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Barcelona Europe Reviews Spain Tours

Bouncing Around Barcelona – The bike tour with a difference

August 4, 2017

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia and the second most populous municipality in Spain, has many claims to fame – a world-renowned football team, impressive tourism figures and weather to make most jealous – but there’s something special about this incredible city that most people aren’t aware of.

It plays host to one of the best tour guides around!

Kris, the owner-operator of Bounce Around Barcelona is one of the most energetic, vivacious guides you could ever hope to meet.  He’s hard-case and finds the perfect balance between professionally and approachability.

With the option of private and group tours around the city, guests can get around either by foot or on Kris’ funky old-school bikes.  We figured the bikes would allow us to cover more ground so it was an easy choice for us.  Fortunately the city is incredibly well laid out for cyclists, being largely flat and home to countless cycle lanes.

Before departing, Kris sat with us to determine the key spots we wanted to visit, orientated us on the map and promised to take us to some of the local hideaways.  Our tour was custom designed for us, based on what we hadn’t managed to see yet.  In the end, it covered off all of Barcelona’s must-see spots and, as promised, delivered lots of gems that we’d never had discovered by ourselves.

Our tour really did have it all…

Food?  Check

Architecture?  Double check!

Natural beauty?  You bet.

Throughout our tour, Kris shared a wealth of information about Barcelona, the Catalan region as a whole and Spain itself.  I have no idea how he manages to retain the depth of knowledge that he has but there’s no doubt in my mind that Kris was absolutely born to do this job.

As much as we’d love to share our map and all of the top-spots Bounce Around Barcelona showed us, there’s no better way to see Barcelona than on one of their tours.  We were given the opportunity to skip over a couple of the locations that we’d already passed through but once we realised how much better it was seeing everything through Kris’ eyes we quickly asked for those spots to be added back in.  We didn’t have the back-story when we visited independently nor an understanding of the history but Kris of course changed that.

They have one motto and it’s something Bounce Around clearly live to their core – “Come as a guest, leave as a friend”.

Don’t take our word for it though – I dare you to visit Kris and his team and walk away with anything but the more positive things to say.

We’d bounce around practically anywhere with Kris!


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Discover the best tour in Barcelona, Spain. Bounce Around Barcelona will plan an amazing itinerary and show you the best tourist sites in the city. From Gaudi to the best secret bar, this tour covers off all the highlights and then some!Discover the best tour in Barcelona, Spain. Bounce Around Barcelona will plan an amazing itinerary and show you the best tourist sites in the city. From Gaudi to the best secret bar, this tour covers off all the highlights and then some!

I know this post sounds unbelievably gushy but we really were blown away by Kris’ zest for life and obvious passion for what he does.  To date we’ve only met one other guide that left us feeling like we walked away more as friends than guests (Bessi, we’re talking to you!) and we figure, you’ve really got to celebrate the good guys.

We were invited to put Bounce Around Barcelona through their paces and as always, all thoughts are our own.

Activities France Paris Reviews theme park

Disneyland Paris & Walt Disney Studios Park – A Must See in France?

July 3, 2017

The one brand in the world that really needs no introduction.

Disney.

The happiest place on earth.  Where dreams come true.  Where fantasies come to life and where big kids become small again.

As a child it was always a family dream to one day visit Disneyland and when it did eventually happen, I remember it being an absolute bucket-list moment for us all.

I’ve since gone on to visit Disneyland in California a number of times, finding each visit as magical as the last.

It’s unsurprising then, that when we booked our dates in for Paris, a visit to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park was top of my to-do list!

With high expectations, we set off on the train (an incredibly easy way to get to the parks) to see if our Parisian Disney dreams could live up to our past experiences.

Disney – A Step Above

Disney set the benchmark for theme parks the world over – they consider things other parks wouldn’t dream of.

Worried your children might see another Mickey floating around the park?  Don’t be – there’s only ever one of each character out on duty at a time (and they’ll never talk for fear of voices sounding different or ruining the magic).

Have you ever wondered just how they make Main Street look so long (and the iconic castle centre-pieces so far away)?  Forced perspective!  As you move further down Main Street, the shops become wider making everything appear further away than it really is.

As you walk from area to area, keep your ear to the ground.  In doing so, you’ll notice subtle sound-effects that change to reflect the theming of that part of the park.

They really do think of everything!

Two Parks – One Pass

Between Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park guests are able to enjoy the majority of classic Disney favourites and a number of new rides and though you can pick just the one park and stick to it, we always recommend the Park Hopper tickets.  They give you maximum flexibility to come and go as you choose.  Bounce around to avoid the lines and make the most of your favourite rides!

