Friday, 16 November 2018

Planning Your Trip to Dubai

It's coming up to two years since I moved to Dubai so I'm finally putting together a little guide for planning your own trip to the desert. I first visited Dubai in 2007, returning every other year or so until moving here permanently in February 2017.

Dubai Miracle Gardens 

It's taken me a while to settle here as a "home", and living here is not the same as being here as a holiday-maker but I've now got my own edit of breakfast spots, cute shops and splash-out locations that I always take visitors to. Whether you want to flop on a sunlounger, shop shop shop or do something a little more adventurous, Dubai definitely has something to keep you entertained.

Horse riding in the desert 
Where to Stay

For travelling on a budget, I always recommend the Rove Downtown. The location is great, rooms are clean and the hotel is basic but stylish. Airbnb is legal in Dubai and is another option if you don't want the expense and fuss of a five star hotel.

Dubai Creek 

Dubai isn't a cheap place to holiday (check out my Money Diary for a typical week's spending). I'd recommend making restaurant reservations and booking activities in advance so that you know how much money you have left to play with.

TimeOut has a list of free activities which will help keep costs down.

Dubai from the Burj Al Arab 

Breakfast is my favourite meal and my top picks are;
  • The Sum of Us, Trade Centre Area - I am here almost every weekend for the great coffee, veggie and vegan options and all-round good vibes.
  • Tom and Serg, Al Quoz - with the same owners as The Sum of Us, this is the original Aussie-style cafe in Dubai 
  • Baker and Spice, Souk Al Bahar - great views of the Dubai Fountain from the outside terrace and the best freshly baked bread in Dubai 
  • Comptoir 102, Beach Road - super healthy food and the concept store is gorgeous
Baker and Spice 

Brunching is a Dubai institution - I don't mean the avocado on toast type, it's a full-day extravaganza of food and booze. Dubai brunch isn't *really* my thing but if its your first visit it's definitely worth checking one out. Most brunches take place on a Friday (the first day of our weekend) but more and more places are offering Saturday brunches, and some venues have "night brunches" (so, er, dinner?).
Given how expensive food and drinks usually are, it can work out pretty good value and you definitely won't want to eat anything else for the rest of the day...

  • Bubbalicious, The Westin - one of the most popular, a big, noisy, all-out brunch which has to be done once.
  • Al Qasr, Jumeirah Al Qasr - pricier but a little classier!
  • Muchachas - Mexican food and frozen margaritas in a smaller setting - it's all table service which makes for better conversation, my review here.
  • Vida Saturdaze, Vida Downtown - serving more traditional "brunch" foods, with a mix of table service for mains and a buffet too.
The Sum of Us

My favourite bars / drinking spots are:
  • Weslodge - a Canadian-themed bar on the 68th floor of the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel. Great cocktails and music. Ladies night is on a Wednesday.
  • La Serre - a French restaurant at the Vida Downtown hotel, grab a seat at the bar for the best people-watching, friendly bar staff and their amazing home-made crisps.
  • Ninive - a Bedouin-themed venue at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, the cosy seating is perfect for a relaxed evening of drinks and shisha and the food is amazing, too.
  • Fai - a small bar at The Palace Downtown, Fai has great views of the Dubai Fountain from the terrace.
Jumeirah Beach 
  • Kite Beach is one of the best public beaches in Dubai - you can hire a sunlounger, towel and umbrella for AED110 (~£25) and spend a day relaxing and watching the kite surfers, or bring your own beach bag and spend nothing. Nikki Beach and Cove Beach are good options if you're after something a little more luxurious.   
  • Take a trip to the desert with a tour company - there are a few different packages and, while touristy, it is a fun way to get out of the city. 
  • Go up the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, I'd recommend booking at table at Atmosphere for afternoon tea or sunset cocktails rather than visiting the observation deck.
  • Take a trip to Old Dubai, visit the Gold Souk, take an Abra across the Creek to the Textile Souk and visit the Dubai museum - minus any Gold Souk purchases this is a very cheap day out. 
  • Alsekeral Avenue in Al Quoz is Dubai's "gallery district" - while there's never going to be the calibre of exhibitions you get in London, it's a fun place to mooch around the independent (and free) galleries and coffee shops (Wild and The Moon is my favourite). 
  • Take a trip to another Emirate if you have time - read my post here.
  • A desert sunset horse-ride has been one of my favourite activities here, no riding experience necessary.
  • The Burj Al Arab is an iconic venue, but one for those with deep pockets who book in advance.
  • Dubai Miracle Gardens is a little out the way but will provide you with #newprofilepics for days.
Nikki Beach
Top Tips:
  • Visit between October and April for the best (coolest!) weather. Summer gets very hot and will mean that certain venues close their doors and even walking down the street is near-impossible.
  • I wouldn't recommend visiting during Ramadan, many restaurants close during the day and there are strict regulations around eating or drinking in public. 
  • Dubai taxis are very reasonably priced for nipping around town although Ubers have GPS if you're heading somewhere less well-known.
  • Dubai is a Muslim country so be respectful in how you dress in public places - hotels and beaches, anything goes but use common sense and always have a pashmina / cardigan to pop on if in doubt. Religious sites will provide you with a headscarf / abaya.
  • Sun protection is a must - even in winter it's hotter than a UK summer's day. 
  • Check out Groupon and TimeOut for 2 for 1 deals and special offers to help you stay on budget.
  • Pick up a bottle of gin (or your booze of choice) at the Duty Free at Dubai Airport as you leave - you can only buy alcohol in specialist shops with a licence and bar bills add up quickly. The drinking age in bars / restaurants is 21 and its strictly adhered to (I'm 31 and still get ID-ed).
  • "Ladies nights" offer free or discounted drinks / food for women - most are on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. 
  • For souvenirs, try the Textile Souk or Spice Souk for budget buys and Bateel (shops everywhere) for the juiciest dates.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Book Report: Autumn 2018

