Time Out writers share their top tips for weekend escapes
Time Out Dubai staff
Damascus, Syria Who? Becky Lucas
When? November 2008
How long was the flight? Three hours 35 minutes.
Best memory? ‘Buying a hand-made ring from the smallest old man I have ever seen. Globalisation doesn’t seem to have reached Damascus’s Old Town yet, so all the little shops and market stalls are full of traditional arts and crafts. It felt like we were stepping back in time. The open-air cafés and shisha joints in the middle of ancient buildings are also utterly unique and atmospheric.’
Where did you stay? ‘We stayed at Beit-Zaman hotel (
www.beit-zaman.com), which was two old houses converted into a luxury boutique hotel – but with plenty of intricate traditional Syrian finishes. There was a courtyard in the middle joining the two, a hip little bar in the basement and a roof terrace that’s perfect for looking out over the roofs and mosques.’
Top tips: ‘Stay in the Old Town and visit the mountain Jebel Qasioun for dinner or drinks. Check out the markets at Souk Al Hamidya and the huge Ummayad Mosque. But, most importantly, allow several weeks to get your visa. We travelled to the embassy in Abu Dhabi to get everything sorted in time.’
Getting there: Emirates flies to Damascus from Dhs1,185 return, including taxes.
Also try… Aleppo, also in Syria, to see one of the other oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world (there’s a bit of a contest with Byblos). Don’t miss the Citadel fortress and the fantastic falafel.
Petra, Jordan Who? Laura Chubb
When? May 2010
How long was the flight? Three and a half hours.
Best memory? ‘Climbing the 800 steps to the Ad-Deir Monastery, an impressive façade carved into the mountains. It’s just as breathtaking as Petra’s famous Treasury, and quieter – few people bother to make the trek. Reward your efforts with a pint in Cave Bar, just by the gates on your way out of Petra.’
Where did you stay? ‘Cleopatra Hotel (+962 3 215 7090) in Wadi Musa, the village adjacent to Petra. You’ll find big rooms at a fair price, and the hotel manager organised a driver for the rest of our trip around the country.’
Top tips: ‘Get an early start. Petra is huge, and you won’t want to miss any of it – if you’re there by 8am, you’ll be ahead of the crowds. Alternatively, buy a two-day ticket so you can enjoy being a tourist at a more leisurely pace.’
Getting there: Flydubai flies to Amman from Dhs1,095 return, including taxes.
Also try… Leptis Magna, Libya. Don’t miss these incredibly preserved Roman ruins.
Kathmandu, Nepal Who? Holly Sands
When? May 2009
How long was the flight? Three hours there, four hours back.
Best memory? ‘Eating some of the best veggie curries I’d ever tasted (food is absurdly cheap); standing underneath thousands of prayer flags at Swayambhunath (aka Monkey Temple); relaxing in the Garden of Dreams; and enjoying a hair-raising ride in a rickshaw.’
Where did you stay? ‘At Kathmandu Guest House (www.ktmgh.com), which boasts great food and helpful staff. Known among backpackers as the best place to stay, it used to be an aristocrats’ mansion in the 1900s, but has been converted to provide accommodation for every budget, from US$4 to US$100 (Dhs14 to Dhs355) per night, depending on whether you want A/C and other creature comforts.’
Top tips: ‘Haggle in the markets – they’ve no qualms about ripping off tourists, so ask how much, offer them half, and take it from there. And take a torch! The government cuts off the power every 16 hours (or so it seems), plunging most of the city’s generator-less buildings into darkness at night.’
Getting there? Air Arabia flies from Sharjah to Nepal from Dhs1,239 return, including taxes.
Also try… Bhaktapur. Once the capital of Nepal, this little gem is a mere 10sq km in size and sits 1,401m above sea level.
Istanbul, Turkey Who? Caroline Garner
When? December 2009/10
How long was the flight? Around four hours.
Best memory? ‘Dancing in the street with Turkish waiters and a belly dancer while fireworks were set off to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Smoking shisha while sat outside a small café under the Bosphorus bridge watching the sunset comes a close second.’
Where did you stay? ‘A hole of a hostel, where four of us shared a room the size of a shoe box and had cold showers while sitting on the toilet. Trust me, you don’t want the number. The upside was that we were five minutes from the Blue Mosque, plus I got the top bunk bed.’
