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Monthly Archives: October 2016

Luxury and local life in the Maldives

Appreciating the Maldives’ natural riches

Nicknames aside, the etymology of the word ‘Maldives’ refers to the remarkable geography of this scattered archipelago. The ‘garland islands’ are indeed draped like a necklace across the Indian Ocean, hanging below the teardrop-shaped earring of Sri Lanka. And this is a treasure crafted from only the finest materials: white-gold sands with a turquoise trim, diamond-clear waters and sparkling sunsets framed by a curtain of palms. Every second spent here is a pinch-me moment.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest country in terms of elevation, and therefore first in the climate change firing line, which makes its natural wonders seem all the more precious, particularly when you meet the wildlife. Keen spotters, snorkelers and scuba divers should head to the southernmost atoll, Addu (also known as Seenu), to see spinner dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and white terns – a striking seabird found nowhere else in the Maldives.

Addu is also home to some of the islands’ most novel landmarks – a nine-hole golf course with lagoon views, one of the longest roads in the Maldives (a whole 16km, best travelled by bike) and the nation’s tallest mountain, which looms above Villingili, a staggering five metres high.

A taste of the inhabited islands

Staying at a luxury resort for 24/7 pampering is part of the Maldives experience, but spa treatments and five-star dinners are only half of the story. To really get a feel for island life, you need to visit one of the officially designated inhabited islands, where most of the islands’ 345,000 people make their homes. Until 2009, government restrictions meant visitors to the Maldives needed a permit to explore and stay on non-resort islands, but today, many inhabited islands are open for day trips or even overnight stays, and 50% of resort staff are required by law to be local, making island culture far more accessible.

After living it up at the Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa on the southern atoll of Addu, I joined local guide Azmy for a cycle tour of Addu City – a sleepy string of inhabited isles just across the lagoon from my blissful bubble – for a gentle introduction to the ‘real’ Maldives. In this laid back ‘city’, an unhurried island vibe pervades (there’s only so much pace one can gather this close to the equator) but political street art, a multitude of mosques, busy tea shops and welcoming smiles reveal an unexpected community buzz.

‘We don’t lock our doors here – everyone knows everyone,’ explained Azmy with a smile as we parked our bikes outside his family home. I’d wangled an invitation in order to see – and try out – an undholi, the traditional Maldivian swing seats found in most houses in the atolls. Azmy’s wife and mother-in-law seemed bemused by enthusiasm for trying out the fancy wooden hammock in their living room, but were graciously accommodating. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

A wealth of history and culture

People on Addu generally speak excellent English, as the British ran various military bases on Gan island between the 1940s and 1970s. Azmy’s grandfather worked there as a cook and his father, a local councillor, hopes to open a military museum one day to tell the story of the base, considered a hardship posting for British airmen because of the remote and secluded location.

But there’s plenty of history to discover even without a museum. As we pedalled, we passed a disused post office blanketed in moss, poppy-strewn memorials, a retro-looking cinema (still in occasional use), and an eerie old quarantine centre for sufferers of ‘elephant foot’, a mosquito-borne malady only officially wiped out in 2016. Needless to say, I declined to take a closer look at these last facilities.

These days the RAF barracks form part of Equator Village, one of many budget resorts springing up across the archipelago, and the airstrip has swapped bombers for commercial planes. Gan Airport received the first international passenger flights from Colombo in late 2016 and tourism is expected to boom in the southern atolls, so now is a good time to come and beat the rush.

Make time for Malé

While island life is what the Maldives is all about, the capital, Malé, remains the central transport hub and it’s well worth a stopover to see its miniature take on ‘big city’ life. It may only cover 5.8 sq km, but compared to the far-flung isles, this densely populated speck in the ocean is positively cosmopolitan. Residents often juggle two jobs, commuting by moped through traffic-clogged streets overshadowed by high-rise banks and office buildings. Markets bustle. Tarmac sizzles. The call to prayer cuts through the urban thrum.

