Staycation at Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi

This weekend, I got to spend a weekend relaxing, for once, at the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island. The decision was very last minute, but we felt like getting out of Dubai and seeing one of the other Emirates.

I have never been to the Park Hyatt in Abu Dhabi, but have been several times to the Dubai branch to use their dining and spa facilities (and also to attend a wedding there). The Park Hyatt Dubai is beautiful from the moment you get to the entrance and valet. I expected the same when we got to the Abu Dhabi Park Hyatt, but unfortunately it doesn’t have the same authentic arabic charm as its Dubai counterpart.

When checking in, we encountered the strange demand of giving AED300 as a “deposit”. We are used to being asked to give our credit card details, so they can use it to deduct all expenses when we check out, but this was something new and slightly annoying. We gave a credit card to pay the deposit and to also settle the room bill and went on our merry way to the room. The room was lovely. Everything I have expected from Hyatt properties on my travels. We took a ground room floor which had a balcony overlooking the garden and pool.

Dinner choices are limited at the hotel so we choose the Park Bar and Grill. Fortunately I had an Entertainer Voucher to buy 1 get 1 free main course so we could splurge a bit on the meal :). The food was delicious and the service fantastic; one waitress from South Africa was especially kind and helpful.

The night should have been joyous in the comfortable bed, but there was this bizarre dripping noise above us for the whole night. It was intermittent so couldn’t tell if it was due to pipes, a leaky bath in the room above or if it was between the ceiling and floor of the two rooms. It was truly irritating.

The next morning we spent chilling out at the beach and in the room. It would have been better if we had not received text messages from the bank at stupid o’clock (more of that soon).

Also we didn’t receive our complimentary newspaper. We couldn’t understand how they could forget a simple thing that they offer as a service!

At midday exactly, we started getting calls and knocks on the door that we had to check out..NOW! The hotel had obviously ignored the requests we had made in the booking which included “Late Check Out”. The hotel was not busy at all so they could have let us stay an hour or two, but nooppppe we had to leave pronto.

Now back to the text message we got. Remember we gave the AED300 at the start? Well after that we had a meal and a few drinks as obviously we were staying at the hotel. Well that deposit was used up so the hotel decided that rather than waiting for us to check out and check the total bill, that they would charge us immediately for any expenses we made during the stay. Plus they were deducting at silly o’clock so we were being awoken by the phone beeping. We were so angry.  At the hotel desk, we complained about the method of taking money off us without us check the final bill.

The reasoning by Park Hyatt (the Manager decided to join in to defend their position – quite condescendingly if I say so myself), was that they had a new policy that they would block the amount on our credit card as and when we used their facilities. The actual amount would not be deducted until we had checked out they assured us. The reality was that they weren’t blocking the amount, they were automatically deducting from our card as and when they felt like it. I have been to Hyatt hotels globally and other hotel chains, but never heard of this nonsense.

They were treating us like potential thieves who were planning to do a runner out of the hotel without clearing the bill and also they were deducting us for amounts we were unable to verify first. They may have deducted amounts which were not related to our room. If you have dealt with banks in the UAE, you know how much of an ordeal it is to get refunds for amounts that are falsely taken from your account or credit card.

The attitude and behaviour left a very bad taste in our mouth. The apologies were insincere. In the end, we viewed the bill, signed and left very angry. Because of the behaviour at this Hyatt, I have no desire to go to another one unless there are assurances that we will not be be treated like this and will receive better service from a 5* hotel.

What has been your experience with the Park Hyatt’s you have visited? Would love to hear your good or bad stories.

Update 12 October 2015 – I have received an apology from the hotel with regards to the complaints above. The policy on getting a deposit and then deducting as and when is supposedly an citywide policy in Abu Dhabi. I find it hard to believe this can only happen in one city in the country. It was good of the hotel to acknowledge my blog post and feedback from their survey.  

Would be interested to know if others have had to deal with the same payment/deposit policy in Abu Dhabi. 

Shelina

© 2015 Shelina Jokhiya | All rights reserved – This post is provided for the convenience of Shelo’s Cheeky Rantings readers. Any reproduction of the content within this feed is strictly prohibited.

Weekend Break to Kish Island in Iran (Vlog #3)

150403 Lamb chops at best restaurant on island

The best lambchops on the Island

Last month my good mate G and I went to Kish Island, Iran for the weekend (she wanted a cool new stamp in her new passport!).

We have visited most of the Middle East at some point over the years, so our choice was limited. However, we found that we could see Iran without a visa, as Kish Island is a freezone, and the flight is only 1 hour from Dubai.  We flew on Kish Air which is scary! The plane is old and seems like it should be in the scrapyard but it got us to and from Iran in one piece!

We had seen that you had to cover up as a woman to go to Iran, so we decided to buy new abayas. Wearing our abayas (with simple leggings or jeans and a top on underneath) all weekend was the best thing ever. Our suitcase has never been so light and it was so easy to get dressed every day! However, we were more covered up than most of the women on the island! As you can see from the vlog i finally mastered how to wear the shayla on my head as well without it falling off too often!

The first day we saw the area around our hotel and also went on a free tour (provided by our hotel) around the island. The tour included a trip to see a Greek ship that went aground by the island (it’s a windy tourist destination!) and an underground cave which was supposed to be a new town!

