As much as we love Abu Dhabi, sometimes it’s nice to get out of here; as they say, a change is as good as a holiday… even if it is only for a weekend!
Fortunately, just shy of two hours from the city, Tilal Liwa Hotel lays amongst the dunes of the Rub al Khai desert. This Arabian hideaway is a welcome respite from the hussle and bustle of the city, offering the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure for a weekend away.
The entrance of Tilal Liwa gives a modern nod to Arabia and opens out onto a beautiful (and air conditioned) deck with views out over the property and desert. Once we were handed our room card, we couldn’t resist wandering down to our room via the deck and courtyard – the gorgeous pool was what caught out eye when we were initially checked out the Tilal Liwa Hotel and it didn’t disappoint!
Our room was generously sized and opened directly out onto a little private courtyard which continued to the garden (a welcome sight in the desert!). We had absolutely everything we needed for a relaxing weekend away; a large, comfortable bed, crisp linen, satellite T.V (with a good variety of channels), complimentary water and an incredibly well stocked mini bar.
The air-conditioning in the room was strong enough to let us open the door and enjoy a touch of fresh air. We enjoyed sitting back and enjoying the sound of the local birdlife, something that all too often, we don’t get to hear in Abu Dhabi.
The 111 rooms of the Tilal Liwa frame the beautiful swimming pool – the jewel in the crown of this hotel. With the Arabian sun beating down on the pool all day, it’s a good thing the pool is cooled to the perfect temperature for a midday dip. Dozens of loungers and hammocks also line the pool and there was no shortage of guests keen to soak up the sun whilst relaxing.
Outside of Ramadan, I can imagine just how nice it would be to sit with a fresh juice at the side of the pool, however the time of year during our visit prevented food or drinks being served outside. There was a secluded bar tucked just around the corner though so don’t let visiting at this time of year put you off – it really made very little difference to our weekend.
Our package included full board which, even during Ramadan, was fantastic! We were provided with a delicious cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Each meal was served buffet style, with the addition of freshly cooked eggs and pancakes/waffles for breakfast. Lunch was fantastic with a combination of Asian, Middle Eastern and Western options on offer, whilst dinner was similar but with a more significant focus on Arabic food. Iftar (the equivalent of dinner, served to break the fast during Ramadan – learn more here) began at 7.20pm (when the sun set) and was vast and equally tasty.
It’s not all about food at Tilal Liwa though; here you can choose to be as active or relaxed as you like. Our levels of energy didn’t quite extend to the gym, but for those of you with an interest in health and fitness, there was a remarkably well appointed gym, along with saunas and steam rooms. Guests can book themselves into the onsite spa for a massage or facial whilst the kids are entertained by the hotel staff in the kids club.
For those with a little more energy to expel, there is plenty to do out in the desert! Mountain bikes are freely available for the whole family and a number of additional activities are on offer at surprisingly reasonable prices. We got up close and personal with one of the many local camels and had a blast on the quad bikes, zipping up and down the dunes.
Sand boarding, horse riding, desert safaris and more; it feels like Tilal Liwa have thought of practically everything!
Packages vary but many include activities so be sure to check with the hotel to see if any of these offerings are included in your stay.
The Tilal Liwa Hotel represents excellent value for money whilst delivering attainable luxury in a memorable location. Less than two hours from Abu Dhabi City, a visit to the hotel is a glorious hideaway for expats and travellers alike. Whether you’re an expat looking for a weekend getaway or a visitor seeking out a more traditional Emirati experience, the Tilal Liwa Hotel is sure to fit the bill.
Thank you to Tilal Liwa Hotel for hosting us. As always, all thoughts are our own.
Having hiked through 20 minutes of the most challenging terrain we’d ever experienced, we stopped dead in our tracks. The hushed whispers of the trackers left us puzzled… these walks can take upwards of 4 hours, what had caused us to stop so soon? Before long, the answer became abundantly clear.
A scruff of dark fur came into view just around the bend – after months of planning, preparation and training, we laid eyes upon our first silverback mountain gorilla in what appeared to be record time.
Coming from New Zealand, Africa really did feel like a world away – exotic but a long way from us, we never really considered it a likely destination. That all changed when we relocated to Abu Dhabi and the continent suddenly become accessible in only a five hour flight.
After tossing some ideas around and talking with a couple of teachers that had also tracked the gorillas, visiting them shot to the top of our travel wish list and our trip to Eastern/Central Africa was born.
When we found out just how much this experience would set us back, we did briefly reconsider but we soon decided that it really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences and one we couldn’t just walk away from.
Sadly, the mountain gorilla population has been decimated over the years, with less than 900 gorillas left in the wild. These gentle giants are only found in the triangle of forests between Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo; due to the physical restrictions of their habitat, it is likely that these amazing animals will remain endangered, even with a concerted effort to stop poaching and deforestation. In the 60s and 70s conservationists attempted to raise juvenile mountain gorillas in captivity but none of them made it – they’re still unsure as to the reason for this, but it does mean that they can only be found in the forests of this area, making their plight all the more important.
We had initially planned on visiting both Rwanda and Uganda but due to time constraints and cheaper permits, we decided to leave Rwanda on this trip. A permit to track gorillas will set you back USD700 per person in Rwanda, but is USD600 in Uganda (and only USD450 in the off season of April, May and November). We managed to reverse the order of our journey to finish in Uganda and track gorillas at the beginning of April and by doing so, saved USD500 between the two of us.
