What an old, beautiful hotel. First stop is Nimes, and the charming Hotel Imperator. We marvelled at the classic art-deco elevator, said to be 80 years old, and the fact that this had been the resting place of Ernest Hemingway, Ava Gardner, Pablo Picasso and French poet Jean Cocteau. The hotel was the perfect fusion of old and new. I loved being stuck in this elevator. Not stuck per se. It was just a few minutes but who the hell knows how to operate such an ol' girl. But she was a beaut.
Oh it feels good to be back on my blog. Merci to all who were watching for my posts. The wifi has been extremely unpredictable.
France ... the south of France ... is just gorgeous. Breathtaking. A real world treasure. I am blessed to have been able to drink it all in, along with the wine. Oh so much wine. And croissants. But those were inhaled.
Invited on a press trip by Air Transat and Transat Holidays, writing for The Toronto Star, I joined a group of four other Toronto journalists to the glorious regions of Marseille and Provence ... eight full days with virtually no stone left unturned, eight days of olive trees and glorious scenescapes and Roman history and grand architecture, and some of the most creative and delicious food that tasted as good as it looked.
Air Transat has kicked off a seasonal direct flight from Toronto to Marseille every Monday until Oct. 13, and it has increased its flights from Montreal too. And so we celebrated.
Sitting in Club Class makes the time go by nicely, especially with a glass of champagne in hand. A great flight ... even when you cry. Saving Mr. Banks will do that to you. OK to me, I mean.
My suitcase was way too big. I knew this. But problem packers are problem packers. This needs proper therapy. It will not improve after overpacking again and again. We don’t learn our lesson. We justify it by saying “Well the weather looks iffy”, or “We don’t know what we will be doing.” I knew the weather and I knew our itinerary, yet I still overpack.
At least I got to cart around all of the outfits I didn’t wear. And I developed a strong shell for oversized suitcase jokes.
I really should have learned in French how to apologize about my heavy suitcase to our drivers, but a big smile and sheepish “sorrrrry” seemed to suffice. Hopefully there were no hernias.
What there was though were laughs. Starting on the flight. A perfect icebreaker for our group, even though most of them had travelled together on press trips before. My seat mate, lest she be named, was telling a story and gesturing with her hands a little too close to the aisle and sacked a passing male flight attendant in the groin. Well that was it, our cork was popped, let the joking and banter ensue.
In Montreal we picked up our French connection, our incredible hosts, Mylene, our media liaison from Air Transat, and Marie-Andree, our extraordinary leader from tourist agency Atout France.
Back in economy class on Emirates airline, a pilot-in-training is sitting next to me. A young girl. What are the chances. It’s symbolic that my journey kicked off so memorably with my two pilot friends in Emirates Business Class on the flight over, and then weeks later, my trip has come full circle by sitting next to Daisy, a recent graduate of aviation school at Sault College in Sault Ste. Marie. You would think meeting a female pilot is rare, and it is — she was one of only four ladies in her class. Daisy, who had been visiting family in Hong Kong, wants to fly small planes. I told her about my flight to Dubai and my four new Emirates Business Class friends – pilots Gary and Mani, and Nofel. She loved the piloting spew stories – maybe someday she will make some of her own (stories, not puke). Our biz class group, now aptly called the 41,000ft Club, has been keeping in touch over email, trading worldly stories. A reunion has been suggested – in air or on land?
The flight was still of high standards — Emirates is truly where it’s at. Yummy food, socks and eye shade, wine with dinner … what a great flight. On my other side was a guy who kept getting up to drink, so half the time I had no seatmate. Daisy slept with her eyes half open though, which kept freaking me out. The flight attendant came by while she was sleeping once and asked her if she wanted a drink, and we both thought she was lying there awake. Funny – but oh so creepy.
How long had it been since I saw Reality Bites? I love those movies that never go out of style. Winona and Ethan in their heydays (Janeane Garofalo, where did you go, you were so good). It was appropriate to me as I settled in for a long flight back to reality, after a now-surreal trip that had me seeing things my eyes did not believe. Did reality bite? No it didn’t — even coming home to a snowstorm. But dipping out of the reality I know into other fantastical worlds every now and again is my kind of living.
A last look at some of the awesome architecture in Dubai, this time at dawn. The only time I am up at this time is, oh, every morning with prayers. Not that I ever really opened my eyes. And then again it's pretty dark out at 4 a.m. But yes, the early morning has a certain ring to it here, with the sun streaming down, making the buildings glisten. Suddenly being on my way to the airport at such an early hour isn't so terrible. I push thoughts of snow out of my mind.
As my Dubai trip neared its end, the thought of saying goodbye weighed so very heavily on me. And an emotional goodbye it was, to Bevan, my lifelong friend. He truly was the most generous, gracious, thoughtful and sweetest host. It is amazing how close two people can remain through an entire decade, separated by tens of thousands of miles. At the airport, oh the tears. And it had nothing to do with not being upgraded to Business Class again, I swear.
