A Travellerspoint blog

Makassar - Tanah Toraja (Rantepao)


View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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We are leaving the capital of Sulawesi behind this morning and heading north. As we drive out of Makassar, it seems one town blends into the next, with plenty of streetlife, shops, and restaurants to entertain our senses.

Pomelo

One of the many delights of travelling with a guide, is that we get the opportunity to try different foods along the way. We make a stop at a stand selling pomelo, a fruit that is new to me.

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Resembling a large grapefruit, its taste is not as bitter as a grapefruit, nor is it as sweet as an orange.

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Dange Pulu Bolong

These traditional cookies are made from sticky rice, coconut, and sugar, and are baked on the fire in special irons.

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Soft when hot, the cookies turn crispy as they cool.

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Fisheries

Travelling along the coast, we pass several fisheries, where nets are strung between wooden sticks and lowered into the water. The fishermen sitting atop the towers monitor the amount of fish in the nets, and when suitably full, the nets are hauled back up again.

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Seaweed is also farmed in this area, for export to China and Japan where it is used as food or in the production of cosmetics.

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Tile Workshop

Intrigued by the brightly coloured domes at the side of the road, I ask Nadja (our guide) if we can stop and take a look. By the time the message has got through to Acho, our driver, we have passed the point by around 100 metres. Acho, however, stops, and thinks nothing of reversing back along the dual carriageway. Thankfully the traffic is light, so it is not a problem.

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The lads working in a small shed around the back are more than happy to explain to us how tiles, imported from Java, are sprayed in different colours, and then assembled into the domes we see.

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The enclosure used for spraying

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Getting the tiles ready

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I'm surprised they don't wear long gloves - that paint can't be good for their skin

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Freshly sprayed tiles

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Tiles hanging to dry

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These tiles are all ready to be assembled

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Shaping the support structure

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The domes are used to top mosques and other important buildings.

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Mate’ne Village

Operating the fishing boats after dark, and using floodlights to attract the fish, the workers bring the catch back to the village to dry.

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Sumpang Minangey

Further along the coast, these fishing boats, on the other hand, go out for several days at a time.

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Kupa Beach Restaurant

Set in beautiful gardens on the coast, we are shown to a covered seating area and offered a welcome drink and a very much appreciated refreshingly cool face cloth.

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The gentle breeze on a wet face helps to cool us down too, and helps to wake me up from the deep sleep I was in when the car stopped.

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The grounds are extensive and the interesting layout of the property compliments the little knick-knacks around the place, making it all very quaint.

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The asparagus soup is very salty, which, along with a sweet Sprite, will probably do me good as I am suffering from an angry and upset tummy.

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Fearing the repercussions, I avoid the fish, but try three of the delicious-looking tiger prawns with plenty of rice and kecap manis (sweet soy sauce).

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Fresh fruit for dessert

After my somewhat unpleasant encounter with a very basic Indonesian style hole-in-the-floor toilet at a service station earlier, I am grateful that the facilities here are Western style, albeit made for local people whose height is very much less than mine. With my arthritis, getting up from a low seat is not the easiest of manoeuvres.

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Back in the car, I snooze again for a while, until we start climbing up into the hills. The road is winding, narrow, and suffering from severe erosion in places, as well as deep, huge potholes.

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The driving culture is.... not for the faint-hearted. Cars, including ours, overtake huge, slow, heavy trucks uphill on hairpin bends, while dodging kamikaze motorcyclists, pedestrians, dogs, and chickens. Narrow misses that would make us scream back home and talk about for days, are commonplace every few hundred yards here, and no-one bats an eyelid.

Gunung Bamapuang

We make a brief stop to take some photos of one of the mountain peaks we see along the way.

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Rumah Makan & Art Shop ‘Jemz Gunung Nona’

At one of the many restaurants that have been created where the landscape offers some ground between the road and the deep, steep valley beyond, we break for a comfort stop.

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The sweet girls who serve us are keen to practice their English and after ordering iced cappuccinos, we are presented with complimentary roast potatoes.

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An ice cream is always welcome, as we enjoy the spectacular view of Gunung Nona mountains from their balcony.

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It’s a long eleven-hour drive today, and darkness sets in before we reach our destination. If we thought the roads were perilous, with crazy driving, before, add trucks and motorcycles without lights to that mix and you have a terrifying cocktail.

Toraja Heritage Hotel

The grand entrance, with its many steps, is impressive, and the cold fruit drink offered on arrival is equally as welcome as the hot towel.

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Our room is in one of the many traditional Tongokan buildings with their pointy roofs, and is large and airy with a sizeable indoor bathroom and a further outdoor shower.

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Having struggled to keep awake on the journey up here, I feel way too tired to go for dinner, so we just have a little picnic in the room with some of the snacks we bought earlier.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this trip of a lifetime.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:43 Archived in Indonesia Tagged boats fishing road_trip indonesia seaweed sulawesi ice_cream dried_fish makassar undiscovered_destinations outdoor_shower room_picnic fisheries toraj tanahtorajah pomelo dange_pulu_bolong seaweed_farming tile_workshop metal_workshop tile_spraying matene_village fishing_after_dark fishing_by_floodlight kupa_beach_restaurant gunung_bamapuang rumah_makan guning_nona iced_cappuccino toraja_heritage_hotel Comments (4)

Makassar


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The choices for breakfast in the Santika Hotel here in Makassar are overwhelmingly Indonesian, which is hardly surprising considering we are the only Westerners here this morning.

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Kway Teoh Goreng

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Tahu Goreng Renyah

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Tumis Sayuran

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Ayam Goreng Wijem

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Lamuru Woku

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Nasi Goreng Merah

I have never understood the notion that certain foods should only be enjoyed at certain times of day – or more to the point, that certain foods are not suitable for breakfast. The number of times I have heard comments such as “I like curry, but not for breakfast”. Does it taste different at different times of the day?

With just the local name for the dish, I have no idea what any of them contain, so I just choose a few that look appetising.

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In addition to the buffet, there is a chef who is making omelettes and fried eggs.

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Love the luminous chilli sauce

We meet our guide Nadja and driver Acho in the lobby and head out to the fish market to purchase some ingredients for our cooking lesson later on.

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The spacious vehicle we were provided with for the duration of the tour

Makassar Fish Market

We can smell it before we see it, with the muddy approach from the road giving us a preview of the condition of the market itself.

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With frequent calls of “Mister!” “Photo”, the vendors are mostly very keen to be photographed, unlike some markets elsewhere in the world.

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While the fish and seafood look fresh (it will have come out of the sea earlier this morning), the sanitary conditions are a long way from our Western standards.

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Ice being brought in to keep the seafood cool

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Being used to a small selection of fish in the local British supermarkets, most of which are of a very dull colour, I am amazed at the many colourful species found here.

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We are surprised and a little horrified to see that a number of the vendors are smoking while handling the food.

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Nadja closely inspects the produce before selecting some suitable fish for us.

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Some of the fishing boats that brought today's catch

Fruit and Vegetable Market

The next stop is to buy some vegetables to go with the seafood, as well as some fruit for dessert.

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The traders here are as friendly as those in the fish market; we see a number of women stall holders here too, whereas in the fish market it was exclusively men.

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Chillies

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Dragon Fruit

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Cucumber

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Chayote

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Snake Fruit

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Nadja shopping

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Vegetables to go with our fish

Tallo River Ferry

Making our way down rough dirt tracks to the ferry point, we get ‘geographically misplaced’ a couple of times. As this is a new addition to the local programme, Acho has never been here before, so Nadja consults his phone, stops and asks directions from some kids on motorbikes, turns around, gets lost again on a university campus, and holds up his phone and asks a student if he “recognises this”.

Finally, we arrive at the edge of the river where the ferry departs from. ‘Ferry’ is perhaps too a grandiose word for the craft that connects the villages along the riverbank – two canoes joined together with some wooden planks for flooring, and a structure providing protection against inclement weather, plus some rudimentary seating (not to mention the 'gangplank' providing access to the boat. Health and safety anyone?)

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The ferry is powered by a small, but incredibly noisy, outboard engine, helped by an assistant with a long stake.

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The ferries do not have set departure times, they leave when they have enough passengers to make it worth their while. As we are on a private tour, we get the ferry to ourselves.

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Another ferry on the river

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Nadja and Acho with our food

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Javan Pond Heron on the river bank

Lakkang Island

Located in a delta slightly away from Makassar City, Lakkang Island is surrounded by Tallo and Pampang rivers. The majority of the 300 or so inhabitants here belong to the Bugis ethnic group, and are mostly farmers or fishermen, with their own traditions and language.

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The arrival jetty on Lakkang Island

Walking on paths along rice fields, we soon reach a small settlement, where we continue along brick paved shaded paths, between traditional Bugis houses and fruit trees, before reaching the home of our lunchtime host.

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Mangoes

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Custard apple

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The home of our host

Upon arrival, we are immediately given cups of strong, sweet. black tea, and some traditional sweet snacks.

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Roko Roko Unti - sticky banana cake

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Putu Cangkir - rice cookies filled with coconut

Cookery Lesson

The kitchen is fairly basic but with a few nice mod cons, such as a large American-style fridge.

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The cook adds some chillies to the mix for making corn patties. They are delicious, but David manages to catch a piece of chilli at the back of the throat, making him cough, which Nadja seems to find extremely funny and it results in no more chillies being added to the food.

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The patty mix

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The finished patties

Fried shallots, garlic and sugar are added to a pot with chepa fish.

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Prawns being cooked

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Kangkung - water spinach

All the finished dishes.

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Traditionally, food would be eaten while sitting on the floor, but as old and decrepit Western tourists, we are offered seats at the table.

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Nadja and Acho eat the traditional way

For dessert, we are offered a selection of fruits.

