Archive for the ‘middle east travel’ Category

The Land of Milk and Honey… and Hummus

Israeli Vineyards

This just in… some super cool packaged tours throughout… you guessed it… The Holy Land. And the holy land to me means… the land of milk and honey and wine, and hummus and hotties!
Plus, no one really thinks about it, but, the Israelis were some of the first successful communists in the good sense of the word… communal. Rocking the kibbutznik farm style, these guys managed to share and deliver duties in an eco-friendly way better than any of their predecessors in Russia or, let’s just say, Cuba. The Israelis not only developed a system of drop irrigation that is now one of the best watering solutions in the world to save water, but, as you can imagine, they also have some pretty old grape vines. So, see the deals on Israel travel and go get yourself some holistic harmony… with a side of the best hummus you’ll have in your life.
  • Israel by Kibbutz
Delve into this soul moving country while staying at a collection of traditional Israeli kibbutz.  Partake in the communal lifestyle of the Kibbutznik people firsthand as you tour this holy land.  This one is called ‘a transformative travel experience’. We believe it. We’ve been to kibbutzim and they’re a pretty cool thing.—-
  • Active Israel Adventure
An active alfresco adventure, you’ll get off the tour bus and cruise, scuba dive, horseback ride, bike, climb and rappel to behold all of Israel’s spellbinding sites fused together with jeep safaris, camel rides, archaeological digs, golden beaches, hot springs and more.
  • Vineyards and Visions
Stimulate your soul and taste buds with this delectable culinary journey showcasing Israeli wine and cuisine.  Taste your way through a mosaic of vineyards and celebrated restaurants, take cooking lessons and stop at all the age-old sites along the way. Bon appetit, we say!

Abu Dhabi and The Islands

Picture this: you’re kneeling in the fading twilight with camera in hand, eye-to-eye with an African ostrich.

Sound wild?

Well, you can make it your reality with Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara’s exclusive Stay and Click photography course,March 18 – 21. Set amid the rugged beauty of the Royal Nature Reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, this three-night, two-day landscape and wildlife photography class brings both novice and experienced photographers close to nature with cameras and critiques.  Students have a chance to photograph the more than 20 different free-roaming species that grace Sir Bani Yas’ shores, including Arabian oryx, antelope, and gazelle.

With 30 years of experience as a contract photographer, Ira Block will lead the course. His photo library includes rare archaeological relics from ancient sites in Eastern Europe, Peru and the Middle East. It’s the perfect trip to hone your skills and explore the rich wildlife and landscape with your lens. What’s more, in celebration of the hotel’s one-year anniversary, Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara is giving away one free spot in this exclusive course!

Simply submit your favorite desert or wildlife image by uploading it here by Sunday, February 28.  Ira and Anantara will announce the winning picture on the website on Sunday, March 7.

Not the winner? Not to worry, you can still reserve a space in the class. Individual rates start from AED 6,550+ ($2,052 inclusive of tax and tourism charge), double rates from AED 8,600+ ($2,716 inclusive of tax and tourism charge).  Package includes the two-day photography course, three nights of accommodation, breakfast, lunch, and dinner in The Palm restaurant.

*Photographers participating in the two-day course must have a digital SLR camera, lenses, and all necessary cables along with a laptop computer and editing software.

Discovery Adventures

Armchair travel just got an upgrade!

Morocco Discovery Adventure Travel TourRemember when you saw your first episode of Deadliest Catch and the next time you ate Alaskan King Crab you held up a bright red two-foot long leg and said, “Cheers to the men who bravely risked their lives so that I could enjoy the succulent white tendrils of this soft salty meat like never before”?  Or how about the time you channeled Man vs. Wild’s star, Bear Grylls, when you were lost during a hike in Montana so you decided to walk along the dangerously close edge of a suspended railway bridge? Oh we can’t say enough about our love of all things Discovery.  For one thing, Discovery Channel used to be our EIC’s client when she worked as a VP in entertainment advertising.  Shark WeekDeadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs… we know our Discovery Channel.  We can’t get enough of their entertaining content and their commitment to the natural world.

