Saturday, December 16, 2023

48 Hours in Dubai, UAE

Trip date: January 2023

I hadn't been to Dubai or the UAE before, so that is reason enough for me to take a trip, but really I wanted to fly in Emirates Business Class on their direct Dubai to Seattle flight. 

I transferred some points to Aeroplan and booked an economy flight from Cairo to Dubai via Air Canada on Egyptair (did you know that you could do that? I just recently learned how!)

It was a quick 3 1/2 hour flight and passport control in Dubai was easy and fast. I was in a taxi and at the Raffles Hotel 10 minutes after leaving the airport. I had booked the hotel thru my Amex Fine Hotels + Resorts portal which gave me a $200 card credit along with free breakfast and $100 resort credit. 

My room wasn't quite ready when I arrived, so they sat me in the bar with a comped glass of wine and some snacks which was nice. When I was taken up to my room, the valet let me know that they had upgraded me to a room with a gorgeous skyline view! It was huge with a balcony, living room, walk-in closet, massive bathroom, and a butler!!!! 

That evening I set out to have drinks at a couple of cocktail bars that are currently on The 50 Best list. First up was Bulgari Bar in the hotel by the same name. This is on Jumeirah Bay Island, so it's a bit of a drive from where I was, but the drinks and the gorgeous bar were worth the taxi. Pro tip: taxis in Dubai are cheaper than Uber and easily hailed by hotels. But if you are approached by a "taxi" make sure you agree on the price first as they could actually be a private car and charge you double!

The staff at Bulgari are so great and all my cocktails were delicious. I sat inside the bar for a bit and then noticed their awesome balcony overlooking the water, so moved there for a snack and another drink. 

My next stop was Mimi Kakushi at the Four Seasons Resort, also on Jumeirah. The bar here is quite small, as the space is primarily a restaurant, but it's very cute and the bartender was great. They are known for their Botanist martini which is frozen inside a block of ice and is picked out.

Fun, and a great martini, but $50 to watch him hack thru to the bottle and pour it in my glass wasn't exactly worth it to me. I enjoyed my one drink and tabbed out.

I had my driver drop me off near Burj Khalifa Park and made my way to the lake where the Dubai Fountain performs every 30 minutes until 11pm. It was super easy to get a great spot on the boardwalk and while waiting for the show the Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest building at 2717 feet tall) has an lightshow going on which was so gorgeous!

Then the fountains started, choreographed to music of course. If you've seen the fountains at Bellagio in Las Vegas, these are very similar, but because this is Dubai everything is even more fancy and spectacular. I loved it!

When I got back to the hotel, I stopped by the bar to grab a glass of wine to take to my room but was told that it is illegal to walk through the hotel with alcohol so they had to have room service bring it up to me. UAE is a Muslim country, so technically a dry, but they also grant special licenses to hotels and bars (most are a part of a hotel) because they want all the international tourism. It's interesting for sure!

My butler had turned down my room and turned on the Moroccan lights and it was just a stunning place to enjoy my wine when it arrived! 

The next morning I headed to the breakfast room and was completely blown away by the massive buffets. Pretty much anything you could want was available! There were tables laden with middle eastern options, Italian, dim sum, pastries, carving stations, egg stations, salad bar, pancakes & waffles with so many toppings including honey on the comb. It was really an impressive set up!

I ate and then took an Uber to the Dubai Mall. Driving through town is like being on an architecture tour! There are so many fascinating buildings to look at!

I arrived at the Fashion Avenue entrance and spent a lot of time finding my way through to the entrance for the Top of the Tower. I was very excited to be going up in the Burj Khalifa and I had bought a SKY ticket in advance. The ticket wasn't cheap, I spent about $150, but I didn't have to queue up at all and instead was shown into a lounge where I could sit with the others before being escorted through a series of back hallways and executive elevators.

This was pretty cool as we also were walked past multiple very long queues of ticket holders and allowed to board elevators before them. Different elevators go to different floors; you have to travel past the floors of the Armani Hotel, the Residences, corporate offices, and the regular restaurant. It takes a while just to get to floor 125 which is where the "regular" ticket holders start. 

My VIP group started on the 148th floor and were welcomed into a private observation room with coffee, juice, dates (which UAE are known for), and of course some truly incredible views from 1820 feet up!

The observation space is almost a full 360 of windows, so you can walk around for a complete view, and there is also an area that you can walk outside! It's VERY windy up that high and also pretty exhilarating!

