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Abu Dhabi Accommodation Luxury Middle East Reviews United Arab Emirates

The Most Luxurious Desert Hotel in the World: Qasr Al Sarab

June 23, 2017

Located on the edge of the world’s largest uninterrupted sand desert, Rub Al Khali, Qasr Al Sarab delivers absolute luxury in a bucket-list location.  We visited to find out if it really could live up to the high praise it receives and we left every bit amazed.  Read on for our review of this spectacular Anantara property…

Since moving to Abu Dhabi almost two years ago, Qasr Al Sarab (“the Mirage Palace”) has been top of our wish-list.  This incredible property really is the incarnation of an Arabian dreamscape.

Can anywhere really live up to that level of hype though?  Though it’s hard to believe, yes!

Luxury in the Desert

Located approximately two hours from Abu Dhabi City (or three from Dubai), Qasr Al Sarab has been providing the very best in luxury (and the UAE sure knows how to do that right!) since it opened in 2009.

With a design that clearly mirrors its surrounding and gives a nod to the desert fortresses that once would have been prevalent in the area, there’s no denying where you are when you approach Qasr Al Sarab for the first time.

Everything about this hotel is beautifully considered – from the genuine Arabian antiques generously scattered throughout the property to the locally hand-crafted furnishings, this resort oozes warmth and romance.

Every room and common space offers expansive views out over the ever-changing sand dunes and let’s face it, it’s precisely those views that will spur your desire to visit Qasr Al Sarab.

As you would expect of any five star property, Qasr Al Sarab has a superb range of leisure facilities including a 24-hour gym, tennis, basketball, yoga, volleyball, spa services and of course, that bucket-list-worthy swimming pool.  When the sun goes down at night and the pool starts to glow, you’ll pinch yourself – it’s hard to believe that a place as beautiful as Qasr really exists!

If you’ve got a family to entertain there is both a kids and teens club and a wide range of organised activities that are designed to engage every single member of the crew.  Archery, nature walks, dune bashing, horse riding, fat biking, sand boarding and more – the resort is perfectly equipped, allowing you to be as active (or relaxed) as you like.

The resort offers a range of room types, from the beautifully appointed Deluxe Garden Rooms to the Royal Pavilion Villas, each serviced by private butler.  Should you opt for a villa, you’ll be treated to your own private pool, taking your bucket-list accommodation to the next level again – is that even possible?!

Why not take it a step further?  The team at Qasr Al Sarab can can even arrange a private helicopter offering a door-to-door service.  It’s all in a day’s work when you live in the lap of luxury!

Don’t worry though, if your budget won’t quite extend to private swimming pools, butlers and tailor-made chef tastings, they can also arrange a private chauffeur to transfer you from the city to the resort, or do as we did and drive yourself out in a rental car.

However you get there and whichever room you settle on, you’ll enjoy the facilities, service and views that make this undoubtedly the best desert hotel in the world.

Eat Like a King (actually, make that a Sheikh) 

With a number of restaurants and bars onsite, there’s an option to suit every occasion.

From the sumptuous but casual breakfast buffet, served each morning in Al Waha (including live cooking stations and donuts!) to the gorgeous fine-dining restaurant, Suhail, guests are able to treat themselves throughout the day.  We also enjoyed a lunch and casual dinner pool-side at Ghadeer – it’s a great place to unwind whilst making the most of the beautiful outdoor area.

Everything we ate during our stay was delicious and, as expected, the service was second-to-none.  You wouldn’t expect anything less at a resort like this.

Sunset Camel Trekking

Though we’ve rode camels on a number of occasions now, our experience in the Liwa Desert was by far the best.

Never ones to turn down an adventure, I must admit, we went in without particularly high exceptions – we are after all, a little bit spoilt by now when it comes to camels!

Not only have we ridden camels along the base of the pyramids in Cairo and through the towering valleys of Petra, but there was something special about this trek.  It felt more authentic than the rides that we’d been on in the past – almost as if we were trekking through the desert with our newfound bedouin friends.

Surrounded by massive dunes (literally, the biggest we’ve ever seen), we wove our way around and up through this sandy paradise, reaching for one of the highest peaks.  As we did so, we relaxed, soaking in the sights all around us, whilst listening to our guide impart his knowledge of the area to us.  He knew the desert inside out and was more than happy to explain the history of the area and share what he knew about the indigenous animals and plants.  Most of all, we enjoyed learning more about Islam through him – never in a forced manner, only ever sharing what we asked of him.  

It was such a pleasure connecting on a personal level and really did sum up our entire experience at Qasr Al Sarab; the team there care deeply about their guests and it shows in all of their interactions.

Back to the whole reason we were there though – to catch the unset in the most authentically Arabian of ways.

As we slipped over the crest of the huge dune, we were greeted with tea, coffee, fresh juices, dates and fruit kebabs along with cushions and stools from which we could perch and enjoy the slowly setting sun.

The more energetic amongst us decided to climb higher still, summiting the very top of the sand dune to catch the sun drifting below the horizon.

If you’re ever visited the Middle East, you’ll appreciate that there’s nothing quite like a sunset here.  The sun feels just that little closer here than it does elsewhere, glowing the most gorgeous shade of crimson – it has to be seen to be believed and where better than in the depths of the desert whilst being treated to the most luxurious of adventures?

With the last of the daylight fading away, we all pulled off our shoes and raced directly down the steepest bank to the awaiting 4WDs for the trip back to our Arabian oasis.

Why Do the Dunes Look So Different?

You’ll notice that the dunes look significantly different in each photograph.  In person, the colours change frequently, with the only real consistency amongst dunes being their inconsistent colouration!  This is due to the varying mineral compounds and the way in which they interact with the environment – iron-oxide, for example, gives much of the desert it’s obvious red/orange colour – it is quite literally, rust.

With the different colours of the dunes, the stunning Arabian sunshine and the winds constantly repositioning the sand, you’ll be sure to see a different desert-scape at each different time of the day, so don’t hide yourself away in your room – get out there!

Save Your Pennies – Qasr Al Sarab deserves to be on the top of your bucket list

Qasr Al Sarab is special, there’s no two ways about it.  Without doubt, this remote hotel will remain one of the most unique and memorable places we’ll ever stay.

Sure, you’ll need to reach into your pockets to book a room but we assure you the experience will stay with you long after the pain of looking at your bank account is gone.

If you have the opportunity to visit Qasr Al Sarab, snap it up!


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Qasr Al Sarab is the best luxury desert hotel in the world. Located in the Liwa Desert it offers world class restaurants, activities, relaxation and the ultimate in luxury. Don't visit Abu Dhabi or Dubai without heading out into the desert!Qasr Al Sarab is the best luxury desert hotel in the world. Located in the Liwa Desert it offers world class restaurants, activities, relaxation and the ultimate in luxury. Don't visit Abu Dhabi or Dubai without heading out into the desert!

Thank you to Anantara for inviting us for the purpose of this review.  As always all thoughts are our own.  We had the most amazing stay at Qasr Al Sarab and every single person we know that has visited has absolutely sung their praises.  A word of warning though – you’ll probably be ruined for all future accommodation – it’ll have a hard time living up to this!

Accommodation Dubai Mid-Range Middle East Reviews United Arab Emirates

Dear Leisure Travellers: Why a business hotel might be your best move yet

June 12, 2017

Though a beautiful resort might be at the top of the wish-list for most leisure travellers, we urge you not to rule out a stay at a business hotel just yet.  Why?  Read on to find out…

Business hotels aren’t typically on the forefront of a leisure travellers mind but if you’re looking to save some money whilst packing in the facilities, we’d encourage you to consider one.  They tend to prioritise the most essential services, forgoing the ones that travellers can happily live without and cutting down your bill in the process.

These hotels are targeted as business travellers (not exactly surprising, right?) who expect the basics to be done perfectly and who doesn’t want that?

Comfort and Class without the Cost

Each business hotel will vary slightly in the facilities that it offers but they all operate with a similar premise – to cut down on unnecessary expense whilst providing a quiet and comfortable place to unwind (and obviously get some work done, should you choose).

We’ve stayed at a number of business hotels now but the our favourite would easily be the Centro Barsha in Dubai.  It’s perfectly located, comfortable and best of all, it ticks all of the boxes without costing the earth.

Dubai can be an expensive place to find a room so when you find one that treats you well, you return time and time again.

What Makes the Centro Barsha Special?

We had a fantastic weekend away at the Centro Barsha for a number of reasons – food, rest, welcoming smiles – considering the price of the rooms, they really punch above their weight!

Whilst there isn’t room service on offer, there is an in-house restaurant that consistently makes delicious food (seriously, it’s that good!) and should you choose, you’re welcome to take it up to your room.

If you’re looking to save even more money in Dubai, some of their rooms include a fully-equipped kitchenette which makes the preparation of a tasty home-cooked meal a breeze (assuming you can actually cook of course – no hotel can work miracles!)

Whilst you’re in the UAE you really have to check out their brunch culture at least once though and the Centro Barsha is the place to do so if you’re keeping an eye on your spending.

Each Friday from midday, the hotel runs an orange themed brunch (aptly named the BubbleOrange Brunch) and, without doubt, it would be the best value brunch we’ve been to in our two years in the United Arab Emirates.  Though the selection was smaller than many of the brunches we’ve attended, every dish we tried there was tasty and with the choice of premium a la carte options (at no additional charge), our tummies couldn’t have been happier.

