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Tim Boxer

Nina Boxer

[ Jordan ] [ Norwegian Cruise Line ] [ Guidebooks: Jordan, Thailand, Western Canada ]

The late King Hussein and son King
Abdullah II and Jordan’s flag

Singing Senator Opens
Jordan Travel Mart

Photos by Tim Boxer

NE day First Lady Hillary Clinton and First Daughter Chelsea arrived in Jordan. They were warmly greeted on the tarmac by Minister of Tourism Akel E. Biltaji. They came to the royal palace for dinner and the first thing HRH King Abdullah II asked was, "Did he sing for you?"

Biltaji is renowned for his beautiful baritone voice. Now a member of Senate, where he serves as chairman of the tourism and heritage committee, Biltaji confirmed his musical genius again. He greeted an assembly of tour operators and journalists in his pleasant melodious voice that reflected the joy of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics in Oklahoma:

Oh what a beautiful morning
Oh what a beautiful day.
I have a wonderful feeling
Everything’s going my way.

We met the singing senator at King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Center, at the Dead Sea, where he welcomed tour operators and journalists from North and South America to the second annual Jordan Travel Mart in February.

Senator Akel E. Biltaji

Senator Biltaji said Jordan is the birthplace of the world’s major Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. After the convention we are scheduled to visit Bethany where John baptized Jesus, and Mount Nebo where Moses had a look at the Promised Land and was buried.

"The Holy Land," Senator Biltaji said, "comprises Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, even Saudi Arabia."

Jordan is going all out to attract foreign visitors. Maha Khatib, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, is confident that the global economic meltdown will not affect tourism trade. "We witnessed an increase in tourists from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Brazil," she said at a luncheon. "We can build bridges between people and narrow the separation between people."

Maha Khatib

Ms. Khatib has launched an impressive effort to broaden the range of attractions for visitors – beyond the obvious, the world-famed mystery city of Petra.

There are three north/south highways. The Dead Sea Highway runs along the Dead Sea. Further east is the King’s Highway, and further east is the Desert Highway.

Instead of having tourists rush from Amman in the north direct to Petra in the south by way of the Desert Highway, Ms. Khatib is planning a more adventurous course. She’ll encourage visitors, on route to the wonders of Petra, to use the King’s Highway, which is the old Roman Highway, and experience six or seven communities on the way that are replete with archeological and natural sites.

Bargains on the Dead Sea Highway

"We will empower the local people of these communities," she said, "to open B&B’s, coffee shops and other such tourist services. We’ll have with an eco-trail in a forest surrounded by olive trees centuries old. We are renovating old houses, one to be used as a museum. The whole idea is to invigorate local communities so the benefits of tourism trickle down to the people."

Nayef H. Al-Fayez, managing director of the Jordan Tourism Board, said he saw an increase in cruise stops, "something new for Jordan." He said that 2008 had 160,000 overnight tourists from the U.S., an 8 percent increase over the previous year. He said he’ll next reach out to China and India.

In an interview Al-Fayez said that "we are open to everyone, including Israelis. We have good relations with Israel. We are an oasis of peace and stability."

King Hussein bin Talal Convention Center

Nayef H. Al-Fayez

Samer Majalia

Flight attendants at the Royal Jordanian booth

Darwish Aweidah and
Muna Ghandour Aweidah

After two days of intensive seminars and interactive workshops between 100 North and South American buyers and 60 Jordanian suppliers, Al-Fayez affirmed that the third annual Jordan Travel Mart is scheduled for next February. www.visitjordan.com.

Samer Majalia, president and CEO of Royal Jordanian, told me that the airline has flights twice a day from Israel. "We bring people from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangkok and Hong Kong, who come to Amman and then to Israel."

I stopped at the Al Jazeera Travel and Tourism booth. "No, we have no affiliation with the television channel," said Darwish Aweidah, the president and CEO.

He said that Jazeera means island. This is a family business started in 1870 in Jerusalem. They moved to Amman, but still maintain an office in East Jerusalem and another in Istanbul. www.aljazeeratravel.com.

Another tour operator, Omran Dakkak, managing director of Dakkak Tours International, designs journeys to Syria, Jordan and Egypt. He said that American Jews go to Syria "as long as there is no Israeli stamp on the passport – and you can bring your own kosher food." www.dakkak.com.


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Norwegian Star

Smooth Cruising In
Rough Economic Waters

By Ivor Davis

NLESS you’ve been hiding in a cave in the Afghan foothills for the past year it’s obvious that it’s been very rough waters indeed for the cruising industry in these turbulent economic times.

It’s a mess: Billionaires drop a billion or two, and just plain folks watch their retirement shrink before their very eyes. Since the latter are precisely the folks who form the cruising base, adjustments have to be made to right the ship.

And therein lies an opportunity for the rest of us. Cruising is getting cheaper, standards higher and life at sea more comfortable by the day.

If you choose carefully you can have a luxurious week or two at sea for little more than it would cost you to stay home, cook three meals a day, and go out for an occasional evening’s entertainment—and you won’t have to pay valet parking!

