Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lisbon's Sexy Vibe

Lisbon's vibe of decaying grandeur makes it unintentionally sexy and smolderingly atmospheric. Eccentrically cool in a Grey Gardens "descended from aristocracy but fallen on hard times" type of chic, I can't get enough of the rusted ironwork balconies or weathered shutters. American stores like Anthropologie are always trying to manufacture the distressed look but it lacks a certain authenticity. Needless to say, Lisbon is muito cool since it's all leggy girls smoking cigarettes in outdoor cafes, antique stores packed floor to ceiling with funky art, and beer bars that keep it real with a combo of sophisticates and grizzled, unseemly drunks for patrons. New York City's East Village would kill for Lisbon's edginess. Oh and did I mention the crumbling castles or late night boites leaking Fado music into the evening air? But ladies, just a word of advice given the ancient street sitch - leave the Manolo slingbacks at home. From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that: Drinks + Cobblestones + Heels = Disaster.

When you visit you'll want to spend the morning walking through a romantic wormhole to the past in a neighborhood known as Alfama. The oldest and most atmospheric quarter of Lisbon, it resembles a Portuguese Norman Rockwell painting come to life: children kick soccer balls down dusty streets, neighbors yell across balconies and women in aprons string laundry up on clotheslines. It is in Alfama that Matt and I stop into a café of questionable provenance whose presence is announced by no open door, no official looking sign, but rather - a piece of paper taped outside that merely reads “vinho verde” in black marker. Intrigued, we enter this dimly lit haunt and enjoy our sweet, carbonated white wine while chatting with the owner about soccer and politics in a mélange of English, broken Spanish and charade-like hand gestures. The menu, another piece of paper taped to the wall features six choices - all of them fresh fish.

Nearby we visit Castelo de Sao Jorge, a sixth century castle full of high towers and ancient ramparts. After touring the grounds we tram it down to Solar do Vinho do Porto. Offering more than 200 varieties of Port, this specialty bar is housed inside a converted mansion and makes a great, if expensive, starting point from which to sample Portugal's famous fortified wine.

Dodging an afternoon rainstorm we take haven inside A Brasileria, a bohemian cafe serving custard tarts, coffee and a whole lot of atmosphere. But having heard rumors about Lisbon's legendary Ginjinha (local cherry brandy) we head around the corner for a taste. Rumor has it that the cherries placed in your glass contain lethal amounts of alcohol - sadly, ours come sans fruit but the brandy itself packs a punch. For dinner we repair to Cafe Martinho da Arcada in the Baixa district. Founded in 1782 it retains the honor of being the oldest cafe in Lisbon as well as a former literary haunt. Jacketed waiters serve rustically prepared cuisine - shrimp simmered in garlic, crispy herb roasted potatoes, fresh fish and steak wrapped in aged ham that all hit the right notes at our last official port of call.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Wine Tasting Aboard the Queen Victoria

Wine tasting seminars with Chief Sommelier Michael Standen are pretty sweet. First of all, you get to sample six different wines and pair them with nibbles like fruit, cheese & meat. He’ll also arm you with an informative booklet featuring wine aroma and mouth-feel wheels to help you hone your sense of smell and taste. But admittedly, the wheels are also useful for crafting pretentious phrases like “I detect vegetative notes of cut grass.” The buzz words you learn in this seminar (terroir, palate, tannins) while useful for wine tasting, can alternatively be used to pick-up women or also, to impress your boss at company dinners.

We sampled Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Chateuneuf-du-Pape, Pinotage and a Bordeux Blend. My favorite was the 2004 Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape that smells of black currant and pepper. (See how good I’m getting with my wine aroma wheel? Ha.) I can just imagine pairing it with some lamb, stew or even ribs. But even if you just pop it open with some cheddar cheese and crackers, like I’m apt to do on a Friday evening, it’d still be delish.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Barcelona: Foodie Paradise

In Barcelona the holy trinity of bohemian culture meet – art, food and wine. There is the sipping of sangria. The munching of fried, juicy ham croquetas oozing cheese and the pure pleasure of lounging beneath the shadow of medieval buildings in the Gothic Quarter. Street performers and artists line the sidewalks. Laughter bubbles up from outdoor cafes. It's impossible not to be seduced by the beautiful people, savory food and striking architecture everywhere you turn.

