Kristine wanders

The musings of a wanderer......

Category: Middle East (page 2 of 2)

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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Bedouin mechanics, Oman

 

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…..

 

 

 

Bahrain Baby…..

So back in May some nurses, some engineers, and some embassy people took a little jaunt across the Saudi border to Bahrain. We were an international conglomerate consisting of Canucks, Kiwis, Aussies, and one cool Malay. If Dubai is the Vegas of the Middle East than Bahrain is it’s seedier cousin- kinda like the Reno of the Middle East. It’s a safe haven for Saudi expats and Saudi nationals wanting to embark on a weekend of debauchery. Personally, I had huge plans involving my favourite B’s- bacon and booze.

Bahrain is a teeny tiny island connected to Saudi by a causeway. Depending on traffic and border wait times it takes about 4-5hours to get to Manama (the main city.) The weekends get pretty insane what with everyone in Saudi trying to get out so it’s best to leave early in the day on Thursday and come back mid day on Saturday (Saudi weekends are Friday/Saturday) unless you love sitting in a hot car. Lucky for us we were riding in a vehicle with Diplomatic plates so we got to cross via the VIP crossing, which was super fast, and even had a tea boy to serve you tea to your car. I was oh, so tempted, but in 35C heat the last thing I wanted was hot tea. Now if he had cold beer that would’ve been an entirely different story!! Because it’s on the gulf it’s way humid compared to Saudi. The last time I was here I visited in late July, and I was that gross humid sticky every time I left the comfort of AC.

Camel crossing on the way to Bahrain....

Camel crossing on the way to Bahrain….

Store staff were not thrilled about this….

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what’s there to do in Bahrain you might ask? Well I’ve already covered the essentials…..my old friends booze and bacon. But there’s also a really nice mall where you can try on clothes and go catch a movie (2 things I can’t do in Saudi Arabia.) There are bars and nightclubs. You can go to the beach, or boating, or jet skiing. There’s a fort which dates from the 6th century AD which I visited the last time I was here. We spent most of the weekend drinking some much needed beverages and we hit up a couple bars/clubs one of the nights. One of the places we went to was full of young American navy boys who I felt old enough to have birthed half of them. We also felt like me might have been the only women in the place who weren’t “working” if you get my drift so we peaced out pretty early. If you didn’t catch my drift, Bahrain is full of hookers. They are everywhere. I’m not one to judge, I’m merely stating my observation.

Bahrain waterfront

Bahrain waterfront

Bahrain Fort

Bahrain Fort

 

 

 

 

 

 

The other thing we did was go to a boozy brunch at the Crowne Plaza. The food wasn’t quite as good as the brunch we had at Feast in Dubai, but it made up for that in after brunch entertainment. After brunch there is a dance party complete with DJ and disco lights in the room next door. It was awesome. People were super day drunk and falling all over the place which made for amazing people watching. It was highly entertaining. Lucky for our group we were also day drunk, but being the experienced drinkers that we are, we weren’t falling all over the place. Yet. Just kidding Pops, I kept it relatively classy!!

So that pretty much sums up a weekend in Bahrain. It’s a nice quick weekend away. If driving there doesn’t sound so great it’s a little over an hour flight. Safe travels…..

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………

Syria

Syria. Since March 2011 Syria has been making headlines. One would literally have to live under a rock to not be aware of the civil war which has been going on for over 4 years. Leaving at least 220 000 people killed. Some reports estimate that this number is in fact over the 300 000 mark. For my friends and family back home in Canada, that’s like the population of the city of Kelowna being wiped out. Twice.

I traveled in Syria in the fall of 2010- months before the civil war would make travel completely inadvisable, and change the face of that country forever. I feel fortunate to have seen the country, and meet its people before it made the headlines. I went with my dear American friend, and to date the land-border crossing from Jordan into Syria has been the funniest and most bizarre border crossing I’ve experienced. Basically we drew crowds everywhere we went, as people (mostly men) would cross the street and crowd around, everyone throwing in their thoughts as we tried to negotiate a taxi for the crossing, all the while clapping and applauding every time I attempted to speak Arabic. We spent 4 days in the city of Damascus and did a couple day trips to historical sites during our time there. I found the people to be kind and friendly. We had only one tense moment at the border where a man saw my friend’s passport and yelled “American” in a not-so positive tone, from then on we told everyone we were both Canadian, and never had any other safety issues. In fact we traveled via public bus, and had people go out of there way to give us directions, feed us, and generally make sure we enjoyed their country.

Damascus

Damascus

Public bus

Public Bus

 

 

 

 

 

 

So why am I writing this now? In the last week or so CNN and the BBC have almost on a daily basis had stories about the ancient city of Palmyra and reports that the entire site will likely be bulldozed as ISIS nears the site. As of Wednesday they have reportedly taken control of the site. Why does this matter? Why is this site significant? Why does this destruction matter?

