Most of my 2014 was happily consumed with planning for my voyage to Antarctica. While still deep in the midst of planning this trip, it was time for the big October reveal of the 2015 trips from the travel company I've been using for a number of years. After spending months researching and buying long underwear, gloves, and various other items of clothing that would combat the cold, I was hoping to be able to travel somewhere warm. Plus, since I'd already planned a summer trip to Japan, I could only realistically sign up for a trip at the end of the year. Amid the list of a dozen or so trips, I immediately zoned in on the Abu Dhabi/ Maldives trip scheduled perfectly in December. My jaw practically dropped at seeing that we'd be staying in huts over the ocean, which had been a dream of mine. Plus, flying in a sea plane to our island resort..?! Sign me up!
As the months passed, my job situation grew a bit tense. I thought I'd have to cancel the trip, but I held onto the reservation... just in case. If I'd had to cancel, I would have been sad seeing my friends' pictures, but my first priority had been ensuring that my trip to Japan with my niece would be as amazing as possible. If achieving that goal meant canceling the Maldives, it would be worth it. But as luck would have it, I received a new job offer in July and my new employers approved my travel plans. So, suddenly, it was ON!
I'd spent so long thinking that I wouldn't be able to go on the trip that I only vaguely considered pre and post trip plans. Having never been to Dubai, it was essential to me to spend some extra time visiting there. Fortunately, a friend from my 2013 Vietnam/Cambodia trip had the same idea so we decided to share a room and spend a few days exploring Dubai together before meeting up with the group in Abu Dhabi, which is about an hour away. As the trip approached, we shared our excitement as we booked a hotel (after much discussion) and some activities.
Since I'd be meeting up with her on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, in made sense to take advantage of the holiday weekend and enjoy a solo weekend somewhere beforehand. My first impulse was to stop in Venice, but the logistics ruled out that plan. Instead, I chose to spend time in London, the easiest and most obvious stop. Far from feeling like I'd settled for a secondary option, I was excited because it had been too long since I'd spend significant time there. Obviously, any London stopover for me means seeing as many shows as I can fit. I was also looking forward to seeing the Harry Potter studio tour, which had been tempting me since it opened in 2012.
Making plans for my return trip proved to be a little trickier. Since I wanted to use frequent flier miles for travel from the US to London, I'd need to make a stopover in Europe on the way back. The group flight from the Maldives to Dubai arrived at 2am (yuck) so I was also on the lookout for a connection that wouldn't require me to spend a ton of time at Dubai airport in the middle of the night. The most convenient flight I found was to Paris, which had a very short connection. I'd never actually been to the 2nd theme park at Disneyland Paris since it hadn't yet opened on my last trip in 2000, so I was excited to make plans to go there. Then, I'd truly be able to say I'd visited every single Disney park in the world. (yes, Shanghai Disneyland is on the horizon- as soon as an opening day is announced, I'll start making plans)
Everything was looking rosy. And then November 13 happened. Exactly 4 weeks before I planned to spend a relaxed night at a theatre in Paris, hundreds of innocent people were shot in a (different) theatre in Paris in a most barbaric act of terrorism. Attacks had occurred all over the city- in small restaurants, and outside a sports stadium. And suddenly the world turned upside down. To travel to Paris in the shadow of these attacks was difficult to contemplate; but it was unthinkable to cancel. Sadly, the same kind of violence could happen in London, or in New York City which I visit often. It's random. I can't live my life locked in my apartment, afraid to pursue my favorite activities. I'm trusting that France is doing everything possible to prevent another incident; I'm hoping that if the terrorists strike again, they won't be in my vicinity. But most of all, I am trying to move forward with living my life, pursuing my passions (including travel) and sending as much positive energy and love into the world as I can.
The great thing about ridiculously early plane flights is that before you even have a chance to wake up, you find yourself en route an adventure. Unfortunately, I had a 9:20pm flight so I had all day to wait for it to finally be time to leave. OK, I wasn't exactly idly waiting around watching the clock; I had errands to run, an apartment to clean up, and last minute things to stuff in my luggage. But all the same, it felt like forever until I could actually be on my way.
The previous night I'd been really stressed finishing up my packing- I'd be visiting 3 very different climates and there were luggage weight limits for the Maldives sea planes. No matter how I tried to figure things out, my bags were too heavy. I got a little annoyed with myself for picking out cities with a colder climate to frame the warmer destinations that were the core of my trip. However, on my departure day, I suddently felt much more zen about everything- it would all work itself out somehow. In the worst case scenario, I'd just suck it up and pay the overweight bag fees.
At about 4:20pm, my nieces arrived and the trip started to get real. Julia drove me to the airport- it's almost comforting to have the same familiar conversation about how she really needs to move over to the right lane at the airport exit ramp, while she insists that she's fine because the lane splits. Until finally she realizes I'm right. Some things never change, and that's fine.
Whenever you have a ton of time to kill before your flight, there must be some kind of rule for the airport counters and security to be completely empty. I mean, it wasn't just slow... There was literally no one in front of me. The good news is that I obviously got through security super quick. The bad news was that I still had to wait at the airport for 2.5 hours before I could even board my plane. Yay. /sarcasm
I purchased my traditional overpriced "emergency M&M's" which I keep on hand; they have to be purchased at the airport to fit my ritual. I also found the Japanese fast food place and ate some very mediocre spicy tuna rolls. Even though I wasn't traveling to Japan, I was still hoping this would be the first of many Japanese dining experiences particularly in London. There wasn't much thrilling to explore, so I eventually just camped out at my gate.
As I waited rather impatiently to finally get going, it finally sunk in that I'd soon (but not soon enough) be returning to spend some time in London, one of my favorite cities, for the first time in about 7 years. (I'd spent a few hours on layover 3 years earlier, but that wasn't nearly enough) Since I'd already done the tourist sites many times, I was planning to take things easy- mainly to see a bunch of shows and to wander around the theatre district. And of course, I had a list of cupcake shops to try. The goal was to not burn myself out too early since I had a long trip ahead.
Each passing minute increased my excitement. I knew that I had so many diverse experiences waiting for me over the next couple of weeks. I couldn't wait to feast on all of them- both the return visits to familiar favorites, such as London theatre, as well as exploration of places like Dubai that were completely new to me. My itinerary was really incredible, and I felt lucky to be in a position where I could make it my reality.
I was thrilled when my flight finally started to board; I was somehow in group 1 so I spent a lot of time in my window seat wondering who my mission companion would be for the flight. Person after person walked by, and finally they shut the airplane door. I had 2 seats to myself for the 6 hour flight. Total win!
Eventually, the plane taxied to the runway and ascended into the infinite sky. On my way- finally!
During the flight, I reflected that Asian airliners had way better seats than US carriers. They always seem to have lots of places to store little things as well as outlets/USB chargers. While my seat had a USB connector, it didn't seem to do anything for charging my phone. (I tried both my seat and the vacant one next to me). I also idly wondered why the seatback GPS screen labeled the location where the Titanic sank; that seemed rather odd.
I tried to sleep on the flight since I had a long day ahead of me in London, but I don't think I was very successful. After some of the mega long flights I'd taken in recent years, I began to feel that 6 hours was too short for an overnight flight. Especially since they woke us up for breakfast (which I passed on; The "pasta" I'd had for dinner had been rather gross although a yummy caramel brownie basically made up for that.) ... and then turned the lights off for another hour. So there wasn't a lot of continuous quiet time.
As the GPS map showed that we were approaching Europe, I thought about how I'd get through the exciting day ahead of me and I came up with the following:
A is for adrenaline
B is for Britain
C is for caffeine
D is for dat's enough of the alphabet!
During the descent into Heathrow, I was thrilled to see an amazing panoramic view of the city of London. I could spot the London Eye, the Tower Bridge, and even Hyde Park with its colorful Winter Wonderland attractions. I recalled a line from the musical Sunset Boulevard: "I've come home at last!" Not that I've ever actually lived in London, but in a sense the city is home to my travel dreams since it was my first overseas destination. It felt so right to finally be returning.
Although the plane landed early, we had to wait awhile for a gate to become available. Once I disembarked, the walk through Heathrow to get to customs and to ultimately pick up my luggage seemed endless. While waiting for my bag, I found an ATM and was relieved when the machine spit out 3 twenty pound notes; after my experiences in Australia (2011) and Japan (2012), I still don't take it for granted that my ATM card will work, even though I've switched banks.
It was easy to follow the signs to the tube and to buy myself an Oyster card, which proved to be so much more convenient than when I've had to dig around for cash every time I took a ride on public transit. (an Oyster card is a rechargeable smart card that you can fill with a certain monetary value and then tap at readers at the entrance and exit turnstiles) It felt great to be on the tube, en route to central London- a familiar ride I've taken so many times in the past. But after I glanced at the map in my car, I realized my train wasn't going all the way in to London so I had to get off and switch at Acton Town. That wasn't a big deal, but it would have been nicer to stay put. As I traveled, I enjoyed watching all the people who got on and off the train and I idly wondered what their stories were.
Finally, we reached Leicester Square station and it was my turn to disembark. I took my time so that my use of the left handrail on the escalators wouldn't inhibit anyone. On a previous trip in 2008, I'd dutifully obeyed the sign to use the right handrail while attempting to hold on to my luggage with my left hand; it was a total disaster as I somehow managed to stop the escalator with my clumsiness!
By sheer stubbornness, I managed to lug my luggage up the stairs to the street at the station exit- most London tube stops are decidedly not handicapped accessible. After getting my bearings and walking in the right direction, I excitedly saw the familiar Leicester Square in front of me. Except it wasn't quite like I remembered, because it was apparently home to a small fair featuring a large ferris wheel. I was happy to spot quite a few stores and restaurants that evoked memories of my previous trips.
My hotel was right off the square which was very convenient. When I arrived at the check in desk on the 3rd floor, the staff members kindly told me that it was too early to check in. I very kindly explained how very nice it would feel for me to rest or at least take a shower because I'd been traveling so long... and they kindly repeated that it was too early. Eventually, my sweet stoicism (I had no plans to budge from my position standing in front of the desk) paid off and magically a room was available for me; I guess you really need to want a room early for them to give you one. I'd originally hoped for a room overlooking Leicester Square but at this point, I was happy with any room so I could shower and change before my 2:30pm matinee.
The room itself was rather basic, but that's what I expected. It was clean, functional, and quite reasonably sized. But as comfortable as the bed was, I simply could not catch any sleep when I laid down because... LONDON! How can you possibly doze off when you've just arrived in one of the most exciting cities in the world?!? You really can't, no matter how tired you may be.
Freshly showered and wearing a clean set of clothes, I set off into the festively decorated Leicester Square. After taking a glance at the mini carnival, I headed directly to one of my favorite restaurant chains, Wagamama, which had a location right across the square. They always have wonderful, fresh cooked Asian style meals. As soon as I walked in, I happily breathed in delicious smells. Influenced heavily by the people eating ramen on the bench beside me and the fact that it was chilly outside, I decided to try the Pork Ramen along with a fruit juice. My beverage, which I'd imbibed on previous trips, was fabulously refreshing. The meal itself, while tasty, wasn't as good as some other choices I've tried in the past. I had great timing because the place started getting very full as I was finishing my lunch.
In my travel research, I'd discovered 3 cupcake places I wanted to try; since I only had 3 days, there was no time like the present to get started on this quest. So I headed to Lola's near Covent Garden with help from my cell phone GPS. I'd just eaten a very filling meal, so I opted for a double chocolate mini cupcake instead of a full sized one. It was good but not really that thrilling.
By then, it was time to blissfully meander through the small streets of London toward the Prince Edward theatre for a matinee performance of the revival of Miss Saigon. There were security personnel stationed outside the theatre to inspect bags, which was understandable given recent world events. As I lingered by the souvenir stand trying to decide if I wanted anything more than a programme (I think I also got a brochure), I had a delightful conversation with the vendor about seeing previous productions- although I didn't think to mention having seen the show in Japan (in 1993).
I knew that the revival featured totally new staging which differed from the original London production and that they'd written a new song for the character Ellen to sing in act 2, but I hadn't been prepared for the extensive lyric changes! While the original text was never a strong point of the show, it was jarring to be attending a musical whose lyrics I'd memorized decades ago... and yet never really know what word would be coming next. I'd say that at least 10-15% of the lyrics were changed, if not more; it was constant.
Anything would be an improvement from "this little girl we could be in the sack for what it cost me to buy a Big Mac" (RIP old clunky lyric), but my initial impression was that, overall, the new lyrics didn't substantially improve the show. Some actually seemed weaker to me than the original versions. I can't even remember anything about the new song for Ellen- while I should probably find a recording to better judge its merits, my gut instinct tells me that the song was bland.
Still, it was live theatre... in London... and a show that has long been a favorite of mine. So despite some misgivings about the changes, I really enjoyed the production. The staging was solid- neither better nor worse necessarily than the original production. (Sentimentally, my favorite staging was an in-the-round version in Chicago in 2000) I have to mention that I practically fell on the floor laughing when one of the chorus members in the Bangkok scene in act 2 was dressed as a Mormon, although I'm sure that's inspired someone somewhere to write crossover fan fiction with Miss Saigon and Book of Mormon, which the world really doesn't need.
Afterwards, it was already dark outside as I walked down a crowded Shaftesbury Avenue to check out the Japan Centre in search of food. That probably wasn't such a great idea for a Saturday night since the store was packed to the point where I felt slightly claustrophobic. I probably would have bought any new and exciting Kit Kat flavors if I'd seen them (purple sweet potato, I'm talking to YOU) but I didn't see anything worthy of the long check out line so I left.
I wandered vaguely in the direction of my evening show, stopping to admire Trafalgar Square. When I came upon a Pret A Manger, I stopped for dinner. A place where you can pick up a variety of tasty, fresh prepared foods cafeteria style, Pret A Manger is another of my favorite London dining establishments so I was glad to come upon an oppportunity to fit it into my short trip. I ended up with a salmon sandwich and a Diet Coke; I knew I'd need caffeine to make it through another show, no matter how fabulous that show was!
After a satisfying break, I confidently set off in the direction of the Savoy theatre. Or so I thought until I checked my GPS and saw that I... hadn't exactly been going in the right direction. No sweat, since I had plenty of time before curtain and it was fun, if a tad chilly, to wander along the streets of London. And hey, I was able to catch a quick view of the London Eye across the Thames!
I was super excited to have snagged a ticket to the very last performance of an acclaimed revival of Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton. (it was only weeks later that I realized she played Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies... how had I not known that?!?) Gypsy is a fabulous show, and Staunton gave an electrifying performance, receiving a standing ovation in the middle of the show for her "Rose's Turn". She was so dynamic, in fact, that I felt that she could be an effective anti-jetlag treatment; one literally couldn't keep their eyes off her onstage. (which logically means that one cannot close those eyes to give into slumber) I also really enjoyed the performance of Gemma Sutton as Louise, especially her transformation at the end. I'd hoped that the curtain call might include a special acknowledgement of the final performance (I've seen curtain speeches on such occasions at Broadway shows) but the only gesture was that flowers were given to the performers.
Somehow, my body wasn't completely ready to crash after the show; I must have been overtired. So I decided to try to get a snack at Wasabi sushi and confidently walked in the direction of Leicester Square. After getting a bit off course earlier, surely I'd know the right direction by now? Except when I checked my GPS, I was off again. Argh- damn those tricky London streets by the Strand! I usually have a much better sense of direction.
I finally made it to Wasabi, which is a little bit like a market/ cafeteria where you can pick out some inexpensive sushi. I've often stopped at the location in NYC, and before my travels, I was delighted to find out that they had Wasabi locations throughout London- and that the one near my hotel was open late. By the time I made it there, it was almost closing time so consequently there wasn't much of a selection. But I still managed to collect a nice healthy little late night snack, which I probably needed after having a very slight dinner.
My mission accomplished, you might have expected me to head straight to my hotel, stuff some sushi into my mouth, and then collapse. But that's not exactly how things happened. The route to my hotel passed through Chinatown- which was quite alive on this Saturday night- so I oohed and aahed over the colorful decorations on the street. And then I noticed that the M&M's store was still open- the chocolate scent that was pumped out succeeded in tempting me to spend some time exploring the store's multiple levels although I was too tired to really think of purchasing anything.
And then, at about 11:15pm, it was finally time to retire to my cozy hotel room to munch on some late night sushi and reflect on an amazing- but long- day. Once I finished eating, it wasn't long before I fell into bed, ready to catch up on some much needed slumber. I was so exhausted, I didn't even remember to back up my photos or charge my spare camera batteries.
I squinted and checked my phone in the dark hotel room expecting it to be somewhere around 6am; I couldn't believe it was already 10am! I'd slept soundly for 10 whole hours. Those were 10 hours of sleep that I'd desperately needed so I was glad I hadn't made any definite plans for the day, particularly for the morning.
I lazed a bit before actually getting ready, so I wasn't out the door until around 11am. My first thought was to get an early lunch at Tokyo Diner, which was a couple blocks away but the sign outside said that they didn't open until noon. So it was time to enact Plan B- search for cupcakes! To that end, I headed to Hummingbird Bakery.
I took my time enjoying my black bottom cupcake (chocolate with vanilla icing) and diet coke since London stores weren't supposed to open until noon on Sundays. But when I arrived at the Oxford Street Lush at 12:02pm, it was already crowded and seemed like it had been open for awhile. Perhaps they opened early because of the start of the pre-Christmas season. I'd seen "Black Friday" sale signs all over the city, which I found somewhat amusing since the UK doesn't celebrate US Thanksgiving... and also slightly terrifying that the craziness of US Black Friday fervor might be spreading across the world.