The Rides You Can’t Miss

A perennial Disney favourite, Space Mountain at Disneyland Paris (known as Starwars Hyper Space Mountain) is the fastest of all five incarnations (46mph in just two seconds!) and it’s also the only one to go upside-down.  Unfortunately it was closed for our visit but we love the original and can only imagine how awesome this version would be!

If you’re after a rollercoaster style ride that builds up to an amazing ending, be sure to check out Big Thunder Mountain.  It starts off fairly sedately but the last blat is incredible – I won’t ruin the surprise, just make sure you check it out for yourself.

Keen for another coaster?  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril is a bit rickety but it absolutely makes sense given the theme of the ride.  The queuing area is especially well appointed and the ride itself excerpts some fairly major g-forces on riders (with a surprise towards the end!)

Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith was the ride I was most excited to try out at Walt Disney Studios Park.  The take off was incredible but I must admit that I found the rest of the ride a bit uncomfortable – probably a combination of the number of earrings I wear (they don’t go well with roller coasters) and the fact that we’ve been spoilt with more modern coasters.  The music was well-matched though and as a dark ride, it’s a great introduction for those wanting to ride a bigger coaster without seeing what’s in front of them.

Though we ran out of time to jump on, we’ve also been told by friends that Crush’s Coaster is great fun.  This spinning, wild-mouse coaster is suited to the whole family and would make a great addition to your day if you have the time.

… and saving the best to last, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror was our absolute favourite ride between the two parks.  Like the original, it’s impeccably themed and run by cast members that never once break character.  The ride itself features a number of significant drops – enough to bring on the butterflies in your tummy but not so much so that it’ll put people off – it’s a balance that can be hard to find but is done perfectly on the Tower of Terror.

It must be said too – let’s all cross our fingers that one day Splash Mountain is added to Disneyland Paris.  What a ride!

Make Your Day Even More Magical – Practical Tips

It’s practically impossible to have a bad day at Disney but there are a few things you can do to improve your experience.

It’s All in the Planning…

Unfortunately even Disney can’t work real magic and this does mean that from time to time you’ll find rides out of commission.  They post the expected ride closures ahead of time, allowing guests to thoughtfully plan any potential visits.

Pro tip:  Check the opening times, expected ride closures and any special events for the day of your visit on the Disneyland Paris calendar.

The Fast Pass – Your ‘Golden Ticket’ to Disney

Though we visited on a Monday just before the school holidays in the hopes of finding the parks relatively quiet, it wasn’t to be.  With rides ranging from a 45 minute wait time up to 1.5 hours or so, the Fast Pass would normally save the day in helping to get guests through lines (without the headache of actually having to wait in line).  The concept is fairly simple – when you first enter the parks, make a beeline for the ride that you’d most like to ride, scan your ticket and pick up your Fast Pass.  This fabulous little ticket will, for-all intents and purposes, hold your space in the line at a certain point in the day whilst you head off and enjoy other attractions.  Simply return within the given 30 minute window and jump yourself to the front of the queue via the Fast Track entrance.  

Unfortunately for us, the day we visited ended up being so busy that all of the Fast Pass tickets were snapped up early and we only managed to get our hands on one each.  There’s a limited number of passes up for grabs each day – after all, if everyone in the park could take one for every ride, nobody would get ahead!  This is great in the sense that everyone has a fair shot at jumping to line (unlike in some other parks, like Six Flags Magic Mountain and Thorpe Park, where guests with deep pockets can buy their way to the front time and time again) but it does mean that you’ll struggle to benefit from this place-saving technology on particularly crowded days.

Let’s face it though, you’re at Disneyland – there are much worse places to be standing in line!

Minimising Your Wait Time

Whilst in the parks, try to pick up as many Fast Passes as you can.   Failing that though, use the following tips to try to avoid the lines as much as possible:

  • Upon entering Disneyland Paris, turn right first towards Discoveryland.  The majority of Disney-goers head to Frontierland (the first zone on the left after Main Street) so by starting at the other end of the park, you’ll avoid many of the larger lines off the bat.
  • Consider the hours of operation.  Disneyland Paris is open a fair bit longer each day than Walt Disney Studios Park and as it’s the experience that most visitors are there for first and foremost, it makes sense to pop across to the Studios first.  Not only will the lines likely be shorter there first thing in the morning but you’ll be guaranteed to tick off your must-see rides, leaving the rest of the day/evening to explore Disney.
  • Be smart about lunchtime.  Most visitors to the parks dine between midday and two – not only will the lines at the food outlets be longer then but the lines for the rides will be shorter.  If you’re able to, plan in either an early or late lunch and make the most of the quieter periods around the parks.  Alternatively, if your tummy is grumbling, you may like to consider heading to Disney Village where you’ll find fewer visitors.  We speak from experience when we say it’s probably worth walking another 5 minutes to save spending 20 in another line – the food cues certainly aren’t as entertaining as the ride ones!
  • Make the most of parade times.  Queues are generally shorter then as most of the guests will be enjoying the paradise as it snakes its way through the park so it’s a great time to hit the rides.
  • Catch the train around the park but do so from Frontierland, Discoveryland or Frontierland.  You’ll find Main Street to be the busiest station in the park.
  • Mums and Dads, don’t wait twice!  If you’re travelling with a little one that’s too small to ride, you can avail the ‘baby switch’ policy – just ask a cast member for information.
  • Splurge and have the parks to yourself.  If you choose to stay onsite at one of the Disney hotels, you’ll be allowed into the parks before and after everyone else, plus you’ll have the added bonus of being able to return to your hotel to relax when things get busy (and then be able to pop back across when the lines die down).

