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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A sombre tone set and New Year's Eve cancelled in Dubai

In response to the recent, dramatic escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza (read this excellent on-the-ground account by Ashraf Khalil and Rushdi Abou Alouf reporting for the LA Times), Dubai Ruler Sheikh Mohammed has ordered that New Year's Eve celebrations be cancelled in Dubai in solidarity with the Palestinians (read about it here on The National and IHT). I love the way the leaders there can just do that. And while I pity the hotel managers, events coordinators and PRs who will be tearing their hair out as they call off glitzy parties, cancel just-flown-in DJs, tell the Beckhams they'll have to have a quiet night in with the Cruises at their Atlantis suite on The Palm (perhaps they can invite Shakira over?), and pray those 200 dozen oysters haven't been shucked yet (because in Dubai every hotel has a huge glamorous party - or three), the sombre tone the Sheikh wants to set will probably be welcomed by most Emiratis, much of the large Arab population, and the substantial number of Palestinians living in the UAE. Many would have been feeling guilty about celebrating tonight; I was feeling sorry for those who had to work. The Palestinian conflict is another thing I've been mulling over and, being in Australia, feeling a little helpless about. If I was in the UAE everybody would be discussing the crisis endlessly, on a daily basis, throughout the day. I worked in education in the UAE for many years, and I know from experience that the students would have been raising money for Red Crescent to send medical supplies, food, clothes, and so on. In Australia, everybody is focused on the holidays and the cricket, shark attacks, Paris Hilton, and best fireworks-viewing spots dominate the media. Nobody has reported yet on Israel posting video footage of their air strikes on YouTube. Air strikes in which over 370 Palestinians have been killed, including 40 children, and another 1,720 people have been wounded. I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty sick. Here, it seems as if for Australia the rest of the world doesn't exist. As much as I love my country, it's a reminder of why I don't live here. I want to know what's going on. I want to feel part of the global community. And that its problems are also mine.

Pictured? In keeping with the tone, an acacia blossoming after the rain last month in Alice Springs, an image of hope from the road.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Are there better ways we could be spending Christmas?

We made it back to Perth, Australia, in the nick of time on Christmas Eve, so we could spend Christmas with my family - my Mum, sister and her husband and children. On Christmas morning we watched the kids open their "hundreds" (quoting my cute little niece here) of presents. Combined with delight at seeing their excited little faces, however, I couldn't help feeling pangs of... what was it... guilt... sadness... regret even? (perhaps all three), that there were so many other children out there in the world who weren't receiving gifts, who didn't have one toy let alone hundreds, who had nothing to celebrate, and who probably didn't even have a meal that day. Later that afternoon we took the kids to their neighborhood park and while the guys played football with the boys, I built sandcastles in the sandpit with my niece while my Mum watched. While it was fun, I couldn't help but think that we could be somewhere else... as we've been driving around Australia we've been listening to rural ABC radio whenever we've had reception. I recalled the calls from various charity representatives in Australia asking listeners to donate food packages and kids toys to give to the poor and homeless. They were desperate this year as people had given less than usual due to the economic climate and their own precarious circumstances. On another program, listeners phoned in to chat about how they would spend Christmas Day. Most rattled off the usual Christmas plans - present opening with the kids in the morning, roast lunch with the in-laws, Turkey feast for dinner, a seafood barbecue by the beach with friends, and so on. However, two callers caught my attention. One was a woman who said her family - and a large family at that - were doing what they did every Christmas and spending the day serving people at a soup kitchen which was hosting a charity lunch for the homeless. They were doing something for people who no longer had a family, people who didn't have a home. Another woman, a 92 year old (yep, that's no typo), was doing what she did every year (indeed she donated her time once a week), and was going down to the "old people's home" to spend time with people who obviously weren't as fit and healthy as she was. It occurred to me I could be doing more. There are a couple of ideas for me there as to how we could spend our next Christmas. (And the makings of a New Year's resolution or two.) But I'm wondering what else we could be doing... any ideas?

Monday, December 29, 2008

A belated Merry Christmas... blame it on the weather? Or a broken bush telegraph?

My In Box has been inundated with belated Christmas messages these past couple of days, so like my slack, um, I mean busy friends, I'm going to say better late than never and I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and have a magic New Year. I'd like to be able to blame my tardiness on the weather. Because we have had horrendously bad weather wherever we've been in Australia. From the top end of the country to the southernmost tip of the mainland. It's to blame for our itinerary being so completely out of whack. Along with a mishap or two - like getting caught in flash foods, which you can read about at Terry's blog Wide angles, wine and wanderlust, and which I'll write about more soon. I could also argue the generally pathetic communications here is at fault, which in my case is very easy as I've continually experienced them all, from sending messages into cyberspace (or outerspace it seems) to excruciating slow connection speeds, to cell phones that don't work outside cities and towns. And does anyone actually use those 'internet kiosks'?! Australia's telecommunications system is archaic. But I guess in Turkey the were delivering packages to the wrong addresses, in Dubai my replacement credit cards are sent to places I haven't lived or worked in years, and the USA, well they still post people cheques (checks, to my American readers), yep, on paper... We've experienced them all this year. But, no, in this case, we really were too busy to send Christmas cards, e-cards, even email. As you'll notice from my lack of posting in December and November, I haven't had much time for blogging, or much time for anything other than travelling. We've been doing research and shooting photos in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, rising at dawn most days, spending all day on the road, driving hundreds of kilometres a day (and then some), eating dinner, then downloading images and re-charging batteries etc in preparation for it all to begin again the next day. It's been tough. We've spent a lot of time in the outback, on remote red-dust roads and corrugated bush tracks, driving through immense desolate landscapes for hours without seeing another person. We've only stopped to take photos, fill the fuel tank, drink tea from the thermos, make some lunch, and enjoy the silence. Because for much of the trip it's just between us and... well... the lizards, the kangaroos, some emus, lots of birds of prey, brumbies (wild horses), ferry donkeys, a dingo or two, oh, and some pretty cute koalas. I hope you'll all forgive me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Wide angles, wine and wanderlust

We're currently on the road in outback Australia, with little access to the internet, which is why you haven't been hearing from me much. However, my husband and co-writer, Terry, who occasionally posts here, has been inspired by various experiences (which no doubt he'll tell you about), to start his own blog: Wide angles, Wine and Wanderlust. You can read about why he started the blog and how he hopes to differentiate it from all the other travel, photography and food and wine blogs out there, here on the first post: Dear God, not another blog. We're in the Northern Territory and we're hitting the road again now and going bush, so you'll hear from me at the end of the week when we should have access to the internet again. Pictured? That's Terry shooting a pic of a gorgeous lizard on a post recently at Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai's nightmare: a terror attack on tourism (on innocents abroad - and at home)