The Oxford Street Lush Cosmetics store is relatively new and, in addition to being the largest Lush, it's the flagship of the world wide chain. I was eager to try some of the exclusive soaps that aren't sold anywhere else, since I love their soaps. (I used to occasionally indulge in their bath bombs and bubble bath until I moved to an apartment that is not conducive to baths) But I only ended up purchasing one exclusive- fittingly, the "Oxford Street" scent. I also purchased 2 limited edition seasonal soaps ("Yog Nog" and "Reindeer Rock") because I liked them and there isn't a Lush near me at home.
Walking down Oxford and then Regent street, I developed a theory that any London street can transform into an excellent photographic moment if you capture the image of a double decker bus in the frame. In Hamley's toy store, where the staff cheerfully greeted everyone with bubbles, I saw a cute London Hello Kitty. But it was too crowded to even enjoy being in the store.
I was eager to try another cupcake store in the area: Crumbs and Doilies. After examining their selections, I couldn't choose between the cookie dough or the maple bacon. Fortunately, they sold mini sized cupcakes so I was able to try both. The maple bacon might have been the best cupcake of the trip! OMG, it was so yummy... and unique. In addition to the obvious bacon on top of the icing, bacon was also baked through the cake. I really wish I'd had time to return to try a full size version.
At some point during my wanders, I realized that I only had an earring in one ear and I'd apparently lost the other one. When I travel, I only bring cheap earrings so it wasn't a huge deal that one went missing. Still, I hate losing things- especially when it's one of a pair; I wouldn't want to just throw away an earring and yet I won't really be able to wear it again. My main concern was that I hadn't brought any other earrings. I didn't want my ears to be devoid of earrings for the rest of my trip, so I planned to eventually buy a cheap pair that I could wear until I got home.
After walking around a little longer and reaching Piccadilly Circus, I decided to head back to the hotel to quickly drop off my bag of soaps from Lush. When I entered the hotel, I clicked on the "Up" button by the elevator and the doors immediately opened. I was surprised and slightly disturbed to notice that there was a man inside; when the elevator doors open that quickly, that typically means it's been sitting on that level for awhile so one therefore expects it to be empty.
The man told me that I needed to swipe my key to select a floor which of course I already knew; I'd just been too startled to do so immediately. He made a show of searching for a room key, but it looked like a fake charade to me. Instead of pushing the button for the 3rd floor lobby so I could escape from a situation that was setting off all kinds of red alerts in my head, I pushed the button for my own floor. (Mainly because I didn't think about the option to get off at the lobby until later. ) As the elevator ascended too slowly and my heart pounded wildly, I was sure I was going to die. Or at least be mugged. And I finally understood all those horror movies where people stay in the haunted house even when they are warned otherwise.
I've never been so thrilled in my life to see elevator doors open- not even when I'd been stuck in the Marriott Marquis glass elevators for 45 minutes. After a quick stop in my room, I took the stairs down to the lobby to report the extremely suspicious behavior that had me frazzled. The lady took notes and said she would have someone check the video. It didn't totally calm my nerves, but at least she hadn't totally dismissed my fears.
Since I hadn't had a proper meal, I decided to head back to the Tokyo Diner for a late lunch. It's a very tiny place so there was a short queue outside, but it didn't take long to be seated. I ordered the Chicken Katsu Don, a bowl of fried chicken with egg over rice. It was very tasty, but it was a lot of food. I was so stuffed! I'd discovered Tokyo Diner when browsing through tripadvisor, and it was a neat little place to add to my ever growing collection of favorite London eateries.
I decided to spend the remainder of the afternoon checking out the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, a seasonal carnival which I'd discovered when researching options for a Sunday in London. While I could have taken the tube, I decided to walk because it wasn't very far and I enjoy walking, especially when I travel. It only took about a half hour to get to Hyde Park at a leisurely pace; as I got closer, there were plenty of signs to point me in the right direction for the Winter Wonderland.
Winter Wonderland included some activities, such as ice skating, that could be reserved in advance but I hadn't purchased tickets since I didn't want to tie myself to any specific times. There were plenty of amusement park rides but I'd been warned that they were expensive and I wasn't really in the mood for rides, anyway. I mainly enjoyed wandering around and soaking up the colorful, festive atmosphere.
One of my biggest regrets of this trip was that I'd eaten a large meal before heading to Winter Wonderland. There were so many tempting goodies there- cookies, crepes, sweet potato fries... Even some flavored popcorn that made me nostalgic for Japan! One store featured a table of fudge cut into small pieces with a large sign admonishing guests that these were not free samples. Unfortunately, I was way too full to try any of them.
I browsed at some kiosks that were selling trinkets, and I ended up buying a cute pair of earrings. (although I didn't want to wear these during my trip since I didn't want to lose them) I was headed in the direction of the Ice Kingdom, hoping it wouldn't be sold out. Fortunately, I was able to get a ticket with an entry time that only required waiting about 15 minutes. I gazed at the most amazing ice sculptures I'd ever seen in person as I walked through the cold, dark, little building housing the exhibit.
When it started to get dark, I decided it was time to start making my way to my evening show. Conveniently, that show was located near King's Cross station which ensured that I'd be able to find time to check out the station's Track 9 3/4 display. In case anyone hasn't read the Harry Potter series, the books famously describe a train that departs from the hidden Track 9 3/4 at King's Cross station. Relatively recently, a photo opportunity has been set up at the actual station to allow people to pose like they are pushing a cart through the wall to reach the hidden wizard tracks. It's cheesy as all hell and a tourist trap, but I had to do it! Nearby, there was a Harry Potter store where I bought a little Hedwig keychain which I can't recall seeing before (at Universal's Harry Potter stores).
After exiting the station, I was slightly unsure of the right direction to the theatre but I overheard someone ask where it was located so I followed them. I don't believe I've ever been to King's Cross station, and the area outside was quite pleasant and a tad artsy. Admittedly, I would have enjoyed strolling around a bit more if rain hadn't been dripping down on me.
I was super excited for that evening's performance of In The Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I'd really regretted not seeing it on Broadway, especially since I've become slightly obsessed with Miranda's most recent show- a little underrated gem known as Hamilton (sarcasm). When I first found out about the London production, it was scheduled to close before my trip. But I kept checking and hoping for an extension. And obviously, one day I saw that the show's run was extended... and I pounced excitedly on the opportunity to purchase a ticket! In addition to being a show I really wanted to see, it was one of the rare shows that had a Sunday night performance so I wouldn't even have to sacrifice another show in order to fit it into my plans.
One of the most interesting aspects of the production was the set up of the theatre auditorium: the stage was a rectangle that bisected 2 parallel viewing areas which faced each other. So it was like theatre in the square- except there were only 2 viewing areas, not 4. You entered the theatre from the lobby in a manner that made it seem like you were exiting from the subway into Washington Heights. (although people who were seated later were not treated to this experience; they entered through a more standard door at the side of the auditorium)
I'm so glad I got to see In The Heights! While the show isn't nearly as sophisticated as Hamilton, it was still a really interesting, joyful, sweet show.
I was struck by a common theme between the 2 shows- namely, that our lives are stories that can be told by others. Hamilton includes an obvious recurring theme of "who lives/ who dies/ who tells our stories". Similarly, the most moving scene in Heights was when Nina goes through Abuela's boxes and discovers various old photos and mementos that chronicled the lives of the people in the neighborhood, concluding "our lives are in these boxes."
Throughout the show, I was distracted by one seemingly minor costuming choice. The actor playing the graffiti artist was wearing an oddly colored Phillies cap. Aside from the fact that I, as a diehard fan, have never seen a cap in those colors... it seemed very wrong to me that a street punk in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City would be wearing a Phillies cap. Sure, Philadelphia is not far away... but there is a huge sports rivalry between the 2 cities. If you wanted to stretch it, a case could possibly be made that the character was originally from Philadelphia- it just seemed very wrong to me. (2 other characters wore Mets or Yankees caps; since those caps similarly had nothing in common with team colors, I couldn't really tell since I've never paid close attention to either "NY" logo)
After the show, I picked up some snacks at King's Cross station... including another round of late evening sushi since I was excited to find a branch of Wasabi. After a quick tube ride, I was back at Leicester Square, where I picked up some additional snacks including a Dr Pepper zero for the next morning. I arrived back to my hotel before 10pm, at which point I enjoyed the chance to relax, back up photos, and feast on my sushi! I also downloaded the Broadway In The Heights cast album to my iPad.
Whenever I know that I need to wake up extra early, I sleep rather fitfully. This was certainly the case on my 2nd night in London- in stark contrast to the previous evening. But when early morning came, I had no desire to remain snuggled in my cozy bed (despite the fact that somehow the heat had turned off and the room was chilly)- I had awesome plans ahead of me! In particular, I'd booked a 10am entrance to the Warner Brothers studio tour/ The Making of Harry Potter.
So I munched on a baguette, chugged down some Diet Dr Pepper (caffeine!) and headed to the tube to transfer at Euston station for a train to Watford junction. You can book a studio tour with transit included from several third party vendors, but I wanted to be able to set my own schedule; besides, London public transit is easy enough to negotiate.
While I was making my way to the platforms at Euston station, I double checked online which train I needed. Google was awesome enough to tell me that the train on track 10 was quicker than whichever one I'd been eyeing! I was very glad I'd bought an international data plan for my phone; this was the first overseas trip I could do that since previously my cell phone plan had been paid by my work.
When I arrived at Watford junction after a short ride, I was slightly confused as to which way to go to find the shuttle bus to the studio. Then I saw a huge Harry Potter logo on one of the bus kiosks; it was extremely obvious once you actually looked in the right direction to spot it. I'd made good time so I ended up waiting for the 9:20am shuttle, the very first shuttle bus of the day.
I was excited when a bus that was fully decorated with the Harry Potter logo pulled up in front of me. By then, a small queue had formed of eager guests as well as some employees. I paid my 2 pounds and gleefully ascended to the 2nd floor of the double decker bus. I was disappointed that the bus wasn't displaying any videos, since I'd read reports that it would. But it was a short ride and pretty soon I saw that we were approaching the yellowish building I'd seen in so many pictures.
I had to exchange my email voucher for an actual ticket so, seeing that there was a bit of a line at the ticket window, I tried one of the available automated kiosks. Should be easy-peasy, right? You'd think so. But for some reason, my finger wasn't registering correctly when trying to enter my name on the touch screen. The whole process ended up being extremely frustrating- especially since OMG, I just wanted to go and see all the fabulous Harry Potter stuff!
When I finally got my ticket and made my way inside, I was greeted by a giant Christmas tree in a foyer lined with huge portraits of all the Harry Potter actors on the wall. I was very happy to see a sign advertising Butterbeer ice cream; while I'd read that this scrumptious treat was now available on the tour, there's nothing like seeing confirmation. It was still early so I checked out the cafe in case I wanted to eat there later; I was pleased to see that they had cupcakes. I also wandered through the blissfully empty souvenir store and made some mental notes about potential gifts for the nieces.
Someone announced that we could queue up for the first tour, and the real excitement began. The queuing area provided an excellent view of the famous cupboard under the stairs set. So cool! Soon, we were led into a small room where logos flashed of all the Harry Potter films in different languages. A lady talked to us to introduce us to the tour- I can't remember all that much that she said except for a few random facts, but she was awesome and energetic.
Next we were sat in a theatre to watch a short movie about the Harry Potter franchise. SPOILERS ALERT--- stop right now if you don't want to know any more about the tour.
When the film ended, the screen suddenly lifted up to reveal the doors to the Great Hall. Such a cool, magical effect! We gathered by the doors and they opened to reveal the majestic Great Hall, suitably decorated for Christmas since I was visiting during the "Hogwarts in the Snow" seasonal event. There were so many details to take in as I walked back and forth, up and down the room: from the fake foods on the table, to the areas for each of the houses to the mannequins dressed with costumes from the film's iconic characters. After about 10 minutes, the few remaining stragglers (including me) were asked to move on so that the next group would be able to experience the wonder of entering into an empty Grand Hall; this was the only time during the tour that there was any kind of time limitation. And, in reality, we probably could have returned once the next group was able to enjoy their big reveal.
The next section of the tour was a massive warehouse of Interior Sets. Here, you could wander at leisure amid a maze of displays of sets, props, and costumes from the various movies. It's impossible to list all of the amazing exhibits but some of my favorites included Snape's classroom (complete with a cauldron that was magically being stirred), Hagrid's Hut, and Dumbledore's office.
Somehow I completely missed the Weasley Burrow which was an epic fail on my part; but it just means I'll need to go back sometime. (I only found out it was there when I was doing some web searches as reference when trying to label photos) There was also a section on green screen effects which included 2 photo and video opportunities: one riding the Weasley's magical car and the other flying on a broomstick. The queues were really short, probably since it was still early, so I tried both. When it was near my turn to ride a broomstick, the guy manning the queue tried to give me a Gryffindor robe to wear (without asking like they had at King's Cross 9 3/4), but I insisted on Ravenclaw. I probably would have bought the video of riding the broom but the lady at the cashier's desk didn't offer it so I just got the still photos- one of which had to be redone since my purse or jacket had interfered with the effects. I am a little bummed that I didn't even get to see how the videos turned out.
The next area was a small room featuring the Hogwarts Express- you could even board the train, and see compartments that were decorated in various ways. There were also a line of stations on the wall where you could pose with a cart at a Track 9 3/4 sign; this was very much like the photo opportunity at King's Cross station only there wasn't an extra fee. I'm still glad I got my picture at the actual King's Cross station.
At this point, I reached the Backlot Cafe which is the only place where you can find snacks or beverages during the tour. In other words, it's the only opportunity to indulge in Butterbeer- so I was definitely going to take advantage! I needed some real food so I ordered a Bacon English Muffin to go with my Butterbeer. (while I was eating, the menu changed to lunch which I would have prefered) I sat at a table by the window where I had an excellent view of the Knight Bus outside on the Back Lot. When I was done, I got back in line so I could purchase a cone of Butterbeer ice cream. It wasn't quite as good as I remembered from Universal Florida, but it was very tasty.
It was tempting to bide my time downing Butterbeer after Butterbeer until either I burst or I ran out of money... But I decided to move on, which meant heading outside to the Back Lot exhibits which included the aforementioned Knight Bus as well as the Hogwart's Bridge, 4 Privet Drive, and the Potter house in Godric's Hollow. Fortunately, the only precipitation was the fake snow that the studio had running.
After admiring the giant Chess pieces by the door, I went inside to resume the indoor portion of the tour with the Creature Shop. Including videos narrated by the actor who played Professor Flitwick, this area was all about how the film-makers brought the magical creatures to life. My favorite part here was the audio-animatronic Buckbeak, who naturally bowed his head to us.
Rounding a corner, I found myself in Diagon Alley. I'd already visited Universal Florida's version of the famous wizarding street, but this one was even more incredible; it definitely felt more authentic (and less "theme park") and I was thrilled that the large man on the facade of Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes actually moved and tipped his hat just like in the movies. (he didn't at Universal, much to my chagrin) It was incredibly moving to walk up and down the set (because I wasn't nearly ready to leave when I made it to the other end), with epic music from the soundtrack swelling in the background, as I noticed so many fabulous little details. It wasn't very crowded, and this area was definitely a highlight.
After a short walk through a room decorated with fabulous technical drawings and white card models, I reached the finale: a huge model of Hogwarts that was actually used in aerial shots for the movies. You were able to circle the model and admire it from all angles. As with the rest of the tour, the background music made the experience all the more epic. I lingered a bit to bask in the moment. But eventually, I walked through a really sweet room decorated with wand boxes- each box was marked with the name of someone who had worked on the movies. It was just the right exclamation mark to end an attraction which had obviously been designed with loving care as a living tribute to a series of movies which defined a generation.
Before heading back to London, I went back to the gift shop (which was more crowded than earlier, though not as crazy crowded as the shops in the theme parks) to make my purchases. And then I relaxed for a few minutes in the studio cafe, where I enjoyed the best cupcake I tried during my time in London. The shuttle bus to the train station was actually playing videos, but I would rather have seen them on the way to the studio tour to build up my excitement.
When I returned to my hotel room in mid-afternoon, I saw that it hadn't been cleaned yet. The maid was next door so, though I was a bit annoyed, I figured she'd be at my room next. Nope, no one ever came. I didn't actually need the room cleaned, but it's disappointing when you pay good money for a hotel and their service is slacking. Eventually I put out the Do Not Disturb sign so I could take a little nap.
I can't visit London without at least a quick wander through Covent Garden so that's where I headed once I got up. I ended up buying a cute pair of cat earrings at a little kiosk, and then I found a store selling cheap earrings that I could actually wear during the rest of my trip. I wandered into the Disney store which had a power outage- all the other stores seemed ok, so that was weird. I wasn't really hungry, so I went back to Lola's cupcakes for a little snack of a holiday cupcake.
For my last night in London, I headed to the Queen's Theatre to see Les Miserables, one of my favorite musicals. I'd been torn over whether to choose Les Mis or Book of Mormon for my last slot, but I decided on the former because London is currently the only place I know of where one can view the show with its classic Trevor Nunn staging- i.e. with the signature turntable. The staging had been revamped for the current Broadway revival and that directing was also used in Japan.
Another reason to see Les Mis was because I really wanted to see Peter Lockyer as Valjean. OK, I could have seen him a few years ago in the US Tour but for whatever reason, I hadn't seen that tour. Lockyer played Marius in the 10th anniversary Broadway production that I'd seen way too many times. I've grown up with Les Mis, through good times and bad, and it just seemed fitting to see an actor graduate to an older role soon after I had moved on from my job of 14 years to a new position.
The first thing I noticed upon arriving at the theatre was that no one inspected my bag. Security had been checking bags at the other shows I'd seen, so naturally I assumed- with complete irreverence and sarcasm- that we were all going to die. Annoyingly, the theatre didn't have an understudy board or even a list of the day's cast by role- they just had a board listing the names of everyone who would be performing that night with no roles attached. At least I saw Lockyer's name on the list, that made me happy. (before the show started, they announced understudies for Javert and Marius: Adam Pearce and Edd Campbell Bird)
I'd chosen front row center seats since they were discounted because they were right in back of the conductor. They were a great value because you could see just as much as the seat next to me, which was full price; you just also saw the conductor. It was wonderful to be able to go back in time (in a sense) and see the staging of Les Mis that had made me fall in love with the show. I got to hear lyrics again that had been cut for Broadway which I hadn't heard live in years. The current Broadway staging has a few amazing moments, but there's nothing like seeing the iconic original production.