There's no time limit on your stay at 148, when you are ready you are able to take the elevator down to floor 125. At 1496 feet you are still very high up but being a tad closer to the other buildings makes the view a bit better (at least on this day which was hazy with sand from the desert!)

However, there are A LOT of people on this floor! There's also some souvenir stands, and this graphic which looks like the floor is clear glass and then it makes breaking sounds as you walk across it! Very funny!

You can walk down a flight to floor 124 which is another outdoor terrace, this one is full of selfie takers!

There was a very long queue for the elevator to get down but my VIP ticket gave me access to a private line and just 3 of us were ushered into the elevator. Within 60 seconds we were all the way back down!! So fast! As you exit through a hallway there are panels which tell all about the construction of the tower. It's all super interesting!

But wait... there's more!

I was still in the Dubai Mall which is home to every designer store there is. Literally. The mall is massive, it's actually the 2nd largest in the world, and as I wandered around window shopping I often had to check the maps to see my location. I was making my way to the Dubai Aquarium.

After shopping for your Gucci you can then visit the 13th largest aquarium in the world. 2.7 million gallons of water are home over 140 total species, including 300+ sharks and rays. I didn't go in but just watching the marine life through the huge glass was pretty cool.

And all that before lunch! 

Back at the Raffles, I picked out a comfy lounge chair by the pool, had a delicious Mediterranean salad and a Dubai Sling (the original Raffles is home to the Singapore Sling), and spent the day swimming and soaking up the sun.
Late in the afternoon I had an hour massage at the hotel spa, and I can honestly say it was the best massage I've ever had! The whole spa was great in that my massage room had its own bathroom and closet vs having a communal locker room. Also, they set you in semi-private areas on comfy loungers before and after my service and offered tea and dates. Best part was I used my $100 hotel credit for the massage!

That night I went out for dinner at Orfali Bros which I was looking forward to as the menu looked great. And the food was actually super tasty but every server told me numerous times that the menu was meant to be shared. It made me feel a bit unwelcomed. Add that to the fact that the restaurant is dry, I didn't linger over my meal. 

After dinner I went to check out the stunning Galaxy Bar. Wow, this is one of the prettiest cocktail lounges I have been in, and the drinks were excellent as well. 

I stayed for a couple of rounds until the DJ started. He was good but I prefer a quieter bar, if you do too just go early. 

Back at the hotel, I packed and turned in early as I had a chauffeur from Emirates airline picking me up at 7am for my First Class flight home to Seattle!

All photos from Dubai here

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Exploring Cario

Trip date: January 2023

Cairo, the last stop on our Egypt trip, is the largest city in Africa and the 6th largest city in the world. 24 million people live in the 1000 year old capital which also boasts 1000 minarets. It is crowded, dusty, smoggy, and loud! 

We chose to stay in Zamalek, which is an island neighborhood on the Nile. It's quieter here, and a bit more metropolitan. It's also where most of the embassies are located, not that we would need one, but the architecture on them was lovely. Our hotel, the Hotel Flamenco, was basic but had big rooms, a bar, and was well located.

One day we spent the entire day exploring our neighborhood, starting with one of the best breakfasts we'd had on the entire trip at Zooba! We ordered a selection of things including ful, taameya (Egyptian falafel), baldi bread, labneh dip, eggs, fries, and for dessert Zooba rice pudding. The rice pudding was mind blowing it was so good!! Angel hair halva, honey, mixed nuts, and orange zest on sweet and rich rice pudding. Heaven! We ended up having dinner at Zooba a few days later because it had just been so delish but found it not to be as good. So try Zooba when in Cairo, but do it for breakfast/brunch.

As we wandered around afterwards, you couldn't help but notice all the different street vendors. Anything from nuts, to bread, bananas, to roasted sweet potatoes were for sale on the streets. 

We stopped in a grocery store, which is always one of the best places to shop anywhere in the world, and also a few boutiques. One in particular, Madu, sold the most beautiful linens (some of which are now in my house).

We dropped our purchases back at the hotel and headed to the Marriott for a drink in their garden. This is a stunning property with some interesting history. Originally built as the Gezirah Palace in 1868, it was opened for the visiting dignitaries during the opening of the Suez Canal. In fact, Verdi's opera Aida had its debut here for those guests. But owner Ismail Pasha had to sell the Palace ten years later due to debt, and it then it became a private residence before being turned into a hospital during WWI and then turned again into a hotel. 

