Oman: Luxury in the Desert

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Bob and I were lucky. In January, just before the onslaught of the wicked virus in Europe, we ventured to Oman (see a previous post “Introducing Awesome Oman”). Our excursions to the desert and mountains were exceptional. It’s time to stop dwelling on disease and relive those adventures.

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Sand. Sand. More sand. Slopes and dunes and wide, flat expanses. After stopping in a tiny town to let air out of the tires, driver Mustafa navigated mile after mile through this landscape. At first he followed tracks. The tracks ended. He charged on. I was incredulous. He had no GPS. How did he know where to go? There was little difference between one dune and another.

He knew. In the midst of this vast emptiness we spotted two other vehicles. We had arrived at our “camp,” a short but strenuous hike to the other side of a dune. Climbing a dune is more challenging than climbing through deep snow in ski boots.

The camp was something out of a glitzy travel magazine – luxury deep in the Wahiba Sands desert.

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Bedroom tent, left, and bathroom tent.

Our tent bedroom featured a double bed, night stands, and generator-powered lamps. IMG_6378Next to the bedroom tent was our private bathroom tent. This was five-star glamping.

We were the only guests in the camp with a cook, the camp manager and his assistant to look after us. Shortly after arrival we were invited to the “sunset lounge.” Another short hike up a dune, and voila, a comfy couch for   watching the spectacular show of colors in the sky as the sun descended into distant sands. It was surreal.

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Sunset lounge

Dinner was served in the dining /living room area, not really a tent, but a canvas roof sheltering more couches, artisanal objects– ceramics, glass vases filled with sand – pillows, carpet. I doubt many Bedouin chieftains had living quarters like these.

We dined on a melange of seven different “meze” (Middle Eastern appetizers), including an outstanding eggplant concoction. I asked Egyptian chef Mahmoud for the recipe.

IMG_6367No camp is complete without a campfire. Without the sun, it was cool.  The desert fire’s warmth felt good. And, somehow it felt strange to be in this isolated ambience with all these remarkable amenities.

When the fire was put to bed, the desert night was eerie, mystical.  Total blackness, except for the sky crowded with vibrant stars. Silence. The generator was off. We were alone. The staff  left to spend the night in a town.   They gave us a flashlight.

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Living room /Dining room

Desert outings are a popular Oman tourist attraction. Many camps accommodate numerous guests. We had the deluxe version. Camp manager, Wael, an Egyptian, told us our camp was assembled just for us, and would be disassembled after our departure.

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Desert breakfast

“It’s a huge logistic work. Dismantle every item, then do it all over.” It would be set up in a different remote location for the next guests, he said.  It is all very impressive, and it had been expensive, nonetheless we felt guilty.

Wael, and many working in Oman’s tourist industry, come from other counties for job opportunities. He was working in the tourist industry in his native Egypt, but left five years ago when  the tourist industry there collapsed. Laarnie, a single mother from the Philippines, left her 7-year-old daughter behind with her mother for a job in Oman.

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En route to the camp, we had passed camels, some in pens, some freely roaming. Wael explained. “They are trained for races here,” he said. “The number of camels one owns is still a sign of wealth in Oman.”

There are camel races in Oman, but Omanis prefer to sell their camels to owners in Qatar and the Emirates where the stakes in camel races are higher, he said. In those countries, Omanis can sell champion camels for as much as $100,000.

Wael went on to explain that real human jockeys no longer ride the camels. “It’s too dangerous.” Remote controlled robots are the jockeys of today.

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Camp staff: Laarnie from the Philippines, Wael and Mahmoud, both Egyptians.

Our over-the-top escapade was desert for tourists. But, at our age we are beyond roughing it in a genuine Bedouin camp.  I am not sure such camps exist. We did meet a Bedouin family selling handmade souvenirs from their home on our way out of the desert.

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Bedouin souvenirs

The desert experience, including  being pampered, was  definitely amazing.  From the desert we proceeded to the mountains for more adventure, Don’t miss the next post.

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I had intended to include Mahmoud’s eggplant as the featured recipe in Today’s Taste. I followed his recipe, but my version was a disaster. It tasted nothing like his. Instead, I will include a tasty Indian dish I tried recently. Cuisine of that country is popular in Oman. This is a vegetarian recipe dedicated to my blog guru David, a vegetarian. See Today’s Taste.