Bev, thank you for sharing your world with me, for driving me around the UAE, for the laughs, the sarcasm, for buying me all of that gum and for sorting me out when I needed a hand choosing the right outfit for a mosque.
So strange to see Tim Hortons in Dubai, not once, but multiple times. Bevan said Tim Hortons is as common as Baskin Robbins there. Baskin Robbins is in the Middle East too??
Remember when spotting a Tim's in the U.S. was a shock?
Check out this story on Tim Hortons in Dubai being mobbed by Canadian expats.
Although there are plenty of Tim Hortons in Dubai, Bevan had never been to one. So I thought what better way to spend our last evening then ordering a double double and a box of Timbits, Canadian style.
It was weird walking in there, with a mosque on the corner, a larger-than-life mural of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – prime minister of the UAE and Dubai monarch (whose image is everywhere) – a table of local men in traditional robes, and the oh-so-familiar Tim Hortons' logo but with Arabic translation. Yet it was the same environment I walk into almost every day at home. Minus the snow.
I was so pumped for Bevan to try the traditional Timmys order. I was hesitant to say “double double” to the guy behind the counter but I thought 'What the eh', at the very least Bevan will hear what Canadians at Tim Hortons sound like. Yet the Timmys guy knew immediately what I meant. We got a tenner of “Tim’s balls”, as my mother (hi Mom!) calls them, and we sat down outside.
The double double was a hit – so says the guy who hadn't heard of putting cream in a coffee.
He said he could take or leave the Timbits, although he didn’t leave a single one behind.
This was a special moment for me – Bevan had showed me almost every inch of the UAE, and now I could show him a significant part of mine. Timmy’s was so Canadian, so Toronto, and a staple in my life. I sat back and took it all in as we recalled our wonderful reunion and enjoyed our Tim Hortons hangout. It was surreal, watching my dear friend from across the world whom I hadn’t seen in more than 10 years nibbling on a slice of Canadiana. And he loved the “double double.”
Oh, by the way, they totally had better lids. (No fair.)
TIP: Do not go to Tim Hortons in Dubai if you are a coffee lid crusader. It will only make you mad.
The Dubai Palm Islands must be seen to truly be understood. They also must be seen by a bird’s eye. See it above? Mind-blowing! The story and concept behind The Palm is another one of those wondrous tales of how sections of Dubai came to be. How are so many engineering feats possible in one city? We explored The Palm on my last day – I love how one of the most creative areas of the city was left to the end. Does the spectacle ever stop?
The Palm is a series of man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree. When officials decided to build more of the city, they built it out into the sea. Why not, right? Anything seems possible in Dubai. The Palm is visible from space by the naked eye. Everyone’s favourite Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield posted a photo of The Palm. Check it out here.
Construction of the Palm added kilometres of shoreline to the city. It has it all – more than 100 luxury hotels, flashy sports cars, fine dining, upscale shops. It’s enough to make your head spin. The grand hotel lobbies – check out The Palm Atlantis – become tourist destinations in themselves, packed with people window shopping, going to the aquarium, poking through expensive lunch menus, checking out the waterparks populated by dolphins, sea lions and happy children.
Not truly an island as it is connected to the mainland by a bridge, The Palm’s layout is really amazing – the hotels are lined around the circumference of the “palm tree”, the mansion villas are on the fronds, the apartments are on the trunk. All are along the beach. To build this city within a city, the Palm was constructed by sand dredged from the Persian Gulf and sprayed into the proper position. Rocks were used as a sort of dam. To really describe how it was made gets a little technical, but some fun facts can be seen here. Real palm trees are everywhere, grown in a nursery. It’s palm tree city, literally.
Speaking of feats of design, there is also The World, an artificial archipelago of 300 islands which was left incomplete after the financial crisis in 2008 caused construction to be halted. Apparently building will start up again soon.
TIP: Treat the hotels like you would any sort of sight-seeing, as they are virtually all individually a sight to be seen.
I decide to get henna'ed. I guess it's pretty. I twirl my flower finger in the air to try to escalate the drying time. I still end up getting the chocolatey goo all over my sweatshirt. Men walk by me with henna scorpions on their biceps. Maybe I should have gone that route.
On day two I was thinking I should have gone no route. The henna ended up staining my hand orange and my finger looked like I had dipped it in coffee and swirled it around.
On day 4 it was still there.
I am so branded as a tourist.
TIP: Your henna will stay for several days. Go to
a nice place that does it right and uses the good stuff.
My heart is still pounding. Ride of a lifetime. And completely unexpected.
The Dubai desert safari — the routine tourist excursion — blew me right out of the sand. Bevan severely understated the safari, and I love this about him. Throwing his hat in the ring for a sixth time (poor guy) taking a visitor, he stated firmly that he was retiring his safari tripping after taking me. His understandably lacklustre mention of the day's trip and his eye-rolling did nothing much in the way of building anticipation. But he did that on purpose to surprise the hell out of me.