Within Uganda there are a number of entry points to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; Buhoma in the Northern part of the park, Ruhija in the East, and Rushaga and Nkuringo to the South. When purchasing a permit to track the gorillas, you will choose your location (or in our case, our guide did) and will then be allocated a particular family on the day of your visit. If you plan to travel independently, pay particular attention to where your briefing centre is, as you’ll need to ensure you organise accommodation nearby your departure point.
If you decide to track these mountain gorillas, you’ll come across the term ‘habituated. There are a number of these habituated families living in Bwindi (and many more that are not accustomed to people). According to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority
Habituation of mountain gorillas for tourism is a lengthy and difficult process. The exercise to habituate wild gorillas essentially requires that the gorillas lose their natural fear of humans and develop a trustful relationship with observers. In order to fully habituate a group, it must be tracked and monitored on a daily basis, and slowly over time the gorillas stop fleeing from observers and eventually they become accustomed to the presence of people.
Poaching used to be a serious problem in the area but thankfully is not and longer, thanks to the positive effect of eco-tourism. A significant percentage of your permit goes back into the local communities, alleviating the need for illegal poaching. Whilst many of the people that once would have turned to poaching now work as porters, helping travellers traverse the challenging terrain of the area. For a suggested fee of USH50,000 (USD15), you’ll be given the opportunity to have a porter join you on the hike and it’s something we’d both strongly recommend doing. They’ll carry your bag, help you find your footing, occasionally give you a little pull up a steep bank and, most importantly, you will be supporting the locals at a grass-roots level in their bid to get ahead without poaching these amazing creatures.
We met our tracking guide, Albert, and support team at the Ruhija Centre (which in truth, was a hut providing much needed shelter from the rain) and were briefed on what was to come. We’d been assigned the Oruzogo family, one of the newest habituated groups, favoured because of their playful natures and the adventurous terrain in which they live.
After we were briefed, we excitedly climbed back into our respective vans (along with some of our friendly guards, carrying alarmingly big guns!) and drove for 20 or so minutes to a spot on the road where our porters were waiting.
Exiting the van, we peered over the edge of the road into the forest thinking we were off to find an easier access point into the foliage… how wrong we were. With the help of our porters we ventured down the steep slope, directly into the belly of the forest, learning firsthand where the name Impenetrable came from.
After walking downhill for approximately 15 minutes on a makeshift trail, we turned to the right and followed the lay of the land, moving slightly higher back up the hill. To our absolute disbelief he were suddenly stopped and after hushed whispers were told the gorillas were just around the bend.
Climbing a little further up and across we were met by the gaze of our first wild mountain gorilla. Munching quietly, the large silverback sat quietly, undeterred by our arrival. As per regulations, we remained at a distance of 8m and started the clock on the hour that we had with these beauties (understandably, human interaction is closely limited and monitored to prevent the families becoming desensitised to people).
A video posted by Sarah & Nathan Chant ✈️? (@exploringkiwis) on
After 10 minutes or so, the silverback turned and moved away – quietly we continued on in the direction it was headed where we were delighted to find many of the other family members.
The gorillas went about their business without any recognition of our presence and although it would have been amazing to have one wander over to check us out (seriously, take a look at the close encounters on youtube, they’re incredible!) it was mind-blowing to just be in their habitat with them.
Standing amongst these gentle giants was an incredibly humbling experience. They had beautifully expressive eyes and recognisable body language; we were struck by just how human they seemed. The babies swung and played amongst the vines and trees whilst the adults watched on carefully. For that hour we were guests in their home and it was not lost on us just how fortunate we were to be welcomed in.
Nathan and I were joined by only one other traveller which made the experience all the more special (travelling in the off season can have its benefits). The three of us were all able to get incredible views of the family and though they limit each group to a maximum of eight, I can’t help but feel like we had a much more personal experience being in such a small group.
A video posted by Sarah & Nathan Chant ✈️? (@exploringkiwis) on
Was the hike hard? It sure was – I can’t imagine how I would have managed at that incline over a period of three or four hours each way, which is what some people experience. There’s no doubt, we were lucky!
Was it expensive? Absolutely – this was, without doubt, the most money we’ve ever spent on a stand-alone travel experience.
Was it worth it? Without doubt!
If you have the opportunity to visit the Ugandan mountain gorillas, we would recommend you grab it. This experience connected us to these beautiful animals, gave us a first-hand view of their conservation efforts and in the process, left us with memories to last a lifetime.
If you’re interested in seeing the gorillas for yourself, we highly recommend Wild Whispers Africa. Nasser was the most attentive guide we could have asked for and their pricing was competitive. They took care of all of the details for us and helped make the experience what it was.
Stay tuned for information regarding what gear you’ll want to have with you on your gorilla trek, for our take on the differences between tracking gorillas and chimpanzees in Uganda and for more information on what our tour included.
PS: If you’re looking for another travel blogger to follow, check out Clint from TripHackr – he goes on the most amazing adventures. It was fantastic meeting him whilst on our trek and exchanging travel stories!
The plan was to jot down what we’ve been up to over here each month but considering my last ‘monthly round-up’ was posted at the beginning of March, I think it’s fair to say I’ve been pretty unsuccessful in doing so!
The past three months have been a whirlwind of travels, work (school for me, price-lists for Nathan), brunches, socialising and for a week, family (yay!)
Nathan arrived back in Abu Dhabi, having spent a month or so working in New Zealand. He had a great time catching up with our friends and family (not to forget our cats!) but it was nice to have him home again at the end of it all.
