Dubai

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I don’t tend to use this phrase much as it’s so overused but Dubai really is like Marmite – you love it or you hate it. Considering I keep going back, it’s safe to say my opinion is the former! A combination of flashy cars, oversized shopping malls, thrilling theme parks and enough sun to last you a lifetime, Dubai is a place like no other. There’s no denying that the heat can sometimes become uncomfortable, especially in the summer months when it climbs to a sticky 50c at times, but the ice cold air conditioning that blasts you at every indoor opportunity is nothing short of heavenly and makes things bearable. This year, we went away with a big group of my family at the end of July, one of the hottest times of year to visit the United Arab Emirates. A lot of people said we were crazy but with promises of an extensive all-inclusive cocktail list and 5 refreshing swimming pools to choose from at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa, we happily took our chances! After a 7 hour flight from London Heathrow, we arrived at Dubai airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. We then had a 45 minute transfer before we stepped into the oasis of the Jebel Ali, around a 30 minute drive from downtown Dubai. Downtown Dubai is not necessarily a very busy city but it was nice to stay slightly further out. I first came to the Jebel Ali with my parents in 2004 and we like it so much here that we don’t tend to stay anywhere else. The staff are friendly, the hotel and grounds are beautiful and with 7 different restaurants to choose from, all serving different cuisine, it’s safe to say we were never hungry! The hotel also has a shooting range where we each had a go at shooting a 9mm pistol with guidance from a dedicated instructor. Not wanting to blow my own trumpet but getting 4 in the bullseye wasn’t bad for my first attempt whilst wearing 6 inch heels! 😜

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Aerial shot of Jebel Ali

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Volleyball on the beach

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Hotel grounds

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Infinity pool

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While in Dubai we went on a couple of excursions, one being a Desert Safari and the other being a Penguin Encounter at Ski Dubai (yes, you read that right – SKI DUBAI – but more on that later!) which were both based outside of our resort. There are a number of things to bear in mind when out and about in Dubai. The culture and religious views of people in this part of the world say that it is unacceptable for women to show their bare shoulders or legs in public. Any public display of affection between couples is also frowned upon. There is no need to refrain from showing a lot of skin or holding hands within your hotel, but it’s important to abide by their laws when at the shopping malls or in downtown Dubai as you may be stopped by police if they feel you are not being respectful. Saying this, it has never affected our time spent outside of the resort and I think in recent years, the people of Dubai have actually become a lot more relaxed and tolerant of the English culture. After reading a lot of great reviews for Desert Safari Dubai, I enquired about a trip for 6 of us via their website (www.desertsafaridubai.com). After a few emails back and forth I decided to spend a little extra and upgrade our ride to a Hummer which in my opinion was well worth the money. All in all, we were in the Hummer for around 4 hours and were grateful for the extra space it gave us. We arrived in the desert after an hour’s drive from the Jebel Ali and were ushered into a row of gift shops while our driver let all of the air out of his tyres before our dune bashing session. There were a number of pushy shopkeepers mulling around trying to get us to buy traditional costume in the form of head scarves and robes which made us all feel slightly uncomfortable. It was a side to Dubai that I hadn’t seen before and it wasn’t a place I would want to visit again. After around a 15 minute wait, we piled back in the Hummer and edged forward into the desert. Our driver wasn’t much of a talker but he sure knew how to ride the sand dunes! We had a 20 minute thrill-ride going up, down and sideways(!) along the dunes at stomach-churning speed before stopping in the heart of the desert for photo opportunities. As we stepped out of the Hummer, cameras in hand, I was surprised at how windy it was. So much so that I lost my sunglasses, hat and scarf all with one huge gust of wind! This paired with the ridiculous heat made it quite an unpleasant environment to be in. Nevertheless, we climbed the tallest sand dune (with much effort I must add) and the view was fantastic, all you could see was desert for miles and miles with no other cars, people or even landmarks in sight. We pumped the tyres back up and drove to base camp, around 25 mins from where we did the dune bashing. Base camp consisted of cushions on the sand for you to sit on, a small shack that served drinks and an undercover area where a lady was carrying out Henna tattoos; not the most luxury of sites but it certainly felt as if you were in the middle of a desert! Here we rode camels and were given the opportunity to do some quad-biking but after an afternoon of adrenaline, we decided to sit this out, choosing instead to get a drink from the shack and wait for the traditional arabic entertainment to start. We watched the blood-orange sun set on the horizon and settled down to watch the dancers, one being a very scantily-clad belly dancer which I was surprised to see in a country like Dubai who impose such a strict dress-code for women. A BBQ was included in the price of our excursion and although it looked perfectly fine to eat, we chose to wait until we got back to the hotel to have dinner. It’s definitely an experience I would recommend, even if it’s just to say that you have spent a night under the stars in the middle of an Arabian desert. It’s certainly an experience I will remember.

