Friday, 6 February 2015

Dubai is everything I had hoped - and so much more

As previously published on Canada.com

Jumeirah Beach with the Dubai city skyline behind.


One of the most beautiful and vibrant places I have always dreamed of visiting is Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. It seemed like the most idyllic destination for people like myself, who dream big.

My dream finally became a reality this past December – and it was a trip that did not disappoint.

For Canadians, the imposed visa that plagued us for several years was lifted in 2014, making it easier and less costly to visit. When I learned that I only needed a passport to visit Dubai, I decided it was time to experience it first-hand.


A flight attendant serving champagne
I flew out of Seattle with Emirates, and spent almost 14 hours on a Boeing 777.

For those who can afford to splurge a bit, traveling in business class is the way to go. The pods have incredible room on Emirates, with seats that flatten down into beds. The impeccable service, including dinner served on china plates, is also highlight.

However with that being said, the economy seats are much like flying business class when compared to other carriers – with ample leg room and food, beverage, and entertainment included.
Jumeirah Beach Hotel
The Jumeirah Beach Hotel. [Kelley Scarsbrook]

I stayed at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, located along the Arabian Gulf, which has the most incredible beach for guests. Known for its wave-like design, the hotel’s beauty is obvious from both outside and inside. The Jumeirah boasts many activities for families, including scuba diving, tennis, Sinbad’s Kids Club, and access to the Wild Wadi Water Park located next door. There is a huge marina next to the hotel, with yachts and sailboats that can be chartered, as well as water skiing, wind-surfing activities, and five swimming pools.

The food is fantastic and accessible at any time from several of the restaurants on the property. I adored the Uptown Bar located on the 24th floor, which has stunning views of the city, not to mention divine drinks, and a stylish and sophisticated ambiance.

After my first full day enjoying the warm temperature (around a balmy 26 C) and lounging on the beach, I was excited to see Dubai’s landscape.

Firing up the hot air balloon
The desert in Dubai as seen from the morning hot air balloon ride.
The desert in Dubai as seen from the morning hot air balloon ride. [Kelley Scarsbrook]

I took an early morning hot air balloon ride with Balloon Adventures, which gave me a new vantage point on the city.  It was lovely seeing it against the backdrop of the sun rising over the desert – it’s one of those rare experience that you wish could last forever. The ride itself was very smooth, peaceful and remarkably silent, but what was truly memorable was seeing the herds of Arabian Oryx wandering below, as well as the camels making their way through the dessert. The company also records the whole experience from every angle for guests to purchase as a great souvenir.

Visiting the markets in Dubai is a definite must for visitors looking to get a better sense of the culture. Women are encouraged to cover their shoulders and legs to the knee, and though I did see some women who were not adhering to this cultural rule, I felt it was impolite to disregard local customs. I found long sundresses, along with a short, light sweater to cover the arms, to be an ideal solution.

City of Gold

I enjoyed exploring the Souk Madinat, which is an authentic recreation of an ancient marketplace with a traditional bazaar-like atmosphere. The sights and smells are delightful, and visitors can explore a maze of winding streets and open-shuttered shops that spill out in to the streets. There’s even a market packed with shops upon shops filled entirely with gold items, called the city of gold. It must be seen to be believed.
A local merchant speaks to a passerby in the Souk Madinat in Dubai.
A local merchant speaks to a passerby in the Souk Madinat in Dubai. [Kelley Scarsbrook]

The shopping in Dubai is a bit surreal. For example, The Dubai Mall is unbelievable. It’s one of the largest shopping malls in the world at more than 12 million square feet, and contains over 1,200 shops. The mall features the world’s largest candy store, an ice rink, one of the largest aquariums in the world, and more than 100 restaurants and cafes.  The mall is divided into sections, and if you end up in the wrong one you could be walking for miles – literally. Luckily, there are information pods set up throughout the mall, so when in doubt, visitors can just ask.

Another extraordinary place I visited in Dubai was the Miracle Garden, a flower garden with more than 45 million flowers on display. It also boasts some of the most imaginative, one-of-a-kind flower displays I’ve ever seen. Think Jurassic Park for flowers.
Miracle Garden in Dubai

Of course, no trip to Dubai is complete without visiting the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The skyscraper is one of the most impressive landmarks in the city, with stunning views from the 148th floor that give a great opportunity to see the beauty of Dubai from above.

