Expo 2020 Site Visit

When Dubai announced they would be conducting free tours for residents to visit the Expo 2020 site which is rapidly taking shape, I wasn’t about to pass up such an incredible opportunity. With pick up points across Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, and tours scheduled three times a week from July 20 to the end of August, it was no wonder that tickets were booked in a mere three hours.

Taking the bus from Mall of the Emirates we found ourselves driving up to the Visitor’s Centre in little under an hour for a quick overview of what to expect from this mega event which will span 6 months starting 10th October 2020.

At the Visitor’s Centre expect the traditional UAE hospitality in the form of cold drinks and dates and snacks before you head straight in. The guided tour began with a look at the remarkable development of the UAE from its humble beginnings grounded in pearl diving to the nation it is today living and breathing the words of Sheikh Mohammed:

They say the sky is the limit for ambition, but we say the sky is only the beginning.

Entering the Visitor Centre

From understanding how the Ghaf tree provides the inspiration behind the different thematic districts that make up the Expo 2020 to understanding more about the scope of the Expo beyond the pavilions, the Visitor’s Centre was a great place to have those burning questions answered, in particular- what happens when it’s all over.

Spanning roughly 1000 acres, the size of 613 football pitches, the Expo will be home to three thematic districts – Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity. The site will also have different country specific pavilions where countries will have the opportunity to showcase their technology and their culture. You can expect to see anything and everything from 3D printing to K-Pop and Monet to commercialized space travel. With 192 countries set to participate it will truly be a reflection of the diversity that already exists in the UAE. All three thematic pavilions will be connected by Al Wasl Plaza, a stunning dome shaped structure inspired by the Expo 2020 logo. In addition, there will be an exhibition centre, two parks, a rotating observation tower around 16 storeys high, 200 food and beverage outlets from fast food to Michelin star fine dining and over 60 events a day for 6 months.

Terra

We soon left the Visitor Centre behind with its virtual reality tours to see the site firsthand. Our first stop was the Sustainability District with the stunning Sustainability Pavilion, also known as Terra, expected to achieve LEED Platinum rating, covered with an array of solar panels, surrounded by solar trees and slated to have net zero energy and water consumption. The Sustainability Pavilion, we learnt, will be transformed into a Science museum at the end of the Expo.

The wings of the UAE pavilion inspired by the falcon taking shape

From there we passed the UAE pavilion, the site where the remarkable achievements of this young nation will be showcased, and saw the domed trellis of Al Wasl Plaza taking shape.

Al Wasl Plaza- the connecting point between all thematic districts

We then moved on to the Mobility Pavilion which is interestingly enough designed in the shape of a fidget spinner (yes you read that correctly!) and which will be home to a high speed track and the world’s largest elevator capable of transporting 250 people at a time.

Mobility Pavilion taking shape

We then passed the sites for the two parks (wadi inspired Jubilee Park and Al Forsan Park), the onsite nursery which will supply the thousands of native trees and shrubs used around the site and in the parks, and the site of the Dubai Exhibition Centre where the glass facade was in progress before making our way to the Opportunity Pavilion. Now this Pavilion is being constructed using organic recyclable materials only – from stone to reclaimed timber and coiled rope long enough to stretch from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.

Expo 2020 Village and Route 2020 Metro Station in the distance

In addition the Expo 2020 site is connected to the largest metro station in the UAE – Route 2020 which will go on and connect to the Sheikh Makhtoum Airport thereby ensuring easy access to the site via public transportation – something that will be critical considering the expected volume of visitors is 25 million over a span of 6 months. The Expo Village a massive apartment complex rated LEED Gold and connected to the new Dubai South Mall will be used to house the staff of all the people participating in the Expo. The great news is the apartments will then be available to the public for rent once the Expo is over as part of the District 2020 Masterplan.

As we got back from the tour, we were all struck by the scale of the event, something that needs to be seen to be believed and also left impressed by the immense amount of thought and planning that has gone into ensuring District 2020 will be left a fully functioning and vibrant community once the Expo is over. As the tour ended, we passed the Volunteer’s House – HQ to over 30000 volunteers of all ages and all nationalities who are committed to making this Expo an experience of a lifetime.

The undisturbed Ghaf tree- inspiration of the Expo, around which construction is taking place

If you haven’t gotten a chance to take the tour, all is not lost. Despite all the tickets being booked, the Expo 2020 team has announced that they will be opening up more slots soon. All you have to do is sign up and they’ll let you know as soon as bookings are open again.

