A taste of Melbourne in Dubai

Emirates’ love for eating out for breakfast is only exceeded by their love for brunch and two Aussie expats have satisfied both those needs in Dubai with their exquisite Melbourne-style cafe, Tom & Serg.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is the absence of the quintessential bearded and tattooed Fitzroy barista. From its hip decor to the pastries on display as you enter, you really have to pinch yourself to remember you’re not on Brunswick Street.

While you’d expect expats to be the cafe’s biggest customers, they’re not. The east-meets-west menu is a favourite with locals. Coffee beans are locally sourced and roasted and, the moment your espresso is placed in front of you, the thick crema means you know it’ll be good – Melbourne coffee good!

Try the masala fried eggs served on a bed of tandoori roasted cauliflower, chilli cashew nuts and green garlic oats. Aussie Benedict is also offered, as is smashed avo and Vegemite on hand-cut sourdough.

For lunch there is a more substantial menu that includes burgers, Moroccan chicken, risotto, tacos and plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. Be sure to leave room for the salted caramel French toast. Served with blueberry poached pear, crunchy pecan and lashings of cream, might just be the best French toast you’ve ever eaten. After you’ve satisfied your gluttonous urge wander over to the nearby arts precinct at Alserkal Avenue.

Elevated luxury at Al Jabal Al Akhdar

Built in a region of Oman formerly off-limits to foreigners, it’s hardly surprising that Al Jabal Al Akhdar has generated some hullabaloo. And the fact that it’s only accessible by 4WD adds an extra layer of temptation and intrigue. Perched on a precipice some 2000 metres above sea level, this property sits right in the belly of the Hajar Mountain range. At first glance, the landscape appears barren, yet its valleys are freckled with Damask roses and pomegranate and peach trees.

So regardless of whether you opt for a canyon view room or a private pool villa, the views from this five-star hotel will not disappoint. Expect unadulterated luxury and resort activities aplenty (a library and cookery school are just two of the on-site options).

Bimmah Sinkhole is no oasis

Driving through the arid landscape of northern Oman, you probably wouldn’t expect to come across a roadside swimming hole – especially not one as otherworldly as Bimmah Sinkhole. Located in Hawiyat Najm Park, just an hour and a half from Muscat, this natural limestone pool was formed by a falling meteor, or so the legend goes.

Forty metres wide and nearly 30 metres below ground level, the crescent-shaped basin of vivid turquoise water surrounded by dramatic rock formations is perfect for a cooling dip. And best of all, Bimmah Sinkhole is easy peasy to get to because there is no hiking or long drives, as is the case with a lot of Oman attractions. If you’re lucky, you might be visited by the tiny, toe-nibbling fish that live here – think of it as a free pedicure!

 

Adventure Overload in Oman

When it comes to action, Oman’s terrain is an adventurer’s playground and this tour ticks all the right boxes. Begin at the ruins of Tanuf, where you’ll get a dose of technical cycling as you pump up a series of switchbacks before descending through date palm plantations and weaving among the mud houses of Al Hamra, one of Oman’s oldest villages. Later, amble through an oasis-like wadi to Al Hoota Cave. Here you’ll abseil into darkness and, headlight beaming, explore vast chambers littered with car-sized boulders and towering ’tites and ’mites.

The next day, reach dizzying heights at Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain. Witness the rippled chasms of Wadi Ghul – Oman’s Grand Canyon – before attaching yourself to a via ferrata and sidling along its ochre walls, with a kilometre-deep drop behind you. Cap off your adventure with a picnic at the top, overlooking the incredible landscape you’ve just traversed.

Discover the Middle East’s home of adventure.

 

East West Vibing at Buddha Bar Beach

It’s popped up seasonally in hotspots like Baku, the Maldives and the Greek Islands. Now Buddha-Bar Beach has found its first permanent open-all-year home on the luxurious shores of Abu Dhabi’s St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort. The concept, born in Paris more than 20 years ago, unifies elements of Eastern and Western culture, and this latest rendition of its restaurant-bar-lounge is a swanky day-to-night affair.

