Al Ain, United Arab Emirates - Adventuring In Al Ain

 

Contributor  : Melanie
Nationality   : British
Social Links  : Instagram: @desertswanblog
                       Website: www.desert-swan.com
Age Group    
Gender          : Female
Travel Style   : Healthy, yoga
Destination   : Al Ain UAE. May 2017

When I first moved to the UAE in 2008, I made it my mission to see all of the seven emirates as soon as I could, and get to know the new country I would soon call home. One of the first places I went to explore was the oasis town of Al Ain, a city within the emirate of Abu Dhabi and I instantly decided anyone coming to visit me just had to see it. With its vast red rolling sand dunes, lush palm oases and old forts, it’s easy to feel you are stepping back into another world in the town situated between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Landing in the bright lights of Dubai or even Abu Dhabi, it’s easy to get caught up in the modernity that the UAE has embraced with its rapid pace of development so Al Ain is a chance to connect with the more traditional side of the country. Deeply connected to the UAE’s culture and heritage, this totally low rise ‘garden city’ as it is known, is the place where you truly learn about the history of this amazing place and its people, and realise there is so much more to the UAE than beaches, high rise towers, fast cars and malls.

The forts of Al Ain are a popular tourist attraction

The forts of Al Ain are a popular tourist attraction

Known fondly among Emiratis as the birthplace of the country’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed, it is steeped in history. But it is not only the history which makes this a must see destination when visiting the UAE. There is plenty to do here, so whether you’re looking for a day trip or a weekend away, culture or adventure, here are five of my picks of things to do in Al Ain:

  1. Sunset atop Jebel Hafeet: The UAE’s second highest peak, the 1,240 metre tall rocky mountain stands guard over Al Ain and the Oman borders. Though there is a Mercure hotel near the top, you can just pack a picnic and take the car to one of the viewing decks and enjoy the incredible views. Sunsets of red, gold and purple are stunning and well worth the trip. If you are looking for a little more of an adventure, you can also run, walk or cycle the 10km road to the top, which many an ultra-marathon runner has done to prepare for the hilly routes of the world’s ultras.
  2. Al Ain Oasis: The UAE’s first UNESCO World Heritatage Site, this 1200 hectare area is home to more than 147,000 date palms and 100 different varieties. With beautifully curated walkways, you soon forget you’re in the middle of the city, surrounded by palm fronds and birdsong. A throwback to the more traditional way of life, much of the oasis is still working farms, fed by the traditional irrigation systems, which have been used for hundreds of years to tap into the underground wells.
  3. Museum walking tour: The Al Ain Oasis is connected to the neighbouring visitor attractions including Al Ain Palace, Al Ain Eco Centre and Al Ain National Museums, so is an easy ramble to soak up not only the local nature, but culture and heritage through the oasis walkways.
  4. Fort hopping: Al Jahili Fort, standing guard over the nearby palm groves when it was built in the late 19th century, is steeped in history. Its permanent exhibition of photos taken by what is probably the last real explorer of his kind, the late Wilfred Thesiger, is a beautiful and fascinating insight into Bedouin life. Qasr Al Muwaiji is also worth a visit, surrounded by another of Al Ain’s lush oases; both places really an insight to understanding Abu Dhabi’s transition ‘from rags to riches’.
  5. Wadi Adventure: The country’s first man made whitewater rafting, kayaking and surfing destination, Wadi Adventure is genius. With a man made beach, ‘air park’ where you can venture on the two level aerial obstacle course and a 200m zip line, this is a great day out, especially for a family. Prices are super reasonable, a fraction of what you’d pay in neighbouring Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and it’s a great way to be active, get outside and try something new. With the stunning backdrop of the mountains, it’s a perfect setting to escape the city.