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! 🙂

Miracle Garden 2016

So this has become somewhat of a tradition… visiting Miracle Garden every year as soon the harsh summer shows signs of letting up. You may wonder why we choose to go the same place every year but the truth is, the flower arrangements change every year, which makes it a brand new experience every time you visit. This year, the highlight was the Guinness World Record holding largest flower arrangement in the form of an Airbus A380 (okay, that’s quite a mouthful).

The garden opens at 9am, but we were being lazy this time so we decided to go at 10am, anticipating that the good weather would hold. We weren’t quite so lucky. It would appear every time we’re blessed with a long weekend, the weather turns back to it’s evil summer spirit just to spite us. In any case, we were still early enough not to have any long queues at the ticket counter, so yayy!

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The perks of coming early… no line!

If there’s one thing I noticed the minute I stepped inside, it’s that this year, there are more flowers than ever before. The garden was completely carpeted in flowerbeds, besides the fancy decorative floral arrangements. The familiar arrangements from previous years had been revamped, and there were so many more things to discover.

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Remember me?

The “graveyard of cars” may have disappeared, but no season of Miracle Garden is complete without at least one epic car installation. In this case it was the Beetle Waterfall ^^

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One of the things I absolutely loved this year, was the fact that there were a lot more places to sit down to enjoy the view instead of rushing through. From the pavilions set up around the fountain, to the benches and swings set up around the perimeter of the park, there were so many vantage points from which you can appreciate the beauty around you.

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Pavilions around the fountain

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Garden swings ❤

For people who may find it difficult to wander around the whole park, don’t worry! There are special “taxis” to take you around the park for only AED 20 per taxi ^___^

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Floral Dhow

There were also a lot more places to eat this time around, Hardee’s and Krispy Kreme being new additions, but overall having a meal here is going to pack a bigger punch in your wallet than the entrance tickets. A simple shawarma which usually costs AED 5, costs about AED 30 in the park, so I wouldn’t really recommend eating at the garden unless you’re reallllllllllly hungry. Drinks too are super expensive so a bottle of water is probably the best way to go if you’re on a budget.

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Butterfly Windmills

La pièce de résistance though was most definitely the Airbus installation, and not just the plane, but also the landscaping around the plane.

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First glimpse of Emirates Airlines ❤

The coolest part had to be the  UAE flag on the tail and the rotating airplane turbines. Way cool! ❤

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Emirates Airbus A380

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 2016) , so if you haven’t gone already, it’s time to add this to your to-do list ^^

Dubai Fountain

Now that the weather is cooling down, at least in the evenings, it’s time to start venturing out and doing outdoorsy things again. Our first stop was The Dubai Fountain, the world’s tallest musical fountain. Since the boat rides are between 5.45pm to 10.45pm and we’re very very much morning people, we never actually thought of taking a ride through the fountain before. We decided we’d do something different, booked our tickets and braved our way through the weekend traffic to head to Dubai Mall. Despite having had to park on the 9th (and last) floor of the parking garage since all other levels and all underground parking was full, we finally made it… just in time.

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Looking across at Souq Al Bahar

We’d making the bookings online, so we went to collect our tickets from the At The Top counter, where we were surrounded by an endless mob of tourists. Luckily for us, there was more rush to head to the top of Burj Khalifa and less rush at the fountain, so we were in for a comfy ride.

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Heading out

I’d strategically picked the 6.15pm slot, which meant that we’d have time to watch the 6pm fountain show before sunset, and the 6.30pm show after sunset, during the ride. I’d highly recommend picking a time around sunset so you can enjoy the day and the night views of both the fountain and Burj Khalifa, which sparkles like a gem at night.

The weather was lovely, the boat entirely silent and the ride a smooth sail around the fountain, taking us from Dubai Mall, past Souk Al Bahar and past the recently opened Dubai Opera for a vantage point view of both Burj Khalifa and the fountain.

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The sun going down behind Dubai Opera

If you stand close to the fountain and the wind is just right, you should expect a nice cool shower, but when you’re in the boat, the driver takes you to a sweet spot, close enough for the fountain to seems magical, and just far away enough not to get a drop on you. For the photography enthusiast, it’s a great opportunity to get a non-crowded shot up close, but somehow nothing you capture will be as nice as it actually feels sitting in the boat, away from the crowds, softly rocking, watching the fountains dance to the music.

My biggest tip to anyone who’d like to plan a visit to the fountain would be this… if you’re heading out at night don’t strain your neck trying to get a glimpse of the top of the Burj. Instead, sink a little in your seat, tilt your head back and voila… the top will come down to you.

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Glittering in the night sky

Tickets cost only AED 65 for adults (as of Sept 16) and even if you’re travelling with kids, there’s no need to worry because there are life jackets available on board for adults and kids alike. No excuse not to go and spend a relaxing half hour along with your thoughts.