While all the actors (especially Enjolras) were good, that night was all about seeing Lockyer as Valjean, a performance which engaged me from his first moments on stage. He was a very human Valjean, and of course I was moved by his death scene. After the show, I waited for him at the stagedoor - something I rarely do- because it was that important to me. And also because it was my last night in the city. I looked like a drowned rat because it was dripping rain, and I stammered a bit and wasn't my usual witty self. But that's ok, because it was a special moment, and I was happy to be able to share it.
Afterwards, as had become my custom, I headed to Wasabi to pick up some late night sushi to bring back to the hotel room. I love London, and could easily have stayed a full week and not run out of things to do. But I felt like I made the most of my 3 days, which were really a bonus since I'd tacked the weekend onto the main part of my trip... which I was excited to start the next morning with a flight to Dubai.
Each day in London, I had to get up earlier and earlier. On my final morning, I had to catch a 9:10 am flight at Heathrow which meant getting on the tube by around 6am at the latest. Due to the time difference, my 7 hr flight was due to land at 8pm in Dubai so I was basically going to spend the entire day in transit. Not exactly a thrilling prospect, but I was eager to arrive in a new city nonetheless.
I've traveled through Heathrow quite a few times and, other than a few cool places in the relatively new terminal 5, I'd never found much of interest. So as I idly wandered around the airport after getting checked in for my flight and clearing security, I didn't expect much. But then, it was like an oasis appeared before my eyes when I saw Yo! Sushi. Yo! was a conveyer belt sushi restaurant that I'd hoped to try in London, but I'd run out of time. So I was thrilled that I found a chance to dine there. Who says that 7:30am is too early for sushi?!? Certainly not me- any time is a great time for sushi! So I sat down to enjoy my first conveyer belt sushi since I'd been in Japan and quickly snagged a plate of tuna/salmon/shrimp sushi. And then, since none of the other options circling around caught my eye, I ordered tuna rolls. Finally, I had California rolls; I forget if I ordered them or if I picked them up. But I do remember that they weren't the greatest. Still, it was the best way EVER to kill 30 minutes at an airport. It was especially fun because I'd feared that I wouldn't have any interesting stories to tell about my day; I should have trusted that travel always is full of surprises.
My flight was on Emirates, and it was the first time I'd be riding on an Airbus 380, which is a massive craft with 2 full decks of seats. Supposedly, the first class section on the 2nd deck is ultra swanky, but I wouldn't know from personal experience. Unsurprisingly, my seat was nicer than the one on American and I was able to charge my devices. The flight attendants came around 3 times during the flight with hot towels... which was 3 times more than on American. However, the service didn't quite live up to Emirates' stellar reputation. I had a window seat, and I sometimes felt neglected when the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles, like to collect trash. I've never had that happen before.
Another nice touch was the wifi on the plane; only a small ration of wifi was free (10 Mb), but you could buy plenty of data (600 Mb) for just a dollar. It was slow, but it was definitely way better than nothing- especially at the very non-extortionist price. You could send texts from the plane, but that wasn't covered by my international data plan.
One of the oddest things I noticed about the plane was the tiny room/closet under the stairs to the second deck. Occasionally, a flight attendant sit there and be working on... something with a laptop. After seeing the Harry Potter tour the previous day, the space totally reminded me of the cupboard under the stairs at Privet lane.
Since I'd had to wake up so early, I was hoping to catch some sleep on the flight. But just when I finally was drifting off, the helpful lady sitting next to me jabbed me with a menu. I am sure she meant well, but I really didn't need to know my meal options at that moment. Ugh.
I must have eventually gotten some sleep because I only remember hearing the first and last songs of the In The Heights cast album that I'd downloaded. So I'm sure I had a little nap through the rest of them. I also listened to Hamilton on the flight because I'm practically addicted to that show.
I was very happy when we finally approached Dubai. It was dark outside and I hadn't been familiar with the city so I couldn't tell what I was seeing except that the view was full of tall buildings and lights. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure I caught a glimpse of the Burj Khalifa as we landed.
Then there were the usual activities of going through customs and finding the luggage carousel. The baggage claim area of Dubai's airport was bright and swanky, with moving walkways, palm trees and metallic accents. But the novelty wore off as I stood in front of the idle bag claim carousel for so long that I, only semi-jokingly, texted my nieces and advised them to forward my mail to baggage claim 9 at the Dubai airport. It was especially annoying because I was inpatient to get out and... see something of this intriguing new (to me) city. At long last, the bags started to come out... and by then, I was so beyond ready to leave the airport and get on with my life. I splurged on a cab (which aren't very expensive in Dubai) since I didn't feel like figuring out the metro. That proved to be a very smart decision since the metro stop was a bit of a walk from the hotel. I always feel vulnerable as a solo female traveler when I ride in cabs in foreign countries, and I got a little nervous when I saw the driver pass my hotel. But it turned out that we just needed to drive down the street a bit in order to make a U-Turn.
My jaw practically dropped when I entered the swanky lobby atrium of the Sheraton. Admittedly, we'd gotten a great deal on the room... but I don't expect such luxury at the prices we paid! The true piece de resistance was when I excitedly discovered a bakery kiosk which sold cupcakes. An adorable cupcake decorated with a UAE flag was a most welcome addition to my world cupcake tour!
When I entered the room, my roommate Maureen was half asleep. I'd met her on my Vietnam/Cambodia trip and had traveled with her again on the Patagonia cruise. Since we both wanted to spend some time in Dubai before the official tour started in Abu Dhabi, we'd decided to room together. Cheerful hellos were exchanged as we were both happy to see each other. We talked a lot, and it felt like I'd seen her far more recently than nearly a year earlier. Rooming with Maureen ended up working out great; I really enjoyed spending time with her.
I needed to eat something and, after reviewing the room service menu, I was craving spaghetti. So I called down to room sevice... and there was no answer. I called again... still no answer. The phone just rang and rang in an infinite loop. So I called guest services to ask what to do; they assured me that someone would call me back. So I waited. And then I finally gave up and went back downstairs to the bakery kiosk to see if they had any sandwiches. When I mentioned my problems, the lady at the bakery placed a room service order for me herself. It wasn't a total loss since I was able to bring back a cupcake for Maureen; as soon as she saw the one I'd gotten for myself, she wanted one too.
Fifteen minutes later, someone called the room to confirm my order which was slightly confusing since I originally thought they were calling about the request I'd made to guest services. The whole process took about 45 to 50 minutes until I finally got my food. It's super easy for a hotel to live up to their printed guarantee of 30 minute room service delivery when they never actually pick up the phone.
Other than random olives in my tagliatelle (spaghetti) bolognese, it was good. I practically devoured it after my lack of food on the plane: I hadn't eaten most of the breakfast because I'd been full from sushi, and I'd barely picked at the lamb... because it wasn't very good.
Since Maureen couldn't stay awake and since I wanted to do a lot the next day, I decided to get ready for bed. I wasn't sure if my body knew what time it was, and I was fairly certain it couldn't figure out whether it was tired or not. The time zone changes and the fact that I spent all day on a plane combined with awaking at radically different times each day in London left me feeling a bit out of sorts.
When I was getting washed up in preparation for going to bed, I had a slight misadventure. I couldn't figure out how to get out of the bathroom. I didn't want to disturb Maureen and I also doubted that she'd even hear me if I pounded. I kept picturing myself having to spend an uncomfortable night locked in the bathroom instead of lounging in my plush bed. Fortunately, after some trial and error, I figured out how to slide the door open. When Maureen had the exact same problem the next morning, I couldn't help laughing, and I felt relieved that at least it wasn't just me being an idiot.
As I'd expected, it was a bit of a lost day, but any day that includes sushi and cupcakes can't be all bad. I went to bed eagerly looking forward to discovering what Dubai had to offer.
At 7:30am, while we were still asleep, our phone rang. It was Mary, another woman from our group who'd arrived early in Dubai. We were very lucky Mary decided to stay at our hotel; otherwise, Maureen and I might have lazed around in bed all morning every day. Plus, she was a ton of fun to be around!
When I opened the curtains and took a look outside, I was elated with the glorious cheerfulness of my surroundings. I hadn't really had a chance to see the area since I'd arrived after dark, and I enjoyed visually exploring the clusters of interesting modern high rise buildings that contrasted with lush greenery that included quite a few palm trees. If I turned my head, I could even catch a glimpse of the blue waters of Dubai Creek. And, oh, the sun- brightening a gorgeously blue sky! The radiant sun was so welcome after spending 3 entirely overcast days in London. I couldn't wait to go out into the bright, inviting neighborhood!
I really appreciated it when Maureen offered to share some of her Diet Coke with me; that stuff can be sacred in foreign countries! After we got ready, we met Mary down at the pool and she described her experiences on the Hop On Hop Off bus tour she'd taken the previous day which had oriented her with the city. Since she'd taken that tour, we considered her to be an expert on Dubai... at least in comparison to the 2 of us who had only seen the airport and the hotel. We decided to set off together to explore; Maureen and I hadn't had breakfast but figured we'd grab something on the way.
As we walked down along the Creek, it was fitting that one of the first things we spotted was a sculpture that said "Happy Dubai" (in English and Arabic) which accurately described our mood! Wandering onward, we saw a bunch of gorgeous wooden dhow boats that offered dinner cruises; we even were invited to board one for a closer look. Unfortunately, we wouldn't have time for such a cruise during this trip, but they looked fabulous. Further down, we caught sight of less ornate dhow boats that were used for shipping. The banks near these ships were filled with piles of boxed freight, including a ton of air conditioning units. Every view was accented with UAE flags celebrating the fact that it was National Day, the 44th anniversary of the UAE's formation. It was really pleasant to walk along the water, taking in all the sights while enjoying an overall feeling of sunny happiness.
Eventually, we found ourselves at the Gold Souk, a traditional market populated with store after store selling shiny golden necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Some of the window displays included quite ostentatious items, most notably the ring had had been certified by Guinness as the heaviest ring in the world- I could easily wear it around my entire torso- and probably fit another person as well! The market is noted for offering excellent deals on quality items so the area was crowded, though manageable.
One of Maureen's goals was to buy some diamond jewelry, so we headed to a shop recommended by a mutual friend who travels often to Dubai. The guys who ran the shop were really friendly, and I enjoyed spending some time there even though I really have no interest in spending money on "fine" jewelry- I prefer funky, colorful earrings that tell a story of somewhere I've traveled. I would never be able to get past thinking of how many theatre tickets, or trips, I could take with the money spent on fine jewelry- I'm all about experience, not things! Maureen and Mary said that I'd feel differently when I got a little older, but I'm not so sure; if anything I have developed less of an interest in material possessions as I've matured. Still, I really enjoyed supporting Maureen and helping her efforts to bargain down to the best prices. It was hysterical how, every time Mary or Maureen indicated interest in an item, a man would write down a price... fiddle furiously with his calculator and then cross out the price and write down a lower one... for several iterations until he finally offered a "special price". Maureen ended up happily purchasing 2 pairs of earrings and a necklace, all of which were truly gorgeous and classy, so it was a successful stop.
Our continued wanderings brought us to a quieter area, just outside the Gold Souk, filled with shops offering a myriad of colorful fabrics and clothing. Mary bought a gorgeous beaded purple dress in one of the stores. We also came upon a fire station, and since Mary is a firefighter, she was in her element talking to the men and looking at their fire equipment. While I can't claim to be all that interested in fire trucks, it's always fascinating to get a glimpse of foreign life off the usual tourist track.
We happened upon a spice market, where we enjoyed sniffing the aromas in a small store. Since the holiday season was approaching, my friends were especially interested in the Frankincense and Myrrh. I finally bought something at this shop- a small jar of camel's milk chocolate that looked more like little colorful stones. The chocolate wasn't supposed to melt so I thought it would be a fun present to share with friends back home after I confirmed, via a free sample, that it was quite yummy.
And speaking of food.... Maureen and I still hadn't eaten anything! So when we turned a corner and saw a charming little restaurant, we pounced on it. The eatery was full of Arabs, including clusters of women eating on a carpeted floor. We weren't sure if we could sit at a table, but the proprietor said it was ok. The menu included English titles and pictures for each option, but no descriptions; the waiters had passable English but I doubt they could have answered any questions about ingredients. Fortunately, none of us had allergies that would have made such queries critical. After careful consideration (and more than a bit of hopeful, blind guessing), I chose the "Chicken Qurma". I'm a picky eater and I figured that if all else failed, at least it came with Naan type bread and salad.
When we were served with a bunch of plates, we weren't quite sure what to do with certain items: Were they soups..? Were they dressings..? Who knows! So we just did our best and figured that they'd just laugh at the stupid tourists if we were doing something wrong. The food was fabulous- and extremely affordable. (my entree was less than $5) After we'd finished the main course, the waiter placed a mysterious bowl of grainy green stuff in front of us. Naturally, we tried it- even though we didn't have a clue what it was. It had a unique, almost minty taste. After much internet research (really- try googling any variation of "Dubai grainy minty after dinner food" and see if you get any remotely helpful results...), I've determined that this was Pan Masala, a mixture of fennel seeds and other items that is supposed to freshen the breath and aid digestion.
It was fortunate to happen upon this cute little restaurant, and to be traveling with women who were eager to seize the moment and try something new. I doubt I would have stopped there if I'd been by myself, but the tasty, traditional meal ended up being a highlight of my time in Dubai.
After lunch, we decided to take the Dubai metro to our next destination; we stumbled a bit in our efforts to find the station but we got there eventually. I always like taking subways in foreign cities so I was excited to try it out. The metro was as shiny and clean as one would expect, given that it is less than 10 years old. Like other Asian cities such as Kuala Lumpur, the metro featured "women only" cars- although the Dubai version was actually "women and children only".
We disembarked at the Dubai Mall station and walked through elevated above ground corridors ... and walked some more... and continued walking well past "how are we not there yet?!" The passageways were all comfortably air conditioned and designed so that passengers don't need to endure the brutal height of Dubai summers... but they were quite long!
At the mall, we made our way to the kiosk to pick up our tickets to the Burj Khalifa, (currently) the world's tallest building. There are 2 options for visiting this iconic site: you can book a general admission ticket to the observatory at level 124... or you can opt for a more exclusive ticket that allows you access to level 148- for a significantly more expensive price. Maureen had left the decision up to me and, despite my acrophobia, I decided on the higher level. Because if I'm going to have a once in a lifetime experience then, DAMN, I want to really do it! While logically, it seemed a bit overpriced for the value, I liked the idea of a more leisurely and less crowded visit to the iconic sight.
Because we had the deluxe "At The Top SKY" tickets, we were welcomed into a small lounge and served dates and coffee. We could look out on the commoners lined up outside waiting for elevators. After we were escorted to our exclusive elevators (we had to change on floor 125), we were greeted on floor 148 with refreshing beverages and little snacks.
I gazed outside with some trepidation because I often get nervous in tall buildings. However, I felt nothing but calm as I looked out into the infinite distance at scores of skyscrapers which seemed more like child's toys from our perspective. In one direction, it seemed like we could see a bit of the desert; in another, we had a view of the iconic Burj al Arab and the coast of the Arabian sea. We were so high up that it almost felt more like being in an airplane than in a building. Admittedly, I felt a little more anxious in the outside portion of the observation deck... but even that area wasn't so intimidating once I got used to it.
We'd booked the 4pm time slot because we were hoping to see the sunset- scheduled for 5:28pm. We reached the observation deck at 4:15 and were technically only supposed to stay on floor 148 for 30 minutes... but no one rushed us down and we ended up lingering for much longer. As a (very) amateur photographer, I was fascinated by the changing lighting outside. Most of my pictures weren't that great because of the glare in the windows, but it was a wonder to see in person.
While at the top, we met up with Noreen who was to be my roommate on the main trip. I'd emailed her not long before I left and found out that she was also planning to spend some time in Dubai, so I invited her to join us on some of our plans. I was very relieved when I met her because she was totally awesome- you never know what your roommate will be like on one of these trips if you don't sign up with one.
After we'd had our fill of exploring the different angles as the sun had dipped past the horizon, we headed down to the 125th and ultimately 124th floor. The latter level, which was open to those who had purchased the lower priced tickets, was a lot more crowded. And of course, once we were ready to head back down after the sky had turned to darkness... so was everyone else! The line was insane- but I had the idea to go up to the 125th floor and catch an elevator from there which I think saved us some time; at least, the wait seemed more pleasant.
We'd originally wanted to try to find somewhere outside by the fountains to eat dinner, but people were famished so we decided to just stop and eat when we came across a place in the mall that served a variety of foods. I personally wasn't that hungry so I ordered a Philadelphia roll from the sushi menu. Except the Dubai idea of a Philadelphia roll isn't exactly the same as any other Philadelphia roll I'd ever tried (and I've sampled many). Sure, it had salmon and cream cheese... but it was fried, tempura style, and had a sauce on top. (it was described accurately in the menu so I wasn't surprised when it was served) It may not have been what I'm used to, but it was delicious.
Our table overlooked the mall. During our dinner, we became somewhat of a tourist attraction as a series of young, male Arabs kept posing for pictures in front of us. It was like they'd never seen 4 amazing western women before! It was hysterical at first... but it eventually reached a point of ridiculousness that prompted the restaurant personnel to shoo people away (without us even asking them to).