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Red Dragon Fruit - my first experience with the red variety, the ones I have had before, and that are (occasionally) on sale in the UK, have a white centre with black seeds

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Papaya

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Small finger bananas - they are sweeter than the traditionally bigger variety

After saying goodbye to our gracious host, we make our way back to the river, where our ferryman is waiting to take us across to Makassar.

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Fisherman on the river

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Another ferry

Paotere Harbour

Dating from the 14th century, Paotere Harbour is said to be the oldest in the country and used to be a thriving hub in its heyday.

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Old fishing boats never die, they come to Makassar to live out their lives in Paotere Harbour

Fishermen's huts
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Phinisi

Traditionally, the term Phinisi (or pinisi) referred to a type of rig, masts, sails, and configuration of ropes in Indonesian sailing vessels, with seven or eight sails over two masts - such as the ship we sailed on in Nusa Tenggara in 2006 when we visited Komodo Island.

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As is the case with many Indonesian sailing craft, the word 'pinisi' only refers to a type of rig, and does not describe the shape of the hull of a vessel that uses such sails. Phinisi-rigged ships were built by the Konjo, a sub-ethnic tribe of the Bugis, and are very typical of this region.

These days the word is often used to describe any type of small to mid-sized wooden sailing ship.

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Trucks on the quayside waiting to receive goods from the boats

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Three young girls playing to my camera

Asmaul Husna 99 Dome Mosque

Our last stop of the day is the spectacular 99 Dome Mosque on the edge of Losari Beach. Completed in 2022, it is constructed on reclaimed land in an area full of stunning new-build houses, the like of which you might find in the Middle East rather than in Sulawesi.

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Why 99 domes? It refers to the 99 Names of Allah – Asmaul Husna in Arabic. It’s a unique and beautiful building, for sure.

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By the time we get back to the hotel, I am in a lot of pain with my back, and do not feel up to walking the two blocks down to Losari Boulevard to find a restaurant. As the hotel only serves food at breakfast, we resort to getting another MacDonald's this evening, which David goes to fetch while I relax in a comfortable chair.

Thank you so much to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing bespoke private tour for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:50 Archived in Indonesia Tagged fish indonesia kitchen cooking fishermen ferry crabs sulawesi bugis chillies smoking papaya prawns dragon_fruit fish_market muddy mangoes south_east_asia custard_apple pinisi makassar private_tour unhygienic undiscovered_destinations unsanitary cucumber bespoke_tour santika_hotel macdonalds chayote snake_fruit tallo_river lakkang_island cooking_lesson roko_roko_unti puti_cangkir corn_patties chepa_fish chepa red_dragon_fruit finger_bananas paotere_harbour phinisi seal_boats konjo ethnic_tribes asmaul_husna 99_names_of_allah losari Comments (6)

Singapore - Makassar


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After yesterday’s excitement, we oversleep this morning, completely missing the alarm, meaning we have to rush down for breakfast before they stop serving.

Breakfast

Yet again I enjoy some smoked salmon, whereas David sticks to fried eggs. I love the sign on the table – I didn’t notice that yesterday – indicating whether you are just getting more food, or have completely finished your breakfast and departed, so that the staff know when they can clear your table. What a great idea!

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Changi Airport

We arrive at the airport with plenty of time to allow us to reclaim tax for the drone we bought yesterday. After an uneventful check-in for Scoot Airlines, followed by finding a wheelchair, a porter grabs our boarding cards and instructs us to sit down and wait. Apparently, they are only allowed to push us through immigration one hour before departure. So much for us arriving three hours early to arrange for the tax refund.

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With the flight originally scheduled to leave at 15:15, we are dismayed to see a new departure time of 16:00. Chatting to a disgruntled Australian man also travelling in a wheelchair, we learn that this is the norm with Scoot Airlines. The designated waiting area for mobility-impaired passengers leaves much to be desired, with nothing around: no shops or cafés to get a drink, no comfortable seats, nothing.

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With a bit of pleading, and explaining about the tax refund, a porter eventually agrees to take us through before the ‘allocated’ time. David sits in the front of the mobility buggy, while I am at the end, facing backwards. The porter appears to have Formula One ambitions, and not only do I feel dizzy as he races across the swirly-patterned carpet, but I also fear I am going to fall out of the cart as he swerves at full speed to avoid wayward pedestrians.

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Claiming the tax back proves to be easier than anticipated, via a self-service booth.

Singapore to Makassar

FlyScoot is new to us, one of the many budget airlines in South East Asia. While budget airlines in the West are bad enough, here they seem to be made for people who are a fraction of our size, and to say the aircraft is cramped would be an understatement. Every time the chap in the seat in front of me moves, he throws himself back into the seat, crushing my knees in the process.

Boarding is painfully slow, with seemingly everyone carrying hard roller cases that they struggle to fit in the overhead compartments, holding up everyone behind them in the process.

The plane doesn’t fill up until 16:15, a quarter of an hour after the revised departure time, and to add to the delay, an announcement is made that a black bag has been left in the gate hall. No-one owns up. Passengers are just milling about, unsure of what is happening – the whole thing reeks of chaos and lack of control. Fearing a security issue, the announcement is repeated. It takes 20 minutes, three more announcements later, and just as the bag is about to be taken away and destroyed, someone finally realises that they do not have their hand luggage in the plane with them. We finally depart at 17:30, 2 hours 15 minutes late.

Makassar Airport

As with boarding, passengers are painfully slow disembarking, and when we arrive in the immigration hall, my heart sinks. Thank goodness I am in a wheelchair, as the lines snake around the room, and I would have struggled to stand for the duration of the wait. There are only two other westerners, a young lady, and her son – they are in front of us in the queue.

After some 45 minutes or so, we finally reach the immigration desk and hand our passports over with the e-visa. The official asks where we are staying. I hand her my list of hotels for the entire trip. She calls a colleague across and they study the list, then ask what my itinerary is and the dates. I dig out the dossier sent to us by Undiscovered Destinations. As she continues to ask for further information, I am eternally grateful that I am so incredibly organised, printing off all the paperwork prior to departure from home, and placing it in a folder in chronological order: onward tickets to Timor Leste, tickets from Timor Leste back to Bali, onward tickets from Bali, hotel confirmations, details of local agents…. The list goes on. Soon she has most of the pieces of paper for the next 3 weeks, and eventually, we are let through to collect our bags.

The next hurdle makes immigration seem like a walk in the park. Most of the passengers on the flight are part of a large group returning from Umrah (pilgrimage to Mecca), and I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of them have never been on a flight, or abroad before. Confused, upset, tired, and angsty, they mill around, leaving trolleys and baggage blocking the route for anyone else. As with everything else these days, the Customs Declaration is totally online. Convinced that we completed this a few days ago, I am dismayed, and slightly panicking, when I can’t find it on my phone. When David is unable to locate it on his phone either, we assume that we most likely DID NOT do it - having filled in so many online forms over the last week, we must have missed it (Post Note: two weeks later we come across it – no idea where it has been hiding meanwhile). After much to and fro with an official whose English is barely better than my Indonesian, we are pointed to a QR code on a pillar in the hall which takes us to the form, using the free wifi in the airport.

David volunteers to complete the form, but with so many people trying to access the website at the same time, it keeps crashing. After three unsuccessful attempts, I have a go and get a little further than David, but then suddenly the system wipes all the information I have put in, three times in a row. When I eventually manage to complete the details for both of us, it adds a second husband. Groan. One is more than enough. Finally, some 25 minutes after we started this debacle, I have that all-important QR code on my phone. I quickly take a screenshot, just in case…

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Now all we have to do is to try and get out of this bedlam, which is easier said than done, with a couple of trolleys blocking our exit, and no space to move those trolleys into with all the people still standing around, dazed and zombie-like. Eventually, the aforementioned official uses his authority to get people moving, by loud shouting and some pushing and shoving, and we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

We’re out. Or rather in. In Indonesia, that is. Theo, the young and delightful representative from Undiscovered Destinations' local agent, is waiting in the arrivals hall for us, a little concerned and baffled about the amount of time it has taken us to get through. He leads us to a generously proportioned people-carrier with comfortable seats and a friendly driver, Acho.

Aston Hotel

With an impressive lobby, the hotel looks very welcoming. The friendly and cheerful receptionist, however, is thoroughly bewildered, as he has no record of our stay. As anguish creeps across Theo’s face, I point out that the itinerary we received before leaving home, mentions Santika Hotel, Not Aston. Relief and embarrassment replace the apprehension on Theo’s face, and he is full of apologies. “Guests from Undiscovered Destinations always stay at the Aston” he explains, as he orders Acho to help the porters return our luggage to the car.

Santika Hotel

By the time we arrive at the much-less-impressive Santika Hotel, it is 22:30 and I am feeling tired and hungry. “I’m afraid the restaurant only opens for breakfast” Theo explains, “and the room service is closed now.” Great. Not at all feeling like wandering around an unknown town at this time of night looking for a place to eat (most restaurants stop serving around 21:30 we are told), David offers to pop along to the MacDonalds we spotted on the way here, just a couple of doors down. It is not something I would normally choose to eat at home, but needs must, and I have to reluctantly admit that the sorry-looking sandwich is very welcome and actually quite tasty.

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Despite the initial disappointment of this hotel over the Aston, we are very happy with the spacious bedroom, with its two large beds and a couple of chairs on which to enjoy our late-night culinary delight.

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Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this once-in-a-lifetime grand tour.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia singapore airport breakfast visa sulawesi airline passport changi immigration porter wheelchair umrah makassar marina_bay_sands_hotel qr_code flyscoot scoot_airlines budget_airline red-tape customs_declaration aston_hotel santika_hotel macdonalds Comments (5)

Singapore - Rooftop Pool and Gardens by the Bay


View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

“What is that noise?” I am dragged, quite unwillingly, out of a deep sleep at some ungodly hour this morning. Switching my alarm off, I am sorely tempted to capitulate to my body’s demand that I immediately return to the land of slumber… but then I remember where I am and the reason why I set the alarm.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel Swimming Pool

Being the very first people in the rooftop swimming pool as it opens at 06:00 justifies getting out of bed at 05:30 on holiday.