We decided to leave Zamalek to check out The Bar at the Four Seasons so we called an Uber and away we went over the bridge to the area called Garden City. 

Even though The Bar is only on the 3rd floor of the hotel, there are great views of the Nile and a handful of window facing tables. The drinks were expensive but they were very well made, so good we decided to stay for 2 rounds!

We headed back to Zamalek for dinner at Abou El Sid which had been recommended by a few people. We were all a bit disappointed however as the food was just ok, most of it either overcooked or flavorless or both. I'd pass. 

Walking home we passed many coffee shops crowded with people smoking shisha. 

The next morning Sherine picked us up again, this time she had a small van with a driver for us, and we headed to the Egyptian Museum. We were so happy to have a private guide here as the collections are overwhelming!

Upon entering, we immediately stopped at the Rosetta Stone. This unfortunately is a replica, the original was found by Napoleon's army and is in the British Museum. But it is still fascinating to see the same text in three scripts (Demotic, hieroglyphic and Greek) which led to being able to understand hieroglyphics! 

There are just so many cool things in the museum. Some highlights for me were the Narmer Palette, an over 5000 year old stone with some of the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions ever found, the collection of sarcophagus' in the Central Hall, the collections of jewelry and tools, and the items recovered from the tombs of Yuya and Thuya, including their mummies, papyrus, canopic jars, etc, which were missed by tomb robbers!

But of course, most visitors to the museum are there to see the Tutankhamun exhibit. Since the Grand Egyptian Museum had not opened in Giza yet, the exhibit was still at the EMC. No photos are allowed inside, and there is a queue that you move along inside, but it is a spectacular collection. I'd seen one of the traveling shows before, and actually recognized a few pieces, but this was almost the entire collection!

There is really just so much to see that if you visit EMC I would highly recommend getting a private guide to show you around. We spent about 3 ½ hours and definitely did not see it all.

It was lunchtime and we were all excited to try a local specialty called koshary that we had been hearing about. We were going to Abou Tarek, which is the place for it. In fact it is the only thing they serve!

Koshary is a very hearty meal of pasta, fried rice, vermicelli noodles, lentils, and chickpeas, topped with tomato sauce and garnished with crispy fried onions. On the table were decanters of garlic vinegar and hot sauce for adding to your personal taste. It is a super traditional dish, inexpensive and super filling. It was also really good! 

Sherine suggested we get the rice pudding for dessert, which we did, but it was very basic compared to the one at Zooba the day before. 

We were off again, this time Sherine was going to show us Coptic Cairo. Coptic Orthodox Christians are the native Egyptian Christians, it is the largest Christian denomination in Egypt. 

The pedestrian only complex here predates the founding of Cairo in 969 AD. Inside the Babylon Fortress, built by the Romans around 100 AD, there use to be a canal which connected the Nile and the Red Sea and it's here where Moses was reportedly found in a basket in the reeds. 

The Abu Serga church is the oldest in all of Egypt, it was built sometime between 300 and 400 AD.  It's so unique, unlike the interior of any other church I've seen, all wood with marble inlay.

The church is built on the site where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were reported to have stopped on their journey into Egypt. You can go into the church's crypt and see the cave where they were believed to have lived, and the well they drank from. Even as a non-religious person, this whole area was pretty amazing.

Next we walked to the Hanging Church, named that because because it was built on top of a Roman fortress; its nave suspended over the original ground level.
This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and has an impressive 110 icons, the oldest dating back to the 8th century. I also thought the pulpit was very interesting and read this about it "The marble pulpit of the hanging church is surmounted by 13 pillars that depict Jesus with the other 12 disciples. One of the pillars is black, which represents Judas, another one is grey representing Thomas".

We left the Coptic area and drove to Citadel Square where Sherine took us through two of the city's Mosques which are right next to each other. This was the only time in the entire country that Forest, Caitlin, and I needed to cover our heads with a scarf. We also were all required to remove our shoes to enter. 

First was the Mosque-Madrasa of Sultan Hasan, one of the largest mosques in the world built between 1356 and 1363. I'd never been inside a mosque before and it was great to be there with someone of the Islamic faith to explain things. 

The huge internal courtyard has 4 vaulted halls (called Iwans), each for one of the schools of Islam. A fountain for ablutions sits in the middle.