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Life Under Lockdown in Southern France

BREAKING NEWS: We found TP (toilet paper for those not familiar with this American acronym)

I had thought it was only Americans who hoarded this now-craved commodity. However, last week on our first authorized shopping outing to a nearby mini supermarket, none to be had. We had just 1 ½ rolls left. The store had no paper towels nor paper napkins, either – just in case one wanted to improvise. Merde! This was serious.IMG_7550

Eureka. Yesterday we disobeyed rules and went to a larger supermarket, not within our authorized roaming territory. The treasure was found. Two shelves and more loaded down with the precious product. I did not want to be greedy, but I did put two packages in my cart (one of 6 rolls and one of 12). I also took advantage of the supplies of paper towels and paper napkins….just in case this lockdown drags on and on.

We were doubly lucky. Fortunately we encountered no police control. Otherwise we would likely have been sent back to our neighborhood to shop. No doubt that mini supermarket has supplies now, but it is small. Last week it was a hotbed of contagion. Too many shoppers. Too little space. People wearing masks and gloves but much too close to one another. I was a nervous wreck.

IMG_7548There was crowd control at the store yesterday, so I could shop without popping a Xanax. We waited in a long line for almost a half hour before being allowed in. Not many shoppers wore masks, including us. There are’t enough for medical personnel, much less ordinary folk. Pharmacies are also out of hand sanitizer.

Today (March 24) is day #11 for us, but, following recommendations for our age group (old), we began with self-quarantine three days before the national lockdown. Those first few days we enjoyed a walk along the Med, coffee on the terrace of an outdoor cafe, people and seagull watching along the beach promenade. Of course, we made sure not to get close to anyone.

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Our favorite coastal walk is now off limits.

Those were the days. Now all shops and restaurants are closed. We are only permitted to leave our abode for one of five reasons: travel to work; travel to purchase necessities (grocery stores and pharmacies are open); travel for health reasons (doctor); travel for serious family reasons, to assist the elderly, care for children, and finally, for brief periods of physical activity near your home. We must fill out a form with name, address and birth date, then check one of the above. The form must be with us when we leave our nest. If you do not have it with you, or are out of bounds according to the restrictions, you can be fined (135 euros/$147).

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No problem with social distancing on this neighborhood path.

The restrictions are getting tighter. This morning I learned that outdoor physical activity is now limited to within a one kilometer radius of your home, and only once per day. Outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, which had been permitted to stay open, are now closed, too

We have been taking short walks almost daily. Our neighborhood is one of huge

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The neighborhood park is closed.

mansions at the ritzy end and apartment buildings like ours at the other end. No problem with social distancing. We always see a few joggers, one or two dog walkers, and two or three folks out for a stroll like us. Those beautiful and soothing beach walks are out –more than one kilometer away. Not a big deal since the beach promenade is closed, as is our lovely neighborhood park.

We have the exercise bike. I can pedal and listen to Italian lessons. Who knows when my Italian and exercise classes will resume? We have learned that the lockdown will not end after two weeks. My friend Karen, a passionate dancer, can no longer attend dances . For exercise she is jumping instead. She ordered a type of trampoline for her large terrace/balcony.

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Karen’s rebounder.

Karen is also cleaning cabinets, closets, drawers – a worthwhile endeavor. It’s on my list. I must get motivated.

Since I like to cook, I had decided this was a time to try many of those recipes I had stashed away. Some are labor intensive. Alas, now I have time. Unfortunately, last week’s undertakings were underwhelming. Perhaps best to switch tracks, which is what friend Betty suggested on Facebook:

“Maybe in this stressful time you should cook favorite or comfort meals and save experimentation to when disappointment won’t be magnified. That said, I never had an underwhelming meal in your home!” Thank you Betty.

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A candlelight dinner on the first evening of lockdown.  We were not thrilled with  The Washington Post recipe,”Fragrant pesto broth gives this flaky white fish rustic elegance,” The only elegance we found was the candles.

So, back to my tried and true recipes (I have many). Check under the Recipe column, upper right, for some favorites. Last night I resurrected this one: Chicken, Red Pepper, and Green Bean Stir Fry.  Good and easy. See Today’s Taste.

