When you talk about a bucket list adventure for me riding the Orient Express was right on top of that list. I mean what other trip has been at the centre of a murder mystery best selling novel and several movies. The Orient Express is everything that you would think it would be. Glamorous, romantic and a very special adventure. Come onboard as I take you inside the world's most famous luxury train ride, The Orient Express. I even found a mysterious man with a moustache to rival Poirot.
SEVEN SISTERS CLIFFS, EAST SUSSEX ROAD TRIP
If you are anything like me the lack of sunlight as you approach the dead of winter is so unbelievably depressing. Living in London it actually starts getting dark at 3:30 in November AND we haven't even got through the worst of it. So what is that saying, make hay when the sun shines? So in order to survive the long, dark winters you have to make the most of the short sunny days and a road trip is exactly the way to do it.
A-BROAD OBSERVATION - TOILETS OF ASIA
I have always consider myself a student of the world, you know... open to celebrate the vast colourful differences between one world, culture and traditions and my own. I have been fortunate enough to travel different parts of the globe and I willingly drink in those cultural differences between countries, ....until now.
Ever bored with London? Ok, that is a trick question. But sometimes you need a get away. Turn down the volume, unplug, breathe fresh air and exhale. New Forest is just the wonderful escape to do just that. Just a two hour drive south of the hustle and bustle of London where the only traffic you are likely to hit are a herd of wild horses taking their own sweet time crossing the street.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Dubai. A "Middle East newbie" and all the preconceived notions that goes with that. I had certainly heard a tremendous amount about Dubai and like Las Vegas I was expecting to not like it, this way Over-The-Top city in the desert. But you know what, I was pleasantly surprised (in Dubai not in Vegas). This arid flatland in the desert was not only rich with fabulous, brilliant skyscrapers and architecture, blow-your-mind resorts or the tallest "this" or the biggest "that" etc, etc. But it was richer yet in contradictions from the ancient world and its customs surrounding it. The glitzy and the ancient, the modern and the extremely traditional. So here I am, A Broad In Dubai, a peak into the fabulous contradiction in the Middle East.
The Burj Al Arab. The World's Only 7 Star Hotel
First, when did hotel ratings go beyond 5 Stars? Maybe it is a Middle East thing or maybe it is like Spinal Tap turning it up to 11 but regardless of 5 or 7 my God what a hotel. My dear friend Teran has a name for a place like this, she calls it a Total F*ck-Off Place. I mean it was the most incredible hotel I have seen inside and out. You could not get near it unless you were a guest or had a reservation for drinks or dinner. No photos or videos were allowed of any kind inside (see my photos and videos below). There were even security guards in kayaks surrounding the place by water. So we did what any curious tourist would do, we bit the bullet made a reservation for drinks at the bar on top on the hotel with their $100 per person minimum, which I discovered was extremely very easy to reach. We were talked into a cocktail by our very friendly server Raj called Toxic Love. A little too sweet but look how nice??
But what totally blew my mind was on the cocktail menu something called "Birth of An Icon". For a mere 6,900 Dirhams ($1,900US, $2,450 CDN or £1,500) you can have this rum and lime juice daiquiri finished off with gold dust. One drink!!!! ONE. Not a magnum of something aging in some billionaire's French Chateau somewhere. It is a daiquiri! Something was born alright but I wouldn’t call it an “icon”. I guess I will stop complaining about the $25 glass of Chardonnay the Four Seasons dings me with.
The hotel lobby was stunning. Without a question the most beautiful hotel lobby I have ever seen. Synchronized water fountains, a massive tropical aquarium and the design was spectacular. At night the sail-like exterior has lights projected on it. Incredible…
As an aside, we went back on our last night to have dinner there. Massively expensive and very disappointing food at best. Stick with Toxic Love to get the hotel experience.
We did this very touristy thing which I have to say was our personal highlight of our trip. We booked a safari into the desert. Our driver Ali was terrific, and he needed to be. Part of the experience was something they called Dune Bashing. 30 minutes in a 4 x 4 driving and doing wheelies over the desert's huge, rolling sand dunes. If it weren't for my motion sickness I would have really loved it.