A part of the underground cave

A part of the underground cave

We ate well on day 1 going to two good restaurants and eating lots of kebabs and rice (with butter on it). The lamb chops in the picture above are the best on the island…supposedly and we can confirm they were amazing plus the singing men were not bad either.

As we had seen the island on day 1, we decided to go to the ladies beach. On this beach we saw more nakedness than you would see in a nudist beach in France but without comfortable sunloungers! Also there were several security women happy to touch us up to make sure we werent smuggling our cameras or phones onto the beach. As my life is on my phone it was a pretty boring 3 hours on the beach. G was happy reading her paperback book!

Talking of life on the phone, nearly everyone had a Samsung or Iphone in their hands (embargo pfft) but unless you have vpn on your phone there was no way to access Facebook or Twitter (however you would get Facebook notifications – so annoying). Whatsapp worked fine which was good and they had wifi in certain areas of the hotel and in cafes.

Anyway here is Kish Island with a bit of commentary by me!

Enjoy!

Shelina

© 2015 Shelina Jokhiya | All rights reserved – This post is provided for the convenience of Shelo’s Cheeky Rantings readers. Any reproduction of the content within this feed is strictly prohibited.

VAT it back!

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People don’t believe me when I say I take an empty suitcase with me when I go to the UK.  UAE is not cheap or good for shopping. Back home there are constant sales and we also get our VAT back as non-residents #win.

Admittedly it took me a few years to realise that as a resident of the UAE, I could claim my VAT back in the UK and Europe. After several years of claiming back, I am now an expert at it and highly recommend doing it.

So if you live outside Europe this is what you do to claim your VAT back.

1. Go to the store. Buy loads.

2. At the till say “I want to claim my VAT back”.

Do it before they start scanning the items and most probably again 3 more times if you are in a high street store.  Don’t both in Selfridges, and Marks and Spencer’s. See below.

3a. Classy Designer store – they will ask you to complete yours details on a form. They will take those details and print a VAT receipt for you with all your details completed on it, so all you need to do is sign the VAT receipt.

3b. Selfridges – you collect all the receipts you get around the store and then go to the VAT department (basement near kitchen department in Oxford Street). When your number is called, go to a desk, complete a form with your details and the lovely Selfridges people will print a VAT receipt for you with your details completed. You just need to sign the receipt. Selfridges keep your details, so you just need to show your passport when shopping there again.

3c. Normal high street store – most probably the sales person will be unhelpful and say either they don’t do it or you haven’t spent enough. Both reasons are normally rubbish and they just can’t be bothered to get the VAT receipt or don’t know how to do it. Ask them to check with their manager. Most tills now ask automatically if the sales person wants to print the VAT receipt (hence why you have to tell them several times before the end of the transaction).  If not, they have to manually completed a long form with the details and will ask you to complete details as well. (Hence why they try to get out of giving you the receipt).

3d. Primark – You need to go to customer service or if in Marble Arch the specific VAT department to get the receipt. Just show them your receipts and they will print or manually complete the VAT receipt. It will be a manual receipt if you are in a small town Primarni.

3e. Marks and Spencer is the same as Selfridges – collect the receipts from all the stores (except food) and then go to one to get the receipt from the customer service department. Go to a big store like Marble Arch to get your VAT receipt as they have the automatic receipt printing machine. In some other stores they complete the form manually (so behind).

Note: In some stores such as House of Fraser, they will ask if you want your VAT back immediately in cash. If you say yes, you have to pay additional admin fees so the amount given back to you is far less. I would recommend saying no and filling in the forms to get the refund on your credit card.

4. Make sure that the sales person signs the VAT receipt and stamps it. You cannot get your money back if they don’t sign it.

5. Make sure you take your passport or ID showing you live outside UK/EU with you. A lot of shops ask for it as proof that you are not a resident in the UK and EU,  and show them your current visa page (the sales people can get very confused and argumentative if they see you with an EU passport). Passport is therefore the best bet.

Apple will not give you a VAT receipt at all without the passport being shown. They are beyond difficult.  And they forget to sign the form so be careful with them.

6. If it’s not a classy store, you need to complete the VAT receipts before you leave for the airport. Put in name, address in country of residence, date of birth, arrival and departure date, etc.

Make a note of the tax receipt number and tax company (Premier, Global Blue, etc).

7. Put in your credit card number, so you get the VAT refund straight to your card. It means your VAT return helps to part-pay the bills and also reduces the amount of admin fees you pay.

If you ask for cash you have to a) pay extra admin fees (you have to pay one set of admin fees) and b) claim cash at airport where there will most probably be a long queue.

8. To be organised, put all VAT receipts for Premier tax in one envelope, Global Blue in another, etc. There are about four tax companies.

9. Take your VAT receipts in their specific envelopes and your actual sales receipts (hold them separately) to the airport.

10. Before you check in, find the VAT office/counter. There will be signs for it.  I repeat do it before you check in.

11. Give the the customs people your VAT receipts and passport. They will also ask where the goods are so have your luggage near you. They may ask for the sales receipts if they are on a jobs-worth mission.

The customs people will stamp the VAT receipts and then return them to you. You need to put the VAT receipts only in their specific envelope and then mail the envelopes (it’s free to mail). There are normally letterboxes in the departure area or give them to the family/friends to post them immediately for you.

12. You need to get to the airport earlier than you would normally, to do the VAT stamping.

It can take a while if it’s a busy time of the day and if you are flying from Heathrow.

If its Gatwick North Terminal (for Emirates) it takes 5 minutes.