Cooler weather and remembering that practically every apartment in Dubai comes with a pool has made for a lot of reading since the mercury dropped. Since my last round-up I've ticked off a few bookclub reads, as well as downloading those books that just keep on popping up on my Instagram feed...

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma was a bookclub read. Aside from Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche, I hadn't read another Nigerian novelist before. Obioma writes like a natural story-teller, setting out a modern day fable with heaps of imagery, folklore and modern Nigerian history thrown in, centring around four brothers growing up in mid-90s Nigeria. The story is dark but it's not a grim book to read in any way.

I'm not much of a non-fiction reader (doing a law degree will do that) but The Culture Map by Erin Meyer is one that I would really recommend if you live or work in a country other than the one you grew up in (so...most of us in Dubai). It's well written, the chapters feeling more like in-depth articles that you can dip in and out of and return to if you're facing a specific roadblock. While it's written as a "work" manual, everything in this book applies equally to personal interactions - doubly useful if, like me, you're from a mixed cultural background.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is quite possibly my favourite read of the year. It feels like a brave book to have written, it's not always an easy one to read and being a modern re-telling of Antigone you know from the start that the ending isn't going to be a happy one... The viewpoint shifts between members of two very different British-Pakistani families, as love, politics and power clash and bring about an ending I had to read twice through. This is a quick, intense and very "current"read. 

The Red Sparrow Trilogy by Jason Matthews. Sometimes you just want to read something that entertains, draws you in and has you picking it up in every spare moment. I've not been as addicted to a trilogy since reading Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo etc) and, as with those, the books are far superior to the films. The books centre around a love affair between an American CIA Agent and a Russian former ballerina turned agent set against a backdrop of modern day Russia. There's also, oddly but it works, a short recipe at the end of each chapter for one of the dishes eaten by a character.

Instagram made me do it. But...I actually loved Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor starts of the book leading what appears to be a quiet and simple life, which is gradually stripped away by glimpses of her backstory and her gradual (and sometimes quite hilarious) journey out of her comfort zone. This book covers some heavy themes but never feels like a sad or wallowing read. The passages on loneliness were particularly hard-hitting.

Instagram made me do it again... Crazy Rich Asians is a definite "beach read", it's silly and brash and dramatic but...actually really quite entertaining. I'm sure you know the story - girl gets invited to spend the summer in Singapore to meet her boyfriends's family without realising that said boyfriend's family is, well, crazy rich. It reminded me a lot of the Gossip Girl novels, only swapping out the Upper East Side for Singapore. I've still not got around to seeing the film (which is why I picked this up in the first place!) or to reading the two sequels.

What have you been reading recently?


Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Exploring The UAE - Beyond Dubai

Starting this post with a quick geography lesson: Dubai is one of seven Emirates which make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although you would be forgiven for thinking that Dubai is the UAE / the UAE is Dubai there are actually six other Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain) which have their own laws, ruling families and history.

One of my goals for this year was to explore my new home country and venture beyond Downtown Dubai at the weekends. The UAE is really easy to explore by car, with the other Emirates being a 1-2 hour drive away and each of the offering something different. I haven't ticked them all off of my list yet but if you're in Dubai and want to get a feel for the rest of the UAE then these are my top picks (so far):

Abu Dhabi - For Culture 

As the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi city still has its share of high-rise buildings and five-star hotels along the glitzy Corniche. The city is a network of interconnected islands with strips of sandy beaches, mangroves and clear blue water between them.