The other day my wife and I bought a one-week cruise on the Norwegian Star out of San Pedro, California, down to the Mexican Riviera—not something we would normally rush to do but we were ready for a break and didn’t want the hassle of flying. (When did airports turn into  refugee depots and planes become cattle trucks?) And we found a price we simply could not refuse. It cost us just over $500 each. (If you book at the last minute you can do even better).

For us there was the joy of driving the 80 miles from our from Ventura County home to the port. Most out-of-towners arriving at Los Angeles Airport have a 25-minute trip to the departure port.

For the Saturday to Saturday trip even the freeway was lighter than usual.  We parked our car next to the dock (more about that later) and walked less than 100 yards to board the ship.

There were 2,300 passengers ranging from retired folk to large families.  And the first night one of the two dining rooms was jammed—with kids dozing on the floor leading to the rather grand and formal Versailles room. Groans all round.  Not a good sign. Was this what we had signed on for—a kind of free for all down market holiday camp!

But once we got our own timetable sorted out, we ate a little later, avoiding the crowds, and were able to dine in comfort, even elegance, every night.

The on demand "free style" dining means you eat when you want, where you want, with whom you want, or simply by yourselves—at either of the public dining rooms. We mainly chose the Versaille for dinner because once the families cleared out, it was quiet,  with elegant friendly service 

The menu is wide ranging and diverse. The wine list (quite reasonable) was a good one, and a couple of nights we popped into the martini bar before dinner.

We never had a disappointing meal. The service was literally superb. The staff, from just about every corner of the globe, were delightful. In their manners and dress they looked as if they should be the guests being served by the frequently sloppily turned out passengers.

This isn’t the Queen Mary III, but would it be asking too much for guests not to come to dinner looking like they were getting ready to swab the decks?

And then there are the extras. In the seven restaurants you pay a small cover charge, anywhere from $12 to $30 a person for  a dining experience that compares with any fine restaurant anywhere.

The Star offered a superb French Bistro, an elegant New York style steakhouse, an Asian fusion restaurant with everything from sushi to Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai fare, an Italian Trattoria and an upscale cutting edge modern cuisine restaurant with a jazz décor and flare.

The eclectic group of passengers came from all over, from Asia to South America, from Europe to Ventura County.

We booked with Ms. Jeremy Hayes,
Cruise Experts: 888.804.2784

Norwegian Cruise Line
866.234.0292 phone

We used the gym most days—sampled a few of the spa treatments and enjoyed the quiet of the Asian themed meditation lounges.

The destination ports, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, were quieter than usual which was great for bargain shopping and sampling local dishes. There was plenty of time for disembarking and we didn’t have to rush anywhere.

There is only one problem that became something of an irritant. The cruise lines are feeling the pinch. And how.

So they spend an inordinate amount of time pushing sales of rubbishy jewelry,  cut rate watches,  alleged tax free alcohol—a trip to Trader Joe’s will get you much better liquor bargains—art auctions and dry land tours.

Now a few tips: Do pay a little extra for a balcony. It is a wonderful place to sit with a cocktail watching the arrival in and departure from ports of call. And it provides a nice retreat with a book or a snack when the sea of humanity becomes too much.

By all means take in the many and varied live entertainment provided. In our case the dancers in the big production shows were excellent, some of the specialty performers were world class, and if the entertainment director’s cockney accent—a poor man’s Ricky Gervais—was driving us  crazy  by cruise’s end, we’re sure some of the passengers found it charming.

Our only downer:  We arrived back in San Pedro at 9 a.m., well fed and rested. Walked  to our car—and then were trapped in a horrendous 90-minute traffic jam in the parking lot.

It seemed the L.A.-based parking company (Parking Concepts Inc.) had only one person manning the three exits.  Some friends missed their plane connections, and the parking incompetence brought back much of the stress we had dumped on our cruise. But who said life is perfect?


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Travel Guides

Jordan from Lonely Planet presents everywhere you want to know about the country, including history, culture, environment, transport, health issues and more. This is an essential companion for any trip to Jordan. Lonely Planet, softcover, 304 pages, $22.99.

Moon Handbook Thailand focuses on one of the most fascinating destinations on the globe. Written by a local resident and journalist, Suzanne Nam, the updated fourth edition covers the land from its northernmost region in Chiang Mai to its southernmost provinces in the Pattani region. Among the highlights of the book are listings of the best beaches, insight of the people, culture, art and history, and recoimmendations for snagging 5-star accommodations at 3-star prices. Now that’s worth the price of the book. Avalon Travel, softcover, 521 pages, $21.95.


Moon Handbooks: Western Canada covers British Columbia and Alberta plus the far north of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. That’s quite a stretch, but the writer/photographer Andrew Hempstead of Banff knows the landscape well. His book is a comprehensive up-to-date source of information for travelers to these wondrous parts of Canada. You can see his work at www.westerncanadatravel.com. Avalon Travel, softcover, 970 pages, $23.95.


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