Impressions from Middle East 2019

Middle East 2019

Booked: A Journey Through the Old World

Impressions
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I’m back in Toronto after spending a month travelling across Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and the UAE. This has been the longest time I’ve been on the road ever since last year’s World Cup + Trans-Siberian Railway + East Asia journey, so while I’m definitely feeling the usual post-vacation withdrawal symptoms, I’m also happy to be back at my desk for the next few weeks before jetting off again.

In this post I’ll share my initial impressions from all the new places I visited over the past month, although given the sheer volume of new experiences to reflect on, I’ll have to keep things brief and save the juicier tidbits for the full trip report series.

(By the way, you would’ve already read about my experience pushing for fancy suite upgrades at Marriott hotels this month, so I won’t spend too much time talking about my hotel stays in this post, besides the truly exceptional ones.) 


The Best of Istanbul

I visited Istanbul, Turkey for the first time earlier this year on a brief city tour by Turkish Airlines, so I was pleased to return for a four-day stint to kick off this trip.

After disembarking from another comfortable ride onboard Turkish Airlines business class, we spent the next few days working our way through Istanbul’s many storied neighbourhoods, from the historic Sultanahmet district to the vibrant winding streets of Besiktas, taking in the city’s significant points of interest in-between nibbling on various types of Turkish street food.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

We also partook in the classic Istanbul tourist activity of taking a ferry across the Bosporus to visit the Asian side of the city. Here, the neighbourhood of Kadiköy teems with shops, restaurants, and cafes, even if it’s a little rough around the edges compared to the European side. 

Crossing continents in Istanbul

Crossing continents in Istanbul

Istanbul is a pretty fascinating city. It actually reminded me a lot of Buenos Aires in many ways: a sprawling city partitioned into neighbourhoods with distinct identities, lively street scenes catalyzed by a passionate populace, and a hint of European influence in just about everything. I certainly wouldn’t mind going back for another extended visit in the future.


Cappadocia: Straight Out of a Fairy Chimney Tale

One of our biggest motivations for coming to Turkey was to visit the Cappadocia region and its exceptionally beautiful fairy chimneys, and they did not disappoint in the slightest.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey

An ATV tour on our first day allowed us to explore the rock formations pretty thoroughly from ground level, but that didn’t compare to the main event on the next morning: a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. 

To say it was a magical experience would in no way be doing it justice. Jessica and I barely said a word to each other from lift-off to landing, fully spellbound by the dozens of balloons filling the crisp morning sky and the surreal landscape falling away beneath us. It’s easy to go through the motions when you’re on the road for a long time, but this was one of those lucid moments that reminded me of what travel is all about.

Hot air balloon ride at sunrise

Hot air balloon ride at sunrise

Hot air balloon ride at sunrise

Hot air balloon ride at sunrise

Upon landing, our balloon operator treated us to sparkling wine along with a set of a medals and certificates for our flight, but even without those, I was confident that this would be a memory I’d treasure for the rest of my life. 

For our two nights in Cappadocia, we stayed at the Sultan Cave Suites, one of the top-rated cave hotels in Göreme (the main tourist town in the region) known for its Instagram-famous upstairs patio.

Sultan Cave Suites, Göreme

Sultan Cave Suites, Göreme

Sultan Cave Suites, Göreme

Sultan Cave Suites, Göreme

Of course, after having conquered the balloon ride on our first morning, the next morning’s agenda was to simply gaze upon the stunning symphony of hot air balloons from the ground, and participate in an almighty free-for-all with the other hotel guests to get that perfect Instagram shot. I’d say we did alright 😉


Santorini for the Silver Jubilee

Upon departing Istanbul, I paid €50 for a last-minute upgrade to business class so I could visit the Turkish Airlines Business Lounge at Istanbul’s new airport.

Turkish Airlines Business Lounge Istanbul

Turkish Airlines Business Lounge Istanbul

Next stop, the postcard cliffs of Oia, Santorini. Truth be told, I was feeling slightly annoyed when the cheapest reasonable option to bring us to our resort from Santorini Airport turned out to be a €40 airport limousine, but those feelings quickly faded away when I stepped outside and gazed upon the gorgeous soft light of Mystique Resort flickering in the night sky.

And, well, what better views to wake up to on the morning of your 25th birthday than the gorgeous Santorini caldera bathed in sunlight? 

View of the Santorini caldera

View of the Santorini caldera

We spent the day walking around Oia at a leisurely pace, which at this time of year is just starting to get overrun by tourists. We hiked down to the water’s edge to dip our toes in the Aegean Sea, brought some gyros back to our porch for lunch, and then headed out for a nice seafood dinner to celebrate the occasion. 

When we returned to Mystique, we were delighted to see that the hotel had arranged a whole birthday cake for me! It was a very good day indeed.