We set out early to view Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia Cathedral, Barcelona’s most distinctive landmark. Afterwards, we pop into the Picasso Museum, a surprisingly intimate gallery housed in two 15th century palaces. Exhibiting a wide range of art, including the Las Meninas series, it’s a powerful tribute to Picasso’s talent and offers glimpses at many of his earlier, lesser known works.

Afterwards we hit up Bar Pintoxo, an outdoor tapas stand housed inside the Mercat de la Boqueria. With no written menu and even less organized ordering, we mercifully take what the chef brings us - plates of meat, enormous crawfish and glasses of sparkly cava. He cooks for a huge crowd of admirers and as we’re seated a foot away from his tiny stovetop we’re able to marvel at his talent in the kitchen. The confines of elbow-to-elbow dining results in pleasant chatter with friendly locals and plenty of chances to practice our Spanish.

At Irati, the mood changes from frantic to romantic. Professionals speak softly, langouring in the dimly lit, modern space. The glass-topped bar brims with plates of every toothpickable snack imaginable. Bacon wrapped prawns! Warm mozzarella and roasted pepper slices on baguette! Sizzling chorizo! Patrons are charged on how many toothpicks are left on their plate before they exit (of which we have plenty, after discovering the fried seafood). Several glasses of Rioja later, we amble over to Bodega La Plata to drink humble homemade wine out of barrels while grumpy old men gossip loudly and wolf down fried sardines from a giant can on the counter. We're the only tourists here, which makes it worth the walk. (Tip: Try the sardines. Although they look scary they taste awesome, and they're a local specialty. There are only 3 types of wine to choose from - red, rose and white so don't expect bells and whistles but that's part of the fun.)

Forging onwards with full stomaches we hit Taller de Tapas for chilled sangria, laced with floating orange slices. The calamari is perfection, though they come with eyes, antennae and all. Beer lovers should make a pit stop at Bar del Pi for local cervesas (Bock Damm and San Miguel), as this place stocks plenty of choices. If you’re a foodie, an oenophile or enjoy nightlife – this is a city you’ll love – and when you’re not eating and drinking your way around town, there’s enough architecture, art and atmosphere to keep you occupied for days.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rome - The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Rome, in all of its extremes, typifies the absolute pinnacle and the (at times) worst of Italian culture. On the plus side are the ancient ruins, opulent architecture and world class art collections capable of romancing even the most jaded traveler. Then there is the food (oh, the food!), the satisfying snap of al dente pasta, the creamy decadence of hazelnut gelatto, the rich, salty gluttony of carbonara sauce. And it's hard not to envy a culture where passion rules, pleasure is indulged and relaxing is encouraged.

However, the exchange rate can send a casual dinner into the exorbitant realm quickly, and the crowds of tourists seem to be omnipresent. Most likely you'll be doing quite a bit of walking, so pack comfortable shoes and your patience (or better yet: hire a private car to whisk you around to avoid the madness on the street).

Seeing the Colosseum was the highlight of my day and we took the audio tour (totally worth the few extra Euros) that dispensed lots of historical info about the games, gladiators and so forth. Afterwards we strolled through the massive Piazzas framed by baroque cathedrals and ivy draped mansions. Street after street offered one atmospheric café after another, with fashionable locals in sunglasses smoking and chatting and gesticulating wildly with their hands while bands of serious looking priests wandered past (oh, how Italian!). We munched at crowded outdoor tables, downing snacks here and there – splitting paninis, bowls of homemade pasta and cones of gelato (the Tiramisu flavor is a must-try). One of our favorite spots was Cul de Sac, a streetside enoteca with a huge wine list and Italian tapas. It’s impossible not to be seduced by the charm, number and artistry of the sights, food and culture which is why, even though Rome can be chaotic and loud at times, it's absolutely worth visiting and a once in a lifetime experience.