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Not another person in sight

It is still dark at this time in the morning, and the views over the twinkling lights of Singapore from the edge of the infinity pool are stunning. The city that never sleeps.

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This, the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool, is one of the main reasons we are spending time here in Singapore, so we make the most of it by floating around in the warm water, leaning out over the edge admiring the view, and just generally chilling, until it gets light.

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Breakfast

It is no surprise that the choice of food at the Hotel’s Rise Breakfast Restaurant is nothing short of incredible. There is something for everyone here: Japanese, Chinese, local dishes, American, and Continental.
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With a lavish selection of sumptuous-looking dishes from all over the world, what does my darling husband pick? Chocopops. Each to their own, I guess.

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Without any guilt whatsoever, I make an absolute glutton of myself, taking advantage of the many choices available – we are unlikely to see a spread comparable to this for the next few weeks, at least not until we arrive in Kuala Lumpur.

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Round 1 - fruit

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Round 2 - bacon (making the most of it, as we will be in a Muslim country for the next couple of weeks)

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Round 3 - smoked salmon - one of my favourite breakfast dishes

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Round 4 - Cinnamon muffin

David is more restrained, but he does go up for seconds of egg and bacon.

DJI Mini 3 PRO

Having looked into the drone laws of the different destinations on this trip, it seemed a great opportunity to do some drone photography along the way. Most of the countries we are visiting are very relaxed about their use… except Qatar, which not only forbids the use of unmanned flying aircraft by foreigners, but they go as far as banning the import of drones completely, punishable by a heavy fine. Having read about travellers who were not just fined, but also had their drones confiscated, as they explained that all the luggage is X-rayed upon entry, we did not want to risk it. As the law-abiding citizens that we are, we will not entertain the idea of even trying to break the laws of another country, so we left our drone at home.

The more I looked at photographs online before our departure (from the Philippines in particular), the more my disappointment grew. Until I came up with an idea: what if we buy a basic drone set-up in Singapore, bring all our extra accessories with us from home, and then sell the drone on our return to the UK at the end of the trip? Any financial loss can then be counted as a ‘rental charge’.

Once this idea grew into a proper plan, I checked out camera stores in Singapore, and found one where I could pre-order the drone from the UK, and pick it up from their store in Singapore.

Cathay Photo

We grab a cab from outside the hotel for the short journey to the other side of the bay, and immediately locate the store in the Peninsula shopping plaza.

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While it seemed like a simple execution when I was planning it back home, once we are there, the formalities (checking credit cards and passports, and arranging the paperwork for a tax refund) seem to drag on. And on. Eventually, I am the proud owners of a new drone, and we quickly pick up another taxi back to Marina Bay Sands.

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Rather than driving around the block to the main entrance of the hotel, the driver drops us off at the far end of the complex. This suits us fine, as we want to stop for some lunch in a café we saw advertised on the in-room TV hotel channel.

Black Tap Craft Burgers and Beer

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This place is casual and fun, but with nice little touches that I have not seen elsewhere, such as this basket supplied for our bags, rather than having to place our precious items on the floor.

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As a true ‘cider-head’, David is delighted to find some on the drinks menu. The bizarreness of it all is not lost on me: An Englishman and a Norwegian drinking French cider, served by an Indian in a New York style restaurant in Singapore. I guess that is what they call truly cosmopolitan.

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It is not the burgers, nor the beer (or cider), that attracts us to this place, but their famous Crazyshakes ®.

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What can I say?

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Advertised as milkshakes, they are more like luxury sundaes, visual masterpieces, and absolutely enormous.

Sweet and Salty Peanut Butter Shake

Chocolate frosted rim with chocolate gems, and peanut butter cups, topped with a sugar daddy, pretzel rods, chocolate covered pretzels, whipped cream, and chocolate drizzle.

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Churro Choco Taco Cinnamon Toast Crunch Shake

Vanilla frosted rim with cinnamon toast crunch topped with choco taco, two churros, whipped cream, and dulce de leche drizzle.

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We both make a brave attempt at these mountains of sugary overload, but find ourselves beaten, and have to retire to the room for a snooze!

Gardens by the Bay

During the initial planning stages of this trip, I was particularly keen to add a stopover in Singapore, purely because of these gardens and their nightly light show. Having visited Singapore three times previously (albeit the last visit was over 20 years ago), we are not really interested in spending time seeing the sites of the city, especially not in this heat and humidity.

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Another reason for choosing to stay at Marina Bay Sands Hotel, is that they are within walking distance of the park, accessed via an elevated walkway, which incidentally is not easy to find. Following the signposts, we make our way along the ground floor of the hotel, exit through one of the many doors, take a lift up a couple of floors, and then back through the hotel and out the other side to reach the walkway.

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The walkway with our hotel in the background

The park is divided into several zones, some of which are free to enter, others require the purchase of tickets.

The Dragonfly Lake

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The Chinese Gardens

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The World’s Longest Sculpture
Stretching over 192m, the artwork features 60 endangered animals cast in bronze to raise awareness of wildlife conservation.

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The Indian Garden

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Mid-Autumn Festival

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Supertree Grove
This is what I have come to see – the ‘forest’ of 18 tall metal ‘trees’ connected by an elevated skywalk.

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Having checked the website for information prior to leaving home, we head for the Information Centre, in order to hire a wheelchair for me. It is not so much the walking that is a problem for me, it’s standing still. While the Information Office is closed, the ticket counter arranges a chair for me, as well as selling us tickets for the skywalk.

The skywalk

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After a quick pit-stop in one of the many cafés within the gardens, we take the wheelchair back and perch ourselves on a low wall, waiting for the light show to start. Along with hundreds of other people.

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The Garden Rhapsody
As the sky loses its colour, and darkness envelopes the park, music fills the air, and the trees come alive with dazzling lights in every colour imaginable, synchronised in time to the beat of the music.

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Once the extravaganza is over, we join the throng of people making their way back across the walkway to Marina Bay Sands Hotel.

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A Chinese temple in the middle of the Supertree Grove is beautifully lit.

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As is this covered walkway

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View from the walkway over the Dragonfly Lake to the Singapore Wheel behind

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Even our hotel has some impressive lights after dark

The Garden Rhapsody from Marina Bay Sands Hotel

Taking advantage of the spectacular views over the gardens for the rooftop bar of our hotel, we settle down with a drink and a sandwich to wait for the second show of the evening. The view from up here gives a totally different perspective of the show.

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Drone Light Show

As we finish our drinks before going back to the room, we spot some moving lights over the Marina Bay area, and work out that they must be drones. We are then treated to the added bonus of a surprise drone show, no doubt a practice session for the forthcoming F1 event, as the displays feature the names of some of the sponsors.

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With the bar now closed, and both of us still trying to catch up from the jet lag, we make our way back to the room.

Thank you very much to Undiscovered Destinations for creating this exciting itinerary for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:18 Archived in Singapore Tagged singapore breakfast swimming pool light_show skywalk swimming-pool cider wheelchair infinity_pool drone gardens_by_the_bay dji supertree_grove undiscovereddestination the_grand_south_east_asia_tour marina_bay_sand_hotel marina_bay_sands-swimming_pool dji_mini_pro_3 drone_laws cathay_phone black_tap crazyshakes gardens_by_the_bay_light_show drone_show drone_light_show the_garden_rhapsody Comments (3)

Arrival in Singapore


View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As we start our descent into Singapore Changi Airport, an announcement is made “Please remain seated until the row in front of you has vacated”. We’ve seen how well this works when adhered to in Brazil, where everyone stays calm in their seat waiting their turn. Here, however, no one takes any notice whatsoever, and the usual chaos ensues as soon as the plane has come to a standstill.

There is a wheelchair waiting for me just outside the door of the plane, and at the end of the corridor, I am transferred to a buggy that takes me to immigration. For some reason I am instructed to walk through immigration itself, and although there are only a couple of people in front of me at the special assistance lane, by the time I reach the other side, my back is hurting. Having completed the arrival card online a couple of days ago, once I reach the counter everything goes quickly and smoothly.

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The same porter, with the same chair, is waiting for me there, and takes me all the way to the well-organised taxi rank.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel

There’s a frisson of excitement as we turn up outside, in the four-lane drop-off zone, which is organised to the point of appearing regimented. As soon as the car doors are opened, two porters grab out luggage, immediately asking if any items are fragile. When I explain that my backpack is full of camera gear, a fragile tag is attached as well as a very noticeable CAUTION tag.

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A stunning lady in a beautiful traditional Chinese cheongsam dress, greets us at the door, and leads us to the VIP check-in area where we are immediately offered a seat and very personal treatment. We appreciate this nice touch, as the general check-in area has a roped-off queueing system with a handful of people waiting.

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Marina Bay Sands is the only hotel we booked independently on this trip, as Undiscovered Destinations were unable to secure a comparative price. Having dreamed of staying in this incredible hotel since I saw videos of it when it first opened in 2010, I have to pinch myself that I am finally here, having just been allocated an upgraded Premier room. And what a room it is.

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As soon as we walk in through the door, the light comes on automatically and the curtains open.

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The room consists of a corridor leading to the main bedroom, a bathroom with a bathtub, a separate shower and double basins, and a separate toilet off a dressing room.

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The bathroom features lots of nice touches, such as the tap being in the middle of the bath (so that two people can share a soak together without either getting the tap in their back), a handheld shower attachment at one end, and a number of complimentary toiletries.

