Tauck Tours

After looking at several choices, it was either a two-tour combination which gave scheduling troubles, or was too expensive, etc. I settled on Tauck when they came up with a reduced (but still expensive) introductory trip price. It's more Israel than I would have chosen, and I'll miss Wadi Rum in Jordan, darn it. Rats! And other words censored.

Pre-trip guess and Post-trip comment: too much time in Israel and too little in Jordan; way too much time and money for fancy hotels and too little in going to see and do things. But that's Tauck - money spent for the wrong reasons!

Also they over-rate their meals with poor choices of food. Although there WERE some nice activities, I see it as a Poor value for the money overall. Tauck acknowledges in their literature that single travellers pay double for the hotel portion of the trip costs, and since they use all these "luxury" hotels, it gets just too expensive. I probably won't travel with Tauck again

Day 1, Wednesday, November 24 Depart US
For the last trip of the year, it's another long flight. Continental changed the schedule - eliminated the original second flight and substituted a much later Newark - Tel Aviv flight. At least they also changed the first flight at my request (no charge) so I still have only a 4 hour layover in Newark but arrive later than Tauck requested. However it's the only option. The later time IS a better schedule for me.

With a later first flight, there is no problem having a good StuporShuttle pickup time - 10:25 10:40 AM which is a bit early since I have to confront not only the holiday crowds, but also the proposed demonstrations about the security screening - which doesn't happen. I hadn't thought about the holiday crowd when I originally booked this particular tour departure. Actually everything went very quickly - only 50 minutes from the time the Shuttle arrived, we drive to the airport, and I check the luggage and get through security. As for security, there were three ways to go through: a) full body scan, b) pat-down, and c) go through the (old style) regular scanner. I lucked out and had a quick pass through the c) method. Now Wow! I even have time for a nice BBQ lunch.

Continental CO 62Houston - Newark2:25 P - 6:55 P3:30(4:05)
Continental CO 90Newark - Tel Aviv11:00P - 4:10P10:20(17:45)

Day 2 (1), Thursday, November 25 Welcome to Israel
In Newark there is time for a snack before staying awake (as usual) on the plane all night. With an 11PM departure, I didn't think we would get dinner (or should that be an early breakfast since by Israel time, we're fed at 8AM), but we do - a quite nice one and a good "breakfast" many hours later. I'm getting to "hate" long flights! When I checked in (24 hours ahead of time in Houston), I tried to $upgrade$ to a better seat but no luck since the flight was very over-booked - probably due to that eliminated flight.

Continental CO 90Newark - Tel Aviv11:00P - 4:17P10:17(17:52)

I have a very late afternoon arrival due to flight length and time zone changes. Tauck specifies to arrive by 3PM but with Continental's reduced schedule, there is no choice. Tauck said the later arrival was ok since they know about it; I'll still have an included transfer (verified Nov 19) but might miss the 7PM "party." I have a worse schedule on the return flights with two very long layovers.

CLIMATE: Tel AvivHaifaDead SeaPetra
Nov60 - 7560 - 7551 - 6745 - 69
Dec53 - 6753 - 6644 - 57 38 - 59

The weather has been running about 10 -12 degrees (F) above normal and is forecast to continue that way for the next several days. They are also having a significant drought - no rain for almost a year.

As a security measure, we have to be in our seats, and stay there, for the last 45 minutes before we are to land in Tel Aviv. I have a very late afternoon arrival (but relatively on-time at least) due to flight length and time zone changes. Tauck specified to arrive by 3PM but with Continental's reduced schedule, there is no choice. Tauck said the later arrival was ok since they know about it; I still have an included transfer but almost miss the 7PM 6:30 PM "social (half) hour." I have a much worse schedule on the return flights with two very long layovers.

On arrival at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport I'm met by a Tauck representative (not the Tour Director), turned over to the bus driver who speaks almost no English, and eventually transferred to the $InterContinental David Tel Aviv$, set in the city's most fa$hionable neighborhood, that is, after the bus driver takes us to the wrong hotel the first time. He's very upset (angry at us?) that he has to reload the luggage and drive us to the correct hotel - he even suggests that we walk since it's "close by." The hotel itself is a beach-front hotel which, along with a few others, is located on the edge of town (not really in walking distance) and immediately makes me think of being location-trapped in a (very) high-end Wacky-Ki, Hawaii.

Our program begins at 6:30 PM at the hotel - and I barely make it - it's 6:15 before we finally arrive at the correct hotel, get checked in, and my luggage finally gets to the room (the hotel staff delivered it to the wrong room at first, but that got cleared up). Two problems right at first; not the best of starts!

