Do’s and don’ts when at the Dead Sea

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Or rather,

HOW TO MAKE YOUR DEAD SEA EXPERIENCE MEMORABLE (AND PAINLESS!)

1. Take a day pass in one of the hotels on the shores of the Dead Sea

If you don’t have much time, your best bet is to take a day pass at any of the hotels in the Dead Sea area. Since you would only float, rinse and shower, take a day pass as the public beach might offer the facilities you need.

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We accessed the Dead Sea via the Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea – it’s a huge resort with great facilities, beautiful and well maintained grounds and most of all, very helpful staff. It has direct access to the shore of the Dead Sea and view from there is just AMAZING.

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The hotel has villa type rooms facing the sea with private pools. The whole ambiance is very peaceful and relaxing.

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The pools at the hotel all looked very lovely however, it was too cold for a swim. Thankfully, the Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea has a “winter” pool called the hydro pool at the spa where the water is heated.

If I had to do it again, I’d probably stay for a night at the Movenpick just to relax after the Dead Sea experience and enjoy the hydro pool at the spa more and perhaps, another dip in the healing waters of the Dead Sea!

2. Don’t shave a few days before your visit

This tip is applicable to both men and women. The high salinity means that even the smallest of cuts will burn. Cover open cuts or wounds with a waterproof bandage if you don’t want to know the real meaning of “putting salt in one’s wound”.

3. Consider wearing water shoes

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The shores and floor of the Dead sea is not soft powdery sands you might encounter on most beaches. The shores are pebbly and there are several sharp clumps of crystallized salt stuck to the stones at the floor. Pristine had a cut on her toes because we were barefoot. If I would do it again, I’d definitely bring and use some sort water shoes. TAKE MY WORD FOR IT.

4. Bring some reading material to capture that IMPORTANT photo

You’ve probably Googled “floating in the Dead Sea” and saw photos of people holding magazines as they float on their backs. Want that iconic shot? Bring along your own prop! We didn’t bring any but luckily, the hotel staff gave us something to use!

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5. Wear an old bathing suit

The water is quite harsh on fabrics and can cause discolouration. Save your favorite bikini for the pool.

6. Don’t splash the water

Try not to splash. That’s not the usual recommendation for a seaside getaway, with a salt and mineral content upward of 30 percent, a splash of Dead Sea water in your eyes and you can’t open it for at least five minutes! If you get a drop of water on your face, do not use your wet hand to try to brush it off! You’ll get more water on your face and if it gets into your eyes, it will sting a lot. Just get out, walk like a blind man and go to the shower.

Don’t kick the water to move, just use your hands.

7. Just lean back

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Don’t try to swim. Floating ON YOUR BACK is the preferred method of immersion at the Dead Sea. In the photo, our guide is trying to explain to Pristine how to do the floating thingie properly. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without her when we were there. She tells us to just relax, walk in slowly, pretend you are about to sit down on a chair and lean back; the water will do the rest.

The buoyancy is nothing like you’ve experienced before because the salinity is 8-9 times that of normal sea water.

8. Do the mud pack!

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Don’t laugh now but the black mud of the Dead Sea is VERY good for the skin. The black mud found on the seabed is high in magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium, which can give you a mud bath that can help to treat many ailments and skin diseases..

After floating, we applied mud all over our body and allowed the mud to dry.

The sun was shining out but the cold winds of winter made us shiver. We were the only bathers when we were there because winter is off season for this kind of activity. After the mud dried up, we rinsed it in the salty water again and OMG – my skin became especially so soft, shiny and just absolutely smooth for a few days after our mud pack and Dead Sea soak!

9. Don’t spend too long in the sea

The water is dehydrating, and you’re advised to spend no more than 20 minutes in it. A shower is advised right after getting out. You can always go back in the sea for another 10-15 minutes, but shower in between if you don’t want to have your skin become irritated.

10. Bring a camera!

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Take a photo or it did not happen, right? I also want to mention that I used a waterproof, all weather, all terrain casing for my phone so we can take photos at the Dead Sea. My very trusty Catalyst Case survived a dip in the world’s saltiest waters!

Have you been to the Dead Sea? Any other important tips you would like to add?

Day trip to the Dead Sea

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First up on our Jordan itinerary was the Dead Sea. It was cold when we arrived in Amman (6 degrees celsius in the second week of December at 9 am) and I was thinking how cold the waters of the Dead Sea can get but heck, I was determined to do it anyway. I did not come all the way here to skip it! Because…how many times in your life will you be at the Dead Sea?

(The temperature at the Dead Sea area is significantly higher than in Amman since it is a lower elevation – in fact, it’s more than 400 meters below sea level.)

HOW TO GET THERE

There are several taxis waiting outside the airport, just look out for the marked ones. The taxi fares seem to vary and a little search on Google could get you answers (sorry can’t tell because we did not use it). From Amman airport to the Dead Sea (at least to our hotel, the Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea) was around 50 minutes.

A travel & tours agency based in Amman, Amani Tours provided transfers for our entire Jordan trip on a van with a very able guide.

WHY IS IT CALLED “DEAD SEA”?

The Dead Sea is actually not a “sea” at all, it’s a hypersaline lake that is truly one of Earth’s unique places. A hypersaline lake is a landlocked body of water that contains significant concentrations of sodium chloride or other mineral salts, with saline levels surpassing that of ocean water.

The Dead Sea is indeed a very scary name for a lake. It is called so because nothing lives in it. There are no sea weeds or plants, no fish either. (No sharks!)

LOWEST POINT ON EARTH

The Dead Sea, also known as the Salt Sea, is a salt lake bordering Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. The surface and shores of the Dead Sea are 423 metres (1,388 ft) below sea level, making it Earth’s lowest elevation on land.

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WHAT IS IT LIKE TO SWIM FLOAT IN THE DEAD SEA?