Where to stay: We stayed at the Danat Al Ain Resort which not only has amazing rates (starting at Dh350/$95 a night), but is really well located; just 25 minutes away from Wadi Adventure and Jebel Hafeet, and around 10 minutes drive from the cultural attractions. The hotel has two really well equipped gyms as it doubles as a health club for local residents, so much better than the run of the mill hotel gyms, in addition to an Olympic pool. You can even take part in classes such as Zumba and yoga if that’s your thing, play some squash or tennis or just kick back with a massage at the spa. (I had the Thai massage by a Thai therapist which was incredible.) Whether it’s private tennis lessons (Dh140 per hour) or massage (Dh195 per hour), prices are much cheaper than the Abu Dhabi or Dubai resort equivalents.

There is so much else to do here, including the hot pools at Green Mubazzarah, the classic car museum, camel market and golf and shooting club, but these are just a few of my personal picks. For more info check out Visit Abu Dhabi.


Port Douglas, Australia - A family hot spot

Inspiration:

We went as an extended family for a long over-due family vacation- 2 Grandparents, 3 couples and 4 grandchildren (aged infant to 8 years)

Getting there:

We flew into Cairns airport and hired cars for the short drive to Port Douglas around 1 hour. There are many flights in and out of Cairns from all major cities in Australia.  

Many people also use Port Douglas as a stop as they drive up or down the East coast of Australia.

Local Knowledge:

Port Douglas is one of many locations located along the North-Eastern coast line of Australia that runs parallel to one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, The Great Barrier Reef. The Barrier Reef along with the many islands dotted around it are a massive tourist attraction to the area.

Words of Wisdom: 

Port Douglas has a reasonable sized supermarket and othernecessary services pharmacies, etc, although they are a a fair bit more expensive than in Cairns. So if you have time, it might be worth stopping in Cairns to buy some of the things you might need. Getting around Port Douglas would be difficult without a car, there is a taxi service but not many. Most places are within walking distance of the main street, but if you need to get anywhere quickly you will 

need a car. There are places to see within day-trips of Port Douglas, so if you fly in from Cairns, consider hiring a car rather than getting a shuttle bus or other to Port Douglas

Where to Stay: 

Port Douglas has a huge variety of accommodation options from low cost back-packer hostels, 5 star hotels and boutique B&Bs. We stayed at The Sheraton as The Sheraton has a reputation for being very family friendly. The Sheraton rooms were quite dated when we stayed there (2014), however I’m aware they have more recently completed refurbishments which have apparently breathed new life into the property. The facilities at The Sheraton are excellent, especially for children. The large pool/lagoon provides a safe but beach style place for kids to play. There is also direct access onto the beach - some people swim at the beach, however it should be noted that crocodiles and dangerous jellyfish can be an unwanted hazard. The buffet breakfast at the Sheraton is excellent and whilst the restaurants are adequate, there are some really great options in Port Douglas that I would suggest. There is fitness centre and golf club associated with the Sheraton. 

Both are a little dated, with the gym especially in need of some new equipment. The golf course is fun and a highlight is the resident crocodile in one of the lakes – added incentive to not hit in the water

What to do:

Scuba Diving: If you don’t have your SCUBA certification, planning a holiday to Port Douglas, or anywhere along the Barrier Reef, is a great incentive to go and get it! Its no secret that the reef has suffered due to human impact and whilst the diving is still excellent, it may not stay that way and they may look at further tightening up on access for tourists. We booked a days diving with Blue Dive. It was a full day out on the water with everything included. My wife and I had an instructor with us, which is something I always prefer when diving a new location. 

The large boat had many people including sightseers,  snorkelers and experienced scuba divers – with a guide we felt totally looked after the entire time. Without a doubt, the most complete way to experience the reef is scuba diving. You can get a pretty good look at some of the shallower areas by snorkel and mask, but the underwater world opens up the further you go. This dive was the first time I had taken a recently purchased GoPro with me – I really enjoyed being able to capture what we were seeing. 

From talking to other divers and the instructor, it certainly sounded like the 2-3 day “live-a-board” dive tours that allow you to spend more time out there and visit more remote areas of the reef are the best way to scuba dive this area. We simply didn’t have the time, however it has been added to the list and would be well worth looking into if you want to spend more of your time diving.

