Grantourismo!

How would you fancy a trip around the world – 12 countries, 24 destinations in 12 months?

No, I’m not giving one away, don’t get too excited.

I’ve always loved writing and travelling so I look up to someone who does both. “Look up” means admire, get occasionally jealous and then dream and  travel vicariously through them. I first “met” travel writer Lara Dunston online through my blog way back in 2008. I think she commented that I’ve featured one of hers and her husband’s (Terence Carter) books in my website (in an Amazon ad).

Lara and Terry are husband and wife writing duo who has travelled around the world writing guidebooks. They’re the “you name it, we’ve been there” couple. Recently, they grabbed a prestigious project called Gran Tourismo.

It is really grand.

From the website:

In 2010, globetrotting travel writers Terence Carter and Lara Dunston, with the support of HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, will swap hotel rooms for holiday homes and embark on a contemporary grand tour of sorts they’re calling Grantourismo. Their aim is to slow down, learn and do things, live like locals, and give something back to the places they visit, as they search for a more authentic and enriching way to travel.

Their first home away from home is a swish 5-bedroom villa located in Palm Jumeirah. Lara and Terry held a launch party of sorts and invited me over last Saturday!

In case you don’t know what or how the Palm Jumeirah looks like, here it is (it can be seen from space):

palm  jumeirah

So about the party – it’s a bit of a challenge to write all about it, post all the worthy photos and describe it. First off, a tour of the villa. How would you like to wake up to a refreshing sight of emerald green waters, powder white sand and the sound of the lapping waves?

frond shoreline

 This is the back side of the villa where you can get access to the beach, 365 days a year.

back of the villa

Go down that stairs and land your feet in the sand, in the above photo.

feet in sand

If it wasn’t too cold that afternoon, I would’ve dipped my feet in the water. I wore a short dress to do that but Dubai’s weather had been a little crazy these days and we have cold winds and gray skies. Look!

back pool at dusk

The villa had 5 bedrooms.

Bedroom #1

Bedroom #1

Bedroom #2

Bedroom #2

Bedroom #3

Bedroom #3

Bedroom #4

Bedroom #4

Somehow I missed to take a photo of Bedroom #5 because I was busy talking to the Bangladeshi housekeeper Azim and telling him how nice his job is. Sometimes he has the house to himself (when there’s no holiday renters)!

Living room

Living room

The living room faces the sea shore. The line of houses you can see here are the villas in Frond D.

after dark

One thing interesting about the sea water between the fronds is that when the man-made island Palm Jumeirah’s fronds were made, the sea was reclaimed but a few meters from the private beach shore, the water level is kept as is. It is about 8 meters deep (you can see the difference from the color).

So a word of advice, it’s not a good idea to swim across if your boyfriend lives on the opposite side.

Back to the party, Lara and Terry served Arabic themed canapes and cocktail drinks, which the guests dined with gusto.

Canapes

Canapes

There were only a few guests, maybe less than 20 people, including Lara and Terry. I’ve heard that it is not permitted to have huge parties at the Palm, especially when it goes well beyond the sleeping time of the neighbors. The sounds, laughter and conversations can reverberate to the ends of the opposite frond!

terry with guests outside

It was cold, really cold – I’m not exagerrating. It’s not because a desert dweller like me feels cold easily so don’t judge. It must be less than 15C that night. Not cold for you? Okay, maybe we were all under-dressed then!

Guests

me with baby sophie

The guests by the way were associated with Lara and Terry through their blogs and Twitter. Maybe some personal friends. Then a couple came with a baby girl…and I felt weak in my knees. I am not good around babies, help! Of course I had to snatch it away from the mom! But don’t worry I said, “please” and most importantly, I returned her back. LOL!

It was nice seeing some familiar people I’ve known in Twitter – but next time, it would be better to have name tags with their Twitter names and avatars in it!