Terry and I stayed at the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai on a trip to India about six years ago or so. We ate dinner at the Indian restaurant that was the scene of a seige by terrorists this week; the restaurant whose chef was one of the first to get shot. And after a sweaty day's sightseeing in the city, we'd cool off with a gin and tonic on the antique swing seat on the elegant terrace by the swimming pool, where this week guests stepped over corpses as they attempted to escape. I spent hours browsing in the hotel's excellent bookshop and took home a dozen or so novels by Indian writers - they were a bargain. If the destruction described in this story in the UK's Telegraph newspaper is indicative of the overall damage to the hotel, the bookshop is probably burnt out. We had lunch at the Oberoi another day, in its chic minimalist Italian restaurant, and I shopped myself silly at the shops there too - all the scene of another bloody rampage. At the Taj Mahal we stayed in the modern tower, as there'd been a mix up with our bookings and all the antique rooms were full, however, we nevertheless got a peek at one and they were as sumptuous as they looked on the hotel website. Having stayed and eaten at the hotels and explored the city streets where this week's horrific attacks took place has made it all the more real to me. Sure I'd been to the World Trade Centre before 9/11, but that was an attack on the USA's financial heart, a symbol of Western capitalism, of greed, of excess. It came as no surprise. That's not to downgrade that tragic event in any way, but there's something more potent about an attack on a hotel (as swish as these two were), a place where tourists and locals are relaxed, at ease, enjoying their leisure time - it's the last place they'd expect to be massaacred. The Taj Mahal Palace was indeed a grand old hotel. I hope it can be saved. But what I hope can be salvaged even more are the lives of the families and friends who lost their loved ones in Mumbai this week. (Read some of the moving first hand accounts of those who survived here.) I leave these Australian native flowers, a rare wattle from the East MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs, on the footpath outside the Taj, where Mumbai's destitute used to sleep. I hope they too can find a new home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Moonshadow Villas: accommodation with more than a little good karma

Do you believe in karma? I do. I believe we're responsible for our actions, that those actions determine our future, and that by making decisions about how we act we create our own destiny. So if we sow goodness, we'll reap goodness. When Moonshadow Villas in Darwin, Australia, was recommended to me when we were looking for somewhere special to stay, the Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) 1970's song Moonshadow began running through my head: "I'm being followed by a moon shadow... moon shadow, moon shadow... leapin' and hoppin' on a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow..." So I arrived at Moonshadow Villas already in a bit of a hippy head space. Then we discovered our welcome package - fresh mangos, champagne, beers, fresh bread, a jar of locally-made mango jam, chocolates, cereals... and learned that every guest staying in a villa (or apartment; more on those in another post) receives one of these very delicious starter kits. Located in a leafy inner city suburb of Darwin, overlooking the Botanic Gardens and minutes from the beach and city centre, the stylish architecturally designed villas (built by owner Peter and designed by wife Moya) are brimming with these sorts of thoughtful touches - lights automatically switched on as we approached (it was late and dark), air-conditioning and fans were on (Darwin's weather is like Dubai's - sultry), and ambient sounds, aromatic candles and scented incense wafted throughout the tranquil gardens, creating (along with the Buddha statues and fountains) a very serene and almost spiritual vibe. The design - which fuses typically Australian style (outdoor living, plunge pool, polished floor boards, corrugated iron walls, etc) with Asian influences (Chinese and Indonesian furniture, Balinese and Thai artifacts) reflects both Darwin's own multicultural make-up and the passions of Moya and Peter who have travelled extensively. The exquisite attention to detail and personal touches - from the pretty Chinese soaps and heavenly coconut shampoo and conditioner in the bathrooms, to the original art on the walls (much of it by Peter, along with other work they've collected over the years) - once again reflects their thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit. Staying here is like staying at the stylish home of a very good friend. They make you feel so welcome you don't want to leave, and when you do, you're already thinking of ways to return. Maybe if I'm very good...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Ghan: nothing like the romance of train travel to rekindle a love for travel

There's a certain romance about train travel that's hard to imagine if you're sleeping upright in cattle class on an overnight interstate train trip in Australia. Ugh. But Australia now has something that comes close to the likes of the luxurious Venice Simplon Orient Express in the romantic train stakes - the new Platinum class service on The Ghan. Named after the Afghan cameleers who trekked the same route from South Australia to 'the red centre' in the Northern Territory with their camel trains in the 19th century, the shiny silver Ghan takes two days and nights to travel the 3,000 kilometres between Adelaide, Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin. And then it trundles all the way back again. While you can travel on the Red or Gold Service, sleeping upright or on bunks in a snug sleeper cabin, respectively, the spacious Platinum class rooms (pictured) with flat beds, offer a level of comfort that's incomparable to other trains in Australia - as we were lucky to find out for ourselves recently! I'd spent my birthday working until the wee hours of the morning emailing files and maps to editors in London before we hit the road for a few months, and the next night Terry and I were hastily packing until the wee hours of the morning, trying to anticipate what we were likely to forget - aside from sleep and our senses of humour. So perhaps we appreciated that welcome glass of champagne a little more than the other passengers. And the bedside nightcap after dinner. And the coffee delivered to us in bed soon after dawn. There’s an endearingly old-fashioned restaurant car where three course meals were served with a smile (the staff are incredibly warm and friendly) and a smart-looking lounge bar, but our spacious rooms with private bathroom (including shower and toilet!) were very difficult to leave. Our two single beds were made up and stowed away while we dined, leaving plenty of room for us sit back and put up our feet and take in the changing scenery from either side of the train. Not that we had much time to enjoy it. Whistle-stop tours en route range from an early morning hot air balloon ride across the arid Alice Springs desert to an exhilarating helicopter flight over spectacular Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. We chose the latter - and it was thrilling! My main complaint about The Ghan? Not enough time on the train; I probably could have done without the tours. I enjoyed gazing at the stars from my bed so much and got a such a kick out of waking up with sunshine in my face, that I would have liked to have spent more time on board and spent longer watching the scenery change.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