Oh my. What a day. The greatest. Our driver from Arabian Night Tours picked us up along with another pair and we set out to the desert. I couldn’t believe how fast he was driving on the highway, so reckless with four passengers in the car, but it all made sense later on: He was trained to drive like a maniac.
Many cars in the UAE beep when the driver reaches 120. Our car would beep continually, and many times the driver just went faster. He stopped to let air out of each tire. Huh?? Less air in the tires allows the truck, a Toyota Land Cruiser, better traction in the sand. Still unsure what was unfolding, we joined other tourists by their trucks on the edge of the desert. I could see tire tracks crisscrossing in the sand.
And suddenly, we were off. I had no idea what was going on. We hit the sand and things got wild. He let ‘er rip and suddenly began one of the craziest rides of my life. Up and over and around and down, we climbed massive sand dunes of all heights and angles and flew down, sometimes looking directly at the ground through the windshield when the dune was steep. Every once in a while we would see one of the other trucks launching off a sand dune. Sometimes they got close. I was sort of screaming. Like in a good way.
The unpredictability was both exhilarating and frightening. On a roller coaster, say, you are locked in on a track and knew which way you would be turning, and you have safety expectations. Our truck was flying up and down and around with only the driver to control it, skidding on the sand, spinning its wheels, balancing on one wheel, hydroplaning, levitating, feeling about ready to tip over. And who’s to say it wouldn’t.
There were white SUVs flying all over the place at top speed, each driver masterfully commanding the dunes and somehow dutifully staying out of the way of the others. The truck would tip and buckle and jolt. At times sand would hit the window hard and make me yelp, other times if we were balancing on two wheels it would spray loudly on the windows like water a car wash. I was still sort of screaming, but in a good way. We bounced along on this unexpected ride of a lifetime.
By the time we stopped my shorts had jolted right up my butt.
We hit the highway and drove to another set of huge sand dunes. Along the way the driver gestured at one of the SUVs pulled over, where a tourist was tossing her cookies. “Don’t be like this, OK,” the driver mused.
After part two of an exhilarating ride, the trucks all stopped for a breather and a photo op. My feet sunk into the soft desert sand as I leapt out of the truck. It didn’t feel at all like beach sand, and when I say sunk I mean up-to-my-ankles sunk. I was mesmerized. I kicked my flip flops off and the brown, suede-like sand swallowed up my toes. Gone. I sunk in deeper. Surveying the dunes, standing atop one of the peaks, feeling the breeze on my face with the sun setting and the sky colours changing, my heart still beating from a mother of a ride … WOW.
I looked at Bevan – you dawg! I had no clue it would be this great. He smiled big and buried my flip flops. Score another one for the tour guide.
The night was far from over. The tour package had an entire evening planned. They brought us all to a clearing in the desert with different stations set around a stage and tables with cushions on the ground. There were camel rides, sand boarding, henna, Arabic coffee, dinner and show. Fun.
I jump on a camel. “Hold on tightly,” the leader says. Suddenly I am propelled back as the camel gets up from its perch. The ol’ girl brings me around and I almost take a header in the sand as it sits back down with a giant thud. I then get my finger decorated in henna, watch a pretty wild show of traditional Arabic spinning and belly dancing, eat a plate of Arabic food, get the henna all over my sweatshirt and call it a night. An unforgettable one at that.
TIP: Sorry about this spoiler, but you must go on a desert safari. I would recommend Arabian Nights Tours as I have only good things to say. Wear flip flops so you can play around in the sand barefoot and not sand-up your shoes. Bring warm clothes for the desert at night. Prepare to get a wedgie in the car! Not for the faint-of-stomach.
See that pizza? I had to sign a waiver to take the remains from the restaurant. Barasti Beach Bar, easily one of the best meals I had in Dubai and the prettiest place to go for drinks – DRINKS! – was top notch. On yet another perfect day in Dubai, where their winter is our perfect summer's day, I went to a popular expat hangout, a cool spot that overlooks the water and some classy-looking yachts, a lazy drinks-friendly lunch spot and sports hangout by day, a rollicking hotspot nightspot by sundown. It's all outside, half on the beach, with music and live sports on the big screen.
The drinks menu was exciting, and it wasn't just because I was feeling the lack of alcohol there. I had a Cu Cu Fizz (mint puree, cucumber and vodka) and a Foggy Sea (vodka and coconut cream). Yum! This Asian Chicken Fruity salad was such a highlight. It looks as good as it tasted. I have no idea what those translucent things are but they were crunchy and sweet and mysterious.
TIP: Make your way to Barasti, day or night, actually day and night. You must have the seafood pizza and this salad.
Published journalist, world traveller, big thinker, fun haver