Sharjah Light Festival 2018

It’s that time of year again – to escape from the confines of a mall and to immerse yourself in art that everyone can truly appreciate for the few fleeting days of February when Sharjah organizes the Sharjah Light Festival which is free and open to all the public.

Our first stop this year was the 1000 Palm Oasis where they had set up multiple infinity light tunnels in bright electric blue and soft golden yellow fairy lights. I have to say, I was completely blown away by the blue. It’s the kind of blue that makes you want to lie down and look up and pretend that every glowing fairy flower and butterfly is a star so close the universe is within your grasp.

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A-maze-in

It was a really good idea to set up multiple versions of the same installation in order to manage the crowd. The last time it had been rather difficult to get pictures in what with all the people, but this time, the crowd was nicely distributed so everyone got a chance at that perfectly instagrammable shot.

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To infinity and beyond

Right next to the Palm Oasis is one of the most beautiful mosques in Sharjah – Al Noor Mosque. This year I can’t decide if I was more attracted to the mosque due to the beautiful symmetric patterns that lit it up like a jewel in the night sky, or the qirat of the imam at Maghrib prayers. The former was a delight for the eyes- a sort of surface and fleeting pleasure, but the latter stirred something deep and personal in one’s soul. The combination of the two was art in itself.

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Al Noor Mosque

It’s interesting that this year’s light festival seems a lot more toned down than previous years in that the colour projections are a lot less vibrant than before which probably has something to do with both the light intensity and the choice of artwork on display. But that didn’t stop us from finding our way to our next destination after an amazing dinner at Saffron of course. Our next and final stop was the Heart of Sharjah.

I’ve never been there at night before, and parking was quite tricky because it seemed as though all parking near the installations and shows was closed off, possibly for VIPs, and regular public parking was all full. After going round and round in circles we finally just stopped and asked the security guard how we could get in. It turned out the parking that had been closed off was actually reserved for non-VIP visitors like us (yayyy!), except there was no sign there that said so. I’m guessing a lot of people ended up walking a long way to get there because the number of cars there was in no way indicative of the number of people actually there.

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Peonies Alumines

There were a number of installations set up along with light shows on the fortress around which people were seated on the ground, their cameras all set up and ready to capture the riot of colour on the sombre beige fortress walls. While my mum loved the trio of paper peonies flapping in the suddenly cold wind on an unusually warm day, my personal favourite of the year was the “Abstract” set up in which light disks hovered and pulsated in sync with the music in a mesmerizing affair.

 

If you haven’t been yet, I highly recommend making a weekend of it and visiting before it ends on the 17th of February.

Bezar at Ajman Qubes

As the world headed to Dubai on New Year’s eve, we decided we’d escape from the madness and make the most of the empty roads in Ajman to visit Ajman’s homegrown version of Dubai’s Box Park, aptly named Ajman Qubes, at the Ajman Sports Park in Al Hamidiya.

I’d never been to the sports park before so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It turns out entry to the park is free (as of Jan 2018) and the park is home to a running track and outdoor exercise equipment which are also free to use- very Korean style. It also has at least 3 outdoor football fields, a volleyball field and an outdoor basketball court complete with dressing rooms which you can book in advance, for a fee of course.

But the facilities aren’t what left me impressed. I was actually blown away by the number of people spending quality time with their families on New Year’s eve at this park- from the young men playing football under lights to the girls up on the exercise machines, the mothers and sons who were out for a brisk walk to the blindfolded fathers comically dancing trying to tag their wives while their kids hugged their legs, from the little army of kids trying to drift on their bikes on the moisture covered walking track to the dreamers lying on their mats staring up at the stars. Now that’s what I call a New Year’s Eve well-spent.

Of course, there’s also the Qubes to feed you while you’re there. The Qubes are basically container restaurants, coffee shops and there’s even an art gallery and a men’s spa there to add some variety. It’s a small affair, but there are lots of restaurants to choose from- 71oz Steakhouse if you’re fancying a steak after a heavy workout, Patatello Cafe for some dessert to put back on those pounds, Tackle Shack if you fancy catching a game as you eat, Bezar for fancy Emirati-Indian fusion cuisine and a lot more. We were spoilt for choice and are notoriously bad at making decisions on where to eat, but we took a democratic approach and after checking out the first menu it was a unanimous decision to try Bezar on our first visit to the park.

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Time for dinner!