Other airports maybe quick, but Heathrow is never quick (except during the Olympics when they just took the receipts without asking any questions at all!!).

13. Check in, do the duty free (might as well continue with your tax saving shopping).

14. Fly home (unfortunately not in Concorde) :(.

 

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15. Check credit card bills after about a week and you will see the refunds. If you don’t get the refunds within 3 weeks contact the tax company to check the status of your refund. Global Blue are on twitter so you can tweet them.

16. If you go to different EU countries, make sure you go to the VAT counter at the airport/train station from the country you are leaving to get the stamp. You can mail the envelope from your final destination with the other receipts.

So for example, the other year I went to London, Copenhagen (for 4 amazing days), back to London and then to Dubai. I obtained VAT receipts in Copenhagen (they are very organised and helpful there) and had the receipts stamped at Copenhagen airport before I flew back to the UK. I stated my date of departure on the receipts as the date of when I would be leaving Europe (not Copenhagen).  The receipt was included in the envelope with the other Global Blue ones from the UK and mailed.

Of course the procedures can change, stores might be become more tech savvy, etc. If there are changes, please let me know so I can update the above advice.

If you have had any experiences with claiming your VAT back let us know.

Hope this was helpful.

🙂

Update: You can also claim your VAT back when in Lebanon. Information on how to claim back can be found here. Remember to take a copy of your passport with you to include with your receipts sent to the tax refund company.

 

Totally Fabulous Fujairah Food Tour

As a few of us were missing the food delights of Fujairah we organised a tweetup to join our good friends @daddybird and @kangayayaroo to eat ourselves full yesterday.

Our first pit stop was at Nepal Kitchen House where we had Peanut sandeko, chicken momos, mutton momos, thukpa (noodle soup), chicken chili, chicken tass (chicken and puffed rice), and aloo jeera fry (potato, cumin seeds, corriander). I loved the mutton tass last time and had been dreaming about it for this trip. Unfortunately the chicken tass whilst tasty, the rice was not as puffily nice as last time. :(. The chilli chicken and momos were delish though.

Mutton momos Chicken Tass 2

To give our tummies a rest we ventured up to Al Hayl Castle. The road was slightly bumpy but it was nice going through an old skool village (with beautiful doors for each residence).  The castle is the very old home of the Fujairah Royal Family (saw 100 odd years old).

View from top of fort Daddy, Kanga and Mita Al Hayl Castle 2

We then took our first tea break on one of the main streets, with the men coming to the car to give us our 1dhs karak chai.

Next stop was Salu Salo which is a Filipino restaurant in an alleyway. I couldn’t tell you which alley, but you can find it on Foursquare. Here we had: Bicol express, Bopis, Lumpia, Pinakbet, and Kare Kare were our choices. Bicol express is a stew in a coconut milk sauce. Bopis is heart and lung sauteed in tomato, chili, and onion. Lumpia is meat filled fried rolls, Pinakbet is a shrimp and vegetable dish, and Kare Kare is an oxtail stew in peanut sauce. I loved Kare Kare and Lumpia, but my mate G was a big fan of Bopis.

Filipino

After that lovely meal we had one of the best karak chai’s i have ever had at Finjan Cafe on the Corniche which was served in a clay pot! It was 4dhs but worth it.

Karak Chai

Our final meal for the day was at the very long titled Zamarod Al Afghani Rice Bukhari Restaurant. There we had mixed grill, mutton curry, lamb kofta, “special” flat bread and hummous. The hummous was freshley made and divine. Reminded me a lot of the lovely hummous we ate in Beirut. After a final cup of tea we left our lovely guests and headed back home. Full but happy.

Afghani

(Thanks to Kangayayaroo for the list of food we ate from her blog post (with the same title)  as I couldn’t recall them off the top of my head :)).

Long weekend in Jordan

8 years of living in Dubai and the only place in the Middle East I had visited before was Damascus. Since January I have made up for this complete faux pas by travelling to Lebanon (great), Kuwait (awesome hotel shame about the boring city), Oman (lovely) and now to add to the list, Jordan.

My friend G and I decided to do the normal trail of Amman, Petra and 2 nights in the Dead Sea Resort driving around in a pathetic Citroen C4 (it really struggled to get up the big hills – and there were loads of them).

Here is our travel diary for the four days in Jordan

Amman

We hired our car from Thrifty/Dollar. They tried to screw us around with a car with no boot shelf to hide our suitcase. After several minutes of being difficult we were giving a suitable (bruised) car.

We stayed in the Four Seasons Amman. Yes it’s bling but we wanted to spoil ourselves for a night. The sheets, as G will tell anyone who will listen, were amazing. Must have been a few 100 on the cotton count J.

Due to Emirates and their impeccable service of departing and arriving late to all destinations we had less time to explore Amman. We went to Rainbow Street in Circle 1 and saw a continuous stream of cute men. Whatever anyone says about Amman can be discounted by just staring at the hawt men. We went to Reem Shawarma which is supposedly the best shawarma place in the world. I can confirm that it was one of the best I had ever had and really helpful guys working there. Sitting on Circle 2 (a massive roundabout) we ate our shawarma and admired the crazy arse driving (they don’t believe in lanes).

The hotel was not seen much but we sat in the bar for a few hours and chatted away as we do whenever we are on holiday together.