Truly such a unique experience. It really is hard to imagine that you can literally just lay on your back or stomach and have the water hold you up so easily.

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It’s a strangely unnerving experience that can’t help but make you smile. The water is so buoyant I feel it’s “kicking” me up. It’s even difficult to put your foot down! The water called the “dead” sea has life of its own! You can’t sink. It’s an absolute blast for non-swimmers to be able to float so effortlessly. People can, however, get into serious trouble when going face first into the water, so lifeguards are on duty.

“Floating” in the Dead Sea was actually a bit DIFFICULT for me because I was scared of the water getting into my eyes (I’ve read painful stories about it!).

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Thankfully, our wonderful tour guide got into the water with us to help me because I flopped around, cannot maintain my sense of balance (so lame, I know) so she was there to straighten me out. I did not stay long in the water – it was a bit windy so there were mild waves that I feel if no one gets hold of me, I’d land on the opposite side of the sea, in another country!

I don’t know with other bathers in the Dead Sea but I wasn’t really floating effortlessly, especially when holding a magazine to get that trademark floating-in-the-dead-sea picture or propping my neck so I don’t lie completely. Elevating my neck was tiring but a great ab exercise.

DEAD SEA WITH KIDS?

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If you have small kids – under 7 or 8, I would reconsider the Dead Sea as the the mineral content may be too caustic for them. My daughter was 2 weeks shy of her 13th birthday when we went but she felt the burning sensation after 10 minutes. She enjoyed it nevertheless, especially how her skin felt afterwards.

Also, some small kids really freak out when they bob up in the water and their feet don’t touch, and then they flail. Flailing is REALLY bad in the Dead Sea. Even if you try to grasp your child firmly to secure him/her, you will likely lose your balance as you get in, with or without a child in your arms. I think holding a child would make things worse for both of you.

That said, this is one of the reasons why I didn’t bring my five year old son during this trip.

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED TO STAY TO ENJOY THE DEAD SEA?

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The concept of the word “enjoy” varies for each person. For me, a day trip is enough although if we had more days to spend in Jordan, I may consider staying for a night to enjoy the hotel’s facilities* and soak just one more time.

The spa facilities at the Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea were really enjoyable and even just standing near the shore, looking out to the sea, breathing the very clean and therapeutic air was so relaxing. It calms the mind as it sort of detaches you from the real world. As if time stops. If I stayed longer, that’s what I would do, sit there and just do a thousand deep breaths.

Did you know? The air in the Dead Sea is oxygen-rich and free of allergens, also alleviates symptoms and improves quality of life for patients with respiratory diseases such as asthma, allergic rhinitis and cystic fibrosis.

IS THE DEAD SEA WORTH IT?

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The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth that is not underwater. Add to that, it has the saltiest water. Healing benefits – your skin will feel so soft even days later! That mysterious feeling of super buoyancy. Many people get bored but I would still say it is worth it. The place isn’t far from Amman airport and you can drop by on your way to Petra.

It is also important to note that the Dead Sea is actually dying with water levels declining by 1 meter every year and possibly more in the future so it won’t be long before it’s gone. I think that Dead Sea is still really worth a visit. It’s one in the world.

Go there even just for 1 hour and you will remember it for a lifetime.

Visiting Jordan: an overview

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I took a short trip to Jordan for 4 days and 3 nights. And if I have to sum it all up, it was AMAZING.

Jordan had always been on my list of must see places. It’s in the Middle East and with only a little over three hours of flight from Dubai, it’s practically in my neighborhood. In a few weeks, we’re ten years in Dubai having not travelled to Jordan ever before in that span of time is kind of shameful, really. I attempted a visit once, in 2011 but my plans were scrapped due to work and later on, pregnancy and a small baby.

I travelled to many other places after that but Jordan never left my head and my heart. I know I HAD TO GO.

I’ll be writing extensively about my trip, the lessons I learned, experiences and will be sharing tips. For now though, the BASICS.

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The most important question, I know most travellers to Jordan ask,

Is Jordan Safe?

Yes.

Despite Jordan’s location surrounded by Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it is a peaceful country with good diplomatic relationships with the UK and US. We felt very safe in Jordan and had no problems at all. People have been put off from visiting the country since the Arab Spring and the ongoing carnage in Syria but the key thing to remember is that there’s no advise against travel to anywhere in Jordan except a two-mile strip along the Syrian border (which is far from tourist sites).

VISA REQUIREMENTS (as of this writing)

Single Entry visas valid for one month: 40 JOD (approximately 56 USD)
Double Entry visas valid for three months: 60 JOD (approximately 85 USD)
Multiple Entry visas valid for six months: 120 JOD (approximately 170 USD)

Always check with the Jordanian consulate website or directly call them to confirm if you are eligible for visa on arrival or need to apply visa before going.

The Jordanian Government has waived visa fees for all non-restricted nationalities coming through Jordanian tour operators whether travelling individually or in groups. The visa fee is waived on the condition that the traveller/travellers spend a minimum of two consecutive nights in Jordan.

FLIGHT

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Our flight from Dubai was via Fly Dubai. They have flights to Amman twice a day and they have the best flight schedule for someone who has very limited time to travel. Our flight left Dubai’s Terminal 2 at 6:30 am, arriving in Amman a little after 8:00 am* so there’s practically the whole day to do things. Flight back to Dubai leaves Amman at 10:10 pm, so you have time to enjoy your last full day in Jordan till then.

Travel time Dubai – Amman is 3.5 hours and Amman – Dubai, 3 hours.

* Jordan follows winter time so the clocks are turned back an hour. In actuality, UAE and Jordan only have one hour of time difference, with the UAE ahead.

The cost of our roundtrip ticket bought on sale was AED800 (US$218) per person.

Fly Dubai do seat sales very often, so watch out for that. Our flight to Prague in May this year was also with this budget airline with tickets bought during their sales period.