Regardless of the park you step foot into, Disney really do a magical  job of their theming and in creating a truly immersive experience for the whole family and their Paris parks are no exception.

Though the parks are smaller than their American counterparts, they’re a great introduction to the world of Disney!

If you’re visiting France, be sure to allow yourself time to visit Disney.  After all, it’s the happiest place on earth and who’s not looking for that?


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Disneyland Paris should be top of your bucket list itinerary whilst on vacation in France. This theme park has amazing rides, great restaurants, incredible theming and the general magic you'd expect from Disney.  Find out how to maximise your time at the park whilst having the best holiday fun!Disneyland Paris should be top of your bucket list itinerary whilst on vacation in France. This theme park has amazing rides, great restaurants, incredible theming and the general magic you'd expect from Disney.  Find out how to maximise your time at the park whilst having the best holiday fun!

Thank you to Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park for providing us with a one day park hopper pass for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

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! 

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.

Be sure to check out this guide to the Dubai malls so you can decide upon the other malls you’d like to visit during the course of your trip too!

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.


Love Dubai enough to stay?  Check out these ten tips that Gabby wish she knew before making the move to Dubai.

Planning a trip to Dubai?  Pin this post!

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.

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.

Accommodation Adventure Asia Eco Tourism Mid-Range Sri Lanka

Adventure & Glamping in Sri Lanka – Not Your Average All-Inclusive!

March 29, 2017
Borderlands - Adventure glamping in Sri Lanka

An easy drive from Colombo you’ll find Borderlands, an all-inclusive Sri Lankan adventure camp in Kitulgala, the adrenalin-sports capital of the country.  We normally recoil at the word ‘all-inclusive’ when it comes to our travels but not this time!   Read on to find out why Borderlands should be a must-see on your visit to Sri Lanka…

It’s an amazing thing to leave a place feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude.

You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of practicing gratitude—how it can boost your mood, help you treat others better, improve physical health, and keep stress and fear at bay. Now, here’s a little trick for how to automatically infuse more gratitude into your life: Spend more money on experiences, and less on material objects.

Real Simple – Amanda MacMillan

Gazing through the shroud of netting out into the Sri Lankan jungle, you just can’t help but feel appreciative.  If experiences are where it’s at, then this one would be hard to top.

Layer after layer of a jungle, from the closest painted in hues of vibrant green, to the last few trees silhouetted against the sky, sitting high on the misty mountain – all laid out in front of us without having to leave our bed. The call of countless birds and lizards, the buzz of insects waking up, the river racing along below us.

How fortunate were we to have spent even a few nights in paradise like this?

Borderlands is about as far from a typical all-inclusive holiday destination as it gets.  Yes, for a set rate you’ll get a roof over your head (and a million dollar view to boot!) and all of your meals included.  Also included are two adventure activities a day with fully trained guides and free WiFi.  Unlike your average all-inclusive resort though, Borderlands has an overwhelming sense of character and a jungle outlook that just can’t be beaten.

Lounging in the chill-out area, we spotted a chameleon in the first five minutes of being there and throughout the day, magnificent eagles soared back and forth.  Even if you’re not on the hunt for adventure, Borderlands is a great choice in Kitulgala – it’s the ultimate in back-to-nature adventure in the true spirit of Sri Lanka.

Our room obviously wasn’t your standard hotel room but it was perfect for the location.  With plenty of ventilation and a fan, we didn’t get too hot and there was a partial sunshade to stop the morning daylight from streaming in – we went with it though, leaving it open so we could see the fireflies and birds out in the jungle.

Attached to our room was a partially outdoors ensuite (with a hot-water shower and toilet) and his and hers hand basins.  We also had a couple of tables, beanbags, fresh drinking water, electrical outlets and lights in our room – though it wasn’t fancy, it was more than adequate.