I didn’t go out much because of the cold as I’ve just got back to my feet after a terrible flu with monstrous cough last week. I didn’t want to get sick again. So what did I do? I was disturbing Lara and Terry in the warm and cozy kitchen.

lara terry and me in kitchen

lara and me in the kitchen

It’s amazing how this couple prepared everything by themselves, from food to drinks! I luuurve the big kitchen. It’s about 5 times as big as what I have right now (mine’s abnormally small though if you put it in a different perspective). We’ll move to a normal sized kitchen on Friday, btw.

Ok, moving on…

Lara and Terry hosted the party to launch the Gran Tourismo project. Dubai is the first leg of their 12 coutnries-24 destinations-1 year trip. Next stop for them is London, then Marrakesh, Morocco and I forgot the rest. I was too starry eyed.

Since I can’t get into their suitcases (they’ll be charged a hefty fine for excess baggage) if I did so I’d be cheering for them from far. And you should too, follow their adventures in the Gran Tourismo blog or on Twitter (@gran_tourismo, @laradunston, @terencecarter)

 Safe travels to Lara and Terry!

Visiting Atlantis Hotel by monorail

elevated trains

From our recent trip to Palm Jumeirah by monorail, I feel that this transport system is no way catering to the commuting public. It is built for tourism. First, the fare is too expensive. Next, they are even planning to charge parking fees for people coming from Dubai by car and going to Atlantis Hotel in the palm island by the monorail.

If that’s the case, then it will be more convenient to go directly by car and not bother about the parking fees at the Gateway station and the train fares, of course. However, for sightseeing purposes, the monorail is sure to entertain.

Since the monorail is elevated high above the ground, riding on it will give a great view of the Atlantis Hotel and the whole of Palm Jumeirah.

Speaking of this famous Dubai landmark – The Atlantis Hotel in Dubai is inspired by the original Atlantis that Kerzner built in the Bahamas. It is huge and very, very pink. Built at an estimated cost of $US1.5 billion ($2.4 billion), the 1539-room Atlantis comprises two accommodation towers of more than 20 storeys each, a conference centre, spa, private beach and the water park. All told, it covers 46 hectares, or about 22 times the size of the arena in the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

atlantis-hotel-21

The last station of the monorail is Aquaventure station. Aquaventure is a 17-hectare water park filled with slides and pools inside Atlantis Hotel’s premises and can be seen from the train, too.

Aquaventure at Atlantis Hotel

Hmmm, so enticing!

Aquaventure at Atlantis Hotel

Don’t you just want to change into your swimsuit and join them?

Aquaventure at Atlantis Hotel

We didn’t swim but we took Pristine inside Atlantis Hotel’s mini-mall (I don’t really know what to call it but it has little stores and restaurants inside…) to see the huge aquarium instead.

atlantis-aquarium-whole-panel

and she spent a good amount of time counting the fishes…

Atlantis Hotel Aquarium

Trying to call their attention…

Atlantis Hotel Aquarium

and just stare. Ah, nothing beats free entertainment!

Atlantis Hotel Aquarium

The aquarium seen outside is part of one of Atlantis’ attractions called The Lost Chambers – made to look like the ruins of Atlantis. Not much to say since I’ve not been inside it. 😉

entrance-to-lost-chambers

~ entrance to The Lost Chambers ~

The ceiling has colorful artwork of sea creatures:

atlantis boutique mall ceiling

atlantis boutique mall ceiling

When going to the Palm island by car, you will not feel that this is a reclaimed, man-made island…

atlantis-hotel-by-car

but when aboard the monorail, you can see that it really looks like the shape of a palm, with trunk and fronds and the huge hotel sprawled on the man-made land.

Atlantis Hotel and monorail

Photo not mine.

The entire site – the hotel and the land – was more than 10 metres under the surface of the Persian Gulf eight years ago.

Dubai has created a wonder.

* Just so you know, I was NOT paid by Atlantis Hotel to write this stuff. 🙂 *

Experiencing Dubai’s first monorail

train approaching

The monorail connecting Dubai’s mainland and Atlantis Hotel at Palm Jumeirah has opened last month and we went to experience it.