CURRENCY

1 JOD = approximately AED5 (US$1.4)

TIP: Carry Jordanian dinar cash as there are many establishments and local stores not accepting credit card.

INTERNET CONNECTION

Jordan is well connected and many hotels have WiFi. I bought a Zain local SIM card at a kiosk right inside the airport, after the passport control section. The SIM was with 4 GB data and 30 mins (?) local calls for JOD8.8. Zain network had fantastic 3G coverage, even in the most remote places like most of Wadi Rum.

TRANSFERS

Although there are taxis and a public bus to Petra (and other destinations), your best bet would be to hire a private transfer with driver and if possible, a guide through a trusted tour operators listed in the official Jordan Tourism Board website.

We were taken care of by Amani Tours who provided a van with a driver and a wonderful guide.

So here’s a roundup of the places we went to in Jordan. This is just an overview. A more detailed post about each one will follow, hopefully SOON!

Fascinating Dead Sea

First up on our itinerary was to the Dead Sea, right after we got out of the airport. Why, because no one really goes to Jordan without visiting this fascinating, downright mysterious body of water, right?

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth at 450 meters below sea level. It is actually a lake but called a ‘sea’ and is more than 8 times saltier than the ocean.

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We did not stay overnight in the Dead Sea area but we were at the Movenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea opting for day access to get into the shores of the Dead Sea. Our guide said there are public and semi-private beach access areas but we chose to be at the Movenpick because we wanted to relax at their spa and use the therapeutic hydro pool and shower facilities (which were all so nice, by the way!).

(After swimming floating in the salty waters, you NEED to rinse off.)

The hotel has wonderful spa and therapy programs for healing and wellness, too though we didn’t go for any therapy sessions due to time constraints.

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We braved the cold temps and wind to do what everyone should do when at the Dead Sea: float in the highly buoyant water! Pics on the next post about our Dead Sea experience soon!

Magical Petra

After a few hours at the Dead Sea, we head out to Petra. The plan was to spend the night at the Movenpick Resort Petra and see the historic archeological site first thing in the morning. There are several hotels, hostels and B&B places within Wadi Musa (the village where Petra is), however, the Movenpick Resort Petra is located at the doorstep of the entrance gate to Petra. As in, literally just a few steps away so that means, if you overslept, you don’t ruin your vacation.

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We set out very early to Petra, right after sunrise ready to experience one of the seven wonders of the world. The gates open at 7 am and we were one of the few who were there at that time.

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You must have heard wonderful stories and raves of Petra’s main attraction – the Treasury or Al Khazneh for locals but for me, the Siq – the stretch of dim, narrow gorge that winds its way approximately 1.2 kilometers (0.75 mi) impressed me more. If I had to take a picture of an angle I like, I’d probably end up with hundreds and hundreds of photographs.

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Entrance to Petra is expensive (at least for me!) at single entry for 50JOD (approx AED250 or US$68) per person. Children under 12 enter for free. The cost discouraged me a bit to be honest but I thought, heck, I have to see this at least once in my life so be it!

TIP: If you’re going to spend longer time in Jordan and going to other sites/museums, etc, get the Jordan Pass – it combines the country’s visa entry fee of 40 JD with the notoriously costly Petra entrance ticket of 50 JD + entrance to other attractions.

Refreshing Red Sea

We drove to the southern part of Jordan from Petra, to a city called Aqaba – the only coastal city in Jordan and the largest and most populous city on the Gulf of Aqaba. Even during winter, Aqaba is warmer than Amman or Petra making it a great holiday hub. Staying in Aqaba is a great idea if you plan to visit Wadi Rum.

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That said, there are several hotels and resorts in Aqaba, especially on Tala bay. We stayed at the Movenpick Resort and Spa Tala Bay Aqaba. It is a very family friendly resort hotel with great facilities and fun pools – yeah, plural because there are several pools! In the summer time, I can imagine lots of families enjoying their time here.

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Movenpick Tala Bay has a beach access to the Red Sea. It was so refreshing to walk here every morning after breakfast. I absolutely LOVE the breeze here!

Breathtaking Wadi Rum

Now people, THIS.

Wadi Rum, another UNESCO World Heritage Site is out of this world majestic. This protected desert wilderness is located in southern Jordan and spans an area of 74,000 hectares.

I can take a thousand pictures and write a thousand more words to describe it but it won’t do justice as what my eyes have seen.

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I’ve heard many great things about Wadi Rum, as well as not so great ones too. If you love nature, history, mystery or even magic, go to Wadi Rum but if you’re one of the few who thinks a vast land of desert and ancient stones is boring, maybe you can skip it.

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I HOPE YOU WON’T SKIP IT, THOUGH! Wadi Rum is DREAMY.

Entrance fee to Wadi Rum is only JOD5 (approx AED25 or US$1.4) per person but you have to pay for the tour on a jeep. Ours was JOD55 for three hours – we had a Bedouin driver recommended by our fabulous guide and the cost was worth every penny.

*****

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I travelled to Jordan with my soon to be officially teenager daughter, Pristine. This is actually our second mother-daughter trip together. The first one was last year checking out the Christmas markets in Prague for the first time. She is a year older now, meaning, more capable to endure all the walking and trekking I assumed our Jordan experience would entail.

And I wasn’t wrong! She is a real trooper and braver and stronger than me on all accounts. Pretty flexible too with almost everything from food to hiking distances and climbing rocks! I think I could write another 7 reasons why I love travelling with my daughter!

Our Jordan trip was fantastic and to be honest exceeded our already high expectations. I can’t wait to write more.

Travel Challenge: Visiting countries for every letter of the alphabet

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In one of my daydreaming moments on which place to visit next, I thought of creating a list of countries I visited so far and categorise them according alphabetically. The aim of this self-imposed challenge is to visit at least 26 countries in this lifetime, at least once per country.

How did my travel list fare?

Here’s my list and I highlighted in bold the beginning letter of the countries I have NOT yet visited.