We’ve sometimes stayed in luxurious hotels and have come away less impressed than we did from Borderlands which says a lot about our experience there.  If you’ve got a good sense of adventure, this place is for you!

Food, Glorious Food!

We arrived at Borderlands a little unsure of what to expect when it came to meals but the food on offer was absolutely delicious!  Hearty and varied, every meal was one to look forward to and served up buffet style, there was plenty to go around.

Adventure is Calling

Though you can stay at Borderlands just to take advantage of the facilities and delicious food, we recommend you book in the full package including activities.  The team is known as being the most safety-conscious in the area (they were also one of the founding companies on the Kelani river) and their care and professionalism really shone through – if there’s one company you want to be pushing your personal boundaries with, it’s these guys.

White Water Kayaking

Our first activity started very quickly with a dunk in the water!  After jumping back in the kayak (and then falling out a few more times) we started to get the hang of keeping our balance in the whitewater.  The whole experience was a blast and with a river that’s currently a grade 2, it was the perfect introduction to kayaking in this environment – the right balance of challenge and security.

Borderlands - Adventure glamping in Sri Lanka kayaking

Advanced Canyoning

Having been on an amazing canyoning trip once in the past we had high expectations from this activity!  Did it stack up?

We started with a hike down to the canyon though gorgeous tea plantations and farmland, our guides stopping to show us a range of local produce (with a few tastings thrown in too).  Once we made it to the river, we received a full safety briefing and made our way to the first obstacle, as double rock slide into the cool water below.  After slipping and sliding down a few rocks we approached the first of our cliff jumps… at approximately 12m high, we decided to save it for the braver souls amongst us and scrambled down the rocks instead.  With another smaller jump (which was much more to our liking) and an abseil our canyoning adventure was almost over.

We had a great time up the canyon with our two guides (we weren’t kidding when we said Borderlands was safety conscious) but wished the experience was a little longer.  Considering they’re making use of the natural environment only 10 minutes from the campsite though, it’s a fantastic introduction to canyoning.

Mountain Biking

From a fitness point of view, mountain biking made the other two activities feel like a walk in the park.

I can’t even recall the number of times I mentally chanted this saying back to myself as we kept pedalling up that mountain…

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”

– Nietzsche, 1888

Fortunately, our lovely instructor foresaw what was to come and had the Borderlands truck follow not too far behind us up the hill.  We made it about half way before stopping and hitching a ride with him!

At the top, we stopped for a while in an ancient cave, tried to spot the local bats and admired one of the region’s waterfalls – a gorgeous spot and a great chance to catch our breath!

With the choice of going off-road or following the path we took up, we elected to stick to the ‘road’ – better safe than sorry we decided.  With spectacular views and a comfortable pace headed back downhill, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we made the right choice.

Was it physically hard?  Yes.

Were we pleased we did it?  For sure!

Borderlands - Adventure glamping in Sri Lanka mountain bikingBorderlands is about as close to the perfect jungle experience as it gets.  Tropical and wild whilst retaining a touch of comfort and calm, we really couldn’t recommend it enough to those adventurous spirits amongst us.

Leave your hair dryer at home, come with a can-do attitude and get stuck in – you won’t regret it!


Love a good adventure?  Save one of these pins!

An easy drive from Colombo you'll find Borderlands, an all-inclusive Sri Lankan adventure camp in Kitulgala, the adrenalin-sports capital of the country.  We normally recoil at the word 'all-inclusive' when it comes to our travels but not this time!  Find out why we fell in love with this unique accommodation. An easy drive from Colombo you'll find Borderlands, an all-inclusive Sri Lankan adventure camp in Kitulgala, the adrenalin-sports capital of the country.  We normally recoil at the word 'all-inclusive' when it comes to our travels but not this time!  Find out why we fell in love with this unique accommodation.

Thank you to Red Dot Tours for recommending and organising our stay at Borderlands.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

Accommodation Asia Destinations Luxury Reviews Sri Lanka

Staying on a Working Sri Lankan Plantation – Horathapola Estate

March 25, 2017
Horathapola Estate Sri Lanka review Red Dot Tours

How many hotels do you know that would check you in at 5.30am, graciously welcoming you with a fresh coconut and showing you to your room (when you don’t officially check in until later that afternoon)?

Prior to our visit to Sri Lanka, I would have said not one hotel would generally provide that level of service; I was proven wrong though.

Horathapola Estate has got you covered!

From the moment we arrived, we were treated like absolute royalty.  This boutique hotel, set on a genuine, working colonial estate is as authentic and gorgeous as they come but even with its obvious beauty, it’s the superb hospitality that stood out for us.