We were fortunate to get out of the UAE on two occasions since our last general update, on both occasions to Africa (which is incredible considering before those trips, we’d never set foot on the continent).
Our first trip away took us to Eastern Africa – Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. It was a mind-blowing trip that left us feeling incredibly humbled. If you’re interested in checking out our itinerary, you can see the key places we visited in this post. The highlights of the trip were based around the amazing animals we saw – all of the ‘big five’, not to mention tracking highland mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild (the stuff of dreams!), swimming with wild bottlenose dolphins, diving to spot seahorses and trying to avoid the killer croc that almost landed in our boat whilst cruising the Nile! You can read about the differences between our Masai Mara and Murchison Falls safaris here too.
Our second journey to Africa took us to Egypt where we spend a whirlwind three nights exploring this unique, vibrant country. We spent a night in Cairo and two in Luxor, where we were memorised by the incredible history found throughout the country. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how much we managed to squeeze into our three nights (which was really only two full days) there – we visited Sakkara, home to the oldest buildings (which also happen to be pyramids) in the world, where we also climbed down inside a pyramid, rode camels and Arabian horses to the Great Pyramids of Giza, explored the Valley of the Kings and rode a hot air balloon over the Nile (and that’s only scratching the surface!) We found the Egyptian people to be warm and welcoming and had no concerns whatsoever in regard to our safety. I don’t doubt that having a fantastic driver/guide helped, but we have no reservations in recommending others visit this incredible part of the world.
I’m a bit behind the ball with blog posts (stay tuned for posts on our Masai Mara safari, Ugandan adventure and Egyptian exploration) but you can find our photos on Instagram if you’re keen for a peek before I find the time to get writing.
Back in Abu Dhabi, I’d been watching the newest coaster at Ferrari World pop up and the implementation of a teachers’ special made the call of a new coaster far too hard to ignore! Along with three friends, I headed back to the theme park and, I’m pleased to say, came away feeling quite differently about my experience there (read my thoughts from our first visit here). Flying Aces is a welcome addition to this indoor park – the initial climb was fantastic and a number of slow loops pull you right out of your harness – certainly a ride that doesn’t suit everyone, but I was a happy camper! Whilst there I had another zip around on Formula Rosa (the fastest rollercoaster in the world) and again, felt much more positive about it. The roughness that we experienced our first time riding it was gone, making way for a smooth, incredibly fast (yet comfortable) ride. I couldn’t help but wonder if the engineers had given the cars a once over, but regardless of what made the difference, Ferrari World is now a much better option for thrill seekers… I will be watching with anticipation to see what the other new rides look like.
My friend from back home arrived so we had a great time showing her around the UAE. Together, we managed to squeeze a trip to Aquaventure in (the waterpark over on the Palm, in Dubai) and we have a fantastic day splashing around and racing down the slides! Nathan and I enjoyed Yas Water World but if we had to pick a favourite, I think it would have to be Aquaventure – it was seriously impressive!
We made the trip over to Dubai a number of times in the last three months and are finally starting to feel like we have a sense of direction there! It’s a big city and like all of the UAE, the off ramps tend to loop around which means you often drive in the opposite direction to where you should be going before the road loops back around.
The more time we spend in Duabi, the more the city seems to be growing on us! The architecture there is mind blowing and it’s nice to get out of Abu Dhabi; even driving an hour down the road feels like a mini holiday.
We spent a night in the city to see Armin Van Buuren play one of his Armin Only gigs. We’d seen Armin play a few times in the past and though the production was good the music wasn’t particularly to our taste. Regardless, it was a well overdue night out and Nath’s excited as we’ve booked in to see one of his all time favourite DJs over the summer.
On their way back from visiting family in Spain, my mum and stepdad swung by Abu Dhabi and spent a week with us. It was such a treat having them here with us!
We’ve also been branching out and trying a range of restaurants recently – as much as we love Chilli’s and PF Changs, its been great to broaden our options and explore more of Abu Dhabi in the process. We treated ourselves to the fanciest meal of our lives at the Ritz, enjoyed the atmosphere and amazing pan Latin food at BU!, munched on burgers and crazy shakes at the U-Turn Diner and experienced an Emirati fusion Iftar taster too.
In mundane news, my word visa come through (I cannot tell you how exciting this is) which has meant that we can now start the process for Nathan’s visa. We’ve managed fine without having them but life will be easier once they’ve both come through. With my visa, I’m now a proud holder of an Emirates ID and UAE drivers licence (you can read my practical guide to converting my NZ licence to a local one here – it’s not exciting but will be helpful for other newbies).
School’s been incredibly busy with our students preparing for (and sitting) their SAT assessments and reports that need to be finished. Last night we celebrated how far they’ve come though, with a graduation evening – they’ve had an awesome year!
Nath’s been busy with work and by all accounts Chant has had a big few months which is awesome news!
As we wrap up our last few weeks at school and work, preparations for our European summer continue. I’ll pop our initial plans here – if you’re going to be in those areas or have any recommendations, we’d love to hear from you! Most stops aren’t set in stone quite yet so feedback would be much appreciated.
As travellers, we float in between budget and more luxurious options. If there appears to be a decent low-cost option, we’ll stay there, but if we need to spend more to ensure a good nights sleep, we will. Nathan will tell you ‘it’s all about the value proposition’ and I spend far too long on TripAdvisor talking myself in and out of places to stay based on the reviews of other travellers.
With that said, when we stumbled across a potential camp in Nairobi, it was clear that we’d be splurging (a relative term for us), and not because of the lack of other suitable options around town but because we were onto something special.
