Dubai and Oman's Musandam Peninsula, December 20-25 2016

It's the second year in a row that Emily has been the winter trip planner. Last year she picked a destination that none of us had even heard of -- the Cape Verde Islands off West Africa -- and it was a big success. This year she chose Oman in the Middle East, which we'd heard of but knew little about. The main event is a 9-day trek in the mountains near Muscat. ("Trek" is a loose term, with a vehicle for our stuff, a mix of camping and lodges, and canyoning and via ferrata climbing along with hiking.) We're also taking a quick look at Dubai since we needed to fly through regardless, and visiting the close by Musandam Peninsula, belonging to Oman but geographically separated from the rest of the country. When it was announced in July that Iran's Qeshm Island in the Strait of Hormuz would become visa-free this fall, we eagerly (and perhaps slightly naively) added it to our itinerary.

It's just three of us this time, as Tim opted to stay in the U.S. and enjoy a Southwest road trip with his girlfriend -- she's a fellow Stanford student and they looked forward to time together without school pressures. It's unlikely that our days of all-family adventure vacations are entirely behind us, but inevitably they won't be as regular as they used to be.

As with last winter's trip, when Emily headed back to college in the fall she handed over the final details to Jennifer. (Jennifer began a year-long worldwide "instructional odyssey" in August, so she's been in travel and trip-planning overdrive.) For this trip there were many pieces to fit together, and taking a rental car across the border from Dubai to Oman (and back) seemed complex but do-able. But it was the short round-trip flight between Dubai and Qeshm that became a never-ending nightmare: Tickets couldn't be purchased online but we found an agency in Italy that would get them for us. The agency's name, "Iran Travel," caused Paypal to hold up the transaction but eventually we got it through. A month later the airline decided to cancel all its flights to Qeshm in December. The Italian agency claimed they would get us flights on the one other airline serving Qeshm, and after many delays involving an intermediary agency, they seemingly did so. But when we got to Dubai and called the airline to reconfirm, we were told the intermediary agent had canceled our tickets. We had no recourse but to buy new tickets on the spot, though even that incurred a hiccup: The airline initially insisted they couldn't sell us tickets if we didn't have visas, and only when they called the Iranian Embassy did things get cleared up. (It's possible we're the first Americans to fly this airline since Qeshm became visa-free.) As for the Italian agency, we're not exactly holding our breath for a refund of the undelivered tickets.

Enough prologue, on to the actual travelogue.

After a rendezvous with Emily at the Amsterdam airport and a late-night arrival in Dubai, we had just enough time in the morning to admire the famous skyline through a haze of dust, purchase the above-mentioned replacement plane tickets, then head off to the Musandam Peninsula. We'll have a few hours to see more of Dubai later in the trip. Picking up the rental SUV wasn't flawless ("the vehicle you reserved isn't allowed into Oman"), nor was crossing the border ("the mandatory Omani insurance must be paid for in local cash"). In both cases, as with the problematic plane tickets, the local people involved made a real effort to get things to work for us and succeeded, with much appreciation on our part.

The 2-3 hour drive from Dubai to Khasab, the main town of the Musandam Peninsula, began with a giant urban traffic jam and ended with a spectacular road along an empty rugged winding coast. Khasab is a port town in a large valley with date palm plantations and mountains in all directions (photos 1-2). One of its more dubious claims to fame is nightly smuggling of American cigarettes across the Strait of Hormuz to Iran, apparently in exchange for goats. We rented the SUV specifically so we could spend a day exploring the precipitous dirt roads lacing the mountains behind the town. The raw landscape and remarkable roads aren't really done justice in photos, though we tried (photo 3). Our other main activity was a full-day excursion aboard a "dhow" (traditional Arabian boat, examples in photo 4), cruising the Musandam Fjords known for their stark cliffs and playful dolphins. We had plenty of both (photos 4-6), as well as simply enjoying a pleasant day on a boat with interludes for swimming and snorkeling.

The drive back to Dubai was smooth with nice views, an easy border crossing, few traffic jams, and an uneventful rental car return. Whew!

Next: Fingers crossed we'll successfully board our flight to Qeshm Island, where we're spending three full days before returning to Dubai and then continuing to the Muscat (Oman) area for the rest of the trip.

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