Four Days in Dubai

To kick off my series covering our most recent vacation, we’re looking back at the first few days of our trip, spent in Dubai. First, it’s prudent to give a little history on how we got here. Our daughter graduated from college this year, and as both a present to her and a last hurrah before she goes off into the workforce, we decided to let her choose where she wanted to go for a graduation trip. Initially she was looking at Bora Bora, and at least once we were within a couple of clicks of booking a trip to that area on either a Paul Gauguin or Windstar cruise. She really wanted to swim with whale sharks, and once we discovered that it’s not really the season for that in the south pacific, we started looking elsewhere. Along the way, I came across some package rates to the Maldives, one of the few places where whale sharks are prevalent this time of year, so we started looking closer. As I looked at the various packages, I came across a solid deal on an 8-day Maldives trip that included a 4 day stop in Dubai first. We all fell in love with the idea of seeing this city, and in early April pulled the trigger on it!

The trip started off when we boarded an Emirates A380 from JFK to Dubai direct. The flight itself, while long (12 hours), was pretty uneventful. There’s plenty of legroom in economy on these planes, and while it was fairly comfortable, none of us slept all that much.

We arrived in Dubai around 8:30am local time Sunday morning and headed to our hotel. Being the offseason, and Ramadan, we got a great rate at the JW Marriott Marquis in what’s referred to as New Dubai. On arrival at the hotel, we decided to take them up on a pretty reasonable upgrade to a corner suite on the 61st floor, complete with a large living room, master bedroom, and good sized master bath. Click on those links and check out the 360 degree views of our room, A6106.

After cleaning ourselves up and grabbing a bite to eat in the hotel’s outstanding breakfast buffet, we decided to hop the Marriott’s shuttle to the Dubai Mall, one of the 56 malls in the city, and the one containing the huge aquarium and the entrance to the Burj Khalifa tour. After a bit of a walk around the mall (it’s huge), we decided to grad some lunch. Being Ramadan, almost every restaurant was closed, so our best option was the food court, as it was barricaded off, allowing those who weren’t fasting the ability to eat. The main food court in this mall is huge. Larger than any mall food court I’ve ever seen. We ended up eating Shake Shack, and which breaks our main travel rule of not eating anywhere we can eat at home, but under the circumstances, I was happy with the choice.

After some more mall walking, we headed back to the room to get some rest before dinner, as we had a busy day on tap the next day. We ended up eating at the hotel again, this time in the executive lounge. Executive club access is something we added for a pretty reasonable charge, and it was werll worth it, with the breakfast buffet included, along with snacks and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) included in the benefits. The small buffet in the executive lounge each evening had some delicious items as well.

Monday morning brought our first excursion of the trip. We’d booked a private guided city tour with Tours by Locals, and were picked up by our guide at the hotel at 9am. Our guide Sunil was outstanding, and this tour was definitely the highlight of our time in Dubai. We started off with the Dubai Mall, and since we’d walked that the day before, he just showed us a few of the highlights before we moved on to the Emirates office tower area as one of our first picture spots. The architecture in Dubai is amazing, and this was the perfect place to really kick things off:

Next up was Za’abeel Palace for another photo stop. This obviously isn’t a place where you can just walk up to the gate, so we hung out by the Mercedes police G wagon and took a few pictures:

Our next stop was a local fish market, which was really cool. We were warned before hand that the vendors selling would be on us as soon as we walked in, but would back off if we ignored them or said no thank you, and he was right. For those familiar with pushy vendors in Caribbean ports, this wasn’t even close to as bad as some of those can get, frankly it was pretty mild. Inside, there were a ton of fish lined up, but being Ramadan, the place wasn’t completely full of vendors. We walk through the fish area, the meat area, and ended in the fruits and vegetable area. Note that this isn’t for the faint of heart, as you do see things like cow heads in the meat area. All in all, I’m glad he added it to the tour, it was cool to see how a normal market worked in the area.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After a short stroll through the small attached mall, it was off to walk around a couple of the souks in the area! This was probably the highlight of the tour, and at times felt like something out of either the Amazing Race or Indiana Jones. He took us through a gold souk before giving us a little instruction, setting a time to meet, and sending us off on our own to explore. Again, the vendors will approach you, but nothing as pushy as some Caribbean ports, and they were always friendly. We did buy a couple of items, with Bayley picking up a hanging glass ball decoration and Jen getting a scarf. Our guide did help us negotiate the price of those two, these vendors will haggle. After walking a few streets here, we hopped on a water taxi to another park of the city to stroll through a few more souks:

After finishing up the time-lapse above, which was Sunil’s idea, we walked over to the Dubai Museum. While not overly large, this has various exhibits giving you the opportunity to learn about Dubai’s history. This was followed by a walk down a few more areas, including stops at a local art gallery, coffee museum and coin museum. From the time we started our initial walk through the first souk until we got back to the car, I think we were on our feet for around 2 hours. Considering the heat here, that’s a long time, but having hydrated before we got out of the car, it wasn’t a big issue.