We had a romantic (kinda) camel ride as the sun was setting. We watched a falcon show, had my hand painted with henna which I am still trying to remove and had this most wonderful meal cooked in the desert complete with Persian rugs and Moet & Chandon Champagne.
The night was capped off with a belly dancer, smoking a shisha or what I recall from my high school days as a water bong. The scenery was incredible. If you ever go to Dubai book this excursion with Desert Safari Dubai. Really was cool.
Up The Dubai Creek
The Dubai Creek used to be the central hub of activity and a active trade route. This is the old part of Dubai and nothing glitzy or new here. We hired a wooden dhow (a small boat) and took a hour trip up the creek. You can see the old fishing dhows coming and going and get a totally different feel of the city. You can hear the chanting and the call to prayer coming from the many mosques in the area. Sad and eerie sounding to the Western ear.
As a trade route Dubai has some old Souks (markets) that we loved exploring. My favourite was the Spice Souk. There were spices I had never heard of before. It was colourful and fragrant. Bought saffron, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks and lavender. If anyone knows a great recipe with saffron love to hear it. Think I might have gone a little over board with the saffron.
There is also the Gold Souk and the Textile Souk. All are nearby. Bought a couple of beautiful inexpensive scarves but you do get pulled in by the sellers as they are very actively trying to sell their wares. Bargain for everything. Very different then The Dubai Mall. Famous for their indoor ski-hill and designer fashions. No bargaining (or bargains) there.
I loved the buildings and architecture of Dubai. Some places I felt were so clean and perfect that I felt I was in the middle of my own Sims City game. I am guessing the designers of Sims have been to Dubai.
Finally the beach. Although we had slightly unseasonable cooler and windier weather 20c (we were there in February and colder at night) it was still wonderful to visit and walk the beaches. We were staying on Jumeirah Beach at a wonderful place called Jumeirah Al Qasr. Highly recommend that area to stay. The Palm, also very popular and famous for its man-made islands that look like the top of a palm tree from the air. You can do a seaplane fly-by or a take a helicopter to fully get its impact. My Uber app in Dubai actually gave me the option of Uber Helicopter….of course it did. Next time.
Dubai was fasincating. It was interesting and there is still more to see and do…Everyone I met was very friendly. I think having no taxes to pay just tends to make you friendlier, just saying.
So there comes a time when everyone has to pack up their camel and head home. My trip to the desert was a great reminder that all who wander are certainly not lost.
Followed by a week in a trauma hospital in Reno.
The Playa/The Art/The ER
Burning Man. Man Oh Man. Words or photos will never be able to accurately describe this most surreal temporary metropolis and the 80,000 participates who call themselves “Burners”. My desire to attend this annual infamous “radical self expression” art and community festival was on the urging of my 21 year old daughter and a very spontanious decision on my part. A mother/daughter experience of a lifetime, I thought.. lets do it. Within 48 hours, I had booked a flight, rented an RV, pack a weeks worth of food, water and supplies and began our venture out to a dried up lake bed with two of her friends in the Nevada desert to a place called Black Rock City. But 24 hours after my arrival I found myself with a fractured pelvis in three places in a hospital in Reno, Nevada, no cell phone service and no one even aware I was missing. Not the “burn” I was looking for…but my God it was a adventure.
So here is my story, a virgin burner...
AND THE MOST SURREAL 24 HOURS OF MY ENTIRE LIFE.
First, What is Burning Man?
Simply told it is a week long art and community festival in the desert. But that is way too simplified. That is like if you described the Rolling Stones as some boy-band. The festival plays out each year in Nevada's Black Rock Desert where 80,000 people build a city in a week, burn a giant wooden effigy of a man, and then restore the arid playa to its original state.
To try and further describe... it is a radical inclusive, self reliance utopian city that looks like a cross between post apocalyptic Mad Max and Terry Gilliam’s Barron Von Munchausen. Throw in a little Star Wars Cantina Bar and you are just getting to the beginning of it.
This pop-up city is almost completely created entirely by its citizens and the idea is you bring in everything you need for a week in the desert and you leave nothing behind when you go, no trace. It is described on their website as a laboratory. "Not every experiment works, but we'll never know if we don't try". It has been know to draw celebrities and billionaire’s like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Telsa's Elon Musk who's mutant "art car" was an adapted ship that was put on wheels with a reported half a million dollar sound system.
It draws the tech world's CEOs, top doctor's and leading surgeons in America all coming for a week to let their freak out. Except wait, it's actually a bunch of dusty, acid-tripping naked hippies. Or is it candy-tripping techno ravers? People even bring their kids. Seriously, who are these parents???
Its attendees are all of the above. Celebs like Katy Perry, Susan Sarandon, Paris Hilton and super model Cara Delevingne were all in attendance this year. It is, and always has been, ruled by all kinds of techno-smart futuristic punks rather than nostalgic hippies or dippy ravers. But all groups are certainly represented. It is even rumoured that some of David Bowie's ashes were sprinkled at Burning Man this year.
The only modes of transportation once you are in is either cycling (I will be coming back to that) or mutant art cars. For accommodation you are either camping in tents or an RV.
When we arrived in our RV it was 4:00AM after waiting four hours to get in. We were in the middle of a dust storm. We could not see the hood of the car and the fine playa dust was already so thick we had to put on our face masks in the RV. They came into the RV waving their flashlights to look through the foggy vehicle to make sure we were not smuggling anyone in without a ticket. You were then met by "greeters" with dusty goggles and scarves covering most of their faces who greeted you with a hug that lasted just a tad too long... and said, “welcome home”.
We were invited out of our RV in the middle of the dust storm, masks still in place and then asked to bang the gong to announce our arrival. You were then encouraged to roll on the ground in the desert sand (not I...not yet). We were here, we had arrived and I have to admit that was the first time (not the last) I thought, oh crap what have I signed up for?
In the light of day I was blown away by the scope of this place. I know I only saw a fraction of the grounds. People had set up camps for as far as you could see... and beyond. Little villages within this pop-up city in various camps, themes and groups.
As I went out to explore, one of the Burning Man themes "radical self-expression" was evident everywhere. In how people were dressed (or not dressed), their camps, their bikes and the content itself that they were expressing. Some of the more overt camps were places like the Orgy Dome, The Spanking Bar and The Sanctuary, a incredible tent where one could have a beautiful safe guided acid trip. I could not have felt more like Dorthy being slammed down right in the middle of Oz...Oz on acid.
That afternoon I spontaneously became part of a group wedding proposal. I joined a herd of a hundred bikes I saw moving somewhere across the white desert chanting Erin, Erin, Erin as we approached a girl in a green satin evening gown who was stunned as her boyfriend (and 100 or so burner on-lookers) proposed.
I explored some of the incredible art installations in the desert.
I then joined a group guided meditation at dusk. Now voluntarily lying on the desert floor I avoided when I first arrived. Feeling the energy of the warm earth and the hundred people I was surrounded by and surrendering to all things dust.
I had made friends with two doctors from the suburbs of Palo Alto, Brian and Ryan who had set up camp beside our RV. They were struggling with their tent and I had cold beer. So embracing one of the other themes of Burning Man, "gifting" I brought them ice cold beers and we later made plans that evening to go and find the playa party that suited us best, a Prince Retrospective was where we were starting.
I never made it to that party.
On our way, with my bike decked out with dragonfly lights and neon necklaces I sweved to avoid a stoned biker who was weaving back and forth and not paying attention to where he was going. I made a hard left and I hit the ground even harder. I knew something was seriously wrong. Once again, but involuntarily this time I was on the playa ground, desert dust and its strange spawn of desert people surrounding me.
Now if you thought that the people watching was interesting on the outside on the Playa it was nothing compared to the inside of the "M.A.S.H" style emergency tent that housed the damaged burners. It was all in shades of white and beige, blending perfectly into the white desert sand. I learned that most of the doctors and nurses were there volunteering some of their time in trade for a ticket supporting yet another theme of the festival "communal effort" and "civic responsibly". In the 10 hours in emerge I saw all sorts of fascinating looking people come and go, most wearing some sort of funky fur article of clothing and supped up goggles. Thinking I wish I could take some photos because this must be the most unusual, insane ER in the entire world.
7 people that night I was told had been airlifted out with serious injuries. Learned from Dr. Rick (everyone's on a first name basis at Burning Man) my handsome ER doctor who I thought nothing of him wearing a rainbow ballet tutu and leg warmers over his scrubs that the number one common accident at Burning Man is ....wait for it...bike accidents. One girl even had fallen off her bike and she wasn't even moving, so I felt a little less stupid. Next common accident Dr. Rick told me about were people totally drunk or high or both thinking that jumping or leaping off multi-story art structures or trapelines would end with them actually taking flight. I did have a celebrity sighting in the ER. I am almost certain I saw a very, very drunk and dishevelled Matthew Perry (Chandler from Friends) come in while I was there but legally I will not stick my neck too far out on that one and lets say there is a 5% margin of error that it might have been someone else (not a chance).
So while my daughter was dancing in the desert at dawn with Paris and Cara (yes she was) I was in the back of a ambulance for a three hour ride to Reno.
I am now back in Toronto recovering from my accident. 24 hours at Burning Man, 10 Hours in the ER, 8 days in a trauma hospital and 6 to 8 weeks recovery.
The question most asked after all I went through was, would I go back? The answer is yes, but with these conditions. I call this Burning Man Lite. First, I think I would need a few of my friends there so we could create our own age appropriate camp. As much as I love my daughter and her friends we rightly will have a slightly different idea of what is fun in the desert. Some will overlap for sure but for the rest lets bring in my troops.. I would go for three nights midweek, not a full week and not dealing with the crush and line-ups getting in and out of the festival. I would pay to join a luxury camp like one called White Elephant. They do everything. All the necessities brought in for you, hot showers, meals, champagne...I even heard mention of sushi... none of this roughing it for me anymore..
...And finally (and this was my daughter Sam's suggestion) my own mutant art car so I can get across the desert in style and.... safety. The hell with bicycles.
This art car below will do quite nicely. Like they say in the desert, enjoy your burn and for 24 hours I burned ever so brightly.
Normally I am reporting in on the interesting "going-ons" in London...and I love doing that. But this month I find myself what feels like a million miles away in the beautiful lake district of Ontario, called Muskoka. So instead this week I am going to let you in on a Canadian secret, it's the incredible summer life in Muskoka.
For those who are looking to explore Canada, its beauty, its wilderness or even its summer social scene Muskoka is the place. New Yorkers have the Hamptons, Torontonians... if they are very lucky have Muskoka .
LIFE IS BETTER ON THE DOCK
Even if you don't go "in" the lake and personally since there is nowhere around to get a good blow-out I say, why bother getting my hair wet, life is unquestionably on the dock. Whether it is canoes, kayaks, swimming, jet-skis, boating, reading trashy magazines or ... writing a blog the dock is the centre of all things Muskoka.
It is the perfect place to snooze, recharge or entertain. It is true what they say, life is better on the dock.
COTTAGE LIFE IS WHAT YOU DO IN-BETWEEN MEALS.
Eating AND drinking is an incredible part of life in Muskoka. In fact cocktail hour can sometimes start with your eggs and bacon in the morning and not end until... well ...your eggs and bacon the next morning. I love the summer social scene, from the bar on the dock always ready for visitors, to planning, cooking and sharing meals with friends and family. Also what makes life different at the cottage is the men folk all seem to gather around the BBQ and actually cook. I mean it! They are cooking dinner...AND enjoying doing so. Can I ask, as a general rule how many guys know how to turn on their oven at home? There must be something primal about cooking on a BBQ and I for one am happy to see it. Just wonder how we can bring even a tiny bit of that primal BBQ mentality around a four burner gas stove in the kitchen?