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The toilet is like something out of a sci-fi movie, and will take a lot longer than the two days we are staying to try and figure out what all the buttons and switches do.

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Again, as soon as we enter the small room, the lights come on, and the toilet bowl lid lifts. Everything is programmable: the built-in bidet offers different water angles, shapes and positions of the spray. The hot air dryer has similar options. All this can be programmed for two different users (including toilet seat up or down), as well as other features that I didn’t have the time, nor inclination, to work out.

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As soon as you get up from the toilet seat, the flush starts, and a blue light appears under the rim of the toilet bowl. Once the flush has finished, the lid closes again. I just know that I will get too used to that and forget to manually flush the toilet of the next hotel.

In the corridor leading from the door to the bedroom, is a tea station inside a mirrored cupboard, complimentary water and coffee, and a drawer full of Chinese and Western snacks.

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The enormous TV does not just have numerous channels in various languages, it also has a complete guide to the hotel, which is actually very useful.

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The mini bar is complete with a cocktail-making kit, and there is a box of complimentary chocolate biscuits.

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It is no surprise to find that everything is controllable remotely from the bed: all the lights, (including those in the bathroom), some of which are dimmable, the DO NOT DISTURB sign outside the door, the TV, the curtains, the very modern-looking telephone, and an alarm clock. As ‘gadget freaks', we both love this leading edge technology.

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Our room looks out over the shopping complex.

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My only two niggles about the room, are that I would have liked a desk and chair where I could comfortably use a laptop (I hate using it on my lap), and that the two settees are rather too low, making it difficult to get up again.

As soon as the porter arrives with the luggage, we go off to explore the rest of the hotel.

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The bags in the dressing room

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Marina Bay Sand Hotel consists of three towers topped by a skyway, which features a 150m long infinity swimming pool. It is a spectacular piece of architecture, and although we don’t generally like big hotels, I have to admit that this is rather fabulous.

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My top priority is to check out that swimming pool. Being a massive tourist attraction in Singapore, the hotel has strict security measures. From our room, we take the lift to the 22nd floor, where we change into the dedicated Skyview lift that takes us right up to the 57th floor. This area is open to pre-booked members of the public, whereas we just flash our room card to proceed.

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Looking down on the restaurant in the lobby from the corridor outside our room.

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The view over Singapore from the roof deck is stunning! I take a few photos while it is still some daylight left.

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Cruise ship in the marina

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The famous Gardens by the Bay

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Singapore is preparing to host the Formula One road race in a few days.

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Having not eaten since breakfast on the plane, I am getting rather hangry, so we try and find a restaurant that will accept us without reservation. With around 50 restaurants in the hotel complex, it should be possible.

Lavo Italian Restaurant

With just a short 15 minute wait, the first restaurant we enter (I want to be on the rooftop still) is able to fit us in.

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It would be rude not to start with cocktails: I have a Lovo Mule, while David chooses a Limonito.

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While we enjoy our pre-dinner drinks, a small dish of complimentary bread and olives arrives.

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Penne alla Vodka – onions, prosciutto, peas, and light cream sauce. The kick from extra chilli flakes makes this dish rather yummy.

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David declares his Chicken Dominick “perfect”, with white balsamic, roasted potatoes and chilli flakes.

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Spectra

Just as we have finished the main course, the nightly light show starts. We ask the server if it is OK to pop out to watch for a few minutes and take some photos.

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Back inside the AC restaurant we order another drink and peruse the dessert menu. Watching a young couple on the next table tucking into what looks like a delectable dessert, I ask them what it is. Tiramisu. On their suggestion we order one to share. It arrives with a bit of fanfare, as the waitress removes the outer casing and the dessert erupts like a volcano.


I am delighted to confirm that the tiramisu tastes every bit as good as it looks.

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Once we’ve paid, we go back out on the deck to admire the dynamic lights of Singapore by night.

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It’s been a very long, and exciting day. The initial plan was to take a cab over to the Merlion statue on the opposite side of the bay to take some photos from there of the hotel, but neither of us have the energy, so we just collapse into bed, knowing we’ll be up at 05:30 tomorrow morning.

Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for allowing us to fit our own arrangement into this amazing Grand Tour of South East Asia.

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:36 Archived in Singapore Tagged singapore changi f1 wheelchair undiscovered_destinations night_photography marina_bay_sands_hotel leading_edge_technology formula_one_racing lavo_italian_restaurant electra_light_show simgapore_by_night Comments (3)

Doha - Desert - Singapore


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Having been up a couple of times in the night with an upset tummy, I don’t feel great this morning. It was inevitable that I would suffer from stomach problems on this trip, but I was hoping it wouldn’t start quite this early on in the journey.

We have another excursion booked through Viator today, this time out into the desert for a different side of Qatar. Bilal picks us up at 09:00, he also just messages me from the car to say he is waiting outside for us. Perhaps this is a Qatari thing – it doesn’t come across as very welcoming, though.

Al Khor Port

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In years gone by, locals used to go fishing from here; these days it is mainly Asians, although some of the boats are still owned by Qatari.

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Jazirat Bin Ghannam (Purple Island)

Known for the purple dye industry in the 2nd millennium BC, Bin Ghannam Island is the country’s oldest registered archaeological site. What we are seeing today, however, is a mangrove ecosystem, which provides habitat, food, and shelter for organisms that live on or in the bottom sediments.

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Salt flats are an important habitat for marine life, including burrowing worms, crabs, snails, and microbes living within the sand. We spot a couple of little crabs and some small fish, including this photo of a sole.

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Can you spot the sand-coloured fish?

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David's video shows the marine life better than my photos do.



The island is set beyond the city and port of Al Khor, and the mangroves reach all the way out to the sea.

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Photo from Visit Qatar website

It is said to be a great place for bird watching, with a number of migratory species passing through between August and October. Not a single bird is in attendance this morning – I guess they are hiding in the shade, and who can blame them?

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Zubara Fort

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Built in 1938, the fort functioned as a military and police post until the 1980s and was restored in 2011.

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The impressive fort, with its one-metre-thick walls, is now a museum where visitors can learn about Qatar’s history.

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Along with a nearby archaeological site, the fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

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David climbs the steep stairs to the roof, while I sit in the shade chatting to some fellow British tourists who are also on a stopover here in Qatar, they are on their way to Australia and Papua New Guinea.

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Located quite some distance from the sea, the fort has never come under attack. It was constructed on the orders of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani to guard and protect Qatar's northwest coast. Together with a series of forts along Qatar's coastline, it formed part of a complex defence system controlling the sea and the fresh water resources of the region. What I cannot understand, is why it was built so far inland. Bilal tries to explain to me, but I still don’t quite grasp the logistics behind it.

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You can barely see the coastline from the top

Zeekreet Limestone Formations

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In an area known as Bir Zeekreet, or Ras Abrouq, are several rock formations caused by the erosion of softer sedimentary rock by strong winds and rain, leaving behind just the harder limestone skeleton exposed. The rocks here are so soft that you can scrape them away with your fingers. Not that we try.

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At 60m above sea level, this is one of the highest points in Qatar, with the tallest ‘mountain’ being only 103m high. The whole experience is quite surreal, as the surrounding area is flat, flat, flat for miles, and then suddenly these rock formations appear.

We stop at a rock known as ‘The Eye’ due to an arch covering an eye-shaped hole in the mound.

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Despite the searing heat, David and Bilal climb to the opening in the rock, while I stay in the airconditioned car.

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Back in the car, we drive over the top to the side of the Eye, where the rock dips down a little. The mound is covered in soft sand, and it reminds me of some exhilarating dune bashing we have previously done elsewhere in the Middle East.

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Continuing on our way, we spot another rock formation that has an uncanny resemblance to a lizard. Strangely enough, we almost run over a small sand-coloured lizard close by.
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Most tour agencies advertise a stop at ‘Mushroom Rock’, one of the most famous of these formations.

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Today there is a film crew here, which apparently happens quite often, so we have to make do with photographing it from a different angle.

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Camel Farm

In a nearby small settlement, we visit a camel farm where animals are kept for producing milk.

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Zeekreet Village

The linguistic meaning of Zekreet is the ‘filling of a vessel’, describing the village’s ample access to water. Archaeologists have excavated a 19th century fort and a date press here.

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The rooms dedicated to madabis (date pressing) are of the same age as the fort.

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It is hard to distinguish here where the desert ends and the beach starts. We spot several campervans on the beach – this is a popular area for weekenders.

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Back in the desert, Bilal suddenly stops, reverses back for a bit, and gets out of the car. He has seen a small wild watermelon plant. As well as picking up a tiny fruit, he pours a whole bottle of water over the plant to give it a chance to grow.

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East West, West East

This unique art installation was created by America’s most famous living sculptor, Richard Serra, following a commission by Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani.

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Consisting of four standing steel plates, the artwork is said to celebrate man’s frailty in the face of nature’s immensity.

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The four plates, which are four metres wide, but only about 10cm thick (as you can see below), are arranged at regular intervals in a straight line for around one kilometre in the desert along the East-West compass points.

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The height of the pillars varies between 14 and 16 metres to allow for the different elevations of the terrain as the tops of the slabs are calibrated to be exactly even with one another.

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The installation is constructed from German steel, chosen for the different shades and hues it acquires while rusting. Erected less than 10 years ago, in 2014, the plates are already showing a significant amount of rust.

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Apart from a security guard in a car, posted to protect the installation from vandals, we are alone. Standing close to the plates, we can feel the heat radiating from the metal. Touching it is not recommended.

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Retiring to the car to get out of the blistering heat, Bilial serves us some refreshing tropical juice, and a couple of packets of local biscuits as a small car picnic. In this heat a large meal in the middle of the day is not required – or even desired – so this is ‘just what the doctor ordered’.