In print and online

We're currently on the road in Australia and while our paid writing gigs and other demands have prevented me from posting much over the last month or two (explained here), I can thank a few other travel bloggers for some wonderful online coverage. I did a thought-provoking interview with globetrotting travel blogger Nomadic Matt which you can read over two posts (part 1 and part 2). Jessie from Wandering Educators interviewed me about our recently published Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guidebook, a book Terry and I coordinated and for which we wrote the Syria chapter; it was our second edition of that book and the last one we'll write for Lonely Planet. (Jessie is also giving away copies of the book.) The Happy Hotelier included an interview we did among his top 10 posts for October while the Mr and Mrs Smith blog listed Cool Travel Guide among their favorite travel blogs: do check out their other favorites when you get a chance. I'll post a list of my own soon too. Terry and I did manage to squeeze in a few reviews on Dubai for Fodors Hot Lists and you can read those here: September 3 (Westin Dubai), September 16 (Reflet Par Pierre Gagnaire), and October 1 (Dubai Desert Palm). I'll be uploading posts about our Aussie road trip very soon.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Life of a Travel Writer: when the travel writer needs to get 'away' from it all

My life as a travel writer is one I've come to treasure. So when people tell me I've got the ultimate dream job, I normally agree. However, it's been a tough few months, which explains the lack of blog posts. So tough there have been moments when my commitment to the writing career Terry and I have worked so hard to establish has well and truly wavered. So tough there have been times when I've questioned the very meaning of this travelling life. So tough that there have been more than a few periods when I've thought of abandoning everything and getting 'away' from it all. But when the world is our office, where do we get 'away' to? The fact that we didn't have much of a life at all for a few months was a major factor. Our time was spent chained to our desks writing from early morning to late at night seven days a week from August through October. We'd forgotten what it was like to do 'normal' things, to laze around and flick through a magazine, to watch a program on TV, to read a chapter of a book before bed, to go out for drinks with friends. I've been so busy I've missed birthdays; I worked until 2am on my own to meet deadlines. I've neglected family and friends whom I'm geographically close to for the first time in years (we're currently in Australia) and I'm consumed by guilt for not spending enough time with my mum who has gone through a couple of tough years herself following a road accident that left her without an eye and with an array of injuries. All this would be enough to make most people question the life they're leading. But add to that endless technological problems from excruciatingly slow and intermittent internet access and continuous inexplicable email problems (yes, I'm talking about you!) to couriers who deliver important documents to the wrong address and postal systems where send things astray. Trivial by comparison? Not when these communications systems are your main means of dealing with clients around the world. Add to that editors with their own communication and technology problems, editors with ongoing demands that far outweigh the fee they're paying, and editors who simply shouldn't be editors. But every job has its challenges, not all bosses are understanding, and nor are all colleagues easy to get along with. When the world's your office there's bound to be a glitch or two. Or three. And whose going to listen to a travel writer complain, right? Well, we're 'away' from it all now, so I hope to resume regular blogging soon and catch you up on the action-packed adventures we've been having.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Damascus' Best Boutique Hotel

Damascus boasts some of the Middle East's most beautiful boutique hotels, which I've written about before on Cool Travel Guide. Mostly they're enchanting old courtyard houses in the labyrinthine Old Town that have been exquisitely renovated with pretty fountains, cushioned sofas and the all-pervading scent of jasmine dripping from their walls. But Ghiath Machnock's Art House is something very different indeed. For one, it's set in a splendid old mill, which the architect spent years restoring, it has a stunning rooftop pool and terrace cafe, another atmospheric cafe-cum breakfast room inside, and rooms themed by Middle East artists and furnished with antique Syrian art deco furniture. Secondly, it's as much a cultural centre and art gallery as it is a hotel, with regular exhibitions of art, music recitals and cultural festivals; an opening night at one of these is not to be missed! Thirdly, it's not in the Old Town, it's on a hill overlooking Damascus, on the edge of the modern part of town. It's an area that few tourists get to, but one that's ideally located for the city's arty types and music students, for whom Ghiath has an open door policy. It's also handy for Beirut's creative set heading into town for the weekend - Lebanese pop musicians have been known to transfer their music studio here for a week's recording, so it's become a bit of an artist's retreat. In the year or so since it opened Art House has very quickly become a vital part of the city's cultural scene. You can read more about it here in Art of the Matter, a story we wrote for Jazeera Airline's funky in-flight magazine.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A message from this busy travel blogger

Please forgive me for the silence. It's been 10 days since my last post. I'm busy writing books and other stuff. But I'll be back in the travel blogosphere next week, I hope. In the meantime, I'll touch base on twitter every now and again. Well, a travelling girl chained to a desk for 18 hours a day 7 days a week needs some kind of release, right?

Woops, I almost forgot - you can read a little post I wrote for Mr and Mrs Smith who asked me to share my favorite spots and give them the lowdown on Dubai for their 'Inside' series. Check this out: Inside Dubai: the best bars, boutiques and restaurants.

Pictured? One of my favorite bars in Dubai. The first person to guess where it is? Well, I'll buy you a drink there when I'm back in town.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dubai on a budget: the best things in life are free

So what do budget travellers do in Dubai? There’s lots of fabulous stuff to do that is free or costs next to nothing. Your biggest costs are going to be hotels, transport and food: see this post for ideas on keeping those down. After that, Dubai’s your oyster:
1) Dubai’s museums
– Dubai boasts a number of fascinating but compact museums that take no more than an hour or so to see yet offer an extraordinary insight into the way of life in pre-oil days. Most museums are either free or cost a dirham (30 cents) or three (one dollar). Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi Fort, near the Bur Dubai waterfront is the best, providing a great introduction to Dubai’s rapid development through a multimedia presentation and engaging displays of musical instruments, coins, firearms, costumes, and jewellery, a rather whimsical and very kitsch life-size diorama of an old souq, and a small but superb archaeological exhibition. Also, don’t miss the lovely Heritage House, a restored pearling master's residence, and Al Ahmadiya School, Dubai’s first, near the Gold Souq in Deira.

