Food & Restaurants in Marrakesh Morocco – Part 2 of 3

The culinary experience of Marrakesh and environs

Al Fassia Restaurant MarrakeshMarrakesh.

We had to miss out on the famed Hotel Mamounia because it is [still] under refurbishment. We splurged on two “exclusive” dinners, one at the Jardins de la Medina, 21 Derb Chtoukah, Kasbah Marrakesh) which featured excruciatingly slow service and a waiter that told us that had we wanted a dressing for our salad, we should have spoken up at the beginning. That said, the cadre, inside this deluxe hotel, is attractive. The other “prime” address we visited was Al Fassia in Guéliz (“new” Marrakesh) where we had to reserve two days in advance to get a table. Owned and run by some Moroccan women, Al Fassia (+212 5 24 43 40 60) was well worth it; we gave it top marks for its service and décor and we particularly enjoyed the “pastilla de pigeon” (pigeon patty).
For more local fare in Marrakesh, we had a delightful Tajine at la Gourmandise (151 rue Mohamed el Beqal), also in Guéliz as well as tasted some fine local pâtisseries (Adamo, 44 bis rue Tariq Ibn Ziad, and Al Jawda, 11 rue de la Liberté). If there is one thing I learned here is that Moroccans don’t do good chocolate.
The other eating Marrakesh experience is of course at night in the Jamaâ El Fna square (picutred below). Once you get over the heckling, you can find a jolly good meal. Best advice: find the one where the majority of clients are Moroccan.
Jemaa el Fna Square Marrakesh Morocco

Ourika Valley.

For lunch on our trip through the Ourika valley, south of Marrakesh and a Berber heartland, we aimed to eat at a well-regarded spot recommended by the Guide du Routard; but, apparently, there have been too many Marrakeshis (and tourists) visiting this establishment, so the owner left to seek refuge and rest at a nearby 4* hotel. Clearly, the crisis has not dropped the shoe down here. Our attempt to go to nearby Dar Piano was thwarted as it too was closed, so we hit a lively, open air spot overlooking the river, in the buzzing town of Oulmès. Being the only non-Moroccans, we were the entertainment for the Moroccan patrons of the restaurant. We enjoyed in turn watching nervous Moroccan women wobble across a shaky wooden bridge. As with virtually all local meals, you can have a full family meal (for four) for around 150 dirhams or 15 euros ($20). Tajine (or couscous) is sold for between 7 and 35 dirhams (70 cents to 3.50 euros) depending on where you are. If the prices are not printed, you may end up paying at the higher end of the scale, but for a maximum 3.50 euros, a tasty tajine is still a great deal. In this particular restaurant in Oulmès, we got to learn that people still use the old rials to calculate prices (much like the old French franc). For the record, you need to divide by 20 to get from rials to dirhams.

Tahanaout, Route to Asni.

We took the children to Terres d’Amanar (on the route to Asni, near Tahanaout, about an hour due south of Marrakesh) on the one dismally rainy day of our holidays. The Terres d’Amanar is a large natural reserve featuring a resort hotel and a number of rough and tumble activities such as all-terrain bicycling, tree climbing, hiking, etc. We had made a reservation, but upon arriving, found no one at the welcome desk. Apparently, they didn’t expect us to make it through the drizzle. The kids played for twenty minutes on the wet slides, etc., before returning to the car satisfied for having invested an hour of driving time to get to the destination. The kids’ park is rather small. This is more for people (especially adults) wanting to do a full day of outdoor activities. It looked nice enough, other than the rain!

Ouarzazate.

Another day trip was out on the much less frequented eastern route toward the oasis town of Ouarzazate. We stopped off en route at Aït Ourir where we were fortunate enough to hit the weekly (Tuesdays only) souk. Unplagued by tourists, the vendors were decidedly less pushy and cloying. We profited by picking up some local fruit (tomatoes, chickpeas) as well as a local [crushable] hat for 10 dirhams. We ate a savoury lamb tajine at a local pitstop for the whopping price of 40 dirhams. The route to Taferiate provided for a few pittoresque moments, but beyond, the road desintegrated in quality.

Some advice.

When you want to eat at the local restaurants, the key is to check the food before sitting down. That means asking to take the lids of the clay pots to make sure that the food looks fresh and smells good. Generally speaking, on food, there is not the same threat of having to negotiate. That doesn’t mean that you won’t necessarily get a little tourist taxation, but prices are often printed.