With 50 acres of crops and stunning gardens, it’s easy to slip into a slower pace of life.  Bird call rings out over the lush greenery as lizards and squirrels dart from one tree to another.  Life on the estate for guests is anything but hard with the staff carrying the load to ensure you won’t have to.

Dining at Horathapola Estate

All rooms at the estate come with the ‘half board’ option which includes breakfast and dinner – it’s a good thing too as meal times at Horathapola are a treat!

Their chef works hard to ensure food is prepared in a classically Sri Lankan manner, staying true to the property’s roots.  Fresh produce is taken from the plantation (including milk, rice, cashew nuts and salad greens) and cooked based on guest preferences.

Lunch is available a la carte and is fairly priced with a wide range of options available.

Touring the Estate

It’s not every day you’re welcomed onto a working plantation so we were delighted when the offer of a tour around the estate was made!

A bullock cart ride (you guessed it, that’s a cart pulled by a bull) takes guests around the expansive property, offering insight into rural life in Sri Lanka.  The unmistakable smell of cinnamon hangs in the air and countless trees bear fruit, ripe for picking – it really is a tropical paradise.

Whilst our guide explained the many different crops found on the plantation (coconut, rice, cashews, mango, pepper corn and cinnamon just to name a few) our driver raced up a coconut palm, more than happy to provide us with fresh coconut water and flesh.

On Your Bike!

Should you wish to head outside of the estate – and we recommend you do – mountain bikes are available at no additional charge.  We shouldn’t have been surprised by the quality of the bikes (we came to realise that this hotel doesn’t do things by half) but they really were heads and shoulders above what we’ve been offered in the past.

The roads around the estate are safe with locals driving slowly and incredibly patiently.  The majority of people we came across were on scooters or walking and everyone (literally everyone!) gave us a friendly beep or called out to us.  Compared to other parts of Sri Lanka, the Horathapola Estate feels a little off the tourist trail (which is fantastic news for those that visit) and though I’m not sure if the locals were excited to see us as they’re not yet inundated with tourists or if they’re just incredibly friendly to everyone they come across, it was a real pleasure being a guest in their slice of paradise for the day.

Why You Should Pick Horathapola Estate Over a Stay in Colombo

Others will tell you that although Colombo isn’t a drawcard for visitors to Sri Lanka, a stop in the country’s largest city is almost unavoidable.  Red Dot Tours are onto a winner here though, instead recommending visitors make the hour long drive out to Horathapola Estate for some serious rest and relaxation.  When I compare our stay here with the idea of contending with Colombo’s hustle and bustle, there’s absolutely no doubt that this was the right decision.

Really though, look at these photos.  Was there ever any doubt that this was the best choice?


 Skip Colombo and head straight to Horathapola Estate to unwind and experience the real Sri Lanka. Warm and welcoming staff, a stunning pool, delicious food and local tours - this working plantation is a must-see on your itinerary. Skip Colombo and head straight to Horathapola Estate to unwind and experience the real Sri Lanka. Warm and welcoming staff, a stunning pool, delicious food and local tours - this working plantation is a must-see on your itinerary. Skip Colombo and head straight to Horathapola Estate to unwind and experience the real Sri Lanka. Warm and welcoming staff, a stunning pool, delicious food and local tours - this working plantation is a must-see on your itinerary.

Thank you to Red Dot Tours and Horathapola Estate for making our visit possible.  To find out about the customised tour that Red Dot put together for us, check out our itinerary!

Accommodation Budget Europe Iceland Reviews

Kex: A Funky, Affordable Hostel in Reykjavik, Iceland

March 19, 2017
Kex Hostel review Reykjavik Iceland

Iceland is has a well-deserved reputation for being drop-dead-gorgeous.  It is.

It also has a reputation for being fairly expensive.  For the most part, that’s true too.

Though we tend to stay in more private, comfortable accommodation options these days, our desired locations and activities always drive our decisions.  If there’s only basic accommodation in the area we’re headed, we go regardless.  If we want to travel long term, we tend to favour hostels and Airbnbs apartments to help cut down on our spending (with the added bonus of meeting other travellers and locals).  If we’re headed to an expensive area, you can be sure we’ll reduce the amount we spend on accommodation, putting our savings towards amazing activities, as opposed to missing out on those.

So when we found ourselves looking at accommodation in Iceland, we knew we’d have to look at alternatives.  We were there to see the country, not blow our budget on hotels – after all, nobody goes to Iceland just to sit inside their fancy room (though if you are looking for one, we know just the place where you can treat yourself!)

Recommended by a blogger friend (thanks Diana – check her out at MVMT!), we knew off the bat that Kex was anything but a fall-back option.

Located in an old biscuit factory and decorated with salvaged materials, this hostel has a distinctively eclectic, industrial feel – one that’s impossible to miss.  It’s also known locally for hosting the best musicians in town – one of our tour guides even recommended it as the place to be come evening.