Petra

After a lovely breakfast in our hotel we made our way down the main highway to Petra. It takes about 2.5 hours to get to Petra from Amman. There are no speed cameras but police patrols with cameras and ready to stop people for any reason. We were stopped twice but the police apologized for stopping us each time.

At Petra, I had organized to have a private tour guide to take us around Petra for JD50. Turns out that this fee didn’t include the entrance fee. We didn’t know and I had asked him to confirm the costs of going to Petra several times for a few weeks. After the tour had ended and we had given him his tip, he came back to us and accused us of being criminals and purposefully not paying him properly. Long story short, as I am still so angry with him, he spoke to us so disrespectfully that I ended up exploding London stylee in front of loads of tourists at the entrance to Petra to the point that I was shaking with rage. If you ever go to Petra don’t use a young man called Abdullah. Not only was he nasty and abusive he also spoke too fast, got annoyed if we asked questions and took our cameras to take photos and this was before he started his rant about us not paying him properly. We also think he was stroppy with us as we wouldn’t take a donkey/horse/cart to go around Petra or buy the tacky jewellery. He must have been getting commission for it. The animals looked in terrible condition and it was heartbreaking seeing them.

He ruined a moment we had been waiting weeks to see, but we were still glad we saw Petra and sang the Indian Jones theme tune (had to be done!).

To be honest Petra is extortionate (JD 50 entrance fee is GBP50!!) and they have only dug out mainly tombs. It is a big area and we did go at a stupid hot time but I don’t think it was worth that money (plus the guide fee of additional JD50!). However when in Jordan you have to see it, so go and then you can cross it off your list.

Whilst I was exploding, G got directions from a lovely bellboy at the Movenpick Petra on how to get to the Dead Sea. It took 3 hours to get to the Dead Sea resort but we took a windy picturesque route through Jordanian villages, farms, mountains and eventually the Dead Sea. It was amazing and fun and calmed me right down after our time in Petra. You have to drive that road during the day otherwise it would be a nightmare, but it was awesome.

Dead Sea

We stayed at the Kempinski Ishtar Dead Sea. Lovely resort but shame about the hair conditioner being sooo shite and no wifi in the rooms. There was wifi by the 6 pools, restaurants and beach side but in this day and age you need it in the room.

The Dead Sea is the weirdest thing ever. As soon as you get into the sea you float up. You really have to struggle to move your legs downwards. I can also confirm that if you get the salt in your eyes, it will burn you to the point that you might need to ask a kindly couple to help you out of the sea to wash your face (G was busy relaxing with ears covered by water :S).

We slathered on the Dead Sea mud twice during our stay. Loads of people didn’t follow the instructions on the slathering process so here is our guide to do the Dead Sea mud experience:

  1. Sit in the Dead Sea for 15-20 minutes
  2. Slather on the mud everywhere (except your hair – remember the hair conditioner in the hotel was shit; it took half an hour to brush our hair)
  3. Sit semi quietly admiring the muppets in the sea for 20 minutes
  4. Go into the sea and take off the mud making sure you don’t splash the sea water into your eyes and relax for a while in the sea water
  5. Go to the shower and take off the remaining mud and any salt water in your eyes.
  6. Sunbathe.

Our plan was to do very little during our stay at the Dead Sea and we did that successfully. We ate, drank, tanned and swam a bit. After check out on the last day we went to the Baptism Site where John baptized Jesus. Once again we were hot but it was good. You get a free listening device to hear about the various points whilst you walk around. We went to the River Jordan (singing “By the Rivers of Babylon” – it amused us) and saw a massive group of American tourists on the other side (it had the Israel flag there) filling up bottles of the River Jordan (the water looked dirty) and baptizing babies and themselves (wearing special baptism t-shirts). It was rather surreal especially being so close to the other side of the bank. We didn’t expect the Jordanian baptism tour to be that well organized or within such a big area, but it was impressive. Bloody hot though as you are outside most of the time.

After that, we made the relatively short drive up to Queen Alia airport going through the non highway highway and not getting stopped by police once! . The airport is modern and clean and has decent shops so we quickly did our tourist souvenir shopping and ran for the plane. Two thumbs up for the airport. Much better than Kuwait and Muscat (Kuwait was beyond bad).

I’m glad I finally made it to Jordan and got to see a lot of it, which you may not see if you go with a tour group. It’s not somewhere I’d go back to in the near future, unless of course one of my lovely Jordanian friends got married there or something, but it is worth seeing. Just bear in mind that Jordan is relatively expensive so take more dollars than you would normally for your holiday.

The Golden Triangle

Last weekend I went back to India to explore the North and see some of the famous buildings India has built. Once again I went with a group of mostly single people through Escape Travels Dubai. Some of the trippers have become good mates, as we have been on other trips together and bonded, the rest were the normal “socially inept” expats that bring so much joy to the rest of us (sic).

Our journey commenced from Delhi, where at 4am we jumped on a coach and made the long 5 hours journey to Jaipur.

Our hotel – Royal Orchid – was lovely and 5*, so suited me to a tee. I was on my own as I cannot share with some stranger unless it’s a gorgeous man. The bathroom had a lovely clear glass wall which would have been embarrassing for members of our group sharing rooms with others.