2) Bastakiya – this tiny old labyrinthine quarter on the waterfront near Dubai Museum boasts breezy narrow lanes that are home to traditional Persian merchants' houses that have been restored and in some cases reconstructed; the area was ramshackle and almost lost until it was decided it should be rejuvenated in the late 90s. The buildings are now home to charming boutique hotels, superb art galleries such as XVA and Majlis Gallery, and atmospheric cafes such as the enchanting Basta Art CafĂ©. Try the refreshing Basta Special, a thirst-quenching fresh mint and lime juice drink.
3) Dubai Creek and Dhow Wharves
– it costs nothing to wander along the waterfront of Dubai’s buzzy Creek. From the Bastikya, stroll through Al Seef Road Park for spectacular views of the Deira skyline opposite, with its stunning architecture. We never tire of the reflections in the glass buildings of the shimmering water and dhows (old wooden trading boats) and abras (small wooden water taxis) cruising along the Creek. In the opposite direction, wander through the wooden arcades of lively Bur Dubai textile souq, and then take an abra (1dh/30 cents) across the Creek to Deira to saunter along the dhow wharves and check out the amazing stuff they load and unload from the boats – everything from enormous flat screen TVs to chickens and cars – and see how the guys live on these things! Or continue to stroll along the Bur Dubai side of the Creek to the…

4) Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum's House
– one of several wonderfully restored old houses lining the waterfront. This grand building, like most in this area was built from gypsum, coral and sand, and boasts big cooling courtyards and beautiful wind-towers, the traditional form of air-conditioning. The former residence of Dubai’s ruling family, it's home to a fascinating and eye-opening exhibition of old black and white photos of Dubai.

5) Heritage and Diving Village
– Dubai’s wealth initially came from the pearling industry and the city was once a diminutive pearling and fishing village, so visit this recreation of the first settlement at Shindagha, at the mouth of Dubai Creek to get an idea of what Dubai was like not all that long ago. There are barasti (palm frond) houses, a small souq, beautiful old wooden boats, and traditional performances (pictured), when you’ll see more Emiratis than tourists. It’s loveliest and liveliest in the evenings. Afterwards, you can head next door to the sprawling al fresco Arabic eatery KanZaman when you can feast on Arabic food (a few mezze and a juice will cost you around $10) and try the aromatic sheesha, as you savour the sublime views of Dubai Creek, enchanting at night when the fairylights twinkle on the boats.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Dispelling the biggest myth about Dubai

On a budget and want to visit Dubai? Don’t let its reputation as an expensive city of ‘7-star’ hotels and glitzy malls deter you. Nor the opinions of its critics who say Dubai is materialistic and has no soul – they probably didn’t get far from their luxury hotel. Or the nearest mall. So let’s dispel the biggest myth of all about Dubai, that it's prohibitively expensive. Dubai doesn’t have to be expensive at all and is in fact a whole lot cheaper than cities like London, New York, Paris and Sydney. Let’s take the areas where travellers spend most of their money: hotels, transport and food.
* HOTELS: the cheapest rates are online. Visit HotelsCombined and compare the prices in any category in Dubai with other cities to see how favorable Dubai's ratest are. Take a budget hotel chain like Express by Holiday Inn: in New York it costs $397 now, in London it’s going for $290 and in Dubai it’s $113. The Ibis on Sheikh Zayed Road has doubles for $100 while Le Meridien Residence in Deira is $75. A 1-star around the Gold Souq area will cost you between $35-70, Dubai's Youth Hostel is cheaper but lacks atmosphere and is in a terrible location. If you want something with character and charm in a fantastic situation, then a room at one of my favorite Dubai boutique hotels, Orient Guest House (pictured) in the Bastakiya will cost you $96 at the moment.

Stay in Deira or Bur Dubai and stick to Dubai Creek, the souqs, Shindagha and Bastakiya, and you can walk everywhere. Just don't go anywhere without a hat and bottle of water! You can take abras (public water taxis) back and forth across the Creek for AED 1, around 30 cents. There is a public bus service although the routes were devised more for expat workers so apart from the Jumeirah Beach Road line, it’s not that helpful to visitors and can be uncomfortable when stuck in traffic. Many of the 3-star hotels in Deira have free shuttle buses going to the beach and malls, while a taxi from Deira to Mall of the Emirates will cost you about 30 dirhams (around $8) and to Madinat Jumeirah around 40-50 dirhams (between $11-13).

* FOOD: Dubai’s fine dining restaurants are superb and can be expensive, but Dubai has scores of mid-range and budget eateries that are dirt cheap. You can buy a tasty shwarma for AED 3.50 (less than $1) and a freshly squeezed mango juice for AED 6 (around $1.50) from a stall in the souq area. Or you could share a spread of several dishes at a sit-down meal at an Arabic, Pakistani or Indian eatery for as little as $10 per person. Most of these places don’t serve alcohol, but if you want a glass of wine or beer you could go to Noodle House (at Emirates Towers and Madinat Jumeirah), and have a big curry laksa or Peking duck and a drink for around $12-15.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Does anyone still research the place they're heading to before they travel?

'Is it hot in Dubai?', 'Do you know when Ramadan is?' and 'Am I right in thinking that as an Arab country there are some booze restrictions?' were just some of the questions asked of me by readers of the NineMSN Travel site during a live chat, that went hand-in-hand with our Dubai Insider’s Guide. It was fun to interact with people and give advice, because we rarely get to communicate with readers of our books and articles. The 'live' element was challenging. Several minutes before the designated start, a few messages popped up before I was bombarded with multiple Messenger boxes on my screen. Because I didn’t want to lose anyone, I jumped between boxes: 'Hi! How are you? Hang on please, I’ll get to you in a moment…” and then jumped back to the first person in queue. I fielded questions from 30 people in 60 minutes, and only lost four, which I thought was pretty good. There were specific questions like: 'I'm flying to London from Sydney later in the month and was planning to have a night or two in Dubai... what would be your top five things to do including two great places to eat? and 'If you were planning a holiday to Dubai, for 2 weeks say, how much spending money would be required and how much would 4* hotel be?' Readers asked about everything from the language spoken to safety issues for women - and Australians. One person wrote '... just wondering what image of Dubai to believe – that it's a nice holiday venue with good weather and facilities, or a building site packed with c-list celebs on free holidays given to them to boost exposure and tourism?' Good question. The exercise raised a lot of questions for me as a travel writer: Do people still do research before they travel? Or is pre-trip research a thing of the past? Will any of these people buy my guidebooks to Dubai before they go? And why haven’t they bought one by now? Or do travellers these days mainly rely on the Internet for their information, whether its TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree or MSNTravel’s live chats? If so, will they have a less enjoyable or less meaningful time than if they did some real research and took a guidebook? Why am I even spending 18 hours a day writing guidebooks? Maybe I should become a ‘live chat host’ instead?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dealing with loneliness on the road

Do you ever get lonely when you travel? If not, why not? And what do you do to prevent the onset of loneliness, especially if you regularly travel alone? How do you deal with it? I must admit I don't think I know how it really feels to be lonely. Possibly because I've always been so busy. And for me, that's one way to keep loneliness at bay - travel with (a) purpose. But I do know what it means to be lonely, and my heart goes out to people I see when I travel who seem miserably alone. Some experienced travellers advise to prepare for it, others suggest embracing it. Over at, Eric Daams has asked a bunch of travel bloggers to reflect on loneliness on the road and provide tips for travellers (great idea, don't you think?), and you can read them all here.