discovery_adventures_logoAs such, when we caught wind that the Discovery Channel had *just* launched Discovery Adventures, their first ever adventure travel vacation group, we said, “Where do we sign up?!” Starting last Friday, July 31, 2009, there are 31 itineraries to 18 different destinations with departures slated for this December 2009. Discovery Adventures not only ‘makes adventure travel accessible, less intimidating and offers 3-star service levels at more affordable prices,’ but they also promise to deliver die-hard, often “can’t be found with any other tour” real life experiences.

Expect to explore regions featured on Discovery Channel programs such as Man Vs. Wild, Out of Egypt and Discovery Atlas China.  Trips focus on educational tourism, cultural immersion, wildlife encounters, participation in sustainable world practices, epicurean adventures, geographic and environmental exploration.  Destinations include, North America (Alaska, Southwest), Latin America (Peru, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica), Africa (Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Egypt, Morocco) and Asia (India, China, Thailand).

Prices and trips range in length in cost, but an 9 day/8 night trip through Costa Rica runs approximately $1149 (air fare not included).

Discover the unexpected…

Part III: Palmyra’s Ruins & The Aleppo Underground

Fresh from the press! Part III of Singapore-based Contributor, Hajar Ali’s series on Syria.

When I left Damascus for Palmyra, I was told by the helpful doorman that traveling by bus was a comfortable, cheap alternative. I immediately grabbed a ticket.

Air-conditioned and, indeed, comfortable, the best part of the trip had to be the dates passed around in wooden boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay. If I remember correctly, they were also screening a Hindi movie.

Arriving in Palmyra, I’d stayed at a hotel highly recommended by Lonely Planet (The Cham Palace remains the closest to luxury accommodation available in Palmyra). There was a group of Italian tourists checking into the hotel at the same time and I spent a part of my first night in Palmyra in fear as I overheard two Italian ladies whispering in the hotel corridor.

My first introduction to giallo, a type of slasher horror flick typified by a developing background romance and spectacular sceneries of the Italian countryside, was Pupi Avati’s ‘Casa dalle finestre che ridono’, revolving around the creatively sadistic plots by two Italian sisters to entrap their latest torture victim. Hearing two female voices whispering in Italian brought to mind certain scenes of the movie.

The next morning (and evening) was spent touring the ruins of Palmyra where I encountered a guide who spoke, among other languages, Aramaic, a language spoken by Jesus and is still spoken in ‘isolated pockets of Syria’ in Ma’aloula. A veritable source of information on the ruins of Palmyra, he approached me while I was walking around near the entrance of the ruins. A morning (or evening) spent touring the ruins of Palmyra with him was well spent, never mind what the other guides tell you. I encountered another group of Italian tourists who’d asked their Italian-speaking guide to ask my English-speaking guide why I was travelling on my own. It was the same kind of concern the Italian ladies I’d met at the Lebanese-Syrian border and travelled around with in Syria had shown.
Palmyra, Syria

Why was I travelling alone? Wouldn’t it be better to travel with friends or parents? Well, sometimes, you just have to go it alone. Nights in Palmyra were uneventful, spent going through the tourist stores selling armor suits, old rings and porcelain pieces. The bus from Palmyra to Aleppo the next morning was nothing like the Damascus-Palmyra transfer. I took the bus with a few men – and goats – in an older bus with windows bearing a cobweb-like pattern from being hit by errant pebbles. We encountered little children on the journey practicing their shots by throwing little pebbles against the bus windows which, in retrospect, felt just a little like an earlier scene in the movie, Syriana, where an American lady travelling on a tourist bus was accidentally shot by a child practicing his shots on a rifle. I tried not to imagine these film recollections were ‘signs.’