After a bit of a rest, we went to Jaipur Old Town and visited the Fort made of beautiful red brick and designed with ornate designs. I couldn’t recall all of what we were told about the place, as I was slightly too tired, hot and busy testing out my new super duper lens (with no training) but lets just say it was lovely. I have pictures to prove it 🙂

There was a chance to do overpriced shopping in the Fort itself. At one point a lovely lady in our group was on the brink of buying a 100% silk sari from a vendor. I had a feel of the sari and it was not silk (more like polyster) and INR3000; it was too much for what it was so I was a bit blunt with my disgust at the sari, which pissed the vendor off, but made me laugh (the lady didn’t buy the sari) 🙂

We were then able to go to Jaipur market and try and get some bargains. The rest of the group went running to get tourist tack whilst I dragged my friend Gillian to go to a sari shop. If you have never been to a proper sari shop in Dubai or India, you must. You get the men to show you loads of different saris (i was looking for a lengha sari) and try them on you to see if they suit you. I feel bad that they have to fold the saris back up later, but hey we had fun and I convinced Gillian to buy a sari and I bought a weird new designer sari for a 16 pounds! Bargain.

In the evening we had the joy of going to a Rajistan dance and dinner thing. The show was not bad but the food sucked massively. I was hoping for rich spicy curries to melt in my mouth but they had made food to accomodate the expats who can’t handle the spice. To say the food was tastelessly shit would be an understatement. Plus on our table we had an old bag sitting with us complaining non stop, but grabbing the food like she had never seen food before. We were glad to leave that place.

The next day we went to the Amber Fort. To get up to the fort you have to ride an elephant which is brilliant. We were in luck that we had a Michael Schumacher wannabe elephant who decided to overtake all the other elephants to get us to the top first. He was 25 whilst the others were older slower creatures. Good fun speeding up a massive hill.

The fort itself is beautiful and worth walking around. The views are spectacular and include a “great wall” of jaipur and lakes. It was tiring but we were lucky the weather was not so hot and humid to walk around easily. Getting down the hill you go by jeep which is as bumpy as getting on the elephant.

After taking some gorgeous photos we then jumped back onto the coach and started the next long 4-5 hours trip to Agra. We arrived in the evening at Jaypee Palace – another 5* star hotel but a bit old and ragged on the edges. We decided to forego the Bollywood dance excursion and instead opted for a relaxing drink in the bar watching people and talking about the trip so far. We then joined the group for another themed dinner. The food was slightly better but still mild flavoured. However, interpid Fajer discovered some chilli chutney which we mixed into all the curries we ate. Some of the group were planning to party in a room later, but quite a few of us were exhausted and wanted to get an early night in preparation for our early start to….

The TAJ Mahal!

If you have never been and had no desire to go there, you will not get the excitement of going to see it. However, when you get there and you see it from afar and then up close it all becomes astonishingly awesome. The Taj Mahal is one of the seven wonders of the world and whatever the naysayers were saying on our trip, I thought it was one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. The majestic beauty of it is indescribable. My pictures won’t help explain how awesome this place is. You have to see it to believe it.

Moving on we went to Agra Fort. Its ok. The rooms where the Shah who built the Taj Mahal for his wife was imprisoned (by his son!) were opulently fabulous. However, its not the end of the world if you don’t go see the Agra Fort.

Next we jumped on our coach and guess what, we had another 5 hours drive to Delhi.

Delhi – what can i say about Delhi. I didn’t want to go on this trip because of the rape stories coming out of Delhi. Even up to the day of leaving i was freaking out about Delhi. Delhi is noisy, messy, smelly (people pee and shit in public everywhere (same in Agra and Jaipur and most probably most places in India)) and every other subjective you can use but its something to see. We stayed at the Crown Plaza Okhala which was the blingest of our hotels and a good end to our hotel stays but we were warned by the hotel staff to not walk around the area as it’s not safe.

I obviously wanted to go shopping for more saris so asked the concierge to assist finding an area for us to go to which was open for shopping on a Sunday (Easter Sunday as well!). Between a few of the staff, they found Lagar Najpath would be open and organised taxis for the 7 of us going. Four of us were lucky that we got a taxi driver driving an ambassador which was awesome. The two drivers agreed to stay at the shopping area waiting for us to shop and return to take us back to the hotel. To wait they would be paid 50rupees an hour. – thats 60p. We were so not going to argue with that. Because we felt safe in the knowledge that we had drivers waiting for us we were free to wander around in two groups and do our shopping. Four of us went sari shopping and picked up some gems and then due to us not finding anywhere good to eat, left the rest of the group and returned to the hotel to finally have some hot indian food. The rest, whilst we were slightly worried about them, were fine and returned an hour later after shopping for touristy stuff.

Our little group decided to not going to the bar/club with the others and had a late dinner and then went to sleep again. If you think we were boring, travel by coach across two states in India, walk around loads of old buildings in the heat and then tell me if you don’t become exhausted.

The final day we spent going around Delhi and seeing the beautiful Qatab Minar and the old colonial places. The “Britishas” as our guide kept calling them built a lot of the grand buildings in Old Delhi which seem to not be appreciated by the Delhites. It seemed to be a thorn in their side that the Britishas had built massive roads, well proportioned buildings and a sewage system. There is no pleasing some people.

One of our final stops was to India Gate which was built in memory of all fallen Indian soldiers. There was a parade of army people doing stuff every 10 minutes. It’s ok to watch for 5 minutes, max. The final stop was to a Gurdwara which was nice. As always Sikhs are welcoming to all and it was nice to walk around but the heat and tiredness had got to a lot of us by the end of this visit.