So, do you get lonely when you travel? And how do you cope with it?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9 Reasons to Love Ramadan: part 2

Five more reasons why I think Ramadan is a fabulous time to visit the Middle East, continued from part 1:
5. Lively Nights
– by contrast to the somnolent days, Ramadan nights are spirited. After Iftar (when everyone breaks their fast at sunset) the streets come alive. Whole cities are on the move as people pile into their cars to visit family and friends. Hotels hold Iftar buffets and set up special Ramadan tents and the nights are long.

6. Ramadan is a good excuse to watch TV – remember the good old days before the Internet, Google, Facebook, e-Bay and Twitter, when families and friends used to sit around and bond as they watched TV together? Ramadan is all about a return to such good old-fashioned fun. A high-ratings period in the Middle East, all the best Arabic-language programs (game shows, talk shows, melodramatic serials) premiere, some made especially for Ramadam.
7. Iftar
– the main meal of the day after the break of the fast is shared by families at home or worshippers at mosques who tuck into a communal meal together, spread picnic-like on the ground. Muslim and non-Muslims alike also head out for lavish Iftar buffets. Every hotel holds them and they’re great value, a must for travellers! At hotels in the UAE, there’s also a Ramadan tent with cushions and carpets where you can enjoy sheesha while you play traditional games and listen to oud music.

8. Succulent Dates and Sweets
– many Muslims break their fast with dates and milk, a tradition dating back to the Prophet Mohammad who broke his fast with this humble meal before prayer. Platters of dates are always present at Iftar buffets and on coffee tables during Ramadan, along with traditional Arabic sweets such as the tasty katayef, a deep-fried pastry of ricotta, crushed walnuts, and sweet lemon and rosewater syrup - a great way to get that much-needed energy boost.

9. It ends with a holiday Eid Al Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. For Muslims, the three-day long celebration begins with prayers and visits to family to exchange gifts. Then everyone’s off to the malls to the movies. Eid is the busiest time of year for cinemas, much like the post-Christmas period in the West. Once the Moonsighting Committee does its job, we’re usually on a plane somewhere. Especially if that three-day Eid joins up with a weekend, we get a nice long break.

The photo? The dome and minaret of a typical mosque in the United Arab Emirates, this one at Abu Dhabi.

9 Reasons to Love Ramadan: part 1

Many travellers avoid the Middle East during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but I think it’s a fab time to visit. Why? Well, you’ll have to read my post 9 Reasons to Love Ramadan on Viator. In short?
1. It’s all about the moon – what’s not to love about a festival that only begins once a Moonsighting Committee has sighted the new crescent moon with the naked eye. Who needs science and technology?! For expats, guessing the dates is a source of amusement with a serious intent – so we can figure out when the Eid Al Fitr holiday is going to begin. While some people book flights left right and centre, others make last minute decisions. I have lots of memories of picking up visas from embassies on the way to the airport!
2. Lazy Days – as Muslims fast during daylight hours (and abstain from smoking, drinking and ‘intimacy’), non-Muslims also can’t eat or drink in public, so because everyone is lethargic and lacking energy and concentration, working hours are officially shorter. The pace slows down and the cities have a more languid feel to them.
3. Silent Streets
– the cacophony of noise that Middle Eastern cities normally produce also subsides with Ramadan – at least during the day. Apart from the early afternoon when everyone rushes home to take a nap before breaking their fast, the streets are silent and empty. It’s sublime. It’s a fantastic time to leisurely explore a city.

4. The Call to Prayer Sounds Better
– a familiar sound in the Middle East, the muezzin sings the melodic call to prayer from the mosque five times a day, encouraging Muslims to come to pray. It’s generally broadcast from tinny loudspeakers fixed to the mosque’s minarets. I don’t know why it sounds better during Ramadan. Is the muezzin trying harder? Do the empty streets allow it to reverberate more loudly and with more clarity? Or are we just more conscious of it?

To be continued here. Pictured? A traditional mosque at Abu Dhabi Heritage Village.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

What do you want to know about Dubai? Just ask away...

Just a reminder that we're going to be around for a live chat on Wednesday 10th Sept., for one hour from 5pm to 6pm Sydney and Melbourne time. A reader asked me what time that was going to be in the USA? To give you an idea, it means we start at noon Wednesday Dubai time, 9am Wednesday London time, 4am Wednesday New York time, and 1am Portland time. The live chats go hand in hand with the launch of our Dubai Insiders Guide on the NineMSN Travel site, and have been organized by NineMSN Travel. Using Windows Live Messenger you can chat to us and ask us anything you want about travelling to Dubai, or even moving to Dubai and living there. You can ask us for hotel or restaurant recommendations for that one stopover you have scheduled next month to suggestions for things to do out or Dubai to tips on great watering holes. Get the Live Chat Instructions HERE. You just have to add us as one of your MSN Messenger contacts. Our Messenger ID is Then simply send us an instant message with a few questions. Until tomorrow...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Western Australia in Wanderlust

Western Australia is this wonderful vast place in Australia that boasts the country's best beaches, best weather, most breathtaking landscapes, and the most enviable laidback lifestyle of all of Australia's states. It takes up around a third of the country yet has only a tenth of the nation's population so there are lots of wide open spaces. But what I love about it is that even when you're in the middle of nowhere you'll come across the most extraordinary things, like this fridge stencilled with a camel which we came across on a dusty backroad in the outback near the rabbit proof fence. Western Oz was the first state I ever travelled to - aged four years old - in Australia, from my home town of Sydney. It's also the state we return to the most often when we go back to Australia these days, whether it's for writing assignments or to visit family. And it's the state I'm most fond of now. For a whole variety of reasons, but mainly because of its natural beauty, its spectacular outback, its quirky spirit, its fascinating characters, and its fabulous food and wine! You can read more about Western Australia in my piece for UK travel magazine Wanderlust, which is this month's cover story. If you live outside of the UK, you can download a copy of the story from my Media Bistro page.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Shopping Cyprus