The Wildebeest Eco Camp is nestled amongst the bush in Karen, one of the outlying suburbs of Nairobi. Not far from the Giraffe Centre and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (where you’ll meet and learn about orphaned baby elephants), the camp is well positioned to take in the best of Nairobi, and is within easy access to a mall should you need any supplies.
In total we spent two nights at the camp; one in a deluxe safari tent (the Eco Camp’s glamping offering) at the beginning of our time in Nairobi and another in an equally-comfortable-but-more-budget-friendly garden tent at the end of our safari. Also on offer, was the ability to pitch your own tent, borrow one of theirs, or hook up your van.
One of the many sculptures around the campsite.
The deluxe safari tents are perfectly located, overlooking the camp’s pool and their gorgeous pond which (means as you drift off to sleep, you’ll be relax to the sound of the local frogs – bliss) and come with more than you could ever need in a tent! Full power, a bathroom (with the most gorgeous shower), a deck to unwind on and of course, proper beds.
One of the local monkeys coming to say hello!
The fanciest camping ensuite ever?
The garden tents aren’t quite as luxurious, but they do come with a solid floor, power and again, a real bed – and they are of course a tremendous upgrade from a traditional tent. They’re an excellent option for couples, as it costs very little to upgrade from using one of their temporary tents (for two people) to these permanent ones. If you are travelling by yourself, there was also the option to purchase a bed within the dorm tent which also looked comfy. All of these options require use of the shared bathrooms, but they’re never far away and were kept spotlessly clean and tidy whilst we were there.
It was the beginning of the long rainy season in Eastern Africa when we stayed in Nairobi and though the days were dry, there was a wicked thunderstorm our last night at the Eco Camp and we were certainly pleased to be tucked up in one of the permanent tents. We stayed dry as a bone, even in one of the most extreme downpours we’ve ever experienced.
Wifi is free and is available throughout the camp and breakfast is included in the cost of your stay (but is upgraded if you stay in the deluxe tent, yahoo!). The on-site restaurant is affordably priced and makes delicious food which is great, as although everything is only a taxi ride away, the camp itself isn’t really walking distance to any other restaurants.
Though the tents were gorgeous, it is worth noting that the beds we slept on were both fairly firm (as were the majority of beds we experienced in Africa), so if you like a relatively hard bed, you’ll be in luck in this part of the world!
If we return to Nairobi, we will absolutely book in to stay at the Eco Camp again – we had a great time. The staff were friendly and went out of their way to help, the accommodation was well priced, the grounds were gorgeous, and best of all, we got to stay in a memorable spot not far from one of East Africa’s biggest cities.
If you too would like to stay at the Wildebeest Eco Camp, you’ll find current pricing and information on their site. Happy travels!
I didn’t realise how much I wanted to see the ancient cliffside carvings of Petra until travelling to the Middle East became a reality for us… once our move to Abu Dhabi got locked in, however, it was almost all I could think of! Everywhere I turned, I spotted incredible photos of the infamous Lost City and blog posts from travellers raving about Jordan and it’s amazing sights.
Petra, as expected, was a major highlight of our getaway to Jordan and though we were pleased with the way we explored the Rose-Red City, we also picked up a few tricks along the way that we’d like to share with you…–
1. Hire a guide.
Without doubt, we try to save money on our travels where possible; we spend money where we see value or when we’ll feel like we’re missing out if we pass, but save our hard-earned dosh if something doesn’t fit into one of those categories. The last few times we’ve been to major historical landmarks we’ve spent the money on hiring a local guide and we’ve not once regretted it. Tikal in Guatemala, Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany and now Petra; a good guide will bring an area to life, sharing snippets of history in an engaging way. Having visited Angkor Wat without a guide (and probably missing a huge chunk of the history and meaning behind the temples), we will always try to find the money to hire one going forward.
2. Better still, book a local Bedouin guide!
Many of the local guides grew up within the caves of Petra and some still live there. Though we didn’t get the same level of information regarding the formal history of the area as we would have if we’d hired a guide through the information centre, we saved a tonne (a guide from the Visitor Centre runs 170JOD we were told, whereas we paid 60AED for our group of three) and more importantly, gained a level of insight into what life is really like in the region for the Bedouin people. It was also nice to know that our payment was going directly into the hands of a local, not to mention the fact that joining a local guide really allowed us to maximize our time there.
3. Take the path less travelled.
Whilst the vast majority of travellers walk into Petra through the Siq and then make their way from the Treasury to the Monastery, they then need to allow enough time to double back, retracing their steps to the visitor centre. This loop obviously takes up more time, potentially preventing you from soaking in all of the other marvels at Petra.
Instead, organise a local Beduin to take you through the back entrance. You’ll take a relatively sedate 4WD trip to a mountain at the base of the Monastery and climb, skirting along the side of the mountain until you arrive at your first stop (by which point you’ll have climbed approximately 300 steps).
We were incredibly lucky to practically have the walk in to ourselves – these two lovely ladies were the only other tourists we saw in the 1.5 hours leading up to our arrival at the Monastery.
Enjoying the view out to the Black Mountain, Wadi Araba Desert and Israel in the far distance.
Hiking the back route to the Monastery.
What goes up, must come down!
A herd of goats. I was excited enough to see them, but little did we know our first major site in Petra was just around the corner!
The best payoff – avoid the crowds and make friends with a donkey! The Monastery in the background.
Once you’ve spent ample time gazing at the Monastery, you’ll make your way down the main set of stairs (which most people walk up and then down again – all 900 of them!) and be free to head through towards the Treasury. Not only will you benefit from having the Monastery practically to yourself, but you’ll gain extra time that you can spend exploring the rest of Petra.