This evening we have our Welcome cocktail Deception (deceptive welcome?) and a (no resemblance to a Thanksgiving) tiny but nice dinner and meet the other 34 travelers and the Tauck Director: Mark Goldsmith-Holt (from Tucson, Arizona). Our regular driver turns out to be Yossef, not the driver who took 3 of us to the wrong hotel. Time Zones - Israel and Jordan are 8 hours ahead of Houston time. (D) Hotel: InterContinental David Tel Aviv (2 nights) with VERY expensive internet charges which I won't pay. It's a very nice room and a nice hotel - if you like overpriced, overdone, glitzy hotels with ambigous or no local character.

Day 3 (2), Friday, November 26 Ancient Jaffa and contemporary Tel Aviv
After a so-so breakfast, today reveals some of the striking contrasts that define Israel. At 8:45 in our hotel during our welcome briefing, our local guide gives us a Hebrew lesson with handy words to know before we set off (10 AM) for a walking tour through the maze of narrow, cobblestone streets of 4000-year-old Jaffa, believed to be the oldest port city in the world even though it hasn't been in continuous existence since the Ottoman Turks destroyed all the coastal cities any time they were in control of the area - to restrict or prevent Western Jews from having access to Jerusalem. So the city has been built, destroyed, re-built when the West re-conquered the area, destroyed … many times. Explore the Visitors' Center in Kedumim Square and its museum with exhibits on the history of Jaffa and archaeological treasures. It's a very interesting old city with some the walls remaining, and the old, twisting narrow lanes (rather than streets) making it the best part of the day.

Still in Jaffa, a (not so) "special treat" for guests is a private showing of the works of artist, Ilana Goor, and a tour of her 270-year-old studio that she restored herself. It was originally built as a hostel for Jewish pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. Based on a "Google" search, this doesn't sound very interesting - and isn't. Also still in Jaffa, we have a lunch at Cordelia's which is located between the walls of Jaffa, actually within the walls of the "new" gate. Hmmm … later on our walk through Tel Aviv, we pass both McDonalds and KFC. I would have preferred either of these for lunch.

An afternoon tour of Tel Aviv reveals its modern energetic feeling and some of the 4,000 Bauhaus-architecture buildings that give the city its nickname, the "White City." However, for me, since it's a very new, modern city, the walk was pretty much boring. The evening is at "leisure" to find something to eat on our own but there's no McD or KFC nearby; Bummer, and I'm NOT paying this hotel's prices for food but since we're trapped in an Israeli Wacky-Ki, eating anywhere else also requires a taxi fare. Luckily I have some snack food along. (BL)

Day 4 (3), Saturday, November 27 Herod's ancient Caesarea and Haifa' Shrine of the Bab
We are currently in their "Shabbat" Sabbath (sundown Friday until sundown Saturday) so there's no "work" allowed. Even the hotel elevators are set on automatic so we won't have to punch the buttons (work). The elevators go up and down automatically stopping at every floor (24 of them). Also there's no hot (just barely warm) food for breakfast - cooking is "work."

We eventually escape from Wacky-Ki and head for Caesarea with Roman, the worst local guide I've ever been stuck with. His language pattern (uhhh, I errrr think ahhh that errrr ….) and voice are grating. Within 5 minutes I want earplugs; in 10, I want to throw him off the bus; in 15 I'm ready to abandon ship!

Over a period of just 12 years, Herod transformed Caesarea into a grand city and major seaport - and dedicated it to Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, who had returned it to Herod after wresting it away from Cleopatra. During a walking tour (during which I stay as far away from Roman as I can so I can't hear him talk), view the not-very-pectacular Roman amphitheater which has undergone so much renovation that it looks almost new so that it can still used as a performing venue today; what was once the great harbor Herod built but almost nothing remains; the hippodrome that held 20,000 spectators for chariot races in its heyday and the only site worth seeing; and what remains of Herod's palace which is almost nothing. Not much here worth photographing. As it turns out, this is definitely FAR less interesting than Jerash - a completely "wasted/ruined" day, particularly with Roman.