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Al Shahaniya Camel Racetrack

Camels are big business all over the Middle East, and Qatar has a long tradition of racing camels. In the old days, families would run their camels up and down the street at special occasions such as weddings, which then later developed into a sport.

The track was constructed in 1972 by the previous king and features three race tracks at differing lengths (4/6/8 kilometres). These days camels do not carry jockeys, but are led by robots operated remotely by the owners. With no race meeting taking place today, there is very little to photograph, and I do as the locals do: refuse to get out of the car!

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Warwick Hotel

Back at base, the security guards let us slip in without passing through the body scanners – we must be VIPs now! Ha!

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After a snooze and a shower, we visit the restaurant – still no Qatari food.

We order from the menu this evening – I choose biriyani with chicken, while David has nasi goreng with chicken.

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David's nasi goreng

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My chicken biriyani. Two large chicken pieces are hidden underneath the rice, making it a huge portion.

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My biriyani is accompanied by a refreshing raita

Both dishes are very good, I particularly like the crispy fried onion on top.

Doha Airport

We order an Uber to take us to the airport for our flight onwards to Singapore. On arrival, I ask the porter outside where I can find a wheelchair, and he not only rushes off to bring me one, he also pushes me to the check-in desk.

The lady at the counter is very kind and attaches ‘First Class’ tags onto our luggage.

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I change into another wheelchair to the waiting area, then a buggy to the meeting point, and a new chair to the gate. We go through a lovely indoor garden, with tall trees and flowering plants, piped bird song, and a complete wall of water.

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On the mezzanine floor, there is a train leading to some of the gates. The airport is huge, but surprisingly quiet at this time of night (midnight)

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There is a long, long wait at the gate for the porter to arrive, and we are getting a little concerned when all the other groups have finished boarding, including Business Class. A delicious coffee ice cream – one of the best ice creams I have ever had – helps to pass the time.

Eventually the porter turns up, and wheels me out to the bus, which takes us on what appears to be a convoluted journey to the plane. The plane seems to be very much higher than usual, I guess normally when I have boarded an Airbus in the past, it has been via a tunnel, not the 35 steep steps from the tarmac. Thankfully I don’t have to, as we go up in the lift, and are the very last to board.

Qatar Airways QR0948

The flight is anything but pleasant, with my knees, coccyx, foot, back and hip all hurting at some stage. After the rather ghastly wet chicken sandwich served earlier in the flight, I make a point of missing the main meal, instead taking extra painkillers which means that I manage to get some sleep. When I wake up we will be approaching Singapore, which will be the subject of the next blog entry.

Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this incredible trip of a lifetime for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 17:31 Archived in Qatar Tagged fish fishing desert fort airport the_eye unesco limestone crabs fishing_boats qatar rock_formations marine_life mangroves wheelchair doha watermelon filming viator undiscovered_destinations check-in qatar_airways upset_tummy camel_farm richard_serra warwick_hotel al_khor_port purple_island jazirat_bin_ghannam purple_dye zubara al_zubarah zubara_fort zeekreet abrouq mushroom_rock watermelon_plant east_west_west_east art_installation al_shahaniya_race_track camel_racing biriyani nasi_goreng doha_airport wheelchair_travel Comments (4)

Doha


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Breakfast at Warwick Hotel

We both slept really well last night, and got up at 6am this morning for some breakfast. There is an extensive buffet with lots of choices including baked beans and chicken livers, plus eggs to order, which unfortunately we have to remind them about as they seem to have forgotten.

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The food from the buffet is barely warm, with the bread still only slightly tanned after four rounds in the toaster. The salt is refusing to leave the shaker, and the orange juice is so pale and sweet that I would never have known it was orange (the urn needs stirring, I think, as it looks darker at the bottom). All in all, the breakfast is a rather sad affair.

City Tour

As Undiscovered Destinations (who arranged this whole tour for us) do not have any contacts in Qatar, I booked this day trip myself through Viator. We wait in the lobby at the pick-up time and see a car pull up just beyond the door. As no one gets out of the vehicle to collect us, we assume it is not for us. A couple of minutes later I get a WhatsApp message to let us know he is here. I feel a little peeved that he hasn’t even got the courtesy to get out of his car to meet us in reception.

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National Museum of Qatar – AKA Desert Rose

Inspired by the iconic Desert Rose crystal, found in the desert surrounding the city, the building was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and opened in 2019. “Qatar has a deep rapport with the desert, with its flora and fauna, its nomadic people, its long traditions. To fuse these contrasting stories, I needed a symbolic element. Eventually, I remembered the phenomenon of the desert rose: crystalline forms, like miniature architectural events, that emerge from the ground through the work of wind, salt water, and sand,” said Nouvel about his design.

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A desert rose crystal we brought home from the Sahara on one of our travels a long time ago. You can see the similarities with the architectural design

In addition to the unique architecture, the building features a 220-seat auditorium, two restaurants, a café and a traditional food forum. Unfortunately, today being Friday, the museum is closed. We are, however, permitted to walk around the (deserted) area to take photographs. Sajid, our guide, does not leave his car, he makes his explanations before we get out. I can totally understand that, as it is 40 °C already at 9 am.

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There are no straight lines anywhere, and we explore the various areas, totally in awe of the architecture.

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Doha Old Port

The Old Doha Port area was transformed and reshaped into a marina for cruise ships ready for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and is now a thriving and colourful area, with over 50 cafés and restaurants (some converted from old shipping containers), 100 shops, and 150 hotel apartments.

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The area is now known as Mina District

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I love the Mediterranean feel of the hotel area.

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We see some luxury yachts moored here too.

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974 Stadium

In 2022, Doha hosted the World Cup, and this is one of the many stadiums built for the occasion. It is so named as it was constructed of 974 containers, which is also the telephone country code for Qatar. It was designed so that it could be deconstructed reasonably easily. It will be used again for the Asian Cup in January 2024, after which it will travel to South America as Uruguay bought the stadium at a recent auction.

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Chabrat al Mina Fish Market

Again Sajid stays in the car (in fact he doesn’t get out at any point during our tour) while we wander around the very clean – and beautifully air-conditioned indoor market.

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The hall has a beautifully tiled floor, counters and benches, and a stained glass ceiling

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Detail of the ceiling

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One of the pretty benches

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Detail of wall decoration

The produce looks fresh and appetising.

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Prawns

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Shrimps

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Faskar

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Parrot Fish

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Kanad Khpat

We continue to a viewpoint looking across the water to the Doha skyline.

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Some cool modern architecture. The pyramid-looking building on the right-hand side is the Sheraton Hotel, the oldest hotel in Doha, from 1992. It's amazing to think that all the other hotels in the city are less than 30 years old. This area is known as West Bay.

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Selfie point leftover from the World Cup

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Our car for the day

As we travel through this modern town, Sajid will often slow down enough so that I can practise what I call my ‘drive by shooting’ – taking photos from a moving car.

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Museum of Islamic Art - designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect I.M. Pei, best known for the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris

Katara Cultural Village

Known as Doha’s go-to destination for art, culture, and cuisine, the area is deserted today.

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Traditional bird towers provide shelter from the sun, food, and water; the guano is collected and used as fertiliser, and it helps to keep birds (pigeons and doves in particular) away from residential areas.

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Katara Mosque was designed by the Turkish architect Zeynep Fadilloglu, who is believed to be the first female architect to specialise in mosques.

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Katara man-made beach. The beach is closed to visitors when the temperature exceeds 40 °C.

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Galleries Lafayette - an upmarket and expensive shopping centre

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A toy shop in the shape of a gift-wrapped present

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A transformer stands at the base of the building

Falcon Information Centre

The most striking building in Katara, is the Giant Hood, which houses interactive multimedia exhibits for visitors wishing to learn about the rich heritage of Qatar falconry. Also in the complex is the oldest veterinary clinic for falcons in the Middle East. Falcons are part of the core culture of Qatar, and hoods are used as a way of controlling the birds and keeping them calm.

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Corniche

This 7-kilometre-long seaside promenade is overflowing with restaurants, clubs, parks, and cultural attractions. Today it is eerily quiet. And hot.

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Pearl Island

Constructed on a former pearl-diving site, this 4 square kilometres island of reclaimed land, is divided into three main areas.

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Porto Arabia

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Qanat Quartier
Venice-inspired neighbourhood with its colourful buildings, 1.6km of canals, and foot-bridges, including a replica of Rialto Bridge.

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Crescent Tower, Lusail

Also known as Katara Tower, this 211-metre high building was constructed and opened in time for the 2022 World Cup. The towers are described as an architectural translation of Qatar’s national seal, representing the traditional scimitar swords. One of the towers houses Fairmont Hotel, and on the other side, you will find Raffles Hotel.

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Lunch – or is that afternoon tea?

Sajid drops us off back at Warwick Hotel in time for us to have a late lunch. As we don’t want a big meal (it is too hot to eat much), we wander down to the cafeteria on the ground floor. There are no customers and no-one serving, so we ask at reception.

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The security guard ambles over after a while. “You want service?” Hmm, really? I would have thought that would be obvious. He goes off, but returns a few minutes later. “You want coffee?” We explain, as we did to the receptionist, that we would like something to eat. Finally, a young lady arrives, and we order a pot of something, and what looks a little like a Portuguese pastel de nata.

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The tart is quite pleasant, whereas the pot of yogurt with fruit and nuts is not as nice as it looks.

There is a selection of ice creams behind the counter, so we have a couple of scoops each. I go for vanilla and cooking and cream, whereas David chooses chocolate and coffee.

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We retire to the room and check the outside temperature on the phone. Hmm, no wonder Sajid didn’t want to leave the comfort of the air-conditioned car during our city tour this morning.