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Now onto my favourite experience I had in Dubai…! This took place within the second largest shopping mall in the world – The Mall of the Emirates. The Mall of the Emirates is huge with over 700 shops, an indoor theme park, a 500 seat theatre and of course, the main attraction, Ski Dubai (https://booking.skidxb.com). Ski Dubai is an indoor ski centre, boasting 22,500 square meters of fun in a – 4c environment. With skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and snowy adventures to be had, it’s not an experience you would necessarily associate with the skyscrapers and deserts of the middle east but that is part of its appeal. While we didn’t do any skiing on this trip, we did visit Ski Dubai to meet with the 3 ft tall residents that live there – penguins (Gentoo and King penguins to be exact)! We booked an exclusive encounter, which at just over £100 each, wasn’t cheap but this package ensures that it is a 1-to-1 experience with your group and the penguin trainer (if your group size is 4 persons or more). It’s an experience that can only be done in Dubai and nowhere else in the world gives you the opportunity to cuddle, feed and play with penguins in such an intimate environment. We were first kitted out with Ski Dubai snowsuits before making our way to the Penguin meeting point and being introduced to our dedicated trainer. He then proceeded to take us into the freezing cold habitat where the penguins live, 19 in total including a number of chicks that were born this year. We were given a behind the scenes tour before we were introduced to all the penguins by name (McFatty being my personal favourite!). We were told lots of interesting facts before we were given opportunities to stroke, cuddle and feed the penguins. It was the most amazing experience, all captured by our own personal photographer who followed us around the habitat. As part of the price we paid for the encounter, we received 1 photo per person and then they offer photo packages for you to purchase afterwards. These are not cheap though – before we bartered the price with them they asked us for another £100 for all the photos on a disc! I won’t go into too much detail of what happens during the encounter as I don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone else but it’s something that I can happily tick off my bucket list. Find out more about the Penguin habitat here – http://skidubaipenguins.com. There’s even a package that allows you to swim with them!

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The largest shopping mall in the world is also located in Dubai – The Dubai Mall. With over 1200 shops, an ice rink and an underwater zoo and aquarium (that you can see by going on a glass-bottom boat ride!) among other things, it really is a monster of a mall but a very impressive one at that. Walking through the indoor Souk here is mesmerising with 220 jewellery outlets that are full to the brim with gold and rare jewels (including the biggest diamonds you will ever see) – you’ll be sure to fall in love with something! The original Gold Souk can be found in an area called Deira and is open 7 days a week. This busy outdoor market is the place to go for bargains or if you are in search of a momento to take home with you. Just next door is also the Spice Souk – just as interesting a place with a rainbow of weird and wonderful spices on display for you to purchase or taste. Dubai Mall is also home to the Dubai Fountains, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system in the world set on the 30-acre manmade Burj Khalifa Lake and designed by the same people that built the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas. The shows are scheduled at 1pm and 1:30pm during the day and then every 30 minutes from 6pm in the evening. The musical displays definitely have the wow-factor, especially with the Burj Khalifa soaring majestically above them. The Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building (we’re beginning to see a bit of a theme here…) at 830m tall meaning it’s three times as tall as the Eiffel Tower and nearly twice as tall as the Empire State Building. It was made famous in the latest Mission Impossible film and believe it or not, Tom Cruise was granted permission to climb up and have a seat at the very top of the spire. Rather him than me! Entrance to the Sky Observation Deck can be accessed through the shopping mall but it is extremely pricey (see prices and information on peak timings here – https://tickets.atthetop.ae/atthetop). However, discounts can be had if purchased in conjunction with tickets to the Aquarium or if you visit outside of peak hours so it is definitely worth looking into this before booking your visit. There is no real need to purchase tickets in advance of visiting the shopping mall as you can book a time slot for entry every 30 minutes until closing. The only slots that tend to get booked up are at the time of the sunset as the views are pretty spectacular. You have to go through a security check, similar to the ones at an airport but this doesn’t take long and the lift travels at 10 metres per second, meaning it takes just under 1 minute to reach the 126th floor! The view is fantastic and as it’s the tallest skyscraper in the world, it’s a must-do in Dubai.