The driverless light rail system travels along the trunk of the man-made islands from the Gateway station to Atlantis Hotel’s Aquaventure (water park). This monorail system services four stations but for now, only the first and last station is open.

stations

A round trip costs 25 dhs (US$6.8) and a one way ticket costs 15 dhs (US$4). Expensive. Not for everyday commute. In Japan, Pristine would be exempted from buying train tickets but here, no. All children beyond 90 cms has to pay – and we all know how she’s so beyond a meter already!

needs-tkt

The monorail ticket up-close. It is made of hard half plastic-half paper material and shows illustration of the palm island. I say, they should reduce the material cost of this ticket and in turn, reduce the cost of the fares. Train tickets doesn’t have to be this grand.

monorail-ticket

She was excited to scan her ticket at the gate.

going-thru-the-gate

From the train platform, while waiting for our ride, we saw the Burj Al Arab.

burj-al-arab-from-the-platform-4

On the other side, construction at the foot of Palm Jumeirah is still going on. We went on a Friday but apparently, it’s not everyone’s day off. We saw so many workers out in the hot sun.

Palm Jumeirah construction

The train arrived on time, which, honestly, I did not expect. Pristine asked, “where are the other people?” She remembered the rush of the crowds at the train stations in Tokyo.

Inside Palm Jumeirah monorail

Another view of how the train looked inside. There were no other people in that car compartment so we had the space all to ourselves.

inside Palm Jumeirah monoraiil

On our left side, we can see One and Only Royal Mirage Hotel’s private beach.

one-and-only-royal-mirage-private-beach

The monorail stopped at the two stations, Trump Tower and Palm Mall but the doors did not open. There’s no Trump Tower and Palm Mall yet!

As the train nears Atlantis Hotel, I was finally able to take a photo of it, with the whole building in one frame.

Atlantis Hotel Dubai

Atlantis Hotel is built on the crescent part of the palm islands and the last stop of the monorail. We got a closer glimpse of the private beach. I hope the beach goers had a lot of sunblock lotion on!

atlantis-hotel-private-beach-closer

The monorail’s last stop is Aquaventure station. Aquaventure is a fun waterpark inside Atlantis Hotel. We can see the action from the waterpark aboard the monorail.

Aquaventure at Atlantis Hotel

As we arrived at Aquaventure station, poor girl thought we’re going to go swimming and rushed out. She was so excited to swim!

entering-aquaventure-station

But of course we didn’t because it was not part of the plan. Besides, it costs a lot to swim at Aquaventure – something to the tune of US$77 per person!

Random facts about Dubai’s first monorail:

  • Monorail trains are driverless, total of 4 trains operating, will increase to 9 trains per hour after the monorail connects to the Dubai Metro.
  • Each train has three carriages
  • Journey length (one way) is 5.45 km and takes 5 minutes (I feel it was beyond 5 minutes but I didn’t measure the time)
  • Cost of the Jumeirah Monorail project was AED 1.4 billion (US$380 million), equivalent to the cost of 56 million return tickets on the monorail, which would take about 5 years to recover if the train ran at full capacity of 2400 passengers per hour during opening hours.  (Oh dear…did you see how empty the train was?)
  • Monorail developed by consortium of developers, led by Marubeni Corp of Japan, and including Obayashi, a civil contractor Obayashi, and Hitachi, a train builder and mechanical/electrical contractor, at their Kasado Works plant in Japan.  (Main reason why my husband was so interested in this – he has friends working on the monorail and the Metro)

Watch for the next installment of this post where we take a look of what’s inside Atlantis Hotel and a video while the monorail is running!

Wandering around Dubai like a real tourist, Day 1

creekside

A friend of mine, who is so interested in Dubai even before I hopped on the plane to relocate here came to see me last month, just after Christmas. Japan offices are off on the last week of the year so she had the chance to finally come, bringing all her guide books and t-shirts. She really never believed me that it’s quite chilly here in December.