Birthday cake from Mystique Resort

Birthday cake from Mystique Resort

The next two days were spent conquering the three-hour hiking trail between Oia and Fira, the capital of the island, as well as heading down to Istoria Hotel, Mystique’s sister property on the southeastern coast of Santorini, to check out their striking black sand beach. 

Hiking trail from Fira to Oia

Hiking trail from Fira to Oia

Black sand beach at Istoria Hotel

Black sand beach at Istoria Hotel

Incidentally, during our time on the island, Jessica and I happened to meet up with no less than four sets of people we knew from before – two were planned encounters, while two were entirely by chance. It really is a tourist Mecca, isn’t it? 


Cairo, Amman, and the Dead Sea

Hopping across the Mediterranean, we briefly stopped in Cairo for a 16-hour layover, where we linked up with an Urban Adventures tour to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza. While it was awesome to check off this major bucket list item, I did find the experience to be a little different from what I was expecting. 

Picturing the Pyramids in my mind had always conjured up images of a daring desert expedition of some sort, but instead, we drove through the uncompromising Cairo traffic for a few hours and then the Pyramids were just kind of… there. 

The Pyramid of Khufu

The Pyramid of Khufu

Sitting in the searing heat, occupying their little slice of the desert as they have for thousands of years, while a sprawling metropolis throngs on their doorstep and busloads of tourists flock in and out of their perimeter. I suppose there’s some beauty in that as well, just a different kind of beauty to what I was expecting.

Anyway, there was little time to reflect, as the trip would continue at breakneck pace with a flight to Amman, Jordan that evening.

We briefly visited the Amman Citadel the next day, before hustling over to the shores of the Dead Sea, an absolute must-do in the Levant region which we were not prepared to miss.

Braving the 45˚C heat (the lower you go, the hotter it gets, and there’s nowhere lower than here!), we waded into the waters of the Dead Sea and let ourselves fall backwards… only to float effortlessly on the surface of the water! 

Dead Sea, Jordan

Dead Sea, Jordan

The Dead Sea is truly a one-of-a-kind place on Earth, and I’m so glad that we made the trip out there even though it wasn’t originally on my agenda.

It wasn’t all fun and games, though: to this day, I’m still digging salt crystals out of my GoPro…


Petra & Wadi Rum: The Best of Jordan

Our next two nights brought us to Jordan’s most treasured attractions: the Ancient Nabataean rock-cut city of Petra, followed by the otherworldly landscapes of Wadi Rum (“The Valley of the Moon”) at the southern tip of the country. 

Petra is nothing short of a spectacle in every sense of the word, the long walk through the winding narrow canyon (the “Siq”) delivering an instant payoff when you finally catch that first glimpse of the Treasury (the “Al-Khazneh”), one of the most intricate and impressive stone temples within all of Petra. 

The Siq, Petra

The Siq, Petra

You really have to hand it to those Ancient Nabataeans, one of the most talented peoples of the ancient world, who carved this entire city out of rose-coloured stone, building in a complex conduit system to harvest rainwater and leveraging the surrounding mountainous terrain to fend off wave after wave of attackers.

The Treasury, Petra

The Treasury, Petra

A few hours south of Petra is the crimson sand and stone landscape of Wadi Rum, and trying to put the eerie beauty of this place into words is a truly thankless task. Even after spending hours and hours studying the Mars-like desert surface and the rock formations that were so ugly they became beautiful, I simply could not believe what I was seeing. 

Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum, Jordan

We stayed overnight at the Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp, whose staff cooked us an amazing traditional Bedouin dinner – cooking the main course underground in the desert sand, and all – which was probably the best meal we enjoyed on the whole trip. 

Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp

Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp

Needless to say, I’d highly recommend Jordan as a tourist destination if you haven’t been yet. However, I did leave the country with a slightly negative impression in one regard: everyone really seems to know how to squeeze money out of tourists, with everything from the restaurants, grocery stores, private drivers, and bus companies around the main tourist sites leaving me feeling ripped off on many occasions. 

I don’t have any regrets spending my time and money to visit Jordan, but that feeling left me questioning how eager I’d be to go back. 


Oman & Dubai: Taking It Easy…

After waking up at sunrise and hustling from place to place for pretty much an entire week across Greece, Egypt, and Jordan, we were ready to take things at a slower pace in Muscat, Oman.

Indeed, we even spent one full day hanging out at our hotel room, doing nothing but relaxing by the pool and catching on some work. After that, we did eventually make it out to some of Muscat’s star attractions, including the stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the Royal Opera House, and the Al Alam Palace.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

To be honest, Muscat was a somewhat tricky place to explore in the summertime 40˚C heat. The city is pretty much the opposite of “walkable”, since what’s known as Muscat is really a conurbation of several smaller metropolitan clusters, so everything is really spread out. Uber is banned, and taxi drivers, as you’d expect, like to rip off tourists, so we mostly relied on the local Mwasalat bus system to get around.