Funky, quirky and certainly memorable, Kex provided us with everything we needed in a comfortable base.

What We Loved About Kex:

  • Kex is well located, a comfortable walk from the centre of the city.  As far as position goes, the hostel is spot on.
  • Breakfast is hearty, filling and plentiful.  It’s reasonably rustic – don’t come expecting pancakes and eggs cooked to order – but for a hostel, it’s easily the best we’ve ever seen.
  • Earplugs are on offer at the front desk free of charge – take some!  Though our roommates (we were in a four person co-ed room) were incredibly respectful, there was a fair bit of noise coming from outside on the first night of our stay.  I made the mistake of passing on the earplug and regretted my decision for a number of hours as I lay there, wishing the noise away.  Learn from my mistake a grab a few packets!  We used them the next few nights and slept really well – no complaints from us.
  • The quirky vibe of the place was awesome.  Kex has a unique feel to it – it makes you take yourself a little less seriously (which is never a bad thing).
  • There’s a room configuration (and quality) to suit a range of travellers.  Sure, it’s not a high-end, boutique offering, but with a range of rooms from industrial mixed dorms right through to private hotel-style rooms (which come with private bathrooms – yes!), there are plenty of options on offer.
  • If you’re travelling by yourself or would just like someone else to take care of your activities, they offer a selection of day trips from Reykjavik – too easy.
  • There’s free WiFi and a fully equipped kitchen (another great way to save money in Iceland – we found eating in to be significantly cheaper than eating out).

Things to Note:

  • In true European fashion, showering is a communal affair at Kex.  I remember the feeling that washed over me when I first walked into the woman’s bathroom to find all of the shower heads grouped in the one big cubical – I must admit, my first thought certainly wasn’t “oh yea!”.  With that said, there are a few unisex single showers so as long as you’ve got time on your side, you are able to have a private shower if you prefer.  One morning we had to race out the door and the single showers weren’t available so I braved the communal one – it turns out I shouldn’t have been worried at all – not a single soul walked in whilst I was in there (but I still get kudos for being brave so it’s win-win).
  • Being right by the city, Kex doesn’t have any private parking.  This means that, if you’re driving, you’ll either need to figure out the pay and display machines out front, use the carpark building a few hundred meters down the road or do as we did – check out the spots around town and then come back once the free parking begins (which, from memory was at 6pm – just don’t overstay your welcome the next morning as we did see a car get ticketed).

Though Kex houses 215 guests, we never once felt crowded or like we saw even a portion of those guests.  Granted it wasn’t absolute peak season whilst we were there but the private rooms were fully booked, leading us to believe they were running at a fairly high level of occupancy.

If you’re looking for a polished, luxury hotel, there’s no doubt this isn’t the place for you.  However, if you’re looking for a bit of fun and a hostel you won’t soon forget, Kex could be right on the money!


Do you know someone headed to Iceland?  Pin this post to help them with their planning!

Iceland's funkiest hostel! Accommodation in Reykjavik is expensive at the best of times but Kex Hostel is a great way to stay in the centre of the city without breaking the bank. It's quirky, comfortable and social - what more could you need? Iceland's funkiest hostel! Accommodation in Reykjavik is expensive at the best of times but Kex Hostel is a great way to stay in the centre of the city without breaking the bank. It's quirky, comfortable and social - what more could you need? Iceland's funkiest hostel! Accommodation in Reykjavik is expensive at the best of times but Kex Hostel is a great way to stay in the centre of the city without breaking the bank. It's quirky, comfortable and social - what more could you need?

Thank you to Kex Hostel for so kindly hosting us for the purpose of this review.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

Accommodation Destinations Doha Luxury Middle East Qatar Stop Overs & Quick Trips

A Weekend Itinerary in Doha – Why You Shouldn’t Just Fly Through Qatar!

March 14, 2017

With a weekend to spare, Nathan and I decided to hop over to Doha, Qatar.  Though I work with a number of teachers that have lived in Doha in the past, I’d heard mixed things about just how worthwhile the city was.  Is it work a stopover if you’re flying through?  Should you book a flight if you’re living in the Middle East and want a weekend away?

Despite having the highest GDP per capita in the world, we found the people of Qatar to be welcoming and approachable.  The wealth of the country is evident in its gorgeous buildings that are shooting up like wildfire.

Though the city doesn’t rival Dubai in terms of scale or grandeur or compete with Muscat’s stunning mountain ranges, it does have an energy that is uniquely Qatari and, in our opinion, certainly worth seeing.

If you’re planning a visit to Doha or stopping over on your way elsewhere (which you definitely should do), this guide is for you.