I should take a minute to point out that while Ramadan prohibits eating or drinking in public during daylight hours, our guide did have water available for us in the car, so had we not brought our own, we would have been fine.

Following all of that walking, we had a bit of a break to cool off, as it was a bit of a car ride to our next stop, Jumeira Mosque. This is the only mosque that allows non-Muslims to tour the facility, however, they weren’t doing tours at this point, so we were just seeing the outside. On our guide’s recommendation, we did go back for the official tour on Wednesday, and I’d agree with him, it’s worth the time, very interesting and informative!

After a couple of other short picture stops to get views of Burj Al Arab, we headed in the direction of Palm Island. We had a couple of options, ride with them up to the end of it where the Atlantis is located, or take the monorail from the trunk to Atlantis. We chose the latter 😊. Riding the monorail is fun, and I highly recommend (on his recommendation, actually) being in the front cabin so you can watch the trip.

After the monorail ride and a short stop outside of Atlantis and one other spot along the branches for pictures, we headed back to the hotel quite happy with the tour we’d chosen. This is probably one of the best we’ve ever done, as both Sunil and our driver were outstanding. They showed us a large part of the area, ensured hydrated and fed even with Ramadan happening, and added stops upon realizing we had plenty of time for them along our 8 hour tour. I’d be more than happy to book with Tours by Locals again!

After cleaning ourselves up and resting a little, we decided to end the day by heading over to a spot Sunil recommended, Dubai Garden Glow. This is an awesome little place that packs three separate areas in to one facility, including and ice park, dinosaur land, and a while section with lit up displays to enjoy. You don’t have to do it all, as they sell tickets at varying prices that allow access to some or all of the park. Considering that we have no idea if we’d ever make it back to Dubai, we bought the full pass.

It was a fun walk through the whole thing, with the glow garden section being the longest walk. They’ve got a ton of lit displays, typically the kind of thing you only see around Christmas in the US. After a pretty lengthy walk through that area, I was ready to hit the ice park and cool off. Even though it was night, it was still pretty hot and humid out. Entering the ice park, you’re handed a coat and some gloves, and you head in to a large warehouse type setup with a bunch of ice sculptures. Most of it appeared to be landmarks from around Dubai, including the Burj Khalifa, some camels, and Palm Island. This is the shortest walk in the park, as it’s not really that big, but it’s definitely a good way to cool off while in the park. After leaving our icy detour, we headed into the dinosaur section, which is basically just a bunch of outdoor dinosaur exhibits you walk around. Here’s a look at some of the things we saw in the Dubai Glow Garden:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our first full day in Dubai was tiring, but really fun! Next up on page two, a day of skiing, penguin hugs, and off-roading in the desert!

A Night in the Kirkenes Snow Hotel – Part 1

Read about our stay at the Snowhotel in Kirkenes Norway, starting with our dog sledding excursion!

As mentioned in my Norway kickoff post, our first real stop on this adventure was in Kirkenes for some dog sledding and a night at the Snowhotel. We’d gone back and forth on the latter part, as it’s not cheap to stay there, but in the end decided that it was a once in a lifetime that we just had to do while we were there. We couldn’t have been happier with that decision :).

After flying up to Kirkenes from Oslo, we grabbed a cab from the airport to the hotel at a cost of around 250NOK. On arrival to the Snowhotel, we checked in to the main building, dropped our luggage, and were given a quick tour of the place by one of the hostesses. She did a really solid job of explaining how everything was going to work, walked us over to the actual snow hotel building, pointed out the heated cabins for those who don’t want to sleep in an ice cave, gave us a quick tour of the main area where dinner would be served, and where the private lounge for snow hotel guests was. Some shots from the walk:

We were also told that we were the only ones staying in a family-sized room, and as a result we’d have our choice of rooms in that category, so we should check them all out and let them know which we wanted. After walking through each of the family rooms, Bayley easily made the call, we were staying in the Frozen-themed room, which you can take a 360-degree tour of!

The artists who carve these rooms do amazing work, even down to a thinner ceiling to allow natural light in, visible in the above photo.