If you’re new to Dubai, be sure to try their um-ali, a delicious Middle Eastern bread and butter pudding – easily the best version of this I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

When you’re ready to sleep off all that food, you’ll find that the rooms are nicely sound-proofed and because of the clientele they attract, you’re practically guaranteed a good nights sleep – say goodbye to noisey neighbours and hello to sweet dreams.

Fast WiFi?  You bet.

A great selection of TV channels?  Of course.

So what if you won’t be able to book an in-hotel massage?  Pop down the road and you’ll find a local spa offering them at a significant discount to most resorts.

And whilst you’re there, check out The Mall of the Emirates – what used to be the biggest mall in Dubai (now only surpassed by The Dubai Mall) – and hit the slopes at the largest indoor ski-field in the world (in the desert, no less).

If you’re looking for ways to relax on-site, there’s a roof-top pool, a lively bar and a well-equipped gym – after all, business people like to take a bit of time out too.

Dubai has so much to offer and though there’s plenty of free/low cost sightseeing to be had, the paid activities soon add up – whatever you do, don’t blow your entire budget on a resort and leave yourself saying no to those once in a lifetime activities on offer.

What to Consider When Booking a Business Hotel

Though business hotels tick lots of boxes, regardless of your travel style, there are a few things to consider.

Is the location close to the tourist activities you want to see?

Is local transport easily accessible from the hotel location?

Do you require services that will likely be found at a full-service hotel?

As long as you’re happy with the answers to those questions then a business hotel really could be a serious contender for your next vacation.  Consider what really matters to you and think about the alternative accommodation options on offer to you – you may find yourself having the trip of a lifetime with the money you save!


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Business hotels can be a great option for leisure travellers. Save money, sleep comfortably and maximise your travel budget. Find out why we love business hotels when we're on vacation!

Thank you to Centro Barsha for inviting us along to review their brunch and learn more about what makes their business hotel special.  As always, all thoughts are our own.  Since returning, I’ve spoken to a number of friends in the UAE that have returned to the Centro time and time again for weekend Dubai trips so it’s clearly a local favourite! 

Activities Adventure Dubai Middle East United Arab Emirates

Take a Break from Reality in Dubai – The Void

June 8, 2017

Dubai‘s known for pushing boundaries so where better to introduce a new form of hyper-reality.  Combining digital and physical worlds, guests are transported into Ghostbusters: Dimension – the question is though, is it worth your time?

Located on the shore of The Beach at JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residence), The Void is hard to miss – brightly lit, perched on the edge of the sand, it doesn’t give many clues away as to what’s hidden inside.

The Void – What’s it all about?

THE VOID uses Hyper-Reality — a combination of physical sets, real-time interactive effects and virtual reality — and its RAPTURETM hardware to create sensory and emotional immersion. The RAPTURE series includes a head mounted display, a vest with 22 points of haptic feedback, a BACKTOPTM gaming computer, and the multifunctional Mark IV gun. Each stage is modular and built for experiences that are mapped digitally over the physical space.

In layman’s terms, guests get geared up in digitally-connected vests and helmets (that incorporate both headphones and digital virtual-reality goggles and make their way into a world that merges the physical with the digital.

As soon as the headsets are dropped, your friend standing beside you takes on a new form.  Each player pops up on the display as their chosen avatar, moving in time to their real actions.

When you reach for a door handle, you’ll feel yourself really touching one – only you’ll see a digital version of it (and a digital version of your own arm).  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the sensation, but once you do, you’re in for a great time!

With a vibrating proton blaster in hand, players make their way through this bizarre new world completing challenges as they go.

We weren’t certain of what to expect going into The Void.  It was our first experience of fully-immersive virtual reality and due to the secretive nature of the experience, there’s not a great deal of information available online.  Cameras aren’t allowed in the game itself and even if they were, it would be impossible to photograph the imagery you’d see through your headset.

We were pleasantly surprised by just how easy it was to move around through the experience – the gear itself was light-weight and the VR experience was well matched to the physical elements around us.  We were warned that some people feel a little disoriented or dizzy at the start but nobody in our group of four experienced this so I think it’s fair to say that most people will be unaffected by this.

 The challenges themselves were entertaining and though I won’t give too much away, there’s a part of the experience where the (digital) wall of a skyscraper falls away, leaving players afraid of heights clinging onto the handrail for dear life.  The scene felt incredibly realistic and was a real highlight of the game for me.

Hyper-Reality – The way forward?

Our experience at The Void was unlike anything we’d tried before and for that reason alone, it was absolutely worth doing.  The technology they employ is beyond belief and to step into the future for fifteen minutes was a real treat.

As we left, Nathan commented that he’d have loved for the experience to have run a little longer, which I think says it all.

The Void is a great addition to The Beach and a must-see stop on your visit to Dubai, the city of the future.


Should you want to visit The Void in Dubai, tickets are available online for AED110 per person.  Advance booking is suggested.  Guests must be 12 years of age or older and 120cm tall to participate.

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Virtual reality steps it up with hyper-reality in Dubai. An exciting tourist activity, make sure to plan a stop at The Void as you sight-see in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.Virtual reality steps it up with hyper-reality in Dubai. An exciting tourist activity, make sure to plan a stop at The Void as you sight-see in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Void had us along to review their hyper-reality experience.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

Activities Athens Food Greece

Alternative Athens: The Tastiest Way to Get to Know Greece’s Capital!

June 6, 2017

Jade and her husband, Mark have decided that there’s practically no better way than to get comfortable with a city than to do so on a food tour – we couldn’t agree more!  Read on for their review of Alternative Athens and to gain a little insider’s foodie knowledge about this incredible city.

Walking to meet our guide outside the perfectly distinguishable Public store in Syntagma Square, I couldn’t help but marvel at how fond I had become of Athens and its quirks in just a matter of days. I found a new juxtapose on every corner. There is an undeniable scent of fresh Mediterranean air in an obviously overpopulated city, deposited from trees growing through narrow brick footpaths. Footpaths that were backed by the exterior of new and ancient buildings, none excluded from the marvellous jumble of spray-paint tagging and street art.

Remembering the countless times I had read comments similar to ‘you only need one day in Athens’ online made me contemplate the reason for this. I wondered if the Acropolis overshadowed mainstream tourists from looking past the city’s centrepiece. Or was it time-limited cruise ship itineraries favouring the islands, that tried to justify such an intense focus solely on their ancient structures? Perhaps something else?

Either way, by the time we reached our meeting point, my belly rumbling for it’s morning portions, my expectation grew. We’d been on a food tour before so with an idea of what awaited us and a hungry tummy it’s fair to say I couldn’t wait for our gastronomic exploration to begin!

Love food tours?  Check out our review of Wake Up Reykjavik in Iceland and Eating Italy in Rome too.

When I had found the Delicious Athens Food Tour online my attraction to the tour description was instant; specialty foods, all time Greek classics yet unknown to me and a chance to explore the ‘belly of the city’ with a local? Sign me up! Backed up by Trip Advisor Certificates of Excellence, glowing reviews and mentions in top media and publishing companies I knew this was how I wanted to see Athens.

What better way to explore a city than by its best cuisine?

Returning a smile from a new arrival nearby who fumbled in her bag for a laminated sign, I knew we had found our guide. Tania was quick to introduce herself with a warm and heartfelt ‘welcome to Athens and the morning tour’.

To our surprise and delight Mark and I had Tania to ourselves for the morning. We set off immediately, quickly chatting like old school friends catching up after travels.

Tasting Athens – Why Food Tours are the Best Way to See a City!

Not holding back, I endeavoured to sample everything offered.

Up first: Greek Coffee.

Sitting in a local’s favourite restaurant run since the 1960’s (and for the second time in my life) I had a mug of coffee. Surprisingly, I liked it! Brewed in a traditional Biriki made of Copper, I opted for the sweetest version (I hate to think how much sugar…) while hubby indulged in the full bitter flavour of a traditional coffee.

Tania explained how the drink was more often referred to as being Turkish; due to the 400-year Ottoman ruling in Greece many culinary traditions were now shared between the countries, their true origins lost in time. Guiding us on taking the last sip, Tania explained the ancient art of coffee fortune telling and helped us give it a try.

Our next stop saw us wander through an indoor gallery of upmarket restaurants before turning and stopping roadside at one of the many bread carts found around the city. We sampled a mid-morning Koulouri, mirroring local habits.

Reminding me of something between a pretzel and a bagel, the sweet, firm bread, looped in a large circle was tasty and easy to eat on the run. No wonder this was the Athenians mid morning go-to.

While discussing local Athenian lifestyles and sharing our own eating traits and favourite foods our adventure continued.

Stopping at a well loved whole foods and organic store we were taken to a table waiting with all sorts of treats ready for our inquisitive mouths. We sampled tasty cold pressed olive oils, a delicious vinegar made from sour cherries, feta served with olive oil and again with thyme honey (oh so rare and flavoursome) along with a beautiful smooth wine made from an ancient Greek grape, thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1970’s.

Before leaving we had a chance to look around the store. Check out these fantastic seasoning postcards I found. If only I could send them home to New Zealand!

Loukoum, the Greek version of a Turkish delight was up for trial for us.