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One thing to bear in mind when you leave a shopping mall – there are organised queues for taxis with staff pointing you to available cars when you near the front of the queue. The staff will automatically point you towards an unmarked taxi who will charge you double the price of a normal one! The staff here obviously have some sort of deal going with the unmarked taxi drivers and although it is perfectly safe to get in one, if you are on a budget make sure you refuse and ask to ride in a marked taxi!

There are a number of different water parks in Dubai but Wild Wadi next door to the Jumeirah Beach hotel is my favourite (http://www.jumeirah.com/en/hotels-resorts/dubai/wild-wadi/). It’s not as big as some of the others in Dubai but the rides have got some serious thrill-factor with signs telling you not to ride if you’re the sort of person that eats your pizza with a knife and fork or if you always safely eject a USB!

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View from the Jumeirah Sceirah waterslide – not for the feint hearted!

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If you are staying at the Jumeirah Beach, entry is free. As my little brother was a bit older for this trip, we decided to take him on some rides with a hilarious outcome – our favourite ride being the Burj Surj.

Saying this, the Aquaventure waterpark at the Atlantis hotel on Palm Island is a lot of fun too. Again, if you are staying at the hotel, entrance is free of charge. With a Leap of Faith waterslide that takes you through a glass tunnel within a shark-infested aquarium and a Dolphin lagoon where you can swim with them, it’s a unique attraction to visit. While we didn’t go to the Atlantis during this trip, it’s worth a visit if you’re a bit of a big kid at heart! (https://www.atlantisthepalm.com/marine-water-park/aquaventure-waterpark)

The other main thing to see in Dubai if you’re into ticking off all the sites is the Burj Al Arab. Built in 1999, it has prided itself in being the world’s only 7 star hotel. The distinctive shape of the hotel that mimics a sail is arguably the most recognisable structure in Dubai, known for it’s ridiculously luxurious interiors and services that it offers. It sits on an artificial island that is 280m from Jumeirah beach and you also gain free entrance to Wild Wadi waterpark if you stay here. Rooms can cost from anywhere between £2,000 and £4,000 per night and it seems to be more of a statement to stay here than anything else. When I was a bit younger, I went to the Al Muntaha restaurant positioned on the 27th floor with a magnificent view of the Arabian Gulf. It’s a once in a lifetime experience with menu prices that also reflect this! A visit to the Burj Al Arab should be on your list of things to do in Dubai but take along a credit card with a high limit if you plan on stopping for a drink! This short video uploaded to their official YouTube account should give you a feel for it!

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Dubai is fast becoming a tourist hotspot, especially for the English and it’s easy to see why. When I need to recharge my batteries or fancy a (LARGE) dose of vitamin D, it’ll be my go-to holiday destination for many more years to come.

Iceland: First Impressions

 

I’m going to start by saying that Iceland was one of my favourite places I visited last year. It was unusual, it was interesting and above all else it was breathtakingly beautiful. We travelled in March as part of Alex’s 20th birthday celebrations and after researching the weather, prepared ourselves   to be very very cold!