Behind the Qibla Iwan is the Sultan Hassan's mausoleum, which is a very odd location as the Iwan is in the direction of Mecca therefor anyone praying to Mecca would also be praying to the Sultan. Add that to the fact that he isn't even buried here, as he was murdered by his army commander and his body was never found, but 2 of his sons are laid to rest here. 

Next door, we visited Refa'i Mosque, also known as the Royal Mosque and built 450 years later. Another huge building with a prayer hall that can hold up to 10,000 worshippers!
Inside the mosque are tombs of members of the royal family, including Farouk I, the last king of Egypt.

The last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, died in Cairo after living in exile for 1 ½ years and is also buried here. 

I thought it was really interesting touring both these mosques and learning more about the religion and customs. There are also a lot of beautiful design elements in the architecture and they are very calm spaces, keeping out the sounds of busy Cairo.

That night was our last evening all together, it had been an amazing holiday and we had all learned and experienced so much! We toasted over cocktails at the Ritz Carlton's rooftop bar Nox. This is such a great spot, if the air quality isn't too bad, and they hand out cozy blankets at night if it gets chilly.

Before heading back to our hotel to pack up, we stopped at Pier 88 for a drink also. It's a fun location, right on the river, and the drinks were pretty good.

The next morning I had an Uber pick me up from the hotel at 6:30am. Ugh! It was still dark as I left, and the folks at the front desk thought I was leaving without paying even though we had explained that the entire bill was to be billed to one of the other rooms. It would have been comical if it hadn't been so early! 

As the sun rose I could see it would be another smoggy day in Cairo. There was no traffic at that hour so the airport was a very quick 15 minute ride. I checked in and had time for breakfast in the EgyptAir lounge before my flight to my next destination... Dubai!

All photos of Cairo here

Thursday, November 23, 2023

New Year's Eve Inside Egypt's Pyramids

Trip date: December 2022

We arrived at Giza station, having taken the overnight train from Aswan, at 7am on New Year's Eve. It was super quick to get an Uber and, being so early on a Saturday morning, we were at our hotel in the Zamalask area of Cairo in about 15 minutes. 

The hotel very nicely let us check into one of our rooms so that we could freshen up and store our luggage. We had a private guide picking us up at 9am for a full day out in Giza and Saqqara visiting the pyramids; we were all VERY excited!

Our guide, Sherine, came recommended to me by another friend who had just been to Egypt. She picked us up in a very comfortable SUV and told us about the 3 different pyramids as we made the 30 minute drive out of Cairo. We needed to decide if we wanted to buy tickets to visit just the grounds or additional tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid, Khufu's, and/or Khafre's Pyramid (the second largest). 

Walking up to the Great Pyramid is nothing short of awesome. It's unbelievable that these huge structures, built in the early 26th century BC, so putting them at about 4600 years old, are still standing. I've had the opportunity to visit Ġgantija in Malta, which is even older at ~5700 years old, but it's nowhere near this size! This pyramid is the only remaining structure of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and was the tallest built structure for over 4000 years at 481 feet tall. 

It was really surprising to me how HUGE the blocks of limestone and granite are that make up the pyramid. And they are super rough as what is left is just the core, 4600 years ago they would have been covered with polished limestone and gold capstone tops!

Nearby the pyramid are the remains of a temple, a cemetery, and a few very small pyramids that are almost just piles of rubble. There are also boat pits, which had full-sized ships in them, for the pharaohs to travel to the afterlife in.

Most people were taught that the pyramids were built with slave labor, but more modern historians have found that to be false. It is believed that the Great Pyramid was built by about 5,000 paid construction workers and probably around 20,000 more temporary workers. There are cemeteries nearby for the workers who died during the construction.

As we wandered around, we also thought it was quite weird to see Giza, a city of over 8 million people, just in the backyard of these world wonders! And it was incredibly smoggy, you couldn't hardly see it!

Based on Sherine's info and suggestions we had purchased additional tickets to go inside Khafre, the 2nd largest of the pyramids. We had a short queue and noticed that everyone that came out of the pyramid (there is only one way in and out) looked very relieved and very winded!

The entrance was tiny! And as soon as you entered you had to crouch low, as the ceiling was only maybe 3' high, and you are walking down quite a slope. It's also quite narrow so, even though everyone has to exit the same way, you will be squeezing past people as well as crouching low!

It's also hot! After about 10 minutes we came to an area that we could stand up in but just barely (I'm 5'6" and I had about 3" of head room). It was much more comfortable to walk down this corridor but the fact that you are in the middle of a pyramid made me feel like there wasn't much oxygen! 