Top tips: ‘Visit the Grand Bazaar, which makes the Dubai souks look like Sunday market stalls, and stay near a tram stop so you can shoot up and down the city with ease.’
Getting there: Air Arabia flies from Sharjah to Istanbul from Dhs1,316 return, including taxes.
Also try… Nemrut Dagi National Park, Turkey. Discovered in 1881, this ancient mountain is littered with ruined statues, built by a long-forgotten king.
Goa, India Who? Daisy Carrington
When? January 2010
How long was the flight? Three hours.
Best memory? ‘Bollywood dance lessons on the beach, courtesy of some friendly Mumbai medical students, then jumping on the back of their mopeds in search of a late-night party spot.’
Where did you stay? ‘Ordo Sounsar in Palolem (+91 982 248 8769). It’s a world away from the touristy beach huts down the road, and is only accessible via a footbridge (which becomes completely submerged at high tide, making the crossing more akin to traversing a swamp). Still, it’s a romantic location – the outdoor shower looks over the fronds, and the in-house restaurant is excellent.’
Top tips: ‘If you’re in Anjuna, the resting place of hippies young and old, grab dinner at Shore Bar (+91 982 238 3795), which is presided over by a Michelin-trained chef. The vibe is super-relaxed, and you can even sit in a hammock. The food is top notch – especially the whole cooked fish.’
Getting there: Air Arabia flies from Sharjah to Goa from Dhs1,673 return, including taxes.
Also try... Alleppey, Kerala. Stay in a houseboat, travel about in traditional wooden canoes and take in kingfishers and the lush green landscapes in the process.
Bentota, Sri Lanka Who? Nyree Barrett
When? February 2010
How long was the flight? Just over four hours.
Best memory? ‘I arrived in Sri Lanka at 3am and my nerves were instantly piqued by an excessive amount of military checkpoints (men holding AK-47s in wooden shacks are plain scary). However, the trepidation melted away as I sat, tired yet wide awake, chatting to my driver over a cup of famous Ceylon tea. This verdant land has been hit by natural and political disasters, but take a second to talk to the local people and they’ll give you a distinct feeling that there’s hope on the horizon.’
Where did you stay? ‘I chose a little gem called Dalmanuta Gardens (www.dalmanuta.com), which is close to, yet far enough away from, the tourist trap of Bentota beach, about three hours’ drive from Colombo. The resort is far from five-star (think hard beds and cheap soap), but it’s worth a visit for spa buffs – it offers fantastic ayurveda treatments as well as 250 species of herbal plants and 60 types of birds in its riverside grounds. I awoke every morning to birdsong, before sashaying off to an ayurveda treatment. Bliss.’
Top tips: ‘While you’re there, eat nothing but fish curry: it’s the best you’ll ever taste. And when you fly into the capital, Colombo, make time for some homewares shopping – you’ll find beautiful pieces of dark wood furniture.’
Getting there: Air Arabia flies to Colombo from Dhs970 return, including taxes.
Also try… Kandy, Sri Lanka. This beautiful city in the hills is full of wonderful B&Bs, as well as several world-class heritage sites. Visit the Temple of the Tooth, which houses the tooth of Buddha, making it one of the world’s most sacred sites for Buddhists.
Maldives Who? Ross Brown
When? September 2008
How long was the flight? Three hours to Mali via Sri Lanka, then a 25-minute sea plane trip.
Best memory? ‘Our beach chalet was just that – it was 10 steps from the water’s edge. Every morning I would walk into the sea and swim with huge turtles. One morning I followed one out over the drop-off (where the sea disappears down into the darkness), and straight into a family of placid reef sharks. It was the most amazing experience.’
Where did you stay? ‘The W Retreat and Spa (www.wretreatmaldives.us); a private island with about 80 luxury rooms. This isn’t “roughing it” by any stretch of the imagination. All chalets come with a pool and a plasma TV, and you get from one place to the other in golf buggies (even though you can circumnavigate the island in 10 minutes).’
Top tips: ‘Avoid the island’s only nightclub. It may seem like a fun novelty, but it’s prohibitively expensive and your money is much better spent on a day’s island-hopping with a private speedboat and skipper.’
Getting there? Emirates flies to Mali from Dhs4,515 return, including taxes.
Also try… Mauritius. The sea is shallower, but Mauritius is heaving with character, with community markets, salt farms and shacks in which they smoke fresh marlin.