Holidays Visit to Marrakesh Morocco Part 1 of 3

For our six-day visit to Marrakesh (or Marrakech if you prefer) en famille, we stayed at the not-even-opened Beldi Country Club Hotel (+212 (0)624-38-3950), on the route to Amizmiz, in Chérifia just 6 kilometres outside of Marrakesh.  Founded by Jean-Dominique Leymarie, the hotel is charm personified with a magnificent rose garden, splendid views of the Atlas mountain range (on clear days at least) and an entire infrastructure built from scratch using only local artists and talent. There are also myriad little cozy rooms in which to go and lounge about.

Beldi Country Club, Marrakesh Morocco
If the pools are not heated (a tad chilly for the April climate) and the tennis pro was more of a tennis am (as in pro-amateur), the lunchtime scene at le Palmier Fou around the Beldi’s southern pool was very Marrakesh haute société. The rooms are well done with lovely little details (cushy towels, soft cotton sheets and local “green” shampoo and body cleanser). The kids took advantage of some pottery classes (although 100 dirham per child per hour was a rather steep rate) with a transplanted Chilean artist. We benefited from the clay tennis court that was “unveiled” the morning of our arrival.  A second court is under construction.

Every day, we went into Marrakesh, visiting the hotspots as identified in the “Guide du Routard” including the visit of the trilogy of sites: Museum of Marrakesh in a 19th century traditional mansion, the Ben Youssef Medersa Koranic school, and some antique latrines.

On the 12th century latrines, one can literally take a pass. Not wanting to take the piss out of the historic site, there is not much to see here. The latrine’s explanatory board itself is almost out of sight. The visit of the 16th century Koranic school, on the other hand, is very worthwhile, especially to see the mosaics and lovely latticework in the stone and wood. Schooling up to 900 students at one point, this medersa is the largest in North Africa.

The stroll through the Medina souk with the jabs, taunts and enticements of the veritable carpet sellers does not diminish in stress over time. If this was my third visit to Marrakesh, the harassment in the winding souk is no easier to deal with. Yet, the magical buzz and clamour on the Place Jemaâ El Fna is no less enchanting than before. Between the snake charmers, the imprisoned monkeys and the charlatan magicians, the experience is remarkable. I can only imagine the strong imprint on the children’s minds.

We were spoiled by being invited to dinner in an absolutely magnificent Riad just outside the walls of the Medina, west of Marrakesh. The grandeur of the open skies, the multiple coves hidden away in the many corners, the ex-harem’s quarters and exquisite kilims, not to mention the wonderful food, made for a most memorable evening.  (Thank you to our local hosts)

Okaimeden Ski Lift Morocco

We made a number day trips, too.  We hit the valley of Ourika on two occasions. The first was tempered by heavy fog and rain, so we scrambled home to find the sunshine decorating our Beldi temporary residence. On the second – and substantially more successful – visit, we hit the town of Ourika (views), Oukaimeden mountain (skiing) and the village of Ourtes (lunch). The standout experience was surely the chairlift up the Oukaimeden mountain (3,200 metres peak), situated just 75 kilometres from Marrakesh. It was April 12th and we saw some thirty or so Moroccans swishing through the slush in equipment dating back to the end of the 20th century. Most authentic. The chairlift (25 dirhams per person round trip) is operated by the “Office National de l’Eau Potable,” translated to the National Office of Drinking Water. The ticket (see left) warns you that, in the case of stoppage or temporary closing of the slopes, you have no recourse on your 25 dirhams. While extremely slow, the ride was peaceful and offered some great views on the way back down.  Hard to believe that in April, you can ski in Morocco, but we have unadulterated proof. Nonetheless, not much would have tempted us to rent the archaic equipment to struggle through the thickest, wettest snow you are likely to see.

We took the kids to the water park Oasiria (route d’Amizmiz), run by a man from Toulouse, to enjoy the local attraction along with a mixture of French and well-to-do Moroccans. On balance, there were not many people and there were certainly no lines for any of the rides. Oscar (12) enjoyed the “camel” ride, a booming water slide.  On the downside, the wave pool takes 15 minutes to generate its waves. Unless you know people, you can’t last much more than four hours, especially if the weather is not too warm (only one heated pool).

I will write again with a review of food (part 2) and some commentary on Morocco (part 3)!  Watch this space.  In the meantime, your comments are, as ever, welcome.