Yacht Charters:

For people looking to experience the reef, but also have an amazing family experience, I strongly recommend chartering a yacht for the day. It is not a cheap exercise, however when spread across a family it can be economical and the experience was an absolute highlight for everyone in our group. The yacht took us all to an island where everyone could walk around, the children could paddle or experiment with snorkeling and the adults could snorkel deeper or simply relax in sun. We also snorkeled off the back of the anchored yacht with several reef sharks and giant trevally - an amazing experience.

The crew provided a gourmet lunch and were a great help making sure all the children had a fun day.

I think if you are visiting Port Douglas as a large group or family, definitely consider this! We booked through the same company that arranged our Scube Diving, Blue Dive and I couldn’t speak highly enough of how they managed everything from booking to helping the last person off the boat!

Crocodile Tours: 

Tours leave from the marina and take you up the estuary.  It’s a pleasant

Eating:

There is a huge variety of dining options in Port Douglas. As would be expected, seafood lovers will stay happy, with most restaurants having numerous options on the menu. We ate at the following:

Chilly’s Pizza – We had to wait a long time (was during peak holiday season) for our take away pizza, but it was worth it! Really great pizza – we actually went twice it was so good!

LanternFish on Macrossan St serves really good fish and chips. I can definitely recommend the Moreton Bay Bugs!

The Central Hotel does a pretty good chicken parmagianaand is great for large groups, including children. Its very much pub fare! They do a trivia night once a week, which was also pretty good fun.

The Ironbar has cane toad races, live music and authentic Australian cuisine like kangaroo burgers. This is ok for a night out, but they only let you go to the toad races if you are having a meal…….and the steaks are not great!

Salsa Bar and Grill – In my opinion the best place to eat in Port Douglas! It’s a little more expensive than some of the other restaurants and cafes, but the food is fantastic! Its really nicely set up as well, a really enjoyable meal for lunch or dinner! I had a kingfish dish which was amazing!

2 Fish Restaurant– The service here was quite slow and the food only ok. The menu didn’t have a great variety either. Pass.

Lure Restaurant – Fantastic for an afternoon of tapas and drinks. Do great sharing dishes and pretty well priced.

Fresh prawns – Can get fresh seafood directly from the fishermen at the harbor. Strongly recommend a bag of freshly cooked prawns to take home! Cheap and as good as a prawn will taste. We had a night family night at the hotel in the villa with a huge bag of fresh cooked prawns and take away fish and chips that was just superb!

The restaurants at the Sheraton were quite pricey for dinner meals, so we chose to eat at the places in Port Douglas.

Favorite must do:

Spend a day going out to an island. Whether it is as a young couple or a large family group, spending a day on a chartered boat; visiting a remote island, snorkeling with sea turtles and enjoying the ocean is amazing. There are a huge number of options and companies offering these services. Do your research and check the reviews carefully. We could not have recommended Blue Dive any higher. They were a touch more expensive but had much better reviews and they were worth every cent! If you are going to splurge a little on your family holiday to Port Douglas, spend it on this.

Favorite must see:

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Whether its by air (helicopter flights take tourists out over the reef), snorkeling or scuba diving, being able to witness this massive living eco-system is incredible.

If you haven’t got a PADI certification, try and get one before travelling to Port Douglas. Otherwise, you can do your course through companies there, (you will be limited on the depth you can dive).

Number 1 travel tip:

Port Douglas can be quite expensive and crowded during peak holiday seasons and especially during school holidays. If you don’t enjoy crowds, I would recommend avoiding these times. Conversely, if youre travelling with kids, the atmosphere during these times can be a real boost. Choose wisely depending on your situation.

5 word travel:

Great Barrier Reef - Sun - Fun.

Excess Baggage: 

Consider insect repellant as a necessity, not an option. The sand flies and mosquitoes can be unrelenting!