The menu, influenced by Pacific Rim and Far East flavours, shines as brightly as the glittering Arabian Gulf views with dishes that are art on a plate (the King of the Beach, a 48-piece seafood platter, is a masterpiece), while mixologists whip up aromatic cocktails to the DJ-crafted opus of electro and tribal rhythms and saxophonists moodily croon during the sunset sessions. Fair warning, though: prepare for all other nights out to be underwhelming after this.

Snow on the inside

It can be a sweltering 45°C outside, but at Ski Dubai the temperature is a constant, perfect minus two. It’s all part of the snowy mirage created at the Mall of Emirates. There are five runs, as well as freestyle zones for perfecting your tricks. And if you think there’s no chance for high adventure, perhaps you want to try the world’s first indoor black diamond run, at 400-metres long with a 60-metre drop.

For those more into chillin’ than thrillin’, there’s the chance to get up close and personal with the resident king and gentoo penguins. There’s a swag of packages available, visitors can meet the penguins, take part in a range of training sessions and even swimming with these adorable, fury delights.

Ride the UAE wave

What’s the last thing you’d expect to see tucked away in the far-flung sand banks of the United Arab Emirates? We’re guessing you didn’t just say the world’s largest surf pool, but that’s exactly what you’ll find at Wadi Adventure, a world-class water-based adventure park on the outskirts of the palm-fringed city of Al Ain. At 150m in length, with a maximum depth of 2.4m and the capacity to generate 3m waves every 90 seconds, this surf pool is one super impressive man-made accomplishment. Considering Kelly Slater, a legend of the surfing industry, has taken to the Wadi Adventure waves, you know this place is legit.

While the chance to hang 10 in the middle of the desert is as good as any reason to visit, Wadi Adventure is also home to the world’s longest man-made white-water channels. The complex has hosted the Middle East’s World Rafting Championships and serves as an elite training ground for the UAE National Rafting team as well as other kayaking professionals. Forget the water slides and kiddie pools of Wet’n’Wild, this is one seriously soaked experience in the desert.

 

Dubai 4WD Desert Explorer

This adventure with Biosphere Expeditions will shine a whole new
light on the wildlife in this desert destination. This immersive,
hands-on experience is dedicated to ensuring the survival of the
rare and fascinating species that live in the Dubai Desert
Conservation Reserve.

Traversing dunes by 4WD and on foot with scientists, you’ll focus on the Arabian oryx, the largest antelope in the region, observing them through the use of cameras and radio, and examining herd behaviours, habitats and food sources. You’ll also collect data for other animals that call the Arabian Peninsula home, such as the Gordon’s wildcat, the sand fox, and sand and mountain gazelles. 

Under the Cobblestones

Akko has the habit of getting older every year, but by 40 years.” Uri Jeremias, our host for tonight’s dinner and a man who looks as much like Santa Claus as any I’ve ever met, pauses like he’s waiting for us to solve his riddle. “When I started this restaurant in Akko 21 years ago, it was declared as 4500 years of living history, now it’s 5300!” He laughs, his long grey beard grazing his round belly. We clink glasses of Israeli chenin blanc in appreciation.

This is the last in a long line of impressive Akko (also known as Acre) facts Jeremias has been telling us as we’ve dined with him in his famed seafood restaurant Uri Buri, housed in an old Turkish stone mansion looking across to the Mediterranean Sea. Over the past two hours, as we’ve devoured his deliciously fresh and uncomplicated seafood dishes, Jeremias has told us that this small Israeli port city is a perfect example of co-existence. It’s where Jews, Arabs, Christians and Baha’í live and work peacefully together, without tension and almost no police or army presence – a rarity in Israel.

He has also told us that Akko is surrounded by excellent small farms and wineries, creating the high-quality produce and unique flavours that are putting Israel so firmly on the foodie map. It’s surrounded by stunning national parks and is historically rich too, he tells us, holding remains of Crusader towns dating back as far as 1104.