Oh Trip – A good blog resource for European Holidays

In the realm of other blogs that I have come across, if you are looking for a blog about travelling in Europe (mainly Paris, Rome and Barcelona), try Oh Trip (it’s the travel blog of the European accommodations site, Oh-Holidays). For example, if you want to know about the 10 most romantic things to do on Valentines in Barcelona, I say start with going to Barcelona, a romantic city in itself. Or, if you want some sightseeing tips for Paris, there are a few good ones here. It’s a good site with lots of resources if you want to find out what to do; it covers local scams and-tourism as well.

Review of Manila Hotel Philippines — December 2008

Manila Hotel, Philippines
A historical landmark built in 1912, the 5***** Manila Hotel is a “venue for big events and grand aspirations” as is emblazoned all over the place, including in each room over the television. As for our two nights, just before Christmas, it was not exactly a grand experience.

Unfortunately for us, we came while the hotel was under renovation which meant that the Ilang-Ilang cafeteria was more like the Bang-Bang cafeteria, as we ate amid a chorus of hammering. To boot, the food was absolutely mediocre at Bang-Bang. The other downside to the renovations was that there was no swimming pool or tennis court. Instead, we were given a voucher allowing us to go to the Pan Pacific Hotel‘s pool (5-10 minutes away).

The hotel’s large reception hall featured live music with one of the squeakiest, whiniest violins, trundling out Vienna waltzes and Christmas carols. There was also a surprising gingerbread house, large enough to host kids and made entirely of real ginger bread. Outside, Santa Claus was a regular feature.

On the entertaining side, we were witness to a steady stream of weddings (surely because we stayed Saturday and Sunday), proof enough that the hotel has its standing in the Manila community. That said, we seemed to be in Manila in prime wedding time, right before Christmas (December and June are the two high seasons for weddings). Over the same weekend, there was an ally-ally-in free wedding whereby some 270 couples were married ensemble for free as a gracious gesture by the City. And each time we went to visit a church, whether it was the Manila Cathedral or St Augustin Church, weddings were in full swing, limiting the scope of our churchly visit.

Overall, the Manila Hotel was decidedly average, even if not 5 star pricing. The final straw was that our room featured cockroaches which rendered our bill less onerous. All said, the Manila Hotel may be a landmark, but it is clearly living on its colonial laurels. Hopefully, the renovations will bring it up a notch or five.

Kenya Safari Holidays April 2008

Kenya – A Recap of our 6 days in the Great Wild Bush

We arrived in Kenya at Nairobi International airport on our holidays in May and, somewhat predictably, spent the first 30 minutes in a highly disorganized line up to get through customs. We had already purchased our tourist visas at the Kenyan Embassy in Paris only to find that you could do the same thing at the airport customs counter. In fact, buying the visa at the customs counter would have been quicker than the time we spent in the “regular” queue to have our passports stamped–much less when you add the two separate trips to the Kenyan Embassy in Paris. Our main confusion was that we didn’t know which queue to join. There was an empty counter for “All Other Nationals” and two other manned counters for “Kenyan nationals” and “East African Nationals.” When I think back on the customs lines in Paris’ CDG Roissy airport, I believe the confusion is probably comparable, but it is always more challenging to figure out in a foreign country.

Our guide, Ibrahim, met us outside the baggage claim. We then made an one-hour journey – through some back roads – to the house of my old Kenyan friend and schoolmate from the Old Mathouse (OMH), Martin Seth-Smith (Ker & Downey Safaris Kenya). Along the way to Martin’s, we were able to view the Kibera slums (which are the second largest slums in Africa and even more impoverished than the townships of Alexandria and Soweto in RSA). We had a wonderful evening reminiscing and catching up. The next day, we headed off at 8am, in a deluge of rain.

Our driver, Ibrahim, was a stalwart, serious and gracious man. Aged 68, Ibrahim presented himself more like a 50-55 year old. Having been a guide for 35 years, he knew all the roads well and safely steered us through our 6-day trip. Ibrahim, a Muslim, comes from the Kalenjin tribe (a tribe known for its long distance runners, and the tribe from which came Kenya’s second President, Mr. Daniel Arap Moi). Ibrahim described how he used to run 10 miles to and from school that was situated on top of a hill.

Among the marvelous experiences in Kenya, and despite being in the rainy season when animals are not migrating through Kenya, we managed to spot each of the Big Five, including a rare and fleeting view of a scampering leopard, as well as just one cheetah (one of the remaining 15,000 on this earth). While we were out looking for animals, I wanted to pick up a bit of Swahili. Cheetah in Swahili is Duma (the name of one of our most wonderful babysitters when we lived in Paris back when…). The cheetah can get to 45mph in 3 seconds and looks so approachable… Tricky.