We made our way to a store dedicated to products made from mastic; a resin gathered from a mastic tree produced on the Greek island of Chios. I loved the buttery texture of this Greek sweet (nothing like the chocolate covered Turkish delight produced by mainstream confectionary companies) but I am still unsure if I liked the flavour of mastic. It was unlike anything I had tasted before; one of those flavours where you need to go back to it another time (or more) before making your final decision.

Have you ever indulged in traditional handmade baklava?

Our next stop displayed trays full of different kinds of baklava sprawling through cabinet windows in an unsuspecting bakery. Layers of paper thin pastry and finely chopped nuts soaked in just the right amount of sweet honey to give a gooey bottom and crisp crunch on top. I wanted to pocket a handful of each tray! there were so many options to choose from – check out that chocolate baklava.

Incredible!

Having had our morning coffee boost, carbs, cheese and pastry it was time to get serious.

Our next stop was hyped by Tania as we walked; no matter what time of the day there could be a queue because the food was so good, an Athenian favourite. Souvlaki.

The best in town came from a relatively inconspicuous store, mid-block, fronting a pedestrian walkway with simple seating out front.  Able to purchase the meat sticks from the window on the street it oddly reminded me of a school canteen.

That souvalaki though! Beautiful tender bites of pork perfectly seasoned and the squeeze of lemon just topped it off. Had there not been more of the tour to go I would have gone back for seconds… and probably thirds.

To help burn off some of the food we had consumed before our next stop we diverted down a back alley to check out the meat, fish and veg market in Omonia.

Tania warned us before entering that it would penetrate the senses and boy was she right. It was loud, wet (so be careful underfoot) and it had all the expected odours. She also gave us a heads up that the traders might catcall young ladies who walked through, explained that is was harmless but checked we were comfortable to continue (of course we were). Now I can’t understand Greek but I could tell the difference between prices and products being yelled and the catcalling, I could only guess what they were saying, but we had a laugh about it and carried on our merry way looking at everything on offer.

Up next, my absolute favourite from the morning, we had a serving of bougatsa. Freshly made in the café we visited, we were lucky enough to see the chef’s effortless skill building the next batch for the oven. A custard, cream and semolina mix (flavoured perfectly with orange zest) was parcelled in crunchy, icing dusted pastry, I couldn’t get enough of it!

As full as I was, I ate it all and wanted more. Impressed with the dish, Mark and I grabbed a piece of bougatsa several times later in our trip, but none rivalled our first taste of this delicious pastry from that beautifully decorated café in the back streets of Athens.

Our final stop was at a local taverna where we sampled a beautiful honey soaked baked cheese dish sprinkled with sesame seeds and a platter of traditional dips. The baked cheese was gone in seconds (it was so tasty) and sampling the dips, I really enjoyed the tzatziki (yoghurt dip), but found the fava (puree of fava beans and olive oil) and melitzanosalata (eggplant salad) were full of flavour but not so much to my taste.

Walking Athens

Over and above tasting all the amazing food, we got an insider’s understanding of the underbelly of modern Athens. We discussed recent history and local practices as Tania confidently navigated us to each stop. Walks between stops were short and easy, occasionally dodging a cat, bike or car along the way.

As we walked we heard how internal migration patterns in Greece were changing and tired areas were becoming reinvigorated as new trends came and went through the city. Tania shared her love for all things Greek and what she liked about guiding – she had such a passion for sharing her culture with others that it was hard not to be moved.

During our journey there were other gems we saw along with way, like the tiny shop from where all of the bread carts selling koulouri were stocked. We walked through Euriopdies street and ogled all the dried meats, spices and herbs displayed in the shops, ducking in to take a closer look and smell. We meandered through Psirri and the Square of the Heroes, hearing about its Mafia-like history and recent gentrification. I desperately wanted to return for dinner at one of the quaint restaurants under the trees. We stopped for photos with a decorated Greek music cart, commonly featured in older Greek movies.

Tania enlightened us on just how much more there was to Athens than the ruins it was famous for and I was left wishing we had more time.

Ending in Monastiraki, a great place to explore, people watch and browse the bustling shops it was time to say goodbye. At our last stop Tania gave us a helpful map of Athens and promised to email us recipes so we could try our hand at making some of what we had sampled. As promised we received a easy to follow PDF by email and bougatsa is on there. I can’t wait to give it a go!

Needless to say our morning with Tania lived up to the hype and I have been recommending this tour to others wholeheartedly ever since.

Best done at the start of your trip so you can orientate yourself easily through the best parts of the inner city, I implore you to join Alternative Athens on their Delicious Athens Food Tour.

Mark on a map all of the restaurants and areas your fantastic guide will point out so you can continue your gastronomic adventure on your own.

I only wish we had more time to do so – there was just not enough room in my tummy to sample all of the food we wanted to pocket on the way!

Honestly, if you miss this tour you are missing out on some of the best secrets, tastes and gems Athens has to offer… and nobody wants that, do they?


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Check out the best food tours in Athens, Greece. Find the best restaurants, cafes and foodie secrets. Food, travel, architecture, great company, this sight-seeing trip has it all! Are you hungry for adventure?Check out the best food tours in Athens, Greece. Hidden hotspots, food, travel, architecture, great company, this sight-seeing trip has it all! Are you hungry for adventure?

Thank you to Alternative Athens for hosting Mark and Jade to review their Delicious Athens Food Tour.  As always, all thoughts are their own – as you can see though, they had a ball!

Accommodation Activities Dubai Expat Life Mid-Range Middle East Reviews United Arab Emirates

Stopping Over in Dubai – A Newbie’s Guide

June 4, 2017

Dubai truly is the epitome of luxury, the cars, the buildings, the hotels and the attractions.  It has so much to offer! If you haven’t visited or you are planning to visit read more to find out how to spend a weekend in Dubai.

Living as an expat in a different country is exciting but just like any other country, you get caught up in daily routines and life in general.  In the end, a lot of things are the same as they would be if I was still living in my home country.  I still spend the last day of the weekend frantically trying to get my lessons planned (only the day has changed from a Sunday to a Saturday), I still spend every day after school battling myself to get to the gym (only now the gym is in my building and I don’t really have any excuse – regardless though, I’m the queen of making them), I still spend the evenings cooking dinner and getting lunch ready for the next day and I still binge watch My Kitchen Rules.

Even though I live in an exciting and exotic location, life still goes on.

Every now and again though, I’m reminded of what an amazing place I do live in.  These moments are sporadic but they energise me and remind me to count my blessings.  In those moments, it strikes me just how lucky I am to be living this awesome life!

Dubai is one of places for me.

Every time we start to approach the Marina area and the high-rises emerge from the plains of sand I think how cool is it that I live in the UAE?!  It’s amazing that in around an hour and half I can drive to Dubai and experience all that this amazing city has to offer – people from all around the world dream of visiting and I’m lucky enough to have it on my doorstep.

Regardless of what brings you to Dubai, whether you live locally or are stopping off on the way somewhere else, this guide is for you.

Have fun, soak it all in and, when you’re done, waive the city goodbye, knowing that in a few years it will look substantially different – there’s nothing quite like it.

What to do in Dubai

Dubai is not short of fantastic things to do.  To some, this city is a shopping paradise but look beneath the surface and you’ll find it’s so much more than that.

The following are just some of my favourite ways to while away the time in this incredible city.

Sightseeing on the Water – Splash Tours

Splash Tours is a fairly new company based out of Dubai Marina that offer jet boat tours around the Palm and Dubai Marina – and man is it fun!  Before embarking on our journey we had imagined a tame, leisurely round-trip sightseeing tour.  The only thing we managed to get right was the round-trip part!

It was a thrilling adventure that had some of our fellow passengers white-knuckling the seats in front of them.  With the boat traveling up to 30 knots (around 55km/h), at times we felt like we were flying through the water.  If this doesn’t sound exhilarating enough, the twists, turns and 360’s definitely got the blood pumping!

The best part?  Not only were we jetting around The Palm but we were soaking up all of the iconic Dubai sights too.  With stops in front of JBR (Jumeirah Beach Residence), Atlantis the Palm, and the Burj Al Arab (the first seven star hotel in the world), a speedboat tour from the marina is the perfect way to tick all of your touristy boxes.

Not sure what all the buildings are or have questions along the way?  Don’t worry, they’ll have you covered with their knowledgeable onboard tour guide.  Ours was more than happy to provide us with facts and interesting information along the way – we’ve never had so much fun learning before!

Most importantly, we didn’t feel in danger at any time.  The crew were professional and we felt safe and secure every step of the way.

My only advice, apart from booking this tour immediately, would be apply sunscreen before setting out as the Middle Eastern sun is strong and there isn’t a lot of shade on the boats.

Dubai Museum

Dubai hasn’t always been 100% glitz and glamour – far from it in fact.  To gain an insight into life before the Emirates discovered oil, head to Dubai Museum.  There you’ll develop a surprising understanding of the emirate all housed inside the oldest building in Dubai, Al Fahidi Fort.

The displays recreate the way in which people would have traditionally lived and worked in Dubai and also explore the previous uses of the fort.

It’s informative and interesting to see how Dubai looked before all the high rises – it certainly didn’t always look as it does now!