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Bureaucracy

One of the problems with travelling to so many countries in one trip, is the entry formalities for each country. These days they are mostly online, but often require you to complete the application no more than 72 hours before arrival. This means that we were not able to sort all the necessary permissions and paperwork prior to leaving the UK. We spend this afternoon completing the application forms for Arrival Cards for Singapore.

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Dinner

Wanting a change from last night’s disappointing restaurant, we head for the Italian place on the ground floor. It is closed for a private function: the birthday party for a 1-year-old. The entrance is covered in balloons and there is a large poster of the birthday-girl with her picture and name.

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The original plan was to get a taxi down to the souq, grab some food in a restaurant there, as recommended by Sajid, and then head down to the waterside to take some photos of reflections of the city at night. With the current temperatures, however, neither of us has any inclination to leave the air conditioning and head out, so we end up in the French restaurant from last night.

We try the buffet tonight, and I pick some Middle Eastern Dishes: kibbe in labneh, kebab khashkhash, and chicken in BBQ sauce. Although not a great fan of buffets, I have to admit that it is all very good.

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The dessert buffet looks amazing.

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What I love about it, is the fact that each of the dishes is so small (mostly around 3cm square), which means I can try a few different ones without feeling (too) guilty.

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Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this once-in-a-lifetime trip for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 11:47 Archived in Qatar Tagged fish architecture mosque beach breakfast port stadium qatar buffet world_cup toast bureaucracy ice_cream doha kebab corniche fish_market fifa pearl_island viator undiscovered_destinations raffles_hotel labneh dessert_buffet national_museum_of_qatar desert_rose kibbe khashkhash warwick_hotel jean_nouvel doha_old_port shipping_containers mina_district 974_stadium chabrat_al_mina bird_towers pigeon_towers katara man_made_beach zeynep_fadilloglu falcon_information_centre porto_arabia qanat_quartier crescent_tower lusaiil katara_tower fairmont_hotel singapore_arrival_form Comments (5)

London - Doha


View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Heathrow Special Assistance

After a good night’s sleep at Premier Inn near the terminal, we are up and about early this morning, allowing extra time for me to get a wheelchair at the airport. Walking (short distances) is not the problem, it is standing around for more than a few minutes that causes me problems – such as queuing for check-in. Hence I request the chair from the car park rather than the Special Assistance Desk after check-in. We know from past experience that you are not supposed to be disabled before 5 am, as that is the time the Special Assistance service starts, so we use the dedicated telephone near the lifts to call them at 05:01, explaining exactly where we are (including the location number posted by the phone). We are told someone will be with us in “five to ten minutes”. Fifteen minutes go by, and we phone again. “I’ll find out” is the answer.

Getting nowhere fast, we decide to walk to the terminal, but thankfully we meet the young girl with my wheelchair along the way. Check-in is painless, but the poor porter is reprimanded when she uses the Special Assistance lane at immigration. Huh? Who else is yje special assistance lane for if it is not for those travellers who have requested special assistance and are being pushed in a wheelchair supplied by the Special Assistance service by a Special Assistance porter? I give up! Heathrow has a lot to learn from other countries on how to treat their less able passengers.

Once through to the airside, we request to be dropped at the Commission Restaurant, where David will later take over pushing the chair (he relishes the idea of being able to legitimately push me around).

Commission Restaurant

Food service does not start until 06:00, but they reluctantly let us occupy a table while we wait.

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Poster on the wall

I am delighted to find that they have Eggs Royale on the menu – that’s me sorted! David chooses smoked salmon and scrambled eggs.

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David's scrambled eggs

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My dish looks rather naked without any garnish to dress it up – I am a huge fan of nicely plated food, as I think how a dish looks can greatly affect your perception of its taste.

Thankfully, the table decoration is a pot of parsley, so I add my own.

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That’s much better.

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Every breakfast is improved by a glass of good-quality orange juice

From here David pushes me straight to the gate, which coincidentally is right next to the Special Assistance holding area.

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Qatar Airways Flight QR 10 from Heathrow to Doha

There are two other lesser-abled passengers in wheelchairs on this flight, including a very frail elderly woman, who struggled to swap over from the terminal chair to the aisle chair, which is narrower to enable her companion (daughter?) to push her down to her seat. Again, once at her allocated row, she takes several minutes to transfer from the chair into her seat. She appears to be non-verbal, possibly suffering from dementia, and her extremely swollen legs are swathed in bandages.

Throughout the flight, she seems to be experiencing some serious problems, with several crew members crowding around her, administering first aid and oxygen, and at one stage laying her out flat on the floor in the aisle. Poor lady, and her poor companion, it must be so distressing for them both.

I deliberately miss the first meal on the flight, as I am still full from the salmon earlier, but I enjoy the second offering, which is a choice of tomato-based pizza or a chicken puff. The latter is similar to a sausage roll filled with slightly spicy pulled chicken. While the initial impression is that it is rather too small to be a complete meal, it is in fact very dense, and subsequently rather filling.

Doha Airport

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If I thought Heathrow offered inadequate service, they have nothing on Doha. As soon as we exit the plane, we are met with absolute chaos. I am initially asked to wait in my seat for assistance, which I happily do to avoid the usual crush while de-planing.

There is a bicycle ambulance waiting for the troubled old lady, but I am now told I need to walk to the end of the ramp where there will be a cart waiting for me. I pass two wheelchairs along the way.

The cart driver asks to see my boarding card. I hand it over. “No, the next one”. For a couple of seconds, I am a little confused, but then I realise that they just assume we are on a connecting flight. “No, no, we are staying in Doha” I protest. “You need to go upstairs,” he says with a dismissive wave in the general direction we have come from.

Using specially sharpened elbows, we fight our way through the doors, against the oncoming passengers leaving the aircraft. Groan. I ask the lady directing passengers where the lift is. She sends us back out through the doors again. “No, we are staying in Doha” I utter with thinly disguised frustration. “Oh”. She looks like she has seen a ghost. Is it rally that unusual for passengers to actually want to have a stopover in Doha?

She then takes us right back to the plane, where there is a wheelchair and porter; we find the lift and once upstairs I am left in the wheelchair in the corridor while the porter goes off. A buggy arrives for a drive through the huge terminal to a holding area nearer the exit, where I am placed in another wheelchair to join the long, slow queue for immigration.

The line for passports snakes all around a huge hall - thank goodness I have a chair. Despite the fact that we are taken to the special assistance counter which only has four people in front of us, it still takes 27 minutes to get through. This is in part due to a few immigrant workers – who should probably not have been in this lane in the first place - who need to have their sponsorship verified. Somehow the ill passenger from the flight manages to be in front of us – no idea how that has happened, as she was still being tended to by the paramedics when we left the gate. Once we reach the counter, it is a reasonably smooth process - David is photographed and has his fingerprints taken, whereas I just sail through.

On the way out, our hand luggage is x rayed, before we are able to collect the checked-in bags and make our way to the taxi rank. The driver speaks a little English, so I ask him to take us to Warwick Hotel. He looks at me blankly. I repeat: Warwick Hotel”. He calls a colleague over. I say it slowly: “Warrrrick Hotel”. Still no sign of recognition on their faces. More people gather, and David tries. Nothing. I dig the confirmation out from my huge paperwork folder, grateful that I printed everything before leaving home. “The driver looks at the paper and a lightbulb goes off. “Ah, Wah-wick” he says with a smile.

Warwick Hotel (or is that Wah-Wick?)

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All arriving guests are requested to enter through a metal detector, while the luggage is X-rayed.

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To our delight, upon checking in, we find that we have been upgraded.

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I have no idea what the ‘standard’ rooms look like, but ours is very smart-looking with a large double bed, a comfortable chair, lots of gold adornments, and a bathroom containing a bidet and shower.

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We drop the bags in the room and head for the rooftop pool to see what the view is like.

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I was planning to get my tripod from the suitcase, but at 36 °C and 75% humidity, it is not at all pleasurable up there. It normally takes me a couple of days to get used to such heat, so I just snap a few photos with my phone before we head to the air-conditioned restaurant.

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L’Auberge Restaurant

Having checked out the facilities of the hotel before leaving home, we had initially intended to grab a snack at the Moon Deck, but the heat put paid to that, so we head for the main restaurant, which incidentally is the only one open anyway.

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The menu “offers an extensive range of Continental, Arabic, Asian and Western dishes served buffet or a la carte style” – except they have no Arabic dishes available. Not being a fan of buffets, nor wanting a large meal, we both settle on pizzas.

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I am sad to report that mine was barely adequate, with little taste and overcooked prawns.

Exhausted from a long day travelling, and no bar to while away our time (Qatar is a dry country), we retire to bed early.

End of day one, and all is well. Thank you to Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this amazing Grand Tour of South East Asia for us.

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Posted by Grete Howard 17:53 Archived in Qatar Tagged pizza heathrow wheelchair qatar_airways special_assistance _doha -warwick_hotel commission_restaurant lauberge_restaurant Comments (8)

Introducing the Grand South East Asia Tour


View South East Asia Grand Tour 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This trip comes with the longest and most painful gestation period in the history of Howards’ Travels. Initially conceived in 2019 for travel in 2020, the year that saw unprecedented restrictions on travel as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Postponed to 2021, we found that some of the destinations had still not opened up after their lockdowns, so once again the trip was deferred for another year. 2022 was to be the year it all happened, but conditions were still far from ideal to try and put together such a complicated multi-destination trip, so the planning was once more shelved for another year.

Fast forward to 2023, and we have a delivery date of 6th September. Today. Gulp.

Here is a bit of a background story: I wanted to go to Sulawesi in Indonesia, whereas David's destination of choice was the Philippines. We decided to combine the two, to save on the long and expensive flights to the Far East and keep our carbon footprint as low as possible while still enjoying travel. The idea then snowballed, as one by one more places were added to the itinerary, until we ended up with an eight-week trip covering eight countries.