At Mara Intrepids in the Maasai Mara (6 hours from Nairobi), the tented sleeping arrangement was a first for us all. Including the enormous hippo sounds that woke us in the early morning, it was a wonderful experience. Also, the children absolutely enjoyed the Maasai tribe induction where they were entertained morning and afternoon with bow & arrow making, Maasai clothing and dancing (or rather jumping vertically). The Mara Intrepids Camp was, all told, the best quality we experienced.

We did one night at the idyllic Sweetwater tented camp. The restaurant-side watering hole that attracted all forms of animals was a great spectacle. One highlight was the visit of Morani, (the Little Warrior) the tame black rhinoceros (photo to the right). A pleasant home video on Morani was done here on YouTube. We also did a 1 1/2 hour “night safari”, which, at the heady price of $80/person (including the kids), was a complete fiasco. Aside from the fact that the only animals we saw–that we were not able to see during the day–were one big white owl and 2 mongooses (or should that be mongeese). And, what other animals we saw, the one spot light lamp gave us a poor viewing. Of course, the hoped-for “hunt” was not to be had the evening we went out. But, the main problem with our ride was the impact of a rain shower that rendered the road into a skating rink. We got stuck in the mud twice and, with the jeep bucketing from right to left and back, our eyes were glued on the road rather than on any animals.


Driving from camp to camp afforded us a view of the “inside” of Kenya as opposed to airplane hopping and just seeing the refined camps sites. This meant that we saw the poverty of rural Kenya, the hard working farmers, the lounging men, a woman carrying wooden benches (tied by rope and affixed around her forehead) and the enormous number of young children, many of whom were sitting on the side of the highway. There were even a few instances when I spotted machete-wielding children.

Driving on the roads of Kenya meant that we also saw the state of the infrastructure. Some of the roads were in such poor condition and so bumpy, it made picking your nose an extremely hazardous (if just as unsightly) habit. You also see the presence of police – there were police checkpoints roughly every 15 kilometers. We were stopped only once in the 7 days.

In another insight into the Kenyan way, on our way down to Amboseli, we had to make a stop at the Catalyst Travel Agency office in Nairobi to meet John, the “agent.” In an unfortunate and ungracious act, John (read: the boss) dropped 48 bottles of water on the street beside the jeep and obliged our guide to pick up the bottles without lifting a finger to help. An unnecessary humiliation

After our visit to Sweetwater, we made a brief stop at the Sweetwater Primary School, run by Mr Peter Bitaka. We met all the children and delivered a little care package. Education will be at the heart of progress in Kenya as in so many other developing countries.

Kenya, whose name was abridged from the Kikuyu name of Mount Kenya, Kiri Nyaga (“Mountain where God is”), boasts a population of 35 million people, up from 7 million 40 years ago. According to Wikipedia, the major ethnic groups of Kenya, which has 43 different tribes are as follows: Kikuyu 23%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 11% (such as our guide Ibrahim), Kamba 10%, Kisii 6%, Meru 5%, Maasai 1.8%… I believe the 1.8% Maasai might be understated. In any event, driving through Maasai Mara, you obviously see mostly Maasai and, it would appear that it is a group that is growing fast. Non-Africans (Asian/Desi, Anglo-African/European, and Arab) amount to 1%. Refuting Wikipedia’s entry, I also believe that there are many more Indians, especially in the Mombassa region.

In terms of religions, Wikipedia lists the religious affiliations accordingly: Protestant and Quaker 45%, Roman Catholic 25%, Islam 10%, Traditional Religions 10%. Apparently, for those of you studying US social studies and the founding of Pennsylvania (like my son), Kenya actually contains the largest body of Quakers in a single nation.

For a review of the 4 lodges we stayed out, we’ll go with a quick star system:
1* (poor) up to 5* (great)

Animals Accommodations Service
Mara Intrepids (Maasai Mara) **** ***** ****
Sarova Lion Hill (Lake Nakuru) *** *** ***
Sweetwater (on the Equator) **** **** ***
Serena Amboseli *** ** **

While we went in the midst of the rainy season, we were lucky enough not to be dumped on too badly. There were few people in the lodges (the first three we were running at something between 30-40% occupancy). As for the political unrest, there was nothing to see. We were spoiled with views of Kilimanjaro on both days. A French journalist we met at Amboseli told us that there were many more animals to see in Tanzania. That did not stop us from seeing plenty of animals and enjoying our safari experience. However, next time, maybe we will head for the land of Zanzibar…

Emirates Airline marvels again on Nairobi-Dubai-Paris

Emirates Airline logoAfter a first experience on Emirates Airline, two weeks ago (post here), I have since taken three more flights with Emirates (EK). Turns out our first experience was not one-off. We flew from Dubai to Nairobi a week later, then on Thursday we did a double header: Nairobi to Dubai (5 hours) then Dubai to Paris (7 hours) with a two and half hour layover in Dubai’s bustling airport. Each time, the flight (in Economy) was a pleasure.

