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Monday, May 26, 2014

Dubai

This story starts out last year when we went to Skelleftea up in northern Sweden to visit our friends Lena and Toni and ends just over 3,000 miles away in a place with pretty much the opposite climate.

See, Toni had already started working in the United Arab Emirates and was back home when we went to Skelleftea. Towards the end of our trip - and in spite of having endured us for a week - they told us we should come visit them in the UAE. Diana and I said, sure, that we'd think about it. Well, as is pretty much always the case, don't offer if you're not ready to have me darken your doorstep one day...


This was my first time in one of the new-ish double-decker Airbus 380s. Owing to our working-class roots, Diana and I were seated downstairs but, wow, what a plane. It was (relatively) quiet and there was such a (relative) feeling of space inside the plane. The food, entertainment selection, and the service were excellent especially when considering the direct-flight price from Barcelona to Dubai. Emirates Airlines definitely goes into my list of favorites along with Air France and Singapore Airlines. Oh, and that photo up above, one of the best of the trip for sure.

Diana and I ended up staying with a long-time-resident family who were originally from India. Our airbnb hosts were incredibly gracious, friendly, accommodating (how's a 2am arrival suit you?), and made a mean Indian breakfast. Another benefit was getting to stay in a mostly working-class neighborhood not far from the oldest part of the city and right near the intersection of the city's two metro lines.

We had two full days in Dubai with day one starting out in the historic center of the city. Most of the UAE is relatively new with Dubai being basically a small village only 100 years ago. Almost everything has been built since, and, really, mostly in the last 20. Against some advice I was given, Diana and I were dedicated to try to get a sense of the city's history, relatively brief as it is, so we started our visit in the historic core. This is the view from an old school out towards the surrounding neighborhood:


While we were there, some teachers brought in a class. It was very meta to see a class visiting an old school with classroom displays:


We worked our way out from along the river bank through the surrounding small streets. The area's known for its indoor/outdoor markets called Souks. The most famous are probably the spice and gold souks, which sell their namesake items. Diana and I outside the gold souk entrance:


A random observation. While walking through the neighborhood, I saw this electronics shop. What caught my attention is how the laptops are displayed "backwards" from what I'm used to seeing. Are they displayed with the keyboards away from the customer to keep people from handling them, to show the brand (my guess), or something else not as clear? I didn't stop to ask but it was curious.


If you look up things to do in Dubai, one of the top-rated is to take one of the small wooden boats, called an Abra, across the Dubai creek, which is more like a river, but whatever. There are a ton of these boats, which leave from either side of the creek every couple of minutes. The ride costs 1 Dirham ($0.25 U.S.) and takes about ten minutes to get to the other side. The locals use it like a taxi and it was fun.


One thing I haven't mentioned yet is the weather. As you may already know, the Persian Gulf region's weather is definitely not San Diego or even Barcelona. Yeah, it's sunny, but, damn, it's H-O-T hot!!! The temperature ranged from around 110 F (43 C) during the day to a relatively nice 90 F (32 C) at night. Taking the Abras across the river was a refreshing break from the crazy heat.


We decided to take the excellent Dubai metro down the coast to the Dubai marina about 30 minutes or so south. It was during the metro ride where the newness and urban sprawl of "new" Dubai is much more apparent. The marina itself pretty much didn't exist even ten years ago and they're still building more. A view of the marina from one of the pedestrian walkways:


To beat the mid-afternoon heat, Diana and I stopped for lunch at a place in the marina. It's worth noting that this was probably one of the most expensive meals we ate during the entire trip. The food was excellent and lunch probably cost like $40 U.S. (~30 euros), which isn't terribly expensive but, compared to most places we went, seemed that way.

Oh, and did I mention how crazy hot it was? Here's Diana outside one the city's air-conditioned bus stops back in the neighborhood where we stayed:


Just looking at these photos again makes me appreciate how much we did in one day. What a great adventure! What would day two hold???

After our jam-packed first day in Dubai, we were excited for more great experiences on day two. The highlight was a planned visit to the viewing platform of the Burj Khalifa, which is currently the tallest building in the world.

But first, I had seen an IHOP in the adjoining mall the night before. I've said it probably a million times but going out for breakfast is definitely one of my favorite things so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have a big-ole American-style pancake breakfast sitting out on a deck with a view like this:


I mentioned it in the day-one story but, again, the scale of everything in Dubai is hard to judge. The buildings are so tall and the distances so large, that's it's difficult to get a feel. While we were eating our breakfasts, we thought we saw something moving pretty high up outside the building but we couldn't tell what it was. It's barely visible in the photo above so I zoomed in and took more photos, which are combined below. Yes, those tiny specks are people cleaning the windows...hanging by cables!