When you think of shopping in Cyprus, Lefkara lace is probably about all that comes to mind. As lovely as it is, if you know where to look and what to buy, Cyprus has some gorgeous surprises in store, in both the North and the South. While Larnaka and Nicosia have some fabulous boutiques and design stores, you won't find anything you can't buy outside of Cyprus, so the best buy is traditional handicrafts. Handmade lace and embroidery is what the island is celebrated for. There's a long tradition of lacemaking using traditional techniques passed down from generation to generation, the most coveted lace being lefkaritika from the village of Lefkara. You'll also find rustic textiles, including bedcovers, wall hangings and tablecloths, made in the North (where the colors are more vibrant and the styles are more Turkish) and the South (where they tend to come in neutral colours in heavy natural wools, which is more typically Mediterranean). Other handicrafts include colourful handwoven baskets, rustic pottery, ceramics, and glassware, lovely olive wood products (including big beautiful bowls and wooden cooking and salad spoons), and chic jewellery (often contemporary interpretations of ancient Cypriot styles). Aside from the villages where traditional handicrafts are still made - Omodos, Fyti, Liopetri, Sotira, Xylofagou, Geroskipou, Koloni, Omodos and Foini are all good places to look in the South - the best place to buy handicrafts in the South is at the government-run Cyprus Handicraft Centre and in the North at the Buyuk Han in Northern Nicosia. If you're taking things from the North to the South and are unlucky to get searched at the border, your Northern goodies might get confiscated. Hopefully, as border restrictions relax, that's one rule that will be scrapped.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Northern Cyprus: 10 reasons to go now

Want to go to a place where you can take a stroll with some shepherds, scramble about soaring castles, fill up on a 'full kebab' and walk 'the line'? Then take a look at my story Northern Cyprus: 10 Reasons to Go Now which has just gone up on the Nine MSN Travel site to see why I think you need to go soon. The 'line' you'll walk, by the way, is 'the Green Line', the UN-buffer zone that currently separates the North and South of Cyprus. The fact that talks are currently underway between the leaders of both sides to pull down the borders and unite the country is the main reason I think you should visit soon. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for unification. But if you haven't seen Northern Cyprus the way it is now, you should, before it's too late. It will become a very different place once the country is united, for better and possibly - but I hope not - for worse.

Pictured? Another good reason to go - the Turkish Delight, or lokum. Yum!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Got any questions about Dubai?

Join me for a live chat about Dubai and the UAE on Wednesday 10 September 5-6pm Sydney time when you can ask me anything you want about Dubai, the UAE, travelling and living there. You might have seen our Dubai Insiders Guide on the NineMSN Travel site? Well, as part of the launch of the Insiders Guides the nice people at NineMSN Travel have made it possible for the insiders to chat to travellers about their home cities. Using Windows Live Messenger you can have a live chat and ask anything you want about the destination, from tips on places only locals know about, to what it's like to live in those cities. Take a look at the other Insiders Guides and transcripts of chats so far with the local travel writers based in London, New York, Beijing, and Vietnam (woops, sorry, I forget to tell you about those) and log on for a chat with Tom Walter about Queenstown next Monday 8th September 11am Sydney time, and join Terry and I for a chat on Wednesday. Looking forward to talking to you. Live Chat Instructions HERE. It's easy. You just have to add us as one of your MSN Messenger contacts. Our Messenger ID is Then next Wednesday 8th September between 5-6pm Sydney time (Australian Eastern Standard time), send us an instant message with one or two of your Dubai or UAE questions.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting (intended to teach humility, patience and discipline), started in the Islamic World with the sighting of the new moon today. Ramadan Kareem to all my friends in the UAE and the rest of the Middle East. I'll be posting more about Ramadan in the next few days. Pictured? Delicious dates from Al Ain in the UAE. Traditionally, Muslims break their fast after sunset each day with dates.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Top 10 things to buy in Dubai, pt 2

Oh yes, there are more exotic goodies to buy in Dubai...
6) Carpets and kilims - the UAE has a reputation for having the finest quality carpets in the region at the lowest prices. This is because there is a discerning audience of locals and expats who know their carpets (and know how to bargain!), there's no tax, and because Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are just across the sea, so the carpets don't have far to travel. Carpet come from far and wide but the best buys are obviously Persian carpets.

7) Gold and gems
- after carpets, gold is the next best value buy, while diamonds are increasingly becoming a good buy. The gold market is huge in Dubai with locals and wealthy Indian and Arab expats being the biggest buyers. They're mostly buying for wedding dowries, as well as investment. Rarely do tourists walk away without something sparkly either. You'll find anything that glitters at the Gold Souq. The Gold and Diamond Centre is also a great place to shop but the Souq offers a quintessential Dubai experience.

8) Textiles
- most of the fabulous fabrics at Bur Dubai's textile souq come from India, Bangladesh and East Africa, so you can expect to find lots of vibrant fabrics. Bur Dubai’s Textile Souq is the place to shop, but the sari stores in the back streets are also worth a look - the Indian saris make wonderful curtains and bed throws.

9) Middle Eastern souvenirs
- Dubai has it all: spangly sequined slippers from India and Pakistan to the more exotic curly-toed Aladdin slippers from Afghanistan; colourful glass lanterns and chandeliers from Syria and Morocco; exquisite mother-of-pearl inlaid wooden furniture from Syria; Egyptian cotton sheets and clothes; the softest pashmina shawls and colourful embroidered coats from Kashmir and Nepal; gorgeous beaded cushion covers and bedspreads from India; miniature paintings from Iran and Turkey; bellydancing outfits from Egypt; sheesha pipes from everywhere... and I could go on...

10) Kitsch souvenirs
- if you're a collector of kitsch or you want to buy a dozen little trinkets for the staff at the office, then you'll go out of your mind trying to decide what to buy as Dubai just has so much of this kooky stuff, from mosque-shaped alarm clocks that play the call-to-prayer when they go off to keyrings dangling with tiny iconic Dubai buildings, to Sheikh Mohammed coffee cups and t-shirts, and a million things that come in the shape of a camel. And I hear you can still pick up a Saddam Hussein cigarette lighter (which sends an electric current up your arm when you flick it!) if you're prepared to pay for it.

Top 10 things to buy in Dubai, pt 1

Here's a rundown of my Dubai shopping list, and I have to admit it's the same one I usually gave to guests who came to stay:
1) Silver Bedouin jewellery,
khanjars and other trinkets - most of the beautiful Bedouin jewellery you'll see in Dubai comes from the UAE and Arabian Peninsula, although some also comes from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India; ask and most retailers will be honest with you. Expect to find heavy silver bangles, anklet bracelets, engraved pendants, striking necklaces and pretty bridle head-dresses. Bedouin khanjars (daggers) make a stunning souvenir; you can also buy them framed if you live somewhere with restrictions on bringing knives into the country. Also look out for intricately engraved Koran holders and little silver kohl pots with a tiny wand attached by a fine chain.
2) Emirati handicrafts - traditionally Bedouin people, Emiratis carried little with them as they moved between desert and sea, so there isn't a huge variety of local handicrafts but you will find bright red-striped camel blankets and bags (that make wonderful cushions and ottomans), simple rustic kilims, and hand-woven palm-frond baskets and shoulder bags, and - my favorite - floor mats and cone-shaped covers used for keeping the flies off the food. They're perfect for picnics.

