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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.

Accommodation Activities Beirut Itineraries Lebanon Middle East Stop Overs & Quick Trips

48 Hours in Lebanon: An Itinerary and Budget

October 4, 2016
48 hours in beirut budget and itinerary lebanon

Having moved to Abu Dhabi a little over a year ago with the intention of travelling, we’ve surprised even ourselves by just how much of the world we’ve been able to see.

The United Arab Emirates are an ideal base from which to explore and with a long weekend just gone, there was no chance of sitting around at home – Lebanon was calling!

I made the trip with Olivia (who you may recognise from our Egypt posts) and as it was such a last minute trip on the back of my visit to India and Nepal, saving money was the name of the game.  We managed to pick up reasonably priced flights and found apartment accommodation to be well priced for a major city which made the decision to head away an easy one.

Read on for information to help you plan your 48 hour visit to this energetic and unique city.

Looking for a four day Lebanon itinerary?  We’ve got you covered with that too!

Flights

We flew from Abu Dhabi (via Muscat in both directions) at a total cost of AED760 each return (USD205 or NZD285).  With only a long weekend direct flights would have been our preference but the other flight times and prices didn’t agree with us so it was worth doubling back on the flight – having flown from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, we then flew over Abu Dhabi again as we made our way to Beirut.  It was a round about way to get there but it made the difference between going or not!

If you’re looking to book the same itinerary, we flew on Oman Air, departing Thursday night at 5.25pm, arriving at 11.25pm.  Our return flight was early on Sunday morning (at 1.30am) which had us arrive into Abu Dhabi that same morning at 9.45am, giving us time to relax before heading back to work the following day.

Accommodation

Whenever we travel to a new area we compare the price of booking an Airbnb with a hotel (occasionally we’ll throw a hostel or camp ground into the mix too) and we generally find that Airbnb comes out on top.  This trip was no different and due to our budget, we made the decision to book into an apartment in Mar Mikhael.

The apartment set us back NZD144 (USD105) for the two nights (in total) which was fairly well-priced for what we received though the photos do make the apartment look better than it really was.  In reality, it was much more tired-looking than it appears online, it was missing a toilet seat and had slow wifi.  The location was pretty good though I think it’s fair to say we were on the outskirts of the nice part of Mar Mikhael.  All in all, it was a solid option if you’re travelling on a budget but you may be able to find something better for the same amount of money elsewhere in the city.

Rental Car

Though parts of the city are walkable, to really make the most of Beirut and the surrounding areas, you’ll want to secure a rental car.  The road rules are practically nonexistent but it’s all a part of the adventure – drive with caution and expect every two-lane road to turn into three and you’ll be fine.

As we booked our trip so late, we had a hard time securing a rental car before-hand and had to rely upon picking one up at the airport.  When we arrived, the cost had doubled so we decided to taxi into town to get a car the next day – the taxi cost us just shy of NZD70 (or USD45 between us) which cut a long way into the cost of a rental car.  In the end, we paid USD90 for a rental for the two days but could have got one online for about USD70 (and avoided the cost of the taxi) if we’d been able to book in advance online.  If you’re headed to Beirut, don’t hesitate to book your rental in in advance!

What Can I do in Beirut?

Beirut (and its easily accessible surrounding areas) offer plenty for everyone to do.  Beautiful beaches, towering mountains, little towns that have a clear French influence, ancient ruins, buzzing bars and restaurants; you won’t be bored here!

Stay tuned for more detailed posts but in the meantime, here’s a quick run-down of what we did (and would recommend you do too):