The view from the top of the Burj Khalifa

The night skyline in Dubai.
The night skyline in Dubai. [Kelley Scarsbrook]

A lunch at 122nd floor restaurant At.Mosphere can make a great afternoon out of your visit to the Burj Khalifa. The restaurant is pricey, and features a well-enforced dress code, but the food, service, and gorgeous views make it worth the extra dollars. I had the truffle pithiviers (foie gras, perigueux sauce, and miner’s salad), with the chateaubriand for my main course.

The appetizer and main course had generous portions (considering it was lunch time) and were both beautifully plated and delicious. If you still have room after all that, the desserts are equally as impressive.
The "Straw-biosphere" dessert served at At.Mosphere in Dubai.
The “Straw-biosphere” dessert served at At.Mosphere in Dubai. [Kelley Scarsbrook]

An experience that truly exemplifies Arabian life though, is the desert dinner safari with Platinum Heritage. The trip beings with a journey through the Dubai conservation reserve, with stops along the way to watch the wildlife. Guests are then presented with a falconry demonstration at sunset, which was one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen. The falconer is an expert, and explained the history of falconry in the region, as well as both ancient and modern techniques.

Me with a falcon in the Dubai Dessert.

That evening under the stars, we were treated to a delectable, six-course traditional dinner, served on decadent table settings alongside silk carpets and beautiful cushions. It was all capped off with henna tattoos, traditional dances from both men and women, and a relaxation area with aromatic shisha pipes, which I tried and found delightful.

Camels waiting for riders during the Safari evening in Dubai
Another huge hit with the safari guests was the opportunity to ride a camel. As someone who has only seen pictures, it was a thrill to finally get a chance to see and touch these magnificent creatures. Having the opportunity to get up-close and personal with the camels, not to mention riding one, was absolutely the highlight of my entire journey.
Traditional dinner served in the desert with Platinum Heritage.
Traditional dinner served in the desert with Platinum Heritage. [Kelley Scarsbrook]

My time in Dubai seemed to go by too quickly. I recommend setting aside two weeks to truly appreciate everything the city has to offer, as there’s a great deal of things to see and do.

Dubai is a city that will seduce your senses. It entices the adventurer within and welcomes you with open arms to experience one of the most remarkable places on earth.

It’s a place where dreams and reality collide, a destination that continually inspires and awes visitors from all over the world.
Camels wandering in the dessert in Dubai

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Cruising in style aboard MSC Divina

Me aboard MSC Divina for a gala evening
As previously published on Canada.com

For many Canadians, taking a cruise can be pretty standard. You take in a show, swim at the pool, stop briefly at some ports and eat yourself silly on food that never lives up to your expectations.

On the competitive sea-scape of cruises based out of Miami, there is one that is making quite a name for itself, and is considered the new kid on the block in North America.
MSC Divina at sea.

And doing things radically differently.

MSC Cruises, known mostly for its European runs, increased their presence in the US in 2013 by bringing one of their ships from their fleet of twelve, the MSC Divina; to sail year round out of Miami, on a variety of Caribbean cruises.

An outside cabin on the MSC Divina.
An outside cabin on the MSC Divina.

The MSC Divina, which was christened in 2012 by legendary actress, Sophia Loren, has a sleek and sophisticated style, giving it an immediate stand out quality to other North American cruise lines in port.

The price point for cabins on the Divina are extremely reasonable compared to other cruise ships, and MSC has been offering specials each month to encourage North American travelers onboard. The cabins are spacious and beautifully decorated.

One of the Swarovski crystal staircases aboard MSC Divina.
One of the Swarovski crystal staircases aboard MSC Divina.

On boarding the Divina, guests are instantly drawn in by the two dramatic Swarovski crystal staircases, and the classical quartet to welcome them.

 The staff are keen to ensure guests find everything they need the first day, with people posted on every floor and available for questions and directions.

But what makes MSC Divina truly special, is its Captain, Pier Paolo Scala.