After picking her up at the airport at 5:30 am, we went to have breakfast at the Riviera Hotel, a small B&B hotel at Baniyas Road, facing Dubai Creek in Deira. They offer very affordable breakfast buffet at 50 dhs only. I say “only” although I don’t want to spend an amount like that for my breakfast everyday, because it is still inexpensive compared to the other hotel restaurants in the city. They had Japanese food also, with menus changing daily thanks to a resident Japanese staff they have.

After a sumptous breakfast, I took my friend for a stroll along the Dubai Creek – a very relaxing thing to do on a Friday morning where everyone, I suspect, is still sleeping. The usual rush of the dhows and the traffic was not there, just us and the sea and the very pleasant winter weather.

A funny coincidence: a man drinking tea near a giant brass pitcher along Dubai Creek.

man-tea

My friend smiling despite still jetlagged from her long flight.

chika-creekside

Then we went to Radisson SAS Hotel, just on the same road. I love this hotel in Deira. Sure it is not one of the newest and most sophisticated hotels in the city right now but this was the first five star hotel in Dubai so it has a lot of history. They recently underwent major renovations so the establishment is good as new and with great service.

There were lavish Christmas decors at Radisson SAS.

A giant tree:

christmas-tree-radisson

A huge ginger bread house where the walls are really made out of biscuits!

giant-ginger-bread-house

BUS TOUR

That same day, my friend and I were to board a bus, along with 10 other tourists for a city tour. My husband acts as a guide and we got special approval from the tour coordinator to join for free. I thought it was a great opportunity for my friend to tour around Dubai (for FREE) and a rare chance for me to see my husband at work.

He was very impressive. To say that I am extremely impressed would be an understatement. You could say I was awed, amazed, dazzled by the way he handled the tour. He really takes his work by heart. I am proud of my man – and what he had become compared to what how he was the day we arrived in Dubai. He’s a totally different person. From a man very dependent on his wife on everything because of the language barrier (he didn’t speak English that well 2 years ago) to someone beaming with confidence and being fluent on the language.

I feel like a mom looking at her grownup son. * sniff *

Moving on before I start looking for tissues for my tears….

The tour took us to Sheikh Zayed Road first to see the buildings – those tall, unique buildings you see in every Dubai guidebook and postcards.

Then on to Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a shopping area styled to resemble typical Arabian market. The Burj Al Arab can be seen from here. The group shopped for souvenirs while I cautioned my friend that she can have the same particular item at half the price at the local market in Deira! We were the only ones empty handed.

smj-1

I don’t know what this is for but I found this near the washroom. The rose petals were lovely.

rose-bath

My favorite tree in all of Dubai was still standing, very beautifully against the blue skies.

magnificent-tree-smj

burj-al-arab-from-bus

ATLANTIS at THE PALM JUMEIRAH
Next, the group went to Atlantis Hotel at Palm Jumeirah. In case you don’t know, The Palm Jumeirahis the largest manmade island in the world. There will be three Palm Islands in Dubaibut the one completed right now is only Palm Jumeirah yet. The contractors are still busy hurling big boulders to the see to construct the othe two.

(Atlantis Hotel photos to be uploaded shortly!)

Then the group proceeded to Jumeirah Beach Road and because there is not much to say about this “New Dubai” part of Dubai except for the the opulent lines of villas, the Jumeirah Mosque and Mercato Mall, my husband talked about the history of Dubai and the UAE – of how it was become what it is now from the time when pearl diving was the only means of living for the people. Everyone was listening at every detail and asked questions which our tour gladly answered.

The final leg of the group tour landed us in Dubai Museum in Bur Dubai. I love going to this museum as it has galleries and dioramas depicting people and their way of life during the olden times. The group was to have lunch at Basta Art Cafe – an outdoor cafe with great ambiance and good food. My friend and I had to go since we will be leaving for desert safari that evening.