  • Day One
    • Explore Byblos – This beautiful township has a distinctive French feel about it which, when combined with traditional Arabian souqs, makes for an interesting stop.  Whilst in the area, check out the gorgeous old forts and church (all free of charge).
    • Visit The Lady of Lebanon up at Harissa.  The view from this statue is incredible – the best in Beirut!  To get up to the state, you have the option of taking the cable car from the bay below, or do as we did and drive yourself up (free of charge).
    • Shopping!  It turns out Beirut have a number of discount shopping options so as we made our way back to the city, we stopped off and picked up a few bargains.
    • Stop by Trainstation.  This spot it the epitimy of cool which says a lot in a city as funky as Beirut is.  Fortunately for us, the Beiruit Restaurants Festival was being held during the period of our visit, which meant we got to enjoy the most delicious food, desserts and drinks under the light of the moon, fireworks and fairylights whilst hanging out arond an abandoned (and now converted) railway station – it was absolutely magical.
  • Day Two
    • Admire the Jeita Grotto – One of the real highlights of Lebanon for us.  These caves are perfectly lit up, allowing a good view of their natural beauty whilst maintaining a sense of peace and quiet.  This will cost you 18,150 Lebanese pounds (or USD12 / NZD16.50) and includes a cable car ride, mini train ride and entrance to both of the grottos (including a boat ride inside the lower gotto), along with a movie (which we missed due to limited times available in English).
    • More shopping?!  On our way back from the Grotto, we stumbled across the most fabulous discount shop, Basic.  If you’re in Beirut, be sure to swing by – we both walked away with a decent sized bag of quality clothing for next to nothing.
    • Find peace at the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque (or Blue Mosque).  Neither of us are Muslim but there’s something amazingly peaceful about spending time in a mosque.  This one is particularly beautiful and conveniently located in the middle of town – coverups are available outside at no charge so you don’t need to worry about the suitability of your clothing when planning a visit.
    • Swing past the fancy part of town and stop for a photo at the ‘I love Beirut’ sign, because you almost definitely will fall in love with the city.
    • Admire the Pigeon Rocks (AKA Raouché).  This view is surely one of Beirut’s most iconic – you won’t need long there but it’s definitely worth the trip across the city.
    • … and last but not least, challenge yourself in the best possible way to some escape room fun!  We visited Escape Games Beirut where Olivia had a go at her first-ever escape room (the Hangover).  This game is a great option if it’s your first time playing or if you’ve got a small group as it was the perfect combination of challenge and fun, both of which are essential to an enjoyable escape room experience!  If you’re a bit more experienced or have a larger group, you have another three other amazingly themed rooms to choose from too.  Once Liv was well and truely hooked on these real-life puzzle rooms, we visited Escape the Room to try out their new room, the Castle.  We were a bit spoilt as this room hasn’t yet been opened to the public and it certainly was a treat.  We can’t give too much away but the idea behind this room and the theming was impeccable, made all the better by their innovative integration of technology into the game.  We absolutely love escape rooms (you can read our last post, outlining the concept here) and highly recommend both of these options in Beirut.

Beirut was a vivacious and interesting city full of incredible juxtapositions.  Both Olivia and I really enjoyed our time exploring and would return in a heart-beat.  Sure, it’s not the place for everyone but if you head there with an adventurous spirit and a bit of patience, your gamble will pay off.

Final Costings per Person (based on twin share)

Flights (Abu Dhabi via Muscat, return) = USD205.00

Accommodation (for two nights) = USD52.50

Rental car (for 48 hours) = USD45.00

Fuel = USD23.00

TOTAL = USD325.50 each (NZD450 or AED1,195)

I’m not going to account for food or activities as this can cost as much or as little as you’d like it to.  Most of the activities we did were free or low cost and we had a ball so you don’t have to go with a lot of additional cash if you don’t want to.

Is Lebanon worth spending your hard-earned money on?  Absolutely!


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 Lebanon is an amazing, interesting and colourful country. It's safe too! Use our itinerary to help you plan your weekend getaway. Lebanon is dynamic, energetic, interesting and filled with history. Use our guide to plan 48 hours in this amazing country. 48 hours in Beirut Lebanon. An itinerary and budget.

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Out and About in London

July 3, 2016

London catches the eye and heart of nearly every traveller that ventures within – it’s up there with New York City; vibrant, exciting and full of history, but with the added bonus of being an easy point of entry to the rest of Europe.  It would seem that London offers something to practically everyone…

“You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

– Samuel Johnson

Having spent just spent four nights in London (and having visited six months ago for the first time), I’ve come away with a fresh reminder of how fantastic this vivacious English city is.  I am by no means an expert on the city, rather I feel we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what London offers, but we would like to share our mini itinerary with you in the hopes that it might help you plan your first visit to this fabulous place.