When not eating at the cottage there are some fun seasonal restaurants nearby. Grand Electric in Port Carling is great for fish tacos and a cold Corona but prepare to wait in line, or you can wait at Frankies Surf Club (when there is not a wait to get in there). The JW Marriott Muskoka Chop House for steaks and great wine (all year) and on the casual side of dining for a chicken wrap, burger or salad Turtle Jacks. In Rosseau, Crossroads is still a local fave and new this season in Port Carling is The Cottage Bistro, great menu, offers cooking classes, open for lunch and dinner and takes reservations.
If you are in Muskoka and really want a fun, rocking night the best place to do that is the Kee To Bala. "The Kee" as it is known has been a concert hall since 1930 on Lake Muskoka and has hosted some incredible acts over its incredible history. Musicians like, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong and more recently Snoop Dogg, RUSH and Drake have all passed through and shook those giant barn doors by the lake.
SUNSETS & SHOOTING STARS
During the summer my favourite time of day is sunset. In Muskoka during the summer months we can watch the sun go down from our dock, chardonnay or rosé in hand around 9:00 each night. Some summer evenings, if it's a clear night one can watch meteor showers in the way of shooting stars. Lots of opportunities for wishes to be made.
DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A COTTAGE HO?
So before the days of cottage ownership I was as a self proclaimed "Cottage Ho", relying on friends with cottages for weekend invites. If you are looking for a career as a "Cottage Ho" the terms are similar to that of the Chalet Slut or The Sofa Surfer, you come bringing at least one incredible meal for the entire group. From appies to dessert. You bring some great wine that will last the length of your visit and at least one special bottle as gift for your hosts. Fresh flowers always go a long way too. Trust me you follow these simple guidelines and you should always have a place to chill for the weekend.
WHERE TO STAY IN MUSKOKA..if you are not ho-ing it?
Before we bought our lake house (aka cottage) we would rent a place for a few weeks each summer. There are some incredible places to rent if one does not own a cottage. There are a number of online sites where you could find a place to rent. They can vary from a small cabin in the woods to a monster 10,000 sf mega cottages with staff. Even people who own these monster multi-million dollar places in Muskoka (Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Cindy Crawford, Martin Short) still call them "cottages" although trust me, that definition is totally out of whack the moment there is a place to land your helicopter.
My favourite Muskoka resort hands-down is the JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka. Condé Nast Traveller rated it Number 7 of 20 of top resorts to stay in Canada. I have stayed there many times prior to my cottage ownership days or if there was a lack of a good Cottage Ho-ing opportunity. There are some great restaurants, golf (not that I golf), pools, tennis, lake activities and a spa. Great place to have a romantic weekend.
My other recco is Windermere House, they call themselves "Lady of the Lake". It is the country's oldest hotel although was totally rebuilt to its former glory a few years back when a fire brought the place down after a movie shoot accidentally set the place a blaze. It has all the amenities one would require for a luxury stay.
If you have mini-van full of children I would suggest a more" kid valued" place called Cleveland's House. Think the movie Dirty Dancing but on a much smaller and way less sexy scale...and sadly no hint of the Patrick Swayze hot dancing instructor. They have a great program on the dock for kids to learn to wake-surf or waterski and families do tend to return year after year until the parents can't take it anymore. DO NOT go there unless you are happy with the sound of children everywhere. Their minimal wine list is not going to even come close to help numb the shrieking of children in the dining room. They do have babysitting if you have to escape and the JW Marriott is right next door. Come with kids or stay away.
There are many small boutiques, local designers, antiques, fairs, farmers markets that run all season. So if you get tired of sitting on the dock you could spend the day poking around shopping and finding treasures.
SOON...BACK TO LONDON
I will enjoy each sunset and muggy Muskoka summer day for all good things must eventually come to a end. Pretty soon it will be time to put down the rosé, pack the car and get back to the moderate temperatures of London. But in case you are wondering... my heart will and forever be sitting on the dock, by the lake in the last hours of the Muskoka summer sun....and this guy will forever be beside me..smelling just a little too much like wet dog.