As we ate, we were able to tell when the famous Dubai fountains had a show because we saw an exodus of humanity headed out of the mall in anticipation. And then, not too long thereafter, we saw swells of people coming in the reverse direction. They kept flooding into the mall... every time I thought it had to be nearly over- nope, a heavy stream of people continued to enter; it was almost like one of those clown cars in the circus. The crushing migration even broke one of the escalators (temporarily).
Yet, despite this experience, our intention to see the fountains for ourselves was not daunted. So after dinner, we joined the people headed outside. And as far as I could see, the entire landscape was teeming with swarms of people. It seemed worse than anything I've seen in Disney parks. I took a quick look at the fountains, declared that I could now say I saw them, and turned around to look at my friends to see if they seemed as claustrophobic as I was. No one wanted to stay, so we all fled back into the mall. (Apparently, there was a special fountain show for National Day; it isn't typically quite so bad)
The mall itself was also crowded; plus, it's enormous and proved to be tricky to navigate. Dubai Mall tried my patience and I typically love malls, so it must have been torture to some of the others. Still, they humored me in my quest for cupcakes. We ran into a bunch of red herrings trying to find one store... only to discover that they didn't even sell cupcakes anymore. But no fear- I glanced at the mall directory and saw a listing for "Project Cupcake". Much to my joy, it proved to be extremely easy to find. They also had some really adorable cupcakes. After buying a couple to take back to the hotel, I left my friends sitting there so I could check out the Sanrio store. I feel bad dragging people to places that don't interest them, but this way, they were able to relax a bit and I was able to buy a couple Hello Kitty Dubai magnets. Win-win!
We were all more than ready to get the heck out of the sprawling mall crowds. On a less crowded day, I would have enjoyed checking out the aquarium or the ice rink (which we passed) or just exploring other stores in this behemoth of a mega mall that seemed to put even Mall of America to shame. But, on this crowded holiday, it was exhausting and I was done.
So we walked back through the endless corridors to the metro... along with a mass of other people. The situation could have been ugly, especially given how crowd weary we were. Instead, I was simply amazed at the wonderfully effective crowd control in place. Sure my tired feet had to put in extra work to navigate through a path that looped back on itself... but we were constantly moving. Everything was calm and orderly: people just took their turn. Wow.
Back at the hotel, we hung out in the pub a little with Mary. When we got back to the room, I smiled at sight of a towel animal on my bed. I took one of the chocolate bon bon eyes and opened it in anticipation of a sweet good night snack... until, to my horror, I realized it was not chocolate at all- it was actually a little container of coffee grounds... some of which exploded all over the bed. Yuk! Who the hell puts a cup of coffee grinds in a towel animal!??!? Everyone knows you're supposed to use chocolates! Instead (after wiping away the coffee grounds as best as I could), I feasted on a marshmallow cupcake.
I hadn't really been sure what to expect from Dubai, but I felt safe and comfortable all day (excluding the annoyance with crowds, of course). It seemed to be a very inviting city to visit, with lots to offer and friendly people. I was definitely glad I decided to come, and I looked forward to another couple days of adventures.
Some time around 9, while Maureen and I were still lazing around in bed, Mary rang the doorbell to our room. This proved to be quite fortuitous since it prompted us to get up and ready to visit Jumeirah Mosque which is only open for public tours at 9:45am Saturday through Thursday. In other words, if Mary hadn't prodded us to get our butts out of bed, we would have missed our window for visiting.
We quickly got ourselves together and took a cab to the mosque; cabs in Dubai were very affordable and convenient. We arrived early enough that we could walk around the grounds and admire the white and cream colored structure for a few minutes before it was time to start the official tour. To respect the Muslim tradition, women were required to keep their heads covered and wear modest attire; the mosque had burkas and scarves available, but I was able to borrow one of Maureen's scarves. I also wore a lightweight long sleeve shirt, although surprisingly they didn't seem to be strict about covering arms.
I had expected a standard tour of a building, pointing out its highlights and history. But instead, the morning consisted of an enthusiastic Muslim woman, originally from the West, who explained some of the most important tenets of her religion before opening the floor to a question and answer session. In the aftermath of the Paris bombings just a few weeks earlier, it was so beautiful to be gathered in a room with people of various faiths as we aimed to listen and understand rather than to judge or condemn.
As someone who has always been interested in other cultures, the visit to this little mosque was truly a highlight of my time in Dubai. I learned some interesting things, but more than that, I was truly heartened to see a Muslim in Dubai talking lovingly about her religion just as a Christian or a Jew might. In the wake of the terrorism of recent years and the media's responses to said events, it's easy to sit in America and feel at least a modicum of uncertainty regarding Arab Muslims; at the very least, an American might wonder if she'd be viewed with antagonism, as an enemy. Lately, to my horror, too many in the US have given a voice to extreme views that include preventing Muslims from entering our country. I was glad to find that I was not treated like an enemy during my time in the UAE, and in fact was welcomed with open arms at the Juemeirah mosque. The talk reaffirmed my belief that the vast majority of Muslims are truly peace loving people, and increased my scorn for those who condemn an entire group for the actions of a few.
I was even struck by the fact that one of the Muslim traditions for giving charity is called sadaqa which sounds remarkably like the Hebrew word, tzedakah, which is the word for the Jewish concept of charity. We may not all believe in the same theology, but all good people, regardless of religion, hold the same values on the most basic level. There is beauty in the diverse details of how faith guides our practices, but we are more alike than one may think on surface. Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist- at the core, we all want to live peaceful lives and to treat others with kindness. Unfortunately, there are people out there who have twisted the words of their religion to justify evil; but it's so important to remember that those are such a small minority of extremists. My visit to the mosque reaffirmed that thought.
At the end of our visit to the mosque, the 3 of us decided to don burkas for a cute photo op. And then we crossed the street and headed to Starbucks for some much needed food. Despite the fact that I seldom drink coffee, I opted for a Toffee Nut Latte because it sounded good- and indeed it was. Amusingly, they wrote my name as "Fate" on the cup. As we ate, we discussed how much we'd enjoyed our visit to the mosque.
We went back to the hotel to rest and change because we had big plans later that afternoon: namely, Sky Tea at the Burj Al Arab hotel, an ultra-swanky and stylish self-proclaimed 7 star hotel that is an icon of Dubai. It's far from inexpensive, especially for a "tea", but there were supposed to be substantial offerings and we were all planning to treat it as our dinner. Ideally, I would have donned a smashing outfit for the occasion. But I was grudgingly resigned to being underdressed because I hadn't wanted to pack any dressy shoes for just a few hours, especially when I had already been struggling with meeting baggage weight limits. So I put on my nicest T-shirt, a long purple maxi skirt... and Keens.
When we arrived at the Burj Al Arab, our taxi had to stop at the gate and provide our confirmation number. Only guests staying at the hotel and those with reservations for meals or tea are allowed to enter. It was exciting when the gate opened and we traveled up a bridge into an exclusive world of privilege, leaving all the gawking "peons" behind. It was a realm that was even perfect enough to have a purple Lamborghini parked outside. Oh, how Maureen and I fought over which one of us could claim it... before eventually agreeing to joint custody of our mythical car.
With a once in a lifetime change to glimpse such luxury, we took our time meandering outside before wandering in. I'd expected the ornate touches that abounded, but I hadn't quite expected it to be so colorful. If you looked up at the atrium that extends virtually the entire height of the hotel, you could see accents in a rainbow of colors, from blue to yellow. From the interior, which was more inviting than I'd expected, to the unique curve of its sail shaped exterior, the Burj Al Arab was truly a work of art and as pretentiously sterile as I might have imagined.
It was exciting to take the elevator up to the beautiful Skyview bar on the 27th floor, where we were seated at a table with a gorgeous view overlooking the water. When everyone arrived, our group numbered 5 because- in addition to Maureen, Mary, Noreen and I- we were joined by Kristen who had just arrived in Dubai. When 5 female world travelers treat themselves to a luxe experience, there is never a shortage of conversation or of laughter. Sharing the tea with an amazing group of women made it so much more fun than if I'd been there alone.
I have beautiful memories swirling in my head of so many fabulous touches during the nearly 3 hours we spent at the Sky Tea: how the waiter poured our champagne with such finesse... watching as he sun slowly set over the water... the vibrant blues and greens of the room and how they illuminated the room after dark ... sampling the vanilla black tea, iced caramel coffee, and 5 or 6 small courses of yummy foods, some of which were served on multi-level trays that mimicked the shape of the hotel. The service was excellent, and the food was delicious. Mainly, though, I treasure the atmosphere of camaraderie and celebration, and how decadent it felt to treat myself to such a special experience.
When we were done, most of the group felt like heading back to their hotels. However, it was only 7pm and Maureen and I weren't ready to go back just yet. By chance, we'd run into Carrie, a friend from our Vietnam/Cambodia trip who was also doing tea at the same time, and she invited us to join her walking back to her hotel. After sitting and eating for several hours, my body was definitely craving some movement. As a bonus, walking down the bridge gave me a chance to turn around and snap some great pictures of the Burj Al Arab illuminated at night, with a projection celebrating Dubai's 44th anniversary.
Carrie's hotel in Madinat Jumeirah was amazing- my jaw practically dropped at her hotel room and I've stayed at some really nice hotels. But the real draw was that there was an entire souk (market) attached. It was a very pleasant area to walk and browse. I could easily have gotten lost in the maze of shops; the complex was like a city unto itself. When I spotted cupcake earrings, there was no way I could resist. And when another pair of colorful earrings caught my eye, I bought them too. So my mission to buy UAE earrings was completed successfully, twice fold.
After we eventually took a cab back to the hotel, we lingered around outside for a bit, gazing at the illuminated dhows cruising up and down the Dubai Creek. I'd never really had a huge desire to visit Dubai, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was such a beautiful jewel of a city- a vibrant and artful combination of old traditions and modern infrastructure. The weather had also been much nicer than I'd expected- it was warm and sunny but not the miserable, boiling desert inferno that I'd imagined. I vowed to make a return visit since it's easy to stop in Dubai in transit to so many other destinations.
I woke up at 5am and annoyingly couldn't get back to sleep; I eventually went on Facebook courtesy of the hotel wifi. Mary saw my social media activity and interpreted it as her cue to contact us. We discussed plans and ultimately decided to split up for the day. Since she'd already been traveling through Indonesia for a month, Mary wanted to take it easy and spend some quality time chilling out at the hotel pool. Maureen wanted to take the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus, which Mary had already done before we'd arrived, and I joined her. But first we packed up and stored our luggage since we'd be moving to a hotel in Abu Dhabi that night for the start of our group tour.
We bought tickets for the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus from our hotel, and then walked to the stop which was super convenient to our hotel. At around 9:45 we were onboard the red line, one of 3 bus lines we took over the course of the day. It wasn't crowded, so we spread out on the open air top deck, shifting from one side to another depending on the view. As we relaxed and saw the sights of Dubai, we listened with headphones to recordings in English that provided interesting explanations and commentary. The bus really gave us a fairly comprehensive overview of a fascinating city.
We disembarked the red line at Dubai Mall; no, we didn't decide to return- that was the transit point to switch to the blue line. Unfortunately, it looked like we had just missed a bus so we had to wait a little to transfer to the line that took us through Jumeirah. A highlight was getting a view of of the beach with the Burj Al Arab in the background. We also drove through the Palm Islands to Atlantis- which looks much like its Bahamian cousin which I'd passed by on a previous trip.
We got off at Atlantis to transit to the yellow line, but before we did, we went inside. It was crowded and touristy so I really had no interest in spending any length of time there, even though I was getting hungry. On our way out, we marveled at a gold ATM. No, this wasn't a metallic colored cash machine; apparently, if you inserted money, it would spit out gold. That's not something you see every day- or even every decade!
Mary had raved about the yellow line's drive through the Marina district and it was definitely a highlight of the day. If I'm ever in Dubai again (which surely must happen), I want to spend more time there. It looked like a fun place to walk around; there was a nice shopping area and they even a skydiving venue. Mostly, I enjoyed the pleasant mix of unique modern skyscrapers and the calm waters of the marina. One of the most interesting buildings was the Cayan Tower, which looks like someone took a plain rectangular building and twisted it into a distinctive form.
After transiting again at the Atlantis, we hopped back on the blue bus for a short ride to the Mall of the Emirates. By now, it was 1:30 and I was so hungry! Knowing that Maureen had been hoping to visit a Shake Shack, we checked the map- and there was indeed a location here! Yes! We had no trouble finding it, in contrast to our misadventures at the Dubai Mall a couple days earlier. And it had practically no line- woo hoo! Although there is a Shake Shack in NYC, one reason I've never eaten there is because the line is always too long. Obviously, I had a milkshake- I chose the Black and White which was wonderful. I also had a hot dog and fries. It felt so good to finally be eating something!
We were not quite stuffed so we decided to find cupcakes. When we quickly located our destination of the Hummingbird Bakery (which you may recall I visited in London), I proclaimed that we were winning this mall. (in contrast to the Dubai Mall a couple days earlier) I enjoyed my whimsical holiday cupcake which had green icing topped by a big, slightly glittery yellow star.
Before resuming our tour, we walked around the mall a bit. It was definitely a behemoth of a mall, but in comparison to Dubai Mall, it seemed a little smaller and its layout was a lot less confusing. Of course, we had to take a look at Ski Dubai, the famous indoor ski slope. If I'd had unlimited time, it might have been cool to have tried skiing there just for the novelty of it. But I was content just to peer in, and to have my photo taken with the polar bear mascot.
Eventually, we resumed the final leg of the blue tour and transferred at Dubai Mall back to the red line. Both before and after we changed, I was thrilled that we had some excellent views of the Burj Khalifa. Throughout the day, I enjoyed seeing the architecture- there were so many interesting creations, many of which were pairs of twin buildings. It was fascinating because there were clusters of modern structures, all around, which were far from ordinary: so many shapes, textures, and patterns. And yet, the city never felt like an urban jungle; that has to be at least partly because of the palm trees and beach which naturally create a more relaxing, tropical mood. Dubai is a city that weaves together many juxtapositions: traditional and modern, imposing and intimate, urban and tropical.
We got off the bus at the Dubai Museum, which was interesting because it presented a glimpse of what life was like in older times in Dubai before the relatively recent modernization. The museum itself is located in a fort that includes part of the city wall, and a large dhow boat outside. It was my kind of museum- small, partially outdoors, and more than just a gallery of exhibits. While in the outdoor courtyard, I enjoyed being able to walk into rooms that were set up like traditional Dubai dwellings. Inside, we saw full scale dioramas recreating scenes of daily life in traditional times.
At this point, we probably could have taken a dhow across the creek to our hotel. But instead, we waited to resume our journey on the red bus line. It was getting to be rush hour, so it was quite a slow ride as we saw tons of people outside who looked like they were heading home; there appeared to be quite a crowd by the dhows so maybe it worked out that we didn't try that route. As the bus navigated its way slowly through the Gold Souk and the Spice Souk, I periodically turned on the data on my phone (which was mainly off because my international plan was nearly gone) so I could message Mary. She and Kristen had decided to take a cab to Abu Dhabi; she said it would be about $42 each. I was all about that idea- it seemed way easier than trying to find a bus terminal and then figuring out how to get from the Abu Dhabi terminal to our next hotel. And with 4 people splitting the cost, it would be even cheaper! Maureen agreed; it really was a no brainer. So Mary said she'd wait for us in the hotel bar. Since there was so much traffic, I encouraged her to have a couple beers.
When we finally joined up with Mary and Kristen in the bar, we retrieved our luggage and got a cab at around roughly 7pm. Our drive took us through much of Dubai, and we were nostalgic as we passed reminders of the awesome times we'd had including the Burj Khalifa, the Burj Al Arab, and various distinctive golden egg shaped metro stations. Then we were in the middle of mostly nothing and it was clear that we'd left the city. The ride flew by as we talked amongst ourselves and eventually we started to see buildings again. There were several mosques that were illuminated in green; I posited that it was because the green in the UAE flag represented faith (a factoid that I'd learned on the bus tour) which sounded like as good a reason as any. People tended to believe my explanations ever since I'd answered a query about the significance of the 7 men on the Spirit of the Union logo (which we'd often seen displayed in celebration of the UAE independence); I'd said they represented each of the 7 emirates that constituted the nation, which had been more a deducement on my part than something I knew for sure.
Upon arriving at our Abu Dhabi hotel, our initial opinion was... that we missed the Sheraton. To be fair, the hotel seemed nice enough; they even offered us a welcoming drink. But it was a terribly ordinary looking boxy building that was located on a seemingly ordinary, urban street. The Sheraton had been such a luxurious oasis for us that, as hard as we tried not to compare the 2, we couldn't help feeling homesick in a sense. Still, we were only going to be there for a couple nights and then we'd be headed to the paradise of the Maldives; I'd certainly stayed at worse places!
When we checked in, we discovered that the hotel had an outdated list of room assignments for the group. My roommate had changed and Mary hadn't even been on the original list since she'd booked later. I don't know who was at fault: the travel company I'd booked with or the local UAE agency they'd worked with. In any case, we did our best to straighten things out. I hoped that would make it easier for the others when the group flight arrived; I also posted on Facebook to alert them to the room assignment issue.
The room seemed nice enough- except that it was odd that I only saw a single set of towels for 2 people. After putting down my stuff and calling housekeeping to request more towels, I went downstairs to meet up with the others. Mary told us about a freaky experience she'd had on the elevator with a man who wanted to go to her room; Mary is a firefighter and one tough woman, so it obviously wasn't a trivial encounter if it had her spooked.
After she told her story to the front desk, we headed to the shopping center next door in search of dinner. I really didn't feel comfortable there- as in
"We aren't in tourist world anymore, Toto". We were the only non-Arabs I saw; that wouldn't have been that big a deal in itself, but I was uneasy noticing howm modestly they dressed compared to my shorts; I'd been told that Abu Dhabi was a more conservative than Dubai and I felt like I was not appropriately attired. But I think my overarching concern was that I simply didn't get a good vibe. We were later told that it wasn't the best place to go at night so my instincts were probably right on target. In any event, I would have gone along with whatever everyone wanted to do... but I was very relieved when the consensus was not to eat there.