Being in India you see the poverty and the dirt, which was depressing. I saw signs in Agra and Jaipur about “Clean Agra, Green Agra” with rubbish piles under the sign. The irony seems to have gone unnoticed by the locals. I hope that the area could be more like Kerala which was much cleaner and beautiful but I fear the corruption and other factors will hamper the growth there. However, saying all that the trip was amazing and we saw beautiful buildings and people. If you go with a group and are sensible you will have a good safe time in India. Don’t be stupid and don’t go alone especially if you are a woman and enjoy Incredible India.

Proud to be a Brit

I finally watched the Queen’s speech a few hours late. Missed watching the speech on time and eating the Roast with the family. Not being home for Christmas day was horrible as always but that’s the trial of being an expat.

On another note, it is not often that us Brits are nationalistic (unless they are a member of UKIP or whatever that hateful group are called), but 2012 was the year to be proud of being British. I was home for the Olympics and I was in complete shock at the kindness, niceness and all round cool Britishness everywhere. It was an amazing time and my family and I were fortunate to see two events and feel the atmosphere especially when Usain Bolt and Mo Farrah got gold in front of us.

100m_final
Beach_volleyball
Mo_farrah_getting_gold

When you are an expat you are more nationalistic than when you are at home, but I think the events this year brought us together like no other and hopefully it will stay with us for a long time.

For your viewing pleasure, here is the Queen’s Christmas Day speech 2012 and if you didn’t see her jump out of a helicopter, youtube it now! .

Escape to Istanbul

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One of the non awesome things about living in the UAE is the loneliness. You leave your friends and family to start a life of working and occasionally playing. The cities especially Abu Dhabi and Dubai are transition towns. The majority come here to make lots of tax free money, play around, top up their tan and then go back or forward around the world. One minute you have a group of friends and the next poof you are sitting alone in your big apartment writing a blog.

Being solo most of the time results in me either going home to England to see my family and friends (and shopping of course) or holidaying solo as I have done on numerous occasions (Copenhagen, Australia and Japan were a few of the solo trips). It’s not awful and it makes you a stronger person but you sometimes need someone to talk to other than yourself and those voices.

Miraculously, there are other people who are like me and light has come to the tunnel of holidaying by way of a company called Escape Travels. Set up by a dude named Fajer he has organised holidays in the Middle East, Asia and Europe for like minded individuals mostly solo who want to explore places near the UAE and meet cool people. My lovely mate Mr C told me about the group after he had been to Lebanon for skiing, India and very recently Ethiopia so I thought I would give it a try.

 

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Luckily the first trip that came up was to Istanbul, which is somewhere I have always wanted to go. As is normal with me, I went all spontaneous and booked the flights and trip within half an hour of seeing it online and bada bing I was going on a holiday with a bunch of strangers. Mr C introduced me to a few of the peeps who were going on the trip the weekend before which was good so when I saw them at the airport I wasn’t a complete shy loser.

There were 27 in the group including Fajer with people ranging in ages and backgrounds. We did do a count of the nationalities (which I cant remember) but it was a large motely mix. Unbelievably there was only one English dudess and it was me! :). Of course there were a few people you don’t want to see again let alone add on your Facebook, but the majority were lovely down to earth peeps out for exploring the city and enjoying themselves.

We stayed in Sultanahmet which is the old town and supposedly in the European bit of Istanbul (which was weird to acknowledge but ok). You couldn’t swing a cat in the hotel room and it was very basic but supposedly all hotels in the area are like that.

With the help of two lovely guides (ok the man asked if I was pregnant so not that lovely :S) we got to see the Blue Mosque (did u know the Turkish don’t call it the Blue Mosque only tourist do), Topaki Palace (which houses Moses’s cane and Prophets Muhammad’s (pbuh) footmark) and also Hagamet Sofia (formerly a church and mosque and now a museum of sorts).

Tip no 1 – If you go to the Blue Mosque and you want to pray the ablutions/wudu area is on the right hand side down the stairs and underneath them sort of. I asked five people and walked around like a crazy woman till I accidentally found the damn place. Also the area for women to pray was full of twit women lounging about and not moving out of the way so not the best experience when praying but hey at least I  did it.

Afterwards a few of us went to a rug shop to spend copious amounts of money on proper rugs. Tip no 2 – the dodgy b’s at the grand bazaar rug shops and even in Dubai will claim you are buying a silk rug when most probably you are buying cotton on cotton rug. Check the label, the feel and whether it changes colour when looking from one side of the rug to the other. There are other tips but that is all I can give you on this blog. Just be careful and spend a bit more if you can for a proper made rug.

The Grand Bazaar was bazaar. It was full of tourists and lots of Turkish shopkeeper men who could turn from charmers to vicious snakes in one second. I had one shopkeeper start ranting at me and then told me to go “F myself” when I walked away from his skanky looking magnets. It was so strange a response that all I could do was look baffled. Even the blokes neighbor shop keepers were stunned by the reaction. If you shop around the outskirts of the bazaar its quieter and you get a nicer  service.

However, if you can resist going to the Grand Bazaar I would recommend you bypass it and go the spice bazaar which was smaller, quieter and nicer. Also they had lovely spices, organic soaps and bits and pieces. Also if you are at the spice bazaar walk near by and you will get to the pet market and garden market which were totally unusually! I have been to many markets but never seen anything like these markets. (That was tip numero 3)

We also went on a boat and cruised around the Bosphorous checking out the big bridge, seeing Asian Istanbul and European Istanbul and some beautiful houses by the waterfront. The view was spectacular and being UAEians (yes that is a new word) we had a boat all to ourselves. We couldn’t mingle with the public you know.