Souks

Dubai is known for its luxurious hotels and expansive shopping malls but to your average person, not so much for its traditional souks.  If you’re visiting this amazing metropolis, you’ll no doubt want a taste of Arabic culture though and there’s no better place to get it than at one of their traditional markets.

Located across from Dubai Museum, you will find the textile souk which is a little like stepping back in time.  This is a great place to pick up presents and souvenirs for your family or just to peruse the colourful and vibrant displays.  The textile souk is still full of fabric shops and tailors ready to create a masterpiece, along with stalls selling beautiful pashminas, bright glass lamps and your typical tourist souvenirs.

Friendly bartering is expected and the way to ensure you get the best bargain.

From the textile souk you can catch a long boat across Dubai Creek (they are frequent, inexpensive and leave once the boat is full).  Once on the other side of the creek, you will find yourself in Deria, the oldest residential area in Dubai.

The short walk from the docks had us questioning if we were still in Dubai!  This is a side to the city that is rarely seen – the buildings are run down, the markets sell various wares (trinkets, school bags, material, abayas and an assortment of goodies) and, unlike in the malls, the shoppers aren’t locals – chances are they’re either tourists or some of the many expats that you will find living and working in Dubai.

After passing the markets crammed with what feels like a thousand different ethnicities and being hounded by the shop assistants to snap up their best deals, you will find yourself at Al Souk Al Kabir.  Here there’s a perfume souk, spice souk and the infamous gold souk, so plenty of opportunities to test out your new-found bartering skills.

Pro tip – if you’re not interested in making a purchase, a friendly but firm la, shukran (no, thank you) will see you left in peace.

While I wasn’t in the market to purchase any jewellery (it was slightly out of my price range) it’s a great way to spend some time  If you are looking for something shiny to take home, you’ll want to note that each jewellery piece has their weight written on the tag – this will determine the price depending on the gold prices for that day.

Burj Khalifa Fountains

A trip to Dubai isn’t complete without a visit to the Dubai fountains!  They put on an incredible show every half hour from 6pm, at which time the fountains burst to life, dancing in time to the booming music.  The tunes normally alternate between English and Arabic.

The back drop of the Burj Kahlifa is nearly as mesmerising as the fountains themselves and it still astounds me how talented the technicians must be who create the sequence and how much time they must put into planning out these phenomenal shows.

The fountains get very busy and, at times, finding a good spot can be challenging, as everyone vies for the prime spot with the Burj Khalifa in the background.

Pro tip – Head into Dubai Mall where on the second floor you will find several restaurants that have fabulous views overlooking the fountains.

Brunch

This is one of the favourite past times of western expats living in the UAE and though you may think you know what brunch is, you may just find yourself surprised.  The term brunch is significantly different in the UAE.

Brunch here is an all-you-can-eat affair that lasts for around 4 hours and generally falls only on Friday afternoons (our weekend).  The hotels that host these events are often the epitome of luxury.  The food is  usually so incredible that it’s hard to hold yourself back and with an amazing selection of top-notch international cuisine, why would you?

If you find yourself in Dubai on a Friday I would recommend trying out this favourite past time for yourself.

More Time up your Sleeve?

If you have more time in Dubai there is a plethora of activities for you to explore, including but  by no means limited to the following:

  • No trip to the middle east would be complete without participating in a desert safari, you will find yourself absolutely enthralled or terrified while dune bashing in 4WDs, once at your desert camp you will have the opportunity to dress like the locals while eating Middle Eastern cuisine and participating in whole array of different activities.
  • For nature lovers, check out Green Planet or Miracle Garden – both might take you by surprise within the concrete jungle that Dubai is.
  • If shopping is more you thing (and let’s face it, this is Dubai) check out Dubai Mall (which has a huge aquarium in the middle of the mall), Mall of the Emirates (which also houses an indoor ski slope) and head to Outlet Village to try and get high quality brands at discounted prices.
  • Or for a dose of excitement, there are countless possibilities with Skydive Dubai, Dubai Parks and Resorts, Aquaventure, Wild Wadi Waterpark and Aventura just being the tip of the iceberg.

Getting Around

The fastest and most convenient way to get around Dubai is by taxi.  They are well priced but be sure to enquire if they know how to get to your location before departing – if not try another taxi.

In other parts of the world, it might be surprising to find taxi drivers unsure of their own routes but buildings shoot up so quickly here, roads change in a flash and many taxi drivers are new to the country, so allowances certainly have to be made in the UAE.

Uber is another option but this will be dependent on your internet access in order to book one.  I’ve found Uber to be just as fast and often cheaper so it certainly is a good option.

Whatever you do, try to avoid the unregistered taxis at the airport – jump in one that’s sign written as they’ll always use the meter and you’ll be sure to pay a fair fare.  That is, assuming you picked someone that knows where you’re going.

During peak traffic times, which can be hard work in Dubai, it may be quicker to take the metro.  Dubai Metro is made up of two lines and covers an extensive part of the city.  Make sure you purchase a ticket before boarding as these driverless trains don’t have ticket conductors onboard.

Where to Stay

For this weekend staycation we opted to stay at the Amwaj Rotana.

I have a soft spot for the Rotana brand as on moving to the UAE I was housed in the Park Rotana for just over a month.  It was my first taste of the luxury that you grow accustomed to in the UAE and the customer service blew me away.

I was very eager to find out if the Amwaj Rotana would live up to the exceptional customer service I’ve come to expect from the Rotana brand and they didn’t disappoint.

Location, Location, Location

The Amwaj Rotana is located in the heart of JBR (Jumeriah Beach Residence) which is a stone throw from The Walk – a beautiful part of Dubai.

The Walk is a stunning outdoor area with plenty of al fresco dinning, boutique shopping and a beautiful promenade that has plenty to offer with parks, carnival games, a free public beach and even an outside gym facility.  It’s a great place to spend a day or an evening, provided you don’t start to melt with the heat and humidity that Dubai is known for in the summer months.

Checking out the Amwaj Rotana

Amwaj Rotana was built in 2010 and is one of the largest hotels located in JBR.  It has 301 rooms and suites spread over 25 floors, with each of the modestly decorated rooms being bigger than your standard hotel room.  The enormous beds are so comfortable that you will find it hard to get up in the mornings and, incredibly, every room has a balcony with unobstructed views of the stunning Arabian Gulf and Palm Jumeirah.

The hotel facilities will ensure that you have a memorable stay.  Aside from the standard facilities offered by hotels, the Amwaj also offers a complimentary shuttle bus service to popular shopping malls in Dubai, a car rental service, an on call doctor and a hair and beauty salon.

Recreational activities include a fully equipped gym (with 24 hour access), a jacuzzi, sauna, spa, steam rooms and for the little ones, Flipper’s Kids Club.  My personal favourite was the pool which I was absolutely fell in love with.  Not only was the water perfectly refreshing but with its location on a bridge that spanned the road, you were literally swimming above Dubai’s traffic!

Without doubt though, the highlight of my stay was the level of customer service.  The staff were amazing, so friendly, professional and went above and beyond to make our stay a memorable one.  It was impressive how we were greeted by name everywhere we went in the hotel and in a city as big as Dubai, it’s a small touch like that that makes a hotel feel a little more like home.

How do you really judge a hotel though?  Everyone looks for something different in their perfect stay but I’m a real sucker for hotel slippers.  I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with them – I really need to stop collecting them as I have far too many knocking around home!

The first thing I usually do on arriving at a hotel is locate the complementary slippers, kick of my shoes and slide my tiny feet into them.  For this reason I’ve decided to accompany any accommodation reviews with Sarah’s slipper rating.

With that said, Amwaj Rotana slippers come in at 4 stars (out of 5).  The only factor letting them down is I have tiny feet (UK size 4) so the slippers were swimming on me.

Everything about this hotel hit the spot for us – from the comfortable rooms to the high-pressured showers and everything in between.

Did Someone Say ‘Food’?

Within the Amwaj Rotana, there are plenty of options for fine cuisine.

For our visit, we settled on Rosso, an authentic Italian restaurant.  Being a bit of a foodie, I was very impressed with the menu and the gorgeous outdoor setting, made all the better by a portable air conditioning unit.

Aircon outside – don’t we live in an amazing time?!

The wait staff were attentive, knowledgeable and eager to make sure our evening was one to remember. Their suggestions on what to order were spot on and the only disappointment we experienced all evening was not having enough room for dessert.

To start we shared a traditional antipasto which was absolutely gorgeous and included a selection of Italian pork cold cuts (hard to find in the UAE), mixed grilled vegetables, olives, melon, figs, and bocconcino cheese. This all came accompanied with parmesan, pesto and a scrumptious focaccia.

After our generous starter I was feeling full but with a mushroom and truffle risotto truffle I found it in me to push on through – someone’s got to do it, right?

I love truffles and can’t get enough of this tiny-but-expensive mushroom.  I usually find restaurants to be a bit stingy with the truffle but not in this case!  The risotto was full of rich flavour; it was creamy and cheesy and had truffle mixed throughout the whole dish – not just served on the top as many places do. I would wholeheartedly recommend this dish to anyone dining at Rosso’s.

I can’t wait to head back again to experience their scrumptious food, outstanding service and relaxed setting.

Dubai – Stop Over or Fly Through?

Is Dubai somewhere you should consider visiting?