DESERT SAFARI
The 4×4 picked us up at 3:30 pm. The desert will be cold at this time of the year so we packed jackets, scarves, winter hats and even gloves. My friend almost laughed at us. She’s from Japan where the temperature was zero at night when she left.

golden-sands

This is my second desert safari but the first time taking Pristine with me. It might be because we have a kiddo in tow that the driver made the safari very mild the first one was a blast. I only let out a few screams and didn’t break my mother’s arm everytime the car dove down sand hills.

We stopped by to take photos.

pristine-in-sand

desert-shadows

On a regular desert safari, the cost of the tour will include pickup and drop-off,dinner buffet, camel ride, henna body painting, belly dance show (where you can participate if you like), dressing up in National costumes and of course, the safari itself.

After the mad driving in the sand, we reached the camp site and took advantage of the camels resting. Some of the tourists haven’t arrived so we had the pleasure to get on the camels many times until the camel grunted with anger. I need to lose weight before getting on in one again.

Pristine and my friend posed with the camel and a handful of tourists.

p-and-chika-with-camel

It’s my mom’s first time to ride a camel. She was so nervous, but I bet the camel was too!

mom-and-aunt-on-camel-back

This man asked my two friends to pose with him and his wife so he could say when goes back home that he has THREE wives in Dubai!

chika-national-costume

Night fell and cold crept in but we were ready. My friend was not. She wished she brought the winter jacket she left in her cabinet in Japan.

After dinner, we were treated with a belly dance show.

bellydancer1

She pulled a man from the crowd, who gamely put on a costume on his hip and shook his booty.

bellydancer2

By 8:30 pm, it was time to go home. You bet everyone fell into a deep sleep the moment we closed our eyes!

Whew, it was a long day and this, a long post. Are you sure you still want me to continue writing about Day 2?

in Dubai, the possibilities are endless

First, they made man-made islands, marina, port and harbor, artificial snow (ski resort), and now, would you believe, they are bent on creating artificial rain?

Yesterday’s rain was induced, man-made, artificial, fake! I knew something wasn’t right! The articles can be found in Gulf News titled, Cloud seeding experiment has thundering success (with photos) and Cloud seeding tests continue.

if you were in an island

By the word island I do not mean a solitary piece of land where shipwreck survivors get washed up ashore. Dubai is known for the ‘islands’ they created.

In The News: First residents move into the Palm Jumeirah

A few years ago, there was nothing but the unbroken sea. Now a new land which is made from sand dredged up from the bottom of the Arabian gulf and rocks from nearby mountains rised from the sea in a lovely form of a palm tree. 

palm jumeirah

After a very massive delay in construction work, first residents of Palm Jumeirah moved into their houses according to the news here today. The AP profiles Andrew Dukes who was the first to move into his island mansion paid around $1.36 for his house over a year ago. It is now worth nearly, stunningly, double!

pal jumeirah resident

One of Palm Jumeirah’s first residents Duke Andrews and his kayak. He is planning to windsurf after kayaking.

Palm Jumeirah is just the first of the palm islands. Take note the plural form. ISLAND-S. Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira will humble the size of Palm Jumeirah, the smallest of the palm islands. Click the images to enlarge.

Palm Jumeirah   Palm Jumeirah   Palm Jumeirah

This is something people said couldn’t be done. Well, now it’s been done.

British soccer stars, including David Beckham, have bought properties on the Palm Jumeirah, according to Palm developer Nakheel’s website. So if you want to see David and his bare chest everyday, go buy a property there now.

Others are said to have taken a look. Nakheel’s website claims popstar Michael Jackson, supermodel Naomi Campbell and actor Denzel Washington have shown interest.

The developers say the first 4,000 condos and homes sold on Palm Jumeirah went to citizens of the UAE and other Arabian Gulf countries.

Britons accounted for about 25 per cent of the buyers with the rest from 75 different nationalities, including several Americans.

These facts I just read in the papers. We plan to go there sometime in the weekend to walk on the man-made shores. I’ll be back to let you know how it feels.