Ventnor, the Isle of Wight, Steephill Cove, Bonchurch and the Round the Island Race (Part 2 of 2)

PicMonkey Ventnor ParkOften referred to as ‘A Hidden Gem,’ there are two ways to access Steephill Cove, both by foot.  We chose the ‘upper’ walk taking us by Ventnor Park.  The gardens were in full bloom and stepping stones across a flowing stream enticed, encouraging exploration.  A family was enjoying the open green as I studied a blue plaque on an ancient tree, indicating the park as an important local amenity.PicMonkey Flowers by sea

Past Ventnor Cricket Club and the Botanical Gardens car park – the closest parking place to Steephill Cove – onto the downhill path that, as the name implies, is very steep (!)  We paused to admire the beautiful views out to sea where participants in the Round the Island race were visible in the distance and a helicopter hovered overhead, possibly monitoring progress.

PicMonkey Steephill Cove

Along the Coastal Path, a closed gate indicated the entrance to the privately-owned Steephill Cove.  Its original owner, in the 18th century, was the governor of the Isle of Wight who built a house there called ‘The Cottage’ with landscape gardens.  Changing hands after his death, Steephill Cove eventually was purchased by John Hambrough who, in 1835, replaced The Cottage with Steephill Castle.  Owners changed over time until, after World War 1, the Castle became a hotel and a school during World War 2, remaining empty until, beyond repair, Steephill Castle was demolished in 1963.  IMG_1854

Plates of lobster served to diners seated outside the Boathouse Restaurant looked delicious, definitely on the ‘to do’ list for our next visit when also we might explore the unique accommodation available at The Lighthouse , The Sail Loft and other interesting buildings on the beach front.  Last in line we reached The Shack with plenty of outside seating overlooking the sea.  Their crab and their prawn sandwiches arrived with lots of filling, salad and a pot of crisps.  Traditional tea was served in a bone china pot with matching cups and saucers:  excellent – a welcome change from tea served in pottery thick mugs, my personal dislike.  A cocker spaniel on a nearby table also was well catered for with a clean bowl of fresh water, clearly to his taste!  Many of the tables were protected from the wind by clear screens through which the rocky shoreline, sunny blue sky and racing stragglers were clearly visible, perhaps contributing to its convivial atmosphere.PicMonkey Steephill cove - 2

In the distance, off Ventnor Bay, a helicopter was flying unusually low. The wind had freshened:  ‘Is it checking on competitors or is someone in need of rescue?’ we wondered.  The helicopter disappeared as we returned via the coastal route up a fairly steep winding path taking us over the point before we descend to the family run free house,  the Spyglass Inn, that offered also separate accommodation overlooking Ventnor Bay.  Next day we learned that a yacht had become trapped on the rocks and the helicopter had ‘stood by’ while a boat pulled her free.

Retracing our earlier steps on the path beside Ventnor beach we noticed the Gnomon, an astronomical instrument for measuring the sun’s altitude using the length of the Gnomon’s shadow measured at noon.

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Further along, parents paddled and children played in the water surrounding the model of the Isle of Wight:  ‘A great idea,’ I thought.

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We rounded off the day with an enjoyable dinner of Moules Mariniere, Chicken and Chickpea Tagine with Couscous and a bottle of Hardy’s Shiraz/Cabernet/Merlot – not special but very quaffable with the tagine’s spicy taste.  The Rex Piano Bar is found on the ground floor of a 1920’s style apartment block, perfectly situated along the road from the Royal and Wellington Hotels, overlooking Ventnor and the sea.  Mohammed, the owner, makes guests very welcome.  We had caught up with his news earlier in the day when we made use of the restaurant’s small but comfortable outside sitting area to look across the bay while resting with a frothy coffee.   Over dinner we were entertained by Nick Page who accompanied his velvet vocals with good guitar and high quality dinner jazz, perfect for this romantic setting.  He sang many of my favourites, including Cole Porter’s ‘Night and Day.’  Many years ago my late musician husband had used the chords from this song to compose a tune that he called ‘Diane’s Day Out,’ fast and slightly frantic at times, whistles and bells indicating his view of my dashing in and out and about.  A great compliment.