If you do one thing in Malé, make time for the Old Friday Mosque. Built from coral stone in 1656, its walls are intricately decorated, and – just like the coral you’ll find in the ocean – rough to the touch. The graveyard’s time-worn headstones (the tops of which are pointed for men, smooth for women) stand off-kilter, like a crowd of spectators vying for a glimpse of the mosque’s timeless grace. The simple tomb of Abdul Barakat Yoosuf Al Barbary, the man credited with converting the Maldives from Buddhism to Islam in the 12th century, can be found just across the street.

The ocean’s bounty for food lovers

Walking the streets in the tropical sun can be hungry work – and even spa-goers and sun-bathers need to eat. The territory of the Maldives covers 90,000 sq km of ocean, so it should come as no surprise that seafood is the staple here, and tuna is catch of the day, every day. Find this flavoursome fish in mas huni, a breakfast dish combining chilli, coconut, onion and tuna, eaten with roti flatbread. Tuna is also the key ingredient in a host of spicy ‘short eats’ – popular deep-fried snacks – and in the tuna curry that locals enthusiastically chow down on morning, noon and night.

Many resorts and tour operators offer fishing trips – a chance to witness the traditional pole-and-line technique still used in the Maldivian fishing industry today and try your hand at casting for big game fish. Alternatively, swing by Malé’s fish and produce markets early to see the catch hauled in for hungry shoppers and hunt for souvenirs. If fishy crisps, smoked tuna or tuna paste aren’t to your taste, ‘bounty’, a tasty local snack made of coconut meat, sugar and honey, makes a sweet alternative.

Neighborhood in Las Vegas Chinatown

Chinatown Plaza, where it all began

When exploring Chinatown, the best idea is to start at its birthplace: the enormous and ornate Chinatown Plaza (lvchinatownplaza.com). With its colorful, dragon-adorned, Tang Dynasty-inspired gate and gleaming statue commemorating the classic tale Journey to the West – including the Monkey King – it’s a favorite place for photos. Popular restaurants include Harbor Palace Seafood for oceanic delicacies and Sam Woo BBQ for smoky meats. For an eye-boggling stroll, head into Ranch 99 for a display of pan-Asian foodways.

A block away, Chengdu Taste (facebook.com/Chengdu-Taste) serves some of the most chili-laden, incendiary dishes in the entire state of Nevada, let alone in Las Vegas. Specializing in Sichuan-style cooking, it also features dishes like pork dumplings in broth spiked with namesake Sichuan peppercorns. These feisty spices actually make your mouth numb, adding definitive tingle to the eating experience.

For aficionados of Thai cuisine, nearby Chada Street (chadastreet.com) is at the crossroads of classic cuisine and edible experimentation. In a pretty, wood-lined dining room, dig into adventurous appetizers like Goong Share Nam Pla — a blend of raw shrimp, fish sauce, garlic and chili. In the vibrant Kang Ped Yang, duck meat meets red curry sauce, pineapple and cherry tomatoes. Blending hearty and light, Yum Moo Yor is spicy salad with pork meatloaf. Of course, mainstays like Pat Thai noodles are served, too. The restaurant also has an extensive and lauded wine list.

The other, other Vegas strip

Vegas is a strip mall kind of town, so if you haven’t filled up in Chinatown Plaza, head a few blocks west to Mountain View Plaza, another strip with great options like District One Kitchen & Bar (districtonelv.com). Many restaurants in Chinatown trend to the traditional, but District One is thoroughly modern while retaining its Vietnamese heritage. With a cool décor defined by vibrant street art, District One serves some of the most renowned cuisine in all of Las Vegas, especially its fresh, seasonal seafood including sea snails and razor clams. Noodles abound in bowls of pho, including one with a whole lobster, and on plates like Crispy Birds Nest Noodles slathered with wok-fried shrimp, chicken and beef. Head to the bar for some advanced mixology.