With that out of the way, we had some time before our dog sledding excursion began, so we walked over to the Gabba Restaurant to grab a quick bite to eat, as we hadn’t had lunch yet. Just grabbing a snack, I had a reindeer sausage, Jen had a salmon sandwich, and Bayley had a piece of cake. Not exactly a full meal, but enough to tide us over for the dog sledding, and delicious to boot!

When it came time for the excursion, we stepped out of Gabba to find the group already assembling. The dogs are all onsite, so we basically were leaving on the sleds from just a few feet outside of the restaurant. The guides were busy getting the dogs all sorted out, so after putting on the insulated overalls and balaclavas they provide, we headed over and waited by our assigned sleds. Jen and Bayley were in the lead, with me in the second one. After getting everything sorted and meeting our guides, we were off, sort of. Jen and Bayley’s dogs weren’t too keen on working with each other, so we did have a couple of early stops shortly after leaving to get that sorted, but they got it taken care of pretty quick.

I have to say, this is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and gave us some amazing views of the snow-covered landscape. Just check out some of this video!

At one point, we had the option to drive the sled (as shown in one of the pics above), and I jumped at it. I actually got to drive for two stints, since I was the only passenger on mine, and had a blast the entire time. I even managed to keep the sled upright :). Shortly after I gave the controls back, however, that changed. Right before the half-way point, we hit a corner faster than expected and took a tumble. I wasn’t expecting the shift in the sled, so I totally forgot to lean against it, which I’m sure didn’t help. Falling out into a bunch of light and fluffy snow meant no injuries, but the dogs were still running, sled in tow. Fortunately, the driver of the sled ahead of us was able to stop our sled as it raced by.

That was about the point where we were stopping for a break anyway, so the guides locked down the sleds, handed out some yummy warm juice, and set up a fire for us to warm up next to for a bit. It also gave us a chance to give the dogs some love, which we were all to happy to do:

After the stop ended, we continued on through the snowy tundra through the back half of the course, with scenery just as beautiful as the first half. Upon our arrival back at the hotel, all of the dogs who were left behind welcomed us (or their fellow pups) back rather loudly, as well!

After arriving back, we returned our cold weather gear, and went to rest for a bit before our Snowhotel stay really began. The trip was a ton of fun, and we were all really glad we spent the money. I highly recommend trying this if you get the chance!

Next up, I cover our actual stay in the Snowhotel, complete with dinner, drinks at the Ice Bar, and sleeping on a large block of ice!

Animal Kingdom: Wild Africa Trek

This adventure was part of our Thanksgiving trip to Disney World, and I can honestly say it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done at any theme park. We were on the 8am tour on Thanksgiving day, which meant meeting at the entrance to Animal Kingdom before the park opened. Being that it was my birthday present, Jen did an outstanding job of keeping it a secret, even from Bayley. As we arrived at the park, all we knew was that whatever my present was, it was happening that morning, and it would mean getting in to the park prior to the actual opening time. It wasn’t until we walked into the Wild Africa Trek area that either of us began to figure out what we were about to do.

On arrival to the park, we were instructed to wait off to the side until our guides arrived. Once they did, we were led through the park just prior to opening, so just like our Magic Kingdom breakfast at Be Our Guest the day before, we got to enjoy an empty park as we walked to the staging area for the trek.

IMG_1607 IMG_1625 IMG_2873 IMG_2878 IMG_2884 IMG_2886IMG_1627IMG_1609

Once you arrive at the starting point to the trek (right next to the Kilimanjaro Safari entrance), you go through some instruction from your guides, and get suited up for the trek. Things to note here:

  • No sandals.  Closed-toed shoes only.
  • The tour cost does not include park admission, you still must have a ticket for Animal Kingdom.
  • Kids must be at least 8 years old, and 48″ tall. No unaccompanied minors, either.
  • If your health doesn’t allow for long periods of walking over some potentially rough terrain, don’t go.
  • No loose cameras, including phones. If your camera or phone can’t be strapped to the gear you’ll be wearing, you have to put it in your locker.

Those are the basics, but be sure to check the “know before you go” section of their site for all requirements. That last one is a big one that several people in our group, including us, didn’t know going in. I’m pretty sure I was the only one allowed to take my phone, because I had two straps on it that I could use to strap to my gear. If you don’t get to take your camera, it’s not the end of the world, as they take a lot of pictures along the way, all of which are included in the cost. They give you a web site address you can download all pictures from a day or so later.