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Next day we took the Coastal path east, turning up past the 11th century church to the small village of Bonchurch.  Interesting cottages and buildings form the High Street. The Pond café is open in summer, the pond on the opposite side of the street being a main area of interest.  A heron flew down to fish as we stopped to watch.  Various blue plaques throughout the Ventnor area inform on local history.

PicMonkey Bonchurch

We couldn’t leave Ventnor without dinner at The Royal.  A favourite, it is always a pleasure to visit and see how the climbing geranium is faring on its front wall.

PicMonkey The Royal Hotel Ventnor

Eventually it was time to queue for the ferry and return to Portsmouth, feeling great after our relaxing visit to the island and its ‘Hidden Gems.’.

Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower
Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower

 

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Ventnor, the Isle of Wight, and the Round the Island Race (Part 1 of 2)

Ventnor, Isle of Wight

Ventnor, Isle of Wight

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Mention the ‘Isle of Wight’ and memories of family holidays in the 1950’s, when we stayed in then fashionable holiday camps, spring to mind.

In Brighstone Bay on the south-west coast, we were awakened each morning by the camp loudspeaker’s ‘Wakey-wakey’ call.  Dad put a dressing gown over his pyjamas to queue outside at a strategically stationed tea trolley, returning to our chalet with two cups of tea, for him and Mum.  We children raced to find a seat at the long tables set for our breakfast, loving the fact that the adults ate elsewhere.

Pocket money purchased a plastic green kite, its ability improved by the extra weight added to its elongated tail, before it was released to fly high above the windy green grass cliff top, together with those of like-minded children.  We were well looked after with organised games, running races and swimming competitions in the outdoor pool.  I relished racing around outdoors, returning home with prizes for athletics and swimming, no doubt helped by my special black running plimsolls and the ability to swim a mile by the age of 9!

Probably I have inherited my love of new places from Mum whose special holiday treats were family visits to the nearby picturesque villages of Brighstone, Niton or Godshill, where small keepsakes were purchased.

I love still the beach and the sea – the old-fashioned sea-side – so am thrilled to be spending a few days in Ventnor taking advantage of its cliff top and esplanade walks.  The Isle of Wight, with its slower pace, is reminiscent of life before our modern urge to rush, race and whizz about, allowing little time to stand and absorb.

Isle of Wight ferry

The holiday starts as soon as the car is parked on the ferry in Portsmouth.  Even the cloud could not dampen our anticipation of a relaxing few days.  Passing other ferries and boats, the busy Solent reflected the various events taking place on the island this weekend.  The Royal Hotel in Ventnor was fully booked.  We were staying at the Wellington Hotel with town and sea views and within comfortable walking distance of various cafes and restaurants across from the beach below.  The one we chose that evening produced a good meal of local shellfish. IMG_1679 Next morning it was past eight o’clock in our comfortable room when the sun shining between heavy floor-to-ceiling curtains called us out.  We sipped tea on the wrap-around balcony of the Wellington Hotel’s best room, appreciating its panoramic seascape.  The bird’s eye view showed a few ‘white horses’ on some of the waves, whipped up by the fresh breeze.

‘That’ll make for exhilarating sailing.’

‘Tricky but not too large so as to cause capsize.’

‘Perfect for today’s Round the Island Race.’

The start was in Cowes where competitors left in stages.  Smaller dinghies were followed by larger vessels over the many hours it took to release the total 1584 entries, all hoping to complete the 50 nautical miles to the finish.  They sailed west past Yarmouth:  to Alum Bay with its coloured sands and the historical Needles Battery – a military base built in the 19th century to guard the west end of the Solent – it is located above the familiar chalk stacks that form the Needles. Rounding the Needles, boats enter rougher water off the south coast of the island as they pass the Bays of Freshwater and Brighstone, sailing on to St Catherine’s Lighthouse warning unwary sailors they are approaching the most southern point of the Isle of Wight.  Continuing eastwards, the boats emerge round the western end of Ventnor Bay, behind the Spyglass Inn.  Sails coming into view increased in number so – as we had finished breakfast – we joined other hotel guests outside.