After a seafood (which I don't eat so I just had bread and lemonade) lunch at Helena's in the shade of a grapevine-covered patio among the flies at the family-owned Tishbi Winery featuring wines with the meal made for us by the family, and after wasting some "free time" for shopping, our tour continues on to Haifa, the international headquarters of the Baha'i Faith, and the Baha'i Shrine and Gardens on famous Mount Carmel. A succession of 19 manicured garden terraces (we have the chance walk 670 steps down 9 of them but I don't do it in order to avoid having to listen to Roman) lead down to the Shrine of the Bab, entombing the remains of the Bab, Baha'i Allah, the herald of the Baha'i Faith. Basically Roman turned what could have been a nice day into a bad one.

After that we have À la carte dining (very nice dinner) this evening from a selection of restaurants. (BLD) Hotel: The Colony Hotel Haifa (2 nights - small cramped rooms, somewhat minimal furnishings, needs refurbishing) Complimentary wireless internet, occasionally, when it works.

Day 5 (4), Sunday, November 28 Along the Sea of Galilee
Breakfast at 7; off at 8. The Sea of Galilee is a must-see place during an Israel travel experience. At the Yigal Alon Museum, we discover an archaeological treasure that rocked the worlds of archaeology, history and faith when it was found in 1986 - a fishing boat. Exhaustive scientific research places the fishing boat in the time and place of Jesus along the Sea of Galilee. During a short cruise on the Sea of Galilee (actually a small lake) we almost see sites that are an integral part of Christianity. Unfortunately the boat wasn't anywhere near enough to the shore to actually see much of anything; essentially it was wasted time. The next activity was much more interesting.

After the cruise we visit a kibbutz (the first one established in Israel) to reveal the history and modern-day life in these communities. The local guide there was fantastic with wonderful stories of the early years - making the history come alive. It's the highlight of the trip today. Then it's on to Nazareth. I had misinterpreted the notes - we do get there but the promised stop to take photos of Nazareth from a scenic overlook en route never materialized. We have a nice dinner at Diana's, then make a stop at the Church of the Annunciation where we see what is supposedly Mary's House. The Church is dedicated to her memory, not to Jesus. Each / every nation has designed and contributed a mural of their version of the appearance of Mary. Some of them are quite interesting. Nazareth itself, at least what we saw, seemed quite uninteresting; not at all what I had expected.

Back in Haifa, early this evening (6:00), we learn about the Baha'i Faith as well as the other main religions in Israel - Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Druze - actually more about how they are coexisting in Haifa - during a special private "Prophet Sharing" panel discussion for Tauck guests. It's a good session. (BL)

Note: the area just up the mountain from the Baha'i Garden is where a lot of the fire that ravages much of the area invades Haifa 4 days from now.

Day 6 (5), Monday, November 29 Akko - a place ruled by many
Today travel to one of the oldest continuously inhabited cites in the world, Akko (or Acre) dating back to the era of the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose. Begin our visit to this richly historical city with a walking tour through the walled city which takes in the Knight's Hall, the citadel and prison, as well as the ancient tunnels. Finish with a visit to the Jezzar Pasha Mosque, an excellent example of Ottoman architecture, named for Ahmed al-Jezzar Pasha, who defeated Napoleon at the 1799 French siege of Acre. We see traces of the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans, Bedouins and the British, who have all ruled here, as well as remains from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It's an excellent tour in a very interesting place.

Next is lunch at Uri Buri Restaurant, justly famous throughout Israel; lunch is prepared for us by Chef Uri Yirmias, and is followed by a visit to the inn that he is restoring for dessert and coffee. As for the lunch, it is another (censored … censored) RIP-OFF! Others get almost endless seafood dishes and lots of wine - I don't eat/drink either so I get one small (though nice) veggie plate and the bottle of water from the bus. Absolutely awful value for what is probably the most expensive lunch/meal of the trip. Huge RIP-OFF. I'm (censored) with Tauck meals.

Continue to Jerusalem, with a stop at the Mount of Olives Mt. Scopus for a scenic view out over the city but it's too late in the day and too hazy to see much of anything. Our hotel, the David Citadel, is one of the newest and most luxurious (and mo$t expen$ive) in the city, located at the doorstep of the Old City. Some guests enjoy views of the David Citadel and Tower and the picturesque city walls from their private balconies but just barely visible at an extreme angle from my room!

A half hour after arrival, Mark gives us a quick 20 minute walking introduction to the area including Mamilla Mall across the street from the monstrosity (hotel), and through that, a quick look past the Jaffa Gate into the old city. After the end of the walk, dinner is a hamburger and fries from one of the many nice little bistros (Hrzels) in the Mall, and is MUCH better than what I had for lunch. (BL) Hotel: David Citadel, Jerusalem (It better be good, we're stuck here wasting lots and lots of $$$. Actually if you like overpriced, overdone monstrosities, this hotel rates 8 stars. My very least favorite hotel of the trip and I'm stuck overpaying for it for four nights. VERY Bad deal!!!) Ultra-expensive High-speed internet access which again I won't use due to the cost, but I did break down and pay for one day (not all 4).