On the most basic level this is the destruction of culture. Pure and simple. They are taking away the history of these places, and replacing it with a very grim future. In addition to the destruction of ancient sites in Syria, ISIS has destroyed a number of culturally significant sites in Iraq as well. The ancient site of Palmyra lies almost in the center of the country about 200km from Damascus. It dates from the Neolithic period, and was established in the 1st and 2nd century. It had major significance a caravan center on the trading route connecting Persia with the east. It is believed to be one of the best preserved historical sites in the Middle East, and became a UNESCO site in 1980. Today many of its statues have been removed in the hopes of preservation, but as you will see from my photos the site is extremely large, as are the many columns and remaining ruins, and therefore impossible to protect them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post is not meant to take light away from the death toll related to the Syrian civil war in anyway. And I’m not pretending to be any sort of expert on Middle Eastern conflict. I’m just shedding light on a place that in the following weeks may cease to exist. May be obliterated. Destroyed at the hands of people who wish to erase the culture of people who share different beliefs than they do. This post is meant to make you realize that if you put off traveling and seeing the world, the places of significance may cease to exist. Be it civil war, or an earthquake, or global warming. The earth is forever changing, and if you wait too long the only thing that may be left are photos on the internet, and memories in the heart of those who visited before you…

Doha Qatar

IMG_4643In February on the way back to Saudi from Cyprus, I had a stop over in Qatar. One of my goals while living in the Middle East is that I would eventually like to visit every Middle Eastern country. Yemen for obvious reasons is out, and I was lucky enough to visit Syria back in 2010 before the war. The only countries I had yet to see where Qatar, Kuwait, Israel, Iran, and Iraq. For obvious reasons, Iraq is also a no-go, and if I visited Israel I’d have a heck of a time explaining that stamp in my passport on my return to Saudi, so Qatar was a safe bet! The only land border Qatar shares is with Saudi Arabia to the southwest, and is otherwise surrounded by the Persian gulf. It is geographically very close to Bahrain and is the world’s richest country. Yes, the richest. Richer than the UAE and Saudi Arabia combined.

Qatari fashion is similar to Saudi fashion in many ways, except that the Abaya is not mandatory. As with any Middle Eastern country it’s respectful to dress conservatively, but western clothes are perfectly acceptable and you aren’t required to cover your hair. Many Qatari women did wear an Abaya, or had their hair covered. Many Qatari men also wore traditional dress which consists of a thobe (the white garment worn by many men throughout the Middle East) and either the white or red checkered head scarf, or a white “skull cap” which I’m unable to Google the proper name of. Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not readily available, but can be purchased in restaurants in the major hotels, or via permit for ex-pats living there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe flew into Doha, and I was surprised that the city was quite a bit smaller than I had expected it to be. Riyadh has a population of around 4 million people, by comparison Doha has around 800,000 people living there. The main downtown area is full of tall brightly lit buildings clustered around the coast. There is a corniche that hugs the Doha Bay with a walking and cycling path. We drove past it and it was full of people exercising and enjoying the warm evening breeze. Temperatures in Doha are similar to that of Riyadh except that they there is the humidity factor of being on the coast, which makes it feel a great deal warmer in the summer.

We visited The Pearl which is a residential/commercial project involving a man-made island so named because it was build on the site of a major pearl diving site. We were in search of a movie theatre, which I’m sure sounds absurd to those of you living outside of Saudi. There are no movie theatres in Saudi Arabia, where it would be considered illegal to have men and women mixing in the darkness of a movie theatre. I love, love, love going to the movies, so whenever I’m traveling outside of Saudi I always try to fit in a movie. Our movie mission was very successful after we eventually found the theatre. The Pearl is a huge development and getting from one end to the other is quite a distance.

The following day we ventured out to Souq Waqif which has a very “traditional Arabia” feel to it. It’s full of restaurants, and curving alleyways that open into shops. We ate breakfast outdoors at one of the many cafes. I was pretty jazzed to order my favourite Arabic breakfast dish called shakshouka consisting of eggs, tomatoes, chili peppers, and onions served with Arabic bread. Yumm.

Qatari Police

Qatari Police

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Souq Waqif

 

After this we headed to the Islamic Arts Museum, which was the real highlight of Doha for me. First off, the building is very aesthetically pleasing. It’s on the Doha Bay with great views of the Doha skyline. Second, I love Islamic Art. I love the patterns, and the textures, and Arabic is a really beautiful written language. The museum has an amazing flow to it. I am often very overwhelmed in museums that don’t flow well, I sort of wander around aimlessly, and often times don’t really take too much in as the feeling of being overwhelmed often turns to being anxious. Not here. The museum is spacious, and well lit, and has a very calming atmosphere about it. Oh, and it’s free to get in. Yes. Free. I especially like free. There is art from neighbouring Middle Eastern countries spanning the 7th to 19th century. Exhibits include ceramics, textiles, and metal and wood work. When you’re done touring the museum there is a fantastic gift shop and a cafe with floor to ceiling views of the skyline. It’s well worth a visit.

Men traditionally dressed

Men traditionally dressed

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At the Islamic Arts Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So, for those of you in Saudi Arabia, looking for a quick weekend getaway, Doha Qatar is a good option when you need to get out of the sandbox! I intend to return as we really only scratched the surface and there’s much more to see and do. And when I go back I’ll likely return to the Islamic Arts Museum. That’s how much I liked it!!

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