Tourist Activities in Doha, Qatar

Admire the Museum of Islamic Arts

Home to a variety world-class exhibits, the Museum of Islamic Arts (MIA) contains beautiful and intriguing artworks from three continents, spanning 1,400 years.

Though we’ve lived in Abu Dhabi for the last year and a half and have travelled fairly extensively throughout the region, we’ve not seen an art collection that comes even close to rivalling this one.

Soak Up Traditional Middle Eastern Vibes at Souq Waqif

With the smell of shisha and oud drifting through the air and the buzz of goods changing hands as if in a scene from Aladdin, Souq Waqif has an old-world charm that is sometimes lacking in other Middle Eastern markets.

Souq Waqif was one of our favourite parts of Doha and we could have very happily stayed there people-watching all night.  The souq alone is reason to visit Qatar!

Take a Walk Along the Corniche and Check Out the City Lights

Winding 7 kilometres along Doha Bay is the corniche, providing visitors with perfect views back over the city.  Doha’s skyline is gorgeous and instantly recognisable with such iconic buildings – things will only get more exciting too as the city ramps up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.  Construction is already well under way – we can’t wait to see how the skyline continues to evolve.

If parks, restaurants and statues are more your style, there are plenty of other options along the corniche including pop-up markets,  traditional arts and crafts and playgrounds.  If you’re after a cheap momento to take home, you might get lucky and find a local lady offering henna – if you do (and you’re a lady), jump at the chance – henna smells amazing thanks to the addition of essential oils and it’s a great opportunity to chat with a Qatari.

Did you know?  Qatari’s make up only 12% of the entire population in this small Middle Eastern country.

Relax with a Massage

After a busy week at work or when you’re straight off a long flight, there’s not much better than a luxurious massage or spa treatment.  Upon arriving into the city we checked into Chi, the beautiful spa at the Shangri-La – we booked in for a wellness massage (the ku nye to be specific) and it hit the spot perfectly!

If massages aren’t your thing, Chi also has a hydrotherapy pool and a full range of health and beauty therapies to help make you look and feel like a million dollars.

Enjoy World-Class Cuisine

When we talked to our friends that have lived in Qatar they all had the same advice – go to Doha and eat up a storm.  Food is an important part of life there and it’s done well because of it.  I’m not sure if people eat out lots because the food is good or if the food’s good because lots of people head out but either way, make the most of it!

Our favourite was the Shanghai Club where we enjoyed world-class Chinese food with breath-taking views (162.3m above ground to be exact) – just go in with empty tummies as the amount of food was absolutely incredible.  Duck pancakes and sweet and sour fish were the standout dishes of the night for me – I’m getting hungry just thinking about them again!

Have More Time Up Your Sleeve?

There’s a surprisingly diverse range of things to do in Qatar considering the size of the country.  Why not pay a visit to the Singing Sand Dunes, the Katara Cultural Village or the Pearl (Doha’s take on the Dubai’s Palm)?  Alternatively, head into the warm Arabian waters and enjoy a scuba dive or head out into the dunes on a quintessentially Middle Eastern desert safari (where you can even camp overnight amongst the stars!)

Getting There – Flights and Visa Requirements

Qatar shares a land border with only one country, Saudi Arabia, and due to visa limitations, the vast majority of people are not able to use this point of entry to the country.

If you’re visiting Qatar, chances are it will be on a stopover or a quick getaway from another Middle Eastern country and your point of arrival will be Hamad International Airport.  This stunning airport sits approximately 25 minutes out of the city centre making it easily accessible.

Residents of thirty-three countries are entitled to a visa on arrival (for QAR100 per person) and though this can be purchased online, doing so at the airport is quick and easy making it a viable option.

Alternatively, if you’ve booked a stopover through Qatar Airways (for between 5 and 96 hours), you’re entitled to a complimentary transit visa – just be sure to allow at least 7 days to process the visa.  Once it’s up and running, you’ll have a 30 day window with which to use it.

If you book a through-ticket with Qatar Airways, you’ll also be eligible for a free city tour (on a first come, first served basis) but it is a real whistle-stop tour so should you have the time to explore on your own accord, we’d definitely recommend doing so.

To find the lowest priced fairs and compare value between different airlines, we recommend using Skyscanner.

Hamad International Airport teddy bear Urs FischerRegardless of how you get to Doha, you’ll want to head into the city.  To do so, you can choose between taxis (which you’ll find waiting just outside of the terminal) or have the Shangri-La organise a private car for you.  Check out our ride!

Getting Around

Doha is well serviced by taxis, which are the easiest way to get around.  They’re well priced and the drivers we had all knew their through the city (which is more than we can sometimes say for drivers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai!) – just remember to ask them to put the meter on and round your payment up for the driver.