Day 7 (6), Tuesday, November 30 Jerusalem, city of diverse cultures
It's a very nice breakfast this morning - but of course we should expect that since we were told yesterday that this is second highest rated hotel in the world after Dubai's mega-billion $$ spectacular, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel - the world's only Seven Star hotel. Wow, I wonder what I paid for that bowl of corn flakes that I had for breakfast … or per sip of orange juice?? BTW, I will have the option to visit that Dubai hotel and have lunch there in 2012 (if my schedule holds) … and if I want to pay about $200 for the privilege … but I'll probably just settle for having stayed at the second best.

For three of the world's great religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Jerusalem is indeed a holy city of great significance. For our walking tour, we are divided into two groups, each led by a local guide. Our guide is Avi (excellent), and he and Mark begin with our walking through the Jaffa Gate to the Citadel. There we climb the tower for a great view of the city. Continue on to the Jewish Quarter of the city and the Cardo, today a bustling marketplace built atop a site dating back, in part, to the time of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century BC. A visit to the Sephardic Synagogues reveals a restored complex of four synagogues, Yochanan ben Zakai, Istanbuli, Eliahu Ha'navi and Emtsai, each built in a different time period to accommodate the needs of the Sephardic community of the day. We visit inside two of them then have lunch (a very nice lunch this time - in fact I think it's the best lunch of the trip) at the (Jewish) Quarter Café overlooking the Western Wall.

After lunch we walk on to the iconic Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple set beneath the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and as al-Haram al-Sharif to Muslims. It has been among Judaism's most holy prayer sites for over 2,000 years - people of many religions leave prayer notes in the cracks and crevices of the wall. There are also several "pan-handlers" there looking for handouts - so what else is new ?

We continue by bus to the top of the Mount of Olives for a different view of the city and a closeup of the burial tombs there. Then one more stop: Walk the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives; the garden's ancient olive trees, some believed to be about 2,000 years old, date back to the time of many Biblical events. We also make a brief visit inside the Basilica there.

What little is left of the afternoon is at leisure, providing only a short time to visit major attractions, sites and museums. As it happens, the hotel staff is doing some repair(?) work adjacent to my room; the noise (drilling and hammering) is bad but ends about 6. Dine à la carte tonight at Scala, one of the best restaurants in Jerusalem which of course is in our overpriced monstrosity of a hotel; of course they WOULD claim it as such. However it was at least as bad as the lunch was good. (BLD)

Day 8 (7), Wednesday, December 1 From the tomb of David's son to David's tower
Today briefly see the traditional site of the tomb of King David's son, Absalom. At the Temple Mount, see the most famous Islamic site in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock (no, we're NOT allowed inside). There we have to briefly combine our two groups (same as we had yesterday) since the other local guide, Shelly, is Orthodox Jew and because of her faith, cannot set foot on the level of the Temple. We split up again after we leave there. While there, both the Temple and the Basilica are very interesting; the Temple is beautiful. The reason we cannot go inside is NOT due to religion; it's because the Temple Authority wants to show that THEY control the place. They used to let "anybody" in for a $9 fee. Just think about how much money they are "throwing away" by not letting non-Muslims in now.

Then we make a brief "Falafal Break" which is falafal (getting a taste of what Mark claims is supposedly "the best Falafal in Jerusalem."), pita bread, and various spreads, plus a drink. Nice deal!

For many Christian pilgrims, a walk on the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried the cross to the site of the crucifixion after Pilate's condemnation is most impressive. Explore it (We pass Stations 3, 4, 5, 6, and those inside the Church) before continuing on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the location of the crucifixion and one the holiest Christian sites in the world and have quite an extended "tour" inside there.

After a really nice lunch at the Israel Museum - the second best of the trip, visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, and explore this living memorial to the Holocaust and those who perished in it. There is also a brief tour of the grounds of the Institute surrounding it.