We decided to meet up at the restaurant on the top floor of our hotel after quickly stopping at our rooms. Noreen had arrived in my room but she didn't want to join us for dinner; she had some leftovers and the hotel staff nicely came over to heat them up for her. Since she'd stayed at another hotel in Dubai and hadn't had internet connectivity while out and about, we hadn't been able to communicate with her about our plans for traveling to Abu Dhabi. Noreen had taken the bus, which had been our original plan. After hearing her narrate her experiences - particularly how she had to wait in a huge line to get the bus, I was definitely very happy we'd taken a taxi. (especially since it had worked out to cost only $20 each- total bargain!) It made for a great travel story, though.
A comedy of errors ensued when I went upstairs to meet the others- I didn't see them, went back to the lobby, and wondered where the hell everyone was. I say "comedy" but it wasn't actually very funny at the time, given how uncomfortable I'd felt in my new city. It turns out that I'd looked in the bar and the restaurant has a separate entrance; when I went back upstairs for the 2nd time, I figured it out and found them.
Just as we were getting comfortable, some loud music started to intrude on our conversation so we migrated as far as we could get from the noise. But it was still... not really quiet where we were. We made the best of it as we laughed at the bad music and at all of our experiences so far in Abu Dhabi. I ordered a chicken pizza which was way too huge to eat myself, but which was very satisfying- by the time it was served, it was after 10pm and I was quite hungry.
After we were finished eating, it was hard to find anyone to give us the check. I went in search of someone which proved interesting; when I found a staff member, the music was way too loud to hear myself try to explain what we needed. Fortunately, charades work well in such situations. Mary wanted to take some wine to her room, so they gave her one of those paper cups that normally holds coffee since they wouldn't let a glass out of the restaurant. It was oh-so-classy... but really- wine is wine. So it worked.
We went downstairs and saw that the people who'd taken group air had just arrived and were waiting to check in. Many hugs were exchanged with old friends. Somehow, 5 people from the group were missing their luggage which is clearly a horrible percentage. And, unfortunately, one of them was my friend Valerie who had already experienced a ton of crappy luck this year including injuring her foot shortly before the trip. Everyone came together to offer necessary items to those without luggage, but I still felt bad for them.
I went back to the room and chatted some more with Noreen. I'm always slightly apprehensive about getting assigned a roommate because sharing a room with someone completely incompatible is like torture to my introverted self. As soon as I'd met Noreen at the Burj Al Arab, I knew we'd have a great time sharing the main trip together. And so, after chatting with her, I went to bed excited about spending the next week with the group.
I was so tired when I got up that corn flakes were the only thing that appealed to me at breakfast. After eating, the group gathered in the hotel lobby so our local guides could ensure that everyone was dressed appropriately for the mosque we were visiting. Some people had to make adjustments, usually because their shirts were too sheer and the guides wanted to err on the side of caution.
Our main destination of the morning was Sheikh Zayed Mosque, a relatively new and elaborate complex that consists of several shiny white domes. On my group trips, I've always had excellent local guides but our Abu Dhabi guides were a disappointment. They didn't even try to wait for everyone before walking ahead into the mosque, and so only a minority of the group was able to listen to all of their explanations. I was not one of those people; in fact, at the end, I somehow got so far removed from the group that I found myself rushing back and panicking slightly when I couldn't immediately locate the bus (which had moved slightly)... only to discover that I was actually one of the first to arrive back, not the last. When I got on the bus, I was relieved to be able to take off my long sleeve shirt and scarf; it had been much warmer outside than previous days.
The mosque itself was interesting to see, even if I was not able to learn much about it. It was a large and elaborate structure with many artistic touches, such as the blue floral stained glass windows and the many colorful crystal chandeliers inside and the pool of blue water outside. We could see some similarities to the other mosque we'd visited, including the electronic sign with a list of the day's scheduled times for Muslim prayers. Despite the beauty and grandeur of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the visit wasn't nearly as special as the more modest Jumeirah Mosque which had provided much greater personal meaning.
After our visit, we had a mini tour of Abu Dhabi by bus, stopping a couple times including at a place where you could buy dates. I don't really enjoy sitting inside a bus and being driven around places, especially when I don't have the ability to decide to get off. It's one of the down sides of group tours. I also didn't feel that we saw anything that worthwhile.
When we got back to the hotel, we had a couple hours of free time. I decided to walk to a shopping area nearby and search out a place called Kitsch Cupcakes that I'd found in my internet research. It sounded like the perfect place for me, especially since "Kitsch" is the name of a song in one of my favorite musicals, Elisabeth. So I set out, excited to be on a quest... and free of the bus.
The shopping center wasn't too far away- only a few blocks in one direction- but the challenge was that I had to figure out where I could cross the streets; it was sometimes out of the way. As I'd mentioned, it was hot so any extra steps meant more exertion. I was fortunate enough to discover an underpass in the middle of one of the blocks, though. All the way, I enjoyed coming upon street after street of modern buildings- it wasn't that thrilling of a city, but the novelty of exploring a new place is always exhilarating. There is no better way for me to get to know a city than to walk somewhere so I was in my element... despite the heat
After frantically checking my GPS and doing some web searches, I found several paths that I thought should lead me to the holy grail of cupcakes... and yet, each time, there were no cupcakes to be found so I went back on the phone in a seemingly infinite loop of trying to find the elusive treats. I probably walked in many circles before I found an information desk and asked them for help. According to the woman I spoke with, Kitsch Cupcakes hadn't been in that shopping center for quite awhile. Well... that was certainly disappointing! Fortunately, I happened upon a little store with baked goods where I purchased a huge chocolate chip cookie; at least I wouldn't be coming back empty handed. Even though my mission hadn't exactly been a success, I was still grateful to have had a chance to break free and explore.
I was hot and tired, but I only had a very brief time to sit in my hotel room, munch on a cookie, and give Noreen the cookie I'd brought back for her. Then it was time to head out for the dune bashing excursion. This was an optional excursion which cost extra; most of the group decided to book it but some people had decided to do other things instead. Fortunately, Mary was able to be added at the last minute; she'd signed up for the trip well after the initial option had been presented.
We divided ourselves into several ATV's and headed out for a drive of a little over an hour. During the ride, we talked with our friendly driver who was from Pakistan. It was fascinating, if a bit sad, to listen to him describe how he'd left his native country because as a Muslim he didn't want to fight and kill people. He had endured a lot more than most of us have to deal with in the US, but he didn't seem bitter. That drive was yet another opportunity to confront my pre-trip trepidation about journeying into the Arab world. You simply can't have these experiences, especially so spontaneously, if you never leave home... or if you never travel anywhere outside your comfort zone.
Our first stop was at a camel farm where the highlight was a light colored baby that the guides told us was only 5 days old! I love animals, so it was nice to spend a few moments getting up close and personal with some camels; it's obviously not something I get to do every day at home. It was also a bit surreal to feel my feet dissolving into sand without having an ocean in sight.
Then, after the guides inflated the car tires, it was time for some dune bashing. I sat in the front seat because I'm prone to motion sickness. I was a little nervous and not sure what to expect; I am not that fond of really scary rides like extreme roller coasters. But as soon as we started, any doubts floated away and were replaced with joy. As our vehicle made its way up and down giant mounds of sand, sometimes leaning on crazy angles, our group broke out in an enthusiastic chorus of laughter. Riding in the jeep surrounded by infinite desert was pure, exhilarating fun! Wheeeeeee! I felt so alive, and so happy to be there, in that moment, surrounded by awesome travel friends. And as a bonus, I didn't even come close to feeling ill.
It was amazing to witness the patterns of desert sand expanding into the distance as far as I could see. We had a chance to get out to walk around and watch a bit of the sunset in the middle of our adventure; it was a nice break in the action. I marveled at my amazing surroundings and even found a cell signal which allowed me to send my nieces a live selfie from the middle of the desert. I thought about them because I knew they would have really enjoyed the dune bashing.
The latter part of the evening consisted of a dinner in the middle of the desert. But first we had a chance to take a short camel ride; it was more than just sitting for a photo op, but not a terribly long loop. Naturally, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Sure, it was touristy- but it was very cool. At the end, we were instructed to lean back as the camel sat down- that ended up being freaking hysterical because the camel's movements left me feeling like I was on an unpredictable amusement park ride!
We dined at a nice little secluded outdoor area that seemed oh so very Arabian- since of course it was. My favorite part of the dinner was when, after we'd finished eating, the staff shut off the lights so we could spend a few quite moments gazing at the stars. We probably weren't too far from roads, but it felt blissfully like we were in the middle of nowhere.
When we got back to the hotel it was only about 9pm so I decided to head over to the shopping center with some people since I wanted to buy something at the grocery store. They were all looking at jewelry so I walked around the supermarket by myself; I always enjoy looking at the different foods for sale at foreign stores. I found some weird packaged cup cakes with a squirrel on the box; I was not at all tempted to actually buy any of them, but that was as close as I was to come to cupcakes in Abu Dhabi. The most amazing thing I saw was when a woman was standing in the 10 item express lane to check out with at least 15 items... and the cashier actually told her to get into another line! I've never seen that happen in my life.
I didn't stay out too late because we had ridiculously early morning the next day. To be precise, our group leader had set wake up calls for 4am. Eeek! But I was excited because I'd finally be stepping on the shores of the mythical blue waters of the Maldives.
I was startled awake by the wake up call; it was 4am and it felt like I'd just gone to bed. I naturally felt like a zombie as I forced myself to get ready and check out of the hotel. The hotel had arranged boxed breakfasts for us, but I was seriously too fatigued to find anything appetizing so I passed.
I just wanted to get going since the dreamlike beauty of the Maldives beckoned. But unfortunately, we sat on the bus for awhile because 2 special snowflakes felt that the 4am phone call did not mean they needed to get out of bed. I was oblivious to the reactions but apparently they were booed when they finally got on the bus and they were not at all apologetic. Our tour leader, Salanda, said she would have left them behind but the local guides said we still had plenty of time. (Ominous foreshadowing: Remember how I said that these local guides were not the best...?)
Our plane was leaving from Dubai airport so we had a bit of a drive ahead of us. I think originally they planned to have the group flights from Abu Dhabi, but then the prices went up after the trip was announced and they switched the flights to Dubai while still keeping the hotel in Abu Dhabi. I was literally freezing cold on the bus, but everyone in the back was warm. Fortunately, Salanda lent me a cozy jacket that I could use as a blanket.
As we drove into Dubai, we noticed a bunch of hot air balloons in the air. Awesome! Unfortunately, they were on the other side of the bus so I couldn't even attempt a photo. We also found ourselves in a lot of traffic. Not awesome!
And so, we arrived at Dubai airport somewhere around 8:30am for a 9:40am international flight. I'd been tensely checking the time during the ride. Anyone who knows me is aware that I prefer to arrive at airports extra early, which lowers my stress and gives me more than ample time to wander around. We were definitely running too late for my comfort, and others seemed to agree.
I hope that I never again hear an airport check-in person say that there is only a minute or two before they close the baggage check in for my flight. Fortunately, everyone was able to make it... but that wasn't a given at all and I really felt anxious about how tight we were pushing it. I'd hoped to buy some UAE souvenirs at the airport, but that became the least of my worries- I just wanted to make it onto the plane!
I felt like I was racing through the airport in a bit of a panic; when I think back on that morning, it's all a blur of "I've GOT to make this flight!" I finally relaxed a bit when I was near the gate and I took a restroom break... only to eventually realize that I still needed to take more escalators and a bus to the gate!
I don't know if I've ever been so relieved to board an airplane; racing through Dubai airport is most definitely not an experience I wanted to repeat! You'd think that because I'd been so crazy tired from waking up early and then dashing through an airport that I'd have been able to sleep on the 4 hour flight. But you'd be wrong- despite the fact that I had a row of 3 seats to myself. Maybe I was just too hyped up. When my attempts at napping proved futile, I decided to catch up on Amazing Race.
Finally, we landed at the airport in Male, the capital city of the Maldives. At last, good things would be happening! But first I had to wait for my luggage which almost seemed as painful as my experience arriving in Dubai. Eventually, I called out "Here luggage, luggage..." in a humorous and desperate attempt to lure my suitcase. It actually worked. So if you ever hear a lady calling out to her luggage as if it's a pet, don't judge.
Our group gathered together to get briefed on taking the sea planes to our resort island. Apparently, the information we'd received in advance on weight limits and such wasn't exactly correct. Most of us decided to just pay any overweight charges although at least one person bought a locker for her surplus luggage.
And then we waited in a chaotic but slow line to check in at the seaplane desk and receive our (estimated) flight times. The planes are very small so we obviously couldn't all fit on 1... or even 2, since we were a group of over 40. Roommates checked in together and luggage was weighed together. So theoretically you wouldn't need to pay an overweight fee if you roomed with someone who was a light packer. That wasn't the case for us, but the fee would cover the round trip and it wasn't too bad so we split it between us- it worked out to $17 each.
As we were checking in, I noticed that the people at the desk were not going to let Mary check in because her name wasn't on their list. Apparently, they still had the same outdated list as the Abu Dhabi hotel, from before she'd signed up for the trip. Needless to say, she was not at all happy; in fact, she was justifiably fuming. Somehow (I think with the help of Salanda), it worked out- thankfully! I would have hated it if she'd been left behind.
We took a shuttle bus to the sea plane terminal where we paid our overweight bags fee in exchange for a boarding pass. As I waited, I gazed happily at the sea planes sitting in the gorgeous blue water. I'd been eagerly anticipating my sea plane voyage for over a year, and now the moment was fast approaching when my dreams would become reality. How exciting and decadent!
Upon boarding the plane, I naturally chose a seat by a window so I would be able to take photos. The cabin was tiny and a bit cramped, but it was only a 45 minute ride so that was fine. There are a few unique aspects to sea plane travel (in addition to the obvious fact that you are taking off and landing on water... as well as the logical deduction that there are no flight attendants or beverage service). First, they supply complimentary ear plugs since the engine can be quite loud. But the biggest novelty is how laid back the crew are: the pilot's uniform consists of shorts and flip flops- eventually, he ditched the shoes and controlled the craft barefoot.
The flight itself was an epic journey over beautiful turquoise waters punctuated occasionally by tiny islands. As we neared our island paradise, the sun was just beginning to set. Words can't even begin to describe the beauty; I was so moved, I could almost feel tears in my eyes. And as if it couldn't get any better, I had somehow chosen the side of the plane which gave me a perfect overview of the resort that was to be our home for the next 4 nights. It was so thrilling to spot the bungalows, which I'd seen in so many photos, illuminated by a perfect orange sky.
As I walked down the long, curving boardwalk that led from the pier to the island, I could hardly believe this was real life! I stopped often to take photos of the glorious sunset on the beach. At last, I felt that all the day's hassles were already starting to fade away.
Along with others in the group, I hung out at the bar which was in a pier over the ocean. At first we were all in amazing spirits as we patiently awaited our room keys. And then... that patience slowly eroded until it reached a feeling that can only be described as "Why the HELL do I not have my room yet?!?" It was confusing because it's never taken that long to check in before on any of my group trips, and no one was providing any kind of status updates. I think the lack of communication was the most problematic aspect of the experience.
Eventually, we migrated to the lobby. I might have been amused that it had a floor of sand, except by then I was so overcome with frustration. I wanted desperately to be relaxing in my over water bungalow! Or, at the very least, to understand what was causing the cluster of a delay. I don't remember exactly how it happened, but somehow Noreen and I found an envelope on the front desk with our names on it and basically claimed our room. I subsequently learned that the hotel had changed management just before our stay and I can only hope that this was the reason for the seriously inept manner in which our check in was handled. I'm all for the laid back island feel, but there was no communication, no one seemed to know what was going on, and I was weary from traveling all day. Our tour leader, Salanda, was an angel trying to help get things organized when I can only assume that she was feeling as irritated as the rest of us.
So, approximately 2 hours after we landed, we finally got into our bungalow at about 7:45pm. By then, it was already dark so I wasn't able to get a real feel for the resort as we walked toward our room. In fact, it felt a little creepy walking across the boardwalk walkway to reach our hut, which was right at the center of the curved chain of bungalows. I was ecstatic to finally enter my home for the next few days: it was exactly as it had appeared in photos: there was a window which allowed you to gaze at the water directly underneath the room as well as a wooden deck from which you could climb down into the water. The only difference from the pictures I'd seen online was that I was actually there; I'd truly stepped into a fantasy of an island paradise.
The large and cozy room had 2 beds: one queen sized, and one single. I decided to take the smaller bed. Even though Noreen had suggested switching, I prefer to stay in one space so I fully intended to claim my little corner for the entire stay. The one advantage I had was being closer to both the window in the floor and the deck. It was cozy, and I was perfectly content to rest there.
I was so exhausted from the day's excitement that I seriously didn't want to move. Especially when I could hear the rain crashing noisily on our roof. But eventually the weather calmed down a bit and we headed down some dimly lit paths to the restaurant which was adjacent to the lobby.
The open-aired dining room was had a lovely view of the ocean during the day. Dinner was a buffet which consisted of a salad station, various plates of mostly Indian foods, and made to order stations serving offerings such as pasta and Naan. I sampled a little of a variety of foods and particularly enjoyed the warm, freshly made Naan bread. At the end of the meal, I went inside the air conditioned dessert room and picked up a strawberry mousse and some ice cream with sprinkles. They had ice cream with every lunch and dinner, with rotating flavors, and it was always most welcome.
Our tables were assigned by room number which we didn't find to be agreeable since most of us wanted to socialize with more people than just our roommates. Kristen and Jennie rebelled against authority and occupied our table, and we enjoyed their company. We found out that some in our group had to stay in beach bungalows for that night- not the over water bungalows we'd all dreamt of and which we'd reserved over a year earlier. They'd be able to switch the next day, but I felt bad for them.