A – Austria, solo travel in 2015

B – Belgium in 2006

C – Czech Republic (twice in a span of 6 months, Prague to experience Christmas market in Europe in winter and Prague again in spring time)

D – Not been so possibly Denmark because the others D’s are not too secure/safe or too far

E – England in 2006 – if this counts as “United Kingdom”, then I’ll aim to go to Estonia next!

F – Not been so my daughter said, France! France!

G – Germany in 2006

H – Hong Kong, if a long stopover counts! If not, I’d want to go to Hungary.

I – I want it to be Iceland! But more realistically, India, for me next year

J – Japan! I lived there for more than 10 years and Jordan.

K – Kenya would be a dream but just to cross this out, might get on a short flight to Kuwait!

L – Not been so Latvia (because the capital city of Riga looks really beautiful)

M – Maldives in 2014

N – Netherlands in 2006

O – There is only one O country – Oman and though it is connected to the UAE, I have NOT been there! * shame*

P – Philippines, where I lived from birth till I was 19.

Q – Qatar, only in the airport! And since there is only one country beginning with the letter Q, I would love to go out of the airport next time and explore Doha

R – Not been to Dracula’s lair, Romania. I’m sure there is more to this country than Dracula.

S – Singapore, a few times; Sri Lanka in 2014

T – Turkey on a blogger’s trip in 2013; Thailand on a blogger’s trip in 2011

U – United Arab Emirates, our home for 10 years now

V – Vatican City (If we make I to Italy then we can shoot two birds in one stone as Vatican is in Italy)

W – Wales – technically not a country (though the Welsh would disagree?). Other choices would only be Wallis and Fortuna and Western Sahara in Africa.

X – There is no country beginning with letter X so we’ll change a bit to LuXembourg or MeXico?

Y –  the only country for Y is Yemen and for security and safety’s sake, I can’t imagine I’ll be going there any time soon

Z – a choice between Zambia and Zimbabwe, not sure if ever I’d get to any

So, technically, if we exclude W and X as well as unsafe Y, there are STILL 10 letters or ten countries I still need to go to, to complete this challenge. I might clear one or two next year.

Japanese shrine

Things to do in Japan: Visiting shrines and temples

Japanese shrine

Thinking about it, I’m frequently asked: “What are the top things to do in Japan?”

I’ve lived there for more than ten years so people expect me to blurt out answers faster than Google. But actually, I always get stumped when asked that question.

I tend to over-think things. So I ask back, so many questions.

What part of Japan do you wish to visit? Tokyo?

Are you going to Japan with children?

When will you go? Summer? Winter? Spring? Autumn?

Do you prefer the modern, high tech face of Japan or the subtle laid back countryside?

Do you like sushi?

There are many, many things to do in Japan that it simply deserve another (long) post. Today, I’m going to go with: temples and shrines because this easily goes into my top ten list of things to do while in Japan. And it should be in your list, too.

First, it’s something cultural and historical. Maybe something you wouldn’t even find in your home country so it’s an adventure, a discovery. Then there’s something about these places that calms me, makes me sit in one corner and put things in perspective. I find quiet and solace and get out feeling better.

Always.

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Looks dramatic, no?

When we were in Japan in the summer of 2013, Benjamin and I frequented shrines and temples while Pristine was at school. It has a great open space he can run around and as I have said, I really like the stillness of the place.

Japanese shrine

Summer in Japan is tough (coming from someone who live in Dubai, I know that sounds really weird!) so we sought refuge in the shrine premises. It’s cooler inside the shrines (called “jinja” in Japanese) because of the lush trees. You can hear the rustle of the leaves on a windy day which is kind of soothing. This particular shrine is very close to where we lived and I always took Pristine here when she was small.

Japanese shrine

In my ten years of stay in Japan, I’ve visited a lot of shrines and temples and friends and family would ask, what is the difference? To a foreigner,  yes, they can look all the same.

But they are different.

Japanese shrines (“jinja”) are generally based in Shintoism which is a set of Japanese spiritual beliefs. So many of these shrines have features and designs that are unique to Japan. For example, you’ll find torii archways at shrines.

Torii in shrine

The torii symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred. I’ve seen Japan’s most photographed torii some years back – this is in Miyajima, Hiroshima.

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Looking from the sea, this torii serves as the gateway to Itsukushima Shrine.

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Itsukushima jinja is a UNESCO world heritage site on Hiroshima prefecture’s Miyajima island. The shrine and its gate are regarded as one of Japan’s great views because of its large torii which stands over 16 meters tall.

Japanese temples (“otera”) on the other hand, are based in the facets Buddhism rather than Shintoism. Because of this, you can find similar temples in countries that practice Buddhism (i.e. China, Japan, and Korea). In the same fashion as the shrine, the name can be a dead giveaway as to whether you’re in a temple or a shrine. Simply listen for the ji sound at the end of the name.

One of the most popular temples I have visited are Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) in Kyoto…

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…and Todaiji in Nara.

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Instead of finding tori archways, you have pagoda, the cool-looking multi-tiered towers that are often associated with Asian architecture. A small temple near our place (big temples have more lavish entrances):

Japanese temple

It’s very quiet in here.

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This one’s in Niigata, my husband’s home town when we last visited in the summer of 2013.

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These statues? They have their story.

Japanese temple

These statues are called “Jizo” or more endearingly “Ojizo-san”. It was believed that “Ojizo-san” would guide dead soul to heaven or the kingdom of Buddha and not to hell.

Statue in Japanese shrine

Now, this photo above intrigued me for years when I was new there (the time when there was no Google or Wikipedia!) – so I had to ask around. Why do the Ojizo-san wear a red bib and with children at his feet?

Japanese temple

The Ojizo-san is seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents. He has been worshiped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses.