You then enter the burial chamber which, as with the others, is completely bare and empty. They were all believed to have been robbed sometime between 2081 and 2055 BC. And the pyramids were built before decoration and hieroglyphs became a popular way to adorn the insides of tombs, so there isn't anything on the walls. 

We headed back out, this time having to crouch and climb uphill in the corridor. When we finally got to the exit, we understood exactly why everyone exiting looked relieved and out of breath! We were VERY happy to have done the smaller pyramid as the Great Pyramid takes much longer to climb into. If you have claustrophobia I'd say to give this a pass! But it was a fantastic and incredibly unique experience. 

We headed back to Sherine's car and she drove us to an amazing viewpoint of all 3 of the pyramids where we spent some time taking photos. Incredible!

Then we got back in the car and drove to the Great Sphinx which sits in front of the Pyramid of Khafre and in fact was carved in the pharaoh's likeness.

Sherine didn't feel like walking far to the site so she ended up parking in a load zone in front of the security office! She was pretty funny and seemed to know everyone!

What an amazing statue! 66 feet tall, 241 feet long, and carved from a single limestone block (it has since been restored with multiple blocks), the 4500 year old sculpture is missing parts of its nose, beard and has other damage, but you can still see some of the red paint that originally covered it!

The Great Sphinx has spent much of its life buried under sand and was only fully uncovered in the 1920s. There are lots of unknowns about the sphinx, including who built it and how it lost its nose. It was pretty unreal to be standing so close to it!

And all this before lunch! We made our way back to the car and Sherine maneuvered through the crazy traffic in Giza. It's had to describe the madness of cars, donkeys, people, camels, motorcycles, and bicycles all on the hard packed dirt roads. Sometimes it seems like there is no rule on which side to drive on! Cars and trucks honk to communicate with the others instead of just following rules of the road. It's loud and a bit crazy and we were very happy to have Sherine at the wheel!

We stopped at a very touristy spot for lunch called Alezba Village, but surprisingly all of the food was excellent! When we walked in, there were women displaying how bread is made, there was a playground for kids, and horse rides. 

They brought a little hibachi to our table with grilled chicken and beef. There was a selection of appetizers and veggies, and even beers! 

We continued on the road towards our next stop Saqqara; Egypt's largest archaeological site. This area has been used as a necropolis for over 3500 years. The entire area is a mortuary complex with various temples, tombs, chapels, and of course the Step Pyramid of Djoser.

We entered the enclosure wall, which has a facade of gorgeous polished limestone, hand carved niches, and there would have been towers on either side. There are also a series of false doors which would have been for Djoser to use in the afterlife.

Inside the corridor is lined with more highly polished stone and a series of columns which all lead you to the outside courts. We continued along past the Heb-Sed court, an ancient festival for the king after 30 years of reign that would have taken place after he was dead presumably, and past huge pedestals which once held statues of the king and his family. Many of the buildings we passed are still a mystery to archaeologists. Inside one of the pavillion buildings there is graffiti that is believed to be from the 18th century.

There is also a serdab, a small, enclosed chamber which has a statue of the deceased Djoser. You had to peek through a hole in the wall to see it! Very cool!

The Step Pyramid is the world’s first and oldest pyramid, built over 4,700 years ago! Before pyramids, Egyptian pharaohs were buried in rectangular flat-roofed tombs called mastabas. This pyramid is comprised of 6 of those stacked on each other but no one knows why. 

We had purchased a ticket to enter the pyramid, this one was much easier as you can just walk in upright and the corridor isn't narrow. It is still inside a pyramid however, something to keep in mind if you are claustrophobic!

Once you get to the end, there is a railing that you can look over and see where Djoser's body would have been laid. His body has never been found though, as the tomb had been looted like the rest in the area a long time ago. 

After exiting, we explored the other side of the complex and walked around the South Tomb but didn't go in.

This area is so completely different than the Pyramids of Giza, I'm really glad we visited both! 

That evening, back at the hotel, we played games and drank champagne (that we had packed with us) before having drinks and burgers in the hotel bar. It had been a VERY long and exciting day so we were all pretty exhausted and turned in before midnight. But as I lay in bed reading I could hear fireworks and looked to see them right outside my window! A pretty awesome end to an amazing day!

All photos from Giza and Saqqara here.

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