Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Middle East (page 1 of 2)

My Top 10 from 2016

Last year I did a recap of my favourite travel destinations and memories from the previous year. So with the New Year upon us I wanted to write another post about my top 10 destinations from 2016. It was another great year of travel for me. Looking back over the past 12 months it was a busy year. I worked full-time as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia from January until September when I left to walk the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. I had a whopping 178 days of travel (mind you almost 3 months of this I was technically unemployed!) I visited 15 countries, 9 of them new for me. I saw a lot, I took a lot of pictures, and I lived it up. I hope this doesn’t sound bragadocious, because it’s not meant to (credit to Donald T for inventing this awesome word!) Some of that travel was with friends from Saudi, and I did some travel through Europe with my mom, and then spent about 7 weeks with my Dad while we walked across Northern Spain. Quite a bit of it was on my own- which I’ve become quite a fan. So here’s my top 10 from 2016 (in no particular order).

1. Romania

Romania is hardly mentioned in the top 10 of most people’s bucket lists, and as per my usual form of travel I did very little research about the country prior to going. Usually when I do very little research about a trip (which is most of the time) I am always pleasantly surprised. Romania was exactly that. I spent a week based in Bucharest and did a couple day trips, one to Transylvania and the other into neighbouring Bulgaria. My favourite memories from that trip were visiting Peles Castle and later Bram Castle which is also known as Dracula’s Castle (although in reality it has very little to do with Dracula.) These castles couldn’t have been more different from one another. Peles Castle is from the late 1800s and built in a Gothic Bavarian style, whereas Bram Castle is an old fortress castle that sits atop a cliff. It dates from the 1400’s and has a very eerie feel to it,  and even though it’s only a tale, I loved the stories of Dracula in relation to Romania History. The other standout thing from this trip was that we did a walking tour in Bucharest that took us to old decaying places which was super cool. Bucharest is also full of urban art and graffiti of which I’m a huge fan. It’s pretty inexpensive, had great restaurants, and was a very walkable city. So add Romania to your list of places to visit in 2017!

Peles Castle

Bram Castle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Italy

I spent 11 lovely days in Italy solo, splitting my time between Rome and Florence. To say I loved it would be an understatement. I look back on my time in Italy and smile because I was brimming with happiness and confidence. The architecture, the food, the Chianti, the museums were fantastic. Between the two, Florence was my favourite, and I’m sure this was because I booked myself a cheapish hotel that had phenomenal views of the cathedral from my private balcony. It felt like I could just reach across and touch it, and I could hear the street artists below playing music which felt like I had my own private show. This trip was a turning point in solo travel for me, and I became very comfortable in my own skin. I no longer have any issues with eating alone, or going to a bar for a drink, or wandering a city. This trip was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me feel so brave and empowered. Two of my favourite memories of that trip involved random encounters with fellow travelers. I met an American girl around my age who she and her parents adopted me during my time in Rome and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! My other favourite memory was meeting a couple from Texas on a day tour of Tuscany.  We met up for dinner in Florence and then for dinner and drinks my last night in Rome. By drinks I mean bottle after bottle of delicious Chianti. This resulted in a very hungover (possibly still drunk) me trying to get to the airport for my early morning flight! Oh the memories we make while traveling…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. The United Arab Emirates

I visited Dubai a few times over the last year and one of the highlights for me (and a silly Bucket List item) was to stay at the Atlantis resort. So for one night on a huge splurge (and because if you are a Saudi resident you qualify for the GCC discount) I stayed here. As you can imagine it was very nice. There’s a ton to do, so no real need to leave the resort if you don’t want to. We had free admission to the water park which was pretty cool, but the outdoor pool area and the aquarium were highlights for me. Oh, and the food was really good as well. I also visited Abu Dhabi and as I recently blogged about got to visit the iconic Sheikh Zayed mosque which has long been a place I wanted to visit. If you’re in Dubai make the trip to Abu Dhabi to see the mosque- it’s a stunning example of Islamic architecture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. The Czech Republic

There’s so much to see in the Czech Republic and this trip was especially special (is that a thing?) as I reunited with a guy I met several years earlier on my first solo trip to Portugal. It was so great to see him and have him take us around his city, and meet his partner, and check out hot Czech guys and eat good food. This was also the trip where my mom and I visited the town we believe is where my Oma (German for grandmother) grew up prior to her time in Germany where my mother was born. We flew into Germany and then spent a few days in Austria before visiting the Czech towns of Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, Brno and Prague. We found that it was easier to travel around on the bus than the train (comfortable seats and wifi!) We ended the trip with a few days in Prague which is a fantastically walkable city of which I am always a fan. Also Czech is pretty inexpensive as far as Europe goes so you won’t break the bank while traveling there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Poland

One of the other solo trips I took this past year was to Poland. I only had time to visit Warsaw so obviously a return trip is in order as there are many other places I would like to visit. Warsaw, specifically the old town, is rife with history. It is also rife with graffiti and displays of urban art which brings me a great amount of joy! The city felt very open and green, it was easy to navigate, and I felt totally safe wandering around on my own. The best thing I did while there was take a couple walking tours to learn about Poland’s history in WW2. It was fascinating. In hindsight it might’ve been better had I learned some of this history prior to visiting but seeing as I’m not one for planning or researching much before I go (I’ve become super lazy in my travel style and really only care about where I’m staying) this didn’t happen. Maybe one of my New Years resolutions will be a actually properly research a place before I visit. Somehow I doubt I’ll actually get my shit together and follow through on this. Plus it’s so much more fun making decisions on the fly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Jordan

This summer my short few day break to Jordan was just the relaxation I needed. The resorts that line the Dead Sea on the Jordan side are fancy with infinity pools and pool boys who will clean your sunglasses, and bring you towels and ice which make for a very happy me. While Petra itself is amazing, I’m so glad that we made the effort to visit the site at night. Especially since there was a full moon when we visited which provided for a lot of ambient light and beautiful pictures. It was also nice to get to revisit Bedouin culture as a trip to Petra at night includes traditional Bedouin music and tea. Even though it is pretty touristy I would recommend seeing Petra both by day and night. It’s stunning in the day but at night it has a magical mystical feel to it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Spain

I’ve spend a lot of time in Spain this past year. Early last year I spent a week split between Barcelona and Madrid with a night in Zaragoza to see the Arabic Palace called Aljaferia, because as we’ve already established I have a major crush on Islamic architecture. Then this fall I spent just over 5 weeks in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and an experience that if I’m being honest, I haven’t fully debriefed from (hence my lack of blogging about it yet.) We walked around 700km from the French border to the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was the biggest physical accomplishment of my life, one that I’m quite certain I will walk again (or another route). Everyday the scenery we walked was stunning and it really slowed things down for me and made me think about what I want out of life, and about how much stuff we all have that we don’t need. And how stuff does not equal happiness, but being out in the world interacting with people from all different walks of life does make me extremely happy. So more about the Camino in the upcoming weeks. But in the event you are looking for a cheapish European vacation- Spain is very reasonable, especially once you leave the bigger cities. And the Euro is quite low right now and airfare is pretty cheap to Europe so it’s a good time to take advantage of it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8. Paris France

I spent a month in Paris this fall in a cute but run down apartment in the nieghbourhood of Montmartre. It was really nice to be able to settle into a place and feel like a local. Shopping at the same stores and frequenting the same cafes. My Pops was with me for a short while and then I was lucky enough to have a couple visitors. One of those visitors I suspect I will always associate Paris with. I spent my time exploring, but also doing some writing and reading and generally just hanging out. I caught up with a fellow travel nurse I knew from when I lived in San Francisco. I drank a lot of wine and cappucinos and ate my weight in cheese. (Not really but I do LOVE cheese a lot.) I walked much of the city. Coming to Paris directly after walking the Camino was a bit difficult because I very much missed walking (I still do.) But often I would google distances to whatever I wanted to do and if it was 5km away I’d think “oh that’s just a short walk” and opt to not take the metro. I was in Paris during the month of November which was pretty great because I get a little obsessive about Christmas. I love it so much- the decorations and the lights and colder weather. It was great to wander Paris with the store windows all decorated for the season. Paris is lovely. Tourism there is massively down given the recent terror attacks there and throughout Europe. But since I’m not one to live my life in fear I would say don’t let that deter you one bit! I spend a month there because with many places on AirBnb you get a discount if you book for a month and it ended up being cheaper than if I had booked for only 3 weeks. But a month was plenty long enough for me. 3 weeks would’ve been perfect because Paris is wicked break the bank expensive and I’m terrible with a budget so it was time to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Amsterdam Netherlands