We get back to the (still very noisy construction) hotel about 5:30, then at 6 we walk back through the Mamilla Mall (Hanukkah decorations are already up - or as the song goes: "It's Getting To Look A Lot Like Christmas" ) then through the Jaffa Gate to the Citadel in the Old City to attend a private reception (very nice collection of snack food) at the Tower of David Museum and, as the sun sets, watch the story of Jerusalem unfold in breathtaking "Light and Sound" show with images projected on the walls, archaeological ruins and hidden pathways of the Citadel, completely surrounding us in a multi-sensory experience. It's a great show. Dinner is on our own this evening after the show but we really don't need it after that great lunch and the reception snacks. There is still intermittent construction noise until about 10 PM. (BL)

Note: Hanukkah begins at Sundown. I wonder how much this will affect the tour. The hotel is having/hosting Hanukkah Candle Lighting ceremonies each evening.

Day 9 (8), Thursday, December 2 "Masada shall not fall again"
We have an early start this morning: 7:15. It's about a 90 minute drive south. Within 10 minutes we are out of Jerusalem and well into the desert. It would be desolate normally, but since they have had little rain for the last few years, and none so far this year, it's really dry, dusty, and desolate.

The "title" for the day is part of the oath sworn by soldiers of the Israeli army at Masada. Travel to the cliff-top fortress at Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by King Herod between 37 and 31 BC and the mighty stronghold of the Jewish Zealots who fled Jerusalem rather than submit to Roman rule during the First Jewish-Roman War in the 1st century AD. Take a cable car to the top of the mountain to explore the site, learn the story of what happened here over 2,000 years ago and discover why Masada has such significance today. It is another very interesting tour - maybe the highlight so far.

We (along with a huge number of Masada flies - at least 2 per person) have a sandwich snack lunch on the bus as we head back to Jerusalem, and supposedly drive by the place (maybe, nobody says anything) where the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed and view a few of them later (under such subdued light that it's almost impossible to see anything) at the Israel Museum, where they are enshrined. We get back to the hotel about 2:30 to still more construction noise. Staying in my room these days has NOT been enjoyable. We have the rest of the day free to repack for travel tomorrow, and to find something to eat in the Mamilla Mall across the street. Maybe I'll get another burger. The one I had the first evening here was good. (BL)

Day 10 (9), Friday, December 3 A visit to Bethlehem, back to Jerusalem, and on to Jordan
Morning (bad) news: there is a huge (forest) fire in the Haifa area just up the mountain from where we were 4 days ago. Several people are dead and many homes are already burned. Israel is woefully short on men and equipment to fight the fire, and is asking and receiving help from several nearby countries.

Following breakfast (which had an unusual addition: "Hot Chocolate Cake"), join a guided sightseeing excursion to Bethlehem. Since Bethlehem is Palestinian controlled, BRING PASSPORTS! Neither Avi nor Shelly can go with us since they hold Israeli citizenship. We go through the checkpoint with absolutely NO hassle or passport check, and into Bethlehem for a walking tour of the (with a possible long wait due to the Masses schedule - bring a book to read) Church of the Nativity, built over what is traditionally thought to be the birthplace of Jesus, one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. Beneath the elaborate church lies the Grotto of the Nativity; a silver star in the floor marks the very spot where Christ is believed to have been born, with the Chapel of the Manger just steps away. We also see the Cave of St. Jerome. Visit the Milk Grotto, then (after some wasted time for shopping - but I did splurge on a couple of olive-wood nativity scenes) return to Jerusalem briefly. Again no problems at all going back through the checkpoints (slow down for the bumps) so that worry is behind us.

Following lunch (pumpkin soup and salad) at the hotel (slightly better than that awful dinner we had earlier), we depart Jerusalem and Israel about 12:15 (ahead of their next "Shabbat" so have none of those difficulties) for Jordan.

Note: The tour crosses the Israeli border with Jordan at the Sheikh Hussein crossing / North Border, located 56 miles north of Amman close to Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). Our coach arrived at the Israel border where everyone has their passport stamped - the exit fee has been prepaid by Tauck. After processing we re-board the Israeli coach, which then crosses the border to the Jordan side. Once the coach is on the Jordan side, we again get off the coach and go to the terminal building while all luggage is transferred from our Israeli coach to our Jordanian coach. Then Mark, along with our Jordanian guide, use a passport manifest to pay the visa fees for us and lead us through an extremely slow immigration process and the security checkpoint. Passports are individually stamped and we board the Jordanian coach. This takes a VERY long time. When we are through that, fortunately we don't have to take our luggage off for another scan - it's just been done here just over an hour before. The entire process will probably take just over an hour - so says Tauck, but they lied: it takes just over 2 and a half hours.

Somewhere in the documentation, we were told that we shouldn't have an Israeli "immigration" stamp on our passport - which of course we get on arrival at the Tel-Aviv airport, but that turns out to not be true, at least for this trip.