IMG_1730IMG_1726 IMG_1719   IMG_1611 Back on our own balcony, we criss-crossed from side to side – snapping and zooming, zooming and snapping – ‘That one leaning with its red sail will make a good photo, no this is better.’ ‘Look, three racing close together….another catching them up.’ IOW round the island 2015 So many photo opportunities, it was difficult to stop, just a few more, click, click, click, zoom. Eventually, seeking more vantage points, we found a steep lane leading to the foreshore where children played ‘chase the waves,’ or dug their toes in the sand, seeming oblivious to the sailors striving for their personal best in the annual competition. IMG_1761

Coming ashore on Ventnor beach
Coming ashore on Ventnor beach

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After coffee at the family-owned Spyglass Inn where we took advantage of its proximity to the competing sailors, we meandered along the beach.  A left turn took us onto the path leading up to the recently renovated Winter Gardens where we paused to admire the waterfall and colourful planting.  The Winter Gardens re-opened in 2014 after undergoing refurbishment, but is not yet finished.  Meanwhile its programme includes tea dances and regular Friday music nights.  The bar and restaurant are open, providing simple refreshments with excellent views across Ventnor bay.  Below the Winter Gardens sits the Haven Harbour, built in 2003 as a safe haven for local fishing and pleasure boats, where mackerel fishing, boat trips, and a sea safari are offered.   A restaurant, shops, fish and chip takeaway, and workshop used mainly for the fitting of Cheetah Catamarans, add interest to the Ocean Blue Quay.

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The Winter Gardens Ventnor
The Winter Gardens, Ventnor
The Haven, Ventnor
The Haven, Ventnor

After  walking along the Haven wall snapping the boats sailing on towards Shanklin and Sandown Bay, we returned past the Winter Gardens to walk through town, deciding to head towards Steephill Cove for lunch.IMG_1644

The Haven Fairweather Harbour and Ocean Blue Quay
The Haven Fairweather Harbour and Ocean Blue Quay

Pinnocks Coffee House, Ripley, Surrey

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Sunday morning – a lie-in is allowed – Andrew Marr Show catches my interest.  Telephone call prompt urges quick leap to shower – meeting my walking friend, Nicola, in Ripley at 10.30 this morning.

Confusion over meeting place sorted. Nicola amicably agrees to start with coffee as I haven’t had breakfast.  Pinnocks Coffee House in the centre of the high street draws the eye.

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I’m treated to a fresh, nutty, and tasty almond croissant that accompanies our delicious coffees from the huge choice available.  Finding a comfortable space among the settees and armchairs in the beamed upstairs area we settle into our catch-up:  the locals are lucky to have this cosy meeting place on their doorsteps.

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Re-invigorated, we walk beside the cricket green, past the children’s play area, across fields, over a wooden bridge, through a copse of trees, returning by a more direct path towards Ripley High Street.  We are struck by the friendliness of dog-walking locals, and walkers without dogs.  Ripley Village is full of historical buildings and well worth a visit.   A pleasant place to while away a few hours.

The Hampton Court Palace Festival – John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra

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Question:  What could be better than sitting outside on a summer evening having a picnic and listening to live music?

Answer:  A leisurely walk around the East Front Gardens of Hampton Court Palace with your best friend:  laying a rug on the lawn to picnic with a glass of Champagne, before listening to a world renowned musical performance in a magical setting.

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Hampton Court Palace East Front Gardens

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Hearing John Wilson and his Orchestra playing during a televised performance of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, encouraged Paul to reserve tickets for their performance at The Hampton Court Palace Festival, this summer.  Our 6 pm arrival allowed plenty of time to wander about the spectacular and historic East Front Gardens, appreciating the dry weather, beautifully planted flower beds and fountains, the iconic building and its exciting ambience.

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Enough meandering, inclement weather had led us to forego bringing a picnic:  the scent of Italian pizzas drew our attention as we spread ourselves and the travel rug over the well kept lawn.  We were soon relishing the stone-baked pizzas that tasted as well as they smelt – delicious with glasses of champagne from the nearby tent.