This is the outline:

3 nights in Doha
2 nights in Singapore
14 nights touring Sulawesi (Indonesia)
3 nights Bali
7 nights touring East Timor
2 nights Bali
17 nights touring the Philippines
2 nights in Brunei
2 nights in Kuala Lumpur
2 nights in Kuwait

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We have never partaken in such a long and complicated journey. While we are very used to our trips being full-on, this takes it all to the next level, and I have to admit that I am a little nervous about it all – as well as incredibly excited, of course.

The planning has been a bit of a nightmare, as although we have used an agent for the bulk of the bookings, with 17 flights, 31 hotels, and eight different entry regulations (and currencies), there are still so many things to sort out and keep track of. It's not until I try to create a folder with all the paperwork in chronological order, that I realise quite how much work it has been for our agent (Undiscovered Destinations) and their local teams. I am in awe. There is no way I would have been able to put together such a complicated itinerary on my own.

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We always like to take some cash when we travel, but with eight different currencies, it becomes quite a pile of bank notes!

We start the journey with a stop at our favourite service station on the way to Heathrow: Greggs at Reading.

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It's a Howard tradition to stop on the way to the airport for one of Greggs' legendary sausage rolls

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I am also rather partial to their caramel custard doughnuts

Today we are not going to the airport, however, but staying overnight nearby, as we have an early flight tomorrow morning.

Premier Inn, Bath Road, Heathrow

We enjoy a drink in the room while we chill before dinner. I love their signature purple light.

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The bathroom features an unusual shower, out of the 50+ Premier Inns we’ve stayed in over the years, this is a first.

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Thyme Bar and Grill

We pop down to the hotel restaurant, which is off the light and airy atrium, for dinner. Both David’s mixed grill and my katsu curry are very enjoyable.

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Katsu curry

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This may be David's last cider for eight weeks.

We chat for a while with the couple at the next table, who show great interest in our upcoming trip.

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It's always nice to finish a meal with a cappuccino, and Costa does a particularly nice one

Back to the room, and it is time for bed. We have an early start tomorrow. The bed is very high, and on wheels that move much too easily on the floor, making it rather dangerous. Each time I sit down on the edge of the bed, it moves a few inches away. If I am struggling at 6’1”, I can only imagine the difficulties a short person would have. Surely it wouldn't take much to put some caster cups or something on it.

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Goodnight.

Posted by Grete Howard 14:43 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged planning heathrow doughnut cider cash currencies cappuccino pandemic trip_planning donut undiscovered_destinations premier_inn covid covid_19 grand_south_east_asia_trip greggs spending_money sausage_roll greggs_sausage_roll thyme_bar_and_grill katsu_curry bed_on_wheels Comments (4)

Cruise Day 9, disembark, then Longyearbyen - Oslo - home


View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having totally crashed out last night, and not even stirred in the night, I wake up at 06:58 (two minutes before the alarm goes off) in a mad panic thinking I can't breathe and that I am drowning in mucus, followed by more panic as I can't sit up in bed (because of the upper bunk above me).

Following my morning ablutions, and getting dressed and made up, I feel some better. I take some cold and flu medicine and sit outside the overly hot cabin, but don't feel like surfacing for breakfast, partly because I am not hungry, and partly because I do not want to subject my fellow passengers to my sniffling, coughing, and nose-blowing this morning. I am never at my best first thing anyway, and having a cold does nothing to improve my early morning grumpiness.

Leiv comes by, and after asking me why I am not at breakfast, he apologises for giving me his cold and soon comes back with a hot drink containing lemon and honey. I return to bed for the rest of the morning, missing Vide's presentation on Svalbard.

Lunch

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After lunch (a very nice chilli), I return yet again to the cabin, for more sleep, and later, after the crew has retrieved our bags for us, we do some packing.

Today is our last full day on the ship, and no landings or zodiac excursions are planned. I hate hanging around. We arrive back in Longyearbyen and dock mid-afternoon. I would be quite happy to leave the ship right now and book into a hotel on land, but the accommodation here on the ship is paid for, and hotels on Svalbard are horrendously expensive. So we stay for the last night. Vide has gone back to his wife for the evening, as he is off on another ten-night trip tomorrow. As he says: “King-sized bed or small bunk? Hard choice!”

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Longyearbyen Harbour

Last Supper

Our last dinner on the ship consists of a herring salad on dark bread to start. Many, many years ago, I was very sick after eating herring, and haven't touched it since, so I am feeling a little nervous about this, but eat it all the same. It tastes better than I remember.

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The main course is roast pork with mushroom sauce, and (hopefully) my last boiled potatoes for a while.

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For dessert, we are served a panacotta topped with cloudberries. I love cloudberries!

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The captain comes in to say thanks to the crew and passengers, and in return, I give thanks to the Captain, crew, and guides on behalf of the passengers.

I believe most of the passengers are staying up for a 'leaving party', while David and I go to bed nursing our miserable head colds.

Disembarkation Day

I wake up at 06:15, having had a wretched night coughing, and spending a lot of time sitting on my little foldable stool in the cabin with the door wide open as the small enclosed space was unbearably hot.

We finish the packing, and Gunnar very kindly helps us up the steep steps with our luggage; as well as going off to the quayside to get a trolley. This morning it all feels like a sad anticlimax, with passengers and guides just milling about waiting to disembark. There is no formal goodbye, although Jeanette cries as she waves us off from the deck of the ship.

There is a huge cruise ship docked nearby, and we are very grateful that ours was a tiny ship, despite the obvious discomfort (bunk beds being the main drawback).

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Radisson Blu Polar Hotel

As all the taxis here in Longyearbyen seem to be extra large people carriers, we are able to share a cab with Deepak and José, who are both staying in the same hotel as us.

We are able to check into our room as soon as we arrive (for a fee, of course), where we dump our bags, open the window fully (after fiddling with the window lock), and collapse into a wonderfully comfortable bed with no upper berth. Heaven.

The afternoon is spent repacking, showering, buying gifts, enjoying a can of cider in the room, and checking in online.

Baggage tags

The hotel (as well as two other places in town) has a machine where you can check your bags in and get your luggage tags printed, saving time at the airport. What a great idea!

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Nansen Restaurant

This evening we are treating ourselves to a meal in Longyearbyen's best restaurant (according to a local poll). The restaurant is part of the Radisson Blu hotel, and as with so many other establishments in town, is owned by Hurtigruten (a famous Norwegian shipping line).

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I start with the lobster tail, which is served with a shellfish sauce with flavours of lemongrass, chilli and galangal. The meat is quite hard to get out of the shell, even with a dedicated lobster fork, but it is very tasty once I manage to liberate it, and the sauce has a slight spicy kick to it.

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David chooses the Svalbard cod, which is baked with leek ash, vichyssoise foam and fried leek.

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We both select the same main course: reindeer tenderloin, smoked cream cheese, sunchoke, mushrooms and a red wine sauce. The meat is very tender, and the portion is thankfully not too big.

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For dessert, David has the chocolate parfait with coffee cream and whisky caramel. It is tasty but very dense.

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I, on the other hand, opt for the pavlova, a meringue with fennel white chocolate cream and sea buckthorn. A lovely combination of tart and sweet, but the dish is a little on the cold side for my liking (presumably straight out of the fridge – I don't really like any food very cold, I even put ice cream in the microwave at home)

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As we are getting up very early tomorrow morning, we go to bed almost immediately after dinner. On our way through reception, we notice a sign stating that the water in all of Longyearbyen is not drinkable at the moment. Thankfully we have a couple of bottles that we already filled on the ship, so that will do us for overnight.

Sunday 6th August

I have been awake from 01:30, so am seriously sleep-deprived. It is probably a combination of eating too late (or rather trying to sleep too early), a full tummy after the lovely meal last night, and maybe the 'excitement' of going home the next day. Who knows.

Last night we booked a packed breakfast, as we are leaving before they start serving in the hotel this morning. I am sad to miss the all-you-can-eat smoked salmon at the buffet, and a triple-decker sandwich of ham, cheese and salad does not in any way make up for it.

A young German girl at the hotel asks if she can share our taxi to the airport, and tells us that the airline also didn't deliver her luggage in the three days she has been here. Shame on you, SAS.

Longyearbyen Airport

We are a little too early for the check-in desks to be open this morning, so hang around chatting to Deepak, Jeanette and Svein, who are all travelling on the same flight as us. When the check-in counters open, everything is still self-service here: we put the luggage on the scales ourselves, and use a scanner to read the baggage tags we printed off yesterday. That's it.

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Stuffed polar bears are everywhere in Longyearbyen, even at the airport

I am really suffering from pain in my sacroiliac joint this morning, and even struggle to lift my legs onto the footrests of the wheelchair.

The crew arrive at the gate but are unable to open the door onto the tarmac. Eventually, someone with a key arrives and lets them out, but they have the same problem trying to get onto the plane too.

The water fountains still have signs on them apropos the non-potable drinking water at the moment. In addition, there is an announcement in the waiting area: “I would just like to inform you people that we won't be serving any food on this flight, so if you are already starving, I suggest you go and buy something”. Great. We have paid for SAS Plus seats, which include in-flight meals. We buy a bottle of water, but neither of us is at all hungry, so we don't bother buying any snacks.

When it is finally time to board, my wheelchair pusher is nowhere to be seen. As the plane is just outside the glass doors, I don't bother to wait for him, but make my own way to the aircraft.

As we taxi across the runway, every bump and pothole on the surface sends shooting pains through my back, despite a triple dose of painkillers. Not only that, but my cold has gone to my sinuses, which feel like they are about to explode as soon as we take off. This is turning out to be one of my worst flights for a very long time.