I have to get my mind off this virus crisis and get back to Awesome Oman. I have more to write. Coming Soon.

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Comments welcome. Share your thoughts. Tell us about your lockdown experiences. Scroll down and click on “Make a Comment.”

Most important: RESTEZ CHEZ VOUS. STAY AT HOME

We are in this together. We will overcome.

Below some photos of our neighborhood:

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Our street.  Not our house.
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Our building.  Our apartment is on the fourth floor, right corner behind the tree.  We have a balcony on the other side with a gorgeous view of the Med which is very therapeutic.
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View of Alps Maritimes from a walk.

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Introducing Awesome Oman

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Oman has a population of three million humans and 2.1 million goats.

Our departure for Oman was slated for January 15, just 12 days after the US killed the Iranian general, Soleimani, in Iraq. Tensions in the Middle East were high. A fear of war was all too real. Deadly terrorist attacks were expected.

“Don’t go. It’s too dangerous, too risky,” a friend cautioned. Others were less direct, but clearly thought the trip was a bad idea in this nail-biting political climate. And, yet others had no idea where Oman was. “I never heard of anyone going to Oman.”

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We went. It was fabulous. The Sultanate of Oman stretches across the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, jutting out into the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. It shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Dubai, but has none of the glitz and flash of the latter.

Its revered leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, who died shortly before our arrival,

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Oman’s new sultan:  Haitham bin Tariq Al Said.

ruled for almost 50 years and kept the country stable and peaceful, an oasis of calm in a turbulent region. His cousin has stepped in and is expected to follow this steady path.

“Omanis like the Sultan. He keeps us out of wars,” a driver said. A guide pointed out that “the Sultan changed Oman from a very poor country … now we can have a nice life.”

Beaches, desert, mountains – Oman has all, and we experienced all. We (husband Bob and I) spent most of our two-week trip at a beach resort about 20 minutes from Muscat, the country capital. The sejour was grand, but it was our forays to the desert and mountains that were especially fascinating. We learned so much from our Omani guide/drivers.

Like in neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi, staff at Oman hotels come from around the globe, foreign workers seizing job opportunities and salaries non-existent in their home countries. In Oman, however, law states that guides and drivers be Omani.IMG_6047

Mustafa drove us over rocky, rugged mountains to the desert. Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are permitted on many of the steep, impressive roads, and there are controls. Signs warn: “Danger. Steep Bends. Steep Gradient. Continue in low gear.” In case brakes fail, there are escape lanes. “This highway just opened two days ago,” Mustafa said during one stretch of our journey which led through sleek, futuristic tunnels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like all Omanis we met, Mustafa speaks English. Children start learning English in school at the age of seven. Education is free. University students receive a government stipend during their studies. Lofti, a guide/driver who took us to the town of Nizwa, recently graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. He said he received 90 rials (about $234) per month while studying. While waiting to find a job in his field, hopefully in Qatar where salaries are higher, he works as a freelance guide.

“The country needs educated people,” he said. “Many are sent overseas to study. The government pays for everything.”

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Unloading the morning catch at the Muscat harbor

Thanks to oil, Oman has money for all those bennies. The country’s top three economic drivers are oil and gas, fish and tourism. The latter has been growing. Oman wants and needs more tourists to lessen its dependence on oil.

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Lofti, super guide and driver.

A stunning new airport opened outside of Muscat two years ago. More seaside resorts are under construction. Signs everywhere are in English and Arabic. Oman is clean, orderly, safe “There are no terrorists from Oman,” a guide pointed out. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office states that “most visits to Oman are largely trouble free.”

Omanis practice a unique type of Islam, Ibadi, a moderate sect. “Ibadi, Sunni and Shiites can all pray together in the same mosque. They intermarry,” Lofti said. According to another driver, “No one talks religion. No one talks politics.”

Omanis are very friendly. Tourists and foreign workers are happy. “I have been here two years,” an Egyptian bar tender at our mountain hotel told me. “I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Oman.” Many hotel workers we met had moved to Oman from Dubai. They all prefer Oman.

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Friendly Omani family agreed to pose for a photo.