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Hampton Court Palace Festival

Moving the large number of people from the outside grounds into the Palace took time and, by 7.45 pm the public was being urged to enter the Palace for the fifteen minute walk through to the Tudor Courtyard.

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 Hampton Court Palace Festival

Hampton Court Palace Festival

Tiers of seats faced the specially made stage while white clouds scudded over an atmosphere of anticipation.  The players arrived, a few at a time;  the familiar sounds of violins and other instruments tuning up encouraged latecomers to quickly find their seats.  An air of expectation settled over the audience.

 The orchestra was ready.  Applause increased as John Wilson walked briskly across the stage.  A celebration of MGM Film Musicals had commenced.

We were not disappointed.  The repertoire included music by my favourites, Cole Porter and Gershwin, among other talented composers:  Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Andre Previn.  Special guest vocalists Anna-Jane Casey and Matt Ford added glamour to the occasion.  The disappearing sun emphasised lights shining on the red walls:  special musical touches and unusual fun sounds from percussion players brought gaiety, while blankets to cushion the hard seats and maintain warm legs, provided outdoor comfort.

Hampton Court Palace Festival

Hampton Court Palace FestivalAs an internationally renowned conductor and arranger, John Wilson and his personally chosen ensemble were well able to turn what could have been a tricky situation into an amusing incident.  Thirty minutes into the programme, a chilly wind whistled across the stage, lifting sheets of music without favour before depositing them willy nilly, around musicians’ feet.   John Wilson made fun as the wind repeated its performance on several occasions:  pausing the orchestra between arrangements, to allow one of the drummers to retrieve and replace the important musical scores.

Hampton Court Palace Festival

By 10.15 pm the programme had reached its finale, drawing another special evening in the iconic Hampton Court Palace environment to a close.

Hampton Court Palace Festival

Paul introduced me to The Hampton Court Palace Festival soon after we met.  His favourite blues guitarist, Eric Clapton, was appearing with his band.  Complimentary champagne in the Waitrose hospitality marquee, and the ‘Star Clipper’ bag purchased during a solo holiday to the Caribbean before I met Paul, encouraged lively conversation with other guests.  Afterwards we set up our picnic on the lawn to consume smoked salmon, prawns, and our own special bottle of champagne, in the warmth of the June heat-wave.  My first Festival – an introduction to Eric’s music in this spectacular setting – remains a special memory.

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Dubai, Desert, Sunset and Dinner – Part Three

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The vision of vast miles of sand dunes – stretching for miles across the desert – was fresh in my mind as our feet sank into the soft sand, still warm from the disappearing sun.

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Shadows lengthen as dusk falls

‘The desert is wonderful,’ I thought, feeling its magical beauty.  Smoke was rising over the white walls of the renovated fort, bringing an enticing smell of spices and meat:  it reminded our hungry tummies that soon we were to experience a ‘typical Bedouin evening.’

‘I bet they don’t have many authentic bedouin here, it’s an opportunity to get money from the tourists,’ said Paul.  ‘Let’s see,’ I replied as we passed three or four camels, their mouths loosely tied, reined and ready to ride, their pommelled saddles resting on brightly coloured blankets.

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‘Choose a camel, it is safe.  The herder will make the camel kneel while you get on,’ said Mohammed, our driver and guide.  There were a few comments about camels having bad breath or biting, but several people took up the opportunity.  Paul and I declined.  We had ridden camels in Tunisia, afterwards feeling sorry for the restrictions imposed on them

‘The camels resting near the vegetable souk in the Buraimi Oasis, having crossed the desert with their Bedouin owners – when I was there in 1967 – had a far more interesting life,’ I whispered to Paul.

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Chicken curry at the Bedouin evening

‘Something smells good.’  We sniffed the air.  Dinner was cooking in huge metal cauldrons attended by men in crisp clean robes.  One pot contained white rice, another was full of chicken flesh and vegetables, simmering in a deep orange sauce; the distinctive spicy aroma of curry blew in all directions on the evening breeze.  An attentive chef proudly spoke.  His few English words were difficult to decipher but, moving his arms in a wide circle, he indicated that the main dish was a whole lamb.  It had been cooking since early morning in the authentic Bedouin manner – in an underground oven.  He stepped back to lift the oven top, allowing hot air laced with the delicious fragrance of herbs and spices to rise up above our heads.