Land of flies … and more flies and … even more flies

At the border, we not only get a new driver and a (3rd or 4th rate) Jordanian bus; we also pick up our Jordanian guide, Mohammad, and a "Tourist Police" officer; both of whom will be with us throughout our entire Jordanian visit. By the time we get through the border hassle, it's almost dark (another 20 minutes) Travels there begin as we drive in the dark (so we can't see anything) to the Dead Sea. Each time we enter the hotel, we have to have any luggage or hand item scanned before we can enter. We are on our own for dinner tonight - the scheduled dinner is re-scheduled for tomorrow. (BL) Hotel: Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea (2 nights and lots more $$$$) Nice hotel but extremely lacking on electrical outlets - only one! It's an extensive facility with many buildings (easy to get lost) and lots of amenities, but at least the décor has a nice interesting "character" to it's décor. The hotel is part of an isolated strip of new hotels fronting the Dead Sea - sort of a Jordanian Wacki-Ki. Broadband internet access but expensive so I take just a 24 hours option.BR>
General comments: I knew before I came that Nazareth and Bethlehem were no longer anything like (size, architecture, etc.) how they are depicted historically, but I didn't expect such large relatively modern towns. Even though they are nothing like the very new and therefore very modern Tel Aviv, it was a bit of a surprise. There still are many small shops and residences (mostly apartments - all over the area very few people own a private home) with a few very nice buildings and home in certain areas. But the result is that this isn't what I had expected to see. Even the small towns and settlements scattered over the landscape are more modern looking than what I had thought they would be.

Comments #2: Cats; I like cats, and cats seem to be everywhere in Israel, and so far, in Jordan. LOTS of cats. But in 10 days I have yet to see a dog. Hooray for cats!

Comment #2a: At lunch tomorrow in Jerash, the waiters wouldn't identify our meat dishes - just that it was "meat." Maybe that's what has happened to all the dogs.

Comment #3: After listening to our various local guides attempt to describe the various political, religious, and organizational factions all trying to grab as much power as they can for themselves (rather than try to solve the problems.) I think we should rename the "Middle East" to be the "The Muddled East."

Day 11 (10), Saturday, December 4 Journey to Jerash
Not much sleep last night. I suppose there is some kind of patio lounge nearby and there was quite a bit of caterwauling (singing? If you can call it that) until very late. I should probably change that description since to call it CATerwauling is a horrible insult to all dignified felines.

In daylight, this hotel is much more interesting and very nice in both architecture and landscaping. Breakfast (very nice) is at 6:30 and we take off in our 3rd rate bus at 8:30. Fortunately it's not too hot since the air conditioning has three settings: 1) off; 2) low (equivalent to a fan at 1 RPM blowing over 1 ice cube), and 3) high (fan at 5 RPM blowing over 2 ice cubes.)

Rather than just relax waste the whole day at our spa resort on the Dead Sea, fortunately there is an option of visiting the ancient city of Gerasa, today called Jerash. It's right in the middle of (totally surrounded by) the modern town of Jerash.

It's a 90 minute drive each way and we pass through the modern side of Amman on the way north. When we get there, the first impression is not all that great. However it does get much better and is somewhat similar to Dougga in Tunisia, and Ephesus in Turkey. Each of the three has it's own highlights. Step back in time 2,000 years as we explore the exceptionally well-preserved remains of Roman architecture in the Middle East, including Hadrian's Arch, the Hippodrome (not so great), the Oval Plaza, temples, theatres, arches and more in this archaeological site. The best is probably the amphitheater, nicely reconstructed. There we also are treated to a Bagpipe and Drum mini-concert by retired members of the Jordanian Army. They (the Jordanian Army) have an actual unit/band which plays the instruments.

After a fairly decent lunch in Jerash which we have to share with several cute little mooching cats who try to climb up on our chairs with us to get some food, we return to our resort about 2:30 to totally waste (grumble, growl and gritch!!) the rest of the afternoon (and more $$$) and evening. We do at least finally get the dinner that was re-scheduled from yesterday - it is slightly better than that disaster "special dinner" at the David Citadel, but not by much. In fact, I think that many of our Russian "UFO" entrees were better (see 2000 trip to Russia and Scandinavia.) I do have plenty of time tonight to repack for tomorrow's travel.

