Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dubai - Where the Future is Present

Bollywood filming near the world's most expensive hotel
The Dubai Museum
Mosque tour explaining the dress

A UNESCO nature park
Dubai by night from Dhow dinner cruise
Sharjah Islamaic Museum in a former souk

One small portion of the Sharjah Univerity City
Sharjah souk
Sandy Beach Hotel in Fujairah - Snoopy Rock

Desert bashing on Desert Safari
John camel riding on Desert Safari
Belly dancing on Desert Safari followed by BBQ

Ski Dubai
John tobogganing at Ski Dubai
The Spice Souk

Traditional cooking at Heritage Village
Young girls dancing traditional dances
Arabian horse show

I have seen the future and it is called Dubai. Dubai claims to have the tallest building but it is not finished. In fact, Dubai, is an ongoing project and quite impressive considering it has all taken place since the 1960s when oil was discovered. Dubai is an expensive destination but there are reasonable and excellent Holiday Inn and Ibis hotels plus plenty of interesting heritage sites that have very low admission prices.

For non-Moslem people the Jumeriah Mosque’s "Open Doors, Open Minds" mosque tour is a must do. It offers insight into the Islamic religion including the basic tenets. The guide explained that the clothing is more cultural than religious as the Koran only states that clothing should be modest. Interestingly, in Dubai, bling has come to the abaya, the coat-like covering, and sheyla, the headscarf.

When John and I entered the Dubai Museum we thought the courtyard was the entire museum considering the entrance was so reasonable. Then we entered the excellent air-conditioned underground exhibition with a multi-media presentation and dioramas that record Dubai’s development from the early pearl divers to the discovery of oil to the massive island-creating projects that includes one in the shape of a world map.

One day we went dune bashing in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Seat belts buckled, some air let out of the tires, and off we went, charging up one dune and careening down another arriving at the top of a dune, along with scores of other vehicles, in time for sunset. Then it was off to a desert camp for a camel ride, a belly dancing show, and a BBQ. For a completely opposite experience the next day we went to Ski Dubai located in one of Dubai’s many malls. Cold and snow do not normally excite us but Ski Dubai is really quite astounding. Winter coats and boots are provided. There are three ski runs accessed by a chair lift along with several toboggan and tubing areas.

One of my favorite evenings was also the least expensive. After a walk through the souks, we took the ferry across the Deira Creek and strolled down the corniche to the Heritage Village stopping at Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum's House, one of the oldest residences in the city and grandfather of the present ruler. Of interest were the wind towers constructed to keep their homes cool. Wet cloths were hung in the towers and the when the wind blew it caused evaporation and cooler air. At the Heritage Village there were school children performing traditional dances, Arabian horses, camels, craftspeople, and ladies cooking traditional treats. It was a popular evening out for local families. Admission was free.

Dubai has beautiful beach resorts including the world famous Burj Hotel but most are out of our price range so went to Sandy Beach Resort in Fujairah, another emirate, for a relaxing three days. We are always amazed at the pervasiveness of American culture. Just a short distance off shore from the beach is a rock formation called "Snoopy Island" because it resembles a reclining Snoopy. The resort had many cottages frequented by families on the weekend giving us an insight into the local lifestyle, which is very family-centered.

Dubai may be suffering from the same economic woes as the rest of the world but they have diversified so I wouldn’t close the book on their development.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Thailand: Cooking Thai

Meeting Chef Yingsak
Getting instructions from Hoon
Getting instructions from Mai

Chopping hot chili
Num grinding spices
Everyone helps everyone

Sajeerrat making green curry
John adding ingredients

Green Curry with Chicken Sausage
Chef Maprang demonstrating Rice Noodle Parcel
Making Rice Noodle Parcel

Thai food is popular the world over and one of our favorites so we decided a cooking lesson was in order. Just mention the name "Chef Yingsak" and Thais break into smiles. Flamboyant Chef Yingsak is the most popular chef in Thailand with his own TV show and cooking school. My husband and I joined one of his classes for the morning. First we watched a video on how to prepare Miang Kwuay Tiao (rice noodle packets), Kaeng Keow Wan Sai Kok (green curry with sausage) and Kaeng Liang Pak Ruam (clear spicy soup with vegetables). Chef Hoon, one of Chef Yingsak’s assistants, then went over the instructions verbally. Luckily there were students with an excellent command of the English language to help us when we needed translations. Then it was off to the kitchen where we all helped to prepare various parts of the food – chopping, slicing, stir frying, and, the best part - tasting.

Thailand: River Boat Cruise

Our home for two days
Relaxing on the deck with Pacharin and Oak
Our "room"

Up with the sun
Giving food to the monks
Off to the morning market

Morning Market
Our Cook

A very busy river
Visiting an orpanage
Visiting a brick making family

Visiting a school
Visiting an incense making family
Tied up at dock of a Buddhist temple

Bangkok is the one of the major hubs of Southeast Asia. We have visited many times because there is so much to see and do. In Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, the Chao Phraya River flows through the city. We usually stay at a hotel on the river because we find the river mesmerizing. The Chao Phraya is a working river with small colorful tugboats pulling three to five heavily loaded barges, water taxis crisscrossing the river, and many other boats. We have often wondered where the barges come from and where they are going. On this trip we found out.
An hour from Bangkok in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya we boarded a teak rice boat turned houseboat for a two-day cruise on the Chao Phraya River. Our boat could accommodate 12 passengers; however, we were lucky because there were two other guests along with our two guides, a cook, and the boat’s pilot. Interestingly, the other couple was from St. Catherines, Ontario, not all that far from our New York State home.