Lady in hijab makes pita bread
Lady in hijab makes pita bread

Walking past the male cooking domain, we reached an Arabic lady wearing a black hijab.  She was seated in a circular area, making flat bread, or pita, her nimble hands making it look easy.

Nearby, on a long table were containers of fruit juice, water, or camel’s milk that I enjoyed so much I had a second cup.  The waiters were informative… explaining that camel’s milk is very rich, and warning that it could cause belching…. and farting!  Later, I was glad it hadn’t had that effect on me….. and so was Paul!

I learned that camel’s milk contains more vitamins than cow’s milk, including vitamin C, protein and fat, whilst being lower in cholesterol, enabling Bedouin to survive solely on camel’s milk when travelling long distances through the desert.  Wondering whether it made them belch or fart, I remembered that in Arabia it is courtesy to belch loudly after a meal:  a mandatory sign of pleasure, so probably they welcomed this effect.

The lamb had been removed from the underground oven; slices piled high on a serving platter looked tender and appetising.  Waiting our turn, we discovered people were from various countries:  France, Italy, the US and Australia, many English, and our friends from Brazil.  The majority spoke English and they had been collected by car or taxi from various hotels in Dubai city for this desert sojourn.  The mood was friendly and expectant.  Acknowledging the commercial side of such an evening, most felt it would be fun as well as offering an insight into Bedouin life.

Pita bread making area
Pita bread making area

Young men carried trays between the food preparation and dining areas.  With our new Brazilian friends, we sat at a wooden table beneath a green awning held in place with rope and poles.  Exclaiming at the fantastic array of side dishes appearing, we waited no longer and helped ourselves. Various group members verbalised their appreciation::

‘The pita bread we saw being made tastes so fresh, great for scooping up these deliciously tasty dips.’

‘Hummus, tabouleh and dips I don’t recognise.’

‘Salads with unusual herby flavours.’

We licked our fingers before realising finger bowls also were on the table.

Using her skewered kebab to point at the stuffed vine leaves, another Brazilian lady joined in. She had little English:  ‘Delicious, perfect.’  She kissed her thumb and forefinger indicating her appreciation of this varied Bedouin spread, continuing:

‘I must stop eating.  I won’t have space for the main dishes,’ rubbing her generous expanse of tummy.

‘Me neither,’ rubbing mine.

But we did have room and those dishes were splendid, especially the succulent lamb with mouth-watering flavours.  To complete the meal Arabic coffee was poured from hand-made brass coffee pots into small porcelain cups that, without handles, resembled large egg cups.  Finally, plates of small Baklava – very sweet cakes – were brought by the waiter.

Flaming torches are lit within the fort
Flaming torches are lit within the fort

By now it was dark.  Off centre between the two dining areas flaming torches were being lit and placed around a raised platform;  local musicians materialised when we weren’t looking and a male dancer in local dress with long leather boots, leapt onto the stage, brandishing a sword above his head in time to the musical beat.  After a while he changed the sword for a wooden imitation rifle that he whirled around his body, up and over his legs and up his back in a typical Bedouin dance.

A stone built building protected by the fort wall housed male and female toilets:  white porcelain with flushing and running water, sinks, taps and paper hand towels.  Surprised, I commented:

‘I imagined they would be simple sand squat areas, or chemical toilets in a wooden shack like those provided for the Abu Dhabi Defence Force in their tented camps, in the 1960’s.  But that might have been taking authenticity too far!’

Away from the light, the dark night sky was full of stars.  Outside the white fort walls, listening to the desert silence, we stood a while, picking out the Plough,  Jupiter and Saturn shining clearly and twinkling, enjoying this quiet moment together.

