Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: UAE

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!

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 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….

 

Dubai

Last month I spent 2 nights in Dubai prior to traveling to the Maldives, and 3 nights there on my way back to Riyadh. Dubai is awesome. To be fair, most places feel awesome after being confined in Saudi after any length of time, but I suspect had I visited from somewhere else I would’ve still loved it. Dubai is a booming city, with construction taking place everywhere you look. It is consumerism at it’s best and worst. It is completely man-made, there is nothing natural about it. Those are probably it’s biggest faults. Compared to Saudi it’s a taste of freedom. There is alcohol and bars to visit. Women can, and do drive. There are movie theatres, and women can try on clothing when shopping. What a revelation! And here’s the best part for all you Canadians out there…….there are Tim Horton’s all over the place. Literally everywhere, and it’s exactly the same as back home. In fact, that may be my favourite thing about being in Dubai was that it felt so dang familiar to me. It was like a trip back to Canada and the US all rolled into one. So many of my favourite shops and restaurants, places that we just don’t have in Riyadh.

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Well played Tim Hortons…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not a huge shopper. In fact, normally when it comes to shopping I’m a get in and get out kinda gal. Usually after about an hour at the mall my eyes glaze over and I’m eying up the exits. You can imagine my surprise then that we spent the vast majority of our time at Dubai Mall. Mostly shopping. I know. We also saw a couple movies, and paid extra to watch Furious 7, VIP style. What’s VIP style you might ask? Well basically you get a reclining lazyboy chair with a blanket and a pillow and a waitress comes to you and takes your order. It’s pretty awesome. But don’t get too excited- booze are not available at the movies. Dubai I think you should look into this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides being delighted by Dubai Mall we did the obligatory touristy things like having High Tea at the Burj Al Arab in the Jumeirah area. It was pricey, but lovely. Don’t make the same mistake as we did- arrive early as that’s your best change for getting a window seat with the best views. We were a little tardy, so missed out on this. By pricey, I mean it will cost you 620UAE ($170US). Yep I know it’s a little absurd. But I feel like it’s a you only live once kinda thing so we went. The service as you would expect was impeccable. Ours started out with stuffed dates and a strawberry pastry paired with a glass of Brut Champagne. This was followed by a tray of teeny tiny sandwiches, followed by a towering tray of pastries. It was very nice. The best part is that you get unlimited non-alcoholic drinks. Bottled water, soda, fresh fruit juices, any type of coffee, and a huge assortment of tea. The mint and the rose bud tea were my favourites. Then there is the view. The High Tea is held in the Skyview Bar on the top floor of the Burj. You have views of the Dubai skyline, as well as the Atlantis and The Palms, and the beach area below. It wasn’t a very clear day the afternoon we were there, but it was still impressive. High Tea is from 4pm-6pm, so you get to see the sunset. After tea we wandered around the over-the-top lobby of the Burj and took the obligatory tourist photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a night out at a roof-top hookah bar called iKandy at the Shangri-La Hotel. It was far too trendy for us, so we took the party somewhere more our style and went to the Irish Village for the later part of an evening. The Irish Village is relaxed with tons of outdoor seating. Well worth the visit. The best thing we did though, was go to Friday brunch at Feast. It’s Dubai’s newest brunch place so be sure to make reservations if you go! It’s at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, and offers 3 different brunch options depending on if you want alcohol, and what type of alcohol you want. Naturally, we opted for the Moet champagne package which included any of the alcohol they serve and as much of it as you can consume. It will set you back 495UAE ($135US) and trust me, this is the first brunch I’ve ever been to that I feel I got my money’s worth. Service was on-point. We quickly informed our servers that we lived in Saudi Arabia and that based on that fact our glasses should never be empty. We normally had at least 3 glasses of some sort of alcohol topped up for our sipping pleasure. Now I know what you’re thinking……mixing alcohol is a recipe for disaster. And, you’d be dead right. But at the time, this was of little concern to me. The food is amazing. Fresh oysters. Fresh sushi station. Some lamb thingy that comes with23 types of garnishes. To be honest that’s all I remember trying, and there was a ton of other stations where they cooked everything up in front of you. They also paired wine with whatever food you were trying. I was basically in a food and wine heaven. I was also the most day-drunk I have been in recent history, and any plans for doing anything else that day were thwarted by the worst hangover I can remember in recent history. You win some, you lose some…..

 

 

 

 

 

So that’s Dubai. I have no doubt that I will return, in fact am already planning to do so in July. It’s such a lovely weekend break from Saudi, and feels like a little bit of normalcy. And obviously, I have unfinished business with Friday brunch at Feast, although hopefully this time I will learn from last time and go with the more food/less drink game plan!!! Next up………The Maldives………

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