 

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Another great trip was going to Galatea Tower to see the sunset. The walk was painful especially up the steep hill to the tower but the view was lovely and afterwards we could see in the square drinking and sitting in circles with the other hippy Turkish people singing. It was so refreshing to just chill out in public and not be worried about our silliness resulting in arrest.

Eating and drinking was cheap. On the last night we went to a good restaurant  and spent less than 20 quid on a main meal, dessert and drink. Of course there was also the beautiful bakeries with baklava, Turkish delights and Turkish coffee to taste and savour.

 

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Being with a group I could also go out at night and enjoy the nightlife without worrying about being alone as a woman. We went to the area, which is full of shops (which are open till very late), bars and restaurants. The group had split after eating at the restaurant on the last night but somehow a lot of us ended up back together in this open roof club dancing to euro tunes that I have not heard (I’m a bit behind in my euro pop music right now). The great thing about Turkey like in Dubai is that the music is a mixture of western, Turkish and Arabic music.

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The final trip for me was to a Turkish Hammam. The hotel guy and coffee shop next door guy were trying to get us to go to their respective hammam’s. We eventually went with the hotel guy and his affiliated hammam, just so we could come back and check out later without any hassle. The hammam was old school but not up to sparkling cleanliness standards as you get in Dubai. I got to walk around butt naked (its liberating for a western like me! the other ladies were a bit more prudish!), scrubbed to the inch of my skin and massaged like I was a rag doll. Not the most comfortable experience but an experience nonetheless. If you can, try and go to one in a big hotel. If that’s not possible, just take it onboard as an experience and that it wont be as pristine as the Ladies Club in Dubai or Elizabeth Arden in London.

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Of course 3 days is not enough to see this huge city but it was a good taster to build on.  Being with the cool crew was good as I made new friends to meet up with in the UAE and got to enjoy and share my holiday with other people which was refreshingly nice. I highly recommend you get your arse to Istanbul and if you can go with a group even better.

Going with Escape Travels was awesome and saved the hassle of organizing yourself and if you are a normal person you get to meet other normal people. If you are interested go to:

http://escape-travels.com/home/about

Or the FB page

https://www.facebook.com/EscapeDubai

 

Tag Copenhagen!

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If you follow me on twitter you may be aware of my love for Scandinavia and anything to do with the area. Despite never being there I have been in love with the men, food, clothing, music and sweet looking reindeer.

An opportunity arose recently to get a cheap ticket from the UK to Copenhagen so in the spirit of craziness I bought the ticket and got my  arse to Denmark to see some culture and Scandinavian deliciousness. Here is my adventure…

Of course being addicted to being on my mac/apple products (yes I am one of them now) I researched and found a lovely looking hotel on the harbour called 71Nyhavn.

 

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The hotel is predominately for business people but I look business enough and hey it was a convenient location. The hotel was lovely and had a great restaurant more about that later but the bathroom in my smallish room was weird. I forgot to take a photo but the lack of separate cubiclelising the shower was weird. Weird!!!

There are touristy things to do but you have to see them to enjoy the beauty of them. My writing on them won’t be useful but here is some useful stuff to know when being a tourist in Copenhagen:

1. Buy a Copenhagen card – 72 hours. They can be bought at the main  tourist office in Tivoli (very helpful) or in other places such as the Canal tours in Nyhavn. The card lets you go on public transportation in  the central area for free and also to the museums and other attractions.

2. Copenhagen is practically dead on Sundays (but going to change in  October 2012 due to a law being passed to allow shops to be open). Monday is also dead if you go from January to April. There are a few places open but not much.

3. Rosenborg Slot (Castle) – has the worst timings in the world ever to  see the place. The main castle is open till 2 and then crown jewels and  special exhibition are open till 4. A few of the attendants there especially one butch woman were really rude. But others were really friendly. Also get the QR barcode scanner for your iPhone so can scan info on the stuff inside otherwise you wont have a clue at what you are looking at.

4 Amalienborg Slot (castle) – beautiful palace with proper information on each room. Small but well done and the staff are really friendly. Outside don’t sit on the steps otherwise a Danish Royal Guard will come and tell you sweetly to get up (yes that happened to me).

5. Christiana – supposed to the hippie commune. I couldn’t find it even on google map and what I did find was a scary looking council estate.

6. Canal tours – its free with the Copenhagen card and you get to see a lot of stuff in an hour. You can’t hear anyone on the phone including the reservations line for Noma whilst on boat but still cool.

7. Noma (top restaurant in the world right now) – make a reservation to be on the waiting list online as soon as you know you are going to Copenhagen. Then keep your phone on high volume at all times to hear the bloody call. If you miss it you will regret it always.

8. Christansborg Palace – has a massive library with lots of books on Napoleon and none on Hans Christian Andersen. The dining room is massive as well. See..

 

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9. Nyhavn – its  cobbled. It has a sex shop on the street. They’re a lots  of pubs and restaurants there and blankets for when you sit outside and its bloody cold as by the harbour side. Pretty area though and Hans Christian Andersen’s house (which you can’t go in) is here.

10. Dansk Design Centre – its not very big and they replay the start of  Vogue too often but its still awesome.  Do you know how much stuff the Danish, which we use, created in everyday life???