Captain Pier Paolo Scala on stage welcoming guests aboard MSC Divina.
Captain Pier Paolo Scala on stage welcoming guests aboard MSC Divina.

His desire to be close to his crew and guests on board is evident, taking every opportunity to be visible and accessible.

He is charismatic, open and willing to give his time freely to those looking to meet him.

He takes his job seriously as a captain with more than 20 years of experience in the role, and has dedicated his life (along with his expecting wife, who travels with him) to being at sea.

It’s clear he loves what he does, and it has trickled down to the thousands of staff onboard, who also love what they do.

Passengers enjoying themselves dancing with crew during afternoon festivities.
Passengers enjoying themselves dancing with crew during afternoon festivities.

As a result, it makes guests love being onboard, too.
It’s a simple concept, but one that appears harder to enact than you would think.

While service standards in the cruise industry seem to have hit an all-time low over the years, MSC appears to be leading, with its passenger engagement and services.

With an Italian vessel, passengers won’t be disappointed in the selection of food onboard.

Eataly aboard MSC Divina.
Eataly aboard MSC Divina.

These include the upscale Ristorante Italia and Manzo, a spectacular regional steakhouse, Eataly, which MSC has partnered with (it’s created by famous chefs Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and Joe Bastianich).

It’s an Italian specialty market and restaurant all in one, where guests can purchase authentic Italian food and artisan products.

The Calumet and Manitou Buffet restaurants are great choices for breakfast and lunch, and are ideal for a relaxed evening dinner.

Fresh, authentic baked pizza aboard MSC Divina.
Fresh, authentic baked pizza aboard MSC Divina.

All of their baked goods, including pizza, are made fresh on board, and not to be missed.

The Black Crab and Villa Rossa are MSC Divina’s main restaurants with large variety of menu options. Both are very elegant and the level of service and attentiveness by staff is impressive.
The vessel can accommodate 3,502 guests (1751 staterooms), and has seven restaurants, five swimming pools, theater, Internet café, conference center, gym and spa along with 18 bars and lounges.

Bowling alley in the sports lounge aboard MSC Divina.
Bowling alley in the sports lounge aboard MSC Divina.

One of my favourites, was the sports lounge, where guests can enjoy fun food including wings and chicken nuggets surrounded by big screen TVs and a bowling alley. This was a definite hit for both the kids and adults onboard.

In the evenings, the entertainment is top notch with shows that included Wonderland, Witches of Paris, and my personal favourite; Starwalker, a tribute to Michael Jackson.

The actors are incredibly talented and fun to watch.

The visually stunning show "Starwalker", a tribute to Michael Jackson.
The visually stunning show “Starwalker”, a tribute to Michael Jackson.

The shows are both lavish and well-choreographed.

The guests on board loved the shows so much, that a standing ovation happened each night.
Throughout the ship there is entertainment to be found at every corner. The cruise director, Andre Schlemmer, has made it that way on purpose.

Whether you are enjoying a specialty coffee or gelato in Piazza del Doge, where lively music and dancing can be found; or having a martini and listening to the ’60s music in the Golden Lounge, or dancing until the wee hours at a disco party in Galaxy.

There is never a spot where you can’t find fun.

Many daytime activities are scheduled poolside with morning aerobics, trivia-time, dance lessons, crafts classes and Italian language lessons.

Some of my other favourites included the baseball pro activities, where guests receive tips from the pros on hitting, fielding, base running and strategy.

There is a question and answer period with some of the baseball greats and a complimentary autograph session with all the stars. Each cruise has different baseball stars, but the host and MC for each cruise is former Yankee star, Stan Bahnsen.

Mary Lichty explains the concept behind wine blending to guests.
Mary Lichty explains the concept behind wine blending to guests.

A class on blending wines is offered for guests who want to try their hand at learning their palate and understanding how to blend wines. Participants can create and label their own wine to take home, or drink on board. It’s a unique class that is offered by Mary and Peter Lichty who provide a fun and relaxed atmosphere for guests.

The first aqua cycling class offered at sea by MSC Divina.
The first aqua cycling class offered at sea by MSC Divina.

A really unique activity to try is aqua-cycling, which is held at the garden pool. Guests have to sign up to participate and pay a small fee, but it’s the newest fitness craze, and the first one offered at sea on the Divina.