After checking out the shops and activities and paying for internet, we returned to the bungalow... and I decided I might never want to leave. I went outside, sat on the edge of the deck, and stuck my feet into the water. Heaven! After I went inside, I may have let out a girly scream of joy when I first spotted fish swimming under the cabin through the window on the floor. At long last... it was time for some peace and relaxation. It had been quite a long roller coaster of a day. I intended to sleep as long as I needed the next morning, but I was excited to eventually wake up and experience the beauty of the island resort during the day time.
The end of the room with my little bed was rather bright once the sun came up. I woke up a few times, but I didn't actually get out of bed until around 9am. After such a hectic day, it felt so good to be able to relax. Of course, once I was up, the first thing I did was to go outside on the private deck to take in the daytime view for the first time (since we'd arrived in the room after dark). As far as I could see, the landscape was painted with magical shades of blues and greens; its beauty and serenity filled me with joy.
It was very pleasant to walk to breakfast on paths that were covered in greenery. We noticed a woman bent over, sweeping the leaves off the trail. During the day, the resort was truly alive with a lush beauty, exactly as I'd hoped.
Breakfast consisted of a similar buffet set up as dinner. The treasure was the made-to-order crepes station, especially because the counter contained a jar of nutella which I generously slathered on my crepe. I've said it before (Cambodia 2013): when nutella crepes are on the menu, there's no need to look any further. As a bonus, I had an excellent view of the beach and its palm trees while I ate.
After eating, we checked out the lists of available activities in the lobby. Noreen booked the spa treatments she'd been planning and we both signed up for a dolphin watching excursion the next day. Then it was time for some very leisurely exploration! We strolled around the tiny island, which contains only our resort, and marveled at the tropical paradise. It seemed like anywhere I pointed my camera would yield gorgeous results.
For a change from my usual routine of busily running around during my travels, I had ample time during a trip to chill out and simply enjoy my surroundings. For the remainder of the morning, I alternated enjoying the air conditioning inside my bungalow and going out on the sun deck. Of course, I had to go down the ladder to take a dip in the beckoning turquoise ocean! The water was a bit cold, but it was refreshing on such a hot day.
At lunch, our group was happy that the hotel ditched the policy of assigning small tables for each room for our group and instead created larger communal tables we could choose from. We also found out that they were offering a dolphin watching excursion that afternoon, contrary to the information we'd seen in the morning, so we switched to that one.
After lunch, I was still feeling some exhaustion so I took a little nap. Others in the group seemed to feel the same way. It might sound boring, but it actually felt decadent.
I was energized by the time for the dolphin watching excursion. Along with a bunch of other people from our group, we boarded a small motor boat and headed off into the waters beyond our resort. On our way to the area where we'd be looking for dolphins, our boat slowed down and went by another island that had a police boat. I joked that we were going to jail.
It was a pleasure sailing out on the azure waters, and it would have been worth the money even if we hadn't seen dolphins. But fortunately, we did see them! At first, we could only see fins sticking out of the water. But eventually, we saw bunches of dolphins literally swimming right next to, or even under, our boat! We even saw a few twisting and leaping out of the water! I am a total animal lover, so it was a real treat to enjoy some marine life.
On the way back to our resort, we once again passed the island with the police boat. Only this time, someone from the island handed our boat driver a white package. No, not suspicious at all... I still have no idea what that was about, which is probably for the best.
Dinner was a similar set up to the previous night. I had an awesome time laughing and getting to know some more people in the group. Afterwards, we hung out in the bar which was so much more pleasant than the previous evening when we'd been waiting there for our rooms. We were able to see sting rays and a shark swimming next to the building.
When I returned to my bungalow, I sat outside on the lounge chair. The weather was perfect- not hot or humid like during the day. In fact, there was a gentle breeze. I opened my ears to the gentle sounds of the wind and the water as I gazed at the stars twinkling in the clear, dark sky. There was only one word I could use to describe the scene: Bliss. I took a short video on my phone, even though I knew the quality would be mediocre, just so I'd have a little reminder of the magical serenity of the Maldives at night.
At some point in the early morning, pounding rain echoed loudly on our bungalow roof and woke me up. But I went back to sleep and rose for good at around 8am.
After breakfast, I went on an island hopping excursion that was included in our tour package. Some of the group decided to stay at the resort and enjoy its amenities. But I'm not really that much of a beach person, and I was curious to see a little of what life is like for island residents. To respect local religious customs, we had to wear modest clothing with covered knees and shoulders; I wore my long skirt again. We visited 2 islands in the atoll; I believe they may have been Naalaafushi and Muli but the specifics are really unimportant.
The hotel had a weird idea that we needed to board the dhoni boats by calling us by room number (instead of just letting us board) which seemed quite inefficient. Also, everyone seemed to agree that there was room on the first boat for everyone... but they insisted that a handful of people take a second boat.
Notwithstanding the initial organizational challenges mentioned above, I had mixed feelings on the excursion. It was undoubtedly interesting to be able to see a little more of the Maldives than the secluded island resort where I was staying. It's easy to think of the Maldives as a tropical resort paradise, full of foreigners enjoying snorkeling and diving. But for some people, it's really just home. We just had a little glimpse into that world, but it was fascinating how unique the lifestyle must be. The streets (which are more like pathways) are too short for a car to be even remotely useful so bicycles abound. The islands were small enough that you could easily walk the entire circumference. For the most part buildings are flat, low, colorful, and show some signs of age; we saw cemeteries and peered inside a small mosque. Shrubbery and palm trees abound; on some trees, you could see plastic bottles which were used to protect fruit.
We only saw a few locals, but they were memorable. We saw some hijab clad women sitting outside and weaving rope with their hands. The few children that crossed our path were, of course, adorable. We saw several men lounging on a cluster of chairs that were suspended from the trees, like swings. We also had a chance to sit in some of those chairs ourselves. How different it must be to spend your life on an isolated island... a world away from skyscrapers or stressful commutes.
Although it was fascinating to get a glimpse of another way of living, I already mentioned that I had mixed feelings. It would have been nice to have some time to explore instead of being led around by a tour guide; it makes me a little uneasy to be walking around someone's home as if they were exhibits in a zoo. Also, it was unbearably hot outside; when we stopped at a tiny souvenir shop, many people lingered inside because there was either A/C or at least a fan. Finally, the tour took up a huge chunk of the day and we really didn't see all that much compared to the time it took to travel to the islands.
Still, I was glad to see something different. And it was always a joy to travel on the gorgeous azure waters... which seemed to change colors based on the sun's power and angle. The bathroom on the boat we took was a trip; basically, people had to step down into a tiny room and have someone outside shut the door behind them. When they were done, they would knock to get out. Fortunately, since I'm very claustrophobic, I didn't need to use it myself.
During the heat of the morning, I'd been lusting after the ice cream that would be available at lunch. After eating my buffet selections, I truly savored my cold dessert. When I was done, I checked out the little jewelry shop that was near the dining room. The pair of earrings that I initially wanted seemed too fragile (the man gave me 2 pairs to try, and both had rhinestones that popped right out), but I eventually decided on a pair that were purple and turquoise. After much consideration, I also bought earrings for my nieces. The man working at the store was very friendly and encouraged us to watch him dance after dinner in the bar.
I tried to take a dip in the water by my room after lunch, but the water was extremely shallow during low tide. Undeterred, I headed to the beach to check out the situation there. My legs worked hard to wade far out... but the water there also came up to around my knees. So I found a lounge chair in the shade and relaxed for awhile in the pleasant breeze. But ultimately, I needed to find a restroom... the person I asked didn't understand and this wasn't the type of thing I wanted to mime, so I headed back to my room where I knew I'd find the appropriate facilities.
I noticed that my right hand, in between my thumb and fingers, was burnt and bumpy despite the fact that I'd been wearing sunscreen. I was worried about damaging it further so I napped inside despite the fact that it wasn't as hot and it would have been pleasant on the deck. When I woke from my short snooze, I saw that the sun was setting so I eagerly headed outside to take some photos.
At dinner (where I particularly enjoyed the tandoori maki rolls), our tour leader Salanda came around asking if we wanted to sign up for a special snorkeling safari for our group. I initially was hesitant for 2 reasons: one was not wanting the sun to further damage my hand, and the other was that I've had some experiences with initial panic when I've snorkeled and so I had some anxiety. Well, if you snooze you lose- before I could make a decision, the tour was already fully booked. I believe I heard that the hotel changed the maximum number of people who could sign up after Salanda started asking.
After eating, we hung out in the bar. True to his word, the guy from the jewelry store was dancing and he was damn good! After he was done, Noreen and I sat down and talked to him for awhile. He'd grown up in Sri Lanka and was very friendly and outgoing; it was interesting to hear his life story. We got to talking about religion and he'd totally never heard of Judaism so that was... something.
I went to bed with somewhat mixed feelings. The Maldives were undeniably gorgeous, and I didn't want to leave because my little bed in the bungalow felt very homey. But on the other hand, I felt that the sun didn't agree with me and I was nervous about getting more burnt.
A tragic morning in a beach paradise is one in which there is no nutella at breakfast for me to slather on my waffles. (there were also no crepes, but waffles were an adequate substitute.) If that's my biggest disappointment of the day, then I feel pretty darn lucky!
I hadn't been able to sign up for the group snorkeling trip and I'd slept too late for the daily free snorkeling trip offered by the hotel, so Noreen and I decided to do our own version of "snorkeling" by exploring the crystal waters outside our hotel room and looking for fish. While we didn't see anything nearly as spectacular as the photos I saw of the group snorkel trip (especially since my waterproof camera casing had seen better days), we did see a ton of fish of varying size and colors including one that Noreen fondly nicknamed "Rainbow Lips" More importantly, we had a nice time being mellow and taking things at our own pace and comfort level.
At one point, I blissfully floated on my back in the water. It was one of those fleeting moments with no worries, and I tried to be present and grateful. I embraced the overall quiet, the warmth of the sun, and the gentle sea waves.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts of applying not one but two layers of sunscreen, the blisters on my hand seemed to get worse. Argh. So I went inside to edit photos and enjoy the A/C. I was gazing at the window at the bottom of the bungalow and saw an extra large creature swimming underneath ... It was Kristen snorkeling under our cabin! It was so fun to wave down at her.
Another day, another lunch where the highlight was ice cream and sprinkles. It's not that the main meal options were bad- it's more that the ice cream was so good, and so greatly appreciated during the hot tropical days. I would look forward to it.
There were a lot of cute hermit crabs wandering around the resort. After lunch, I shot a short video of one which crossed our path.
After lazing around the bungalow, I headed to the side of the island to take some sunset photos before we had to meet for our group photo. The sunset was particularly glorious that day and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to capture its pastel colored essence.
Someone had the idea that we should all wear Santa hats for the group photo. As a bit of a nonconformist, I generally bristle a little at the idea of dressing the same as everyone else. Still, I would have smiled and barely given a thought if it weren't for the fact that the chosen uniform was a Santa hat. I have nothing against festive Christmas attire; I've been known to don some if I'm in the spirit. But it bothered me that the group members made a blanket decision that we should dress for Christmas without considering the fact that not everyone celebrates the holiday. I'm Jewish but not at all observant so I didn't object because of any personal religious beliefs; it was because I felt the act stifled my individuality and discounted my feelings that the holiday wasn't mine.
I didn't say anything, except privately to a few people, because I didn't want to be "that person" who made a big stink to take away everyone else's fun. I doubted anyone would understand how the gesture felt like I was being asked to assimilate into another religion. I also didn't want to pose without a hat because I felt that would make me stick out for all the wrong reasons. So I wore a hat for the first picture and told myself that it was just a hat, and just a silly photo that would be over soon. But I was more than happy to take it off and play the role of photographer for subsequent poses.
After my relief at the end of the photo session, I enjoyed spending some time socializing on the beach with my fellow group members. The resort had set up a little cocktail hour for us with drinks and an eclectic mix of appetizers that included chicken wings, smoked salmon and fries. We talked a lot about travel and exchanged tips for future trips.
At dinner, I savored my last chance to enjoy the delicious, home made Naan bread with garlic. And of course, I couldn't resist more ice cream! Afterwards, I went to the lobby to settle my bill in advance of the next day's departure. Some people were frustrated because the resort's connection to Amex was down, but fortunately I was paying by Mastercard.
We were surprised that it seemed to be a quiet night at the bar, so Noreen and I went back to the bungalow to talk. I knew I was going to miss her; we'd gotten along so well and shared some great times.
At 8:45am, maintenance came to our bungalow fix the problem with our toilet. This was more than slightly puzzling because, umm, we had neither noticed nor reported any such problem. I'm still not sure what the deal was with that; perhaps the maid had noticed something. Still, why come so early in the morning especially when the room's occupants would be checking out?
At breakfast, I enjoyed a final crepe topped with a copious amount of nutella. I would miss taking my meals while my eyes feasted on a view of palm trees and blue waters in the distance.
While Noreen enjoyed her last spa treatment, I finished packing and then chilled by myself in the room. At one point I noticed a very creepy looking dead bug on the floor. I promptly covered it with an extra pillow- problem solved!
After lunch, we headed up the pier to take our sea plane to the airport in Male, the capital city of the Maldives. We were assigned to the first plane of our group members, meaning we would leave around 2pm. Since our flight to Dubai wasn't until 10:55pm, we'd have a long day ahead in Male. I'd known in advance that sea planes don't fly after dark and had considered booking an earlier flight out of Male, but I wasn't sure if I could have taken a sea plane to the airport if I wasn't leaving at the same time as the group. It turned out that I could have... and part of me wished I'd made those arrangements so that the day wouldn't drag.
The sea plane flight was every bit as glorious as the one that had brought us to an island, although I was filled with slightly less wonder since I'd done it before. Once again, I lucked out to be on the side of the plane which had an awesome view of the resort. As I peered down at the teeny row of white bungalows, my heart was full of lovely memories of the past few days. For the duration of the short flight, I gazed out at the turquoise seas and thought how incredible it was to be there.
The pilots once again flew barefoot. Noreen and I had actually had a chance to talk with one of them while we were waiting to board. As soon as he left, she turned to me and whispered that he was hot; I agreed.
After we landed in Male, a representative met us and we waited for the other sea planes to arrive. It took a really long time, considering that the next flight was scheduled to leave about 20 minutes after ours. No one knew what was taking so long. Meanwhile, we found a Swenson's ice cream shop so I had a cup of cookies and cream because clearly I had been ice cream deprived. (NOT) It was hot and the airport wasn't air conditioned, but we found a place to sit that at least had fans. It also had upside down umbrellas decorating the ceiling which was a... unique choice of decor.
Eventually the other groups arrived and we sorted out how to store our luggage; we had to pay at a kiosk and then take our bags to a storage room. I was very grateful that our tour leader, Salanda, had organized an optional tour of the city of Male for the group so we wouldn't have to spend an eternity at the airport. Some group members opted to skip the tour and instead purchase passes for the airport lounges, which was definitely more sensible than walking around in the heat before 2 long flights. However, I can never pass up an opportunity to explore a new place, even if just for a couple hours!
So I joined the others to board the ferry that would take us across a narrow passage from the airport to the capital island of Male. This was a boat that the locals used to travel, and it was quite clear we were no longer in our isolated resort world of luxury. But that was totally cool with me.
Once we arrived at Male, a guide led us on a walking tour to some of the city's most interesting sights. Male was a lot more modern and therefore less beautiful than any of the other places I'd seen in the Maldives. But it was still interesting to see what it had to offer. We saw the exteriors of the Presidential Palace, a couple mosques, and a cemetery. We also went inside the fish market which was... interesting. And crowded. Perhaps my favorite site was the bats we saw flying around near the cemetery- they were definitely cool. At the end, we stopped at a souvenir store on a street where I was amused to see many shops that included Japanese language signs. I guess there must be a large contingent of Japanese visitors to the Maldives; who knew? All in all, it was as much more interesting option than spending more time at the airport.
Once we were back at the airport, we retrieved our bags... and waited. We weren't allowed to enter the area to check in for our flight until it appeared on the monitor which was somewhere around 2 hours in advance. So yay. By the time that I checked in, I was really anxious to just get on the damn airplane to Dubai already... Because that airplane would take me closer to a magical time at Disneyland Paris, which I hadn't visited in 15 years.
I had plenty of time for souvenir shopping at the one main store on the 2nd floor past security; I bought a ton of cute items for friends and family. And then I still an abundance of time to sit and wait until they announced our boarding gate. When they finally did, I headed downstairs... and waited some more.
People started to stand in line for the gate when it got close to the flight time. Naturally, I joined them because I wanted to get the hell out of the Male airport already. As I was eagerly anticipating boarding the flight to Dubai, I heard an announcement: my flight was going to be delayed.
What? No! I was already tense about the fact that I only had a 75 minute transfer time for my plane to Paris. That would be plenty sufficient if my flight was on time but the longer it took for us to board the flight, the more time eroded from my small buffer zone. Most people sat back down, but I remained in the queue. I needed to be alone with my tension and angst; I didn't want my friends to try to comfort me. If I missed my connection, it would cut into my already limited time at the Disney parks. Plus I'd have to try to contact the company I was using for transport to change my reservation time. (after an overnight flight and a transfer at 3am, no way did I think it would be wise to try to negotiate transport upon my arrival at CDG airport)
By the time we took off from Male, I was absolutely positive that I was going to miss my connection to Paris. I tried to ask a flight attendant about my connection when I boarded, but she told me to wait until I arrived at Dubai. So there was nothing to do except to sit back and try to get some sleep. When a (different) flight attendant woke me up to ask if I wanted dinner, I couldn't help but be instinctively grumpy. She never spoke to me again.