Cairo, Egypt Who? Chris Anderson
When? June 2010
How long was the flight? Three hours 30 minutes.
Best memory? ‘Nothing really prepares you for your first sighting of the ancient Pyramids of Giza. Surprisingly close to the main city, you can see them looming above the run-down apartment blocks as you approach via car on the highway. Venturing inside is even better – scrambling through narrow dark tunnels inside the largest, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, isn’t for everyone, but you’ll feel like Indiana Jones on your way to discover the king’s tomb. The Sphinx was smaller that expected, but apparently everyone says that.’
Where did you stay? ‘The Sheraton Cairo Hotel (
www.sheratoncairo.com) – it consists of two towers sat on the west bank of the River Nile, and has all of the facilities you would expect. Stay in a deluxe room and you can enjoy 100 per cent Egyptian cotton linen.’
Top tips: ‘Haggle for souvenirs at the bustling Souk Al Gomaa. Also, book yourself a river cruise up and down the Nile, and remember to take the obligatory shot of yourself in front of one of the Pyramids, arm outstretched, to look as though you’re holding it via the point. Check with your embassy before you travel, although most visas can be purchased at the airport on arrival.’
Getting there: Qatar Airways flies to Cairo from Dhs1,725 return, including taxes.
Also try… Alexandria. It’s a three-hour road journey from Cairo to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria (the Capital of Arab Tourism for 2010, no less). Teeming with just as much history, it has a slightly more European feel, with great seafood restaurants and amazing exhibitions at the Bibliotheca Alexandria.
Beirut, Lebanon Who? Adam Wilson
When? October 2009
How long was the flight? One hour 20 minutes.
Best memory? ‘We stumbled across a tiny bar called Dragon Fly, almost missable because it is wedged between two bigger bars along Rue Gouraud in Gemmayzeh (the place to start your evenings). From the 60-year-old man playing funky jazz on a record player to the friendly bar staff in lab coats, the converted, low-ceilinged wine cellar has a cool, laid-back crowd (as well as the most amazing improvised cocktails), making us feel as though we were in St Germain in Paris.’
Where did you stay? ‘Le Grey (+961 1 971 111) – easiest the hippest hotel in Beirut, situated in the downtown area. Boasting the atmosphere of a contemporary Manhattan haunt, the five-star hotel has a rooftop infinity pool, while the huge rooms boast all the mod cons you’d expect from the swankiest of stays.’
Top tips: ‘The true Beirut experience is all about the nightlife, and while the Lebanese like to party, they also like to party long into the night. Don’t make the mistake we did – it’s not worth venturing out before 3am, otherwise you’ll be dancing on your own. Start by booking your dinner reservation late, at 10.30pm or so, and take things from there.’
Getting there: Flydubai flies to Beirut from Dhs2,300 return, including taxes.
Also try… Byblos, Lebanon. Old, and owner of the much-debated title of ‘oldest, most continuously inhabited city in the world’, this ancient venue was home to the builders of Solomon’s Temple.
Musandam, Oman Who? Karen Iley
When? November 2009
How long was the flight? ‘We didn’t leave the ground, unless you count the stunning winding coastal road just after crossing into Oman. It was a three-hour trip from Dubai by car, but the UAE/Omani border check added another hour to the journey.’
Best memory? ‘Our half-day dolphin-spotting and snorkelling cruise from the comfort of a traditional dhow. The entire family (we had gran, granddad and our young daughter with us) were charmed by families of bottle-nosed beauties, who seemed to be waiting close to shore so they could swim alongside our boat. For gran, who adores Flipper and friends but is too much of a scaredy cat to join them swimming, it was a dream come true.’
Where did you stay? ‘We chose The Golden Tulip Khasab (+968 26 73 07 77; ). There are great camping spots around the coast, apparently, but for those who aren’t keen on roughing it, the Golden Tulip is definitely the best bet among limited local guesthouses. While not the height of luxury, it’s adequate for a short break and has adjoining rooms for families.’
Top tips: ‘Take your car insurance documents – you may need them to cross the border.’
Getting there: It’s a three-hour drive from Dubai, through Ras Al Khaimah.
Also try… Salalah, Oman. It’s the perfume capital of Arabia, due to the vast number of frankincense trees that grow in the region.