3) Brass and copperware - even if you're not normally a fan of either you'll love all the gorgeous stuff you can buy here, from traditional Arabian coffee pots and tea pots with tiny brass cups, to big intricately engraved trays that sit on little wooden legs, to gorgeous genie lamps...

4) Oriental perfume - whether you buy the
oud (scented wood) and attars (essential oils) from a stall in the souq, sold in plain label-free bottles and containers, or you visit one of the opulent Oriental perfume shops, popular with the wealthier locals, you must buy some of the heady fragrances worn by local women. They're more spicy and pungent, and therefore hard to forget. Wear them back home and you'll definitely turn heads.
5) Frankincense - you'll see Omani frankincense sold in jute sacks in the Spice Souq (that's what those small golden rocks are). It's used by Emiratis to perfume their clothes and homes. Attend a local wedding and women will walk around the room with an incense burner so you can waft incense over yourself. You can buy the frankincense by weight, sold in brown paper bags, or in a pre-packaged kit (a better souvenir) including a small burner and coal. (Magic Coal is the best.) Ahh, I can smell it now...

What to buy in Dubai: let's get something straight

So what should you buy in Dubai? Well, at the top of your Dubai shopping list should be those fabulous things that you probably already associate with shopping the Middle East – carpets, perfume, gold, spices, and frankincense - but there are lots of other exotic goodies you should add to your list, such as Bedouin jewellery and a few kitsch Arabian souvenirs. To state the obvious first - as Dubai and the UAE get a lot of criticism for this - while these gorgeous things are made for the local market, most are not made in Dubai or the UAE. But have you looked at the tag on that toy koala you bought in Australia? It was probably made in China or South Korea. The same goes for that tiny Eiffel Tower you bought in Paris. But there are some authentic must-buys and they're at the top of my list... have you got a pen?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

10 Reasons to Shop Dubai - a taster

Since you twisted my bangled arm, here's a taste of my 10 Reasons to Shop Dubai or The Ultimate Dubai Shopping Guide. Visit Viator for the full article, which includes fab extras like what to buy where, and a lesson in bargaining.
1.Dubai Shopping Festival - citywide sales, massive discounts, crazy promotions, extravagant raffle prizes, entertainment, street fairs, food stalls, nightly fireworks, and cultural activities, in the cool winter months (Jan-Feb).
2.Dubai Summer Surprises - summer (Jun-Aug) equivalent; hotel prices are slashed but it’s a sweltering 45 degrees Celsius outside. It's as if you’re in a giant sauna or God has placed a blow heater above Dubai. An experience!
3.Dubai’s Shopping Malls - I’m not a fan of malls normally; give me a shopping 'hood like Amsterdam’s Nine Streets any day. But in Dubai, where it’s too hot to stroll the streets for six months, malls make sense. Dubai’s malls boast restaurants, cinemas, theatres, art galleries, child minding centres, mosques, and ski slopes!

4.Mall of the Emirates - my favourite; enormous, opulent, marble floors, spacious ‘avenues’, fab selection of shops, swish Harvey Nichols, Virgin Megastore, superb restaurants (Almaz by Momo) and bars (Apres), chic Kempinski Mall of the Emirates, and indoor ski slopes.
5.Dubai’s Souqs - these bustling bazaars aren't the most attractive (get Marrakesh and Istanbul out of your head) but they’re atmospheric, gritty, ramshackle, and real; they don't exist for tourists, this is where real people shop for everyday stuff.
6.Because in Dubai Bargaining is a Fine Art - part of the fun of shopping Dubai’s souqs is haggling; it’s not a requirement as in Cairo or Istanbul, but if you pay the first price offered, you’re probably paying double the value. See my Viator article for bargaining tips.

7.Dubai’s Best Buys - Dubai’s best buys are carpets, textiles, perfume, spices, and gold. Buy these and other exotic goodies at the Spice Souq, Deira’s Covered Souqs, Gold Souq, Bur Dubai’s Textile Souq, and Karama Souq. (I tell you what to buy where on Viator.)

Souq Madinat Jumeirah - this wonderful air-conditioned, contemporary take on a souq is the place to shop when you can’t face the souq chaos, the heat has got to you, you’re not in the mood for bargaining, or you want a chilled glass of white with lunch. Prices are higher but the quality is better.
9. Dubai’s Homegrown Fashion - Dubai’s fashion scene is blooming; watch cheeky young designer Raghda Bukhash, whose fabulous
Pink Sushi label playfully appropriated the red and white gutra (Arab men’s headdress) to produce cute skirts, handbags and clutches, well before everyone started wearing gutras in Europe. Available at Amzaan, owned by princess Sheikha Maisa al-Qassimi. Other hip boutiques stocking local fashion include Five Green and S*uce.
10. Dubai’s Shopping Hours - 10am-10pm daily for malls; stores outside malls close afternoons and on Friday (Muslim day of worship). Shopping is most fun in the evening when locals shop. It means nights end late, but what are days for if not dozing by the pool?

The Ultimate Dubai Shopping Guide

When we arrived in the UAE over 10 years ago, the guy from my company who picked us up from the airport chatted all the way into town, giving us a detailed intro to the country while extolling the virtues of living in Dubai compared to Abu Dhabi – where we’d just moved! “… and Dubai has a shopping festival!” he proclaimed proudly. In those days, Abu Dhabi didn’t even have a mall so we’d have to drive to Dubai to do real shopping, like buy an espresso machine for the apartment. A shopping festival was something else! If a little weird… what kind of country had a festival dedicated to shopping, we wondered. Abu Dhabi now boasts several swanky shopping centres, but Dubai, with its scores of malls and souqs is still the King of Shopping, and according to my husband Terry, I’m the Queen of Shopping, which is why I’ve written the Ultimate Dubai Shopping Guide, or 10 Reasons to Shop Dubai for Viator. You can read the full story here.

The Guardian summer holiday travel writing competition: the winners are announced!