We had pre booked a hire car as we had planned on doing a self drive tour around the many waterfalls that feature in the south west of the country, no more than a few hours drive from Reykjavik where we had booked a hotel as a base. So after landing in Iceland the first thing we had to do was get the keys for the car. Finding the hire company proved to be a bit of a challenge but after 20 mins or so of trekking around in the bitter cold we eventually found a representative who gave us a lift to to our little red Hyundai we would use as our main mode of transport for the next few days. We were given the keys, a paper map, an ice scraper and a shovel, 3 of these items were needed almost immediately. The car, as would be expected, was covered in thick ice that refused to budge and mounds of snow surrounded the car making it impossible to drive off if it wasn’t shovelled.


After a good 20 mins, we finally set off to Reykjavik city center. My first impressions of the country on the drive were average. It was icy and there were a few mountains that I could just about make out in the distance – pretty much as expected. We arrived at the City Centre hotel which I can highly recommend as a great place to stay if you’re on a flying visit to the city. Its location is very central and was the perfect base for our stay. We had arrived in the late afternoon so decided to go for a quick walk around to get our bearings. Before long we found ourselves down by the Solfar (or Sun Voyager as it’s also known), a pretty sculpture which is an ode to the sun.

Sun voyager

However we were much more interested in the spectacular view we had over the Atlantic Ocean and Mount Esja. We stopped for what seemed like hours taking photographs on all our different cameras, trying to capture what we could see but no photograph would do it justice. What a view!

pANORAMIC VIEW

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The next day we set off on the only tour we had pre booked through Reykjavik Excursions (www.re.is), the Golden Circle tour. As the hotel manager told us, no one comes to Iceland and DOESN’T do this tour! We also added on an hour’s worth of snowmobiling on the Langjökull glacier. We jumped on the bus and were given a brief bit of history on Iceland and before we knew it we had arrived at our first stop of the day, Þingvellir National Park. This is an UNESCO world heritage site and it’s not hard to imagine why. It was beautiful and we were encouraged to climb to a high point in the park to take photos. We used our GoPro Hero 3+ (a device I couldn’t possibly live without while travelling now!) to take some great selfies but couldn’t spend too long up there as we had both got brain freeze from the barmy -10c weather!

We were then invited to take a stroll down a gorgeous valley from which you could see a great deal of the National park spreading out in front of you.

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Next we were separated into 2 groups, snowmobilers and non-snowmobilers and we got back on a different coach to take us to the Langjökull glacier. On the way we stopped off at a cafe to refuel and wait for our snowmobile instructors to meet us. However this cafe also sat just yards from the mega Gulfoss waterfall, one of the most famous sites in Iceland. So in the hale and wind that was so cold it felt as if it was cutting your skin, we trudged through the ice to see it. We were not disappointed! It was huge and it was one of those moments that made you feel so tiny and insignificant in the big wide world!

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After a few selfies (trying my best to smile but our faces were frozen stiff!) we headed back to the cafe, suited up in snowsuits and boarded a monster truck to take us to the snowmobiles. The monster truck wheels were almost taller than me but I suppose that’s not a hard feat!

monster truck - use this one

Snowmobiling was so fun and I’m so pleased we did it. We attached the GoPro to the back and so got quite a bit of footage. Alex did most of the driving and that was fine by me. I drove the last leg and can’t tell you how many times I almost flipped it at high speed!

Snowmobile

After an hour’s fun we jumped back on the coach for our last stop of the day, the almighty Geysir, Strokkur. When it erupts every 10 mins or so, it shoots boiling hot water up to 70 metres in the air! As we were running slightly behind schedule we weren’t given a lot of time here and were instructed to get back on the bus as soon as we’d seen it. Alex and I were last off the bus as we were sorting out the various cameras we had and so were seperated from the group. Little did we know that it was a good 10 minute walk from the coach and so we positioned ourselves in the wrong place entirely! We set up our cameras to focus on a hole in the ground that seemed to be steaming  but actually turned out not to be a Geysir of any sort, something we found out after seeing the real Geysir erupt a few hundred yards from where we were standing! We wouldn’t have minded if it had not been pouring with rain and several degrees colder than I care to ever experience again!