In Japanese mythology, it is said that the souls of children who die before their parents are unable to cross the mythical Sanzu River on their way to the afterlife because they have not had the chance to accumulate enough good deeds and because they have made the parents suffer. It is believed that the Ojizo-san saves these souls from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the river as penance, by hiding them from demons in his robe.

You often encounter Ojizo-san in temples and graveyards and it is not unusual to see the idol adorned with a red bib and a red baby hat. The reason for this, is parents put it there to either thank him for saving a child from illness or to ask him to protect a child in the after-life.

So folks, so much about Japan’s temples and shrines. Sorry, I got carried away! Nevertheless, if you happen to visit Japan, a country in my opinion, that you should visit at least once in your lifetime, be sure to stop by those little temples and shrines. They are always worth your time.

Missing Niigata

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My mother in law called me last weekend, and asked the perpetual question, as she does almost every year: “When are you coming here again, aren’t you doing the taiken nyuugaku anymore?” The last time we were in Japan was already more than three years ago and though we would have loved to go more often and earlier, there were some personal circumstances (in their part) that made us postpone going.

I smiled and asked her the same question. In two months, it will be TEN years since we moved to Dubai – and not once did they visit, nor expressed their wish to do so. Unlike other Japanese people who recently have been becoming keen to see the world, my in-laws ‘got out’ of Japan, all together only once – when their son and I got married almost 14 years ago in the Philippines.

For them, travelling is this big, insurmountable thing that takes too much energy to tackle and if they have extra cash, they’d rather use it to get another truck, farming tool or purchase more land. I never understood it at first but after a few visits to their town and I get it.

When I first visited in 1999, I learned how many of the townspeople choose to stay in their comfort zones. Some die without even leaving the small town or city. Travel is definitely not for everyone and definitely not for my in-laws. And that’s ok as long as they are happy tethered to their comfort zone.

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My husband’s hometown is not a popular tourist destination in Japan. It’s miles and miles away from Tokyo. It’s dark after 8 pm. Ciccadas are loud in the summer and deers, wild rabbits and raccoon dogs appear out of nowhere any given time of the day.

The summers are hot and humid – believe me it’s tougher to spend summer there than in Dubai and the winters are long, wet and the snow…oh the snow.

I’ve been sorting out my old hard disk drive and found photos I took way before I started blogging so I thought, why not share the story behind these photos? My in-laws live in Niigata Prefecture, in the north western part of Japan, facing the Sea of Japan. Niigata prefecture, especially their town of Tokamachi is one of the biggest producers of premium quality rice in the country.

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What you would find in the books about Tokamachi City in Niigata Prefecture are two things.

Rice and snow.

My father in-law owns a number of farm plots near his house. He tends to it ALONE. But forget the traditional farming in South East Asia where you see water buffalos tilling the soil and farmers having difficult time doing it alone.

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Like other modern Japanese farmers, my FIL (father in-law)  has these power tractors that make work easier for him. My mother in-law helps and during school breaks, when I didn’t have part time jobs, I was there to help out. {Even before getting married, I was already close to them.}

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So close that they allow me to help out in this seasonal task.

Actually, I would be there on long weekends in September too when the rice grains are ripe and ready to harvest because I had been enthralled with the whole process of rice production and wonder why this part of the country earned the honor of being “the best in Japan”.  Once you tasted the cooked Japanese rice from the first harvest…you somehow crave for it…along with awesome Japanese sake (rice wine)!

But before the bowl of rice reaches your table, you have to work for it! I was curious about how these machines work and my father in law allowed me to ‘test drive’.

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Now, my FIL is a typical Japanese who aims for perfection. I was surprised he allowed me to get into this thing!

Japan farm life

He was so detailed about everything and I have seen him during the planting season. This man takes his rice affair very seriously.

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The Uonuma (name of their town) Koshihikari rice is the best in Japan, something that the locals of nearby Akita would contest.  The Uonuma district in Niigata prefecture is famous for producing Koshihikari of top quality, and this is why Koshihikari produced in this district, or Uonuma-san Koshihikari (“san” means “produce”), is called “burando mai” (brand rice). Uonuma-san Koshihikari is ranked as Toku A by the Japan Grain Inspection Association. (Toku means Special).

The other thing about this town is snow.

Tokamachi City is known for abundance of snow. In fact, the area receives the most snow compared to any area on the main island of Honshu and is the record holder of the most amount of snowfall with 463 cm. So that verdant green fields in the summer?

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GONE by winter.

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Here’s a photo of my brother (left) and my husband’s brother taken just outside of my in-laws’ house during the middle of winter season. My brother who just arrived in Japan a few months prior wanted to see snow so I sent him off to my in-laws in Niigata prefecture. My family, we were living in Nagano prefecture where snow is less so I thought my brother need to see the real deal. I guess he got all the snow he wished for!

Japan farm life

The amount of snowfall is so ridiculous but instead of whining about it, the residents graciously deal with it every year and make gigantic figures out of it and also holds an annual “snow festival” in February. Tokamachi Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) was started in 1950 by the citizens and for the citizens of Tokamachi based on the idea “let’s not make snow our enemy, let’s make snow our friend.”

The fireworks that decorate the sky at the finale of the snow-stage carnival make snowy scenery that appears straight out of a fantasy.

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I hoped you enjoyed today’s little tidbits about my life in Japan. If you’re a new reader, a little background: I lived in Japan for 10 years and a few months before relocating to the UAE.

I’ve not been able to visit my in laws during harvest time but one day, I hope to take the kids there to experience it. As I’ve said in the beginning of this post, my in laws’ little town isn’t as glamorous as the big and popular cities of Tokyo or Osaka but I miss it. It holds a special place in my heart.

World’s first Hyperloop coming soon to the UAE!

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I must admit, even with exciting things going on and being built in the UAE’s capital city of Abu Dhabi, the at least 2 hours drive gets to me. There’s a public transport (bus) but not really an option for many people and as of this writing, there is no railway system that connects Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

But who needs the usual railway system when there’s the option of The Hyperloop One!