After Paris I took the train to Amsterdam, a city I had long wanted to explore. And boy oh boy did I love it. Loved it as in it’s maybe my favourite European city ever (or at least tied with Copenhagen) at the very least! I spent a week here in a lovely apartment overlooking one of the main canals and had a grand time. Amsterdam is a very walkable city, and so much cheaper than Paris. A friend whom I met walking the Camino came and visited me for a night which was great. Two things really stood out during my time in Amsterdam. The first was doing a nighttime canal tour. It was the beginning of December when I was there and during the holiday season Amsterdam has numerous illuminated art installations around the city. We took a boat tour along the canals which offers a really cool view of the art itself, but also glimpses of life into the stunning historic canal houses. We sipped mulled wine and oohhhed and ahhhed over the interior decorations, wall colours, and the molded ceilings (but mostly I was just trying to imagine what my life would be like if I was living in any one of these houses!) The other thing I would highly recommend doing when in Amsterdam is taking a tour of the red light district. I mean Amsterdam is known for 2 main things (pot and ladies in windows with red lights overhead) so why not actually learn something about it. I’m not telling you to go to Amsterdam and smoke weed. If you do I have no issues but that’s your own choice. Neither am I telling you to pay for sex. Again, your choice. I’m not going to judge how you spend your money. For me I wanted to take a tour to learn how the red light district came to be, and basically how it works. So I did a tour thru the Prostitute Information Center which leads tours by women who have worked as sex workers in the red light district. It was really informative and I learned the following fun facts…..1/3 of Amsterdam’s prostitutes are over the age of 55. They literally come in all sizes, ages and ethnicity. Also the average time men spend with a lady is 6 minutes. Including getting dressed and undressed. 6. Minutes. But the minimum amount of time a customer must pay for is 15 minutes. Also the ladies are licensed and pay taxes so they basically have their own businesses. I learned a variety of other things as well, but since my Pops reads this I’ll try and keep it clean. Needless to say I left my heart in Amsterdam, and I really want to go back and see more of the Netherlands!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10. Iceland

Iceland is friggin fantastic. It is very, very photogenic and you can pack a lot into a relatively short visit. I spend 5 nights there in December and it did not disappoint. But while it is beautiful it is not cheap. So bring your money, honey cause you’re going to spend it. Once you get over the initial shock of the price of things I’m quite certain you will have a great time. I mean how can’t you with waterfalls, glaciers, tiny horses and Northern Lights aplenty. I met my best mate there and we spent 4 nights in Reykjavik and had one night on a tour to the southern part of the island with Extreme Iceland. It was fantastic, plus our guide was a riot and super entertaining. We visited waterfalls, and petted Icelandic horses who will come to you when you call them just like dogs do! We ended up getting stuck at a gas station while waiting out a wind storm and were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in between sipping gas station beers. We walked on a beach covered in icebergs, walked on a black sand beach with a phallic rock formation in the windiest conditions I’ve ever been in. We wore crampons and went on an ice hike and posed straddling a crevasse and ate fermented shark (not at the same time.) As you can imagine fermented shark is not great. It’s one of those odd things that gets worse the longer you chew it, and the taste strengthens in your mouth long after you’ve already swallowed it. Thankfully, copious amounts of Icelandic beer does eventually get the taste out. Our final morning in Iceland we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon which as you can imagine is full of tourists, but pretty awesome. It is good to know that in the winter there is very, very little useful hours of daylight. In fact there was only about 3.5 hrs a day when we were there and I’m being generous with that time frame, as a lot of it was “light” how it is at dusk or dawn. I would love to go back in the summer to see it light until 11pm. I would also love to go back and rent a car and drive the island and have the flexibility to stop at absolutely every thermal pool I came across. I would also stop at every farm that had Icelandic horses and walk up to the fence and call the horses over like the pack of friendly horse/puppies that they are and pet them till my hearts content. Do you really need anymore reasons to go to Iceland? Didn’t think so….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So that wraps up my Top 10 from 2016. 2017 is off to a slow and patience trying start. I have decided that I want to return to Saudi Arabia for another year contract, but things are very, very slowly coming together. But fingers crossed they will fall into place in the next week or so. The first time I left Saudi I felt really excited to get an apartment and sign a lease and buy furniture. The current me has none of those deep gut feelings. To be honest I’m clueless as to what country I want to even settle down in, so returning to Saudi feels right and gives me a chance to save  a little more money and see some more things. And you and I both know how much of a fan I am of seeing more things! There are still a couple places in Saudi Arabia I would like to explore. There is a group of islands off the coast of Jeddah called the Farasan Islands that are a protected marine sanctuary that are supposed to be beautiful and I would also love to explore the mountains of Saudi and visit either Abha or Taif. As far as out of Saudi travel I would like to fit in a weekend trip to Oman a place I’ve already seen, and make it over to Africa to visit Ethiopia, Namibia, the Seychelles, or Madagascar. I would also very much like to visit Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and really any of the Stans. Obviously, I’ll have to pick and choose but these are my top interests. So inshallah in the next couple weeks I’ll have a firmer idea about my return, but in the mean time I’m going to relax and try and get some much overdue blogging about the Camino done.

Wishing all my readers a very happy and healthy 2017. And obviously I wish you some kick-ass travel adventures also…….

 

Abu Dhabi

Over the past 2 years I’ve been to Dubai several times, but hadn’t had the chance to make my way to Abu Dhabi. The United Arab Emirates is a conglomerate of seven emirates- each emirate is governed by a monarch and together they form a federal council. Some of the smaller emirates are less well known and I’m guessing apart from my Middle Eastern readers many of you may not have heard of Ajman or Sharjah. But I’m pretty certain you know quite a bit about Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I’ve blogged about Dubai before- it’s a great weekend break from Saudi and there’s tons of things to do and see. Many of those things are over the top tourists things like indoor skiing, swimming with dolphins, and tend to have a luxury type travel flare to them. Abu Dhabi by contrast is Dubai’s classier more cultured and sophisticated sister. The economy of the UAE is made up of 2 things- oil and tourism. Dubai is the 5th most popular tourist destination in the world with an estimated 15 million overnight tourists expected in 2016.

Back in August I had a weeks vacation and split it between Dubai and a night in Kuwait. I had originally wanted to just stay in Abu Dhabi but the flight times didn’t work great with meeting up with my friend in Kuwait so I opted to just take a day trip to Abu Dhabi instead. There are so many tour options to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi depending on what you are wanting to see. For me, the main priority of visiting Abu Dhabi was to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque and photograph it. I’d seen so many pictures of this iconic mosque and long ago I fell in love with Islamic architecture so this was really my sole purpose for going. I joined a large day bus tour of which I’m not normally a fan, but this was the cheapest and easiest option.