The fast sound of gypsy music grew louder as we returned to see a dancing lady in a brightly coloured blouse.  Her bare feet beat the stage as she flicked her long tiered skirt from side to side and back to front.  The rhythm increased with the booming beat until she bent forward from the waist with her head so low that her long brown hair reached the ground.  Her head swung swiftly from side to side, her hair whipping about.  The movements gained momentum, her feet beat faster and louder, hands quickly clapping, arms twisting, as she reached the final crescendo, throwing her head back to rounds of appreciative applause. IMG_2274

The air was cooling, the evening breeze picking up.  At our table some of the Brazilian contingent had left, making their way towards the parked vehicles outside.  Those remaining sat, eyes closed, leaning against each other.  I supposed Paul was chatting somewhere.  Whilst waiting I took a walk, committing to memory the night scene:  once flaming torches around the stage now dead, burnt out;  busy waiters in white shirts – less fresh than when the evening had started – collected screwed up paper serviettes and other debris from the fast emptying tables.  There, in the central area, I spied Paul.  He was sitting askew on one of the cushions that formed a comfortable rectangle, smoking one of the Shisha, or hubble-bubble, pipes set out and ready for use.

‘Everyone’s making for the Land Rovers,’ I said.

‘That was very pleasant,’ Paul spoke softly.  ‘A relaxing five minutes,’ rising slowly from the cushion.

‘Five minutes?’ I replied, chuckling.  ‘More like twenty, you looked as if you were in a trance….and I have evidence,’ tapping my camera.  We laughed.  IMG_2314

Paul enjoys the shisha pipe
Paul enjoys the shisha pipe

While Paul had been experimenting with the shisha, the evening had been winding down.  It was time to reposition our head-gear and return to our classic 1950’s open Land Rovers to speed through sand dunes lit only by headlights.

Arriving back at the entrance to the Reserve, we swiftly swopped vehicles.  It was warm and comfortable inside the People Carrier.  We were driven along deserted dual carriageways on our way ‘home.’  Tall buildings stood either side, until the tallest building in the world and symbol of modern-day Dubai – the Burj Khalifa – appeared on the horizon, and we were returned safely from the Bedouin’s desert encampment to our modern glass skyscraper hotels.

Photo of Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa

Footnote:  In 1999, to preserve the desert habitat, 27 sq km had ben set aside for the Reserve by the Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum:  70 Arabian Oryx were released and 6000 indigenous shrubs and trees were planted.  Also, in 1999, the Al Maha Desert Resort with spa pool was built.  In 2003, to protect the remaining desert landscape, 225 sq km was allocated to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum was appointed Chairman.   http://www.ddcr.org/en/

*Tour operated by Platinum Heritage, Dubai

Dubai, Desert, Sunset and Dinner – Part Two

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Sand dunes for miles Shadows lengthen as dusk falls

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Ten Land Rovers drove into the desert each carrying between six and eight passengers in Arabic headgear.  The drivers took different routes up, down, round and through the sand dunes.  We saw no more than the occasional vehicle, giving the impression that the desert belonged to us.  Arabian Oryx lifted their heads as we passed, unperturbed by the dust cloud flowing out behind.

Reaching a rendezvous point, we left the vehicles to clamber up the steep sides of sand dunes, the better to gaze across the desert as shadows lengthened and the sun settled lower towards the horizon.   Desert shrubs and trees indicated the presence of water beneath the surface and later, on our way to dinner, the driver stopped to show us various examples of native vegetation.

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Barely giving us time to clamber back into our Land Rover, the driver roared off.   ‘He’s in a…

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Dubai, Desert, Sunset and Dinner – Part One

dianesdaysout

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Our much-anticipated holiday started on Christmas Day.  We flew Business Class via Emirates to Dubai, the first stop on our six week break.  Paul and I were looking forward to our first local tour – a trip into the desert to watch the sun set over the sand and dine Arabic style in a deserted fort.

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A driver, whom we later learned was called Mohammed, collected us from the Hilton Hotel in Dubai Creek, expertly steering the People Carrier along busy dual carriageways, modern roundabouts and road junctions.  ‘I wonder whether we’re the only ones going,’ I whispered to Paul.  ‘It’s overkill using this size vehicle if that’s the case!’  Paul joked.  The upper part of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, was visible in the distance.  It reminded us of our disappointment at being unable to secure a reservation to visit this iconic building.

We were making good speed along a smart…

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