Though it’s possible to hire a car, we did see some fairly erratic driving and taxis are cheap and comfortable so we’d be hard pressed to recommend driving yourself for a short stay.

Where to Stay in Qatar

Shangri-La Hotel Doha

Opened in 2015, the Shangri-La Hotel Doha is synonymous with warmth and luxury – the perfect balance, ensuring guests are spoilt whilst still feeling at home.  It’s a spectacular option in Doha.  With 272 rooms, this striking city hotel is located in the central business district of West Bay which makes it a convenient base for a weekend away.

With a fully appointed gym (and personal trainers on hand throughout the day), four restaurants, three bars, a falcon and its handler in the lobby (I’m not joking!) and a direct connection to one of the biggest malls in Doha, there’s plenty to keep guests busy.

Most impressive of all though is the incredible pool and the spectacular city views.

The pool, built on the 7th floor of the hotel, is surrounded by towering hotels and office blocks.  It’s a genuine oasis in the hustle and bustle of downtown and with its sheer size and the number of palm trees (2,000 square metres and over 70 palms!), it’s surprisingly easy to forget there you are.  In all our travels, we’ve never seen anything quite like it.

When you’re finished relaxing pool-side, we suggest heading up to the Horizon Club Lounge on the 42nd floor.  Here breakfast is served to guests in the largest lounge in all of Doha, with stunning 360-degree views.  Regardless of the time of day, refreshments are available at no additional charge and come early evening, a lavish spread is put on making the Horizon Club Lounge the perfect spot to relax before dinner and watch life in the city go by beneath you.

We’re not normally ones to sit around in a communal space, preferring instead to be out exploring or relaxing in our room but with snacks, relaxing music, books galore and incredible views, we found ourselves slipping quietly onto a comfy sofa more than once.

If you’re looking to treat yourselves (and why wouldn’t you?), the booking a Horizon Club room is the perfect way to do so.  By the time you account for all of the additional benefits, it’s an easy decision.

As you would expect, the rooms in the Shangri-La Hotel are exceptional, each with their own floor-to-ceiling windows allowing guests to make the most of views out over the ever-expanding city.

All rooms offer complimentary WiFi, TVs with a wide range of channels (and a sound system that even lets you listen to your favourite shows whilst in the bath!) and spacious floor plans.  The bathrooms are also generously sized with moulded bathtubs, rain showers and high-quality toiletries.

It’s the finishing touches in a five-star hotel that set it above the rest and the addition of a simple hair-tie to our amenity collection is surprisingly telling.  As silly as it is, I hate it when my hair tie breaks and the fact that the Shangri-La go to that level of detail to look after their guests tells you just how invested they are in giving their guests the very best experience, each and every time.

Beautiful pools and views aside, it’s those personal touches that take a gorgeous hotel to the next level and the Shangri-La Hotel Doha sits very comfortably in the that echelon – what I would call personalised-luxury.

As we found in when staying at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa in Oman, service is the core focus of these beautiful hotels.  When we walked around the Horizon Club Lounge we couldn’t help but notice that our hosts knew all of the guests by name – no small feat considering the number of people they must see through their doors.  Though the building and facilities are obviously top-notch, in our opinion, it’s the service and finishing touches that makes Shangri-La memorable as a brand.

When all is said and done, was the trip to Qatar worth our time and would we recommend others visit?

Absolutely.

Though it’s not a glitzy as as Dubai or steeped in history like Cairo, Doha has its own down-to-earth charm whilst still wowing with its obvious wealth (a difficult balance but one that it somehow manages).

Having visited, I can now understand why so many of my friends that have lived in the region consider Doha to be such a liveable city – it seems to strike the right balance in so many regards.

So, next time you’re looking for a weekend away from your adopted GCC homeland or are considering stopping off in the Middle East, don’t overlook Qatar.  Too many people pass through the airport without ever really setting foot on Qatari soil and take it from us, they’re missing out.


If you’re headed to Doha, Qatar, why not pin this post for future reference?

Doha is growing into a buzzing Middle Eastern city but too many people make the mistake of passing straight through. Don't be one of them! Find out why we recommend exploring Qatar. What to do, where to stay and how to get around - our guide will help you make the most of this charming city. Doha is growing into a buzzing Middle Eastern city but too many people make the mistake of passing straight through. Don't be one of them! Find out why we recommend exploring Qatar. What to do, where to stay and how to get around - our guide will help you make the most of this charming city. The best pool in all of Qatar! Check out why you have to stay at the Shangri-La Hotel in Doha (plus your guide to the city).

Thank you to the Shangri-La Hotel, Doha for inviting us to join them to experience a snippet into life in Qatar.  As always, all thoughts are our own.

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