The bikes are under water, providing a natural resistance and great cardio workout, as you cycle to upbeat music.

Bacardi tour and tasting in Puerto Rico.
Bacardi tour and tasting in Puerto Rico.

The ports of call the MSC Divina visited during our trip, included Sint Maarten, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. For each stop, guests are able to pre-arrange activities for the day.

I arranged a sight -seeing, shop and beach get away in Sint Maarten, a San Juan panoramic and Bacardi tour in Puerto Rico and enjoyed the water activities in Grand Turks.

Snorkeling in Grand Turks.
Snorkeling in Grand Turks.

All of the activities were well-organized, and extremely reasonable in price ($30-$35 per person).
Elegance and affordability along with service and excellence, can all be found on MSC Divina.

For a new kid in North America, it’s navigated its way in to a class all of its own.

Sophia Loren must be one proud godmother.
 
 

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Palm Springs wows with retro vibe

Hanging by the pool at the ultra chic Riviera Palm Springs


As previously published on Canada.com

Palm Springs has found a way to seduce both the older and newer generation of visitors, who romanticize a time when legendary stars like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra could be seen walking down the street.

The legendary Riviera Palm Springs
The legendary Riviera Palm Springs

It’s why my mom and I chose this destination for our vacation together. For her, it was about remembering a time she grew up in – with stars she knew and idolized. For me, it was about reconnecting with a time that has now become cool and hip again. Retro is in – and Palm Springs has capitalized on it, in every way.

60's vibe at Riviera Palm Springs
60’s vibe at Riviera Palm Springs

Many of the older hotels and eateries have found a way to become relevant again. The Riviera Palm Springs underwent a transformation after it was purchased by the Noble House Hotels and Resorts in 2006 with the intention of bringing back the glamour and excitement of the 60’s, which was unveiled in 2008.

The hotel which originally opened in 1959, was a hotspot for celebrities and proudly displays it today with pictures of past guests including Connie Stevens, Elvis Presley, Nancy Sinatra and the legendary “Rat Pack”.  Renowned performers such as Desi Arnaz, Raquel Welch and Bob Hope graced the stage in the hotel, as well as Trini Lopez and Sonny and Cher.

The reception area in the Riviera Palm Springs
The reception area in the Riviera Palm Springs

With celebrity boasting aside, the hotel’s glitz and glamour can be found in every detail of the property since its $70 million rejuvenation on the 24 acres of property.  The hotel has thought of everything, and maintained its 60’s feel throughout its rooms; including its unique wheel shaped designed property, which leads to a central hub gathering area, consisting of a swimming pool, restaurant and lounge.

Dinner at Circa 59
Dinner at Circa 59

The hotel’s decadent restaurant “Circa 59”, embraces lavish décor and fine dining the way it used to be done – a place where you can get dressed up and enjoy a culinary delight.

For me, my favourites were the barbeque pulled pork and coleslaw sliders, truffle fries and the warm, sticky caramel pudding, which I was reluctant to share with my mom.

In the StarLite lounge, located at the front of the hotel can be found the gifted resident entertainer, Martin Ross, who wows guests nightly on the piano.  As someone who is a classicly trained musician and has performed around the world; his voice is the perfect fit for the hotel, and attracts guests of all ages. But be forewarned men, hang on tight to your ladies, because Ross is the impeccable blend of sophistication and extraordinary talent that can cause a swooning effect.

Resident musician Martin Ross performs at the StarLite Lounge at Riviera Palm Springs
Resident musician Martin Ross performs at the StarLite Lounge at Riviera Palm Springs

The family-owned restaurant Las Casuelas Terraza, has been serving authentic Mexican cuisine for the past 35 years, and is located in the heart of downtown Palm Springs. The Spanish-Colonial-style restaurant, has been restored and is a landmark not to be missed.  Their Enchiladas are unbelievably good, as well as their fresh guacamole. Their traditional classic margaritas will have you up and dancing in no time to the musical stylings of the Hot Rox band, who perform there nightly.