I understand all the convincing. After all, Akko is located in northern Israel’s Galilee region, where travel advisory sites will warn you to exercise a high degree of caution when visiting. It’s just a 20-minute drive from the heavily fortified Lebanese border and off the track beaten of most Holy Land tourists. Jeremias has already outlined how difficult it can be to promote international tourism to a region where the travel warnings are severe, and from where news stories in the international media are almost entirely bad. And yet, just one afternoon in Akko has already rendered any winning-over unnecessary. We’re completely smitten, and convinced that this northern region just might be one of Israel’s best-kept secrets.

Admittedly, these feelings have so far largely been induced by the charms of the Efendi Boutique Hotel. Also owned by Jeremias, the 12-room hotel is one of Israel’s most luxurious, a merging of two Ottoman-era palaces, that Jeremias spent eight years painstakingly restoring and converting with the help of Israel’s Antiquities Authority. After arriving earlier in the afternoon and admiring the meticulously restored ceiling frescoes, the 400-year-old Turkish bath and the Crusader-era wine cellar and bar, my travel companion and I headed straight up to the breezy rooftop terrace for a sundowner. The Mediterranean Sea was winking at us from a few hundred metres away. The Muslim call to prayer was ringing out around us. We looked out over the crowns of the city’s mosques, synagogues, churches and Baha’i temples and raised our glasses to unity. To finding, in a country largely identified by its divisions and conflicts, a place where different cultures and faiths live peacefully side by side.

As morning dawns, we step out onto the dishevelled cobbled streets of the fortified old city and wander through winding alleyways lined with ancient sandstone buildings, their window frames painted green and blue, washing flapping from lines strung across their facades. We pass Muslim women in head scarves and street signs written in Arabic, a just-married Christian couple having their wedding photos taken by the seafront, and smiling, wizened fishermen hawking their wares from hole-in-the-wall shopfronts. We peer into Ottoman-era granite caravanserai and through carvings in the ancient stone ramparts to the roiling green sea, and get turned around in the zig-zagging alleyways of the market, filled with the scent of spices and cardamom coffee, freshly smashed tahini and frying fish.

It’s a fascinating insight into Akko’s cultural fusion, and Jeremias was right; we haven’t seen a single gun-toting soldier all morning, a ubiquitous sight in other parts of Israel including the tourist hubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The most intriguing side of Akko, however, and one of the main reasons why its old city became Israel’s first UNESCO World Heritage site back in 2001, lies beneath our feet. Escaping the fierce midday sun, we make our way underground into the 350-metre-long Templars’ Tunnel. Created in the 12th century by the Knights Templar, it strategically connected their main fortress in the west to the city’s port in the east. Walking through the dimly lit stone passageway in the footsteps of the Crusaders is an extraordinary experience, and one that truly drives home the idea that this is one of the oldest living cities on the planet.

Soon, it’s time to farewell Akko and drive into the Upper Galilee to our next destination, Safed. We’re not quite ready to farewell the Mediterranean Sea yet though, so we take a detour along the coast to the Lebanese border. There, set into the cliffs hovering above the sea, we discover the Rosh Hanikra grottoes. A small red cable car takes us down to the caves, which have been naturally carved into the cliffs by the forces of the sea over millions of years. We wander through a network of tunnels linking the caves, stopping every few metres to watch the green ocean slapping up against the stark white chalk cliffs. It’s hypnotising and also a little strange, watching something so peaceful in a place just 100 metres away from where the 34-day Lebanon War raged over a decade ago.

The sun is starting to set by the time we arrive in Safed. A golden glow is sweeping through the town’s biscuit-coloured stone alleyways, setting the stained-glass windows that characterise the town ablaze. By happy chance our arrival in the city, a centre of Kabbalah Jewish mysticism since the 16th century and one of Judaism’s four holiest cities, has landed on a Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat day of rest. The town’s boutiques, restaurants and art galleries are all closed for the day, giving us the perfect opportunity to watch the quiet streets fill with devout local families strolling after synagogue. We walk along with them, passing men dressed in heavy black coats and rabbit fur hats with tight, shiny ringlets hanging by their ears. The women are in turbans, modest blouses and ankle-skimming skirts, many trailed by four or more children. It’s quiet; the air is still. We agree that this place seems touched by a special energy, but the atheists among us decide it probably has something to do with Safed being the highest town in Israel. A few hours later, however, we find ourselves on the rooftop of our guesthouse, chatting to the devout owner who has other ideas.

“There’s a reason why the energy in Safed is so special,” he tells us, nodding his head towards the mountains spreading out before us.

“The famous second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who wrote the Zohar (the chief work of the Kabbalah), was buried in that mountain over there. So, they say Safed has geula, or redemptive energy and light, coming down to it from heaven.”

Whether or not we believe in the geula, it has played a part in drawing spiritual seekers to Safed since the 16th century. Back then, Sephardic rabbis, sages and poets escaping the Spanish inquisition settled here, making it a destination for Jews wishing to get a blessing or advice from the rabbis, and giving the city a unique, bohemian character. Today this atmosphere remains and continues to draw not only Kabbalists and new-age hippie types, but also many artists and creatives.

In the town’s Artist Quarter, we spend hours exploring the dozens of small art galleries and craft boutiques, selling everything from handmade candles and jewellery to weavings and ceramics, scattered among the synagogues. When the heat of the day gets too much, we take the 20-minute drive to the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s biggest freshwater lake and the place where Jesus supposedly walked on water. The lake’s circumference is dotted with Christian holy sites, including the Mount of Beatitudes and the ancient village of Capernaum, and numerous small beaches. We stop at one called Hukuk, laying our towels out under the palm trees, surrounded by dozens of picnicking Arab families.

A lazy afternoon of slipping in and out of the water and reading on the grass ensues. We don’t see a single foreign tourist the whole time, nor do we when we arrive back in Safed for a sunset dinner at Gan Eden mountaintop restaurant. As we nibble tasty fish kebabs and charred eggplant salad accompanied by crisp Israeli chardonnay that golden light is thrown over the mountains once more.

Wine has been produced in the region since ancient times, but it’s only in recent years that the country has become known for its thriving wine economy. Of the its five wine regions, the Galilee’s high elevation, hot days, cool nights and well-drained soils make it the most suited to grape growing. As we drive further north, we pass through rolling hills covered in vineyards, that sit alongside orchards and cattle ranches. When we reach the Golan Heights, the closest area in Israel to the Syrian border, we also start to see abandoned Syrian bunkers and tanks. They’re sombre reminders of the tumultuous history of this area.

Conflict, however, feels worlds away as we start our hike through the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve. The rocky terrain is carpeted with dry yellow grasses, stocky olive trees and the remainder of spring’s purple globe thistle flowers. It is beautiful in that raw, elemental way Israeli landscapes often are. After 90 minutes of sweaty hiking, the earth finally splits open and drops into a lush canyon, from the bottom of which a deep natural pool beckons. As soon as we reach its banks we throw our sweat-soaked bodies into the cool water, and swim surrounded by hundreds of hexagonal basalt columns formed from lava flows millions of years ago. It’s otherworldly.

Afterwards, we lay out on the smooth rocks under oleander trees heavy with pink flowers. Aside from a lone park ranger quietly building a small rock cairn by the shore, we’re the only ones here. We wonder why, for perhaps the tenth time since arriving in northern Israel four days ago, this region isn’t crawling with tourists. For the moment, though, we’re glad we have it all to ourselves.

There is Freedom in the Desert

“What do you want in Jordan?” I’m asked as I attempt to cross the border. “Climbing and hiking,” I answer, trying not to blink or look dodgy. The border patrol looks at me with suspicion.

“Maybe a jeep tour, as well,” I hear myself say.

I am starting to sweat. The border from Israel to Jordan closes in 10 minutes and I have made it all the way from Tel Aviv just in time. I have no intention of giving up now. I was told by Shadi Khries, electronic music producer and one of the headliners of the SA7RA-OUI festival, to say as little as possible. No location, no names. The organisers want to stay under the radar.

I’m here to attend the SA7RA-OUI in Wadi Rum, a music festival, I’m told, that’s very different to the others. Hosted by local Bedouins, organised by a French production company and Jordanians from Amman, and attended by Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, French and Germans alike, the event embodies the bridging power inherent in music.