Absolutely!  Whether you live locally, are on holiday or are making a quick stopover, Dubai has something to offer for everyone. It has glitz and glam that will wow you, inviting beaches, high end shopping and theme parks that rival some of the best in the world.

Above all where else can you experience a modern city with a traditional twist?

It’s a truly vibrant city that knows how to put on a good show!

The best time to visit is in the winter months where you can really experience everything the city has to offer without those hot rays beating you down.

So, next time you are flying through this international hub, think about making a stop to explore fascinating Dubai!  You might just surprise yourself.


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Dubai: Your guide to the City of the Future. Iconic sight-seeing, delicious food, culture and the best places to stay - if you've never visited the UAE, this guide is for you!Dubai: Your guide to the City of the Future. Iconic sight-seeing, delicious food, culture and the best places to stay - if you've never visited the UAE, this guide is for you!Dubai: Your guide to the City of the Future. Iconic sight-seeing, delicious food, culture and the best places to stay - if you've never visited the UAE, this guide is for you!

Thank you to the Amwaj Rotana and Splash Tours for hosting Sarah for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

Accommodation Wishlist

Bucket List Accommodation – Hotels you’ll want to book Right Now!

May 27, 2017

Great accommodation can make or break a holiday.

It’s a good thing then that we’ve taken the guess work out of your planning and have found the most amazing, unique and gorgeous accommodation around.

All you need to do is decide which ones will make it to your personal bucket list!


Quintessentially Quirky

These anything-but-ordinary accommodation options make the most of their stunning settings.  Adventure is calling – will you answer?

Treehouse Point – United States

Located just 30 minutes from Seattle, Treehouse Point is home to six gorgeous and unique tree houses.  Tucked away amongst the forest and dotted the edge of their stunning pond, guests have all the comforts of home in a setting anyone would envy.

The hardest part is figuring out which cabin you want to call your own!


The Gibbon Experience – Laos

Few places make you work so hard to get to your accommodation and fewer still grant the peace and serenity found at the Gibbon Experience.  Guests zipline in and out of their tree houses amongst the lush South-East Asian jungle and spend their days exploring the vegetation below.

What will you spot from the treetops?


Whitepod – Switzerland

With its own private skifield (and 7km worth of runs) along with dogsledding and paragliding onsite, Whitepod’s activities are just as amazing as the accommodation itself.  Open year-round, your adventure starts from the moment you check in during winter as you’re provided with a map, headlight, snowshoes and talking sticks before being sent on your way!  The pods are located an easy 20 minute walk from the main reception, ensuring the curious passers-by don’t spoil the peace and quiet.

Whitepod is a haven for everyone that loves the outdoors.


Hotel Kakslauttanen – Finland

The original igloo hotel, Kakslauttanen is right up there as a bucket list hotel for many.

During winter, guests can sit back, marvelling at the northern lights as they work their magic in the endless night.  During the summer, visitors make the most of the ever-present sunshine, exploring their natural surroundings.

With different levels of price (and comfort), you may be surprised by how attainable a stay here can be.


Purepods – New Zealand

Imagine glass encompassing you as you lay surrounded by nothing by farmland and endless starry skies.  Now stop imagining and get yourself to Aotearoa!

Purepods have three glass cabins strategically placed around the South Island.  Each come equipped with a BBQ to cook up a good-old-fashioned Kiwi feast along with a telescope and bluetooth speaker to allow you to unwind in style.

360 degree views?  Yes please!

Choose between KahutataLittle River – Greystone – Manakau


Skylodge Adventure Suites – Peru

Perched 400 metres above the Sacred Valley of Cuzco, you’ll find these transparent luxury capsules.

Getting there is half the fun!  A via ferrata or hike and zipline course awaits all potential guests and once you’re tucked in for the night there’s no going back.

Fortunately, guests are treated to a gourmet dinner and breakfast along with one-in-a-lifetime views, so there’s really no need to go anywhere.


Icehotel – Sweden

If there was ever a hotel worth braving the cold for, this is surely it.

Carved fresh each season based on designs created by a team of artists, the Icehotel really is an ever-changing work of art.

Warm blankets are provided as is a toasty lounge space so guests can hear themselves up before hunkering down for the night.


Pure Perfection

There’s nothing like a good pampering session.  These hotels and glampsites do such a great job of treating their clients to something special you might never want to leave!

Hanging Gardens of Bali – Indonesia

Nothing makes a hotel quite like a breathtaking pool and they don’t come much better than the dual infinity pools at the Hanging Gardens of Bali.

Set amongst the jungle, this pool is absolutely magical, as is the service guests receive.


Giraffe Manor – Kenya

Make your inner animal lover happy with a memorable stay at the iconic Giraffe Manor.

This beautiful, stately homestead oozes luxury but nothing could outshine what makes the manor truely unique.

On multiple times throughout the day the resident Rothschild giraffe herd swings by the manor to say hello to guests.  Not content with staying outside though, these curious giants poke their long necks into the building, on the hunt for a treat.

It’s hard to believe a place like this exists!

If you’re looking for a more affordable option, you can still have an up-close-and-personal visit with the local giraffes at the Giraffe Centre – we highly recommend a stop there in Nairobi.


Madikwe Hills – South Africa

With the sun setting on an incredible day of game drives, can you imagine much better than snuggling up in a warm bath, watching the local elephants making themselves at home?

We can’t!


Kulu Safaris – Sri Lanka

With private chefs on hand to whip up anything your heart desires and a dedicated team of smiling staff, each determined to show their guests the time of their lives, Kulu Safaris is so much more than a glamping site.

By day guests are treated to game drives where leopards, elephants and sloth bears are just waiting to be discovered, whilst during moments of down-time, the Kulu Safari team are on hand with cold beers and warm, welcoming smiles.


Thalia Haven – Australia

Could you see yourself soaking in this tub?  Tasmania’s crisp ocean air lapping at your face whilst the waves below crash against the shoreline?  Did we mention, you’ll have 5 kilometres of beach all to yourselves?

It sounds like absolute bliss, doesn’t it.

Just wait until you turn around and spot the incredible private homestead behind you.  It doesn’t get better.


Qasr Al Sarab – United Arab Emirates

This stunning hotel is located on the edge of the largest sand desert in the world, Liwa Desert.  Just over an hours drive from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, this hotel is both remote and easily accessible.

Whatever you do, be sure to get out of the city for a desert adventure whilst you’re visiting Dubai or Abu Dhabi!


Breathtaking on a Budget

Bucket-list-worthy experiences aren’t exclusive to high-fliers!  These unique options will wow you without doing the same to your wallet.

Jumbo Stay – Sweden

A hostel in a plane?  We’re not kidding!

If you’re in Sweden and are looking for a memorable experience, book a bed in this decommissioned 747-200 Bowing jetliner.

Beyond cool!


Borderlands – Sri Lanka

All-inclusive resorts aren’t normally music to the ears of independent travellers but Borderlands surprises in all the right aways.

Perched alongside the Kelani River, each room offers incredible views out over the river.  Don’t be surprised as you marvel at fireflies drifting through the night and spot chameleons sunning themselves as you eat breakfast.

Each day the team at Borderlands will whip up delicious meals and take you out into the local community for a range of adventure activities – whitewater rafting and kayaking, canyoning, mountain biking – this incredible eco lodge does it all.

Borderlands glamping Sri Lanka riverside


Greengos – Guatemala

Incase you missed the memo, Guatemala is home to one of the most unassuming little slices of paradise you’ll find anywhere.

A short walk from Greengos, a delightful eco lodge, you’ll find the marvel that is Semuc Champey – after spending the way swimming, hiking and just generally marvelling at nature, head back to the lodge for an evening besides the river.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with the depths of the Guatemalan jungle – we dare you to try.


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The best hotels in the world to fill your bucket list! From the most luxurious to the quirkiest. The most romantic to the most adventurous. These hotels around the world will surprise, delight and certainly leave a mark on you.The best hotels in the world to fill your bucket list! From the most luxurious to the quirkiest. The most romantic to the most adventurous. These hotels around the world will surprise, delight and certainly leave a mark on you.

Thank you to each of the hotels, Infinite Legroom, Expert Vagabond, Delta Lighting Solutions and Be a Secret for providing pictures where we did not have our own.

This page does contain affiliate links – should you choose to book some of these rooms through the links provided we may receive a small payment to help us keep Exploring Kiwis.  There is absolutely no additional charge to you for this – thanks so much for your support!

Abu Dhabi Food Luxury Middle East Reviews

Abu Dhabi Eats: Todd English’s Olives – A Taste of the Mediterranean

May 15, 2017

With our time in Abu Dhabi coming to an end, we’re on a mission to try out all of the amazing restaurants in Abu Dhabi.  Well, maybe not all of them but certainly the ones that have been waiting patiently on our list.

First up?

Todd English’s Olives – a gorgeous restaurant that absolutely shone, keeping both Nathan’s adventurous palette and my significantly-plainer tastes perfectly happy.  With service that rivals any in Abu Dhabi, Olives may just become your new favourite restaurant.

Just Like Home – Only Better!

Once you’ve had your car complimentary valet parked (this is, after all, Abu Dhabi), you’ll find Olives within stumbling distance.