At our beach hotel, we met many on return visits. Driver Salim says he has clients who have become friends and come back every year. More and more visitors are opting for self-drive holidays, we learned. “This year we sleep a lot,” Salim lamented. “They all want self-drive. It’s cheap.”

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Challenging obstacle on the off-road adventure,

Since my trusty driver (Bob) no longer drives, I was reluctant to take on this challenge. While on a thrilling off-road trek with Salim, I was glad I had not. It was scary just being a passenger. However, we saw several self-drivers on the journey. At a photo stop in a remote, desolate mountain area, a couple from Germany asked directions as their GPS did not work.

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Bob and and Salim at the entrance to Snake Canyon, a popular hike for the intrepid (not us).

Salim and I discussed religion, family life, values. Family is of utmost importance to Omanis. He lives in his father’s house with his wife and son. He has three sisters and five brothers, but most have moved out to their own homes. However, on weekends they usually all return to the family compound where 14 goats, 6 cows and some sheep also reside.

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Goat market in Nizwa,

The home is in the small mountain town of Sehcoteni, 56 kilometers from Nizwa, the country’s original capital. “Until four years ago I had never been to Nizwa. Ours was a simple life. We go to the mountains with our goats and return in the evening.”

Oman, the oldest independent state in the Arab world, embraced Islam in the seventh century.  Much of the region around Muscat was dominated by Portugal between 1507 and 1650 due to its important position on trade routes to the east.  Persians invaded in 1737, but were driven out by the Al Said dynasty which is still in power.  Oman signed a Treaty of Friendship with Great Britain in 1798 which guaranteed the Sultan’s  rule.   In 1891, Oman became a British Protectorate.  This lasted until 1951 when the country was granted independence from Britain.

Our trip was trouble free, peaceful, awesome.  I would be happy to return.

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More on Oman in future posts:  Luxury at the beach, Mountains and desert, Muscat. Plus, lots more photos. Don’t miss out.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up, upper right.  Your email address is kept private, not shared.  Trust me.

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Tis the Season to be Jolly

Warm holiday wishes to family, friends, and Tales and Travel followers. Thank you  for reading, commenting and inspiring me to continue this venture.

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We will join our friend Cindy Egolf today (Christmas Eve) for lunch across the border in Italy. Cindy is an orchestra conductor. Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8FERvEZeak  She is awesome.

For Christmas, it’s just us and the cats.   I will try something very French: Pigeon, a challenging experiment.  I have been researching recipes.  And, I will make pumpkin pie for Bob, his favorite.

I had hoped to go to nearby Monaco for a serious Christmas décor photo shoot, but that did not happen. Not to worry. The decorations will still be there, so maybe I will make it for a pre New Year’s photo shoot. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are a few random holiday shots. I had a quick preview of Monaco’s decorations on an outing to attend an opera there, but I only had the phone camera. They deserve better.

Wherever, whatever you celebrate, make it fun and delicious.

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Monte Carlo Casino
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Casino’s  Christmas forest
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Our neighborhood:  Roquebrune and Menton with Christmas lights long the coast.
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Neighborhood view the morning after the day of a deluge — we have had a few.

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah.  Joyeux Noel. Buon Natale. Frohe Weihnachten — Bob and Leah

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No new recipe this time, but there are plenty on my recipe page. Have a look, column at right.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Norway: A Northern Wonder

IMG_3337Norway is all about nature and the outdoors. Year round, even in the frigid Arctic winters, Norwegians spend time outdoors – hiking, skiing, climbing, boating, fishing… They are passionate about their forests, mountains, lakes and the sea.

During our cruise of the Norwegian fjords (see previous post, “Ship Ahoy Norway”) I IMG_3047talked to Norwegians and tourists, as well as those who have moved to Norway. I wanted to know more about life in this country where hours of daylight in winter are few, yet summer days are wonderfully long, where winter temperatures can drop to well below zero, and summer temperatures in most of the country rarely reach above 20 degrees C (68 F).

IMG_3555“I moved here for the nature,”said a bus driver originally from Karlsruhe, Germany, who drives a dog sled in winter. He also worked and lived in Iceland, “but this is better.”