We went in expecting to order something more Emarati but ending up ordering Indian instead… butter chicken and mutton rogan josh with biryani rice, khameer bread, fatoosh and Vimto slush for drinks. I’ll be honest with you. I’m always bragging about this little known restaurant close to my office which my colleagues and I had agreed, had the world’s best fatoosh, and they did for 3 years running. But I’m afraid, they lost their crown on New Year’s eve to Bezar which made the most mouth wateringly good fatoosh I’ve ever had.

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Say hello to the world’s best fatoosh

And their mutton rogan josh… let me just say their chef put big restaurants like Gazebo to shame. While big chains usually think adding massive amounts of spices and making the gravy thick and difficult to eat is what subcontinental cuisine is about, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Bezar’s mutton rogan josh was pretty much something your mum would make for you at home – in other words REAL subcontinental style. No spice OD. The biryani rice was also really good, none of that crazy mix of rice you normally get that makes you wonder if people have forgotten what biryani really means and the butter chicken was super sweet- the chicken itself was a bit on the hard side but I’ll forgive them because everything else was so awesome.

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Great ambiance

And that includes the music selection. The music alternated between English and Indian classics (no Arabic classics ㅜㅜ ) though I’m not quite sure how Kolaveri Di got past the muzak filter of the world. It did make for a good laugh and we ended up staying for dessert instead of hopping off to another restaurant for a sweet something. Ordering dessert was probably the most hilarious with dishes named Deewana and Mastana (crazy and carefree boringly translated). I’ve never order crazy before.

We had a great time and only the cold could bring us back home to watch the fireworks. It’s safe to say Ajman Qubes and the Sports Park deserve another visit and preferably while the weather still holds. If you’re in the area, I’d definitely recommend stopping by.

Kayaking in Al Zorah

After the amazing time we had kayaking in Hatta, we decided to give it another go, this time much closer to home – about 10 minutes to be exact. We headed out bright and early to Ajman’s latest development, Al Zorah which is currently home to a 18 hole golf course, 200 hundred year old mangroves and an upcoming townhouse development. We’d managed to get our bookings done online with Quest for Adventure tours, who are the only licensed operator at Al Zorah primarily because their activities are much wider than just water sports in that they are charged with raising awareness about the mangroves, its environmental significance and the need for its preservation.

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Just some of the wildlife that call the mangroves their home

They had the option of taking out single kayaks, or going tandem, so this time we decided to give the tandem kayak a go and set off towards the thick mangroves. It was interesting to note that the mangroves were much shallower than I had expected and as a result, the oar size was also much smaller than the ones we had used back in Hatta. While it made for convenient maneuvering especially in the dense brush, it did also mean we were soaked from the very get go, with the water from the oars raining in at every stroke. That also meant that we got to learn (the hard way), as we handled our phones, that the mangroves actually grow in salt water which meant by the end of the trip our phones were nice and salty. ^^

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Time to set off

Al Zorah is home to grey mangroves spread out over 2 square kilometers and as we paddled on, we were able to see through the clear water the bed of sand which looked pretty much like an underwater beach, being covered with shells! We were told that we would probably also be able to get a glimpse of the flamingos who normally migrate here during the winters but we were sure not to get too close so as not to disturb them. It was amazing to see the flamingos were mostly white, not as pink as you see in pictures, and that we found out was because these waters are not home to much shrimp and crab which lend them their distinctive colour. The only crabs in these waters are mostly white, only the tips of their pincers are red. We were lucky enough to see one of these crabs up close, albeit dead, as he’d already been someone’s breakfast. 

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Into the mangroves we go

As we sat and watched the flamingos, we also learnt more about how mangroves breathe and grow. It turns out mangrove trees are quite clever. The thick mud in which they grow has far too little oxygen concentration for them to survive, so their roots grow upwards and out of the ground to get the oxygen they need and once the tide goes out, the trees effectively breathe, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. It was also amazing to learn that mangroves are in fact more carbon rich than rain forests which means they are of strategic importance in reducing global warming and climate change and with sea levels rising the way they are the very existence of mangroves is threatened.

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Old mangrove trees and new ones coming up

After a nice long paddle all the way up to see the flamingoes and our lesson on all things mangrove,  we then had to head right into the thick of the mangroves for a little “adventure”. Since we’d taken a tandem boat, maneuvering through the thick branches was a bit of a struggle, especially when a branch got caught in an opening on the side of the canoe, which left us struggling forward, only to be rocked right back. Once we managed to escape from the clutches of the mangrove tree that was determined to keep us, we then inched our way forward, alternately swatting away branches and hunching over to make it through. We finally made it, only to find out we’d picked up an assortment of hitchhiking spiders along the way. Surprise!

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Paddles Up!