Arriving in Aleppo, you’re immediately cognizant of a deep, rich history. A capital city that contests Damascus’ claim to being the ‘oldest continuously inhabited city in the world’ with a complex, intriguing history. Staying at the Baron Hotel (instantly recognizable by every local – particularly useful if you’re wont to getting lost), I was to spend my next few days in Aleppo exploring the citadel, locating an underground bar in the pedestrianized streets of Aleppo which the waiter insists was a way for the house’s original inhabitants to connect to the citadel during the multiple sieges laid on the city and experienced an authentic hammam session.
Underground Bar in Aleppo, Syria

Checking into the historic Hotel Baron, walking through the same hallowed hallways and reveling in its faded glamour, one can feel the cozy, family-like nature of the hotel management. From the receptionist to the waiter, who serves you breakfast every morning, everyone seems to have worked in that hotel for the longest time. I found my first room to be ‘too noisy’ , the second one which they’d suggested (and moved my bags to) ‘too creepy’ as it involved walking past an unlit hallway with unused furniture.

I was then shown another room- with a beautiful Juliet balcony lit by fairy lights. The balcony overlooks the busy main road, no doubt, but I figured by then that the hotel does have a road frontage and was won over by the balcony. I could see the brightly-lit stores across the street and the constant stream of alternately-honking traffic from my balcony.

Solitary moments in balconies with a view, even in cities I felt ill-at-ease (which Aleppo certainly was not!), make up some of my best memories in hotels I’d stayed in. My room at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran (what used to be the Intercontinental pre-1979) had a small balcony overlooking the garden and I spent, figuratively, my brightest moments on this balcony in a city I’d felt overwhelmed by.

The traffic on the streets of Aleppo must have ceased by a certain time as I was usually woken up in the mornings by the sound of birds near my heater grilles and the sound of traffic, increasing in both its frequency and loudness. My first day in Aleppo was spent with the Italian ladies, visiting Aleppo’s Citadel and capping off a visit accompanied by a most informative guide, with a chat with friends of the Italian ladies whom we’d met in the café opposite the citadel. We’d made an appointment (or rather, they made an appointment and I tagged along) to meet again that night at a friend’s house, which, the Italian ladies tell me, is beautiful, tasteful, and ‘like a museum.’

Stay tuned for Part IV of Hajar’s Syrian escape…

Part II: The Sweet & Spicy Souks of Syria

Part II of our newest Contributor, Singapore-based, Hajar Ali’s series, continues to give us a taste of the Middle East with her take on Syria’s sweet and spicy souks.

A trip to the Souk Hammadiyeh isn’t complete without a trip to Bakdash, an ice cream store that’s virtually an institution in Damascus. It’s the place for family get-togethers, couples going on dates as well as a celebratory venue for engagement parties.

Bakdash sells only one type of ice-cream, a delicious white concoction with a generous coverage of pistachio.

The souks were a maze of stores and my disoriented mind was unable to distinguish between the various souks. I recall travelling through various aromas of soaps and spices, staying with the Italian ladies as they negotiated over the silver jewellery, going through stacks of table linens and deciding which jallabiyas to buy for female friends and family members back home. In reality, the souks were divided into the Souk Al Hamidiyeh, the most prominent and most popular amongst tourists, the Souk Midhat Pasha, the Souk al-Bzouriyeh (as the area where the soaps and spices are to be found) and the Souk al-Harir. It’s probably best to enlist the help of a good guide who’d be able to bring you to Ghraoui, the manufacturers of the best dried fruits and chocolates in the world, if Paris Salon du Chocolat Awards are anything to go by…

Tony Stephan’s antiques store at No 156 is also renowned for having the finest quality at the best prices. With a range of textiles, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, antique Bedouin jewellery, and intricate copper and brassware visitors have included dignitaries like Jimmy Carter and Nancy Kissinger. In addition, check out the ultra-chic Villa Moda, a boutique converted from a 17th century stable, stocking labels like Stella Mc Cartney and Azzedine Alaia.