It takes about 90 minutes by bus to get from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. On route the tour guide pointed out the many many new buildings and tourists attractions being built in the emirates. They do things big here- like record breaking big. So most of the things that are being built are the largest such and such, and tallest such and such, and the first ever such and such of the Middle East. As you can imagine much of the countryside in between Dubai and Abi Dhabi is made up of sandy desert, although it does get significantly greener towards Abu Dhabi. Our first stop on the tour was a stop at the very fancy Viceroy hotel on Yas Island that overlooks the Yas Marina circuit of the Formula 1 races. The hotel as you can imagine is very opulent and it would probably cost me a months salary to spend a night there. The hotel overlooks the race track and we stopped for a cold drink and some obligatory photos. The tour then visited the Abu Dhabi waterfront where  we stopped for some photos along the corniche of the Emirates Palace another fancy 5 star hotel. Then there was a trip to a nearby mall for lunch (can you see why I’m never especially jazzed about big group tours?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, after lunch we headed for the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Finally!! Now it should be said that even though everyone on the tour bus had been instructed (and warned multiple times) about the dress code to visit the mosque, many of my fellow tourists didn’t get the message. There seemed to be mass confusion about why shorts and uncovered shoulders weren’t allowed. Why they wouldn’t be allowed in with a sexy tight fitting dresses. It was mildly entertaining to watch- really equal parts entertaining and annoying since the tour guide had already instructed these ladies that they would need to purchase abayas at the mall if they wanted to visit the mosque. So after we all off loaded the tour bus and started walking towards the entrance a security guard came over and started picking those deemed inappropriately dressed out of the group. Luckily, it is possible to also buy an abaya from the gift shop on site. Being a professional abaya wearer I had packed mine from Saudi just for this occasion. Per the mosque website it states that all women MUST wear an abaya, but then also that lose fitting clothes and ankle length skirts are ok. Clothing must not be transparent. Men cannot wear shorts. I do recall that there were women there not wearing abayas, but if you have one I’d err on the side of just bringing it. Women must cover their hair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was built in the late 1990s and completed in 2007. It was built by the president for whom the mosque is named after, sadly he passed away in 2004. It’s the largest mosque in the UAE and can hold a reported 40,000 worshipers at a time. The outer courtyard of the mosque is accented with manicured gardens and shallow reflective pools. I didn’t have a chance to see the mosque at night, but from pictures I have seen it is beautifully lit. As you can imagine the mosque is enormous- the whole area is the size of five football fields. It’s built out of white marble and some of that marble is inlaid with pearl and other semi precious stones into colourful flower patterns that reminded me of the Taj Mahal. There are 4 minarets, 82 domes of varying size, 96 columns in the prayer hall with one the worlds largest carpets weighing some 35 tons. We spend about an hour visiting the mosque. Seeing as it was August when I visited it was very hot and humid and the outside courtyard offers very little shade. You then wind your way thru the outer walkway accented by arches into the great room. It’s all very aesthetically pleasing. Everything flows and is very calming and symmetrical as  Islamic architecture always is. It’s very cool if you have the chance to be there as the call to prayer goes off. All around are tourists taking selfies. As you walk into the main room shoes are removed and you can feel the cold marble underfoot until you reach the carpet inside. The domes allow light to flow into the room and it’s adorned with decorative chandeliers. I must say that this mosque lived up to my expectations!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here we started our drive back to Dubai. If you’re in Dubai I would highly recommend making a trip to Abu Dhabi. Seeing the Sheikh Zayed mosque is well worth it!

Kuwait

imageSo I’m sure you’re thinking why the heck would anybody want to visit Kuwait. I mean really what’s there? Why go. If I’m being honest (which I mostly always am) my reasons for visiting Kuwait were completely ridiculous. I have a dream of visiting every country in the Middle East. And Kuwait was the only safe one left that I hadn’t visited during my time living in Saudi. I haven’t been to Yemen, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan, but rest assured, as soon as they move from the avoid all travel warning to exercise a high degree of caution, I’ll be booking tickets. Anyways, back in August I had a last week of holidays to use before I left Saudi Arabia in September. I booked myself a relaxing weekend in Dubai with a day trip to Abu Dhabi and on the way back from Dubai I met a work friend of mine from Saudi in Kuwait for a night.

Apart from knowing that Kuwait was invaded by Saddam in the 1990’s, and having seen pictures of the Kuwait towers I didn’t really know much more than that. Oh, and I knew alcohol was banned. Because when a girl lives in the Middle East and loves the taste of wine she knows which countries are going to prevent her from reaching her full potential. But that’s really all I knew. Kuwait borders the northeastern part of Saudi Arabia and is surrounded by Iraq to the west and north of it. The coastal part of the country lies on the Persian Gulf. Here’s a little back history about Kuwait so you’ll know more than I did when I visited….way back in the 1500’s Kuwait was under Portuguese control. In 1613 a town was built on the spot that is present day Kuwait City. In the mid 1700’s Kuwait was a major shipping route between India and Africa. In 1899 Kuwait became a British protectorate until its independence in 1961. It was the first of the gulf coast countries to establish a constitution and a parliament. Things in the region heated up in the 1980’s with the Iraq-Iran war of which Kuwait supported Iraq. After this war ended tension increased between Iraq and Kuwait as Iraq owed a reported $65 billion US dollars in debt to Kuwait. In August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait which led to American forces eventually driving out Iraq in early 1991. Then in 2003 Kuwait was used as the starting point for the American led invasion of Iraq.

So my Kuwaiti adventure started pretty much from the moment my plane landed. I flew from Dubai direct to Kuwait and the friend that I was meeting flew direct from Saudi Arabia. Our planes were due to arrive at the same time and my friend had booked a hotel transfer for us. I was more than a little confused when we landed at the “airport” and there were no other commercial flights there. There were other planes, oddly a Kuwaiti military place and a Canadian military one. But that was it. In my head I was like “hmmmm. This is weird.” So we exit the plane and walk into basically an airline hanger with a small room with customs and an area off to the side that’s immigration. And it’s chaos. There’s no one to really explain anything. And at this point I’m thinking what the hell city am I in because there’s no way this in Kuwait International Airport. As it turned out since I had flown FlyDubai it arrives into this other airport which would’ve been useful to know prior to arriving.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal as this was taking place (because there was nothing else to do and I was feeling overly dramatic). It was like a scene from a bad movie. You land at a dilapidated airport and you’re momentarily confused that maybe you bought a ticket to somewhere you didn’t mean to. You walk into a room that looks like an 80’s office building and line up to take a ticket from one of those paper ticket dispensers they have at a deli. You try to get a sense of what’s going on since no one is giving directions and there aren’t any visible signs. Some people from this flight have done this before so they’re casually telling people what to do. You need to get in a separate line to make a copy of your passport. Then you have to purchase a stamp from a machine that doesn’t give change and only takes Kuwaiti dinar. There is no bank machine but outside of this room is a money changer. So people are trying to change money. Some nationalities need a stamp and others don’t. There’s a typed sheet of paper taped above the stamp machine with some countries crossed out and others hand written in. In pencil. Seems pretty legit. There’s a desk in this 1980’s themed office building. Behind it sit four Kuwaiti officials. Two men and two women. None of them appear to be working. After about 5 minutes the first number is called. There are at least 60 of us waiting for visas. We wait. Suddenly, only two are working. One is walking around chatting on his mobile phone, and the other has taken a cigarette break in what looks like a tiny open bus shelter in the same room that we are waiting in. An hour passes. And we wait. Now only one number is being called at a time. It appears that they are taking a team approach in processing the visas. That way all four look busy but actually very little work is taking place. I question whether maybe they were trained in Saudi, although truth be told Saudi immigration looks lightening fast compared to this. There’s no wifi so fellow passengers just stare blankly at each other and and give the eye raise look that essentially means “hang in there mate.” By this time I’m quite certain time has literally stopped. Every 5-10 min a ding indicates that a new number has been called. After nearly another hour has passed there seems to be some type of urgency set in. Likely there is a group coffee break coming up and they want to get us through. Nope false alarm. One has left to smoke and the other is back on the phone. The room starts to empty out. Eventually, I make my way out.