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Two hikers, also from Germany and on their fifth visit to Norway, told me they come for nature and the landscapes. “People here have a good rapport with nature.”

Victoria, a tour guide from Munich, came to Norway seven years ago to work as a biologist. She never left. “I am absolutely happy here.”

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“I love nature,” said Haakon Hansen, a Norwegian lecturer on the ship. He skis, dives, hikes, fishes, snowboards. “You can do it all here.”

During one of his lectures, Hansen told us about Freiluftsliv,a concept coined by Henrik Ibsen, remowned Norwegian playwright, in 1859 literally meaning “free air life,” or an outdoors lifestyle. “It’s a concept that permeates every aspect of life in Norway,” noted an article in Forbes.

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It is the guiding principle in Norway and said to be the key to happiness in the country. And, according to the happiness index, Norwegians, after Finns, are the world’s happiest people.

We also learned that in Norway every man has the right to roam, to enjoy and use

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Globe at North Cape marking northernmost point on the continent.

nature. You can pick berries and gather mushrooms wherever you like. You can camp everywhere, even on private property as long as you are 150 meters from a house.

To none are nature and the outdoors more important than to the Sami, an indigenous, nomadic people who live in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. “Our religion is nature. Nature is our culture,” said Ailu Utsi. During one of our cruise excursions, we visited Ailu and his wife Ellinor in their Sami tent.

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Ailu and Ellinor Utsi with canine companion.

Historically the Sami, renowned for herding reindeer, were known as Lapps and their homeland, Lapland. But, “this is not Lapland,” Ellinor Utsi adamantly proclaimed. The couple talked about the prejudice and persecution the Sami suffered in Norway until 1970. Their language was outlawed. Children had to go to boarding schools and could not speak Sami. Many of their traditions were suppressed. That began to change in 1970 and today Sami are represented in the Norwegian parliament. Sami is the second language in the country. The language, related to Finnish, Hungarian and Russian, is rich in words to describe nature. “We have 300 words to describe snow.”

The Sami follow their reindeer herds. In summer some 5,000 Sami families and 8,000

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reindeer live on the Nordkyn peninsula where we visited them. In the winter they move near the Finnish border. During our visit we tasted reindeer broth. Good, but it was the reindeer we had one evening on the ship that was the ultra mouth-watering treat – much better than the best beef tenderloin, in my opinion. At the market in Bergen, Bob and I had grilled reindeer sausage, also delicious. I bought several reindeer sausages to bring home.

During another cruise excursion we tasted yet another Norwegian special: King Crab. We were suited up in extreme cold weather suits for a ride on a RIB (Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat) to a place where these giant crustaceans were pulled from cages 30 meters deep in the Barents Sea. Several crabs (only males) were sacrificed for our repast.

“We only take males. The females lay millions of eggs every year, but not many survive,” said our boat captain and crab chef, Diemietri from Bulgaria. The crabs can weigh up to 20 kilos, but those we consumed were about 2 to 2 ½ kilos. The crabs live in the icy waters of the Barents Sea as well as the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, and the Gulf of Alaska. In the US, they are known as Alaskan crab.

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Diemietri, 58, has been in Norway for five years. He left his own business in Bulgaria where “there was too much corruption…they destroyed my business.” He says life in Norway is quiet, but he is happy. “I have a job. My pension is very good. The social system is very good here.”

Norway is a welfare state with a government pension for everyone. The average salary is about $58,000 per year. The cost of living is high, as is income tax, between 30% and 35 %, but the benefits are generous. University tuition, for example, is just $65 per semester.

Hansen raved about other Norway pluses. “We have a transparent society,’’ he told us. “The government publishes a tax list. You can see how much everyone makes and how much tax they pay. Norway is a safe country. People don’t touch other people’s stuff.”

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As friend and fellow traveler Karen remarked, “Norway has its act together.”

Norway is also spectacularly beautiful. I was enchanted with the ever changing scenery from the ship: fascinating clouds, dramatic silhouettes of mountains, magnificent fjords, pristine villages.

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More Norway photos below:

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Kvernes Stave Church dating from 1300.

 

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Enjoying the outdoors at a park in Bergen.
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View of Bergen from the top of the Fluibanen Funicular.
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Cathedral in Trondheim.

 

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