The street food on Syria was amazing- a welcome departure from the mezze I’d been having for breakfast, lunch and dinner so far in Syria. Once, we’d stopped by a street stall to buy something resembling falafels and the store keeper had in turn plied us with slices of hot thin-crust pizza (so good we’d asked for the name, of which I can’t remember now) and vehemently refused our attempts to pay for the pizza. Travelling is one activity where you’d always gain more from your interaction with locals, the other travelers you meet along the way and the richness of experiences than what you’d be able to give in return, but Syria is one of the places where the feeling of taking more than what you give gets rather overwhelming.

Two days later, I temporarily parted ways with my travel companions- they were headed to the Krak des Chevaliers and I, having fallen under the spell of Zenobia, the Warrior Queen, was headed for Palmyra. We’d arranged to meet in Aleppo, staying at the Hotel Baron, which we’d all agreed would be an interesting choice of accommodation given the history behind it.

Hotel Baron, was, in its heyday, host to some of the most illustrious individuals of its time. Stepping off from the Istanbul-Aleppo train connection (which still runs today), were individuals like Agatha Christie, T.E. Lawrence and Charles Lindburgh…

A fascinating jaunt into the past… and a welcome embrace to the future.

To be continued…

Part I: The Road From Lebanon to Syria

Souk al Hammadiyeh
Damascus, Syria

Say hello to our newest Contributor, Singapore-based, Hajar Ali, the founder of Urbane Nomads (, a niche travel agency that seeks to deliver the most unique travel experiences, whether in localities yet to be discovered or favored tourist destinations. Urbane Nomads actively promotes new, exciting design, taking an active interest in the culture and history of the area with intelligent tours that aim to go ‘under the skin’ of the place.

Two years ago, I spent more time than scheduled in Lebanon, experiencing a relatively sedate New Year’s Celebration in Beirut, affected both by the somber political mood in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, a sullen economy, and an increased hostility towards neighboring Syria. I’d crossed overland to Damascus via the Lebanese-Syrian border a few days after the New Year.

Over my next few days in Syria, the UN commission investigating the assassination of Hariri would seek out an interview of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, its foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa and former Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim-Khaddam in connection with Hariri’s assassination. Spilling over from a pro-Hariri demonstration I’d witnessed in Beirut, there were increasing calls for Syrian troops to move out of Lebanon. By the end of my stay in Syria, I witnessed the mobilization of Syrian soldiers and the increased prominence of UN vehicles on the streets of Damascus.

In contrast to Beirut’s landscaped sidewalks, clean streets and fresh, clean air, the streets of Damascus felt chaotic, the air dank and it was all too apparent I had crossed over to another country. The taxi driver couldn’t seem to find my hostel and after what seemed like an hour on Damascus’ chaotic streets, I’d changed my mind about staying in a hostel. I’d thought of Damascus’ boutique hotel installation, Beit Al-Mamlouka, but didn’t want to risk confusing the driver again so I went with Cham Palace Damascus, an indigenous chain of luxury hotels that I thought would be instantly recognizable.

That seemed to be the right call when I found myself comfortably ensconced in the lobby of Cham Palace within the next twenty minutes. Checking into the hotel was an instruction in Syria’s artisanal culture. Everything from the lobby to swivel chairs and the lift were decorated with an elaborate inlay of mother of pearl and ivory characteristic of Syrian decorative style. The Lebanese designer Nada Debs ( had found international acclaim incorporating the decorative mother of pearl and ivory inlays within the more contemporary medium of Lucite as opposed to the traditional wood-inlay combination.

In the lobby, I met two Italian ladies who had smiled kindly at me at the Lebanese-Syrian border while we were awaiting our entry visas. One of them invited me to join them to visit the Omayyad Mosque and Souk Hammadiyeh later in the afternoon. I was glad for the company and help navigating around the city. I have an awful sense of direction, completely unable to make sense of a map and anyway, have always thought it more useful to ask locals or long-time residents for directions rather than go around with a huge map in hand.