4. Take the time to talk with the locals.
Though the sights around you will be amazing beyond belief, make the time to chat to the locals or even exchange a smile. The people we met throughout Jordan were generally incredibly kind and welcoming and more than happy to welcome us to their country and share snippets of their daily lives with us.
We were surprised by the number of children that live in and around Petra; my heart broke a little as they approached us, grubby faced, asking for biscuits. If I were to return, I’d be sure to pick up a few packets from the shops at Wadi Musa to share around.
5. Everyone will tell you that you need 3-4 days there – fear not!
As long as you hook up with a local guide who can take you on the straight track, rather than the loop, seeing the major sites of Petra (and many of the minor ones) is absolutely do-able. To gain yourself a little more time, try to arrive in Wadi Musa (the local town) on a Monday, Wednesday or Thursday to gain a few sneaky hours in Petra and see it in a totally different light (read on for more info).
6. Consider hitching a ride on a donkey, mule or camel (but don’t be tricked into it)
We were told by our guide that we really needed to hire camels to have any chance of seeing everything and at 30JOD each, these camels were over twice the price of the ones in Wadi Rum. Based on this advice, and because of my massive desire to ride camels, we jumped on.
The promise was made to stop whenever and wherever we wanted, but because we’d been led to believe it was a long ride to the other side of Petra, we didn’t ask to stop. Within half an hour or so, much to our surprise, the ride was over! After a few quick photos at the Treasury, we were promptly offloaded and our camel wrangling ‘friend’ raced off back looking for his next customers.
I don’t for a second regret opting for the camel ride (as after all, we got to ride camels in Petra for less than it would have cost to ride a horse back home!) but we always appreciate people being straight up with us, and in this case, they weren’t. If you want to ride a camel (or donkey or mule), by all means do, but be aware that it’s not required for you to see everything – especially when you figure out that they walk as fast as you would anyway!
As it turned out, we made it to the Treasury much earlier than expected as the camel ride wizzed us past many of the sights that we would have otherwise spent more time at, so we decided to walk back a bit and hunt out the lookout that we’d read about previously…
7. Get high and see the Treasury from a different angle
The Treasury is without doubt the most commonly visited sight at Petra but you can beat the crowds and enjoy your own private viewing if you’re willing to work hard to get there. As you move away from the Treasury, keep walking past the Why Not shop, until you come to the Royal Tombs (which will be on your right, carved into the cliffs up relatively high). From there, you’ll follow the steps up and curve over to the left (away from the Tombs) – follow the track until you reach the end and then walk off the path until you hit the edge of the cliff and track along to the left. You’ll come to what looks on first impression like someone’s home – it’s really a wee shop/hut, though in the hour or so that we spent up there, we didn’t see a single soul.
Top left: The point where you turn off and begin your climb. Bottom left: Enjoying the ride on donkey-back. Main: Riding past the Royal Tombs towards the main part of the climb.
What a spot! Relaxing at the lookout over the Treasury after a day of exploring.
Do views get any better than this? With not another visitor in sight, we stopped to soak everything in.
You are able to walk up the steps to the lookout, but honestly I don’t think our legs could have taken it! Instead a lovely boy took us up the path on his little donkeys – for 10JOD each, it was possibly the best money we spent all day!
and some practical information…
8. There are more lunch options than you may be led to believe.
We were surprised to find Petra an absolute hub of activity; initially we’d presumed we’d need to bring our own packed lunch for our day of exploring but that ended up being far from the case. As we came to the bottom of the steps (at the base of the Monastery) we were informed by our guide that our two lunch options were either to eat in a local alcove for about 6JOD each, or to head a few hundred meters away to the (remarkably fancy) restaurant. The restaurant was out of our budget and absolutely inauthentic so we decided to join the locals in the cave. The food was pretty tasty but basic (I was provided with a plain egg omelette and Nathan and Avalon got a spiced tomato concoction, along with the standard flat bread) and even with the included tea and soft drinks, the meal ended up being one of the most expensive ones we had whilst away. I’m not sure of the costs further along the trail (closer to the main entrance by the Treasury) but I suspect you’d get better food for a similar price, so don’t feel pressured into choosing this option if it doesn’t suit you.
9. Wear good shoes – ankle support is a must.
On three seperate occasions I rolled my ankle on uneven ground; one more time and I think I would have done some serious damage! I didn’t think to take hiking boots but if I were to make the trip again, I certainly would.
10. Don’t miss ‘Petra by Night’
Each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, Petra is opened up to the public in the evening. The light of thousands of candles lights your way as you meander through the silence of the Siq, reaching the Treasury after approx 1.5km; I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment the cavern opened up and revealed the candle-lit carvings that we’ve all come to know so well (albeit through photographs online). Upon arrival, you’ll be invited to sit in rows, on mats on the ground, as you soak in the sounds of traditional Jordanian instruments and sip on Arabic tea. I was lucky enough to be joined by the most gorgeous little ginger kitten for a large part of the evening, but I can’t guarantee you’ll be as fortunate!
Absolutely mind-blowing! Just be sure to take a decent camera as my iPhone didn’t pick up the low-light and my GoPro ran out of battery, so sadly, this photo isn’t mine.
Pro tip: Petra by Night is not covered by your Jordan Pass or normal entry tickets so you will need to pay an additional 17JOD each as you arrive in the evening.