The Guardian summer holiday travel writing competition winners have been announced and you can read the best 50 stories - five winners and 45 runner-ups - on the paper's website. 1300 stories were submitted. I actually expected they might have received more entries. Perhaps the thought of an editor cutting the stories from 500 to 100 words was too much for some? The winners included Blue Spanish Skies, a tale about hiking in Mallorca, Bathing by Numbers, about a beach holiday in Croatia, and Moor the Merrier, about a boating trip on the Thames. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading the winning stories, I must admit I found the edited entries a tad frustrating to read - sometimes it was as if the narrative was just beginning to engage and then they were cut short (funny about that), while at other times they simply made no sense, as if a chunk was missing from the middle. I can understand why the Guardian wouldn't publish the full pieces in the paper version of the newspaper, but I'm not quite sure what the point was in editing them for the website. I'd love to read them in their entirety. What did you think?

These guys? They're in a back street of the medina in Marrakesh. Arguing over which story they liked best no doubt.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The world's most jawdropping drives, pt 2

Here's the second part of my pick of the world's most jawdropping drives from roads we've travelled in the last few years (read part 1 here). I've categorized these great drives by region and country, as some destinations are gifted with so many dramatically beautiful routes:
6. MOROCCO: one of our favorite road trips starts from Marrakesh, heading east to Essaouira, then south via the surfing spots dotting the coast down to Agadir, before turning inland toward the walled city Taroudant, and on to other-worldly Ouarzazate, Zagora and the tiny hamlet Mhmed, the last stop before the Sahara, returning to Marrakesh via the Atlas Mountains. The trip took us through moonlike landscapes, sublime desert scenery, abandoned mountain palaces, Berber desert citadels, and date palm oases. Magical!
we once drove from Koh Samui (via a car ferry) across the south of Thailand to Phuket. This route takes you through lush green tropical landscapes boasting striking limestone mountains and impenetrable jungle. On the way are tiny towns with bustling markets and diversions such as elephant trekking and whitewater rafting, but the drive itself with the stunning scenery was enough to keep us satisfied.

: the roads may be in a poor state, pot-holed and breaking away in parts, and the Cyrillic signs mean you need to continually refer to your dictionary, yet other than that driving in Bulgaria is a road trippers' dream, with idyllic rural landscapes with lush green meadows carpeted with wildflowers, where ramshackle villages tumble down mountainsides, and striking war monuments appear in the most surprising places. You'll have to frequently stop for cows and
families will pass you on wooden horses and carts, but that's part of the fun of it.
9. MUSANDAM, OMAN: from the UAE border to Khasab, the sleepy capital of the Musandam Peninsula of Oman, a road skirts the magnificent coast, taking you by majestic forts, mosques with pretty minarets, date palm oases, hills topped with watchtowers, and small coves where fisherman haul in nets. The whole way you have on one side sheer rocky mountains and on the other the turquoise sea. (For more info, see my story 'Dhows, dolphins and smugglers' published in the January issue of Get Lost magazine here)
there's a drive in the Liwa region through the sandy desert near the border with Saudi Arabia that snakes through massive peach- and apricot-coloured sand dunes. There's very little vegetation, just an occasional small shrub, and the dunes are dotted with long-lashed camels. This is real Lawrence of Arabia stuff! As the sand is continually shifting it dramatically 'bleeds' across the road from time to time. (Read more in my story 'Dubai's Desert Escapes' published in Lifestyle+Travel magazine, available

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The world's most jawdropping drives, pt 1

We do a lot of driving as part of our guidebook research - rather, my partner and co-author Terry drives and I do the trip planning and navigating. So it's inevitable that some of the most memorable aspects of our trips are the roads we drive. I stumbled across Matador's The World's Most Spectacular Roads, which inspired this post. As I only write about places I've been, here's my pick of some of the globe's most jawdropping drives from the roads we've travelled over the last few years. I've categorized them by country or region, as some destinations are gifted with so many dramatically beautiful routes:
1. WESTERN AUSTRALIA: this colossal island's most stunning drives are in the West.
Our favorites are in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of the Northwest, especially those through the area's national parks, including Karjini, Purnululu (Bungle Bungles), Millstream-Chichester and the Kennedy Range National Parks. Empty roads run through flat arid outback landscapes sprinkled with strange wildflowers, incredible rock formations, and mountains sliced with deep river gorges. These are also the country's most isolated roads (pictured) where you can drive 900 kilometres between towns and not see a soul, so a 4WD with extra fuel, water and supplies is recommended.
MAINLAND GREECE: the country's mainland boasts some of the planet's most breathtaking drives. Those we've loved best are the road from Edessa via Florina and Pisoderi to the splendid Prespa Lakes and fishing village of Psarades, near the border with Macedonia and Yugoslavia, which boasts some of the most pristine country we've come across; the narrow roads through the high country of the Pindos range with their monstrous rugged snow-capped mountains, hills thick with shrubs in every shade of green, and grey granite rock formations around Vikos Gorge; and the wild ruggedly beautiful Mani region of the Peloponnese (read more about our Greek travels on our Lonely Planet Greece Trip Journal).
CRETE: yes, we know Crete is an island of Greece, but Crete has so many amazing drives with spectacular scenery it deserves a listing of its own. The high roads of the isolated southeast coast skirt the mountains offering virtually birds-eye-view sea vistas, scenic routes snake through the elevated rural plateaus of central Crete offering picturesque views of villages and farmland, while the views from the windy roads of the west coast are so awe-inspring you'll find yourself stopping at every turn to take photos.
CALABRIA: Aspromonte, Sila and Pollino National Parks in Calabria, Italy, offer breathtaking scenery. In all three national parks, high roads snake through thick forests that form canopies over the roads - the drives are spooky in parts (very dark and moody) and the air fresh and fragrant. But once out of the woods, the views are almost always stunning, whether it's a vista of a hilltop village cascading down a mountain or a field blanketed with wildflowers.
CYPRUS: good narrow roads criss-cross the central Troodos mountains through thick aromatic pine forests dotted with Byzantine fresco-filled churches and splendid monasteries, the most impressive being the serpentine road through Cedar Valley; in the northwest, from Pomos to Kato Pyrgos, pretty fishing harbours bob with boats while around Kato Pyrgos the road rises to majestic heights, where it's just the mountain goats enjoying magnificent coastal vistas; and in Northern Cyprus, the road through the Karpaz Peninsula takes you through pristine country where wild donkeys graze on green meadows, by pretty turquoise coves watched over by crumbling Byzantine churches, and to one of the island's best beaches, a wide stretch of sand backed by high dunes.
Read part 2 here.