More Caterwauling tonight - I think it has to do at least in part with a "belly dance" program down in the restaurant area. I watched it a couple of minutes after we finished "dinner", but didn't think it worth staying to watch any more. (BLD)

Day 12 (11), Sunday, December 5 Along the King's Highway to Petra
We have another very nice breakfast - the two here have been by far the best of the trip so far. Then today, after we waste "almost half the day" with a scheduled "late" start at 10 which actually doesn't get off until 10:15, our travel takes us along the King's Highway, the oldest continuously used trading route in the world, en route from the Dead Sea to Petra (finally).

On a clear day, Jericho, the Dead Sea, the River Jordan and even Jerusalem can be seen from Mt. Nebo, known as Pisgah in the Bible. Our poor Jordanian bus can barely make it up the long twisting road to the top of Mt. Nebo. When we get there, there is so much haze that we can barely see anything, much less across to Jerusalem. We can't even explore the Memorial Church of Moses and its well-preserved, 6th-century mosaics since it's closed for a major restoration / reconstruction..

Our second stop is in Madaba after we have an almost runaway bus ride as it goes down the hill to Madaba. Here we do have a short visit St.George's Greek Orthodox Church to view a really incredible 6th-century map of all the major biblical sites of the time. A part of the original Cathedral of Madaba, on the site now occupied by the Greek Orthodox Church, it is estimated that it would have taken 11,500 hours to complete. Enjoy a fairly decent feast of authentic Jordanian cuisine at lunch.

We continue traveling south through ancient biblical lands, until we finally come to Wadi Mousa - the city adjacent to the Petra area, just as it gets dark - so again we can't see anything around the hotel. Again we have to have everything we are carrying scanned before we can go into the hotel. It's another Movenpick, smaller and more traditional in appearance and architecture, but still very nice. It's my favorite of the whole trip. We have our choice of "fine dining" with very slow service, or going through a buffet restaurant. I chose the buffet. Unexpected bonus: free internet. It seems that the hotel is in the process of changing service suppliers and for a while, it's free. (BLD) Hotel: Mövenpick Resort Petra (2 nights)

Day 13 (12), Monday, December 6 The Pink City of Petra
I've been trying to get here for about 3 or 4 years, so finally …. The 2,000-year-old city of Petra, which the ancient Nabataeans carved out of colorful sandstone cliffs, has recently been named one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World," and is quite simply amazing. Almost forgotten for over a thousand years and protected by the cliff of Edom, Petra is one of the best-preserved biblical sites in the world.

Today's schedule in brief: We leave at 8AM for the walk to Petra. From the hotel to the Gates of the historic area is about 2 blocks. Then after another 800 yards, we walk about 1 ¼ miles downhill through the narrow, high-walled canyon called the Siq … and suddenly, there it is, the huge and world-famous Treasury - our first sight is one of those special moments. Then we spend the rest of the morning wandering around on a guided tour of Petra's tomb facades, royal tombs, temples and other structures on foot ... the best way to really appreciate them, ending up in the Roman area where we have lunch. It takes us 4 hours - 8AM to noon to get this far. I skip the 900 step climb up to the Monastery (and 900 steps back down). Lunch (a barf-et) is at a jam-packed restaurant at the far end of the Roman section. This takes 30 minutes. We can then either walk, or return part way by (Horrors!) a 20 minute camel ride. The camel rides on my previous trips are already too many so I chose to walk! - back to the area of the Treasury. We still have that 1 ½ miles back to the hotel; most of it can be done by a carriage (very rough and bouncy) or we can walk it (uphill.) After walking back this far, I decide that the carriage ride is the better deal to get back to the front gates, and then walk across the street to the hotel.. As usual, lots of cats around, and I finally saw a dog that had escaped the stew pot.

If we survive the long walks … but some of the group DID have some troubles. Several tried the 900 step climb to the Monastery; 2 had to be carried back down. Many took the camel ride: one fell off and two others gave up part way, wanted off and walked the rest of the way.

Having finally made it back to the hotel, we have our farewell Deception in a dark bar at 6, followed by another 2-block walk at 7 to a local restaurant and a farewell micro-din-din, with very touristy entertainment. Ho-hum. At least the toilets now work. (BLD)

I really wish that this trip had included Wadi Rum, and to make up for the lack, had at one time planned to take a cruise late next year: Athens, islands, Israel, Egypt, Jordan wit Wadi Rum, but just decided to cancel out of that since it is expensive and only a very few new sights. It just isn't worth that much money for so few new sights and I'll save having to get a new passport (and ~$100) because of having Israeli entry and exit stamps.

Essentially the trip is now over. The rest is just "getting home" … which takes 2 ½ days.