After they get everyone into their harnesses, go through some basic safety instructions, test out the wireless headsets your guides talk to you on, they give you a short description of what’s going to happen, and you’re off! The tour starts with a walk down the same Pangani Trail all the other guests can access, and you’ll end up getting some funny looks from other guests along the way who have no idea why you have all that gear on. Along the way, one guide is giving you information on the animals you see as you walk, while the other one is shooting pictures of the group. They switch off roles a couple of times along the tour too, so you get to hear from both guides assigned to your trek. Once you get close to the end of the Pangani Trail, you take a little side exit that dumps you off on a closed trail. You then hike along this trail for a while, with your guide talking to you about the area and animals, until you arrive at the hippopotamus pool.

IMG_2919 IMG_2926

 

Once here, they strap your harness into a support railing so you can safely walk along a ledge overlooking the pool. While here, you’re given a talk by their resident hippo expert while enjoying the view, and while having your picture taken by the guide with the camera.

IMG_2920 IMG_1805

Once complete, you trek a little farther to the start of the ropes course. This is one of the highlights of the trip, as you get to walk over two rope bridges. If you’ve experienced the Kilimanjaro Safari ride before, you’ve driven under the first of the two bridges, and like us, may never have even noticed it. When you get to the first bridge, you’re strapped in one by one, and cross over to the platform between the two bridges. The guide currently shooting pictures actually crosses first, so he/she can get pictures of each person as they cross. The shots of us on the bridge face-first were shot by our guide, and the others were taken by me.

IMG_2942IMG_1637 IMG_1638 IMG_1628IMG_1807 IMG_1808

Once you’re across to the first platform, they stop each group for a quick photo:

IMG_1806

After that, you make your way across the second bridge one by one, and pass over the crocodiles. The bridges are pretty easy to walk across in my opinion, but they can get a little bouncy when more than one person is on. They also don’t mind if you make a quick stop while walking to take a pic or two if you have your camera on you, just don’t stop for long periods and hold everyone else up.

IMG_2957IMG_2959IMG_1648 IMG_2967

Disney’s attention to detail is quite evident on the bridges, too. Even though the bridges are perfectly secure, and there’s no danger of falling, they make the planks along the way look worn and brittle. Nice touch 🙂

Once across, you walk to a ledge overlooking the crocodile pit and strap in to another support railing while listening to the croc expert and having your picture taken with them.

Wild Africa Trek 108

After you finish up here, you shed your harness, as you no longer need it, and hop into a safari truck for the next part of the expedition. Your truck joins the same path the regular Kilimanjaro Safari trucks are on, with the occasional deviation on to side paths the regular trucks don’t take. These side paths allow your group additional time to see some of the animals, and in some cases, allow you to get closer to animals than the regular path does, depending on where the animals are that day. When the trucks stop for these closer views, you can also stand up to get better shots. We got lucky with the giraffes, with several of them congregating right next to one of these side paths. Our truck pulled up next to them, and while our guides gave us good information on them and answered questions, we got to be pretty close and get some great shots.

IMG_1682

Once we finished up there, the truck headed up to a building sitting on the savannah. We’d seen this on past safari trips, but until now had no idea what the purpose was. For the trek, it actually gets used as a 30 minute rest stop, giving you time to relax and enjoy some food specially prepared by the chefs at Tusker House. All this as you enjoy some spectacular views, complete with binoculars to use. While there, the guides will also take pictures of you in various poses, and you obviously have the opportunity to take some of your own pictures.

IMG_1684IMG_1683IMG_1636 IMG_1809 IMG_1810Wild Africa Trek 175 IMG_1811 IMG_3048

There were also a coupe of short rain showers during our stop, which caused some of the animals to run for cover. I can’t say I’ve ever seen giraffes running so fast!

Once your time at the camp is up, you load back in to the truck for the ride back to the drop off point, which is the same platform the regular Kilimanjaro Safari trucks drop off at. You then follow your guide back to the Wild Africa Trek entrance where you pick up whatever you placed in the lockers before heading out into the park to enjoy the rest of your day.

The whole trek is about 3 hours, and it’s worth the time and money in my opinion. Getting to see things from a more behind-the-scenes perspective in a small group setting, while getting a ton of useful information was a blast. The rope bridges and brunch at the private safari camp are icing on the cake, and totally justify the cost, in my opinion. Our guides were great, too, we can’t thank them enough for an outstanding morning!

Wild Africa Trek 199

Enjoy a few more pictures from our trek, and when at Animal Kingdom, consider giving this a try!

IMG_1613 IMG_1813 IMG_1814 IMG_2897 IMG_2934 IMG_2951 IMG_2991 Wild Africa Trek 001 Wild Africa Trek 100 Wild Africa Trek 101 Wild Africa Trek 102 Wild Africa Trek 104 Wild Africa Trek 168

%d bloggers like this: