Monday, December 31

The many, many malls of Dubai

Dubai is home to some enormous malls (and will soon include the world's two largest). Garry and I visited at least three of them simply to experience their size and scale, while grabbing a few bargains. On Christmas Eve we visited our first mall, Festival City, Dubai's newest retail complex. It opened in March and contains a staggering 550 shops, 100 restaurants and cafes and a 12-screen multiplex cinema.

The mall itself is part of an enormous construction site extending four kilometres along the banks of Dubai Creek. The site includes seven hotels, a new IKEA superstore and an exhibition centre. The mall's centre piece is a curving artificial canal. Visitors can obtain a free ride on kitsch mini dhow boats. The whole scene reminded me of an artificial canal in Las Vegas that wraps itself around the Venetian, a hotel modeled on the scenic highlights of Venice.

On Christmas Day we visited a second mall, The Mall of the Emirates, currently Dubai’s largest. This mall’s feature drawcard is Ski Dubai, an indoor ski field covering 22,500m². The longest ski run is more than 400 metres long, dropping more than 60 vertical metres. The scene can be viewed in shirt-sleeve comfortable through a bank of floor to ceiling windows that line the final hundred metres of the ski slope. Here we could see children on toboggans and snowboarders going through their paces.

In keeping with the festive season, the mall also had an enormous gingerbread mountain village on display. I’ve never seen so much icing, cake and candy crafted in such a spectacular edible structure. We came back for a second day of shopping later in the week. Ski Dubai continued to capture my imagination. There’s just something magic about a giant snow fridge on stilts, sitting in the middle of a hot, lifeless desert.

Luxury in Dubai

Garry and I have finished seven wonderful days in Dubai. Our adventure began with an unexpected upgrade to First Class courtesy of British Airways. Upon arrival in Dubai we discovered that our hotel, the Radisson SAS, had arranged a complimentary airport transfer, making the final leg of our journey quick and stress-free. The hotel was equally wonderful.

We’d booked a special discount offer online and naturally wondered what we might find. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that our hotel opened three decades ago as Dubai’s first five-star hotel. While the décor is now dated and the hotel is no longer a five-star venue, the service remained impeccable and our room was well appointed. In fact, much to our delight our room offered a sweeping, unobstructed view of Dubai’s bustling creek.

During our stay we also had access to the Club Lounge on the top floor of the building. It offered stunning views across the entire city. Each morning the lounge served an extensive complimentary buffet breakfast, while each evening a range of complimentary cocktails and canapés were offered. As you might expect, we spent many hours soaking up the view. I can’t recall a more relaxing holiday location, or one offering such outstanding value.

Our hotel also contained a dozen different restaurants including two Japanese venues, a Thai noodle bar, an English Pub, Persian restaurant and a wonderful supper lounge offering the most exquisite steaks and char-grilled vegetables. Needless to say Garry and I did not lose weight over Christmas!

Saturday, December 29

Dhows, Gold, Spice and Frankincense

Our first full day in Dubai was spent relaxing and wandering around our hotel’s local area. Deira is one of the city’s original districts, full of character and narrow, bustling streets. It sits along side Dubai Creek, a gently curving inlet filled with the most wonderfully blue waters. A series of wharves jostle for space along the creek’s edge, forming a small port called Port Saeed.

Here traditional wooden dhows and small shipping boats can been seen loading and unloading all manner of goods. As we wandered we saw televisions, sacks of garlic and hundreds of car tires all stacked in disorganised piles along the pavement. I imagine every nation’s wharves once looked like this, long before containerization transformed cargo transportation.

As we wandered we encountered more and more streets cluttered with ramshackled shops selling every conceivable item. At times the scene invoked memories of the colourful streets we've seen in Hong Kong and Shanghai - doorways over-flowing with dingy merchandice, garish neon signs and the constant jostle of locals going about their business.

Some of the district's shops are clustered into traditional Souks, or market areas. On our first day we discovered the famous Gold Souk. Here all manner of jewelry and precious stones were on offer, along with an endless chorus of clandestine sprukers offering fake Rolex watches from dark alleys.

Later in the week we returned to Deira to explore the fragrant back streets of it's popular Spice Souk. While less polished that Istanbul’s famous Spice Market, this Souk felt more like the real thing. Each stall was stacked with large, dusty sacks containing colourful assortments of dried herbs, cinnamon bark, nutmeg and blocks of frankincense. A wonderful experience!

Friday, December 28

Work in progress

Palm Island Resort, Dubai. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Dubai has to be one of the world’s most remarkable places. Here, on the edge of the Arabian Gulf, a major world city is literally being built overnight. Currently the emirate has 50% of the world's largest construction cranes working on projects worth over $100 billion - most of which will be completed within the next 5-7 years. Garry and I took a bus tour today to see many of these developments for ourselves. The commentary alone was overwhelming as project after project was reviewed. I’ve tried to capture just a few of the highlights in this post. A more complete list can be found at this link. I'll also post a few photos when we're back in London.

Aside from a few new bridges and highways Dubai is currently building a 70km metro system, consisting of two intersecting lines. The first line is scheduled to open in 2009, the second two years later. Some of the metro will run underground while other sections will sit on elevated tracks along the city’s central highway. You can already see columns for the elevated track stretching for kilometres, extending from the city’s new deep-sea port in the south to the city’s historic heart further north. Two additional lines were announced earlier this year, increasing the metro’s length to more than 300kms by 2020.

Next to the current business district (which itself replaced the original business district by Dubai Creek in the 1990s) a new central business district is being built. At the centre of this development sits Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building. It currently stands more than 585 metres high (156 floors), with at least another 200 metres yet to be built. At its base a new artificial lake has been constructed, along with the world’s largest shopping mall, Dubai Mall. In all, more than 200 office towers are being erected in the surrounding 500-acre zone. As you'd expect, construction cranes and earthworks can be seen in abundance.

Several kilometres away an entire medial campus called Dubai Heathcare City is under construction. The project includes healthcare institutions, hospitals and clinics, medical and fitness clusters, laboratories and research centres, a nursing school and a medical university. Today we saw dozens and dozens of buildings in various phases of construction in this zone. The last construction crane is scheduled to depart the area in 2010.

Nearby an entire leisure district called Festival City is nearing completion. Garry and I visited the first completed phase on Monday – a enormous mall consisting of more than 150 shops and departments stores set around a curving artificial canal. Once completed the ‘city’ will host more than 90 waterfront restaurants and cafes, a 12-screen cinema complex, bowling alley, family entertainment centre, championship golf course and luxury marina, along with four giant hotels. Incredibly, this ‘city’ is just one of more than nine similar cities being built across the desert.

This includes International City, an internationally-themed residential, tourist and commercial complex, covering 800 hectares and; Exhibition City, a site that include 19 exhibition halls, conference halls and service facilities, alongside hotels, restaurants and residential apartments. Also due for completion next year is Dubai Sports City, a giant multi-purpose sports venue boasting more than four different stadiums, yet more shopping malls, residential complexes and a golf course. At least six other golf courses are in various stages of development around the city.

Of course I’ve not even begun to mention many of the more frivolous entertainment venues under construction. This includes a planetarium and Dubai Marine World, a marine park featuring a Dolphinarium, an alligator park, a coral reef aquarium, fish farm, and research centre. Both open next year. However, these amusement venues pale into insignificance next to Dubailand. Billed as the most ambitious tourist destination ever, it will be twice the size of Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort upon completion.

The first phase opens in 2010, with succeeding phases being added over another eight years. Dubailand will include yet another giant mall complex, The Mall of Arabia. This will become the world’s largest mall when it opens, housing more than 1000 stores. The Dubailand site will also include a dinosaur theme park complete with life-size animatronic animals, a 10 km river and a giant wheel, larger than the London Eye.

With all this in place, Dubai plans to attract 15 million visitors a year by 2015. To ensure they'll all reach Dubai in time, a second international airport is about to begin construction. When completed the six-runway complex will have sufficient capacity for 120 million passengers a year and 20 million tonnes of cargo. Naturally, the world’s largest hotel complex will also be needed to house so many visitors. Around Dubailand alone, at least 51 new hotels with a total of 60,000 rooms are planned. The largest single complex here will boast 6,500-rooms but you’ll have to wait until 2010 before making a reservation.

Dubailand is already creating its own local economy. In October a new housing project was unveiled within the site. It will house approximately 50,000 residents in five zones built to resemble the Arab cities of Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Marrakech. However, if you’d prefer a coastal vista, then try Dubai Waterfront. This is an entire city being built on a series of artificial islands.

Dubai has already added several hundred kilometres to its coastline by building a series of reclaimed islands in the shape of giant palms. The first such island, now the smallest, displays 17 huge fronds framed by a 12-kilometer protective barrier. When completed, the resort is expected to support a population of approximately 500,000 people. We saw much of it under construction today, including several stunning high-rise hotels that appear to rise from the sea several kilometres offshore.

Dubai is indeed one jaw-dropping construction zone. In fact the tourist map we were handed at the hotel identifies no fewer than 17 different construction zones across a 20 kilometre stretch of coastline. You feel as if you’ve arrived five years too soon. I've already promised myself I'll be back to see the finished product.

Sunday, December 23

Good morning Dubai

We have just checked into our hotel in Dubai. We're sitting in the Club Lounge waiting for our room to be refreshed. The hotel looks wonderful and the service has already exceeded expectations. First Class was wonderful last night. I particularly enjoyed my traditional roast turkey dinner with all of the trimmings as we flew across Austria.

Delayed and upgraded

Garry and I have arrived at the airport on our way to Dubai. We've discovered that our flight has been delayed 2.5 hours so we're kicking back in the First Class Lounge. British Airways gave us an unexpected Christmas present at check-in. We've been upgraded to the First Class cabin! Our flight time is just under seven hours overnight, so a comfortable bed and fluffy duvet will be most welcome. We'll let you know in due course if the pointy end of the plane is worth the extra cash.

Saturday, December 22

Seasons Greetings!

Garry and I are off to Dubai tomorrow. We'll be soaking up the sun's warmth in the Middle East for eight days over Christmas. As a result this is likely to be my last posting until we return. Garry and I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas wherever you are.

Friday, December 21

Millions on the move

Authorities predict that the Christmas traffic exodus will peak on Britain's roads at 3:00pm this afternoon. At least 18 million cars are expected to be on the road today. The airports won't be any better. At least 3.5 million people, including Garry and I, are scheduled to fly overseas during the festive season. That's almost the entire population of New Zealand disappearing for two weeks. Heathrow alone expects to process 1.2 million departing passengers between now and 2 January. I hope Santa knows where to find everyone.

Thursday, December 20

All the news that's fit to print

I had dinner last night with a work colleague living in the USA. She was amused by UK news headline compared with those in America. While much of the USA media targets global issues and political debate, UK news stories tend to focus on celebrity, scandal and petty Government shortcomings. It was hard not to agree. Today’s headlines are filled with stories about royalty, foolhardy football players, lost data files and a failing regional bank.

Stories are breaking on a weekly basis of another Government department losing sensitive personal data files in the mail. On Monday we learnt that the details of three million candidates for the driving theory test were missing. Earlier this month the tax office lost discs containing financial records and private address details of 25 million people.

Prince William’s long time girlfriend, Kate Middleton, has reportedly moved into Clarence House. The couple split earlier this year after weeks of media speculation that a royal engagement was eminent. They reconciled in July when William invited his ex to a memorial concert staged in memory of his mother. The papers claim Kate has handed over the keys of her Chelsea flat to her sister.

A coroner’s inquest into the death of Princess Diana is also dominating headlines. So far we’ve heard the Diana wanted another marriage “like a rash on her face,” while today’s papers told us how she left used contraception pill packets lying around the cabin of Dodi Al Fayed’s yacht. Even the inquest’s scope reads like an editorial plan for a weekly gossip rag.

I find it staggering that yet another official enquiry is being conducted into her death. Since 1997 at least three official investigations have been held. A two-year French investigation concluded that chauffeur Henri Paul was drunk, on prescription drugs and driving too fast, after hearing evidence from 300 witnesses and filing 6,000 page of evidence.

UK Police then investigated allegations that her death was not an accident. Their report, published last year, ran to some 832 pages and concluded that nothing more than a tragic accident had occurred. Sir Gordon Downey also conducted a UK Parliamentary Inquiry in media standards following the publication of photos from the Paris crash scene.

While too many UK news stories are simply tabloid journalism, the English clearly encourage such a tone with some odd behaviour. Perhaps the most staggering story making headlines this evening is a rape allegation involving Manchester United Football Club. The club staged a festive function for its players, to which several hundred young female guests were invited. Wives and girlfriend were not invited.

Where else in the world would Christmas be considered a credible excuse to lock dozens of testosterone-fueled sportsmen in a room filled with unlimited alcohol and hand-picked women? One cannot help wondering what club management were thinking as they organized the event. Staff Christmas parties in this country seem to be unusually debauched drunken affairs - more so than anything I’ve experienced elsewhere.

I've also noticed that the English have an odd obsession with fancy dress at this time of year. Few Christmas functions pass without some form of costume play. In recent weeks I’ve watched armies of Santa’s and other associated characters wander by most evenings. My company’s own party had a nautical theme this year. I went dressed as a Fishmonger complete with stripped apron, beanie and gumboots. Last year’s theme was “Las Vegas”. On this occasional I dressed as a package tour tourist in sandals, loud Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap. They don't call it the 'silly season' for nothing.

Tuesday, December 18

Going north for winter

Scotland during my first visit in 1990

In a moment of madness we’ve organized a seven-day road tour of Northern England and Scotland to welcome in the New Year. We've decided that London is so bitterly cold at the moment that it matters little if we head north. Today we endured a high of 4 °C, with a low of 1 °C currently outside. Fort William, 500 miles north, had the same temperature range today.

Last night we booked hotels and planned highway routes to take us first to Liverpool for New Year’s Eve, then on to Blackpool and Hexham near Hadrian’s Wall, before heading into Scottish Highlands for several days.

We’ve booked a surprisingly cheap hotel near Fort Williams that offers spectacular lochside views. The location looks stunning online. The Ballachulish is an 18th Century listed building, considered one of Scotland’s finest hotels. However, given that its off-peak season, the rates are one-third the usual price. From this base we’re hoping to explore Loch Ness, see Ben Nevis in the snow and explore the highland’s spectacular scenery. We’ll then make our way back south via Edinburgh and York.

We’ll spend our first night of 2008 sleeping in a restored medieval castle, nestled in a huge four-poster bed. Langley Castle was built in 1350, during the reign of Edward III. It thrived for several hundred years until a series of owners fell out of favour with the king; one had the castle confiscated, while two were beheaded. The castle was abandoned in the 18th Century and left to decay until 1882. A former county sheriff then bought the property and set about restoring the premises to its former glory. The photos on the web look simply stunning.

In preparation for our travels I took the car in for a check-up today. The last of our hotel bookings were confirmed late this afternoon. After so many international holidays I'm looking forward to seeing a little more of our host nation. We're now praying for clear, ice-free driving weather.

Friday, December 14

Year Three Begins

Today Garry and I celebrate the second anniversary of our arrival in London. It's extraordinary to discover how swiftly two years have passed. As I read through this blog I am reminded once again that so much has happened. As you'd expect, our relocation has had its ups and downs. However, Garry and I look back on the last two years as an amazing experience. No doubt there are plenty more adventures ahead. Dubai, Scotland, Helsinki, Iceland, Panama and Mexico are already pencilled in for 2008.

Thursday, December 13

Welcome to winter

It was literally freezing cold last night. This morning we woke to a heavy frost. Tonight the current temperature is 1°C, with an overnight low of -5°C forecast on eastern edge of London. Night time temperatures are forecast to remain at this level for the rest of week. Mainly sunny skies are expected during the day so there's no hope of snow before Christmas. It's just cold, cold, cold.

Today's paper reported that last night was the coldest so far this winter. London also recorded the coldest temperature nation-wide and we woke to another heavy frost. There's even talk of a white Christmas as the cold spell continues.

Sunday, December 9

The Jolly Season

Christmas is upon us. The signs are every where. After two weeks in the USA I arrived home yesterday to find our Christmas assembled and taking pride of place in the living room. Garry had clearly been busy while I was away. I was able to complete its decoration with a special purchase from New York – a large, silver star from Macy’s Department Store’s Christmas Shop.

Earlier in the week I’d dropped into Macy’s to purchase some leather gloves. The store was decked out in all manner of Christmas garlands including a spectacular central aisle on the ground floor. The aisle had been transformed into a glittering red carpet lane framed by row after row of red ribbon arches and potted poinsettias.

Macy’s Christmas Shop was simply dazzling. Dozens of brightly decorated Christmas trees lined another red carpet aisle, each displaying a unique seasonal theme. Here you could purchase a traditional tree tastefully covered in delicate silver baubles; or perhaps a tree smothered in tiny Santas, porcelain angels or any other combination of glittering ornament. The Yuletide fare on offer was staggering.

Perhaps the most unexpected display in store was New York’s famous New Year’s Eve Times Square Ball. For 99 years, at 11:59pm, a giant ball has descended a mast atop the One Times Square building counting down the final moments of the old year. Millions of America's traditionally welcome in the New Year by watching the event on television. To mark the ball’s 100th anniversary, Waterford Crystal has created a spectacular new ball for 2008.

This new ball is made from 672 crystal triangles crafted in Ireland, each lit by a sophisticated LED coloured lighting system. The new system allows the ball to project 16 million vibrant colors and billions of unique patterns. The resulting light show is truly mesmerizing.

Saturday, December 8

A day on the Bay

Several inches of snow fell on New York City last weekend, the city’s first snow of the season. The US mid-West and Great Lakes endured even heavier falls – up to several feet in places. The resulting chaos caused flight delays and cancellations nationwide. More than 400 flights were cancelled from Chicago’s O’Hare airport alone. Naturally these cancellations affected onward flights scheduled elsewhere as aircraft failed to arrive. My flight from San Francisco to New York was one such cancellation. As a result I found myself stranded in San Francisco for a day.

I decided to take advantage of this unexpected Sunday break by walking along the city foreshore to the Golden Gate Bridge. Without a doubt this is one of the most scenic urban walks in America. A three-mile route takes you past some of the city’s historic locations, while the majestic Golden Gate Bridge slowly grows in prominence.

I began my outdoor adventure by catching the historic Powell Street cable car along the crest of Russian Hill and on to Hyde Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. San Francisco’s first cable car began service in 1873. Three routes remain today, carrying 700,000 passengers every day on 37 restored cars. Garry and I visited the cable car museum in 2005 where you can watch machinery hauling four long cables under local streets. On Sunday morning I read a fascinating article over breakfast about the ongoing restoration of the car cable system. Apparently, each wooden vehicle lasts at least 100 years, with an overhauled scheduled about every 40 years.

Upon arrival at Fisherman’s Wharf I made my way past Hyde Wharf towards Fort Mason Park. A small bluff in the park gives you your first dramatic panorama of the Golden Gate Bridge. As you glimpse between trees, the bridge stands proudly over the Bay, while directly below you, the yellow and red painted wharves of a former naval base catch your eye. These wharves were the main embarkation point for troops and supplies shipped to the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. However, today’s crowds had a less deadly mission in mind. I watched them swarm around fresh cut Christmas trees displayed outside a warehouse that was clearly filled to the rafters with Christmas paraphernalia.