11. The Little Mermaid – as the Danish will tell you it is not the national symbol of Denmark. It is in an open harbour area so at the time of the year you will freeze to death seeing it and people go mental taking photos of it. Here is a quick shot I took of it. All say awwww.

 

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Now onto serious matters…Shopping. Denmark is famous for clothes designers and design stuff for the home.

These are the places to go to for your fix:

DEPARTMENT STORES

ILLUM
Østergade 52, Copenhagen (00 45 33 14 40 02; http://www.illum.eu). A pretty department store. Not as big as Magsin but still good.

MAGASIN DU NORD Kongens Nytorv 13, Copenhagen (00 45 33 11 44 33; http://www.magasin.dk).Its like the Selfridges of Copenhagen.

LEGO Amagertorv 10, Copenhagen. – It is Danish and just brilliant to relive your childishness. I used the excuse of buying for my nephew the reason for going there.

FASHION

BY MALENE BIRGER AND DAY BIRGER AT MIKKELSEN
Antonigade 10, Copenhagen (00 45 35 43 22 33; http://www.bymalenebirger.com). Malene Birger, who started the famous fashion house Day Birger et Mikkelsen in the 1990s, is the unrivalled queen of Danish high fashion. I bought from Day Birger the most awesome clothes. It was like clothes heaven in there.

INTERIORS

ILLUMS BOLIGHUS
Amagertorv 10, Copenhagen (00 45 33 14 19 41; http://www.royalshopping.com). I mixed this up with Illum. Illums Bolighus has an amazing mutli floor haven of design stuff. It was orgasmic. I cannot emphasize how awesome this place was for buying everything and anything. They also had Designer Remix which is a fashion store and I picked up some stuff from them.

ROYAL COPENHAGEN Amagertorv 6, Copenhagen (00 45 33 13 71 81; http://www.royalcopenhagen.com). It is the Wedgewood of Denmark and very cool. Being close to Easter I got a porcelain egg. It’s almost next door to Illums Bolighus (see above).

FOOD

Copenhagen has become the gastronomic capital globally in recent years due to Noma, Paul and other restaurants getting the “stars”. There are other restaurants around which may not be famous but sold food which taste sublime. I don’t know whether it was the cold or something in the food, but I loved every thing I ate there. From the cheese roll to the whole lobster I was in food heaven.  The choice picks were.

Lagkagehuset – forget the Baresso coffee chain (it was not good) and go to Lag. It has an amazing choice of Danish’s (geedit) and the coffee was good. The best thing in the world as well is to get a bread roll and ask them to put cheese in it.

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Ida Davidsen – Store Kongensgade 70, Frederiksstaden, Copenhagen (00 45 33 91 36 55; http://www.idadavidsen.dk). They have over 250 smørrebrød (open sandwich), I had the steak tartar and also the salted fish sandwich (called Princess Marie). There are men at the front. One moody queen and the other lovable queen. He made me laugh whilst helping me choose what to eat. I finished off with the Danish apple crumble.

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Restaurant Pakhuskælderen –  located in my hotel 71Nyhavn. They had a tasting menu for the week which you could review every time  you got in the lift so I had to try it out. The smoked duck breast with horseradish foam and beetroot was divine as well as the Chicken and  Mushroom. The service was so good and they are accommodating. Thumbs up.

Noma – I would talk about it if I had not missed the call. *sigh*

I did take the train to Malmo for a few hours but Malmo disappointed me so I wont bore you with that tale but the service at the station (even when the train was delayed) and the train journey itself was great.

All in all Copenhagen was amazing for me. It was beautiful, cultural and amazing in its design and food areas. It is an expensive town and the Kroners went too fast out of my purse so I had to start using my visa for all purchases even small ones as there were not enough forex places to change money when I needed to change.

If you have some extra cash and want to go somewhere different then I highly recommend you get on an Easyjet/Emirates flight and go to CPH.

 

The Travel Bug

Tonight I decided to pause the TV and ignore the laptops for a few minutes to read the latest Conde Nast Traveller which has been perching near me whenever I am at home hoping to be read. I have read half way through and already have daydreamed of hotels, destinations and restaurants to go to.

In summary so far – El Bulli is closing but the brothers extradionnaire are opening a new bar/restaurant in Barcelona which sounds amazing. I have never been to Barcelona and this gastronomic newcomer sounds like the ideal reason to go. Then there was an article about Finland. It sounds dark and foreboding but the Scandinavian countries appeal to me (you would fully know about this love affair with the “scandy countries” if you follow me on twitter :)).

The world is huge and although i have been to all the continents except South America there is so many places I still have to go. After my recent proper holiday after 2 years to Malaysia and Singapore the travel bug has returned with a vengeance. I want to travel, stay in lovely hotels and see the sights of the world in all its glory.

In the last five years of living in the MIddle East I have only travelled around the UAE and Syria (Damascus). It’s not only tragic but completely and utterly ridiculous behaviour by me! I have now decided that I will use all those holidays that weren’t used last year and got transferred to this year to be used for weekend sojourns to countries which are within four hours away from Dubai. This means I could stay at the newly restored palace in Hyderabad, meet my fellow twerps in Beirut, go skiing in Iran and see my nan in Kenya (and stop off in Mombasa). Now all I have to do is have a plan and see if anyone will join me on my trips.

Any volunteers, ideas on first destination, etc will be warmly welcome.