Today Hyperloop One announced a historic agreement with the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai to study high-speed routes that reduce travel time between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to 12 minutes. Here’s a video to see it in motion.

The nitty gritty details of the Hyperloop

  • Hyperloop is a proposed method of travel that would transport people at 740mph (1,200km/h) between distant locations.
  • It was unveiled by Elon Musk in 2013, who said it could take passengers the 380 miles (610km) from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes – half the time it takes a plane.
  • It is essentially a long tube that has had the air removed to create a vacuum.
  • The tube is suspended off the ground to protect against weather and earthquakes.
  • Passengers would sit in either individual or group pods, which would then be accelerated with magnets.
  • Capsules carrying six to eight people would depart every 30 seconds.

The Hyperloop One is a very futuristic transport system that promises BIG – Dubai to Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes instead of 2 hours! I like it! I know that sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie but in this part of the world where the ‘impossible’ is always challenged…you know what will happen next.

When we arrived in the UAE in 2007 and the Dubai Metro was still under construction, we vowed not to leave Dubai until it completes. The Hyperloop One is said to be realized in five years time – I guess we’ll be staying till then?

5 Reasons to visit Innsbruck, Austria

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A while back, Timehop app reminded me that it’s been a year since my solo travel to Austria. I wrote about how I spent one week in Austria but barely touching on Innsbruck, which is probably my favorite Austrian city as of the moment (I’ve only been to Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck as of this writing).

Here’s a list of reasons why you should include Innsbruck in your next travel.

1. Innsbruck is a charming small town

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Yes, it is a city but with only 130,000 inhabitants, Innsbruck is considerably small. I have lived in the big city of Tokyo and now living in Dubai, I long for a more chill vibe. And the Austrian alps as backdrop? I instantly fell in love with this place the moment I stepped out of the train.

However, despite not looking like a big, glitzy city, there are loads of cool places to hang out – parks, cafes, co-working spaces, bars and restaurants and WiFi is everywhere.

Did I say charming?

You can wander through narrow alleys, marvel at noble squares and be amazed at the ornate Baroque architecture. Literally, every corner is beautiful.

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2. Innsbruck is eye candy

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The rows of houses at Maria Hilf street along the Inn river is a sight to behold against the picturesque Austrian Alps. I could stare at it for a long time.

3. If you love the mountains, Innsbruck is for you.

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The unique thing about Innsbruck is its spectacular location hemmed in by the Austria Alps. Take the Patscherkofel cable car to the top of the Patscherkof Mountain at 2246 metres or get aboard the underground train from the city center to Hungerburg and from there take the cable car Hungerburgbahn up to Hafelekar mountain station. The Nordkette cable railway stations designed by the brilliantly talented, recently deceased architect, Zaha Hadid, are the futuristic gateway to these majestic mountains.

TIP: Don’t forget to get your Innsbruck card to avail of these cable car rides for free, along with other discounts on other attractions.

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In history, the Tyrol region is referred to as the wilderness by the Austrians mainly because, 85 per cent of the region is mountainous. If you love climbing mountains, you will love the unforgettable sight above, unless it’s cloudy of course, in which case, you just need to come back.

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…or wait till the weather clears.

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By the way, there’s no need to be a certified mountain climber, you can get on a cable car to take you to the top of famous ski landmarks and enjoy the view from there.

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4. Small villages straight out of a fairy tale book!

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Innsbruck is surrounded by small holiday villages with pastoral landscapes, wooden chalets with sloping roofs bedecked with flowers, and wrap around porches.

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5. It’s close to nature

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Innsbruck is a beautiful combination of urban and natural playgrounds. Tyroleans love the outdoor life and hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter is a normal weekend routine. The day after I arrived at Innsbruck with feet still dead from roaming around Vienna and Salzburg, I went out with my friend and her family to climb a “little” mountain. We started halfway and reached 2,000+ meters in a few hours with me pondering on how unfit I am!

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Mountain climbing/hiking in Innsbruck is a beautiful way to keep fit to be able to eat the schnitzels, strudels and sausages while on vacation!

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HOW TO REACH INNSBRUCK

  • via its own airport
  • 2 hours by car from Munich (or shorter if by train)
  • 4 hours by train from Vienna (several airlines from Dubai flies to Vienna non-stop) and 2 hours from Salzburg

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When you think of travelling to Austria, the first place that comes to mind is often Vienna. However, I hope these photos helped you decide that Innsbruck is a city not to overlook!

How I spent one week in Austria

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As if I needed scarier reality check that time flies so quickly other than the fact that we’re in the last quarter of the year, it has been a year since I traveled solo to Austria. It was a spontaneous trip, a ‘just go’ sort of thing.

When I got back, I had all the best intentions to write and extensive post about my trip, the things I learned and maybe entice a few of you to include Austria in your list of destinations to visit in the near future and to know some tips before going or while you’re there to make your Austrian getaway much better than mine..but allow me to say that the reason I wasn’t able to write about my trip till now is this – ‘life happened’. Oh, well.

VIENNA REAL QUICK

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I left Dubai late afternoon to arrive in Vienna’s Schwechat airport at about 9 pm. Vienna is a short flight from Dubai, only five and a half hours so it’s totally doable even if you only have a few days on your entire itinerary. My first impression once I got out of the airport and onto the train station? Deja vu – it was like I was in Narita airport in Japan. Everything about the train station that night looked and smelled like Narita.

I stayed at the Motel One Wien Haptbahnhof which I chose from searching for hotels in Vienna from Booking.com based on price and proximity to the main train station. I’d be arriving late at night and it’s a new city for me so I didn’t want to take a cab or bus from the station to the hotel without having the ‘feel’ of the city yet.

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The hotel was basic but had a very comfortable bed, hot shower and breakfast. It was enough for me as I will be checking out early in the morning anyway. I can see the Vienna’s main train station (Wien Hauptbahnhof) from my hotel window. It was cold that night!