Here’s where the major lesson of if you have a shitty attitude then shitty things will happen. I was royally pissed off by the time I got my visa. Because my travel mate was at a different airport than me there wasn’t a taxi waiting. No biggie I thought…. I’ll just catch one outside the airport. Wrong. Dead wrong. No taxis. So I had to pay and wait for a shuttle. I can’t recall ever being to an airport that didn’t have taxis waiting out front. Welcome to Kuwait. So I arrive at the hotel and we had planned on spending a little time at the nice pool that was pictured when we had looked up the hotel. Except there are 2 Movenpick hotels in Kuwait and we have booked ourselves at the one that resembles a Super 8 and not the nice resort one we thought on the water. Oh Shit. Things are not going well. This is otherwise known as the snowball effect and things were rapidly rolling from not great to worse. So we had to pull it together. Like real quick! Luckily, I had made us reservations for this weird museum called the Mirror House so we hailed a taxi and off we went. The Mirror House is literally a house that a quirky Italian lady who married a Kuwaiti artist designed. She literally applied mosaic mirror all over the inside and outside of the house over a period of about 40 years. It was awesome. She is a great host and serves you juice and cake and then tours you around the many rooms of the house. As I’ve mentioned she is a very interesting woman and many of the rooms have astral themes relating to zodiac signs, planet earth and the universe. It was fascinating. In the upstairs of the house is an exhibition area paying tribute to her late husband the famous Kuwaiti artist named Khalifa Qattan whose art was quite controversial and addressed many societal issues regarding religion and gender roles. He also had paintings portraying the Iraqi invasion. It was a very interesting visit to say the least, and it was especially so because we toured with 3 Americans and 3 local Kuwaiti girls.

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After our visit to the Mirror House we braved the intense Kuwait heat to hail a taxi back to the hotel. The heat in Kuwait can be scorching and pavement is known to melt. Often it has been recorded as the hottest place on earth. It’s also super humid of which I am not a fan. After a bit of an afternoon siesta and a quick shower we caught a taxi to view the Kuwait Towers. These iconic towers were built in the 70’s and partially serve as water towers as well as a tourist viewing platform. There are 3 towers in total. The largest one has a restaurant and cafe and views over the Persian Gulf. The views would be much nicer if the windows were cleaned at all. It was pretty much impossible to get any clear pictures out the windows on account of dirt, but regardless the sunset was quite nice. These towers were damaged in the Iraqi invasion and sustained gunfire and shrapnel damage that was later repaired. From here we went to a steakhouse located in the hull of a traditional Arab dhow at the Radisson Blue hotel. It was super touristy as you can imagine, but the food was decent and we paired our steak with faux cocktails since as I’ve already mentioned alcohol is a no-go in this country.

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The following day we did some shopping prior to our flight. We visited a fancy local mall and a couple art galleries. Kuwait is quite different than Saudi Arabia. Women are not required to cover, but obviously it’s culturally appropriate to dress conservatively. Many women still do wear abayas, but many did not cover their hair. Men tended to wear traditional outfits consisting of a thobe or a dishdasha similar to Saudi with mostly white head scarves. It is ok for men and women to interact in Kuwait. We saw groups and pairs of young men and women hanging out and walking and chatting in the malls, and women can drive in Kuwait which is obviously different than in Saudi. Another difference we noticed was that the houses are more open and not fenced in or built like a compound as they are in Saudi. In Saudi you often have to go thru a gate with a high wall surrounding homes so the front door and main floor isn’t visible from the street. Kuwaiti houses seemed more open and inviting which was nice. Kuwait was similar to Saudi Arabia in that there’s not a lot of tourist infrastructure. There’s not a lot of tourist things to do, so for us one night was perfect. Compared to Saudi taxis there were super expensive and not especially easy to catch if you weren’t getting one from a hotel.

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There are 9 islands off the coast of Kuwait. We had initially looked into trying to visit Falaika Island as we read that the island had old ruins and that the island had been evacuated during the Iraqi War which made it an interesting sounding place to visit. Unfortunately, when we actually looked into it, it was going to be very expensive to try and arrange a private tour, as tours don’t go in the summer months, and if we tried to take the public ferry we could likely end up stranded unable to get a ferry back. So we gave it a pass. If I happened upon a more reasonable option I’d be keen to go back to check it out. But this time I’d be sure to fly into the main airport so as to avoid a potential second Kuwaiti nervous breakdown!! So there you have it. That’s the low-down on what to see in Kuwait should you fancy to check that country off your list!

Jordan

While I was home over the summer I was trying to figure out what to do with a week of holidays I had later in July. My trip home was lovely, but as many of you who live abroad know, it’s enjoyeable, but never very relaxing. When you live abroad trips home mean fitting in as many people you can that you’ve missed dearly in the time you’ve been away, eating and drinking all the things you’ve been craving since you were last there, and likely stocking up on the many, many things you can’t get in your new country, and doing annoying errands like banking, or getting your teeth cleaned or going to your storage unit. I had split my time between my family in Canada, and my important people in Seattle and I was exhausted. One afternoon I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to lay on a beach or by a pool for a few days somewhere fancy. So over a 5 min conversation with my best friend a plan was hatched. Initially I was like “should I go back to the Maldives?” Which after a couple seconds and a quick mental review of my bank account I was like “hmmm maybe not.” And the next thing out of my mouth was “I think I’ll go to the Dead Sea and stay at the Kempinski resort.” Here’s were the magic of synchronicity took over. I’ve been to the Dead Sea before, but we didn’t stay at the Kempinski resort, so I’m not exactly sure where my brain pulled this idea from. After I said it I remembered that I had a friend in Saudi who was thinking of going on a tour of Jordan sometime in July. So I messaged her to see what her plans were. It ended up that she was going to Jordan the same dates I had off, that she had elected not to do a tour, and instead was just going to the Dead Sea to stay at…..you guessed it…..the Kempinski. And she had a room with 2 beds and was going solo so she asked if I wanted to come along. I already had my credit card out and was booking a plane ticket!

As I said I’ve previously been to Jordan. Back in 2010 my best friend and I met in Jordan, traveled around and then crossed into Syria and then into Lebanon. This was pre Arab springs. Whenever anyone asks me where to go in the Middle East I always say Jordan or Oman, because both countries are safe, and they are a great introduction into Middle Eastern culture if you’ve never been exposed to it. My trip this time involved mostly pool time, tanning, chilling, and a visit to Petra at night. The Jordan side of the Dead Sea is lined with resort type hotels of varying class and price. If you’re planning a trip and drink alcohol it’s prudent that you check to see whether the place you are booking does in fact serve alcohol. Some do not, some charge ridiculous prices, as was the case with our hotel. Apparently, it was our hotels policy to also confiscate any food or drink brought into the property although they really weren’t very strict about it. Now, here’s the thing about me and the way I travel. I like nice things. As in nice things I’m actually going to make use of and enjoy, otherwise I’m super cheap. I have no problem paying for a fancy hotel if I’m going to relax and use the facilities. If it’s only a bed to sleep in and nothing else then I don’t want to pay much at all. I also have no problem paying for a really nice meal. But when it’s going to cost me something crazy like $16 US for a shot of vodka or $10 US for a bottle of water I’m taking things into my own hands. Which is why we stopped off at the duty free in Amman airport and I was a cheapskate and mixed my own drinks poolside. Challenge accepted Kempinski!

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So I was there for three nights. Two of those days were just totally relaxing days. I’m talking buffet breakfast followed by glass upon glass of champagne with OJ for me, and straight champagne with strawberries for my travel partner. The service at the Kempinski was really good. I’m sure the fact that we were two single gals and I had blond locks only helped our cause but we could hardly finish our glass of champagne without another being put in front of us. Oh, also the summer is off season for the Dead Sea on account of scorching temperatures- and it’s really hot and humid. Because of this there were very, very few other western tourists. So after some champagne we would make our way down to the infinity pool that overlooks the Dead Sea and claim ourselves a couple chairs. Since I burn pretty much immediately mine was always in the shade. From here the rest of the day was bouncing between the pool, the lounge chair, having a nap, writing a bit, and repeat. The service at the pool was awesome- we couldn’t get more ice, cold cloths, our umbrella moved or our sunglasses cleaned fast enough. Being the only two western women during the off-season in Jordan definitely had its perks. Since it was my travel mate’s first time to Jordan we obviously had to do the obligatory float in the Dead Sea. I’d already done it, and it really is a once in a life time thing. As in you do it once, and then you’re good for life. It’s a very odd experience to get into a body of water and come out feeling dirtier than you went in. It’s very oily, and salty as you can imagine. It’s also the lowest point on earth, and scientist say it’s shrinking at an alarming rate so you really should go if you have the chance. It’s almost 10 times saltier than the ocean, so don’t splash around because trust me if you get the water in your eyes it will burn like crazy and heaven forbid the water gets in your mouth it will take a long time to get rid of that taste. Trust me on this.