So there you have it – our ten tips to help you maximise your time at Petra, whilst hopefully helping you have the absolute time of your lives!
If you’ve visited the Lost City, please be sure to add any tips and tricks that you have to the comments below.
(I also love cats, but that’s a whole different post…)
If you’re anything like me, there’s always room on your phone for another handy travel app and Been (Apple | Android) may be worth adding to your collection.
This handy free app allows you to mark off the countries that you’ve visited (+ the states in the US) so you’ll have an easily updated record of the amazing places you’ve seen. I must admit that I get a little too excited at the prospect of adding another tick to my map, enjoy looking reminiscing over the fantastic times we’ve had whilst out exploring and can’t help but think of our next potential travels when I look at my map!
Have you used Been before? What are your must-have apps?
Prior to arriving in Budapest, the one thing we were determined to do was to visit the thermal baths. These warm-water swimming pools are a throwback to when the Greeks, Romans and Turks made Budapest their home, whilst they now serve to relax travellers and locals alike. The natural, geo-thermal water is known for it’s medicinal benefits, and perhaps more importantly, is guaranteed to warm you up over the chilly winter months!
After reading countless reviews on Trip Advisor (that website sure can be both a blessing and a curse!) we’d practically called our visit to the baths off; many visitors described the pools as being grimy and over-priced and with the weather being so cold, we weren’t feeling inclined to jump in our togs and brave the winter weather if it wasn’t going to be worthwhile.
As it turns out, maybe we were always meant to venture to the baths… Having decided against visiting, we wandered around Budapest on our second to last day there and stumbled across a gorgeous old building – as it turned out, the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Once we saw them, we couldn’t resist! After popping back to our accommodation, we jumped back on the subway and returned to enjoy the warm water.
There are two entrances you can use and though we’d read about staff trying to up-sell guests to tickets they didn’t really need, we didn’t encounter any problems. We paid 5,400Ft (about 17 euros) for one ticket (which included a small cabin to get changed in and to store our personal items) and 4,900Ft (approx. 15.50 euros) for the additional ticket. As we’d read, the changing cabins weren’t particularly clean, but by no means were they bad enough to put us off.
You are able to sign up for massages and a range of beauty treatments but we found them to be a third of the price elsewhere so saved our massage money to spend away from the pools. They also rent towels but they have a bad habit of going missing there, so try to take your own and leave it waiting in your locker/cabin.
We took our own towels and swimwear but did end up wishing we had our jandals (AKA flip flops) as they would have made getting changed that bit more pleasant and definitely would have made getting too and from the pool easier! Earlier in the day it had started snowing quite heavily (yahoo!) but it meant walking from the changing cabins (over the slippery floor), over the pebbles and through the snow to get to the pools – the stones made for sore feet when it was as cold as it was! Not to mention the fact that I then raced back inside to get my camera, back out to take piccies and then had to repeat the process again to put it back, before running the loop again to get my towel at the end! Brrrrrr.
We intentionally visited later in the afternoon so we could experience the baths through the evening, and would recommend you do the same. It was fantastic sitting in the thermal pools, watching the sun go down (well as much as possible through the clouds) and then relaxing into the evening.
The pools themselves were a glorious temperature, very relaxing and well worth the visit.
Would we visit Széchenyi again? You bet!
It just goes to show, you can’t believe everything you read on Trip Advisor (though I still love it!)
There really are not enough superlatives to do Jordan any level of justice when describing it! The people were incredibly warm and friendly and we enjoyed soaking up the landmarks that until then, we’d only dreamed of being able to visit.
We had the absolute time of our lives on our recent trip to Jordan, and though more detail will follow in upcoming blog posts, I wanted to pop together this basic rundown of our itinerary.
Tourism in Jordan is down on years gone past, largely due to safety concerns in neighbouring countries… contrary to what some imagine, Jordan is unaffected by the unrest in the area and remains absolutely safe to visit. This of, of course, bad news for locals but means that you’ll potentially have their awe-inspiring sights pretty much to yourself. Now is definitely the time to head to Jordan; they need your tourist dollars and there is no doubt, you need Jordan in your life!
We made the decision to join a tour as we had limited time, having to work within a short school break and wanted to maximise what time we did have there. Though there’s no doubt we probably could have done it cheaper ourselves, the cost saving would have been very minimal and to be stress-free, it was absolutely worth booking the tour. It ended up being just the three of us along with our guide and worked out to 190JOD each, including all accommodation, breakfasts and dinners, transport and our tour at Wadi Rum. In additional to the tour cost, we picked up a Jordan pass which included our visa and the entries to key sites (such as Petra and Wadi Rum) for JOD70 each (+ fees) and elected to pay for a guide in Petra to bring our experience to life.
Though you could carry out the following itinerary yourself, you’d want to be well equipped with road maps and a sat-nav as though the locals were friendly, Jordan was certainly appeared more difficult to navigate as a traveller than most places we’ve been. To be honest, though I wouldn’t normally jump straight on a tour, I would recommend doing so in Jordan, especially if you have a limited timeframe.
So, without keeping you waiting any longer…
Day 1 (day of arrival)
We arrived into Jordan at 9.30pm at night and made our way to Madaba. We made the most of an early night but did enjoy a shawarma (AKA kebab) before popping off to bed; at only 1.90JOD for three of us, it looked like we were onto a good thing in Jordan!