I took a shower, reviewed my next day’s itinerary and slept. No – I could hardly sleep that night as I was thinking of a lot of things. This solo travel, I’ve not done this in a long time plus the thought of just having like, 12 hours in Vienna – how many things can I compress in those 12 short hours?

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When I arrived at the train station, I saw a crowd gathered near the ticket offices. They were obviously not from here. During this time, migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa arrived by the train loads in Austria (Vienna) aiming to get to Germany.

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When I saw these people including women and children and elderly at the station without certainty of their destination (Germany stopped accepting them at the borders), their future or even certainty what could happen in the next 24 hours, I was taken aback – here I was flying from Dubai to Austria and these people…

But I was already there so I just moved and went on my way and thought I’d just make the best of this trip. Hats off to Austria for being tolerant and understanding of the situation. There were volunteers who would distribute food and water, free of charge.

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The places I visited during my 24 hours in Vienna included St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Schonbrunn Palace, Naschmarkt, Ringstrasse and of course, before I started my tour of the city, I had to take a bite of the chocolate cake known as the world’s best because you know, priorities.

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Vienna’s crisp, cool autumn air reminded me so much of my time in Japan. I didn’t go to any museum or watched any opera concerts Vienna is popular with as I had to leave in the evening for Salzburg.

THE HILLS ARE ALIVE IN SALZBURG

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I left Vienna on a 7 pm train toward the west, to Salzburg. I’ve been dreaming of visiting this city since the day I watched the movie The Sound of Music for the first time (probably a couple of decades ago!).  The train to Salzburg had my phone changing carriers from that of Austrian to German and back again because the rail road track was skirting the borders of the two countries. Too bad I couldn’t see anything as outside was pitch dark.

There were tents temporary put up by the Austrian Red Cross just outside the main station at Salzburg.  And lots of policemen. Refugees and immigrants, hoping to “walk” up to the Austrian/German border came all the way to Salzburg. Europe’s migrant crisis felt so real. Back home, I only see this in the papers or on tv or hear on the radio.

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I had to take a bus to my hotel in Salzburg. The city was quiet and calm (and chilly!) at around 9:30 pm. I felt safe though even walking alone.

The location to my accommodation in Salzburg was a bit of a trouble to find. After getting down from the bus and walking for a few minutes, Google maps says “you have arrived at your destination” but for the life of me, I could not see any sign or something that looks like a hotel or inn – because, silly me, the accommodation that I chose wasn’t a hotel at all!!

Interesting place to stay. Hard to find but worth the effort (easier to find when you know you’re looking for a seminary not a hotel or inn!).

This was the front door of Gästehaus im Priesterseminar. I knocked at the door at 10pm and it’s obvious no one would hear me. I finally found the door bell only to be answered by a lady who was obviously upset because it’s late and was speaking in German! I replied with my very rusty German I learned at the university in Japan almost 20 years ago. It didn’t work. LOL!

I had to stop a man walking home if he can help me with German. Thankfully, everything went well and the lady opened the door for me.The rooms are quite large, very clean, and decorated very sparsely. This lack of clutter was most welcome. I somehow remembered the first time I arrived at my school dormitory in Japan!

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This inn is a repurposed church and I had an amazing stay in it. The location cannot be beat. Public transport outside the guest house and the old town just across the river.

I woke up early the next day and had breakfast while reviewing my itinerary – I only have a short time and intended to cover as much as my feet could survive. First up was to go to the Salzburg Info Center located at Mozartplatz at the Old Town. After I picked up my Salzburg card (TIP: You should get this card!) and map from the tourism office, I just crossed the street and found myself at the Old Town and proceeded to the Salzburg Cathedral and onto the furnicular to take me to the Hohensalzburg – Central Europe’s largest and best-preserved fortress.

The fortress offers a perfect vantage view of Salzburg.

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I walked around a bit around the Old Town again and found out it’s not only in the Philippines where Christmas starts early – there were many Christmas ornaments for sale in the streets of Salzburg already!

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Located at the northern boundary of Alps, Salzburg was founded around 700 b.c and since then has kept great economic and cultural importance for that part of Austria. The rich baroque architecture invites everybody to walk through its narrow streets. I got lost in one of those streets near the house where Mozart was born, but it’s a really small town and the more you get lost, the more you find beautiful corners and things…

Salzburg is a wonderul city to go on vacation. It was relaxing and very laid back. At 6 pm, the shops and stores close down for the night. This surprised me a little, but was actually a nice change of pace from the ’till midnight’ open for business malls and shops in Dubai. The city became quiet early, with the exception of a couple of restaurants and bars.

I did mention about the Sound of Music movie and I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t take the famed Sound of Music tour. I had to leave for Innsbruck in the evening and there was no way I could fit it in my very short stay in Salzburg.

TIP: If you have time and the interest, take the Sound of Music Tour.

The nearest Sound of Music experience I had was stepping on this landmark staircase where Maria and the children sang Do-re-mi!

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This one!

Sound of Music

While it could be a little cheesy (says my other friends!), they have a true appreciation for the musical and the tour gives the opportunity to see different parts of Salzburg as well as some other towns where the film was shot, like Mondsee. I am definitely going to go back and take this tour with my kids soon. But even without the tour, you can always drop by Mirabell Palace and Gardens just to appreciate the well manicured gardens or just people watch, like I did while resting my very tired feet.

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Before I knew it, it was time to go back to the seminary to take my luggage and walk to the station to catch my train to the next city on my list. Oh Salzburg, I wonder – do you think the people who live here are aware how beautiful their place is?

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Read more: 24 hours in Salzburg

FALLING IN LOVE WITH INNSBRUCK

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Before I write anything about Innsbruck, let me share this photo – taken from my friend’s living room when you look out the window. How would you like to wake up to this view every day? I would LOVE it.