La Dolce Vita in Capri

If there is a place to roll around on your bed in La Perla underwear while eating bonbons and drinking expensive champagne, it is Capri. So if this sounds like your thing, then book your tickets, drop your kids/pets/live-in manny at your mother-in-law’s house and fly to Italy as soon as humanly possible.

Once used as a getaway for Roman emperors and later on, as a destination for the world’s fashionable elite, it should come as no surprise that Capri is overwhelmingly chic. It’s the Audrey Hepburn, the Carolina Herrera, the dare I say it…Jackie O. of the vacation world. Yet what separates this Italian island from other exclusive retreats is that Capri isn’t overdone. It’s not a scene, nor does it cater to tourists in all of the obvious ways that so many destinations often do in order to attract business. There are no flashing lights or casinos. No Pizza Hut darkens these shores (thankfully this is the land of homemade pizza dough, made with real herbs and recipes passed down from Nonna). And since there are no sixty floor mega-hotels crowding the waterfront, when you ride the funicular on your way up the steep, rocky coast to the top, all you see are tiny whitewashed villas perching daintily over miles of sparkling turquoise sea.

Refreshingly, the locals own thriving businesses cooking, managing small hotels and operating upscale boutiques. Vespas cruise up and down side streets while children walk home from soccer practice. The fact that locals continue to live here adds an element of timelessness to Capri’s beauty that one rarely finds when traveling. There is nothing manufactured about this island’s glamour and in stark contrast to a place like Dubai, it is the island’s appealing authenticity that is a simple luxury in itself. Its homage to culture, tradition and antiquity is something that exists organically, upping the charm factor immensely.

On my recent jaunt here I began my day at the Piazzetta, the social heart of the island where over glasses of Italian wine my husband and I watched men in cashmere sweaters savor bowls of pasta, immaculately turned out in leather shoes and cufflinks. Europeans on vacation lazily read newspapers at nearby café tables, shaded from the sun by large umbrellas. Women laden down with gold jewelry and oversized Tod’s bags navigated the cobblestone streets in stiletto heels. There was bubbly conversation. Air kisses were exchanged. Cocktail waiters bustled between the crowded bistro tables with silver trays balancing cocktails and bowls of taralli, a sort of savory, addictive Italian cracker. It could have been the beautiful weather or the result of a limoncello-induced haze, but everyone seemed to be smiling, staring at the cloudless blue sky and taking their time eating, drinking and enjoying life through the lenses of their very expensive sunglasses. It’s a very welcoming place this Capri, especially after a few glasses of Chianti.

Sadly, our plan to visit the Blue Grotto was foiled as it was closed due to rough seas so instead Matt and I made the executive decision to scoot down a series of turret-like steps to La Pergola for lunch. Our table practically hovered over the water, situated as it was on a stone terrace surrounded by breathtaking ocean views on one side and a fragrant lemon grove on the other. Hours passed along with the courses - a Caprese salad, crusty bread, fresh seafood, fruit, more wine. Our waiter, applauding our basic attempts at Italian conversation loaded us down with free glasses of the chef’s personal limoncello, made from the fruit trees in the garden. It is at this point that I fully fell in love with Capri, and maybe a little bit, our Italian chef.

The generosity of the welcoming locals, the so-simple-it's-sophisticated food, the impressive cliffside views and flowering vegetation all create an enveloping experience of understated elegance. In Capri you can sink into a lazy afternoon from a hotel balcony, sip a bottle of the best wine in the world or shop for $30,000 jewelry crafted out of diamonds and coral. Or you can swim in the sea, nibble on lemon granita and spend the afternoon in a local’s kitchen. This island is at once sophisticated and childish, luxurious and humble. You can engage exactly as much or as little with the world around you as you wish, which is why it makes the perfect spot for a honeymoon as well as an ideal place for a family vacation. My idea of a perfect day would involve quietly lounging poolside, listening to the ebb and flow of the waves below while reading and drinking strong, Italian espresso. In the afternoon I’d dress for shopping, cocktails and a fabulous Italian dinner followed by a walk with my husband down those romantic alleyways, overgrown with flowers and vines. Needless to say - I'm coming back as soon as I possibly can.


J.K. Place – This fashion forward boutique hotel set above the Marina Grande offers concierge service including helicopter transfers and boat rides, the use of a stunning heated outdoor pool, posh dining room, bar and spa services. Prices range from $500 to $2,200 Euros a night.

Da Paolino (Palazzo a Mare 11, 081-8376102) – Located only a short walk away from J.K. Place, this classic Capri standby often plays host to celebrities, but still remains popular for its fresh, homemade pasta with locals and visiting tourists. Outdoor seating in a fragrant lemon grove ups the romance factor. Prices range from $30 to $60 Euros per/person.

Guarracino Taverna (Via Castello 7, 081-837-0514) – This rustic, authentic tavern (formerly an olive oil press) is conveniently located a stone’s throw from La Piazzetta and makes you feel like a real Italian without the exorbitant prices so common in Capri.

Carthusia – Go home smelling like those beautiful Italian women or pick up a bottle as a gift for a special friend. These limited production perfumes are created using the ancient techniques of the Carthusian monks, while local flora is added to give the various fragrances their exotic, special scent.

Limoncello di Capri – Lemon trees run rampant on Capri and this traditional Italian after-dinner drink celebrates the local fruit in a delicious way. Less sugary and refreshingly tarter than many other limoncellos available Stateside, this one packs a punch and is the perfect thing to remind you of your vacation once you return home.

Canfora – Handmade leather sandals ranging from the demure to more eye-catching versions embellished with bling, whimsical flowers and sea life are available for purchase. Undoubtedly chic, these classic kicks are the perfect complement to a simple summer shift dress or a pair of raw silk cropped pants.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Athens, Greece

So it turns out that ouzo gives you really bad hangovers. Ditto for absinthe. And since some of us were up late last night drinking absinthe mojitos, shots of ouzo and the odd cigarette or eight - this entry is going to be kind of like my visit to Athens – short, but sweet. The ancient architecture in this city is stunning, so if you travel here be sure not to miss the Acropolis, the Athens Marble Stadium, Hadrian’s Arch, Temple of Olympian Zeus or the National Archeological Museum which all offer glimpses into the city’s illustrious past.

After marveling at the jaw-dropping views of the city from the Acropolis, Matt & I decided to soak up some local culture, something which we found both amazing and insufferable in equal parts. But even the negatives: the loud, screaming chatter, the pushing and shoving on the subway and the apathetic service seemed to melt away when we observed the passion and joy with which the Greeks live life. They are just as quick to buy you a drink as to step on your foot and once you get used to this erratic behavior, it becomes kind of liberating.

We stopped in at Bretto’s Ouzeri, a quaint marble-topped bar crammed with wall-to-wall bottles of exotically flavored liqueur and giant barrels of ouzo. Sip a decadent cocktail, smoke the Cubans on offer and chat with the gossipy locals (who are more than happy to tell you every last detail about themselves). We loved it so much we came back twice in the same day. If you’re into beer, a must-see is Craft, Athens’ only microbrewery. We adored the Weisse Lager and Black Ale and paired them with crispy zucchini fritters dipped in minty yogurt sauce for lunch. After viewing the guards outside the Parliament House and sipping vino at the Grand Bretagne Hotel (don’t miss the views from the rooftop bar on the 8th floor) we strolled around Psiri, an up and coming nabe full of coffee shops and nightlife boites popular with young locals. We popped into the Platanos Taverna for our last meal of the day and located down a series of winding alleyways, beneath the stars this outdoor café was incredibly romantic. In a neighborhood of crumbling row houses and courtyards dripping with bougainviella, we ate in a dimly lit courtyard filled with Greek families. The tender lamb, spicy moussaka, warm bread and feta cheese (washed down with a local white wine) was simple, totally unpretentious and nothing short of perfect. If you're planning a trip - check out Matt Barrett's Athens Guide, it's an insider's guide chock full of practical information and a great resource for any traveler.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Activities Onboard the Queen Victoria

The Queen Victoria is a fab ship with plenty of lavish details (a martini bar with wall to wall glass windows overlooking the ocean) and small luxuries (white gloved tea service). A Veuve Clicquot Champagne Bar, Todd English restaurant, cushy cabins and elegant teak deck chairs only contribute to the posh British ship effect. Plus, Cunard’s emphasis on customer service and a 2-to-1 guest to crew ratio means that you’ll be very well looked after indeed. However, there are a few crucial things you should be aware of before planning to cruise on the Queen Victoria.

First, Cunard markets themselves to an elderly audience. I kid you not: seminars on arthritis and swollen ankles, vegetable carving demonstrations and bingo games are daily occurrences. But the sports on the ship are truly redeeming and include: paddle tennis, table tennis, outdoor chess, an indoor gym, shuffleboard, deck quoits, golf chipping cages (for an additional fee), fencing, ballroom dancing classes and use of the two pools and four Jacuzzis.

Additional activities include: wine tasting seminars, travel lectures, musical theater productions, an internet center, board games, line dancing classes, cocktail mixology classes, whist and bridge tournaments, black-tie balls, art auctions, comedians and daily trivia. The casino features slot machines, blackjack, roulette, Caribbean poker and 3-stud poker. Matinee movies are offered at 2 p.m. daily and range from classics (Gone With the Wind) to current (No Country For Old Men). There’s also a two-story library which has a nice selection of fiction and non-fiction as well as a massive assortment of travel books. And then of course, there are the bars & lounges in which to tipple an expertly made cocktail and dance the night away.

You won’t find ice skating rinks or video arcades – so if you’ve got young kids or are looking for people under 40 to party the night away with, this might not be your ship. But in a strange way, this lack of trendy activities is actually an asset for those passengers looking to avoid the dreaded "family vacationers" so prevalent on other cruise lines. Meaning that on the Queen Victoria you can settle into your enormous chaise lounge, wait for the waitress to take your drink order and then happily sip your daiquiri in adults-only peace (no screaming kids by the pool…no hordes of roaming teens in the clubs...hooray!) while you listen to the sound of the waves quietly crashing below you.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Egypt: Luxor, Karnak & Valley of the Kings

Sleepily, we board our bus at sunrise and watch the tiny port town of Safaga recede into the distance. Mountains give way to barren desert plains brushed in shades of ochre and burnt umber, the landscape so utterly remote that it reminds me of emptiness. Nothingness stretches into nothingness here, flat sand blows unchecked for miles, and every twenty minutes or so we spot a Bedouin woman cloaked in black, moving slowly under the bright sun as her people have done for generations. Tiny makeshift homes of falling stone seem to appear out of nowhere while children crouch nervously in their shadowed doorways, the odd camel hitched to a post nearby. Occasionally we pause at a military checkpoint in a town of 50 or 100 where armed guards poke their heads out of watchtowers, aiming rifles at the road while men on donkeys pulling carts of sugarcane allow us to pass. There are smiles and waves exchanged. And then once again we are traveling through the desolate acres of sand, staring at nothing but the open sky.

And yet, once we arrive at our destination it rises like a mythic city out of the windswept desert. The Karnak Temple sprawls across 62 acres of sand, its tall obelisks, pillars and sculptures diverting sharply from the otherwise flat horizon. We walk through this massive complex of ancient ruins built by pharaohs over a period of two millennia and the effect is humbling in both scale and architectural grandeur. We roam like children through the labyrinth of corridors, beneath pillars scraping the sky, into dead ends and twisting alleyways of walls carved with birds, scarabs and ankhs, getting lost amid this romantically crumbling maze of stone.
The Temple of Luxor sits nearby, and shares some of Karnak’s architectural renderings. We visit the Avenue of human headed Sphinxes approaching 1.5 miles in length and crane our necks upwards to see the enormous sculptures glaring down at us. At sunset the effect is magical here, the orange sun descending into the Nile, the haunting song of the muezzin as he calls people to prayer, the echo of footsteps through dark stone passages. We also visit the Valley of the Kings, a city of the dead consisting of 62 tombs, including legendary King Tut’s. These tombs are carved straight into the mountains and upon descending into their innermost recesses, it is as if you are discovering a secret cave – one filled with elaborate wall paintings and carvings left thousands of years ago.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Shiver Me Timbers

Nothing spoils a vacation quite like raping and pillaging, that's what I say. Apparently Cunard agrees, since they've just installed a sonic boom canon designed to deter people of the peg-legged, beer swilling, pet bird keeping variety from hijacking our ship. Unfortunately, this cannon like, so totally kills my idea for a passenger pirate-watch party sponsored by Captain Morgan Rum. Throw in a few pairs of binoculars, an all-you-can-drink rum bar and some wasted cruise guests and I'm thinking this would be much less expensive than the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Technology), but what the hell do I know about marketing or business strategy. Seriously though Captain Morgan...if you're out there...I'm looking for a job in May.

Even though it ruined my Great Idea of the Century, I will forgive the LRAD's presence onboard since it will prevent us from being kidnapped for ransom like that French yacht and will save us from gunfire in the Suez Canal (where we happen to be headed).

And FYI peeps. Mark your calendars. Or treasure maps. Or whatever. International Talk Like a Pirate Day is September 19th.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Todd English On The Queen Victoria

Matt and I have now been to the Todd English restaurant onboard the Queen Victoria several times and it just keeps getting better. At only $20 per/person for lunch and $30 per/person for dinner it’s a real value in terms of service and food. Generous baskets of warm rolls and seasoned flatbreads are served upon arrival with assorted tapenades. The décor is muted and intimate with its chic booths overlooking the ocean and tables covered in simple white table linens – a drastic departure from the main dining room which can be huge, crowded and impersonal. The appetizers and entrees are always competently cooked, not to mention enormous and expertly plated. We particularly love the seafood here and there’s no doubt that the ingredients served in Todd English are held to a more rigorous standard than elsewhere on the ship. They are simply fresher and of higher quality than those served in the Brittania dining room so come here to celebrate a special occasion or to splurge on a romantic meal for two with a bottle of wine. You’ll leave feeling well-looked after, satisfied and content with this sophisticated departure from the rest of the ship’s old-fashioned fare. A little piece of modern Manhattan gastronomy has found its way onto the Queen Victoria and all I can say is Hallelujah for that!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Oman's "Second City" - Salalah

Salalah, located on the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula is all stunning white beaches and acres of desert. This stark landscape seduces the imagination; this striking contrast of camels and men in white dishdashas and muzzars silhouetted against the vast expanse of sky seems to channel scenes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, making you feel as if you are very, very far away from home. Upon arrival, it so hot that the air seems to waver, while swift breezes sweep across the flat terrain, rustling the palm fronds and propelling sand across the few pavement roads. Several passengers are pick pocketed in town, though we experience none of this threatening behavior, and are instead driven around by an amiable Ahmad, who races his taxi at Grand Prix-like speeds down the deserted highway.

