Friday, June 29, 2018

Resort Living at the M Hotel Downtown by Millennium, Dubai

It was the best and the worst of time. M Hotel Downtown by Millennium in Dubai was my sanctuary in the time of Ramadan, in the midst of the city's festering heat and humidity. One of my tour guides described how it's like being under the sun (even for just 5 minutes) - "like standing beside a raging barbecue". Another guide said, "it's like being pinched repeatedly." I had to stretch my imagination for that, but it was a valid description too. Prickly heat.

M Hotel Downtown, formerly Radisson Blu Downtown, rises at the fringes of Business Bay, the "downtown" area of the city's Central Business District (CBD), and Dubai's "most expensive area", according to the driver who picked me up from the airport. I wanted to be central. M Hotel is, in fact, 15 to 25 minutes walk from the world's biggest mall - the Dubai Mall. In its vicinity are the Dubai Fountain (the world's biggest musical fountain), the Dubai Mall metro station, and Burj Khalifa (the world's tallest man-made structure).

I was a bit anxious upon arrival; my first time in this city. In fact, I booked and paid for a separate room at the Donatello Hotel, a well-reviewed hotel near the Mall of Emirates. I was in fact throwing money, but for a good reason - security! Why the double booking? I wanted to make sure I had a room for the night. But that's for another story, which deserves a separate post - and there WILL be a separate post.

I was at the hotel front desk at 12 midnight. After billing me for an additional tourism tax (was it 15 dirham per day day?), and a refundable security deposit worth about 600 dirham (AED), I was inside my room 15 minutes later. I heaved a sigh of relief. After 9 hours of travel, sitting on my hotel bed was bliss. More importantly, I wasn't turned away. I booked via Agoda and completely paid for my room 2 months before my arrival. Agoda always gave me a sense of security. But the circumstance was a little different this time. I paid and booked yet I was anxious. Something is wrong with this picture, right?

M Hotel's prized gems are its staff. Pretty front desk officer Sharon was warm and accommodating, and even offered me her extra silver and gold NOL metro cards - for free. Which other hotel would do that for you? Concierge John always welcomed me with a smile every time I make my daily transit at the lobby. There must have been half a dozen other Filipinos working in the hotel, and they were impeccably professional, good natured and hospitable. 

There's a Sri Lankan guy outside who hails taxis for you. The hotel has a free shuttle that takes guests to Kite Beach and the Dubai Mall almost on an hourly basis, but I never used this service because I'd lose time with the waiting. The lobby also has security, a travel desk from Rayna Tours, and the restaurant concierge for the tea shop.

My booking was half board. This meant breakfast and the Iftar dinner, which I loved. People were always in celebratory spirits while they break their Ramadan fasting by 7 PM. Every day, I'd stuff myself during breakfast because it meant I wouldn't be able to freely consume food or drink water - or generally, just make merry, because of Ramadan. Doing these in public will get you fined or imprisoned. Iftar was the daily finishline, so to speak.

Tasting Emmental, Labneh,Basbousa, Jallab, etc.

It was fun fraternizing with the different food being served. The cheeses - I'd taste-test the feta and emmental, from brie and cheddar; take a sip of rosemilk (from sabja seeds and rose syrup) and a bit of jallab (a fruit syrup made from carrob, dates, grape molasses and rosemilk, popular in Jordan and Syria, with a taste closest to our Nestea but sweeter), followed by a slice of basbousa (a sweet cake made of semolina soaked in syrup) and halwa (sweets made of butter, sugar and flour). And what does labneh tastes like? It's a soft creamed cheese made from strained yoghurt, and if these sound foreign, they're nonetheless fun to discover.

My room at the 13th floor was big enough: double bed, refrigerator (that doesn't get cold); a daily supply of 2 bottles of water; clean sheets changed daily; spotless bathroom with good water pressure; a centralized AC that, at night gets glacial, even when you turn off the fan; 3 elevators that worked well - and then there's the view.

My room faced the expansive desert - barren and mysterious. I'd initially prefer the Dubai skyline littered with skyscrapers, but skylines are a dime a dozen, even in Manila, Peru or Mongolia. It isn't everyday you're privileged to say, "I have a view of the desert". Nope, you can't! As bonus, wifi is fast, though you lose the signal intermittently.

I'd sit on my special couch, read my emails before calling it a night, while I munch "cherries from Iran" which I'd buy from the W Supermart nearby at just 8 dirham (P120). It was a charmed existence, and I wallowed in it. M Hotel, despite several negative online reviews, was more than adequate for me. It was my home in Dubai, and I felt safe there.

Most Stressful Booking

Isn't it ironic then that, in all my years of travels and 50 countries later, M Hotel Downtown by Millennium, would also be my most stressful booking by Agoda? There is a long story here, and I will share it for posterity. Because, hundreds of hotels later, I hit a snag booking here. And I felt trapped!

Let me tell you that story - so others may learn. That cantankerous narrative is up next!

My booking nightmare

#Mhoteldowntown   #Millennium  #Dubai  #agoda  

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Trying Sewai in Abu Dhabi

                                           I had Sewai          


                                      in this restaurant

                                               Near this street below!

While touring Abu Dhabi with a motley of other tourists from Romania, Kazakhstan, Germany, India, Singapore, China, India, and Switzerland, we were taken to Al Ibrahimi Restaurant on Muroor Road for lunch. It serves international cuisine on its buffet spread. I saw jalebi, that Indian sweets made internationally famous by Dev Patel's Oscar-nominated movie, "Lion". But there was something else that caught my attention.

An Indian lady from Hyderabad quipped, "Try that. You'll like it." I was grateful for the recommendation, but I didn't need convincing. She said it was called "Sewai". It looked like a noodle dish. It's a coconut-based dessert with milk in it, the nice lady explained. It looked inviting.

Sewai, it turns out, is made with vermicelli, cooked in milk and dry fruits; a quintessential festival dessert usually made on the occasion of the Eid. There's a bit of cardamom in the milk with a pinch of saffron; other varieties carry almonds, raisins or cashew nuts. This particular Sewai didn't have those, which was probably good for me so I could concentrate on its taste.



Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Al Lahbab Desert, Dubai

The expansive emptiness of the desert is nothing short of hypnotic. In one of the stops during my Dune Bashing activity in Dubai's Al Lahbab Desert, I just gazed at the undulating golden sands, and was for a minute, transfixed. If it wasn't exceedingly hot and humid, at 45 degree C and 80% humidity, I could stay there for hours. But sweat was dripping and I was parched. It is not advisable to visit the emirates in summer because conditions are offensive and unhealthy. To compound the matter, it was Ramadan so you cannot just whip out your bottled water or a sandwich in public. You could be fined or sent to prison. Dehydrate in silence.

That was why I really appreciated those daily Iftar feasts, when locals break their fasting and enjoy a sumptuous dinner.