Rick Cowling from the band Hot Rox, my mom, Darlene Scarsbrook and famous musician Trini Lopez
Rick Cowling from the band Hot Rox, my mom, Darlene Scarsbrook and famous musician Trini Lopez

My mom loved the music which highlighted 50’s and 60’s hits, featuring guitarist and lead vocalist Rick Cowling. She was even more impressed when she was introduced to long standing patron and famous musician Trini Lopez, known for hits such as “If I Had a Hammer” and “Lemon Tree”. She couldn’t stop smiling the entire night.

A great way to spend an afternoon is doing the “Rich and Famous” tour with Best of the Best Tours.  The open-air jeep tour provides guests with a historical overview of the area, and a fun tour of stars’ homes.  I found myself intrigued by homes once inhabited by Elvis, Liberace and Marilyn Monroe.
My mom was fascinated by the home currently inhabited by Kenny Rogers. And one young man on our tour couldn’t stop snapping pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest digs.

Kenny Rogers' home in Palm Springs
Kenny Rogers’ home in Palm Springs

After our tour, we stopped off at Lulu’s restaurant, located in the heart of downtown Palm Springs. Another great dining experience with unique and inventive creations such as the skewer of peppered filet mignon which featured strips on a caramelized and grilled green apple, served with a Wasabi-mustard sauce.

A rotating tram car on its way up Chino Canyon in Palm Springs.
A rotating tram car on its way up Chino Canyon in Palm Springs.

Another fantastic activity for us was hopping aboard the world’s largest rotating tramcar and taking a breathtaking ride up the cliffs of Chino Canyon. The ride (which is approximately 10 minutes) takes visitors to the mountain station, where we got off to enjoy the view and trails (there are over 50 miles of hiking trails at the top).

Making a big comeback to the area are supper clubs. One in particular, The Purple Room, dates back to 1960 and was once a legendary hangout for Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

After extensive remodeling, the Purple Room now has singers six-night per week, allowing patrons to enjoy a great dinner and an impressive show, reminiscent of yesteryear.

Palm Springs is like no other place I have ever been. Its laid back charm lies not only in the past but also where it is today. It’s a place where you can strike up a conversation on the street with a perfect stranger and feel completely connected. It’s a place where you can see where stars once were, and where they are today.

Palm Springs welcomes the world through their connections to the past, and it’s a place that connects generations like no other.

My mom, Darlene Scarsbrook and me enjoying an evening together at the StarLite Lounge
My mom, Darlene Scarsbrook and me enjoying an evening together at the StarLite Lounge
 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Silver Star Summer Wine and Food Festival

This weekend, I am heading to Silver Star (nestled in the heart of B.C.'s Thompson Okanagan region) for one of the biggest events of the year.

With less than one hour away from the Kelowna airport - its an ideal place to feel like you are really getting away from it all.

The event hosted by Silver Star, is the summer wine and food festival happening August 8-10th.

The weekend promises to be a memorable one with Friday's feature dinner hosted by David Hawksworth (owner and head chef at Vancouver's #1 restaurant), Wine Masters' Dinners, food seminars, art gallery viewings, guided alpine flower hikes and of course the main event - The Mile High Wine Tasting presented by Valley First.

I'll be staying at the Lord Aberdeen Hotel. This Victorian-inspired hotel provides easy access to all the shops and restaurants in the area.

I'm also going to be doing a bit of biking on the Mountain to really experience this fantastic location outdoors.

Imagine sipping the incredible wines of the Okanagan under the beautiful sunny skies on the Mountain. I can't imagine a better way to spend a weekend. Tickets for the Mile High Wine Tasting are $60 per person.

I also have the immense pleasure of being able to interview David Hawksworth about his involvement with Silver Star, and look forward to sharing it with readers. His incredible menu for the evening has been specially crafted - composed of a four-course meal complete with wine pairings from select BC interior wineries and can be viewed here: http://summer.skisilverstar.com/s/my-activities-and-events/events/silver-star-summer-wine-food-festival 

There is also a cooking demonstration being hosted by David on Saturday afternoon.

For more detailed information regarding the weekend at Silver Star Mountain, you can check it out here: http://summer.skisilverstar.com/s/my-activities-and-events/events/silver-star-summer-wine-food-festival

If you are interested in attending - do it quickly as tickets for the festival and all the events are selling out fast!