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One of the days we decided to visit Petra at night, and the hotel arranged a driver. Petra is probably best known from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s from the Nabataean Era and was thought to be built in around 312 BC. We left after lunch as it’s about a 3.5 hour drive to get to Wadi Musa the city where Petra is. We stopped off along the way for kebabs and were able to catch the setting sun on the outskirts of Wadi Musa which was stunning. It was a funny experience driving through the tiny villages along the way and for a while I tried to look at it through the eyes of someone who has never been to the Middle East before. How foreign it is from back home. How odd it would be to see signs written in Arabic, and see men in traditional clothing, and mosques everywhere,  and how in the Middle East the colours all just sort of blend together. Houses and buildings are often of similar sand or white, or tan or brown colours and just blur together. I thought about how unique it was that I am so comfortable in this environment that is so drastically different from my home culture. It made me think that in my years of living in Saudi how unfortunate it was that my family hadn’t come to visit. How I would’ve loved to share these experiences with them. I’m still in the process of deciding if I will return to Saudi in January so there might be another opportunity to share it with them!

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We got dropped in front of the entrance to Petra around 6:30pm. Petra by night tours only operate on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays at 8:30pm until around 10:30pm. I had read mixed reviews about it, but seeing as I had already seen Petra during the day I was keen to see it lit up at night. We passed the time at a bar near to the visit center that is built in a cave- reportedly it is the oldest bar in the world. I’m not sure how true that really is, but it makes for a great story. After sipping our “Petra” brand local style beer we met up with the group for the 2km walk to the Treasury building. The trail that winds its way towards the Treasury is lined with candles which cast shadows onto the rocks that line the path. We were lucky enough to be there when there was a full moon, and it wasn’t cloudy so the moon cast a lot of natural light. Eventually, we came to the siq which is the narrow rock passage that leads into the Treasury. From here we could hear traditional Bedouin music as we made our way closer.  There were hundreds of candles lit in front of the Treasury that cast an eerie sort of light. The next hour or so was filled with more music, a brief talk and then tea was served Bedouin style in tiny teacups that is traditionally how tea is served throughout the Middle East. I was highly distracted and missed most of the music as I was engrossed with taking pictures of the full moon and the Treasury building. I’m not a great night photographer but I did capture some awesome shots. We eventually made our way back out of the park and to our driver for a harrowing 3 hour drive back. The main “highway” we took back was full of potholes and speed bumps and huge trucks overloaded with cargo, so it was a little nerve wracking. Eventually, I had to close my eyes, because looking out the window was way too stressful.

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So that wrapped up my quick 3 day trip to Jordan. But you should know there’s a ton more to see. The area around Amman, the country’s capital is full of places to explore. There is a Christian town of Madaba that has some very old mosaics in one of the churches there, you can hike nearby Mt Nebo, visit Jesus’s Baptism site and view Israel on the opposite shore, or visit the Roman ruins of Jerash in the northern part of the country. Jerash was quite a cool ruin site- it’s very well preserved and dates from 129 AD. Originally, the ruins were of Christian origin, until Islam arrived and now there is remnants of a mosque. There are well preserved arches, plazas, and the Roman road. It’s well worth a visit. There’s not a lot of shade though- so wear a hat and sunscreen if visiting in the warmer months.

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In the south of the country is Wadi Musa home to Petra. It would be plain foolish to go to Jordan and not see Petra. I would recommend visiting both in the day and at night as they offer very different perspectives on the site. For the night tour you are restricted to only seeing the siq and Treasury as I’ve mentioned before. But during the day you can have free run of the massive area. The area is lined with enormous tombs, rock walls, and amazing views. When we visited we arrived early (like 6am early) when the park opens. This is really the best time as the park is largely empty and the tour buses haven’t yet arrived. Because once they do there will be no less than 20 tourist minimum in every single picture you take. As I mentioned it’s about a 2km walk on a rocky trail into the park. Good shoes, sunscreen and a hat are essential. When we visited it was September and I still nearly died of heat stroke by early afternoon (stupid lily white skin). So go early. And make sure to take the time to climb up to the Monastery, it takes about an hour. We ended up taking donkeys up but I would not recommend this- it was absolutely terrifying and I’m amazed we and the donkeys didn’t topple over the side of the path. Anyways the views from the Monastery are stunning and not to be missed.

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A trip to Petra should really be paired with a trip to nearby Wadi Rum. If you have the time I would recommend camping out- we were pressed for time so weren’t able to, but everyone I know who’s done this raved about it. I mean when else are you going to sleep under the stars in a Bedouin camp?? We took a day tour of Wadi Rum with a local Bedouin driver which turned out to be quite the adventure as our old rickety Toyota would break down no less than 20 times that day,  and we spent much of the time trying to decipher what our Bedouin driver was saying. The scenery was stunning with the sand dunes a colour of red I was previously unfamiliar with. We climbed sand dunes, and ate lunch in the shade of one of the many large rock formations. I remember thinking it was like being in the desert and the Grand Canyon at the same time. Every view was postcard worthy, and we snapped picture after picture after picture. You can also venture down further south to the port city of Aqaba, which is known for its beaches and diving. I haven’t been yet so I can’t really tell you more than that!

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So that’s a bit of an over view of what to do when you’re in Jordan. Again, I felt very safe both times I’ve been and I would happily go again. Tourism there has been massively affected with the war in Syria, but as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been any targeted attacks on tourists. I found the people to be extremely friendly, and many speak English, so language barrier isn’t much of an issue. Jordan is an excellent way to comfortably explore the Middle East. Happy travels…..

Sacred Places

During my time in Prague we wandered around the Old Jewish Cemetery and it got me thinking about all the sacred places I’ve visited during my travels. Places where the ugliness of humanity once carried out unimaginable horrors or mother nature intervened in tragic ways, and the different ways people pay their respects and mourn for those that died. In the West we commonly lay wreaths. Have moments of silence or hold candle light vigils. We visit grave sights and place flowers. We bow our heads. We say prayers. Wandering this Jewish cemetery many of the tombstones had rocks placed on the top, or coins, or notes. Some of the notes said “Love from Italy.” Or Florida, or France. Many of the notes were folded in a way that the messages were kept secret. Sealed messages of mourning to honour the dead. I was really moved by this tradition of leaving behind something to acknowledge that we have been there, and that the persons memory is carried on by the living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember one of my first trips abroad and visiting Hiroshima and seeing the Peace Memorial at sunset. In 1945 an atomic bomb was dropped there and some 70 000 people were instantly killed. Today the bombed out remains of one building are all that remain and I remember the building being lit up at night which made the visit very moving and that there was an eerie calmness to the site. In my memories it’s silent except for the sound of the wind thru the nearby trees. I’m sure there were other noises, but all I remember was the light and the setting sun. Since then I have visited Ground Zero in New York City. I’ve walked the beaches of Sri Lanka years after the deadly tsunami that claimed the lives of nearly 37 000 people. When I visited back in 2010 nearly 6 years later parts of the coast looked like a war zone with only the cement frames of houses that were otherwise completely washed away. It was heart wrenching to drive through these small villages and meet people who had lost family members or even their entire family, their houses, and had no choice but to continue living on the coast- in many cases living off the very ocean that took so much from them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember in 2010 when I backpacked thru Syria. Crossing by land from northern Jordan and driving up to Damascus the oldest city in the world. I remember feeling very safe while traveling there- my best friend and I taking public buses to the UNESCO sites of Palmyra in the northeastern part of the country near the Iraqi border and Crac de Chevaliers just outside of Homs. Both sites have been massively damaged in the Syrian conflict not to mention the estimated 250 000 Syrians that have lost their lives. Last year when I was in the Maldives there was a massive earthquake that hit Nepal, a country I had visited the year before. I remember exploring the alleyways of Kathmandu stumbling across tiny temples and statues amongst the hustle and bustle of such a populated city. Much of it was damaged during that earthquake in April 2015.