Along the way we visited small handicraft villages, usually by bicycle. Most farmers still grow rice but during the growing season when they are not busy in the fields some families have created small businesses to make extra money. Everyone in the family works together. Some were making bricks, others drums, incense sticks, charcoal, or growing mushrooms. One day we visited a Buddhist orphanage with about 1000 children. Another day we visited a school where the children were on recess and they all clamored to have their picture taken.

When our houseboat was traveling down the river toward Bangkok we relaxed, waved to people on the shore, and watched the activity along the river. People were fishing, watering their crops, or just resting by the river. The barges were especially interesting because families live on the barges so they went about their daily activities: cooking meals, doing laundry, and other daily chores. I imagine it was similar to the barges on the Erie Canal 100 years ago.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Oxnard, CA - A Suite Place

Embassy Suite Pool
Mandalay Beach at Embassy Suite
Channel Island Harbor
Maritime Museum
Heritage Square
CArnegie Art Museum
Island Packers Whale Watch
Sun-lovin' seas
Sunset from our Embassy Suite room

One the joys of traveling is discovering new places. John and I are familiar with many places in California but we had never head of Oxnard and when we hear the word Mandalay we think of Myanmar. Mandalay is in Myanmar but there is a Mandalay Bay in Oxnard, CA. Located on the famed California Highway One, about 90 minutes north of LAX airport, Embassy Suites Mandalay Bay became our home for three days. Located right on the beach it was a wonderful choice. The hotel has bikes and tandem vehicles for exploring the paved paths that hug Oxnard’s seven miles of beaches. The free-form swimming pool is heated and beautiful. Each evening the hotel offers a two-hour Manager’s Reception with complimentary drinks and snacks. Many nights there is musical entertainment in lounge and often a pianist during dinner.

Embassy Suites proved to be the perfect base for exploring Oxnard. The best place to learn about a new destination is at local museums. The Ventura County Maritime Museum is home to a permanent collection of extensive marine art, featuring works by the Dutch, Flemish painters, along with modern artists. The museum also houses a collection of antique ship models that depict three thousand years of maritime history. Exhibits on whaling, sailors' artwork, the history of the Channel Islands Harbor and Port Hueneme round out the collection. See the remains of a shipwreck that took place April 13, 1970 when a northwester struck the Channel Island Harbor. The connection to the sea continues as is evidenced by the many man-made canals allowing homeowners to be just steps away from their boats.

We were in Oxnard during the time of the year when the Pacific Gray Whales pass by on their migratory path between the Alaska and Mexico. Our Island Packers tour started with information about baleen whales and their 10.000-mile migratory trip. In the Channel Islands area cold and warm currents come together creating a buffet of food for the behemoths. On the way to waters around Anacapa Island we passed seals basking in the warm sun on a buoy and a working oilrig. I didn’t realize there were so many oilrigs off the coast of California, but as the guide explained, "There has never been an accident with one of these rigs." And, then we were instructed, "Everyone keep on the lookout for water spouts. If you see one, shout ‘Thar she blows.’" It wasn’t long before the call went out, "Off the port, or left side for you land lubbers." We spent the next 45 minute watching the whales surface and dive again. On the way back we were treated to a brilliant sunset with the dolphins surfing in our wake. The fresh air created a hunger that was duly satisfied by a new restaurant located right next to the dock. The new Brazilian restaurant, Moqueca, was irresistible and so were their caprinias – the signature cocktail of Brazil.

One day might be called "Heritage Day" as we drove through the Oxnard Historical district named for the area’s founding father, Henry T. Oxnard. The beautifully maintained homes, many from the Arts and Craft era, on the tree-lined streets offer a glimpse into a more relaxed time.

In nearby Heritage Square 11 historic homes, a church, water tower, pump house and a storehouse have been moved to a single block, restored to their original condition, and now serve a variety of functions. The church, a popular place for weddings, is across from the Queen Anne Justin Petit Ranch House that is now home to an intimate theater, and between is one of the area’s popular restaurants, La Dolce Vita, in the Colonial Revival Laurent/McGrath House. We were sorry we were not there on the weekend when tour guides dressed in 19th century style give walking tours of the area.

Sitting proudly across from Plaza Park is a vision of ancient Greece, the Carnegie Art Museum. Founded in 1907 by Andrew Carnegie, the museum houses rotating exhibits from their permanent collection and from guest artists. New to their permanent collection is the thought provoking "Quiet Steps Approaching Thunder," Alexey Steele’s pastel on paper.

Oxnard is the place where Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable played, and where so many films were shot that one area is now called Hollywood Beach. We will have to visit Oxnard again because we did not have time to see and do everything. We will visit the Herzog Wine Cellars, the largest Kosher winery on the West Coast, with tasting rooms, a visitor’s center, cooking classes, and a restaurant. We will hop aboard the Channel Islands Harbor Water Taxi for a Progressive Dining adventure and visit the Murphy Automotive Museum with its eclectic 50-car collection that includes Packard’s from 1927-1958, and the Children’s Gull Museum. There is even a small museum dedicated to the F. W. Woolworth stores.

Channel Island’s National Park, called the American Galapagos is only 11 miles off shore, and Packer Tours offers daily excursions. It is a top scuba diving area with naturalist led hikes, plus camping and wildlife viewing. The eight Channel Islands span 160 miles along the coast of California and are home to more than 2000 species of plant and animals, 145 are found nowhere else on earth.

And, of course, the Oxnard area offers golfing, ice skating, birding, biking, sailing, surfing, kayaking, diving, fishing, and shopping. It is even possible to rent a Segway and take it all the way to Ventura. So much to do, so little time. Truly an exciting time to visit would be during the California Strawberry Festival held the third weekend in May featuring their most famous produce.

The Mediterranean climate makes it a perfect destination any time of year. When Portuguese explorer discovered Oxnard in 1542, he found the area dotted with round, grass-covered huts of the Chumash Indians, and declared it "the land of endless summers."