All of the following activities and locations are within easy reach of one another and manageable within a day.  This post is not designed as an all-inclusive list, but a starting point for you to build a fabulous day or two in the capital.  If you’re looking for more advice and details about how you could spend your time there, I suggest you check out my friend, Sara’s blog – Big World, Small Me (she’s a Kiwi living in London and is a total expert on the city).

It’s also worth noting that we caught the train and got off at London Bridge which is an easy 3 minute stroll down to our starting point, the Borough Markets.  Depending on where you’re staying, you may like to reverse or play with the order of this itinerary.  Have fun making it work for you for!

 

Borough Markets

Whatever your culinary inclination, get yourself to the Borough Markets when you’re visiting London!  These markets are full of life and excitement and the smells that emanate from the stalls are mind blowing.  It feels like there’s almost every type of delicious food on offer here that you could hope for.

We tucked into the most delicious Malaysian chicken curry and followed it up with a beautifully chewy piece of chocolate brownie for dessert and wandered about admiring all of the amazing looking kai (Māori for ‘food’) on offer.

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The stand out of the markets for me though are the incredible doughnuts made by Bread Ahead.  Last time I was in London my friend suggested we hunt them down and on this return trip, I did exactly that again.  We tried both the salted caramel honeycomb and the vanilla bean custard doughnuts and though they were both fantastic, it’s really worth mentioning the salted caramel flavour; it was incredible.  Nathan doesn’t normally go crazy for sweets like I do but when he’s happy to return to the markets again to stock up on these treats, you know you’re onto a winner!

The Borough Markets are open every day (with the exception of Sunday), with their main days of operation being Wednesday to Saturday.  To get there by train/tube, get off at the London Bridge station, on either the Northern or Jubilee lines.  Ensure getting there is on the top of your list – you won’t be disappointed.

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London Bridge and Tower Bridge

From the Borough Markets, it’s an easy walk to the London Bridge and Tower Bridge, both spanning the River Thames.  The London Bridge isn’t much to look at but has a long-standing historical importance and gives a great view of the Tower Bridge, my favourite of the two.  Numerous times a day the Tower Bridge raises it’s gangways and though we didn’t manage to catch it doing so, it would be worth trying to time your visit if you can (you’ll find the timetable here).

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Whilst you’re in the area, you may also like to head inside the Tower of London (£25 each) to soak up the brutal history of London and to spot the crown jewels.  If it floats your boat, you can also board the HMS Belfast as you make your way from London Bridge to the Tower Bridge.  Be sure to spin around and check out the towering glass building known as The Shard – if you have time, you can relax with a drink at the top whilst you enjoy panoramic views of the city too.

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After you’ve soaked up the sights by the Thames, jump on the tube at Tower Hill and make your way to Westminster.  From this point you’ll have access to a plethora of iconic landmarks all within an easy walk of one another.

 

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

Perhaps one of the most iconic old landmarks in London (and my favourite), Big Ben is even more impressive in person.  The famous clock town joins the Houses of Parliament and both buildings have an incredible amount of shimmering gold detailing; the workmanship in both is amazing and certainly worth a visit.

Westminster Abbey

Across the road from the Houses of Parliament is one of the most recognisable churches in the world.  The detailing on Westminster is remarkable and its history even more so.  The church is over one thousand years old and has strong ties to the English monarchy – every royal Coronation since 1066 has taken place here and it has provided the backdrop to no less than sixteen royal weddings.  To learn more about the history of this stunning place of worship, you might like to check out their website (there’s far too much to do justice in this single post).

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Ten Downing Street

“Number Ten” is home to the serving Prime Minster, but don’t head over expecting to catch a glimpse of David Cameron!  As you would expect, the entrance to this famous address is heavily guarded and protected by indestructible gates.  Regardless though, it is worth swinging past as you head to the palace.  Whilst we were there the guards were surprisingly friendly and willing to pose for a selfie or two – if you’d like a shot with a traditionally dressed (and heavily armed) English policeman, this could be the spot to do so.