The restaurant itself is stylishly decorated with big comfortable seats and generously sized tables (which you’ll need for all of the food they’ll bring out to you!).  Alternatively, guests are welcome to sit outside in the open courtyard, only metres from the canal.  Even with the weather warming up, we enjoyed sitting outside with a light breeze so that would be our recommendation before we hit the peak of summer.

The staff are friendly and the atmosphere inviting so we instantly felt at ease.  Yes, this is a fine-dining restaurant but the team do a superb job of welcoming everyone in and making them feel at home.

If only we had food like theirs on tap each night!

A Thirst for the Finer Things in Life

The right drink can start a night off perfectly and our night out was to be one of the best we’ve had in a long time, so I suppose, the writing was on the wall.

Throughout the evening we enjoyed a range of drinks and each and every one blew us away.  At most we normally have one mocktail and then move onto soft drinks but drinks menu at Olives was too tempting to resist!

With options like the lemon cloud (Bacardi White, Limoncino, white chocolate, cream and sour mix), slingback (raspberry vodka, passion fruit puree and nectar, raspberries and mint), bubbly scarlet (my personal favourite – fresh raspberries, raspberry and almond syrup, ginger ale and lemon juice) and passion mangolada (passion fruit nectar, mango juice and coconut syrup), how on earth could we settle for a Coke?!

Let’s Get Started!

As all our meals out are, the dishes served to us are a tale of two opposing tastes – my more down-to-earth preferences and Nathan’s love of the finer things in life.  With that in mind, let’s get down to business…

The Basics

Let’s start by saying that my starter really was anything but basic – it was literally up there as one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten.

The Bronx Bomber flatbread (which I ordered in starter size) came loaded with a garlic tomato sauce, the most tender beef pepperoni, caramelised onions, mozzarella, parmesan and fresh basil.  It was so delicious that I genuinely had to hold myself back from eating it all before my main arrived!

The flatbread teamed perfectly with the homemade wedges and their accompanying sauces and though I shouldn’t have eaten quite so much of the bread starter, the rolls were impossible to put down.  The garlic scrolls were amazing.  Honestly, those alone made it worth visiting Olives.

Fine Dining

Though my food was delicious, most of you will be here for the fine dining review and I don’t blame you for a second.  Stick around as it didn’t disappoint.

In a bid to try as many things as possible, Nathan was presented with the chef’s tasting menu that was chock-full of all sorts of incredible dishes.  Not only was each presented beautifully but the produce was clearly top-notch and a lot of skill had gone into cooking each item perfectly.  Though most of Nathan’s dishes were beyond my limited (alright, fussy) palette, I couldn’t help but admire the creativity and eye for detail that went into each of them.

First up was the beef and tuna carpaccio – a beautifully balanced plate, both figuratively and literally.  Served as two dishes in one, the beef carpaccio peeked our from under a cocktail glass whilst the tuna sat on top.  Both components hit the spot with the beef nosing just slightly ahead thanks to its perfect combination of ingredients.

Following on, Nathan tried the chef’s variation on scallops vol-au-vent.  His version was a treat for the eyes with perfectly browned scallops sitting atop beds of squid-ink risotto and cauliflower puree.  The seafood was the standout of this dish so would be high on Nathan’s list of recommendations when paired with the puff pastry cups and lemon butter emulsion of the standard menu.

To be fair, his recommendation list would run off the page.

Finally, the veal agnolotti al plin arrived at our table and though it didn’t present as well as Nathan’s other starters, it bowled us both over with its perfectly balanced flavours.  Braised veal ossobucco, fontina fondue stuffed pasta and black truffle essence combined to form what became both of our favourites for the evening.

If you enjoy hearty and delicious food, this is the one for you.  Don’t be surprised if you see us at Olives alongside you, both munching away on the veal pasta!

Time for the Main Attraction

Just when we were sure we couldn’t possibly eat any more, our steaks arrived and we were proven wrong.

Steak in Abu Dhabi can be a bit hit or miss.  To get a good steak is often hideously expensive (which is to be expected when you live in the middle of the desert.)

That wasn’t the case here though with both cuts being perfectly selected and cooked to order.  Nathan’s lean prime beef tenderloin was paired with a delicious cracked pepper demi-glace (which I may just have stolen) whilst my rib eye was close to the size of a dinner plate and marbled to perfection.

Both dishes were served with a selection of tasty accompaniments but we were so full by this stage that we couldn’t do much more than have a little sample of each.  What we did try though, was delicious.

Just Desserts

With tummies full to the brim, it would have been easy to turn down dessert but who in their right mind does that?

Instead of opting for a full dessert, we were presented with a tasting plate each which offered a little sometime to suit everyone.  From the smooth, creamy and deliciously citrusy panna cotta, to the moist red velvet cake and the coffee infused homemade ice cream and tiramisu, these light desserts finished the night off beautifully.  Nathan loved the tiramisu and I devoured the panna cotta, both of which were clear favourites for us, but when we return, my eye is firmly on the apple pie.

Olives – Something to Suit Everyone

We had a fantastic evening at Olives with the food, drinks, location and amazing staff all playing an equally important role.  We loved that the menu was so diverse, featuring a range of meat, seafood and vegetable dishes, making it a restaurant that truly caters to all tastes.

Their current menu is available online so you can salivate over your keyboard before you make it into the restaurant.

Don’t move too fast though!

It will be impossible not to see up some potential options before heading along to the Venetian Village but try not to mentally preplan your dinner in its entirety – our waitress was spot on with her favourite dishes so it’s well worth listening to the expertise of the Olives team.

With a little over a month left in Abu Dhabi, both Nathan and I have vowed to return to Olives which I think says everything we need to say on the subject!


Don’t forget to take your Entertainer too to receive ‘buy one, get one free’ on your mains.

Pin this post so you’ll remember where to go on your next special occasion in Abu Dhabi.  

Todd English's Olives serves up amazing fine dining plates alongside more homestyle dishes - a perfect combination in Abu Dhabi.  Check out why this is one of our new favourite restaurants in the UAE!

Thank you to Sociate for inviting us to put Olives through their paces – they well and truely passed!  As always, all thoughts on Exploring Kiwis are our own.

Europe Malta Tours

Captain Morgan’s Defender Gozo Jeep Safari Tour – A Flop in Malta

May 14, 2017

Finding and booking with the right tour company for your next destination can be a hard, even for an experienced traveler.

Why? Because the company you book with has absolute power to inspire or discourage your impression of a destination or activity during your time with them.

I thought I had found a great tour in the Captain Morgan Defender Gozo Jeep Safari. I was looking for was a small group tour with a great mix of sightseeing, action and the opportunity to learn about Gozo as a destination.

Unfortunately we thought wrong.

Though we generally look on the positive side of things and understand that travelling can bring with it its own set of challenges, this tour did unfortunately miss the mark for us.

Find out why and see what we’d recommend you do instead to make the most of gorgeous Gozo…

Choosing our Gozo Tour in Malta – What we were Promised

The Captain Morgan page for the tour offered limited information, mentioning that travel would be ‘in comfort, luxury and style in Land Rover Jeeps and followed the same route as the Gozo Jeep Safari’ (a link to this tour was provided to check out the description). There was mention in the inclusions the tour was in a chauffeur driven jeep and separately in the same line a Safari Tour Leader was indicated.

Further information available on the linked ‘Gozo Jeep Safari’ tour included mention that the tour is ‘probably the best way to see the island of Gozo, where we take you to all the places of interest that our sister island has to offer and drive through beautiful countryside and valleys, taking different routes from your ‘normal’ excursions’.

The following paragraph described the day’s itinerary:

‘You will be collected from your accommodation from 7:00am onwards and taken to the Jeep Safari Terminal (departure point) from where the Safari departs for the Gozo Ferry. Upon arrival in Gozo, we will start our Safari to discover the magical island of Calypso. We drive to the village of Qala and then on to Nadur, down to the red sandy beach of Ramla l-Ħamra (Ramla Bay) and then on to the very quaint village of Xagħra. From here we go onto Victoria, Gozo’s Capital City where we will stop for some free time and lunch. After lunch we head off for Marsalforn which is a very popular tourist town and then on to Dwejra the ‘Inland Sea’. From here we head to the Fishing Village of Xlendi and then back to the ferry.’

Aside from the limited information, the tour sounded like it would give a unique perspective to Gozo and online reviews mentioning the Defender Gozo tour generally had positive narratives.  Sure there were less-than-positive reviews but always ones to look on the bright-side, we passed over them.

I hoped the higher cost (in comparison to other tours on the market) was a true reflection of a superior quality tour – it would make sense, after all, wouldn’t it?

Booking the Defender Gozo Jeep Safari

Booking the tour was easy. I called the company direct and the lady I spoke with was helpful taking our booking. Email confirmations came through quickly and we were also offered a chance to amend our morning pickup spot to a more convenient location. This was a great first impression!

Advertised Stops on the Tour

Qala and Nadur

I don’t remember the Qala or Nadur villages specifically… Apparently, our tour should have driven through them but nothing of interest was pointed out on the tour – the GPS on our phones didn’t actually show us reaching Qala so we’re not even sure we did.

We did get taken to a high point where our driver got us out of the Jeep and with no explanation pointed us through a set of gates to a lovely lookout over the coast and sea. Since the tour I found out Nadur in Malti actually means ‘lookout’ and our stop was at the Ta’ Kenuna Tower (Kenuna Look Out Tower) – a beautiful spot for a photo and quiet contemplation.