Though Salalah possesses several points of interest for tourists (Job’s tomb, Al Balid archaeological site, Mughsail Beach), the city is most famous for its abundance of frankincense, available for purchase at the Al Husn Souk. Matt and I chose to forgo this shopping excursion in order to drink margaritas, having purchased all of the frankincense we need, which is to say, exactly none. Instead we spent the afternoon enjoying the sound of waves breaking on the beach from a pair of lounge chairs at the Salalah Hilton Resort. Though it’s located in the middle of nowhere (which says a lot, since the town of Salalah is already sort of in the middle of nowhere) its isolation only serves to increase the level of exoticism one feels upon arrival.

Hammocks dot the sandy beach and soft music is piped in by the poolside, where waiters quietly bestow drinks on the few vacationers scattered here and there. The Hilton’s Palm Grove Restaurant offers world class satay, beautiful spiced kebabs and crisp salads. Kitted out in an Arabian Nights-meets-Ikea minimalist décor, the design truly inspires the simple beachside boite, making it a zen spot in which to dine while gazing at the turquoise ocean. We finish off the afternoon befriending locals by assuring them that though we are American, we aren’t Bush supporters. Oddly (or not), this brings on a series of enthusiastic kisses from a Muslim man who then attempts to sell me a taxidermied lobster. Puzzled but ultimately amused, Matt & I speed back to the ship passing a vista of palm trees and sand, palm trees and sand as we prepare to set sail for the distant shores of Egypt.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dubai:Playground of the Rich & Famous

Like a Hollywood movie set on steroids, Dubai is a city of exotic facades designed to excite the senses and create a faux reality for those who can afford it. Ski hills in shopping malls, manmade islands visible from outer space and rotating apartment buildings are only a few examples of Dubai's "more is more" philosophy. Yet it's a city of contradictions - modernists struggle to make Dubai first in tourism and trade, yet they must work within the confines of social traditionalists trying to preserve local culture amid a constant influx of expats. In a city where law is deeply rooted in the Muslim belief system, unmarried pregnant women can face deportation, alcohol is sold only in hotels and eating and drinking in public is punishable during the month of Ramadan. It is this constant push and pull of conflicting desires which to me, defines Dubai.

Matt and I spend the morning touring the quaint, historic Bastakia Quarter built in the late 1800’s by Persian merchants. Located next to Dubai Creek, it shares little in common with the Trump-inspired tourist section of the city. Women in burkas stroll shaded alleyways, men in dishdashas with briefcases hail cabs while abras (small wooden ferry boats) plow through the water. We marvel at the wind towers, used as an early form of air conditioning on the tops of the buildings. At the nearby Bur Dubai Souq vendors haggle with customers, selling silk saris and custom-tailored suits. After a lovely lunch with Matt’s friend Olivia, we pop into Chandelier to engage in the local pastime of smoking sheesha. Choosing from a glorious menu of flavors (grape, apple, strawberry...) we inhale rose flavored sheesha through the top of a hubble bubble, watching the passersby from the outdoor cafe. Though we had hoped to see the interior of the Burj al Arab, the world's only 7-star hotel shaped like a sailboat (see pic) boasting 8,000 square meters of 22-carat gold leafing, they wanted a cool $60 per cocktail so we head instead for the chic confines of Bahri Bar overlooking the beach (and the Burj!). At only $12 a drink, this seems like a bargain in comparison. Sandboarding, wadi-bashing, camel racing and golf are popular here, activites merely adding to Dubai's cache as a year-round getaway for the rich and famous. Between adventure sports, white sand beaches, shopping and dining, Dubai pretty much has it all. But luxury and glamour doesn't come cheap: this is the place to come roll around on your Benjamins in a $3,000 a night suite. Since I'm no billionaire I'll be rolling on my Washingtons instead...or wallet and I are still recovering from the cocktail bill - oh how I miss the $2 cans of brew in Costa Rica!