If you are looking for a beach holiday where you can sit on the beach and swim in the ocean, think twice. The beach at Port Douglas is often plagued with box jellyfish (painful stings), can have a strong under-toe and can be frequented by crocodiles. Swimming pools are recommended. The pool at the Sheraton is a large lagoon with beaches for kids to play.

 

Contributor   : Andrew
Nationality    : Australian
Instagram      @andrewmarty_
Age Group     : All ages
Gender           : Male
Travel Style   : Family
Destination   : Port Douglas, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Date                 : September 2014.

 
 

Kruger National Park, South Africa - Bucket-list African Safari

 

Contributor  : Andrew
Nationality   : Australian
Instagram     @andrewmarty_
Age Group   : 30-40 year
Gender         : Male
Travel Style   : Luxury, Wildlife, Leisure
Destination   : Hoyo-Hoyo Kruger National Park – South Africa

 

Inspiration:

A long-term dream had been going on a safari in the famous Kruger National Park. South Africa has a large number of National Parks and game reserves , however Kruger National is by far the most widely known. If you have ever wanted to go on safari in Africa, this is a bucketlist item!

Getting There: 

We flew to Johannesburg International Airport – from here you can either drive or catch small domestic flights. The fastest and perhaps easiest is the flight to Hoodspruit, however be warned, book these flights well in advance because there are limited seats on the smaller planes and the costs can get high! Most of the lodges have shuttles that will pick you up directly from the airport and drive you into the park and to your accommodation. Don’t pack the camera too deep in your bag though, from the time your plane starts its descent you’re a chance of spotting your first wildlife – even the airport has warthogs and cheetah! The drive from the airport to your lodge takes you through the gates and into the park and depending on where you’re staying and what time of day it is, you will almost certainly start seeing wildlife from the time you enter the gates.  I remember we got really excited and wanted to stop and photograph every zebra and buck we drove past on the way to the lodge – don’t worry, this is just an introduction!

Local Knowledge:

There are as many ways to experience Kruger National Park as there are animals within its boundaries. From day trips to luxury tours, from footed treks to bird’s eye views from helicopters. 

KNP is one of the largest parks in South Africa and stretches 360km North to South. It has 9 main gates, 21 rest camps and 15 designated safari lodges.

The Winter/dry season (June to September) is considered the preferred time to visit the park – the weather is milder and relatively dry, there’s a much lower risk of contracting malaria and the more sparse vegetation makes it easier to locate and see wildlife. 

Words of Wisdom:

Whilst you wont need spending money if youre staying at one of the lodges, if you want money for tips etc then you need to exchange or withdraw at Johannesburg.

Most places in the park have very poor phone coverage. If you are reliant on being contacable then take this into account. Hoyo-Hoyo had wifi in the common areas that allowed catching up on emails, social media or messages if you needed.

Where To Stay:

Hoyo-Hoyo Lodge genuinely exceeded our expectations. It was truly luxury in the bush. You will be welcomed by the extremely friendly staff who have usually grown up in the areas around Kruger NP. The accommodation itself is far from rough. Whilst small, the bungalows are more than adequate for the limited amount of time you end up sepnding in your room. One word of warning - the ground squirrels, whilst appearing cute, are highly effective thieves and will likely come into your rooms when you're asleep or not there and eat any food left out. They even went through our cases, chewing into anything that contained food!

The showers were outside, which provided a real “getting back to nature” feel, however it was also brutally cold if you wanted a shower before the early morning safaris in Winter.

The communal areas at the lodge are beautifully set up and overlook a waterhole that attracts a huge variety of wildlife. We found ourselves sitting for hours watching the monkeys annoy the elephants, the small gemsbock sleeping beside the deck or reading away whilst all variety of animal came by for their daily drink.

What To Do:

If you want to be certain of seeing every animal, go to a zoo. One of the greatest parts of a wildlife safari is that there are no guarantees, the animals, time of year, weather and a lot of luck determine what you will see. 

We found that some drives were incredible with a huge varierty of sightings, whilst others went for hours without seeing much at all. For that reason I would definitely recommend spending at least a couple of nights so you can go on a minimum of 4 drives.