Lucky for us we were in the tandem kayak, which meant we had enough time to swat away the spiders while the other person rowed on. ^^ We started on back to where we had started as the tide was getting low and on our way back we found lying there in the salty water, a plastic cake box that had been swept in with the tide. While our guides fished it out to dispose off later, I felt that this was just another example of single use plastics dangerously finding their way into ecosystems that one would assume would be immune to their impact. I was suddenly reminded of the Great Pacific garbage patch. As garbage swirls in our oceans, the world goes on much as before. Out of sight, out of mind. sigh

It was an overall amazing experience, and I’m sure I’ll be going back again but better prepared next time around! Remember, say NO to jeans and sneakers, say YES to a bottle of water, cap, sunscreen, flipfops and an extra change of clothes. Booking can be done online through their website. Renting out a kayak costs only AED30 per hour (as of Jan 2018) while the kayak tour costs AED190 for adults. They have a whole lot of other activities to try such as paddle boarding and wake boarding and even offer archery and bike rentals so there’s a little something for everyone.

Miracle Garden 2017

So the year’s about to end and the weather has been rather relentless, schizophrenic at times, vacillating between cold foggy mornings at below 18C and hot afternoons with a piercingly bright winter sun heating things up to a toasty 35C. It’s been an unusual year to say the least. Nevertheless, we couldn’t let the year go without visiting Miracle Garden. We had an outdoor breakfast past 8 and literally froze outside… but by the time we reached the garden, which was close to 10am, no one would have believed that it had been so cold just an hour or two earlier. So we left the shawls and sweaters in the car and went off in search of new floral additions.

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Eye catching colour combinations

Having come here now for quite a few years it’s always interesting witnessing the evolution of the garden with each passing edition. There aren’t many floral arrangements that stand the test of time, truth be told, and of course there’s always the added creative pressure of creating a new experience. So this time, we saw only a few of our old favourites, like the beautiful umbrella canopies, which are so popular I can’t quite imagine them ever being replaced.

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Rainbow of umbrellas in the sky

And of course you have the cultural favourites, the dhows which always make you wish you could take a cruise on a dhow that was this dolled up.

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Floral dhow cruise

And then there’s the Guinness world record holder, the Emirates airline which I think could possibly last more than two editions, but who knows. It does take up an awful lot of potential space for other installations so there’s always a chance it may be replaced in future editions but it’s so grand, that maybe not. ^^

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Getting ready for take off 

As we walked around I realized that there were a lot more kiosks and shops than there had been previously, restaurants, souvenir shops and just salespersons walking around in the garden with all sorts of hats and umbrellas (that’s how strong the sun was!) owing to the large number of tourists coming in, I suppose, but I think it’s meant they’ve had to add a lot more seating areas as well, which in turn means less installations, or rather just more vertical spread because they do have much more flowers than the last edition.

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Sitting under floral arches

This year’s theme, so to speak, seemed to revolve mainly around colourful animal statues decorated with vibrant flowers, from giant butterflies, to suspended bees, armies of ants, turtles and everything else in between including kangaroos and giraffes. Lots of fun for the kids.

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This is probably the happiest looking giraffe I’ve ever come across

Their crowning jewel this time around was the giant cuddly and rather imposing teddy bear installation with his blue eyes and bowtie ❤

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Can I get a hug ❤

But apart from all the fun and fancy installations, the real beauty lay in the flowers, of which there were so many new varieties, including stunning sunflowers. There’s just something about sunflowers that just makes your day brighter, like a little dose of happiness dressed in a ray of sunshine.

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Smiling sunflowers

My favourite flower, or should I say flowers, I’m not quite sure how to refer to flowers made up of many florets ^^ was/were the dainty little ladies in purple, bobbing around in the bright blue skies. Just taking the time out to appreciate the beauty of the flowers in all their splendour is a day well spent in my opinion.

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Hello beautiful

If you’re looking for something to cheer you up and get you out of the house, the park is open from 9am to 9pm on weekdays 9am to 11pm on weekends with tickets for adults costing only AED 40 (as of Dec 2017). If you haven’t been already, I’d say pick a day when it’s not too sunny and not too foggy and get yourself there bright and early in the morning for loads of pictures without getting people in your shots ^^

For more details, visit AkarDMG’s website  or follow them on Twitter @MiracleGardenAE.

To see what Miracle Garden looked like last year click here 🙂

Hello Hatta

After only 25+ years in the UAE, we finally managed to make the road trip down to the elusive Hatta. I’m not sure why it took so long to get there, seeing as how it’s only an hour and a half away from home (way closer than Abu Dhabi), but somehow it always managed to evade us. The weather seemed to be turning for the better and with a long weekend at our disposal, we decided it was finally the right time to go.