Abu Dhabi has become a cultural centre in recent years and your first stop is the Lourve Abu Dhabi, a beautiful gallery which tells the story of human history through comparative art. Next on your list is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque - the largest in the world and one which welcomes all with daily tours.

Abu Dhabi's dining options are just as good as Dubai's - start your day with breakfast at No. 57 Boutique Cafe at Al Bateen Harbour and end it with dinner on Al Maryah Island - the business district is home to Abu Dhabi's Zuma and upscale Italian, Cafe Milano.

A Weekend In Abu Dhabi at The Hyatt Capital Gate
Two Contrasting Cafes to Visit in Abu Dhabi 

Fujairah - For Diving 

Located on the Gulf of Oman coast, Fujairah is the place to go for scuba diving and snorkling boasting clearer waters than the Persian Gulf which Dubai is situated on. I did my first ever scuba lesson at the Le Meridian resort, spending an hour in the pool getting to grips with the equipment before hopping on a boat for my first open water dive, where we were treated to the site of a giant sea turtle.

Fujairah has a few beach resorts to stay at which are nestle between a white sandy beach and the Hajjar Mountains and with no high-rise buildings it feels like an entire world away from Dubai (it's really only a 90-minute drive).

RAK - For...Zip-Lining

Ras Al Khamiah (RAK) in Arabic means "top of the tent" - fitting as RAK is the northernmost Emirate. The beach resorts in Al Hamra are the perfect weekend getaway from Dubai, we stayed at the Al Hamra Hilton which had huge bedrooms, beach access and a Trader Vic's Tiki Bar...

The main attraction in RAK is the Jebel Jais zipline - the world's longest (you might have noticed this is somewhat of a theme in the UAE). The zipline is a further 90-minute drive from the resorts in RAK but the drive itself is an experience, the road cutting zig-zagging up the side of a rocky mountain with the satnav route looking like an F1 circuit.

The entire zipline experience takes around two hours - there's quite a bit of safety briefing, getting kitted up, being transferred from car park to the equipment centre and to the actual zip line itself. The world's longest zipline is so fast that it only takes 2-3 minutes to complete, before a shorter zipline takes you back to the mini bus to return all the kit. Ziplining isn't something I ever saw myself being a fan of but it's super fun (far less scary than scuba diving), and means you can definitely justify an afternoon drinking Tiki cocktails on the beach...

Al Ain - For History 

Al Ain city is part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi but is a separate city, located inland next to the Oman boarder. Not being on the coast gives Al Ain a very different feel - the city is much older, more traditional and a definite insight into life in the UAE before Dubai became "Dubai".

Al Ain is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed so you can pay a visit to his former residence as well as take advantage of the greenery that we...don't really have so much of in Dubai by visiting the date palm oasis and hot springs.

We also found a little piece of British culture in Al Ain - the M&S in Bawadi Mall has a food court which provided us with plenty of car snacks for the drive back to Dubai...

Have you visited the UAE?

Thursday, 1 November 2018

October Round Up

October has been a good month. I spent nearly two weeks back in London, a mix of showing my boyfriend around the small town I grew up in, catching up with friends in bars where you wait in line and carry your own drink to the table, walking several miles each day just because it feels good to and lots of long-awaited reunions.

In Dubai, the lowering temperatures have been accompanied by simple joys - the first dinner on the balcony, being able to hold a conversation while changing lanes on a seven-lane motorway, spending a Friday afternoon hunting down a carving pumpkin and venturing in to the weights room at the gym for the first time. Life feels slow and simple in the best way possible.

October looked like this:

1. Walking through our very own One Hundred Acre Wood - greenery! Fresh air! Being outside! (It's been a lonnnng summer in Dubai).

2. Breakfast at Shoreditch Grind when it wasn't quite warm enough for an acai bowl but I wanted one anyway.

3. Exploring the Barbican Conservatory on a Sunday. 

4. A slightly changed view from my Barbican flat (my tenant moved out the weekend we flew back to London - I think I am now cashing in on some well-earned good karma).

5. After a year of growing my hair I got five inches lopped off (at Pimps and Pinups in Spitalfields) in an effort to make it feel thicker and healthier. No regrets. 

6. The Welwyn Garden City fountain turned pink for October, for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

7. Back in Dubai and revisiting an old favourite, Comptoir 102, for breakfast. The chilled cafe and accompanying shop are a must-visit if you're looking for a healthy but tasty alternative to this city's obsession with buffets and chocolate fountains... 

8. An evening at Ninive, a really beautiful and unique venue in DIFC which has re-opened for the cooler months. 

9. A matcha latte at Menagerie in Mirdif. I stopped drinking coffee a few months back, helping my anxiety and bank balance in the process, but because obsessed with matcha lattes when back in London.

How was your October?

© Lillian Zahra | All rights reserved.
Blog Design Handcrafted by pipdig