Ramla Bay (Ramla l-Ħamra)

We did not go down to the sandy red bay at Ramla as mentioned in the original description.

Instead became a stop at what is sited as Calypso’s Cave, which provided views out over over Ramla Bay (and beautiful ones at that).

If you are interested in mythology you might recognise the name Calypso from Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. In short, Calypso, a beautiful nymph, kept the great Odysseus as a ‘prisoner of love’ in her cave for seven years during Odysseus’ quest. Calypso promised immortality to entice him to stay but instead he escaped to return to his wife Penelope.

I love mythology, so this sparked my interest, but stopping here with our ‘guide’ for the day meant we were left to our own devices. We read about the significance of the site from a run down plaque before following a trail up to a lookout.

The cave sits alongside a viewpoint of Ramla Bay. Blocked from access with steal bars to mark the spot, I couldn’t even bring myself to take a photo of the ‘cave’, a small crevice-like opening leading down into the rocky cliff – it really wasn’t what I’d imagined.

It wasn’t all bad though as we were treated to a spectacular view – check it out!

Xagħra and Marsalforn

Similar to previous stops, there was nothing of interest pointed out as we went through Xagħra or Marsalforn.

Are you starting to see a pattern now?

Beyond journeying through these seemingly uninteresting villages, we stopped roadside in the middle of nowhere across from what will one day be an impressive frontage to a beautiful church. We were let out of the jeep for 20 minutes at what I now know to be Ta’ Pinu in Gharb. The landscaping out the front of the church was under construction, but with the stunning blue sky behind it, the church’s solitary form on the landscape was beautiful. Inside marble and wood sculptural details added additional textures to the carved stone and stained glass decoration and to the back of the Church we found a small hall full of family history and photos which was interesting to look through.

Just down the road from here we stopped at what I aptly named the Tourist Trap Store. I could only guess the store was filled with locally sourced items. Hosting a range of sweets, drinks, jewelry, trinkets and even woollen products it could have been an interesting stop, had we had someone taking an interest in interacting with us as other larger groups in the store did. I might have even purchased a few foodie items to try, had I been able to find out what it was I was purchasing.

Victoria

The Cittadella was the main attraction for our stop at Victoria and we were given around an hour to explore the site before lunch. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, we enjoyed a short video introduction of the extensive history and cultural influences of Gozo before entering to explore. We wandered through tiny streets forged in medieval times, explored the beautifully restored fortress walls with far-reaching outlooks and ran our hands along worn stone ruins of the medieval castle that once stood proud on top of the hill.

This was one of two highlight stops on the tour and we’d certainly recommend a visit to the site!

We had lunch a short walk from the entrance of the Cittadella – more on that soon.

Dwejra

One of Gozo’s world famous attractions located at Dwejra (the Azure Window), was a stunning location to take a few snaps and scramble about on the rocks in the afternoon sun.

This natural limestone rock formation was one of the most recognisable locations in Europe, featured more recently as a Game of Thrones location and in the Clash of Titans movie.

We count ourselves lucky to have seen it as sadly, on the 8th of March 2017 the arch collapsed into the ocean, leaving nothing to show of the once natural window.

Xlendi

Stopping at this fishing village we were given twenty minutes and were pointed to a cliff with a few stairs cut into them.

Though we weren’t told of the significance of the area, upon reaching the top we were rewarded with a stunning view over the beautiful bay.

Tour Review – What we Really Got in Gozo

Unfortunately, the tour really failed to inspire us. Described as ‘action-packed’ and ‘the best way to explore Gozo’, we were left wanting – they’re certainly not phases I would use as part of the narrative to our experience.

Key points of interest which we thought were included, like the Neolithic Temples (a site with construction older than the pyramids of Egypt) were left off the itinerary. I was gutted to have missed it.

Questioning the guide while waiting for the ferry we were first told the attraction was closed (I promptly called them to find last admission for the day was 4.30pm) and then another guide was called over to explain it wasn’t on the scheduled stops, even though both Mark and I, along with the other two tour participants understood it was. Our misunderstanding was forgivable, I may have read its inclusion on a review somewhere online instead of directly on the company website, however the other tour participants were told that the tour visited the temples by their booking agent.

Regrettably I seem to have learnt more about Gozo and where we visited by writing this blog post than actually taking the tour!

Upon return from the tour I emailed Captain Morgan to highlight my disappointment from the day, mentioning the following points of contention:

  1. Timing. Our tour was described as 8am – 5pm. After waiting in the cold and a phone call to the company, greeted with a short-tempered answer to wait and they would be there soon we were picked up after 8.30am. At the end of the day we were back at the ferry terminal heading for Malta before 3pm and dropped off before 4.30pm. This was at least an hour less than the expected tour time.
  2. The Tour Leader. The jovial older man who collected us from the roadside with “Captain Morgan?” and a beckon towards the jeep opened the door to the smell of someone who had stumbled out of a pub. I had the sneaking suspicion he had just finished a cigarette in the vehicle. Sitting behind the driver, I had to notch the window open and deal with the cold chill on my face to allow me to breathe; the stench of smoke was so bad. Also, the driver was not concerned about speaking loudly on his mobile throughout the day while hurtling down motorways and through the narrow roads on Gozo.
  3. Communication. Our ‘Tour Leader’ aka our driver had not introduced himself when we were collected, nor did he extend any further information to us after two others joined us. During the drive to the ferry I asked his name, to which I got an inaudible response. Mark and I hoped he was a pick-up driver and we would meet our Tour Leader for the day at the Jeep Terminal. We had no such luck.  Our ‘Chauffeur’ and ‘Tour Leader’ for the day was merely a driver who’s English consisting of the words ‘lady’, ‘[attraction name] over there’ and ’20 minutes stop’. His lack of interest in his tour group became more evident during the day; he was more engrossed in speaking loudly on his mobile and disappearing to chat with his buddies at each stop than accommodate us at all.
  4. ‘Action packed’ stops. The tour description let itself down by stating ‘action-packed’ stops (this now seems to be removed from the website description). Our day consisted of getting in the jeep, getting out of a jeep, being pointed towards a view and being given a time to be back at the jeep, usually 10 – 20 minutes. With no guidance or background to the significance of the stops or areas passing out the window we were left to read signs and look at the view. Thrilling.
  5. A local’s lunch. Lunch was an incredibly processed affair absent of any form of local feel. Sat at a table without a welcome or any interaction with restaurant staff, the courses silently placed in front of us consisted of a simple tomato and penne pasta starter, chicken leg and potatoes mains and what looked like a child’s sundae (two small scoops of processed ice-cream). There was nothing on the plate that inspired me to think it was anything other than mass produced for tourists.
  6. Price disparities. The lunch stop had instigated chatter with the two other tour participants and this continued into the afternoon. While the driver was off chatting with his buddies waiting for the 3pm ferry Mark and I shared our concerns and displeasure about the tour with the two other guests (yes, we gossiped). Our comments were met with agreement and similar insights from the day. The cost of the tour arose. Their €60 per person price and a free harbour cruise certainly trumped our €80 each leaving us feeling cheated.

In effect, we paid a lot for what was little more than transport from one location to another – we’ll leave you to decide if that offers fair value or not.

The response from my email was a ‘We will look into it and come back to you’.

I am yet to get a further response which leaves us hesitant to suggest that Captain Morgan are working hard to improve their tours.  One can hope but based on the other less-than-glowing reviews, it doesn’t look positive.

Gozo Done Right

Overall, from what we saw from the back window of a Defender Jeep and a few 20-minute stops, Gozo looked like an enchanting place to explore, but based on our experience I could not recommend doing it on a Captain Morgan tour.

Instead, hire a car and take it across on the ferry (prices are very reasonable to do this) or use one of the hop-on hop-off bus services to give you a bit of freedom during the day.

Mix your stops by choosing to wandering through villages, stop at coastal sightseeing spots and sunning on beautiful beaches and definitely get into the historical sites.

I would say a well-planned day would easily see you cover everything you wanted to get to in a much more efficient and enjoyable manner.


Headed to Gozo?  Pin this post for future reference…

Gozo, Malta is a stunning part of the world but plan your itinerary carefully and be even more careful when choosing your tour company - or better still, organise your own trip. You'll see a string of highlights whilst having the time to soak in the gorgeous views.Gozo, Malta is a stunning part of the world but plan your itinerary carefully and be even more careful when choosing your tour company - or better still, organise your own trip. You'll see a string of highlights whilst having the time to soak in the gorgeous views.

Jade and Mark were paying customers on this tour.  Of course, all thoughts are their own and not necessarily indicative of experiences others will have with Captain Morgan but there does seem to be an unfortunate pattern occurring.

Thank you to Sidetracked for their gorgeous cover photo.

Europe Itineraries planning South America Travel

These Kiwis are Off Exploring – Nathan and Sarah’s Next Six Months of Adventures

May 6, 2017

Incase you missed the memo, we’re moving on from Abu Dhabi in June.

The last almost-two years have been amazing, eye-opening and of course, at times, challenging.  We wouldn’t change it for the world though.  We’ve loved emersing ourselves in a new culture, connecting with like-minded people, having the opportunity to travel more and jumping into this crazy-fun world of blogging.  I’ve grown, both personally and professionally (I’ve been teaching here in Abu Dhabi) and making the move has been an awesome reminder that at any age, you can set off on a new adventure.