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Buckingham Palace and Surrounds

Just down the road from Ten Downing Street, you’ll find the Horse Guards Parade to your left (look out for the mounted guards, you can’t miss them).  If you turn through this building, you’ll stumble into St James’s Park before finding yourself at the gates of Buckingham Palace.

We spent a good half hour slowly wandering through St James’s Park, spotting squirrels, geese, swans and all manner of local birds.  There’s nothing like a good park in the middle of a city and this is one that’s definitely worth spending some time in.

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At the end of the park, you’ll find the infamous Buckingham Palace.  Once a day (or every second day in the off-season) you can catch the changing of the guards; an opportunity to glimpse into royal tradition and culture.

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London is a fabulous city regardless of the time of year and a perennial favourite amongst travellers.

For those of you have have visited or lived in the city before – are there any must-sees in these areas?  What other parts of London would you recommend paying a visit to?

Have another day to spare?  We’d definitely recommend jumping on a train and heading out to Thorpe Park, London’s premier theme park.  Read more about each of the rides and our review here.

Africa Eco Tourism Kenya Stop Overs & Quick Trips

The Giraffe Center – Nairobi, Kenya

May 10, 2016

Looking into their gorgeous deep brown eyes, framed by fluffy eyelashes, there’s no doubt there’s something special about the lanky (but adorable) giraffe.

If you find yourself with a little spare time in Nairobi, you may like to pop along to the Giraffe Centre (open from 10am – 5pm every day) to get up close and person with these African beauties.

Upon entering, you’ll be given a handful of pellets and run-down on how to feel the giraffes – surprisingly, it’s nothing like feeding a horse, rather than presenting them with a flat palm, you hold a pellet between your fingers and let the giraffe pick it up with their tongue – beware the giraffe slobber!

The centre is home to the endangered Rothschild’s Giraffe, of which there are sadly less than 750 estimated to be remaining in the wild.  What started as a rehabilitation centre (run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife Kenya – AFEW) now plays a significant role in the continuation of this species and in educating the Kenyan youth in the importance of wildlife conservation.


Entry to the centre will set you back 1000KSH for an adult or 500KSH for a child (approx. USD10 and USD5 respectively) and allow you to spend as long as you’d like with the giraffes.  Entry also includes giraffe food, a perusal around their information centre and access to the bushwalk across the road.  

To get to the centre, we hired a taxi for 2000KSH (again from our camp in Karen) and the driver waited whilst we visited the giraffes.

To save on taxi fare, you could also tie your trip to the Giraffe Centre in with a visit to the Elephant Orphanage nearby (which is open from 11am – 12pm each day) and expect to pay just a little more for waiting time.

Africa day trip Eco Tourism Kenya Stop Overs & Quick Trips

Nairobi’s Elephant Orphanage – The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

May 9, 2016

Africa is top of practically every animal lovers travel wishlist and with even a short stop in Nairobi, you can get up close and personal with a number of gorgeous orphaned elephant calves, making your quick break in Kenya even more memorable.

The calves come from all around Kenya and are picked up by the Trust in response to the poaching or natural passing of their parents.  The team do an amazing job of providing medical assistance to elephants in the wild, and of course bring the babies into the sanctuary should they require help.  Once in the facility, young elephants will spend five or so years being fed up and looked after, before being transitioned back into the wild with a new family group of wild elephants.

To protect the best interests of the ellies, viewing is limited to between 11am and 12pm each day so be sure to arrive early enough to pay your entry fee (5,00KSH or approx. USD5 per person) and get yourself a good spot.

The MC gave us lots of information over the speaker, clearly explaining how the foundation works and sharing a great deal of specific information about the elephants and their background.  We enjoyed listening and learning as we watched the elephants (and even a couple of orphaned ostriches) getting fed and splashing around in the water and mud.

The team at David Sheldrick clearly had very close bonds with these animals and I don’t doubt, go out of their way to look after their elephants.  All the interactions that we observed were loving and respectful and it was a real pleasure to watch the elephants engage with each other, their keepers and occasionally one of the visitors.