How about a conveyor belt dinner? Don’t be alarmed, no robots or factory food is involved at the highly interactive Chubby Cattle (chubbycattle.com). Specializing in hot pot dishes with a Mongolian flair, this eatery features mini-plates of ingredients that course along a moving belt. When something you like passes near, grab it and add it to your personal receptacle of simmering broth that comes in flavor-profile choices like ‘The Beautiful Tomato’ and ‘Heaven and Hell.’ If you’re a newbie wondering how long to cook sliced lamb or exotic mushrooms, the staff can provide advice.

Sample Japanese noodles and sushi (and burgers too)

For Japanese cuisine, Raku (raku-grill.com) and its nearby sister restaurant, Raku Sweets, are pilgrimage-worthy destinations. On the savory side, rustic Raku specializes in robata-style grilled viands like Kobe beef tendon, Kurobota pork rib and fish belly. For dessert, Raku Sweets is a sugary dreamscape in a gleaming, hypermodern room. Here, elaborate sorbet confections and macaroons look like artworks. Edible ones, that is.

Lovers of fresh noodles are flocking to Udon Monzo (facebook.com/marugamemonzolv) in the Center at Spring Mountain, a lengthy, block-long collection of businesses. The Japanese restaurant specializes in handmade pasta strands that are spun and twisted in the air throughout the day. Looking in on the display kitchen, merely pick your choice of soup from shrimp tempura to curry. From there, watch cooks boil your fresh udon to order. The menu is also filled with deep-fried sides from soft boiled eggs to eggplant.

While sushi dens are strewn about Las Vegas, including Chinatown, none tops Yui Edomae Sushi (yuisushi.com), a secluded temple of fresh fish just off Spring Mountain Road. Be prepared for a somewhat austere interior, as the gemlike food is the shining star. This is sushi as it’s done in Tokyo at the highest level, and an omakase chef’s choice dinner sets the mind reeling. It’s also a pricey place to match the quality, so budget ahead. Fun fact: the elaborate interior wooden door was crafted in Japan without the use of nails or even glue.

And if you just want  to try the great American hamburger with a Japanese accent, head to the funky and fun Fuku Burger (fukuburger.com).

More surprising Chinatown stars

Just like the Asian extravaganza of Chinatown is unknown by many Sin City visitors, so too is the fact that there’s plenty of top-notch entertainment off the Strip. It’s not all about casino showrooms here, believe it or not. The respected Las Vegas Little Theater (lvlt.org) is one of the best options around for taking in stagecraft, with a schedule that ranges from works by big-hitters like Terrence McNally and Neil Simon to up-and-coming writers. It’s an intimate and rewarding aesthetic experience located in the back of the Center at Spring Mountain.

Things to do in Shanghai

Tianzifang’s bustling alleyways

Expect cheerfully decorated shop fronts and a lively atmosphere in this fun shopping area at the edge of the French Concession. Tianzifang is a network of small alleys lined with craft shops, bars and food stands. Shoppers looking for the best bargains need to come armed with a price in mind and a knack for haggling – shopkeepers here love the chase!

The Bund waterfront

Shanghai’s elegant skyline comes to life at night along the city’s glittering waterfront, The Bund. This stretch of colonial buildings delights visitors who flock here to gaze at some of China’s most impressive architectural landmarks and towering modern wonders across the river in Pudong.  Don’t be put off by the crowds, however; head down in the early evening to savour the light displays before they are turned off at 10pm.

Shanghai Museum

When it comes to ancient art relics, China’s collection is extensive and impressive. Shanghai Museum houses a comprehensive display of the legacy left by the advanced cultures of bygone eras, including the Ming and Qing dynasties. Bronzes, ceramics, ancient coins, jade artefacts and traditional costumes are exhibited across the museum’s four floors, including a splendid jade burial suit from the Han dynasty (221–206 BC). Best of all, it’s free to enter: the museum issues a set number of tickets each day for different time slots.