Okay, so we did end up going round in circles for a bit thanks to Google Maps which seemed to be hell-bent on making us do rounds of Burj Khalifa, but we did eventually succeed in resetting our mental compasses and taking the right exit to be on our way. We left bright and early in the  morning, catching the sunrise and watched as the landscape changed from a cityscape to a desert and then to the rocky mountains that rose up before us.

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Happy National Day!

We took the Sharjah-Kalba road, which is parallel to the road that heads down to Fujairah, which would explain why the barren rocky landscape felt so familiar. We did our traditional spot a camel game, but it looked like even the camels were taking the day off to enjoy the National Day weekend away from all the traffic. Oh well, no ice-cream for anyone this time ^^

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Rocky Landscapes

Being early-birds paid off and we reached Hatta in good time, managing not only to avoid any traffic on the way, but also to secure a comfortable parking spot right next to Hatta Dam, which was where we were headed for some kayaking! Looking out at the dam was like looking at a sort of mountain oasis, a beautiful splash of glittering teal green surrounded by scraggly brown peaks, basking under a bright blue sky.

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First view of Hatta Dam

It was a stunning sight and a welcome relief of colour and we stopped for pictures before heading down to Hatta Kayak. Having never kayaked before, I was a bit uncertain as to whether we should be renting out kayaks, or if we should be stick to the familiar pedal boats, or better yet, taking a donut boat or a bicycle pontoon boat which I’d never seen before. We decided to be adventurous and take kayaks, and just prayed we wouldn’t topple over.

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Heading out in our kayaks

We left our mobile phones in the lockers, no one being willing to test just how waterproof they really are, and were pushed off into the lake in our colouful kayaks with assurances that any lack of swimming ability would not be a problem since we had our life jackets on. We managed to get a hang of the oars pretty quickly and soon decided it was time to turn around, head back and get our mobile phones out of the lockers so we could take some pictures out on the lake.

It was an amazing experience, not just kayaking for the first time, navigating around oncoming donut boats and dodging fellow kayakers while laughing at the struggling cyclists, but the place in itself was so peaceful, that after a while we just put down our oars and let the currents take us where they would, past leafless underwater trees and grey birds with long beaks. The weather had been great in the morning, but as we reached midday, the weather decided it wasn’t ready to turn into winter just yet and the temperature swung back to a sweltering 32°C.

After two hours of rowing, we were ready to head back in and head for lunch, but we were just half an hour shy of opening hours at the restaurant of choice, so we made a pit-stop at the fruit and vegetable market before going to Hatta Heritage Village to kill some time instead of going hiking as we had originally planned. It was an interesting experience, walking through the winding paths of the old village,  the remnants of lookout towers guarding us from either side.

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Lookout Tower

Being the National Day weekend, it was quite fitting that we had come to the Heritage Village so we could get a first hand view of how drastically the country has evolved over the last 46 years. We walked through homes and majlis and store rooms and outdoor kitchens, past the plain traditional kitchenware and beds to the more exotic tools and weapons like rifles called Umm Khams (a rifle that could load 5 bullets). Having been here for over 25 years, we are first hand witnesses of the evolution of the country, but this was another reminder of just how far a vision can carry you.

We were ready for lunch after having scaled up the rocky hill to the lookout point and the restaurant was ready for us at last. We ordered a chicken tanoor with some fatoosh, but being confused as usual about portion sizes, we opted for a 3 person tanoor to serve four. When the food came out, we realized even a 3 person serving was too big for us, none of us being heavy eaters. Nevertheless, we wolfed down as  much as we could, which was more than usual, thanks to all the kayaking and by the time we were done, it was time for some tea to keep us awake on the long drive back.

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Chicken tanoor!

Now, it’s common practice in the UAE, to head down to a cafeteria for tea… and Oman chips paratha… and now Lotus dessert. Exactly what this dessert is, I can’t exactly describe except that it has Lotus biscuits and tastes divine, like a soft cross between a caramel and a cheesecake. And if that doesn’t sound delicious enough.. did you hear me say “Lotus”? Enough said! So if you haven’t been to a cafeteria in the UAE before, it’s time to ditch that brunch and enjoy some of the finer things in life.

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Time for dessert

If you’ve never been to Hatta, I would definitely recommend going at least once. And if you’re into hiking, then it’s definitely worth more than one visit. And don’t forget the cafeteria! 🙂