On the edge of Fort Mason Park stands a statue of a man, his arms outstretched towards the city. As I approached I was amused to see a lone Tai Chi enthusiast mimicking the statue’s stance. This is Congressman Phillip Burton, the sponsor of legislation that created the Golden Gate National Parks in 1972. I later discovered that the National Park area encompasses more than 30 separate sites around San Francisco Bay and the Pacific West Coast, including Alcatraz, Golden Gate Park and Muir Woods, home to a grove of towering Redwood trees.

From here it was on to Marina Green, a long, narrow ribbon of parkland along the Bay. This park is a favourite haunt of joggers, bikers, kite flyers, volleyball players and romping dogs. The park also offers stunning views across the harbour to infamous Alcatraz Island, the former prison home of mafia boss, Al Capone. Seagulls seemed more interested in the passing traffic than the island view.

The Palace of Fine Arts was my next stop. This building and its colonnaded surrounds were constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. This was a grand fair celebrating the discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the recent completion of the Panama Canal. Most of the fair’s buildings were designed as temporary structures. However the Palace of Fine Arts survived, its continuing presence assured in 1960s by a comprehensive reconstruction project. Today, the Palace’s dramatic orange rotunda stands out from surrounding treetops, a faux classical building inspired by Greco-roman design.

My final stop enroute to the bridge was Crissy Airfield. This expansive grass strip was part of the United States' Presidio Army Base until the 1990s. It was named after Major Dana H. Crissy, a military aviator who lost his life during a pioneering 1919 cross-country flight. At its peak the airfield was the main departure point for early aircraft crossings of the Pacific and the American continent. It offered a unique combination of facilities; supporting either flying boats or land-based aircraft. Early trans-continental airmail services were also based here. Today hangers and coast guards buildings line its perimeter, most build in a classic 1920s style. Their presence makes it easy to step back in time and imagine a long forgotten era of air travel.

I reached Fort Point as the sun was sinking low. Here a bland angled building sits in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. From its wind-swept stone promenade you can look up at the bold red deck of the bridge itself and marvel as its central span soars across the harbour entrance. At the time of its completion in 1937, the 1280 metre span was the longest in the world. Its 227 metre high towers were also the tallest structures on the West Coast. Today it remains the second longest bridge in the USA. The last of the bonds used to finance its construction were only retired in 1971.

I love coming out to this point to witness the majesty of the bridge, the fresh salt air and the stunning harbour views. Standing here it’s easy to compare San Francisco with Sydney and wonder which is the better city?

Friday, December 7

Food, glorious seafood

Fresh seafood. It's the one thing I miss most about life in London. Of course you can get perfectly edible seafood here. However its often thawed from frozen, or is dominated by less appealing cold water species inhabiting the frigid North Atlantic and North Sea. Spending a week in San Francisco gave me an opportunity to sample some of the city's fresh ocean produce.

On Saturday evening I caught a cable car down to Fisherman's Wharf to enjoy creamy Clam Chowder and fresh, meaty Crab Cakes. Earlier in the day I'd enjoyed Poke Tuna Bowl at Mr Hana in Westfield Shopping Centre. This is a simple Japanese fusion salad made of marinated tuna chunks, avocado, nori, cucumber and sushi rice. Very tasty!

On Sunday evening I caught the F-street car along Embarcadaro to the restored Ferry Building. I sat at the marble counter-top in Hog Island Oyster Bar with a large glass of wine, savouring another bowl of fresh, creamy clam chowder and a delicious salad piled high with a mound of fresh crab meat. As I left the Ferry Building I was captivated by Christmas lights framing the nearby Embarcadaro Centre. The effect left me wondering if I'd ventured into a Disney theme park.

Earlier in the week I'd enjoyed an evening meal at Betelnut on Union Street. This is another venue offering a mouth-watering menu of Asia fusion dishes in a relaxed diner-style location. It was clearly popular as crowds waited at the bar for the next available table. We waited at least 40 minutes. However the wait was worth it. The oven smoked seabass with ginger-cucumber namasu literally melted in our mouths.