As my flight from the Maldives approached Dubai airport at a ridiculous hour of nearly 3am (the originally scheduled landing time was an equally ridiculous 2:05am), I could only feel a sense of resigned doom that I'd never be able to make my 3:20am connection to Paris. When I looked at the list of connecting flights on my personal TV screen, mine displayed text saying to see an agent instead of a gate number. I interpreted that message as code for "you're screwed".
Still, I bolted out of the airplane as fast as I could; if there was any chance I could make my connection, I wasn't going to throw away my shot. If you'll recall from my Dec 6 entry, I stated that I never wanted to race through Dubai airport again. At this point, I found myself wanting to repeat that stressful blur if there was any chance at all that I could make my plane.
At the end of the gangway, I saw a handful of Emirates personnel looking for people with different flights; I was happy that at least someone would be able to help me with rebooking. When the man who looking for passengers headed to Paris said that there were 29 people connecting on that flight and that he was going to escort us all so we could make it, I literally almost started crying with relief. I may have told the Emirates agent that I loved him. My Disneyland Paris plans would not need to be changed! I practically jumped up and down as I shared my exciting news with friends who were coming off my plane.
The agent led us to a security checkpoint that wouldn't be as backed up as the first one we would have come to. I was thrilled to reach the gate saying "Paris" and to step on board the Airbus 380 that would take me to my final destination of this vacation. All stress and worry evaporated from my mind- I was headed to Disneyland (Paris)!
I tried to sleep as much as possible on the plane because I had a busy day ahead. I was excited as we approached France. Both options for breakfast on my flight were some variation of eggs. In the spirit of the musical Something Rotten, I decided that if life gave me eggs, I should get the (cheese) omelet. Even though I wasn't very hungry.
We landed shortly after the scheduled time of 8am, and my bag seemed to be literally the first bag off the plane... or at least the first one I saw on the carousel. (First and Business had a separate conveyer) Yay! However, there was a queue to exit through customs and it wasn't moving. Eventually, I found out that the cause of the delay was a suspicious package. Because of the recent terror attacks, security in Paris was as high as I've seen anywhere.
Once the line started moving, I quickly found my driver, used an ATM, and was on my way to Disney's Hotel New York! It was exciting to be in Paris as well as to be heading to a theme park I hadn't visited in over 15 years, even though I was definitely feeling a bit fatigued.
After pulling up to the hotel, I saw a somewhat makeshift security checkpoint with a baggage x-ray machine. I figured that I had to go through there, but there was some confusion with the operator, who must have originally thought that I was checking out. But that was sorted out, and I walked into the hotel lobby and found the small cove for the Empire State Club reception.
"Empire State Club" is the name for the Hotel New York's concierge/ club level service. I'd never previously stayed in a premium hotel service level, but I was lured in by the fact that the amenities included unlimited instant Fast Pass at the parks; basically, you could walk up to any ride with Fast Pass open, show your ID card, and enter the Fast Pass queue. Since my stay was so short, this was very appealing to me. Plus, the room was eligible for a good discount and ended up costing less than my Tokyo Disneyland hotel room- and that included theme parks tickets, while my Tokyo room had not. So I decided to splurge a little to celebrate my new job.
I sat down on a comfy chair in the small reception room as 2 very friendly (and bilingual) associates welcomed me to the hotel. It was too early to check into my room, but they were able to provide me with a vacant, not club level room that I could use to shower and rest for the morning, which was perfect. Rest was not on my agenda with theme parks beckoning me, but I definitely wanted to freshen up a bit first. One of the associates walked me to the ground floor room; I normally don't like staying on the ground floor but of course I wouldn't actually be spending time there. I tried to keep the room as tidy as possible so the maid wouldn't have to do much to prepare for the next guest, and I repacked my suitcases so they could be easily moved later.
For years, I've been saying that I'd visited every Disney resort in the world. While that's technically true, I actually had not been to every Disney theme park since I'd never set foot in the Walt Disney Studios Park, the second gate at the Disneyland Paris resort. But that was about to change.
In order to reach the park, I had to walk through the Disney Village which is a cluster of shops and restaurants. Entering this area also required stopping at a security station to have my bag x-rayed. I was usually asked to unzip my coat as well. Fortunately, I never encountered any huge lines. One past this checkpoint, one can freely wander from park to park without any security lines.
I glanced a little at the shops on my route, but I was mainly focused on reaching my destination. I was very excited when I reached the gates to the Studios- not just because it meant that I had visited every Disney theme park in the world (until Shanghai Disney opens... and I do plan to travel there) but also because it was a new park to explore- one that is completely unique although it does include some attractions that I've seen at other parks. The main entrance to the theme park was the first area that struck me as very different- instead of an open street (Main Street USA) or even a covered street (Tokyo Disneyland's World Bazaar) beyond the entrance plaza, you must enter inside Disney Studio 1, a structure designed to look like a sound stage. Sure, it was still lined with shops and food options- but it was a very different feel to be completely indoors in a dimly lit building.
I hadn't been keen on visiting the Studios when the park first opened because I'd read that it was very much lacking in quantity and quality of attractions. However, Disney has given the park some more attention of late including a couple unique attractions that have received positive word of mouth. So naturally, those were the first 2 stops I hoped to make. First, I made my way to Crush's Coaster, a family friendly spinning coaster that is themed to Finding Nemo. This ride does not offer Fast Pass so my hotel room VIP Fast Pass was useless in trying to beat the inevitably long lines. Fortunately, this attraction offers a single rider line (spoiler: only when they want to offer it) so I entered that much shorter queue. It was very slow moving, but my wait of just over 20 minutes was still much less than the standby line. The ride itself was quite fun; it was possibly slightly more interesting because I was so fatigued that my body barely knew what time of day it was, let alone what direction I was spinning in.
The next unique attraction that I was dying to see was Ratatouille, which was obviously themed to the movie about a rat with the same name. I was disappointed that it was closed when I walked by but I lingered around the French themed courtyard for a bit taking photos. Luckily, it opened while I was there- and I was able to walk right on using the single rider queue. The ride itself has you wearing 3D glasses and moving from screen to screen while you follow Remy's adventures; the premise is that you are rat sized so everything is much bigger. I think it was cute... but I ended up closing my eyes a lot because, as much as I wanted to take in every detail, it made me feel quite motion sick. I decided that one visit to this attraction was enough, at least for this trip.
After conquering the 2 big new (to me) rides, I decided to hit a couple of classics: Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. ToT was very similar to the one in Anaheim, meaning that it wasn't quite as amazing as the original Florida version which includes horizontal as well as vertical movement. But it's still always fun to take a visit to one of my all time favorites. One interesting quirk is that the French refers "quatrieme dimension" (literally 4th dimension) rather than the 5th dimension used in English.
Unfortunately, RnRC was not open. By now, it was almost 11am and I was very hungry. I stopped in the Blockbuster Cafe, a cafeteria style restaurant across from the ride and picked up a Croque Monsieur, Nutella Brioche, and- perhaps most importantly- a Coke Zero. Caffeine! When I went to pay, the attendant practically insisted that I get a salad or potato chips because it would be the same price to get a meal. I have no idea if that's true or not since I was way too tired to think about the math. So, I ended up carrying a bag of chips in my purse all day since it was too much for me to eat in one sitting. I definitely beat the lunch rush by arriving so early!
After lunch, RnRC was still disappointingly closed so I wandered around and ended up at Animagique, a live stage show which was slated to close weeks after my visit. I thought it was cute, but not special enough that I would need to repeat it. The plot was a bit similar to Mickey's Philharmagic 3D movie, but obviously using different technology: in this show, Donald disobeys Mickey and becomes a part of black light production numbers from various Disney animated movies such as Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, and The Lion King.
After a repeat visit to ToT, I decided to head over to the Toy Story Playland which is virtually identical to the analogous area of Hong Kong Disneyland. I took a ride on the Toy Story Parachute Drop which had no wait. It's a cute ride, and it's fun because you get a little bit of a bird's eye view of the park.
Since there was nothing else I was dying to do (except for RnRC... which was still closed), I decided to pop into Disneyland Paris for a short visit. The 2 parks are possibly even closer than the 2 parks in Anaheim making it super easy for guests to travel between them. It was almost 2pm by the time I entered and I had plans at night, so I knew I didn't have much time. Mostly, I enjoyed seeing the park's festive holiday decorations; there had been fewer at the Studios.
My first destination, after gawking at the sparkly castle, was Space Mountain because I was curious about its new "Mission 2" re-theming. (Well, it was new to me... but it had actually been in place for over a decade so I guess it was actually not all that novel.) Space Mountain in Paris is nothing like the version of the ride in the other theme parks; the mechanism a lot closer to RnRC, with its inversions and darkness, except that it has an angled launch rather than a horizontal one. The roller coaster track hadn't changed from my first visit- just the display elements. I still remember how, in the original version, there would be a short moment where the vehicle slowed and the moon smiled at you. I definitely missed that effect, but the ride itself was still super fun and exciting.
Afterwards, I walked through the Sleeping Beauty Gallery on the 2nd floor of the castle and then headed to Pirates of the Caribbean; I was rather surprised that a ride photo was taken on Pirates. I intended to go to Phantom Manor but ended up getting distracted by a nearby meet and greet with Jack Skellington dressed as Sandy Claws. It was a short line, but it moved more slowly than I'd expected. Still, it was a fun meet... though unfortunately I forget what was said and I apparently didn't take notes.
On the way out of the park at around 4pm, I purchased some chocolate mint fudge and a meringue cookie that was shaped like Mickey's head, with ears dipped in chocolate. (the cookie was delicious and I ended up getting another the next day) I walked back through the Village to my hotel- it was a pleasant stroll that took about 10-12 minutes each way at a leisurely pace.
I returned to the Empire State Club reception to receive my new room key. Once again, someone personally escorted me to the room. This one was on the top (6th) floor, and I was upgraded to a view that included Lake Disney and the Disney Village. You could even see the Tower of Terror in the distance. Very nice! Sitting on the table was a gift of a Disneyland Paris mug filled with candies (which I actually managed to get home without breaking). The room itself was virtually identical to the other, not concierge level room, which I'd known in advance that it would be. I told the associate that my bags were packed in the original room and he had someone bring them up to me.
I headed down one floor to see what they were serving at the Empire State Lounge because I was determined at least once to take advantage of the late afternoon snacks that were included with my room. The lounge was quiet and cozy, and I enjoyed nibbling on my super mini bagels and muffins. I saw toppings that seemed to be meant for ice cream, but I didn't see any actual ice cream- nor did anyone offer me any. The food offerings weren't all that thrilling, but I hadn't expected them to be. It was just kinda cool to think that I was eating in a concierge lounge. Plus, I was hungry, so it was nice to have easy access to some snacks.
I left the safe confines of the Disney property a little after 5pm to head for the Marne La Vallee train station so I could venture into Paris proper. When I saw how huge the line was for tickets, I regretted not stopping by earlier in the day to purchase mine. This was where I really needed an unlimited Fast Pass... but of course mine would be of no use.
After waiting in the super slow line for only a few minutes, I suddenly noticed the people in front of me dispersing in all directions. I didn't know what was going on, but finally someone told me that they'd found an unattended bag and needed to clear the area. He added that they opened the gates to the trains so people could enter without a ticket.
At this point, I had several options available:
Cancel my plans for the night and relax at my hotel (the parks closed early)
Take a very expensive taxi. If I could even figure out where to get one.
Shrug my shoulders, get on a train, and hope for the best.
Figuring that if a bomb went off imminently, I probably wouldn't be all that safe even if I tried to flee from the station, I chose the last option. I questioned the logic of letting trains pass through the station when they weren't allowing people to queue for tickets, but I figured that the powers that be must not have thought there was a high probability of actual explosives. I also wondered how I'd be able to exit the train station in Paris without a ticket to insert into the turnstiles, but decided I'd figure that out later. Soon, a train arrived... and I can't say I wasn't relieved when it pulled out of the station. In retrospect, the bomb scare might have been the best thing that could have happened since I'm not sure how long I would have had to queue otherwise; this was not Dubai with its efficient crowd control. I can't even say I was very scared at the time- the situation felt more weirdly surreal than anything.
After about an hour, I arrived at my metro stop without any further events of any consequence. As I'd expected, I couldn't exit the station without a ticket. I asked the first person I saw who worked at the station, but he clearly didn't understand me. While I was calmly contemplating spending the rest of my life in the metro station, I found an information kiosk nearby. The man there spoke some English, and I told him that I didn't have a ticket because I couldn't buy one. He asked me where I'd boarded, then said he understood what was going on. (which was nice because it meant that one of us did...) I was certainly willing to pay the fare, but he handed me a blank ticket without asking for any money. I dubbed this ticket my "Get out of the subway free" card and it was beautiful.
I emerged onto the streets of Paris and admired some holiday windows at department stores. I got a little turned around looking for the theatre but fortunately I had my GPS. I idly wondered how the heck I'd ever found it when I saw Les Mis back in the pre-cell phone dark ages. I got excited when I saw Cats themed "Joyeuses Fetes" holiday decorations adorning the street because I knew I was close. And once I'd safely located the theatre, I turned around to get some sushi at the quick serve sushi placed I'd noticed that was about a block from the theatre. It was not the best California Roll I'd ever eaten, but it would do. Especially since I hadn't had sushi in awhile.
Even with my culinary diversion, I still arrived at the theatre nearly an hour before the show. As can be expected, I had to pass through security checking my bag but it wasn't any more extensive than in London. My first stop after entering the lobby was the souvenir stand- my mom really wanted something from the French production since she'd been a French teacher and she loves theatre. A French version of TS Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" book of poems which featured cute illustrations caught my eye; it was perfect and an absolute hit! I was disappointed they weren't selling T-shirts that said Paris on them but I got one for myself nonetheless since my only (London) Cats T-shirt was old and wearing out. I also purchased an obligatory souvenir brochure.
When they opened the auditorium for seating, I was glad to see that the theatre was decorated much like I remembered from the original Broadway and touring productions, although not quite as elaborate (there were no tunnels leading out from under the stage, for example). During my first visit to Parisian theatre, I'd been instructed that it was customary to tip the ushers. However, no one actually seated me this time, which was just as well.
As a young teen, Cats was one of the first shows that I loved. We had front row center seats the first time I saw the touring production, and it was magical how the "cats" would interact with me- one even handed me a prop to hold for a bit. (iirc, a costume head for the "Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles" number) Since then, I'd seen the show many times during its Broadway run as well as in countries such as Germany and Switzerland.
But I had not seen the show since August 27, 1997. That was also the last of many times that I saw actress Laurie Beechman bring the character of Grizabella to life. Laurie was long a favorite performer of mine and luck or fate led me to have the chance to meet her. Somehow, back in 1996, I already had a sense that the Internet might be something big- or at least that creating web pages would be a cool way to combine my love of art and science. Luckily, she said I could make a web page for her- without even knowing what one was other than my assertion that it would be a way for people everywhere to find out more about her. That initial, cringe-worthy-in-retrospect collection of brightly colored HTML pages ultimately led me to my current career as a software developer. Tragically, Laurie passed away in March 1998.
Laurie was so synonymous with Grizabella in my mind that I didn't really have much of a desire to see the show again after her death; the very thought of it was just too painful. But, by now, enough time had passed that my heart was open to another viewing of the musical, especially since it's very rare for me to have a chance to see shows performed in French (a language which I sorta know a little). It was obviously very emotional for me to see Cats again for the first time in so long, given my history. I can't say much about the show, really, except that I was surprised that Rum Tum Tugger's song was now a rap (the character also had a more modern costume) and that the melody and staging of Growltiger's song were both different. I'm not sure why the change was made to the Growltiger song; I can see that the Tugger's change may have been an attempt at an update to make the show more relevant... even though Elvis nostalgia should still work now as well now as it did in the 80's.
I'd been wondering if the French production would continue the tradition of allowing audience members onstage during intermission while Old Deuteronomy sat regally on the tire that formed part of the set. They did, but with a slight twist- you had to line up and then only one party at a time was permitted onto the stage. I was sitting on the front row right next to the steps but that didn't prove to be advantageous because the ushers invited other people to line up... and by the time I realized I could just get in the queue, I had to walk quite a bit up the aisle. Fortunately, there was enough time so I was able to get a selfie with Old Deuteronomy- something I'd obviously never done in my previous viewings since selfies hadn't been a thing then.
At the end of intermission, the show resumed gradually with actors slowly crawling onto the stage. The start of the performance may not be obvious to audience members who aren't paying attention, as could be evidenced by the sight of a number of people with their eyes still glued on their cell phones. But something great happened, something I've never seen at any other theatre- the ushers shined red lights directly onto the screens of any active mobile devices. This was very effective in getting audience members to turn off their electronics.
I'd chosen a front row center seat hoping for possibly some kind of audience interaction that would be reminiscent of past viewings. In this version, the Rum Tum Tugger did not enter the audience so there was no chance for me to repeat my dance with the character. But finally, right at the very end of the show, the character Mr Mistoffeles brushed against me with his hand, like he was a cat making nice to me. It was the perfect conclusion to my evening. Magic... just like the character.
I walked back to the metro station, full of joy and emotion. Even though I didn't pass by any major tourist sites, I appreciated the fact that I was walking the streets of Paris at night feeling oh-so-free. Something about being out and about in the dark of night really makes me feel wonderfully alive and vibrant, especially when I am traveling.
As I purchased a Coke Zero at the station because I totally needed a dose of caffeine, I idly wondered to myself how I could possibly still be awake. Adrenaline and excitement, I guess. I had to wait awhile for a train that was going to Marne La Vallee; the first few trains that came wouldn't include that stop. I felt a bit nervous about being on the platform alone so late at night (and also on the train), but it wasn't bad.