We were headed for Souk Hammadiyeh, but not before stopping by Omayyad Mosque. The legends and mythology surrounding Omayyad Mosque are fascinating. Muslim tradition believes that the severed head of John the Baptist is contained in a silver capsule in the prayer hall with an alternative theory being that it is the Knights Templar that has possession of this severed head. The tomb of Salah ad-Din, or Saladin to Crusaders, is located within the compounds of this mosque. The eastern minaret, or the minaret al-Issa, is believed to be the place where Prophet Issa (Jesus PBUH) will descend, on the wings of two angels, during a time of crisis to lead believers in their battle against the Antichrist.
(c) Martin Gray
The architecture of the Omayyad Mosque, like most mosques, derives solely from geographic shapes, complimented by high ceilings, providing an almost zen tranquility to the space. Various architectural elements are telling of the various influences on this mosque – the open courtyard, a place you might want to spend some time during dusk for its beautiful atmosphere (and excellent photographic opportunities), has been attributed to the influences of Yemeni temples as well as a pre-Islamic Kaa’ba (today the centre of the Islamic pilgrimage, or hajj) and the ‘accentuation of the main nave’ was seen as a direct influence of Omayyad architecture. (source:

Walking down to the nearby souks, one encounters everything from delicious candies – the Syrians apparently take their sweets very seriously if the proliferation of sweet shops on the streets of Damascus are anything to go by – and dried fruits, soaps, jallabiyas (loose female clothing) and the most attractive blown glass art abound. Olga, one of the two Italian ladies who kindly invited me along, remarked: ‘The Venetians learned the art of glass blowing from the Syrians’. I was tempted to get the water jars, with a beautifully prismatic colour pattern retailing at a price that most of you reading this would have dismissed as ‘nothing, but I was afraid it wouldn’t survive the journey, given the multiple road transfers I was planning on…

Stay tuned for Part II of Hajar’s Middle East jaunt!

Jerusalem, Israel: Hanging in the Holy Land

There’s one thing I must confess. I married a lovely Israeli man… and I still haven’t made it to the Holy Land. My inner-Heb cries, “If I should forget Jerusalem, my left hand should fall.” Or something like that. In case it sounds pathetic, keep this in mind… we’ve only been married for a year and we’re planning The Big Trip now. That said, as a travel writer, I can tell you all about the top hotels in the world with eye-popping amenities that cost anywhere from $300-$1,000/night, but that doesn’t mean I don’t a) go ga-ga when I find a good deal and b) want to know where the real locals stay.

In my quest, I queried a man whose knowledge of Israel, quality (and that doesn’t always mean 600-thread count Frette linens), and, most importantly, authenticity, is second to none. That’s right… my husband.

So here’s a little secret gem that’s definitely not your generic luxurious, five-star hotel, but rather, an Arab-Israeli owned boutique hotel.

Concentrated in only a few hundred feet are Al-Aqsa Mosque, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where even the most die-hard American Jew isn’t immune to the holiness of Christ’s stomping grounds), and, of course, The Wailing Wall, the most important sacred sites of the top three monotheistic religions.

What my main man likes best?

There’s a wine bar in the entrance, it’s cheap (anywhere from $30-$100/night), and a REAL spot for those wanting to see Jerusalem, even if it means you’ll likely hear street-sellers in the morning and the hustle and bustle of Jews – and Muslims – living peacefully side-by-side in the heart of the Holy Land.

As Whoopi on Virtual Tourist says, “Some of the double rooms have a balcony out to the busy street and also have two floors in the room. These are great! The whole hotel is also very relaxed and cozy with lots of things hanging on the walls, everything from garments to photos and poetry. Lots of sofas and chairs everywhere and it gives you the feeling of being in some nice, but weird old lady’s house. Just outside you find everything you need from internet cafes to stores, restaurants, market and tourist attractions.”

And really, when you’re in the Holy Land, what better place to be?

45 Bedrooms, cable satellite in the lobby, on-site laundry, an internet lounge open 24 hrs., a safe deposit box, and a panoramic view of Jerusalem from the roof-top.

Tell them Jaunt Magazine sent you.

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