As Shadi puts it simply, “The desert gives freedom. We listen to what we want, we dance how we want, and we wear what we want.”

In this dried-up riverbed, all rules are different. Red rocks of sandstone and granite seem to rise randomly into the sky, reaching up to 800 metres high. “We call it The Valley of the Moon,” says Mohammad, one of the hosts from the local Bedouin clan. Dressed all in white with a traditional red keffiyeh – a checkered piece of cloth tied with a black cord around the head – he greets the first guests. Some arrive at nightfall by 4WD, their beaming headlights a beacon in the darkness, moving through the desert valley like a distant torch procession.

Mohammad shakes hands, a cigarette seemingly glued to the corner of his mouth. When he laughs, which he does often, he reveals teeth slightly stained by tobacco and Arabic coffee. “This is our land,” he says, and he is not wrong. Bedouins make up 40 per cent of the Jordanian population and have inhabited these dusty plains for around 500 years. Next to the dance floor, men are lighting a bonfire, and preparing coffee and tea for the newcomers. Hospitality is a crucial part of their identity. “We just continue our tradition – receiving strangers and wanderers of the desert, giving them shelter and food,” Mohammad explains.

For years, Shadi has been friends with the Bedouins from the village. “We agreed we have to break down all barriers,” he says in his quiet yet penetrating voice. “You have to be very careful, respect the place and find common energy with the people living here. It cannot be about girls, mingling and cocktails, but only about the music.”

This time, he’s invited Paris-based duo Acid Arab to be the night’s highlight. Members Guido Minisky and Hervé Carvalho interweave Middle Eastern strings, percussion and Arabic scales into the framework of electronic music, allowing instruments such as the rebab, oud and qanbus to dive deep into the fabric of the club sound. Whenever they hit a familiar Jordanian tune and twist the knob in the right direction, Bedouins begin jumping from the rocks into the middle of the dance floor, taking each other and the foreigners by the hands and moving to the beat in ecstasy.

“What an interesting experience – dancing in such a crowd,” says Simon, one of the attendees, his expression a mixture of excitement and astonishment. As the only Jewish guest from Israel, he rarely finds himself having fun with his Arab neighbours. “But this is the next step, this is transcendence,” he says before I see his afro disappear through the crowd.

Next to him, Spiro and Daniel from Bethlehem are shaking their dreadlocks. Their hearts belong to trance music, but they confess it’s a somewhat elusive love. “A trance or electronic scene is almost non-existent in Palestine,” says one. “You have to look for it.” According to him, Arab countries of the Middle East are still in their infancy when it comes to contemporary electronic music.

On the other hand, this is why festivals are still authentic, dedicated spaces for the true counterculture and the outcasts. Especially for musicians, bookers and producers from the underground scene in the West Bank and Gaza who have a hard time expressing their art and building a crowd. They lack funding, freedom of movement and visas to go abroad, making it hard to pursue an international music career. As a result, many bands have their fan base in places they can never visit; meanwhile their compositions travel across oceans to places like Paris, Brussels or Berlin. In the Middle East, however, music is a matter charged with politics and every line-up is a statement.

“If you want to listen to Acid Arab and dance without an intervention, you are forced to retreat to such remote areas,” explains Shadi. After the festival, he will leave immediately for Paris. Only the desert can seem to keep him a few days in his home country. “There is freedom in the desert. We have to charge this area with new energy.”

With these words in mind, I gather my belongings the next morning and shake the red dust from my hair, shoes and bags. Some guests have moved their mattresses to higher ground to wake up with the sunrise. Slowly, the light creeps up from behind the mountains. In the distance, a girl pulls her yellow suitcase over a sand dune.

Two 4WD rides, one traffic jam and three police checks later, I am once again facing the border. The Israeli official looks at me and I do not blink. He asks me if I have any Arab friends. “No, sir.” And if I have visited any Arabs. “No, of course not.” What did I do in Jordan? “Climbing and hiking,” I say with a smile. “Climbing and hiking.”