Drives are typically done morning and evening to take advantage of the most likely times animals are active.

We probably expected it to be easier to spot things than it was – our guide, Sweety Boy, was beyond incredible. His experience and eyesight was remarkable. Sometimes it literally took minutes and getting hundreds of meters closer until people in our vehicle could see the things he spied. I understand some people like the intrigue of driving themselves around places like Kruger, however the money you spend on an experienced safari driver is worth every single Rand. His knowledge and stories as we drove made the whole experience so much more worthwhile. I would recommend trying to have the same guide for the time you are there if possible. You will genuinely get to know how they work and they will get to know what you have and haven’t seen and try to build the overall experience for you. 

We also did a guided walk through the Park. Whilst we felt safe at all times with the experienced (and armed) guide, it did have an additional element to the drives. Unfortunately we didn’t see a great deal as the area you can cover by foot compared to a car is very small. We did spend time following rhino and leopard tracks and it was definitely nice to get out and walk through such an incredible National Park.

Pack only what you need for the drives depending on the weather. It can be bitterly cold early morning and evening during the winter, so take lots of layers of clothes. 

Most things are provided by the lodge, including morning teas – ours usually consisted of traditional rusk biscuits, biltong, tea, dried fruit and nuts. Cold drinks including wine, beer and soft drinks were also supplied at each small camp stop.

Eating:

The all inclusive food at Hoyo-Hoyo was superb. They have their own chef who prepares restarant quality food from a menu that changes each day. Mostly it is a showcase of traditional South African cuisine – so ox-tail, malva pudding, boerworse and pap are all likely to be on the menu! We both love our food and I consider myself a pretty harsh critic, but the food at Hoya Hoya was excellent! They even went as far as setting up a private candlelit dinner for us on one of the nights. 

If you have any dietary requirements you will need to make this known before you arrive, because it is too far from any towns for the kitchen to change the menu last minute.

Must Do:

Goes without saying, the game drives are the highlight and the main reason to go to Kruger National Park. I think if you lived in South Africa and visiting the park was more regular, then the self-drive option would be great and more flexible – but when you are travelling and perhaps time is short and expectation high, the guided drives are the best. It has the advantage of taking care of everything for you including food, local knowledge and access to areas not permitted in public vehicles.

There is a variety of lodges that offer these services with a range of budgets. Compared to most things in South Africa, game safaris in parks like Kruger are relatively expensive. However I would certainly suggest that spending a little extra to maximize your experience is well worth it.

Must See:

The “Big Five” of African Safari animals are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo. Seeing each of them is what everyone wants to tick off. Different areas of the park are more well known for different species. We saw lions, rhinos, elephants and buffalo. The leopard is our reason to return!

Get a reasonable book or animal guide for your drives. It is incredible just how many different animals beyond the obvious ones you will see.

5 Word Travel:

Bucketlist. Adventure. Wild. Nature. Animals.

TTHHoyo-4516.jpg

TravelTip:

These days, taking photos of your travel is a must. But for wildlife and safari drives, it becomes even more significant, because there is another variable in play – the animals! 

Everyone has their preference in terms of photography equipment and some people spend thousands on cameras and lenses for safaris. For wildlife photography, it is nice to have a camera with a zoom lens (at least 200mm) as many animals will be some distance from you. To be honest, we also use a lot of iPhone photography no matter where we go, as it is very quick and easy and can be uploaded immediately to social media etc. It was interesting to notice on our drives that some other guests had a lot of fancy equipment but didn’t have experience using it and became frustrated they couldn’t get the shots they wanted. 

Excess Baggage:

Plan and book early. Compared to most things in South Africa, game lodges can be extremely expensive, especially in peak seasons. This includes internal flights to places like Kruger NP.

The additional costs of staying at one of the many lodges will be well worth the money! The guides are excellent and will significantly improve your chances of having a successful drive.

Choose your photography equipment wisely. Go with familiar equipment, pack your chargers with universal plugs and as always back up your days work.