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The tour was a whole day but totally worth it if you want to see the most famous sights of Iceland.

When we got back to the hotel we were warned of a huge storm that was set to batter Iceland the next day, not great as we had planned to set off in the car to see Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, some beautiful waterfalls we had found in the guide book. They were not wrong about the storm. In our hotel room we had a glass balcony which the storm completely detached from the hotel building and to our complete horror, we watched as it smashed on the ground below our window! However, just as quickly as the storm came in it passed and the sun came out at around 11am. After speaking with hotel staff and checking the Met Office we were told it was safe to set off. It was a very long drive but as usual, Alex handled it brilliantly, even navigating icy roads and snow storms throughout the day as we drove further into the mountains. This was my favourite day of the trip and seeing the waterfalls is without a doubt still one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced.

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The moment we arrived we were in absolute awe of Mother Nature! We exited the car and for quite a while were the only people there. It was beautiful (even if we did get attacked by hail that was so painful I thought it had cut my face)! You had the opportunity to walk behind this waterfall, something I’m so pleased we did as you had a completely different view of it. We took a few selfies from behind the waterfall and got absolutely soaked as the wind got up. The sound of the water was thunderous and being positioned in a cave behind the waterfall was one of the best experiences so would definitely recommend to  anyone to give it a go. Be warned there is no marked footpath and it was extremely icy so I wouldn’t recommend doing it on your own as it would be very easy to fall right into the waterfall itself (something that very nearly happened to us on a few occasions!)

Skogafoss

We then drove on to Skogafoss which wasn’t too far at all and as we got there the sun appeared, creating a breathtaking view of a rainbow hovering over the waterfall. It was a fantastic sight and even now when I show people pictures they ask me why I’ve photoshopped a rainbow into the photo! It’s completely real and I haven’t even used a filter on it. I can now say I’ve seen the end of a rainbow – sadly no pot of gold was found (even though I promise, we searched that waterfall pretty extensively)!

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On the way back from our waterfall adventure we stopped off at Vik Beach. Vik Beach is one of the most serene places I’ve ever visited. We had the beach to ourselves for a good hour while we took photos and took in some fresh sea air. Vik Beach has black sand and so that was strange to see but somehow made the beach even more beautiful as it contrasted against the blue waves that rolled in and out. The gorgeous photos below were taken using Alex’s DSLR camera – a Nikon D3200.

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One of the last things we did in Iceland was visit the Blue Lagoon. After three days in the Icelandic winter, I was yearning for some warmth and relaxation. We pre-booked a package which included entrance to the lagoon, robe, slippers and dinner at the Lava Restaurant. The restaurant overlooks the Lagoon itself and boasts a menu of fresh fish and ingredients sourced locally from all over Iceland. We enjoyed a lovely meal of Cod and fresh veg as well as a glass of wine each. Leaving the warmth of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon in just a bikini and a robe was, as you can imagine, horrifyingly cold but after taking a few breaths I threw it off and practically jumped into the 38’c geothermal waters where Alex was already swimming around. It was HEAVEN. Along with a plastic cup of wine for me and a beer for Alex, we were also given a mud face mask each which we lathered onto each other’s faces, keen to benefit from the natural healing qualities we had been told about. After I washed it off ,my face felt rejuvenated and healthy, just what I needed after having the cold elements batter it for a few days! After an hour of relaxation we drove  back to Reykjavik feeling very tranquil.

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The only thing we were very unlucky with on our trip was the northern lights. We booked a trip as soon as we arrived that was postponed every night due to heavy cloud cover and eventually we got a refund as it was time to leave. The night after we left, people in Iceland and the surrounding countries were treated to the best and longest display of the lights in over 20 years! We were absolutely gutted but it makes me even more determined to visit Iceland again one day, as if I needed another excuse anyway!!

Take a look at the short video we’ve put together over on our YouTube channel – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvtFC3ffc48

M x