This last time, we added a special wrinkle, something we could have made a real flap about: a last minute injury. At 1pm on Thursday, our very last day on holidays, my son, Oscar, fell by the pool on a lava rock and gashed his knee. So badly, that it needed 6 stitches which were put in by the Serena Lodge (Amboseli) medic. The “operation” took over an hour and a half (including having to find him, first) and happened on our room’s balcony (i.e. outside), replete with monkeys onlooking (photo to right; one of them finally managed to steal some cotton).Kenya Amboseli Monkey watching first aid

With Oscar sown up, we hit the road (and in Kenya, that is not an understatement). Our valiant driver, Ibrahim, took us to Nairobi airport in a little over 5 hours, with Oscar stretched out in the backseat. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and were able to get a decent seat for Oscar in order for him to keep his leg straight as much as possible.

On the flight EK722 (May 1) to Dubai, the staff were good enough to reserve a set of four seats which allowed Oscar to sleep stretched out for the full 5 hours. I would like to signal out the kind Dubai Airportservices of Mohamed Haji. When we got to Dubai, Oscar got a fast and furious nose bleed. This afforded us a visit to the Dubai Airport medical centre. A doctor from Senegal and a nurse from Kerala, India, took care of Oscar’s nose then reviewed and re-dressed his knee. All clear. And very civilised! Then Oscar was taken by wheelchair to the “Special Handling” area which meant a comfortable seat, juice and biscuits… The rest of us managed to find seats outside (although they are at a real premium at the overcrowded Dubai departures level).

Our flight EK073 (May 2) from Dubai to Paris was as pleasurable as the flight out (again on the Boeing 777-300ER), if different because of Oscar’s leg.

Here are the further thoughts I would like to add to the prior post regarding the EK service:

* The flight attendants are very international — intentionally, Emirates recruits from a very wide array of nationalities, allowing them to announce at the outset: “On this flight, we have crew members speaking the following languages…” On this EK073, there were 10 different nationalities. Some kind of proof that diversity pays! The wonderful staff that helped us out included the energetic Lydie (an Aussie) and dapper Aman. There was also the kind Z’ied (notEmirates Airlines ICE sure on the spelling).

* Each seat is equipped with a “ICE” (information, communication, entertainment) system. The ICE digital wide screen is a touchscreen (super easy to use) and is as good as it gets.

* The USB slot at each seat (to the right of the telephone-cum-“remote control”) is to allow passengers to view your holiday pictures on the wide screen TV or to listen to your personal media player through the ICE system. IPODs can even be read if they are set to “disk mode.”

* The ICE booklet (for May) is very agreeable to read and shows the extremely wide variety of options and selections available. It even includes a set of good old rock’n’roll box sets, a random set of audio books (Crime & Punishment, David Copperfield, Tom Peters Live in London…), comedy (Monty Python, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers…) and a brief guide to the anthology of major composers and classical musical periods over the past 500 years (nice pedagogical touch, no?).

In any event, as if I needed any further proof, the very day we took our flight back, the newspapers were splattered with the Emirates financial results: profits rocketed up 62% to Dh5.3 billion in fiscal year 2008 (Mar) on revenues of Dh41.15 billion, despite a Dh1.83 billion extra fuel bill. As this Gulf News article writes, Emirates Airline is indeed an important part of the Dubai success story:

“Emirates contributes about Dh47 billion, or nearly a quarter of Dubai’s Dh198 billion GDP, to its economy, the airline said yesterday.”

Hopefully the bosses of these flight attendants will get wind of their great service. In the meantime, I can only say: fly Emirates whenever you can!