Palmyra in Syria

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A few years back I visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia where over 1 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. 1 million. In my lifetime. I remember wandering the memorial site and crying. What took place there was horrific and barbaric. Processing it made the air feel thick and my chest feel heavy. It’s unimaginable. And yet it happened. In recent years it has become a tradition to leave a bracelet to remember the dead at the site of one of the mass graves. Rocks in Jewish cemeteries, bracelets in Cambodia. Different acts and yet the same meaning- to bare witness. To mourn for humanities evil. All of these sites have the same things in common. They are sacred. They instill the visitor with a sense of disbelief and an overwhelming feeling of despair. Apart from my reference to Sri Lanka and Nepal all these events are man made. The darkest parts of humanity did this. And it continues to happen today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post wasn’t meant to be depressing but rather to acknowledge the different ways around the world people pay their respects and remember the dead on the actual soil where nature and man has claimed so many lives. I also hope that it motivates you to learn about these dark periods of history and compare them to current events. To bear witness to what is happening around the world today. Lest we not repeat humanities mistakes. That we realize that a life no matter how far away or how different from our own is still a precious life. That it inspires you to get out there and see the world, as the world and climate are always changing and natural events can forever change the face of a place.

Luxury Dubai Style

As I’ve previously posted, Dubai is luxury at its finest. A place where the police drive lamborghinis and falcons get to fly first class. Neither of those things is untrue. Trust me. So, back in February I spent a weekend in Dubai. Several years ago I was on a single girls cruise to the Bahamas and the boat docked at the Atlantis resort for the day. I remember thinking I want to come back here some time. The beach was fantastic, the aquarium was amazing, and onto my bucket list it went.

Flash forward a couple years and I was living in Saudi (the first time.) I found out that there was also an Atlantis resort in Dubai and was like yep. I’m going. And then the UAE and Canada had a tiff something to do with international flights and Canadians had to pay like $250 to get a visa. And I was like Hell’s no. So alas it never happened.

So in February my kiwi sidekick and I splurged to stay one night at the Atlantis resort. It’s not cheap, but if you book thru their website and are a GCC resident (Gulf Cooperative Council) which if you live in Saudi and have an Igama you are, you get a 10% discount, and admission for 2 to the water park and to the aquarium. Nether of those things are cheap on their own, so it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’re actually saving money by staying there (even though you really aren’t.) But it worked for me. Trying to be semi budget conscious we opted to only stay one night and stay somewhere else cheap for the other 2 nights. In theory this sounds great, but I’ve often found that if you’re splurging to stay somewhere fancy for 1 night you should really just do yourself a favor and book for 2 nights. With one night you hardly have enough time to relax, and likely won’t be able to use all the facilities you want to. We sure couldn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

As you can imagine the Atlantis is fancy. We went to the water park which has a lovely lazy river that you can float around in. Since it was February the water felt cool, and it was cold late in the afternoon in the shade. There are a bunch of water slides, all of which I found terrifying. There’s something about flying thru a pitch black tube at high speeds that has me screaming like a teenager and demanding to get off. My kiwi sidekick was brave enough to go on the “Leap of Faith”. That’s the one that drops you pretty much straight down and you go thru the shark tank at high speed. Shark tank. No thanks. If you stay at the Atlantis I would recommend eating at the Seafire restaurant. The steak and the sides were amazing, and they have a really good wine selection. We had a California Zinfandel that made me insanely homesick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went to Friday bunch at Feast. I’m a big fan of boozy breakfast, but this time I paced myself and was a little bit more classy than the last time we went when I ended up passed out by 5pm and with the hangover from hell later that evening. I guess you might say I’m maturing?!

We hit up Irish Village which is always a good time. Especially on the weekend. We took in a VIP movie. We got VIP tickets to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa. Basically it means you go in a special group (of other VIPs) and get to use a special elevator and make stops on the 125th and the 148th floor. There you are greeted with fresh juices and teeny tiny macaroons and other bite sized desserts. You can stay as long as you want. We timed our visit with sunset. FUNFACT: occasionally the Burj opens for sunrise viewings. That would be pretty cool if you don’t mind getting up at 5:30am on your vacation. The views from the Burj Khalifa towards the Atlantis and the Burj al Arab are spectacular, but weren’t very clear the day we were there as there always tends to be a lot of dust in the air. Still though, it is the tallest building in the world, so really you should go up it if you have the chance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here’s my top 5 list of things you should do in Dubai if you have money burning a hole in your pocket, or you fancy living the high life for the weekend:

1. Stay somewhere swanky. Dubai has a TON of 5 star hotels. I would say YOLO (you only live once) so book into the Atlantis.

2.  Book high tea at the Burj al Arab. And be sure to get there early so you get a window seat to watch the sunset. It’s pretty lovely.

3. You can’t go to Dubai without experiencing Friday brunch. And you best make it boozy in my opinion. They’re not cheap, but the food is phenomenal and that might be the only time you allow yourself to drink bottles of Moët champers (champagne people.)

4. Make a trip to the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa. Ponder your existence. Take as many selfies with the Dubai skyline as your backdrop as is humanely possible.

5. See a movie as the VIP I know you are. You’ll get a private attendant to get you whatever you need. A lazy boy reclining chair. A pillow and a blanket. Heaven. Especially after a night out on the town. Just don’t fall asleep and miss the entire movie!!

 

Have you been to Dubai? What’s the most outrageous thing you did while there??

 

My Top 10 from 2015

2015 was a pretty epic year of traveling for me. I’ve just switched over to my new 2016 calendar and I counted all the days I was out of Saudi traveling last year. It was 109. 109!!!! How is that even possible? Since the last time I checked I work a full-time gig as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia. But apparently I was on the go a lot. I visited 16 countries over the last year, 11 of them new for me, and I thought I would share my top 10 favourite memories from the last year. Enjoy!!

1. Cyprus

Way back in February I took a trip to Cyprus and my kiwi sidekick and I rented a car and drove around the quaint island. I have 2 favourite memories from this trip. The first was the a day we spend driving in the hills between Limassol and Paphos. The  day was cold and dreary and we visited a local winery and then made our way to a small village that was devastated and deserted by an earthquake in 1969. As we arrived in the village a torrential downpour started which only added to the creepiness of our visit, and we got soaked walking around taking photos. The village is on the way to a town called Lemona. The other great memory I have from that trip was the time a stranger gave us his BMW to drive for an afternoon. You can read about that travel tale here.

Creepy right?!

2. Norway

Two words. Lofoten Islands. Quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. They are picturesque and have this kinda of awestruck beauty that isolated and desolate places have. Every which way you turn your head was a postcard perfect view. The gagged snow covered peaks drop dramatically into the arctic sea and I would go back in a second. I think an Atheist would have a hard time believing there isn’t a higher power of some sort after visiting this island chain. See for yourself…..

3. Sweden

The whole of Scandinavia is awesome, and travel there is pretty easy. It would be a real shame if you went to Sweden and didn’t visit the Ice Hotel, even if only for the day! The Ice Hotel is an artistic marvel in that every year the design and decor is completely different. Different artists take part every year so the theme rooms change, which you have to admit is pretty cool. It is pricey, but well worth the stay. You can sleep in one of the actual ice rooms, or stay in a heated cabin like we did. Oh, and if you go make sure to do the tasting menu at the restaurant there- it is phenomenal. Maybe you’ll luck out and the Northern Lights will come out like they did for us!!