Day 14 (13), Tuesday, December 7 Bethany?, a journey ends in Amman
Today is almost all just a driving day - over 4 hours back north. We have a nice breakfast before heading on past Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Christians believe that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist - we drive past; not stop, net even a mention. Then we continue past the Dead Sea turnoff, then to Amman.

In Amman we get a brief city tour to see all the major sights: McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Popeye's, Papa John, Pizza Hut, Dunkin' Donuts, KFC (Kentucky Fried Camel) etc. We then have a Lebanese lunch (all the waiters are Egyptian) and it is, for my tastes, the best lunch, and maybe the best meal of the trip.

It is a very nice, HUGE hotel, where we again have to put our carry-on luggage through a scanner. Also again there is lots of construction noise. It seems we can't get away from noise! There was a very heavy rain yesterday and the clouds are moving in again and the temperature is dropping. Tonight we do have a choice of 4 restaurants in the hotel for somewhere to eat. Those of us scheduled to depart early in the morning tomorrow stay at Le Méridien Amman "overnight." (BLD) Hotel: Le Méridien Amman

Day 15 (14), Wednesday, December 8 Journey home
A very early morning hours transfer is included for seven of us (other departure times for other groups) from Le Méridien hotel to Queen Alia International Airport. In order to allow 2 1/2 hours for flight check-in. it means getting a shuttle at at 5AM so we have to get up by 4 (I request a wake-up call just in case), and of course no breakfast, but supposedly we get a very nice one on the plane (and nice leg room as well!) The first flight is by British Midland, BMI - check in at their counter. We turn our watches back 2 hours on this flight.

Continental CO 8854Amman - Heathrow 8:00A - 11:45P5:45(6:15)

When I booked my flights, I could have gone through Paris and had a bit shorter layovers (one dangerously short), but went with Heathrow instead. FORTUNATE! Lots of flights in and out of Paris are cancelled due to bad weather, snow, etc.

Surprise - after all that warm weather in Israel and Jordan, it's COLD up here! After two weeks with low temps between 60-65F, it's only 33F and my sweater is packed away in my checked luggage. With a long 6 hours around Heathrow airport, I have a few British coins (~£5) left over from an earlier trip, and also use my credit card to get food. Then it's another long flight with another even longer layover at the end … and I still won't be home. I had two alternatives on the layovers: 1) 4 hours London, 10 hours Newark; or 2) 6 hours London, 9 hours Newark. I chose to split it "evenly" rather than the long 10 hours in Newark. Better if delayed, also. Turn our watches back 5 more hours on this flight.

Continental CO 19 Heathrow - Newark6:00P - 9:15P8:15(8:10)

After a very rough (weather) flight, I'm back in the US and some of the junk-food places are still open. Unfortunately the lazy Continental staff who are supposed to be there to re-check my luggage after clearing customs have already gone home so I'm stuck in the regular check-in area (closed until 3:30 AM) with no access to food, drinks, something to read, etc. With an 8-hour layover, it's a LONG night, but 8 hours is too short for a hotel room (particularly with the 5:30 AM departure) - and it wouldn't actually be 8 hours after de-boarding, Immigration, Customs, etc. It will probably be "only" about 7 hours of total boredom but I've been here and done that before..

Day 16, Thursday, December 9 Finally home
The long layovers make this a 16-day trip rather than a 15-day one. After that 8 hour layover in Newark, I can finally start on the last flight. We gain another hour on this flight to finish making up for the 8 hour difference from Amman. Although we don't get anything to eat on the flight, it's short: we are the first Continental flight out of Newark this morning which puts us ahead of the rush; the weather is good; and we get a straight in approach to the Houston airport saving lots of circle-around time - getting in over 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled time.

Continental CO 611Newark - Houston5:25A - 7:45 A3:20(31:45)

Finally, after 32 hours of travel boredom (plus pre- and post-flights time) I'll get home … even with my luggage.

That's it for this year. The next big vacation tour is with Insight: "Eastern Discovery," 16 days; Apr 30 - May 15.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge

Continental CO 62Houston - Newark2:25 P - 6:55 P3:30(4:05)
Continental CO 90Newark - Tel Aviv11:00P - 4:10P10:20(17:45)
Continental CO 8854Amman - Heathrow 8:00A - 11:45P5:45(6:15)
Continental CO 19 Heathrow - Newark6:00P - 9:15P8:15(8:10)
Continental CO 611Newark - Houston5:25A - 7:45 A3:20(31:45)