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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.