Day 2 (our first full day)
We swung past St. George’s Church to visit the oldest map of the Holy Land, created in gorgeous mosaic detail back in the 6th century AD. Jordan doesn’t get much further removed from New Zealand but upon noticing the gentleman manning the church was wearing an All Blacks beanie, we couldn’t help but ask… Imagine our surprise when he pulled out his camera and proudly showed us his two sons who had immigrated to Aotearoa with their families! It was the sweetest interaction and reminded us that when travelling, the simple things really can have the biggest impact.
On we travelled, via Mt Nebo where Moses first saw the Promised Land (and where we enjoyed fantastic views of the area), to the Dead Sea.
We went through the Amman Beach Resort which provided basic but adequate access to the Dead Sea and some associated facilities. The showers were freezing, the beach chairs cheap and the bathrooms very simple, but we were there to swim in the Dead Sea and it didn’t disappoint! We each paid 20JOD to enter through this resort and had been told that hotels were at least double that rate… I don’t doubt that if you’re planning on spending the entire day at the Dead Sea (and have an endless budget), that a fancy hotel would be the better option, but this ‘resort’ was more than enough for us. We opted to pay the 3JOD each to lather ourselves in Dead Sea Mud but that was our only additional cost (just be sure to take your own towel if you’d rather not rent one and don’t forget your soap to wash the salt off).
We spent a good hour floating about, having a great laugh! Though I was excited to visit the Dead Sea, I was a bit nervous about the water temperate at this time of year; as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about – it was warmer in the water than it was out. Our visit to the Dead Sea ended up being a massive highlight of our time in Jordan – be sure to include it on your itinerary!
Following our time at the Dead Sea, we quickly stopped to take in Lot’s Statue (another biblical connection). The history in this area is immense and regardless of one’s religious beliefs, it’s interesting to soak it all in.
After a few additional hours of driving though farmland and mountainside, we arrived at the Shobek Castle which we enjoyed exploring as the day turned to dusk. Health and safety doesn’t seem to be much of a consideration in Jordan, which just makes doing these things all the more fun!
There was no charge to enter (either the small museum or the castle itself) and it was a great way to spend thirty minutes or so. On our way out we stopped to chat to a Bedouin selling his wares and each walked away with a headscarf (for 5JOD each) having had another awesome interaction with a friendly Jordanian – Afish (which I’m probably spelling wrong!) tied our head scarves for us and chatted away about his life, before taking some quick photos as we headed off to check out the Moses Spring in Wadi Musa.
Just as it felt like we couldn’t fit much more into one day, off we went on our way to Petra! Three days a week, the track into the Treasury is lit by candles and guests are welcomed into the area to marvel at the sights whilst sipping sweet Arabic tea and listening to traditional Beouin music. Though I wouldn’t recommend seeing Petra only at night, it ended up being a fantastic addition to our visit to the area and was a truely magical experience. To get in, you’ll need to arrive at the Visitor Centre by 8.15pm, ready for an 8.30pm departure on Mon, Wed and Thurs of each week.
Unfortunately my GoPro ran out of battery and my iPhone didn’t pick up the lack of light very well, but the following image gives you an idea of what we were greeted by! Keep in mind, however, that the camera has picked up more light than the eye does, so expect it to be a lot darker for your visit.
I’m going to keep this part of the post relatively short as more detail will follow in a coming post. Be sure to check back as we picked up lots of tips and learnt a fair few lessons from our time at Petra which will help ensure your visit maximises both your time there and your budget. Everyone will tell you that you need a minimum for 2-4 days there but we were happy with our one full day (+ night time visit), so don’t let that put you off.
Until I manage to get that post sorted, let me just say that you have to add Petra to your bucket list right away! I don’t think I’ve ever been as awestruck as I rounded the corner after our hike and saw the Monetary peeking out from it’s rock backing – get there and get there soon.
For now, I’ll let the pictures do the talking…
Day 4 (our third full and final day)
Into the car we piled for our last final day in Jordan. The sleep in was much appreciated and after a 1.5 hour drive, we arrived at the little village just past the visitor centre. We were welcomed into the home of our host, where we enjoyed more sweet tea (a real tradition in Jordan) before transferring to an open-backed ute for our tour of the Wadi Rum Desert.
Our tour saw us take in rock carvings that were over 3,000 years old, depicting the role that camels and snakes played, whilst ancient pools that were used for childbirth still sat, holding fresh water from the occasional rains. The vast history of Jordan makes it so much more than just a pretty place to visit.
Arriving at camp, we climbed the little mountain out back to marvel at the sunset before retiring inside to chow down on the traditionally cooked zarb, which consists of meat and vege cooked under ground, much like a Maori hangi or traditional Pacific Island meal.
The stillness of the desert was fantastic to experience and provided a great background for reflection on our last night in Jordan.
Day 5 (day of departure)
Our 1pm flight required us to be at the Amman airport not long after 10am, resulting in a 6.30am departure from our campsite. After a rough few nights sleep, I’m a little ashamed to say we all dozed on and off through the drive, but we did thankfully enjoy lots of gorgeous scenery on our previous road trips.
As we bid farewell to Jordan, we knew without doubt how lucky we’d been to experience all that we had. I think I may just have left a little of my heart behind – better plan the next trip back sooner than later!
If you asked me two years ago, I’d have been surprised at my answer, but now? Absolutely, cruising could be the perfect choice for you!
We spent a long time time intentionally avoiding cruises… maybe it was the cliched images of elderly people hobbling along the decks (not that we have a problem with older people!), or it could have been the sub-par cruise ships that have graced Australasian shores in the past (P&O anyone?).