4. Finland

Dog sledding in Lapland has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was bloody cold, but so worth it.

5. Maldives

This view……I dream about it often. This is one of the most relaxed vacations I have ever had. Ever. It was hard to decide between spa, pool, eat, nap, read, repeat. This is also the place where I attempted to overcome my fear of the water and tried scuba diving.

6. Bahrain

So VIP culture is huge in the Middles East. You rarely see anything VIP in North America unless it’s in a mocking nature, but over in these parts everything is VIP. VIP movie theaters, hospitals, parking spots, entrances. It’s all a little over the top. That is until you catch a ride over the causeway to Bahrain in a vehicle with diplomatic plates and get to cross via the VIP lanes. Yep. And funfact….they have tea boys who come right up to you car to serve you tea, while you wait in line to cross the border.

7. Morocco

I blogged at great length about how difficult it was traveling in Morocco, but one the best things we did while there was take a cooking class thru Souk Cuisine. This class included a shopping trip to buy the needed ingredients in the Medina and was a great way to learn about local ingredients whilst mixing with the locals. Even though Morocco was sometimes very challenging the food was ALWAYS delicious. I would pretty much recommend doing a cooking class or food tour whenever you travel. I’m doing one later this month in Spain and can’t wait!!

8. Bali Indonesia

At the end of August I took part in a retreat on the northern part of the Indonesian island of Bali with 17 other ladies from all over the world. My time there was so needed and really came at a time when I needed to slow down and work through some things on my own. The location was beautiful, as were the many lovely ladies I met. This was a time of much needed R&R and reflection, and I’m so thankful for the wonderful friendships that were formed from my time in Bali.

9. Oktoberfest Germany

Even though I ended up with a GI bug from hell, Oktoberfest was a seriously fun time (while it lasted.) I mean what’s not to love about a group of traditionally costumed and hugely intoxicated people smashing beer steins together while singing traditional German songs at the top of ones lungs. It was a good time, and YOLO you really only do live once so you should go.

10. Sparkling Hills Spa in British Columbia Canada

Last month I took my mom to this spa about an hour from where she lives. This is a place people have been raving about since it opened a few years back and I was keen to see what all the hype was about! The hotel is pretty much the luxury accommodations in the Okanagan region of British Columbia and known for its spa, saunas and heated outdoor infinity pools. The views from the rooms are amazing, as are the 7 saunas and the indoor floating pool with classical music playing under the water. Well worth the visit, and it was a great mother-daughter retreat.

So really that wraps up 2015. It was a pretty great year. I’m really excited to see what is in store for 2016. I’m excited for the new faces I will meet, the new sights I will see, and the changes that will take place inside of me.  I found this quote that sums up my thoughts about the upcoming year perfectly, and my hopes for both you and I…..

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.

You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, for all of us, and my wish for myself.

Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.

Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t prefect, whatever it is; art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing. Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Neil Gaiman

Top 10 Middle East- Part 2

Earlier this week I shared with you Part 1 of my  top 10 favourite places in the Middle East, so here’s the second half…..

6. Muscat, Oman

Oh-man!!! Where to even start about Oman. It’s an amazing country. If you’re at all nervous about visiting a country in the Middle East I would say Oman would be the easiest. I loved it, and truth be told I immediately started looking into nursing positions there after my trip, but alas, there weren’t any at that time. We organized a week long tour that took us all over the country. The Omani coast is spectacular and there are tons of wadis (natural swimming holes) that you hike into and are really cool to explore. The city of Muscat is built around a harbor surrounded by the Al Hajar mountains to the west. There is a beautiful corniche to wander along, the Old Muttrah souk to explore and many great restaurants. We spent an afternoon visiting the Grand Mosque which was colourful and ornate. Ladies you will need to cover your hair and wear long sleeved tops. Somehow this slipped my mind and I had to spend $30 on an ugly striped mens long sleeve shirt to be allowed in. Sometimes I suffer from complete Middle East amnesia and forget about prayer times, or cultural practices. Showing up at a mosque with a tank top was one such occasion.

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7. Experience Bedouin Life and see the Desert, Jordan or Oman

The deserts in the Arabian peninsula are spectacular. Be it Saudi Arabia, Jordan, or Oman the sand is the most beautiful shade of red or orange and stretches out towards the horizon. If you’re visiting the Middle East it would be a shame to pass up seeing the desert. Bedouins are the local nomadic people, and many still live in the desert although this is much less common than it was even 50 years ago. I would recommend the Red Sands in Saudi Arabia. It’s a great place to ride a camel or go ATVing in the sand dunes. Wadi Rum in southern Jordan is a huge tourist attraction and attracts trekkers, climbers and people like me who visit for the day. We had a local guide and were able to interact with some of the local people which I loved. You can stay overnight in one of the Bedouin camps which I would’ve loved to but we ran out of time. Wadi Rum is surrounded by really cool rock formations and literally every direction you turn is a postcard perfect view. Oman also has beautiful desert areas. We visited Wahiba Sands which is south of Muscat and spent an afternoon 4x4ing over the sand dunes, drinking tea with a Bedouin family, and standing around while our guide tried to fix a flat tire in the soft sand. This had us asking that age old question…….How many Bedouins does it take to change a tire? Good times.

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Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Wadi Rum, Jordan

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Wahiba Sands, Oman

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8. Istanbul. Turkey

Istanbul is a vibrant colourful city. It’s a great landing point for traveling in Turkey and you need at least 3 days to do it justice. Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait and essentially has one side in Europe and the other in Asia. It is a hugely historically significant city that was once a Christian city under Roman rule until it was conquered by the Ottomans and then converted to Islam. There is a ton to see, and so much excellent food to eat. When I went I stayed in the Sultanahment area (old town) which is easy walking distance to the big tourists attractions. Many of the hotels in that area have beautiful rooftop views, so you’ll get to eat your breakfast with a birds eye view of the Blue Mosque. The big highlights of Istanbul for me were the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topaki Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. The best and I seriously mean the BEST thing I did while in Istanbul was visit the Basilica Cistern. It’s a huge 6th century cistern from the Byzantine times and the lighting makes for beautiful photos. As you can imagine it’s dark and a bit creepy but really cool to explore. Me and my overactive imagination would cringe at the thought of being trapped alone down there though. When you go be on the look out for the 2 carved Medusa pillars.

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9. Qal’at al-Bahrain, Bahrain

To be fair there’s not a ton to do in Bahrain apart from shopping and drinking, but it does make a great weekend trip to get away from Saudi Arabia. Who knew that there were actually touristy things to do there? Well there’s a fort that also happens to be a UNESCO heritage site believe to date from 2300 BC. The outer fort is well preserved as are some of the archways and the inner portion looks very much like an archeological site. If you need a break from clubbing and shopping in Bahrain take an hour and go explore the fort. There are great city views from there.

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10. Islamic Arts Museum. Doha, Qatar

I’ve already raved about my love for this museum in a previous post which you can read here. I tend to get kinda bored in museums an my eyes glaze over and I’m far too lazy to bother with reading any of the signage around. This museum was the exception though. I love Arabic patterns and think that visually Arabic is such a beautiful written language. The museum is bright and open and laid out very well. If I’m ever back in Qatar I would check out this museum again. Oh- the best part. It’s free. I love free.

Well that wraps up my Top 10 Middle East recommendations. I could’ve easily made this a top 30 list though, as there are so many wonderful places worth exploring in this region.

Have you traveled in the Middle East? What were your top picks?