Comments and Thoughts after Visit to Dubai 2008

OUR VISIT TO DUBAI FOR FAMILY HOLIDAYS

Dubai - 20% of world's active cranesRarely does one get a chance to see a city in the making, especially if you have lived all your life in “old” Europe and/or the East Coast of America. For those in the Shanghai’s of the world, it is perhaps current currency. Dubai was my first such experience, where there are an enormous number of cranes constructing the city in front of your eyes. According to a number of sites (for one, see here), 20% of the world’s active cranes are in Dubai City. You wonder if or how all the empty spaces will be rented out at the promised exorbitant rates. But, you do get the feeling that Dubai is the new promised land…

Dubai - Camel, the desert and modern technologyFashioned with verve, ambition and purpose, Dubai is a fascinating place to visit. For such a lightly populated city, it has many surprises, especially in terms of its diverse architecture. Dubai is a hybrid of many cities. At times, you see can the Las Vegas inspiration (all along the road to Bab Al Shams you can see large detoured billboards representing the type of resort to be constructed by the Al Bawadi Group over the next 8 years). The project involves the building of 12 enormous themed tourist attractions (as in “Andalusia” photo to the right below, or Asia Asia, Europa, Musica, Americas, etc…) that speak to Dubai’s international appeal. Then there is the NYC feeling of the monster skyscrapers–albeit with Dubai - Andalusia Theme Attraction en route to Bab Al Shamsa greater density of interesting architecture–along Sheikh Zayed Road. Down at the Dubai Marina, you might as well be in Dubai - Modern Skyscraper with Arabic TouchMiami. That said, Dubai also has its own markings, including the Arabic finishing touches on many of the skyscrapers, and wonderfully decadent hotels lining the beach (numerous 7* locations, if not necessarily 7* in service, certainly in price). To make sure you aren’t in the West, you also have the painted camels (ex cows) dotted around the city and beach (see down below for one fine example).

The Dubai airport is an experience unto itself. The diversity of people lining up at immigration takes a page out of the United Nations yearbook. It would even have been proportionate representation except for the relative under-representation of the Chinese. The airport, which is open 24/7, is just bustling with activity. Its duty free stores are the most active in the world–the liquor stopover is elemental for all Dubai residents as it is impossible to buy liquor in town.

Our first port of call, after profiting from the “inside the airport” 88-room NH Hotel, was the delightful Bab Al Shams desert resort (part of the Jumeirah Group). Along the way, you go through the Desert Gates (pictured below).

Dubai - Desert Gate en route to Bab Al Shams
The authentic outside-in-the-desert dinner at the Al Hadheerah, replete with horse show, camel riding (photo on right) and a variety of dancers, was a lovely first ‘night out.’ You can also have your personalised henna painting or partake in a traditional Shisha. Altogether, we spent two fairly slothful days at Bab Al Shams, including a one-hour camel ride — a warning to those who don’t know: a camel’s girth is huge and for your legs, therefore, riding a camel can Dubai - Al Hadheerah Desert Restaurant Camel Showbe a tortuous experience. As I mentioned above, on the way to and from Bab Al Shams, you see at once the desert of the past and the Dubai of the future. With all the themed resorts along the road (due to be built between now and 2014 — see here for virtual vision of the future projects), Bab Al Shams desert resort will likely become some day Bab Al Shams downtown resort.

Moving to the city, we next stayed at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, where we had a lovely experience, benefitting from the splendid family activities available (especially the Wild Wadi 12-acre water park). The beach facilities and amenities, the multiple pools and ever-available buggy services were just perfect. We also enjoyed a very lively dinner at our friends Peter and Isabelle who live in Jumeirah 1 [thanks!].

The mega hotels in Dubai, dotted along the beach, are impressive. The standout architectural novelty, Burj Al Arab Hotel (below in the distance), comes complete with helicopter pad (cum tennis court) on the 25th (top) floor and a panoramic restaurant/bar on the other side that will cost you $500/pp on average for dinner. In typical extravagance, the hotel offers helicopter or Rolls Royce airport transfer for a ride that only takes 20 minutes (without traffic) or costs 40 Dirhams (c. 7€ or US$10)
by regular taxi.

Dubai - Medinat Jumeirah Hotel + Burj Al Arab
At Madinat Jumeirah, down the coast, is an Arabian-style sprawling complex with 3 different hotel environments (Mina A’Salam, Al Qasr and Dar Al Maysaf). There are nearly 600 rooms & suites, 29 summer houses and 7 royal villas (each with a private pool). And with each of the estimated 30 pools in the complex, there is a lifeguard (by law) through to 10pm. With guards sitting even at the private swimming pools, there is not much room for skinny dipping and it certainly is an intrusion on romance. We enjoyed a lovely abra ride around the Madinat creek, a visit to the “souk” (aka another big name mall) and dinner at an Arabic/Lebanese restaurant (one of 45 restaurants located in the Madinat complex).