Throw in the fact that many of Oman’s natural spectacles, like Wadi Shab and Wadi Bani Khalid, were struck by severe flooding during our visit, and I have to say I don’t think we made the most out of our time in Oman. You can’t win them all, I guess.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the opportunity to see some of the “real” Middle East…

Royal Opera House Muscat

Royal Opera House Muscat

…since our next stop in Dubai would be a completely different story. 

Dubai has of course seen a spectacular oil-fuelled rise in the past 50 years, and I was glad to have the chance to see this place with my own eyes, if only to marvel at what the end-product looks like when you combine human endeavour with near-limitless wealth. 

Perhaps no place symbolizes this more than the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, whose 148th-floor viewing platform made for some vertigo-inducing views. 

Views from the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa

Views from the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa

Sunset from the 148th floor

Sunset from the 148th floor

And of course, how could I resist hitting up Ski Dubai to go skiing in the middle of the desert?

Hitting the slopes at Ski Dubai

Hitting the slopes at Ski Dubai

After three nights at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, which was conveniently located in the heart of the city, we moved over to the W Dubai The Palm, located on Dubai’s famous man-made pleasure island.

At my behest, the hotel generously treated us to its Marvelous Suite with an in-room DJ booth, a bathtub in the bedroom, and a private patio with whirlpool. A fittingly extravagant end to our time in this extravagant city. 

W Dubai The Palm – Marvelous Suite

W Dubai The Palm – Marvelous Suite

W Dubai The Palm – Marvelous Suite

W Dubai The Palm – Marvelous Suite


Al Maha Desert Resort: Living Like Bedouin Royalty

Even though I was already expecting to be blown away by Al Maha, I was still fully blown away on top of those expectations. 

As soon as our driver turned off the Al Ain Highway and began cruising through the open desert, Jessica and I knew that this would be like no other resort we’ve ever stayed at before, and that feeling was ratcheted up a few notches when we entered the resort’s conservation area and saw dozens upon dozens of gazelles and Arabian oryxes roaming around freely. 

The Arabian oryx

The Arabian oryx

A Bedouin Suite with sweeping views of the desert landscape. An oversized four-poster bed that puts “king-sized” to shame. A private plunge pool to escape the desert heat. All that would’ve already justified the 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night multiple times over, but there’s more…

Bedouin Suite, Al Maha Desert Resort

Bedouin Suite, Al Maha Desert Resort

Private pool, Al Maha Desert Resort

Private pool, Al Maha Desert Resort

Al Maha is the only resort within the Marriott portfolio where you get three meals a day included as part of the room rate. And it’s not your run-of-the-mill all-inclusive meals either – these meals are on par with what you’d find at high-quality restaurants at any major city, with a level of service to match.

You can take your meals either in the restaurant, or via room service on a complimentary basis – again, an unparalleled perk among other resorts.

Grilled lobster for dinner at Al Maha

Grilled lobster for dinner at Al Maha

Room service dinner at Al Maha

Room service dinner at Al Maha

There’s so much more I could say about Al Maha – the complimentary desert activities, the incredible service shown by every member of the staff, the sheer novelty of watching the gazelles and oryxes wander over to take a sip from our pool – but for now I’ll say this: even now that it’s risen to a Category 8 and costs 85,000 Bonvoy points per night, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that I’ll be coming back to Al Maha in the future. 

Camel ride at Al Maha

Camel ride at Al Maha


Emirates First Class: WOW!

As if the past week hadn’t been saturated with enough decadence and luxury, the conclusion to this trip took things to a whole new level.

As usual, I’ll let a few pictures do most of the talking, with two back-to-back flights within the fully enclosed suites of Emirates 777 New First Class…

Emirates 777 New First Class

Emirates 777 New First Class

…followed by Emirates A380 First Class, where the shower in the sky, the onboard bar & lounge, the blinged-out First Class suite, and – between the two of us – four plates of caviar and three bottles of Dom Perignon 2009 all blended together into a truly unforgettable 14-hour journey.

Emirates A380 First Class

Emirates A380 First Class

You know, I think back to when I was trying to convince Jessica to apply for the MBNA Alaska credit card when we first started doing all this. She was naturally hesitant to apply for so many credit cards, and I remember saying, “Come on, we’ll get to fly Emirates First Class and shower in the sky!” 

I reckon that particular storyline has come full circle this past weekend 😉


Conclusion

I’ll be honest with you guys: I feel like it’s going to be a long time until I take another trip that reaches the heights of this one. 

I mean, what scenic landscapes out there can compare with Cappadocia and Wadi Rum? What historic sites could match the splendour of the Pyramids and Petra? What modern structures could hope to be as impressive as the Burj Khalifa? And, perhaps what hits me the hardest, what aspirational travel experiences could possibly transcend the indulgent week I spent at Al Maha and onboard Emirates First Class?

There will be more adventures to come, of course. Some will leave me awestruck in a similar way, while others will play out at a more ordinary pace. But no matter what, I’m confident the time I spent journeying through the Old World in May 2019 will linger forever in the memory.