government, and canceled our visit to Semarang as well. Our incredible Captain Lars negotiated a “technical docking” in Semarang to allow our crew to unload several containers of supplies that were already there, but the directive was that no one would be allowed off the ship. A little while later, the pilot showed up in full hazmat gear to guide us into the port. And for the next several hours, fork lift operators moved pallet after pallet of supplies. It was actually an interesting process, as cases and cases of wine, produce, paper goods, meats, and other supplies were removed from the containers, moved to the dock, then loaded onto the ship. We watched for a while, and were moderately amused by a line of “supervisors” wearing masks and drinking water watched the fork lift operators and our crew work their tails off!

We know this post is very different from most of our other stories, but we wanted to share a bit about how the virus has affected our journey. Even more important, however, is how uncertain the world has become as a result of Covid 19. Our itinerary has become day to day, and while this has been a bit frustrating as travelers, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to what the people who are actually sick from this virus are going through. And it’s even less important than those who are caring for them, often under the most challenging of circumstances, with concern about adequate supplies and sufficient testing and treatment resources.

As we float around enjoying yet another magnificent sunset, our thoughts and prayers are with the countless public health professionals, healthcare workers, and researchers who are working tirelessly to combat this disease. And we remain grateful for Viking’s leadership in ensuring our safety and well being by keeping up with REAL information and providing CARE for each guest and crew member.