If you’re planning a trip to Nairobi, we’d strongly suggest you consider supporting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – your nominal entry fee will be put to good use whilst you learn a whole lot about these beautiful creatures.  We’ll certainly be back if we manage to return to Kenya!

How do I get there?  Taxi fare will of course depend on where you’re leaving from, but from the Wildebeest Eco Camp (in Karen) to and from the Orphanage, we paid 2,000KSH (approx USD20) for our driver to collect us, wait until the visit was over and then drive us back ‘home’.  The taxis in Nairobi don’t have meters but operate on a set fare from area to area which makes it pretty easy to ensure you’re getting a fair price – just be sure to check with your driver first.  If you have time, you may also like to combine your trip to the Trust with a visit to the Giraffe Centre – they’re generally open all day though, so be sure to plan your schedule around the 11-12 elephant visit.

Dubai Expat Life Middle East Stop Overs & Quick Trips theme park United Arab Emirates

Fun in the Sun – Aquaventure, Dubai

April 19, 2016

The weather here in the United Arab Emirates is starting to warm up again, so before the crazy heat sends us racing for the confined, air-conditioned comfort of the malls, we figured it was time to check out Aquaventures over in Dubai.

 

This iconic water park sits to the side of the Atlantis hotel, the jewel on the top of the man-made marvel that is the Palm.  From our home in Abu Dhabi, it’s a comfortable (albeit a little boring) hour long drive to reach Dubai on the motorway that allows you to drive up to 140km/h (crazy fast, right?)

We arrived not long after 10am on Friday morning.  For those of you not familiar with the UAE, Friday mornings are the best time to get things done (if your plans fall within a weekend) as that is the main time of worship for Muslims, making the roads and attractions around the country relatively quiet.  Parking is free and you’ll just need to board the minibus to take you to the entrance.

Jumping straight into the lazy river, we floated our way over to our first slide of the day… there’s even a conveyor belt that takes you up to some of the rides so you can rest those weary legs (in preparation for the hundreds, if not thousands of steps you’ll climb later in your visit!)

 

The park is organised around two main slide towers (The Tower of Neptune and The Tower of Poseidon, with a couple of lazy rivers/rapids weaving throughout and a fabulous kids area.  The only thing Aquaventure is really missing is a normal swimming pool or a wave pool but where the lazy river opens up, there is the option to just relax in the water.

 

Our favourite rides were easy to pick as they offered something a bit different to what we’d experienced before.

The Leap of Faith is probably the parks most iconic ride and it definitely didn’t disappoint.  The moment you push off over the ledge and plummet down the slide takes your breath away, and though the video shows you slide through the shark tank, you’re racing by so fast, with so much water splashing up, that I must admit, I only saw a blur of blue. What a ride though!

 

 

Speeding down, about to enter under the shark tank. I remember watching people go down this slide on the Amazing Race and have more of an appreciation of why people would be nervous to ride it now!

 

The Zoomerango would have to have been our favourite ride of the day – we rode it half a dozen times which speaks for itself.  This slide starts off relatively tame but before long the slide drops away into a huge halfpipe.  Check the following video out to experience it for yourself…

The Zoomerango – the perfect combination of thrills and fun made this our favourite slide yesterday. That drop!! #mydubai #adrenalinerush
A video posted by Sarah & Nathan Chant ✈️? (@exploringkiwis) on

 

Poseidon’s Revenge was a close tie to the Leap of Faith (in regard to scare factor) – I personally thought it was scarier than the Leap of Faith but Nathan thought the shark tank slide beat this one out for scares.  Either way, being locked into a near-vertical shoot before the count down begins and the floor suddenly drops away is terrifying!

 

That drop!! Nathan being very brave on Poseidon’s Revenge #differentinwater

A video posted by Sarah & Nathan Chant ✈️? (@exploringkiwis) on

Top Left (moving clockwise): The Leap of Faith, about to go down the big drop on Zoomerango, Olivia and I about to head off down the rapids on our raft, and Nathan climbing into the loading bay of Poseidon’s Revenge.