Somewhere around 12:15am, my train pulled into Marne La Vallee station and I walked back to the hotel, passing first through security. It was nice walking through the Disney Village when it was quiet. When I got back to the hotel room, I noticed that they'd left chocolate coins on the bed. Somehow, through sheer will, I'd enjoyed what some might think was a challenging 36 hours or so since I'd left the Maldives resort. And what wonderful adventures I'd enjoyed including a jam-packed day in Paris! But now, it was finally time to collapse into a real bed for some much-needed sleep.
It was my last full day of vacation and I wanted to make the most of it. So, I grudgingly woke up at around 7am in order to make it to the early park entry for hotel guests which was scheduled for 8-9am. But first, I headed to the concierge lounge for breakfast. Again, it was a nice, relatively quiet little place to eat. The food was ok- I had a pancake, smoked salmon, and cheese. And although I was able to spread some nutella on the pancake, it was not nearly the same as my Maldives breakfasts.
I haven't yet mentioned how weird it was for me to stay in a hotel themed to NYC when I was in Paris. I'd chosen the hotel based on the combination of location, amenities, and price- in spite of the theme. I especially found it odd to walk on floors with jumbo sized logos of 2 baseball teams I really don't like: the Yankees and the Mets. I still think it was the best choice I could have made, but it wasn't like I had much love for the hotel theme.
After a 10 minute walk through the Disney Village, I arrived at Disneyland just after 9am, and it was still very dark outside.
Since not many rides were open early, I decided to get into the queue near the entrance for a photo with Mickey and Minnie dressed in their Christmas costumes. It took me 30 minutes to wait in line but it was worth it. It's always nice to get a photo with the main Mouse during any trip to a Disney park.
I wandered around a little, enjoying the park- especially the castle- as daylight began to lighten the sky. Unfortunately, my entire stay in Paris was about as overcast as London, so I didn't get to see an actual sunrise. I wanted to go straight to the Storybook Land Canal Boat ride but I discovered that it wasn't going to open until 9:30. I got in line for the Princess Pavilion for awhile until I realized that wasn't going to open soon and that I didn't really need to do another meet and greet; I'm very glad I didn't end up waiting there forever.
So I headed over to Space Mountain... and it was closed. I was valiantly trying to fight fatigue and all thesedisappointments weren't helping. I decided to stay in Tomorrowland and ride Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast ... where I scored pathetically but had much fun. After I rode, I saw that they were launching presumably empty trains on Space Mountain. So I decided to linger around in hopes of an imminent opening. And I was rewarded by being the very second in line when they started allowing guests into the queue about 10 minutes later. Yes! It was so much fun.
While walking through a deserted area of Fantasyland toward the boat ride, I randomly ran into the character of Perla, the mouse from Cinderella who is dressed in purple. There were very few people around, so I had to get a selfie with her. Running into a surprise character in a dead area of the park definitely brought some cheer- especially after some earlier disappointments!
I was finally able to go on the Storybook Land Canal Boat Ride and fortunately there wasn't much of a line. I love gazing at the miniature storybook scenes on this ride (as well as the similar one at Disneyland). As luck would have it, the boats stopped for a minute or so... right when we were in front of the Beauty and the Beast display. My favorite!
After viewing the dragon under the castle (very cool to have a dragon there!) and taking a ride on Phantom Manor (Paris' version of the Haunted Mansion), I headed toward a small corner of Frontierland that had been themed to Frozen. (Actually, Frontierland was a maze of boards due to construction on Big Thunder Mountain and the Rivers of the Far West) A lot of people have jumped on an anti-Frozen bandwagon due to the over-exposure of the movie. I understand where they are coming from- and I'm definitely not thrilled that a ride themed to the imaginary country of Arendelle is slated to open in Epcot's Norway pavilion. But I loved the movie when I saw it the night before the official opening, before there was any hype. And I still love it, especially since the song "Let It Go" will always remind me of my decision to travel to Antarctica in 2014.
I had time to kill before the 11:15am English language performance of the Frozen Sing-along so I hoped to browse the shops I thought I'd read about in that area of the park. But there was only 1 very small kiosk and it didn't have anything all that thrilling. However, there was another kiosk whose menu boasted some adorable treats including cupcakes. Yes, cupcakes! However, it was closed. Which was very tragic.
The show itself seemed very similar to the Sing-along I'd seen in Walt Disney World, except it didn't have the same concept of a small group of narrators, and there was a walkaround Olaf on stage some of the time. Also, there were several giant beach balls bounced around the audience during "In Summer"; unfortunately, I never got to touch one. While I attended an English language performance for obvious reasons, I could see that there were French and Spanish subtitles for the songs on side screens which seemed to be a great idea for such an international audience.
When I was in line for the show, I noticed that they were opening the treat stand... so naturally I made a beeline there after it was over. I purchased an Elsa cupcake and a hot chocolate. The cupcake tasted about as mediocre as it looked- certainly not as yummy as the Frozen themed cupcake I'd had in Florida. But it was still a cupcake. And in the wet, chilly weather (I seemed to have missed some rain while in the show), the hot chocolate definitely hit the spot!
I came across the Enchanted Passage of Aladdin, so I went inside and enjoyed the various dioramas. And then I headed to Main Street to stake out a spot for the Frozen Royal Welcome. I expected it to be similar to the very small procession I'd seen in the Disney Studios Florida... and yet it managed to be even more underwhelming. There was just one carriage with Anna and Elsa... and that's it.
Fortunately, Disney's Christmas parade was at 1pm, only 15 minutes later and that was more of a proper parade. That procession also seemed relatively short (judging from my photos, it only lasted about 6 minutes) but at least it was a properly festive, cheery parade with a lot of characters. Like any true Disney Christmas parade, fake snow gently came down as the floats passed. However, being in the midst of falling "snow" in sunny, (relatively) warm Florida or California is much more magical than when it happens in legit cold Paris.
Having experienced most of my top attractions at Disneyland, I decided to head back to the Studios to explore that park further. I found myself outside the Cinemagigue show just before the 1:30pm performance started, so I decided to check it out. I thought it was a very cute way of creating a movie tribute; I'd definitely see it again if it's still playing on my next visit there.
I headed back to Rock N Roller Coaster which had been closed the previous day- and to my joy, it was open! I rode it twice in a row, courtesy of my VIP Fast Pass. The ride itself seemed like the Florida version, which I love. However, the pre-show and theming were quite different. Instead of taking a super-stretch limo to an Aerosmith concert, the Paris version has you testing a prototype for a new ride that Aerosmith is a part of. Both versions are equally fun.
I hoped to ride Crush's Coaster again but the wait was really long and they'd closed the single rider line, allegedly because it had gotten too backed up. So I dropped in again on Tower of Terror, and was pleased that the bellhop there was creepier than the ones I'd seen the previous day. I also visited the Art of Disney Animation, where I had the surreal experience of watching the Disney brothers (Walt and Roy) dubbed in French. The pavilion included a cinema show featuring classic Disney moments followed by a live animator who, along with an animated Mushu, explained how Disney brings their characters to life; the latter reminded me of something I'd seen in the US.
Of note, there is a giant Sorcerer Mickey hat outside the Art of Animation building. But unlike the abomination that used to blight the Florida studios, it fit in quite nicely where it was placed in Paris. Plus, it included sculptures of Peter Pan characters flying around which added to its charm. The lesson is that giant Sorcerer Mickey hats can work- if they aren't randomly plunked down right smack in front of an iconic building that has no architectural relationship to said hat.
In anticipation of the 5:30pm Disney Magic on Parade, I headed back to Disneyland. I was really winning at parades in Paris, in stark contrast to my time in Tokyo 6 months earlier. I had time to grab some dinner at Pizzeria Bella Notte: Rigatoni Bolognese (served in what looked like a Chinese takeout box!) and a bottle of water. It wasn't that great, but I'd been craving pasta so my meal served its purpose.
At 12 minutes, Disney Magic on Parade was about double the length of the Christmas parade. Each float had a theme when viewed the front, and a different one when viewed from behind. For example, one float had Frozen in front and Tangled in back and another was Toy Story/ Winnie the Pooh. It was hard to take photos because it was dark out, and the parade, while illuminated, wasn't truly designed to be a night time parade. I may have been too tired to really appreciate the parade; I'm glad I saw it, but it's not something I really feel like I need to see again. It didn't seem to have that extra special something, I guess.
I decided to head back to my hotel for a little break, and to drop off some souvenirs I'd purchased. On the way, I checked out the Studios, figuring that surely the back-up in the singles line for Crush's Coaster had been cleared up. But the singles queue was still closed. And, more annoyingly, I could see vehicles whizzing by where only 3 out of the 4 seats were filled. The standby wait was 50 minutes... so I decided that I didn't really need to ride it again. Maybe on another trip.
While walking to my hotel, I passed by one of the booths in the Disney Village Christmas Market which was selling cotton candy that smelled so deliciously sweet that I wanted to take a photograph to remember it- as implausible as that would be. Desiring a method to capture scents through pictures is surely a sign that it's getting to be time to go home.
I only took a short break in the hotel, but it was nice to sit down in a quiet room for a bit. I ate the potato chips that I'd been forced to buy the previous day, checked in for my flight home, and posted a few photos. I didn't have Internet at the park because there was no free wifi and I'd used up my phone's data plan. It had actually been kinda nice to walk around the park disconnected- even if, being alone, I could sometimes have used some entertainment.
Although part of me didn't really want to move, I pushed myself to head back to Disneyland at 8pm so I could see the Disney Dreams castle projection show. It felt much later than 8; that's what happens when you have a really busy couple of days!
Walking back through Main Street and gazing at the twinkling lights on the castle, I just wanted to breathe everything in. I was cognizant that I was nearing the end of a wonderful adventure, and I wanted to celebrate the last few hours of my waning vacation.
I headed to Space Mountain for one last ride, but it was down. No! Instead, I went on Buzz Lightyear again... which would have been more fun if they hadn't seated a stranger in my car; I found it awkward to try to control a vehicle when there was a stranger sitting next to me. That person seemed to be deferring to my actions, but I was still not very happy. I can't recall a time at a Disney park where I've had a stranger sit next to me on a dark ride vehicle that seats 2.
I decided to stalk Space Mountain with my heart hoping that it would open; I desperately wanted to ride one last time. As I stoically hung around near the ride entrance, logic told me it would be silly for them to re-open it about an hour before the park closed. But still, I waited. Many people left the area but I was not deterred. Eventually, I started to see the rocket ride vehicles shooting out of the canon, and I recalled how that had been a sign about 12 hours earlier that the ride was about to open. At about 9:20, my patience was rewarded as the ride queue opened- and I was one of the first in line. As my ride vehicle twisted, turned and looped, I screamed with joy and abandon; those shouts weren't just for Space Mountain, but for the entire, amazing trip. I felt compelled to buy the souvenir photo as a way to preserve the memory of those magical, timeless moments when I was lucky enough to celebrate my adventures while zooming through space.
I scoped out a space to watch the Disney Dreams of Christmas show, a 20 minute entertainment which featured projections onto the castle. My position wouldn't have been too bad, except that a very tall person stood in front of me. Grrr. The projection show was fabulous, and a great finale to my day. I'm so glad I had a chance to (sorta) see it.
After the light show ended, there was major claustrophobic gridlock along Main Street. So I decided to just hang around the castle and wait for the crowds to lighten up a bit. This was definitely a good choice, especially since I was eventually able to enjoy a view of the castle and holiday decorations with few people around. I had nowhere to go, so there was no reason not to linger in the theme park as long as I could.
On the way back to my hotel, I stopped at one of the kiosks at the Christmas Market in Disney Village to get a nutella crepe that I'd been craving. Yumm! Every day should end with a roller coaster, fireworks, and a nutella crepe... although if those events were more common occurrences, I guess it wouldn't have felt as special.
When packing, I decided to stow the mug the hotel had left for me in my soft camera padding; this proved to be an excellent decision since I actually managed to get it home unharmed. It was odd to think that my amazing jam packed 2+ weeks of adventures was coming to an end, but it was time. Plus, I'd pushed so hard for the past couple days (my phone tells me that I walked 10 and 15 miles, and I did not have a lot of sleep) that part of me was looking forward to some rest.
I'd booked a 7:49am TGV train to the airport. When I'd inquired at the desk the night before about the best way to get to the station, someone suggested I take a shuttle bus. I asked about the bus in the morning, and the gentleman at the front desk recommended walking. OK, then. So I took one last saunter through a very empty Disney Village en route to the train station. I enjoyed listening to the Christmas music which was playing despite the early hour.
I found the TGV area very easily, but the gate for my train wasn't posted yet. As usual for me, I was quite early. I kept checking the monitors where I eventually saw that the train was going to be a little late. When I noticed an English speaking woman who seemed confused, I let her know that the train was going to be late but the gate would be posted soon. Somehow, within a few minutes of arriving at the station, I had become an expert. At least compared to some other people.
Almost as soon as I boarded the train, it was time to disembark; the ride takes only 10 minutes. I would have taken the TGV on the way into the park but it runs very infrequently and I didn't want to be tied to a sporadic schedule without knowing if my flight would be early/late or how long it would take to get through customs. It was just fortunate that there was a train that left at a very convenient time for my 11am flight home.
I had to walk quite a bit, and then quite a bit more, to get from the train station to the American Airlines check in desk. Security was as tight as I've seen at any airport. I was even asked when I bought my luggage; do terrorists generally not know when they've bought their bags or something? It seemed to be a bit of an odd question.
Even with the tight security, I had plenty of time to kill before my flight. It made me happy to walk into a Disneyland Paris store even though I didn't buy anything there. I found a little place for something to eat, since I'd had to leave too early to take advantage of the free breakfast at my hotel.
There was an announcement that boarding for my flight would be slightly delayed due to the late arrival of the crew; I've never had that happen before. Once we did board, I was asked additional questions such as what I'd purchased at the airport. "Food," I replied... then added "And I ate it."
I was tired, and glad that I'd booked a direct flight so I didn't have to worry about any connections. I'd swapped my assigned seat on the flight during my online check-in and it worked out nicely- I had 2 seats to myself!
A tip to any newbie travelers out there: it can be very distracting to your fellow passengers, even ones all the way across the plane, if you keep opening and closing your window shade every couple of minutes. Just choose one position and deal- maybe compromise and keep it halfway open. I'm not sure why passengers are instructed to keep their window shades closed on flights that are during the day; I guess it's to avoid glare on the seatback video monitors. I'm sure such glare would be preferable than having someone constantly opening and closing their window shade. And by the way, the distracting action wasn't the work of some toddler, but a fully gown adult.
Other than the one annoyance, the flight was uneventful... even if I sorta missed the offerings of hot towels that had been prevalent on Emirates. I slept through the snack service because they didn't turn on the lights, but judging from the meal I had later, I probably didn't miss much. That lunch included sundried tomato pesto pizza (something I'd generally enjoy... but fancy sounding food on airplane coach class scares me) and a dessert of "lemon sponge."
Although my flight wasn't very long in context of some of the hugely long airplane trips I've taken, it was still the longest one of this particular vacation. I was very excited to hear the PA announcement: "Flight attendants, prepare for landing!" I was ready for some furricanes snuggles. And I was in awe of the amazing experiences I'd enjoyed... which were now floating into my prized collection of travel memories. Knowing that there are always so many things that could possibly go wrong with any plan, I felt much gratitude at how my adventure had gone so smoothly, with very few glitches- all of them minor.
It really feels like this trip was 4 mini vacations rolled up into one fabulous, super-sized gift box... very diverse, but since the adventures covered so many things I love, it all worked to come together as a cohesive whole.
It was great to be able to steal a small time in London after having not stayed overnight in that city for way too long. It was a comfortable way to start my travels: staying in a hotel convenient to the theatre district and cramming in as many shows as I could fit... while practically living on Japanese food and cupcakes. But I was able to explore some new places, including finally visiting the Harry Potter studio tour which is something I'd recommend to any fans of the film series. The weather was rather dreary, but it could have been worse and it's basically what I expected.
Dubai was the biggest question mark for me, and a destination that was a bit outside my comfort zone. I discovered that it was an amazing, welcoming city with much to offer any traveler. I have so many vivid memories of varied experiences, but probably none more meaningful than the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding sponsored talk about Islam at the Jumeirah Mosque. Sunny days, at a wonderful hotel, having adventures exploring a new city with friends old and new... good times!
My short stay in Abu Dhabi wasn't as thrilling as its neighboring city of Dubai, but the desert excursion that included dune bashing and a camel ride was off-the-charts fun and exciting. I also enjoyed meeting friends, old and new, as the group travel part of my trip began.
What can you even say about the Maldives...? If you've seen my photos, you can get a taste of how amazing it was to stay in an over-water hut on a small, lush jewel of a resort island surrounded by turquoise waters. And getting to ride in a sea plane! Such an amazing treat. I'm not really a beach person, but it's impossible not to enjoy an island stay every once in awhile. It was especially nice for me to enjoy some time to relax for a change. We had a rocky start, but it was a great stay with a wonderful group of people.
I was glad to have a couple days to myself before returning to reality. Aside from the (temporary) bragging rights of having visited every Disney theme park in the world, I really enjoyed a couple magical, jam packed days of theme parking.... even if the cool and overcast weather was harsh contrast to days of tropical sun. It was odd staying in a hotel in Europe that was themed to NYC but I wasn't there a lot, and it was a great location. It was fun to splurge for my first time on to stay on a concierge level; I knew it wouldn't calculate to a great value, even at the discounted price I paid, but I have no regrets. I've read that guests on the concierge level there no longer receive the unlimited VIP Fastpasses as of a few months after my visit, so I'm especially glad I took advantage of the chance to stay there while they were still being issued.
As I mentioned in my intro, I thought I was going to have to cancel this trip. So I feel especially lucky to have enjoyed so much rich experiences... I can only imagine how hard it would have been to see my friends' Abu Dhabi/Maldives photos on Facebook knowing that I'd been so close to joining them. Life sometimes has a way of making things work out for the best, and this was certainly one of those times.