After breakfast, we walked over to wait for our reserved time. By the way, if you plan to go to the Burj Khalifa one day, make sure to have reservations ahead of time or you may not get in.

I've been up in other tall buildings including the Empire State Building and (old) World Trade Center in New York City, the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Tokyo Tower in Japan, the Pearl Tower in Shanghai, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but I don't remember any of them having a race-car elevator like the Burj Khalifa. The building is 163 storeys high but the elevator takes you (only) to the 124th floor indoor/outdoor viewing area. You'll need to watch the video to see how long it takes to get up there from the ground floor:


The view from the outdoor area is pretty impressive. It's even more amazing when you think about the folks building the building and those guys cleaning the windows. The view towards the Dubai Mall down to the left and the fountains between the mall and the Burj Khalifa:


Looking out towards old Dubai (way out on the horizon):


...and another in the same general direction but with the Persian Gulf to the left. Note the freeway and metro line running down the middle of all the tall buildings:


On the way out to the mall's taxi area, we went past the ice skating rink. Yeah, there's one of those too...


Diana wanted to go to the beach so we took a taxi over to the public Jumeirah Public Beach, which was about 20 minutes or so away. We weren't really prepared to spend a bunch of time at the beach but we wanted to at least get our feet wet. Believe it or not, it was way too hot to hang out without an umbrella and maybe a block of ice. Remember, it was like 105 F (40 C) when we took this photo!


Diana and I wanted to see a little bit of the UAE luxury everyone talks about so we took another taxi to the fancy Jumeirah Beach Hotel. It's a little bit farther up the coast and right in front of the Burj Al Arab. The Burj Al Arab is the "seven-star", sail-shaped hotel, which is probably the most iconic thing in Dubai if not the whole UAE. It's so exclusive that you can't even get on the private island without having a reservation or paying a bunch of cash to have afternoon tea or something. In other words, we weren't getting in.

We talked to one of the guys cleaning outside the Jumeirah Beach hotel about where we should go for the best views. He recommended the Madinat Jumeirah, which is a little souq-style shopping center just on the other side of the Burj Al Dubai. Score! Not only did they have a Costa Coffee with fabulous frozen-coffee, their deck overlooked an oasis-style view of the Burj Al Arab. Not bad for the price of a $4 U.S. (3 euro) coffee, huh?


After some nice iced coffees, it was back to the Dubai metro so we could get dinner in the old part of town near the Dubai Creek. Diana in one of the super nice metro stations:


Our two-day trip to Dubai was almost over. We had read about a restaurant in the Dubai Heritage Village on the bank of the Dubai Creek that specializes in local food and makes fresh bread in an outdoor oven. We ate a whole bunch of awesome food and had outstanding service all while taking in the lovely evening views out over Dubai and the Dubai Creek. The price? A steal at $20 U.S. (15 euros)! Not a bad way to end our time in Dubai.



Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jameson Whiskey Dublin Distillery Tour

I first went to Ireland about ten years ago and, while there, I had the chance to visit the working Jameson whiskey factory in Midleton down near Cork. Here's a pre-whereisdarrennow photo from that trip back in 2005:


Even though it was a while ago, I remember it being a fairly interesting and cool tour and, since running back and forth from Barcelona to Dublin, I've been waiting for a chance to visit the Dublin version. Well, the opportunity came up a few weeks ago so I headed over to Dublin's Smithfield neighborhood and the Jameson's visitor center, which is craftily hidden behind the arched entrance of this somewhat modern apartment building:


John Jameson first started making his whiskey in Dublin way back in 1780 but this location hasn't been a working factory since sometime in the 1960s.


The Dublin factory's pretty much just a museum, restaurant, and gift shop now. Not really what I was hoping for but knowing this in advance wouldn't have kept me from going over to check it out. Would you like to meet me for a drink here some time?


I enjoy whiskey quite a bit but I'm a much bigger fan of Paddy's, which is another Jameson whiskey brand also made down in the Cork factory. I first had it during that first visit and have been enjoying it ever since.

The Dublin tour takes about 45 minutes where they explain how whiskey used to be made. It might have been because it was the last tour of the day but my guide just didn't seem that into it. Regardless, it was an interesting visit.


One of the tour highlights is, maybe not surprisingly, the stuffed cat in the lower, left-hand side of the photo below. It was, we were told by the guide, a real cat that used catch mice in the grain house.


Oh, and they include a small Jameson sample at the end of the tour, which was nice. All in all, a nice way to spend 12 euros ($16 U.S.) and an hour before a dinner appointment.

So, how have I aged in the last ten years???