Top 10 Middle East- Part 1

I’m not going to claim that I’m an expert on travel in the Middle East, but I sort of am. Self proclaimed of course. To count I’ve traveled within Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman. Even though I would love to go to Israel I have not yet been as having an Israeli stamp in one’s passport can create numerous problems traveling to the above countries I’ve mentioned. For security reasons I have not been to Iraq, Afghanistan or Yemen. I’m planning a weekend trip to Kuwait this spring and I’m super excited as I’ve just booked a trip to Iran in April. I’ve wanted to visit Iran for years and decided this spring was the time to do it. So anyways that’s where I’ve been. I thought I would share with you some of my favourite places in the Middle East, as it is a truly fascinating area of the world, and even though there are safety issues I still think if you have the means and curiosity you should go. Originally I was going to post this as one long post, but after seeing how long it actually was when I finished I’ve broken it into 2 parts. Enjoy!

1. Petra, Jordan

It’s no surprise that Petra Jordan is at the top of my Middle East travel list. It’s an amazing place, and a huge site well worth exploring. Also in terms of getting out of your comfort zone Jordan is a really easy country in the Middle East to explore. There are a lot of tourists, and the infrastructure is great. Also I’d say it’s pretty safe. Petra is Jordan’s #1 tourist site and has been the site of many movies- most famously Indiana Jones. The actual site dates from the Nabataeans who established Petra as their capital sometime in the early 5th century BC. The site is massive and you could easily spend an entire day exploring. The walk up to the site itself winds thru rock passages that are narrow but open up into an impressive view of the treasury. It’s best to go first thing when it opens at 6am when the temperatures are cooler and the tour buses haven’t yet rolled in. Once the tour buses arrive it can turn into a real shit show, and as you can imagine the summer months the temperatures are very high and there isn’t much shade. I went in October and even though it was cooler I remember being a sweaty mess by the time we left in the afternoon. My favourite place there was exploring the Monastery on the top. It’s a pretty steep hike, but you could take the lazy but more terrifying option like I did and ride a donkey. The paths are narrow and mine kept losing his footing so I had very vivid thoughts of flying over the side of the cliff and the donkey landing on top of me. It was pretty satisfying though passing all the other tourists who looked like they were seconds from passing out or giving up on the climb as we limbered past fanning ourselves on the back of a donkey. We didn’t have a chance to visit Petra at night. It takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night and the Treasury is lit up by candlelight. I’ve seen photos and it looks pretty awesome.

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2. Mada’in Saleh, Saudi Arabia

I’ve already blogged about my visit to Mada’in Saleh, the sister city to Petra in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. Truth be told it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited, mostly because it was devoid of tourists. It’s a little unfair that I’ve added it to this list as the only hope you have of seeing it is if you find yourself working in Saudi as they aren’t currently issuing tourist visas. I wanted to include it though because a lot of my readers are ex-pats in Saudi or people considering taking a job in Saudi and those are the people that should be booking their flights to Al Ula immediately to see this site. It’s more spread out than Petra and you’ll need a guide and driver to see it all. You can read what I previously wrote about it here…..

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3. Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek is located in the Beqaa valley in northern Lebanon  in an area that used to belong to Syria and is the homeland of Hezbollah. I have to admit it had a very different feel than being in Beirut and I remember there were a ton of billboards with the faces of martyrs on them, which was a little unsettling. Baalbek is one of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon and well worth a visit. We did a day trip from Beirut with a stop- off at Ksara winery which was a great way to end the day. Baalbek is a sister site of the Roman ruins at Palmyra in Syria. Construction on the temple of Juniper is thought to have started around 15BC. This temple is the central point of the Baalbek site and is very impressive as you can see.

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4. Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia is kinda an awkward meeting of Flintstone’s prehistoric era meets phallic rock formations. It’s strange but very picturesque. If you’re going, do yourself a favor and book to stay at one of the many cave hotels. You would be insane not to, because where else are you going to sleep in a luxury cave dwelling. When you go I would give yourself a few days to explore. There’s lots of hiking to be done in the area, and the area is scattered with underground old cities and above ground open air churches. Many of the churches are from the Byzantine era and the paintings in them are often very well preserved, except that many of the eyes or faces have been vandalized as they were seen as idol worship when Islam was brought to the region. The churches were largely abandoned in the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923. The other thing you should make sure to do is splurge and treat yourself to an early morning hot-air balloon ride. Just do it. You’ll be awestruck by the beauty of the countryside below and it’s one of those once in a lifetime experiences. I loved it, and am even considering going back this winter as I would love to see what Cappadocia looks like covered in snow. I’m sure it looks magical.

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5. The Dead Sea, Jordan or Israel

It’s not often you get into a body of water and come out of it dirtier than you were when you went in, but such is a swim in the Dead Sea. It’s the lowest point on earth and reported to have the highest salt content of any other body of water. It’s almost 10x more salty than the ocean. It’s an experience going for a dip in it because due to the mineral salt content it makes you super buoyant. So you stroll down to the water edge and try to walk in and by the time the water reaches part way up your legs you lose your footing and will end up on your back. It’s a really bizarre experience, but worth going none the less. Don’t make the same mistake and shave your legs ladies before you go, because trust me. Salt stings something fierce and you’ll regret it straight away. There are a bunch of luxury resorts dotting the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. I stayed at the Movenpick which was fancy and lovely. They also had a fabulous infinity pool.

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The second part of my list will come out later in the week……inshallah….

 

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

Last month I popped over to Sharm el-Sheikh, or “Sharm” as it’s referred to by ex-pats and Middle Easterners. I went for 3 nights to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Sharm is a resort town on the Sinai peninsula of Egypt, on the Red Sea. It’s a quick 2hr flight from Riyadh, and makes a nice weekend get-away. The town itself is mostly full of all-inclusive resorts of varying stars, as well as Saudi, Egyptian, British and Russian tourists. It’s known amongst divers as being some of the best waters you can dive in, and there are many dive boats to stay on if that’s your thing.

Sharm is a place of contradictions. You will see Muslim women in swim burkinis or their abayas next to British and Russian tourists in the teeniest swimwear your eyes have ever seen. It’s bizarre and surreal. Safety wise Sharm el-Sheikh is the only safe place on the Sinai peninsula, but as with most security in the Middle East, this is an ever changing thing, so it’s best to follow the situation closely if you’re going and be sure to register with your embassy. The last major terror attack in Sharm was in 2005, although the most recent June tourist attack in Tunisia has shed light on Sharm being a target. Security is reportedly on high alert, but to be quite honest I hardly saw any security at all. Maybe they blended in civilian-style, but I’ve seen more security in Saudi Arabia than we saw here.

I won’t actually name the resort we stayed at because it wasn’t really that great. We spent our time bouncing between the few pools at the resort, going for dips, reading in the shade, having drinks at the swim up bar, or watching the daily belly-dancing and jazzercise classes. They were hugely entertaining. I had wanted to try scuba diving again, but had been fighting a respiratory bug for the last several weeks (thankfully not MERS) so couldn’t do it. The beach area is really rocky so most of the resorts on the bay we stayed on had piers that led out into the ocean to make getting in easier. The water is a beautiful shade of blue with great visibility and tons of fish. The ocean was really rough the time we were there, so while I did go in my fear of water immediately kicked in and I was back out in a matter of minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

The best thing we did while there though, was rent a beach cabana and pretend we were high rollers for the day. For $30 we got a private beachfront cabana with a waiter and wifi. It felt like total luxury and I loved every minute of it. Weather wise it’s super humid. Riyadh has a dry heat which I’ve become accustomed to, so Sharm was pretty close to unbearable during the day with temperatures in the mid to upper 40’s and humidity in the 50’s it was sweltering. The other relaxing thing we did was a 2 hour Egyptian hammam which was classier than my Moroccan hammam experience, but still resulted in me being mostly naked whilst getting a scrub down with my travel mate. Since it was my second experience I felt like quite the experienced hammam-goer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you need a weekend away you could do much worse than to fly over to Sharm el-Sheikh. If you love all-inclusives than you will likely love Sharm. If like me, they’re not really your thing it still makes for a nice weekend out of the sandbox. Go exploring people…..

 

 

 

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