We’ve always liked travelling at our own pace, and as an ex-flight consultant, I really enjoy researching and planning our trips – the idea of taking the control out of our hands and having to skip from place to place, regardless of whether we were ready to move on didn’t sit quite right with me.
We’ve come across plenty of people that are anti-cruising but interestingly enough, almost none of them have actually set foot aboard one of these beauties.
Regardless of our hesitations, we decided it was time to give this cruising business a go, and man are we pleased we did!
We decided to book our first cruise for a number of reasons; we’d decided we were keen to hit the Caribbean and a cruise genuinely seemed to be the most affordable way to do so, and at the end of 3 weeks of backpacking through Central America, we thought we’d be looking forward to taking it easy for a week.
The cruise itself cost us NZD900 each (approx USD600 each) which included all of our food, transport, of course accomodation and onboard activities. I elected to purchase a soft drink package (“Hi I’m Sarah and I am addicted to Coke Zero”) whilst Nathan made do with the free cordial onboard which he supplemented with the occasional (paid) coffee.
Initially we’d looked at leaving from Florida on one of the larger boats but as we didn’t have time to explore the theme parks there, we made the decision to instead venture further South on this occasion. After flying to Puetro Rico and enjoying a few days exploring the island, we set sail, had a day at sea and then spent a day at each of the designated ports – Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Croix (in the US Virgin Islands).
From the moment we boarded the ship, we were welcomed aboard with open arms. The crew was waveringly professional and friendly and the passengers aboard were much more diverse than I’d expected. We were left to our own devices to wander the ship as we pleased, but also enjoyed seeing familiar faces at dinner each night. We really enjoyed getting to know some of our fellow passengers, but at the same time, there was no pressure to buddy up.
After riding around in the back of pickup trucks and on bumpy mini-buses, whilst (at times) struggling with language differences through Guatemala, it was such a treat to be able to settle into a comfortable room and know that would become our home for the next week.
Ohhh and the food, so much glorious food! Pizza and cake at 11pm? No problem! Room service at 1am? Sure! After travelling on a bit of a budget, it was nice not to have to question the cost of things (included) or the quality (always better than we needed).
Our ship was kitted out with a few different swimming pools (though in January they were pretty chilly), rock climbing, a mini movie theatre, ice skating shows, comedy acts, game shows and more. Again, you can involve yourself as much or as little as you like but having these options on offer again added to the value for us – the week just raced by! When we boarded, we were most excited to get our sea day out of the way, but by the time we disembarked, we both reflected that another sea day to further explore the ship wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
Our cruise included two formal nights; the first of which we ducked out of, in favour of an all-you-could-eat night at Johny Rockets (which we paid a small supplement for) where we had a fantastic chat with one of the staff. The second formal night we pulled out our nicest clothes (easier said than done when you’ve been pack packing with 7kg of baggage each!) so Nathan could enjoy lobster night.
Our stops were, for the most part, fabulous and surprisingly, the only island we felt we really could have done with more time at was St. Maarten, but even that was an awesome taster. We researched the different options at each port and organised our own excursions, both to save money and to allow us to move at our own pace.
In Barbados, we jumped in a taxi to a beach where we swam out and spent a couple of hours swimming with turtles (with our own snorkels).
In St. Lucia, we jumped on a water taxi and explored the town (where we got Nathan a hair cut.) Having been on the road for a while at that stage, he was well overdue, and we always find it a great way to chat to the locals!
Antigua saw us get on a local ‘bus’ (which was really a van) and head to the other side of the island to ride (and swim) horses.
In St. Maarten we taxied to the most spectacular beach then walked to Maho where we watched the planes come in overhead.
Finally in St. Croix we arranged a taxi to take us out to the other side of the island (and pick us up again at an arranged time), where we enjoyed the rainforest and snorkelled again.
Our cruise ended up being fantastic value for money and one of our real travel highlights! Excellent food, comfortable accomodation, always something to do – what more could one want?
Many times in our planning and travelling, we’ve been warned off certain places due to apparent safety concerns.
An American couple tried to warn us off going to Guatemala as we were flying there… according to them, North Americans simply don’t head in that direction because of the numerous safety concerns.
Robbery in Bratislava, the risk of terrorism pretty much everywhere, the risk we run by carrying everything we have with us in our packs as we walk through cities at night…
And most recently, the lady that checked us into our hotel in Berlin told us a number of times to be careful with our personal belongings as we moved through the city. She’d heard of a large increase in the incidence of pick pocketing and didn’t want a thief to have a better Christmas at our expense.
Not to mention the Munich underground being shut down on new years eve, just a couple of days after we moved on from the area.
The potential for danger is all around us, and perhaps, because of the media and speed at which information travels online, these concerns seem greater than ever.
I can’t help but feel as though issues can be encountered the world over. Although it’s important to be conscious of what’s happening around you, bad things can happen in ‘safe’ places, and journeys to ‘unsafe’ places generally end up problem-free.
Whilst we’re based in the Middle East, we want to make the most of being closer to a different part of the world by exploring Europe and Africa, but I’ve also had my eye on some spots a bit closer to our new home… Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Palestine and Israel in particular but growing unrest in many of these areas is a bit of a worry.
How do you decide when to pull the plug on a potential holiday destination? Of course there comes a point there the risk outweighs the benefit, but where do you draw that line?
All I know is that our trip to Guatemala ended without any cause for concern; we met a bunch of lovely people and despite our lack of Spanish, not one single person tried to take advantage of us. We felt safe walking quiet streets at night and would go back in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t it be great to tell the couple we met on the plane? They may just have changed their mind about this beautiful country and it’s people.