Fuxing Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm, Fuxing Park at the edge of theFrench Concession might not quite fit the bill. It’s overflowing with culture, though, and welcomes visitors with a real sense of community spirit. It plays regular host to lively groups of local Shanghainese performing tai chi, flying kites, dancing, singing, playing traditional musical instruments and practising calligraphy – all going on in complete harmony.

French Concession stroll

No stay in Shanghai would be complete without a walk through the stylish and charming French Concession. This formerly French-occupied neighbourhood is characterised by its leafy streets packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lively bars. Notable streets include Nanchang Rd, where you can find cheap and fresh hand-pulled noodles at Lanzhou Lamian (兰州牛肉拉面, 613 Nanchang Rd), and Wukang Rd, which is characterised by handsome villas and apartments. Tucked behind it is Ferguson Lane, a paved courtyard with a distinctly European feel.

Jing’an Temple

Though not the cheapest activity on the list (there is a small entrance fee), Jing’an Temple is great value because of its unique location against a background of busy shopping malls and skyscrapers in the centre of the city.  Meandering through the temple’s three main halls, one of which has an impressive Buddha statue, you’re overcome with the wafting aroma of incense. Visitors can light a bundle for a few yuan, and throw small change into many of the temple’s lesser shrines and statues. Watch out that you don’t get caught in the coin-throwing crossfire!

Yuyuan Garden

An unexpected moment of serenity inside a busy shopping bazaar, Yuyuan is a traditional Chinese garden made up of delicate rockeries, koi-filled ponds and wooden pavilions. An elaborate, undulating dragon carving appears on the surrounding walls, while ornate bridges and willow trees decorate the water. Head here in the early morning to explore the nooks and crannies of this attractive oasis.

M50 Contemporary Art Space

You can wander for free around expanding M50, a contemporary art hub that showcases both upcoming and established Chinese artists. Influential Chinese galleries ShanghART and Eastlink are two of the numerous galleries exhibiting ceramics, modern art and sculpture. Give yourself a few hours to appreciate the fusion of talent on display and stop to chat to the gallery owners – most speak English and are happy to answer questions about the works.

Ferry ride and walk around Binjiang Dadao

Shanghai Ferry has got to be the best value activity in town. ¥2 gets you on board a scenic trip across the Huangpu River with the locals, arriving at the Binjiang Dadao riverside walk. The waterfront setting here might be less grandiose than its Bund counterpart, but it’s still an ideal spot from which to appreciate the impressive heights of Shanghai’s main architectural giants: the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, theShanghai World Financial Center and Shanghai Tower. A glance back across the river offers contrasting views of the stately colonial buildings that line the Bund waterfront.

Marriage Market in People’s Park

In the pleasant surroundings of People’s Park, every Saturday and Sunday parents and grandparents convene to seek out promising partners for their offspring at Shanghai’s marriage market. Eligible twenty- and thirty-somethings are ‘advertised’ and potential partners, parents and agents alike peruse the candidates with a view to finding a suitable match. Details are respectfully swapped in the hope of paving the way for a happy and successful union. This is not a place to go and ogle, but a stroll through provides a glimpse into modern Chinese life and what has become a Shanghai institution.

Adventures in Arabia Ras al Khaimah

RAK is where Dubaites come seeking a weekend of solace from the city. This northernmost emirate has some of the most diverse landscapes in the country, from lush date palm oases to slithering sand dunes and stark desert mountains. Smooth Gulf waters provide the perfect setting for an adventure when you’re ready to peel yourself off your sun lounger. Whether you fancy a drive across the desert sands in a luxury SUV or a ride on a newly opened mountain zipline, RAK offers activities worth getting a move on for.