Dubai - Painted Camels instead of CowsAside from the muezzin and ever present veiled women, you get a sense of the formalism in Dubai after reading the newspapers. When reporting on the country’s ruler, you can read on any one page of the Gulf News up to ten times the full moniker of “Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, his Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum” (which, once you have written it once, you can apparently reduce to Sheikh Mohammed for short). Of course, you will also see multiple references to Abu Dhabi President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, not to be confused with General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Sure makes one appreciate terms like Sarko and GW.

Burj Dubai Tower - Projection LookAmong the curious sights, you will see buses after 5pm in rush hour, packed with exhausted Indian construction workers, their heads bowed in sleep, leaning on the headrest of the seat in front. Earning a paltry 700Dhs per month for non-stop 12-hour gruelling days, they are at the low end of the totem pole (and are frequently treated as such by the locals). There are apparently 20,000 workers at the Dubai Burj Tower alone, working day and night. We were driven onto the construction site of the world’s highest building by our driver — unheard of access in western countries. But it is an impressive sight to see cranes functioning some 629 metres (today’s current height) up above you. The building’s completion date varied according to the person with whom you were speaking. And its final height has been kept under veil as well (some figures point to surpassing 800 metres– wikipedia says 818 m).

I have two astonishing mental images to share with you (not photographable). First, was one of a fully veiled woman driving an SUV with dark windows. The second was when a young (25-years-old) Emirati drove up beside me (seated in the taxi passenger seat) at around 60kmh and, burnishing a big smile, faked turning his SUV into the right flank of the taxi. Very pointed.

Deira Dubai by NightSpeaking of DTA taxis, which were nationalized in 1997, there are 12,000 of them in Dubai — apparently not enough for the peak hours and, because of the heavy traffic, invisible in downtown Deira (the other side of the Creek – night time photo to the left)… But, virtually all the taxi drivers were polite and service oriented.

As for taxi economics — a topic which continues to interest me (a hangover from «Freakonomics»?) –I found one willing driver, Mohammed, who revealed all. If a car (whether the driver is solo or partnered) earns Dhs12,000 in a 30-day month (i.e. the car must rack up Dhs400 every single day 7/7), the driver earns a 35% commission. With the metre feeding directly into HQ, every move of the taxi is recorded. All the petrol and insurance, etc., is taken care of. Therefore, a solo taxi driver can, if he makes the quota, earn Dhs4,200/month or about $650USD.

As usual, each “foreign worker” sends home any excess cash. And, of course, a majority of the Dubai residents are “foreign workers.”

There is a very clear cultural division (of labour) when it comes to the jobs. Here is what we discovered:
* The non-officer Police are from Yemen.
* The Taxi drivers are Pakistani (also heavy trucks) or Indian [all of the ones we had were from Kerala]; any female taxi drivers are Filipina.
* Personnel in the hotels are mostly Filipino and Sri Lankan.
* The technical jobs are also won by the Filipinos.
* You will find Bangladeshi as waiters.
* And, as for the Emirati–those that have to work–you will find them at the airport and as officers in the police force and army.

Dubai - A city with verve but still under construction
Dubai is a modern marvel (perhaps a lovemark unto itself!). In the image of the monumental Burj Dubai Tower, its future is inspiring, but not ensured. It sometimes feels like a house of cards — but, it has every chance of success based on the sense of service and its prime location in the world. I would be an even bigger fan if there was not always a latent feeling of oppression. Then again, you can get the same feeling, in different parts of town, in pretty much any city. It is a worthy visit — just don’t forget to budget for it.

Emirates Airline: Superlatives for flight to Dubai

Emirates Airline Lovemark?Emirates Airline Customer ServiceWow! I felt like I actually rediscovered the pleasure of traveling yesterday. And, ironically, I did so going on holidays in the economy class of Emirates Airline, on a brand new Boeing 777-300ER. Expectations were totally outpaced. I was left utterly and positively surprised, almost regretting the fact the flight was ONLY seven hours long… That sums up what I have to say about my very first Emirates Airline flight, EK074 from Paris to Dubai.