 

We had a fabulous day splashing around and exploring the rides.  The food at the park wasn’t cheap, but was at least served in good sized portions so it didn’t feel as expensive as it could have.  All in all, we would highly recommend a trip to Aquaventure – even at full price it would have been a great day out!

We were fortunate to pick up discounted tickets directly through Aquaventure (follow their Facebook page to be alerted to specials), so popped along for only 130aed each (NZD50 or USD35) + an extra 50aed each to add on a visit to their aquarium.  If you’re planning on visiting, keep an eye on their Facebook page and if no specials have popped up, prebook your tickets directly through their website… you’ll save money on paying at the gate.  Also, if you’re in Dubai around your birthday, sign up and you’ll get a free ticket to use during your birthday week.  Have fun!

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Activities Holidays Jordan Middle East Petra Stop Overs & Quick Trips Tours

10 Tips to Help you see Petra like a Local

March 14, 2016

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…

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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).

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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.

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Enjoying the view out to the Black Mountain, Wadi Araba Desert and Israel in the far distance.

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Hiking the back route to the Monastery.

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What goes up, must come down!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

What a spot! Relaxing at the lookout over the Treasury after a day of exploring.

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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.

Happy exploring!


10 Tips to help you see Petra like a local. Don't get taken for a ride - know what to do (and what to avoid!) 10 Tips to help you see Petra like a local. Don't get taken for a ride - know what to do (and what to avoid!)

Europe Stockholm Stop Overs & Quick Trips Sweden

Skipping through Stockholm, Sweden

January 10, 2016

On my way to London recently, I had the opportunity to spend the day in Stockholm, Sweden and an opportunity like that couldn’t be missed!

Hunting out a well-priced fair saw me fly via Sweden on Norwegian.  They were significantly cheaper than the other airlines flying there and I was pleased with their service, especially the free wifi.  I would happily fly Norwegian again and recommend others consider doing so too.

 

Swedish Islands

Just some of the many islands that were visible from the plane as we prepared to land.

 

I arrived into Stockholm at 7am and easily found the bus into town.  Frequent buses and clear signs made getting in and old out the Old Town a cinch and once there, the city was easy to navigate on foot.  I had my pack (40L with me as I was only there for the day) and it was absolutely manageable walking around with it in tow.

Before leaving the airport, I got out a fair wad of cash as I’d heard horror stories about how expensive Scandinavia can be!  I’m pleased to report that it was nowhere near as expensive as I’d expected, so don’t let that put you off visiting.  With that said of course, as I didn’t spend the night there, I can’t speak as to the cost of accommodation.

 

Stockholm

Rugging up – Stockholm can sure get windy so be well-prepared with warm clothes.

 

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The first signs of their real winter – I was lucky to get a little snow on the day that I was there, but not enough to settle on the ground, so I made do with ice!

 

I spent the morning wandering the streets and checking out the Christmas markets; what a magical time of year to be in that part of the world!  I had intentions to pop over to the maritime museum as it had fantastic reviews on TripAdvisor, but with the ferry out of action due to the winter season and the magic of the streets calling, I just spent the day walking around and taking in the sights of Old Town (known locally as Gamla Stan).

I loved hearing the locals cheerfully welcoming me with a ‘hej’ and trying to connect how on earth some of their spellings connected with their pronunciations; coming from an English-speaking background, a lot of the language was a bit of a puzzle to me, but fun all the same to be immersed in.

 

Christmas

Christmas wreaths being sold at one of the many markets in Stockholm.

 

Food stockholm

Everywhere I turned in Stockholm, there was delicious food!

 

Old Town

A quiet street in Old Town, awaiting the start of the day.

 

My flight left in the early evening so by approximately 3pm I was back on my way to the airport, waiving goodbye to Sweden.  Though Stockholm is gorgeous and there’s plenty to see, it was smaller than I’d imagined it to be and a day there felt like long enough to get a relatively good feel for the city.  I would absolutely go back should the opportunity arise, but I don’t feel short changed for only spending a day there.

Have you spend time in this beautiful country?  If so, what did you think?

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