Since our arrival in the UAE in August of 2015, I’ve been to 32 new countries (and Nathan’s not far behind) which far surpasses anything I’d hoped for.

It’s funny though how, at least for me, opening your eyes to the world doesn’t quench your hunger for adventure, instead it fuels it.

The more I see, the more I want to see.

The more I explore, the more I appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to do so.

As we start on our journey home, it’s probably not surprising that it’s with real mixed emotions.

When we first arrived in Abu Dhabi it was with the understanding that we would probably only be here for two years – Nathan’s job is back in New Zealand and there was never any doubt that he’d rejoin the family business.

When presented with the possibily of adding a third year into the mix we faced the difficult decision of staying put in the UAE or heading off again.  Though Abu Dhabi has become our home the call of the unknown and the possibility of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure was too great to ignore – so, off we go on our way in June.

We’re pumped to see our family, friends and cats and to chow down on some New Zealand treats – I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed steak & cheese pies and lamingtons!  I can’t wait to get back to the style of teaching that I love, to spend some time revisiting some of our favourite spots in and around Aotearoa and to walk outside in the summer-time without melting!

I’ll miss the hussle and bustle of living in the UAE though – the sea of kandoras and abayas in the massive malls here, the call to prayer singing out throughout the day, the attitude towards travelling and so much more.  I’ll miss having friends that have started to feel like family, my awesome workmates, dinner dates to PF Chang’s and Chili’s and picking up fresh caramel popcorn at the movies.

As much as we know we’ll miss it though, there are new adventures to be had.

My confession is I fall in love with so many places. I’m always half broken-hearted by goodbyes, and I don’t believe in non-attachment. There’s no passion inside of that. I believe in burning, and long, and I believe we leave tiny pieces of ourselves in every place we’ve loved.

Victoria Erickson

It’s time to fall in love with new places all over again…

So, what’s next for us?

Europe

We’ll be making multiple stops in Europe over a fairly short timeframe.  Although we would have loved more time there as so much of our travel recently has been up that way, we thought we’d stop into a few of the major cities that we’ve not seen yet to farewell to a continent that we’ve come to love.

  • Paris, France
  • Dublin, Ireland
  • Edinburgh, Scotland (where with any luck we’ll make it up to the Isle of Skye!)
  • Barcelona and Ibiza, Spain
  • Lisbon, Portugal
  • Zurich through to Geneva, Switzerland
  • Kiev, Ukraine

South America

Having never stepped foot in South America we’re a little clueless as to the details of what we want to see and do but we’ve found plenty of inspiration through our friends and our ever-trusty Pinterest account.

We’ll be flying into Buenos Aires in Argentina before making our way over to Santiago, Chile but from there, who knows?

With approximately six months, we’ll be travelling slowly and working as we go.  We can’t wait to have a little more time up our sleeves to to be more responsive with our plans.

Due to the tight timeframe we normally travel on, things have to be super planned-out to ensure we see and do everything we want – this trip will be significantly more relaxed.  Bring it on!

The following places are featuring high on our agenda (but are anything but a conclusive list):

  • Patagonia
  • Machu Pichu and Rainbow Mountain, Peru
  • Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
  • Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia (salt flats)
  • The Amazon Rainforest
  • The Iguazu Falls
  • Christ the Redeemer, Rio, Brazil
  • A cruise to Antarctia or visit to the Falkland Islands – both of these as much less likely but never say never!

Which of these spots have you visited?  Where would you recommend?  What were your favourite things to do?

We’d love to hear your thoughts as we start digging into planning these trips!

The way I figure, the best way to get over moving on from a place you love is to plan the next adventure…

Thanks to Time Wheel, SCMP, Askideas, Keyword Suggests, Traveler Corner, The Bohemian Blog and World for Travel for providing snaps before we have our own.

Activities Asia Eco Tourism Sri Lanka

Hiking World’s End: Sri Lanka’s Overlooked Scenic Gem

May 5, 2017
World's End Sri Lanka hike

Though World’s End at Horton Plains, Sri Lanka is not as well known as the towering Adam’s Peak, it is frequently ranked as the top hike in the country.   We took to the trail ourselves to find out more about this somewhat-hidden highlight.

Located within one of Sri Lanka’s many national Parks, Horton Plains would feel at home within the pages of a New Zealand nature book.  With gold-flecked grass, ferns and flax as far as the eye can see, you really could be excused for thinking you’ve somehow arrived in Aotearoa – fortunately for us though, this was 100% Sri Lanka.

World's End Sri Lanka hikeOne of the Best Views in Sri Lanka

If there’s one thing you visit World’s End for, it’s the spectacular views out over the surrounding valley and mountains.  Though this beautiful country is anything but short of great hiking tracks, World’s End is accessable to most people making it a great choice for holiday-makers.

The track itself completes a loop and can be approached from either side.  From the entrance, Mini World’s end (which is practically as beautiful as the main attraction) and World’s End is a 4km walk, at which point you continue through to Baker’s Falls (2km) and meander back to the start (3.5km).  All in all, the circuit is 9km of absolute beauty.

World's End Sri Lanka hike viewIt is worth noting that the sheer cliffs of Horton Plains lack railing.  Though hikers benefit from incredible unobstructed views that would be roped off elsewhere, you’ll need to keep an eye on how close you get to the edge.  With drops of 300 and 1,200 metres respectively, few people who come unstuck live to tell the tale.

World's End Sri Lanka hikeHiking World’s End – How Challenging is it?

Though Adam’s Peak is considered the most recognised hike in Sri Lanka, World’s End, its lesser known companion, is frequently recognised as the best one around… plus it’s a whole lot more manageable thanks to its relatively flat profile.

The hike itself is absolutely gorgeous and not particularly challenging.

Don’t get me wrong, this hike isn’t a walk in the park but if you have a moderate level of fitness, you’ll complete it without any problems. Even if you’re totally lacking fitness, you’ll still be fine – just take your time and consider skipping the walk down to the falls.

World's End Sri Lanka hikeLet’s Get Practical – What You Need to Know…

Though hiking boots wouldn’t go astray, World’s End is certainly manageable in trainers and comfortable clothes.

Throw a small bag on your back and whatever you do, remember your camera! If, like us, you have a drone, leave it behind though – they don’t allow them anywhere in the national park.

There is a small shop that sells snacks and drinks at the end of the hike but the Sri Lankan sun can be strong and though the walk isn’t particularly challenging you’ll still want to be well prepared.  We took a couple of water bottles each and some fruit to snack on… and then stopped by the shop for some celebratory roti and fizzy when we were done!

This national park is keen to protect its gorgeous wildlife as best they can and for this reason you’ll be made to disguard any unnecessary plastic before you start the hike.  You can save time by leaving anything you don’t need in the car (including the plastic labels wrapped around your water bottle).

To get into World’s End you will need to pay the entrance fee which is approximately 3000 Sri Lankan rupees (or USD20).  It’s not the cheapest of days by the time you pay for your ticket and transport (which we’ll talk more about below) but it’s absolutely worth it – presuming you’re not travelling on a budget, that is.

You’ll want to plan your route and timing around what you want to see out at World’s End too.  Not far into the walk you’ll be faced with the choice of turning left or right – left takes you to Mini World’s End first whereas a right turn will direct you to Baker’s Falls.  Both routes come with their own adventages and disadvantages but we’d recommend starting with Mini World’s End to ensure you get there before the mist sets into the vally.

Clear, unobstructed views out from the cliff-faces normally show themselves between 6am and 10am but as with everything in nature, there are no guarantees.  As a general rule though, the earlier you can make it out there, the more likely you are to be rewarded with clear views (though if you ask me, mist engulfing the valley would be pretty amazing too!)

World's End Sri Lanka hike viewGetting to Horton Plains

World’s End is smack-bang in the middle of a national park and because of this, normal cars are not insured to drive the roads.  This means that you’ll probably need to hire a local van or tuk tuk to get you into the starting point of the track.

We organised the required return transport through Red Dot Tours for USD50 and together jumped in the van from Nuwara Eliya.

Our departure time was bright and early in a bid to beat some of the crowds and the harsh midday sun.  Though we had planned to leave town at 5am, our drive to Nuwara Eliya took longer than expected and we connected with our driver just before 6am.

If you’re able to be in Nuwara Eliya closer to our scheduled time of 5am, we’d definitely recommend it. Yes you’ll have a hard time getting out of bed but it will be worth it to have the amazing lookouts to yourself!

Though we were originally a little hesitant to scrap our planned hike up Adam’s Peak in favour of World’s End, we could not have been happier with our decision.

Horton Plains was drop-dead gorgeous, an enjoyable, manageable walk and lets visitors have a little taste of New Zealand (without the hassle and expense of flying half way around the world).

It’s certainly worth juggling your Sri Lankan itinerary to swing by Horton Plains!


Know someone that enjoys hiking?  Pin this post!

Sri Lanka's best hike, World's End, takes in gorgeous views, bush, rivers, waterfalls and more. A must-do on your Sri Lankan itinerary! Looking for an easier hike than Adam's Peak? World's End is absolute natural perfection and the best part?  It's a hike that anyone can manage in two hours!

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