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Tyrol’s capital is a sight to behold. Innsbruck was the reason I didn’t spend too much time in Vienna and Salzburg. I have a friend who lives in Innsbruck and I wanted to spend more time with her and the city she now calls home. The last time we’ve seen each other was way back in 2008, in Japan.

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Innsbruck is not just a beautiful city but a city with very rich history. In the heart of downtown Innsbruck is the towering Triumphal Arch or ‘Triumphpforte’ as it is referred to locally. Dating back to its construction in 1765, this grand design was initially built to commemorate the marriage of the Duke of Tuscany and Princess Maria Ludovica from Spain.

While the Triumphpforte was originally intended to be a monument of joy, the Triumphpforte would go on to take another meaning. During the marriage festivities, Empress Maria Theresa’s husband, Kaiser Franz I, died. The occasion quickly took on a somber tone. The Triumphpforte captures both emotions effectively. The northern façade of the monument is dedicated to mourning the late Kaiser Franz I. The southern façade is dedicated to the nuptial union.

The arch reminds me of the the one in Paris. In fact it looked like the smaller cousin of the Arc De Triomphe. Its a nice backdrop for a photo and has trams and horse drawn carriages moving along below it.

Immediately on my first morning at Innsbruck, my friend (who just had a baby 2 months prior) went to hike in the nearby mountain. It was a totally new experience for me. You can read more about it here.

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I totally mastered how to look like I’m not dying . But if you thought mountain climbing/hiking/trekking is difficult on the way up, wait till it’s time to go down! My knees were trembling like a newborn giraffe! In the photo below, my friend’s husband who is a pro at this mountain hiking thing, (and carries a toddler on his back!) waits for me and my friend as we take photos – I need evidence to show that I did not just see the Alps from afar, I climbed it! And I survived! But that’s nothing as my friend hiked this mountain with a sleeping baby tucked in front of her in a baby carrier!

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The following day, I was on my own and ready to explore the city. I couldn’t wait!

But first a very important TIP: Get the Innsbruck Card.

With this card, you can avail all of the public transport, including lifts and cable cars, free entrance to museums, hop on hop off bus, and many, many more. Of all the Austrian city cards I’ve used, this is by far the most worth it. The Innsbruck Card is available for 24, 48 or 72 hours. Children aged 6 to 15 years enjoy a 50% discount.

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The Inn valley is best viewed from above so off to Patscherkofel I go to take the cable car ride up!

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I am totally in love with Innsbruck. It’s my idea of a perfect getaway from the concrete jungle, from the hectic city life. A trip to the nearby small villages just outside the city made me fall in love with Innsbruck more and more.

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Everything at the small villages were simply gorgeous, from the churches, to building windows, to the wall art. My goodness, even the cemeteries are beautiful.

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I took cable car rides which I highly recommend you do when you are in Innsbruck. Ride to and from the mountain is free with the Innsbruck card. If my hands weren’t freezing, I would probably spend more time here than I did.

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I’d probably put in a separate post about these trips to the mountains as this post has gotten probably unbearably long. Are you still there?

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If I have to do it again, the only thing I’ll change is to spend an extra day or two at Salzburg and explore Innsbruck again, longer. I’m planning to take the kids with me next time and maybe get on a train to take a short trip to Munich (Germany) or down to Venice and definitely get to Hallstatt.

That said, I think it’s obvious by now that Innsbruck had been the highlight of my solo travel to Austria. I loved the time I spent with my friend and her family (I even loved the chance to lull her new baby to sleep – ah, that newborn smell!) and I loved the fresh air, great food and lots and lots of eye candy.

Have I convinced you to include Austria in your travel next time?

See the beautiful sights of Dubai from the sky

DUBAI FROM ABOVE

Taking a break from posts and features of my recent trip to the Philippines, here’s another way to see Dubai…

Known as the city of luxury shopping, futuristic architecture and energetic night life, Dubai has even more to offer than originally thought. As exciting as the city is from land, it’s even more spectacular from the sky with its man-made islands, a hotel in the shape of a sail and the world’s tallest building in its city centre.

Palm Jumeirah

Palm Jumeirah

When it comes to man-made islands, nothing quite compares to Palm Jumeirah. It’s shape of a palm tree makes it truly unique and instantly recognisable as a signature feature of the city. The island holds hotels, resorts as well as private homes that can be easily accessed via the Palm Jumeirah Monorail. The best way to see the full shape and magnificence of this structure is from above, whether you fly over it in your private jet or while skydiving.

Burj Al Arab

Burj Al Arab

Further down the coast sits the unique sight of the Burj Al Arab, the third tallest hotel in the world located on an island of reclaimed land and connected to the mainland by a bridge. It was built to resemble the spinnaker sail of a J-class yacht with the hopes that it would be become an iconic symbol for Dubai. The hotel is no doubt best viewed from above via helicopter or private jet hire, where you can get a perfect 360-degree view. Here in Dubai, you can rent a private jet with Air Charter Service to discover a whole new side to Dubai from above.

World Islands

World Islands

Located 4 kilometres off the coast of Dubai in the Persian Gulf, the artificial cluster of 300 small islands was constructed to represent a world map. Each little island is made up of sand dredged from Dubai’s shallow coast, and are currently uninhabitable. The islands are difficult to get to, so the best way to view the whole landscape is from above.

Dubai Fountain

Dubai Fountain

If you’ve seen the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas and you thought they were spectacular, just wait until you’ve seen the Dubai fountains. Situated outside the Dubai Mall, it is the world’s largest choreographed fountain system, illuminated by 6,600 lights, 25 colored projectors while shooting water as high as 500ft into the air. The fountain is also accompanied by a range of classical, contemporary and Arabic music. It’s one incredible show that would look spectacular from above.

So next time you’re flying over or even landing in Dubai, remember to look down and you might catch one of these breathtaking views from the comfort of your seat!