Ensconced in row 21 with the family, I can only shake my head at the extent of the superior performance that Emirates Airline (EK) provided. If I were a competitor of theirs, I would be worried. From a business standpoint, when you take efforts to know what the ‘competition’ is doing or offering, you can get a wicked surprise. I suspect that if American Airlines (United Airlines has a best-in-class partner in Singapore Airlines) or Air France (which generally I enjoy very much) have fully checked out the state of advancement of Emirates Airline, they should be scurrying to invest. The boom in oil prices and the economies in the Middle East are obviously helping EK. In 2007, according to the Gulf News (Apr 20, 2008 article by Abel Ali), Middle East passenger traffic was +11.7%, and up a record +19.2% in December. EK’s ability to invest in state-of-the-art planes (just to absorb rising demand), as well as their efforts on customer service (and the training that goes behind it) will create a significant competitive advantage due to the life cycles of planes and the difficulty to change a corporate culture (not to mention a hideous industry climate?). In the case of EK, according to their website, they have been growing at 20% annually and have recorded every year since its 3rd year of conception (it was started in 1985).

In any event, this type of gap in performance will make a difference in my next booking. I have to believe that a superior Emirates Airline product will contribute to the success of Dubai, benefiting from its opportunistic location as a hub. [The airport works 24/7 and was absolutely bustling with activity when we landed at 1 a.m.]

EEmirates Airlines ICE Entertainment Systemvery economy class seat on this new Emirates Airline plane offers:
* A complete on-demand set of films (multiple categories), games, sitcoms and news… (As good as any good Business Class). Called ICE, the entertainment system has a digital wide screen option.
* A USB socket (never saw that in any business class before) — that anticipates a usage of the personal console as a personal computer.
* Electrical outlet (which is far from a gimme in business)
* A slick multi-size cup holder
* Coat hook on the side (so the jacket doesn’t hang between your legs). Smart.

Among the multiple surprises, we were allowed to fire up the videos while on the ground (I therefore didn’t even notice that we took off 30 minutes late). And we were able to watch the video throughout takeoff and landing. Unheard of, normally.

The kids were offered a whole kit of goodies — hand puppets, teddy bear, crayons, books and more… Between the goodies and the personal entertainment system, the kids felt like they were in Disney…

The kids also got a special dinner, including a Mars bar and a toothbrush…

The main screen featured the viewing from a camera attached to the airplane nose. It was not the first time I have seen this, but I say it is part of best practices. For the remainder of the flight there was a simulated following of the flight over the various geographies.

At the same time as Alexandra said she liked the crackers, I mentioned to the flight attendant that the Shiraz wine was good. Both of us were promptly re-served without even asking. Another surprise.

Even dinner was a result. With a choice between lamb and chicken, Yendi and I both chose the lamb stew (“tender cooked pieces of lamb served in a rich coriander jus”) which turned out to be a wonderfully zesty (and spicy) dish. I suspect that unadventurous palettes might have stumbled.

As I went past the business class seats, I noticed that they featured the same poorly located headphone socket as the one on the KLM flight I took a couple of weeks ago (prior blog post). So, not everything is perfect…

Moral of the story:
* innovation works (in different forms)
* great training of the staff is visible (and great recruitment, too, on YouTube)
* better to keep an eye on the competition

I will report back after the 3 other flights that we have on EK to see how consistent the service is (knowing that Dubai-Nairobi is surely an inferior route). Will see if it deserves lovemark status!

Anyway, here’s to making travel a childish pleasure. Anyone else know of an airline that can surprise thus?

Do you know about any other company taking an industry by storm?

Strike at CDG Airport by Cleaning Personnel

Strike at Paris Airport CDGManifestations and strikes are a regular part of the Paris landscape–especially if you live in the 6th arrondissement. Paris doesn’t have a monopoly on the topic, but, when I lived abroad, I remember feeling, when flying into Paris Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG) airport, there was always some or other component of the public service on strike. Transportation services are typically front and centre.

Anyway, today, we were graced with a new one: the Roissy airport’s cleaning personnel went on strike. It was a right old marching band. Trumpeting with the utensils of their work, the strikers paraded through our terminal (2C) for some 30 minutes. The deafening drum beat and strident screams caused a major scene and a disruption of the check-in procedures.

It was highly disagreeable just as a passenger, much less as an employee. The strikers certainly did not gain my sympathy. I suppose others might be more supportive. Personally, I found the Strike in Paris - Baseball Calldisruption an imposition and it should have been disallowed.

After thirty minutes, they walked on to another terminal–another set of destinations, and another set of tourists and travellers who got a whiff of the strike. I balk at making any other baseball allusions here.