Climb Jebel Jais via car or via ferrata

A bit shy of 2000m, Jebel Jais is RAK’s version of a skyscraper. This rugged peak is the highest in the UAE and home to one of the most thrilling driving roads in the Middle East. Sleek, freshly laid tarmac corkscrews its way through countless steep, camel-coloured canyons and along eroded cliff edges that sometimes see snow and often see passing herds of goats.

To experience Jebel Jais in true Emirati fashion, hire a Lamborghini, Ferrari or Land Rover and weave through the hairpin bends of these usually deserted mountains. The road comes to an abrupt halt 5km from the summit, but rumour has it that it will be completed soon. In the meantime, you still have more than 20km of zigs and zags to race through, with breathtaking views of the valley and RAK City below.

Lofty plans have been thrown around to build a hotel, a cable car, a launch point for paragliders, a golf course and even an artificial ski slope on Jebel Jais, but the only attraction to materialise so far is a via ferrata (a rock climbing route that uses a steel cable that is fixed to the rock every few metres) and zipline, opened in late 2016. Adventurers can choose one of three difficulty levels: the easy Ledge Walk, which has a long horizontal section that curves around the mountain before tiptoeing to the first of three ziplines; a more technical route called the Middle Path, which climbs vertically aided by steel rungs and then meets up with the ziplines; and the challenging Julphar Scare, which scales the mountain using ladders. All the routes finish with a triumphant zoom down a 300m zipline, the longest in the UAE.

Unearth authentic Arabia at Bedouin Oasis Desert Camp

Tucked away in a tiny valley and sheltered by some of the tallest sand dunes in RAKBedouin Oasis Desert Camp is a one-stop shop to tap into the traditional Arabian spirit. A circle of real goat-hair tents surrounds a central area covered in Arabian carpets and low tables with cushions on the ground, where you watch performers, including a fire breather and a belly dancer, and chow down on grilled meat and mezze under the stars. In one of the hooded tents, a woman carefully paints looping henna designs on hands and ankles, and a space to smoke shisha from a bubbling hookah lights up the night one tent over.

What else is on the menu? Options include surveying the surrounding desert from atop a camel and slogging up the nearest dune to come gliding back down on a sandboard, but the must-do is strapping yourself into the passenger seat of a Land Rover as you ride the sand dune roller coaster. The orange peaks and valleys spread out indiscernibly in every direction, and despite the sat-nav being unplugged, the drivers know exactly where to go as you slide horizontally down the dunes and then race to the top of the next golden hill before stopping to watch the sun set over the silent desert, illuminated with pink and purple pastels.

Although Bedouin Oasis can sometimes lean toward cheesy instead of authentic (the bizarre English-accented recorded emcee being the main cause), this desert camp is the closest you’ll get to experiencing this magical environment to the fullest.

Make tracks at Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre

On the grounds of Ritz-Carlton’s swanky and isolated desert resort, Al Wadi Equestrian Adventure Centre (alwadiequestrian.com) has a 5 sq km nature sanctuary to trot through on the back of an Arabian horse or a camel, and you’re sure to spot free-roaming gazelles, Arabian oryx and desert foxes. Time your ride for the winter or spring when the valley is flooded with colourful blooms. If you’re not up for basking in the sun, there are peaceful treks in the moonlight, or if you really want to get down and dirty, trainers will show you how to groom the horses and manage the stable.

Need to know

For visitors to RAK, your world will likely encompass your resort until you decide to venture out. Most advice says that if you’re staying outside of Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you should dress more conservatively, but shorts and bikinis in RAK’s resorts don’t seem to warrant a second look. The only dress code you’re likely to encounter there is not being permitted to wear swimwear to your resort’s breakfast bar. If you’re venturing into RAK City, it’s a good idea to cover your shoulders and knees to show respect.

Alcohol is as ubiquitous as the desert sands, and most resorts have at least one bar, though some locally focussed hotels are completely dry. Except for the restaurants along the waterfront, you won’t find many places to drink in RAK City, and you’ll join the many locals who come to the bars and clubs in the resorts to start their weekends.