I am so glad that I did not take any notice of the earlier announcement, as passengers in the SAS Plus section are given a free choice from the snacks menu: muffins, crispbread, cashew nuts or chocolate bars, or a combination of any or all of them. The captain explains that they have recently changed catering suppliers, and are having a few teething problems.

The pressure in my sinuses eases a little once we have become airborne, so I am able to catch up on some sleep. The pain starts up again as soon as we begin our descent, however.

Oslo Gardemoen Airport

As we arrive at the domestic terminal and our onward flight is from the international terminal, the air stewardess tells me there is a private car waiting to take me across. When she says “private car”, it is just that: there is a non-marked Mercedes at the bottom of the steps, and we are driven around the apron to the correct area, then taken up what looks like goods lifts with automatic doors, and through security and X-ray.

Coming through this way confuses the police at immigration (while Norway is part of the Schengen Area, Svalbard is not, which means anyone travelling to these Norwegian islands is treated as international passengers). He asks how long we are staying, and I reply: “Oh, about three hours”, which confuses him even more. The porter then explains the situation, and that we are just transitting through Gardemoen. Shortly afterwards, we go through the same procedure to get out of Norway again.

At the Gate

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The onward plane is late arriving, and the crew are trying for a quick turnaround. Everyone is ushered to leave the holding area, and then one by one they are checked back in again against their passport and boarding cards. Everyone except me, David and a couple of other Special Assistance passengers, that is. Just like at Longyearbyen, the crew arrive before the doors are opened so that they too have to queue to board the plane.

As well as arriving late, the flight has an unusual amount of passengers requiring wheelchair assistance, and while there had been some good planning in place, with a number of wheelchairs stacked at the end of the ramp, there is a shortage of porters to push, so it is very slow progress to get all the passengers off.

As soon as the doors are opened, 'my' porter wheels me down to the plane and is promptly told off as the crew are not ready to receive passengers yet.

This flight is uneventful, and thankfully they are well stocked with food – we receive the same meal as on the way over, which suits me down to the ground, as it is delicious!

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Great views of London as we come in to land at Heathrow

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Heathrow

I have never seen Heathrow this quiet, in all the years I have been coming through here (at least 200 times). Where there would normally be a long line snaking around roped-off areas at immigration, there is not one person queuing, just a handful of people at the counters waiting to be let into the country. The official who we see is extremely friendly and chatty, with a great sense of humour, which is also very unusual. I guess the fact that it is so quiet takes any pressure off what must be a very stressful job so they can have time to joke with passengers.

There are a few more people at the luggage carousel, but it is certainly not crowded. The luggage seems to be very slow to arrive, but I guess we were through immigration quicker than normal.

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The luggage carousel

At customs, a very sexy black guy with long dreadlocks is just putting on plastic gloves as he starts his shift. My comment “Ooh, those gloves look scary” brings out a gorgeous smile and a belly laugh. If only travelling through Heathrow would be this easy every time.

I spoke too soon. There is a huge crowd waiting for the lifts to the car park. Not every one of the eight lifts opens its doors when they arrive at our floor, nor can many people fit into them when they do. Walking up the stairs with four large items of luggage and four pieces of hand luggage (not to mention me in a wheelchair), is not an option. After nearly ten minutes, we are still not even at the front of the queue, so the lovely young porter (female) who is pushing my wheelchair suggests we go to the other side of the lifts (the car park side, as opposed to the terminal side). Sure enough, the doors open here every time the lift stops, and we have no problem getting in. How ridiculous.

This signals the end of our adventure in Svalbard, and at this point I would just like to share the map displayed on the notice board on the ship, showing the route we took, what sightings we had, and where. If you are at all tempted by a wildlife trip to Svalbard, I cannot recommend Arctic Wildlife Tours enough.

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Also, David has made an excellent 5-minute video of the highlights of the trip, which you see here:

If the video fails, you can copy and paste this URL into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrARgxLfRug

If that doesn't work either, the link is here.

Footnote: The cold I have been suffering from for the last few days, turns out to be Covis-19. Thankfully it causes no great drama beyond the symptoms of a head cold.

See you next time. x

Posted by Grete Howard 16:39 Archived in Svalbard Tagged oslo london home airport cruise packing norway bears cruise_ship polar svalbard longyearbyen heathrow immigration arctic cider wheelchair adventure_travel spitsbergen heathrow_airport last_supper radisson head_cold packed_breakfast gardemoen coronavirus covid19 covid special_assistance disembarkation radisson_blu radisson_blu_polar origo adventure_cruise ms_origo spitzbergen arctic_wildlife_tours nansen_restaurant baggage_tags lobster_tail longyearbyen_airport sinus_infection sacroliliac oslo_airport car_park Comments (5)

Cruise Day 8 - 1 polar bear, glacier, bearded seal, puffins


View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I struggled to get to sleep after going to bed last night, knowing that I might only get a couple of hours sleep before getting up again. At 01:30 I hear talking outside the cabin, and fifteen minutes later Vide pops his head around our bedroom door and tells us to get ready for the Zodiacs, as there is a bear out there.

Bear No. 16 at Likodden

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As they start to load the camera bags into the zodiacs, I hear some serious swearing in Norwegian and see Svein looking forlornly into the abyss between the Zodiac and the Origo. In the process of handing stuff down from the deck higher up, he somehow manages to drop the ship's radio into the water. Oh, dear. At least it wasn't someone's camera equipment.

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This is a very clean bear, and initially, she is sleeping. As usual, we hang around to see what she might do, and we are rewarded with a little morning bear yoga. She is very cute and is definitely worth getting out of bed in the middle of the night for.

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On the way back to the ship, we somehow end up discussing the penises of various animals with the other passengers in the zodiac, with me explaining how the female hyena has a penis (in one of the presentations I do to camera clubs, I have a section on this subject)! We have found the level of humour with some of the other passengers, creating a lot of hilarity.

The crew has kindly left out some crispbread and butter for us on our return.

We go back to bed at 04:10, so we should manage to get some 2.5-3 hours kip before it is time to get up for breakfast. There is a lot of knocking and banging from the engine tonight (this morning)... ka-chunk-a ka-chunk-a ka chunk-a. I struggle to sleep, I think I am overtired.

We get up in time for breakfast, then go back to bed for a few hours to catch up on sleep. When we later emerge for lunch, my body clock is totally confused, I don't know whether it is morning, afternoon, or middle of the night. At lunch, we continue the penis conversation over sausages and mash (see the connection?). Jackie asks if she can see my aforementioned presentation of hyena sexual organs, which I just happened to have on my laptop. As you do.

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Pregnant female hyena with a penis - totally irrelevant to the trip, of course, but just in case you are interested

Zodiac drive in the Lilliehöök Glacier bay

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After lunch, we head out in the rubber boats, but first, we have to overcome a small problem: one of the Zodiacs won't start. Mikel and Victor pull leavers, turn switches, change the battery, and look at it from every angle wanting it to magically work. It doesn't. Eventually, they decide to change the engines over with the one on the spare boat, a bright orange one that is kept on the top deck, away from the other two daily zodiacs.

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The two main zodiacs are kept in on a deck by themselves

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The spare, however, is on the upper deck

Not wishing to risk losing an engine into the abyss of the Arctic waters while swapping them over from one zodiac to the other, the crew lowers the spare onto the water. As the two main inflatables are already next to the steps leading down from the ship's deck, the spare comes down further to the rear of the ship. This means, however, that there are no steps down to access the zodiac, so Johannes climbs over the railings and scales the side of the ship to get into the inflatable boat, all while wearing Crocs. The spare boat and the one with the broken engine then get hoisted up to make the switch on the zodiac deck, which takes all but a few minutes, and soon we are on our way.



The glaciers create a 180° sheltered bay, full of growlers of every size.

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The experience is like nothing I have ever encountered before. Vide switches off the engine on the zodiac, and the silence of the frozen landscape is only broken by the tinkling of the bubbles trapped in the ice as they are released from their 2000-year-old captivity.

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Then the thunder-like sound of the calving – sometimes internally within the glacier, but a couple that we do see on the leading edge of the glacier. I am not quick enough to photograph either of them, unfortunately. Vide calls it Viking farts. We spend an hour or so driving through the brash, crashing into the small – and sometimes large – pieces of glacier ice broken away from its parent.

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The main glacier is nearly 11 km long and up to 30 metres high. The bluest parts are the freshly exposed areas where there has been a recent calving.

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This place is totally magical, what an honour to be able to experience this.

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Vide gets a call from Mikel that there is a seal close to the boat, so we decide to head back. What we don't realise, is that Mikel has taken the spare boat out to test the engine after repairing it, so when he is referring to 'boat', he doesn't mean Origo. He is sitting with a few of the other crew near an ice floe complete with a bearded seal sitting on top.

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We circumnavigate the seal to get some pictures from his best side and notice that he is injured on his chest (plus some older scars on the back of his head), probably from a polar bear or maybe a Greenland shark.

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We return to the ship for lunch... or is it dinner? No, it is afternoon tea. The 24-hour daylight is really confusing me, especially as we went out in the middle of the night and then went back to bed after breakfast.

This last Zodiac cruise has really buggered up my back, and I struggle to lift my leg over the threshold into the ship, Gunnar literally has to physically lift my foot for me. Every time I lift my leg, it sends a shooting pain down my back, and my kneecap feels like it is bouncing around inside my leg.

Kongsfjorden Bird Cliff

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Thankfully we are not going out in the Zodiacs for this one, as photography is in fact much better from the ship. As we approach the area, the cliffs tower above the boat, and it looks like we are heading straight for them. The sheer cliff face has a number of little ledges that are home to guillemots and a few puffins. It is nice to see, but being in a great deal of pain, I fail to get more than mildly excited about it.

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Dinner

Our evening meal is delayed by half an hour tonight, in order to accommodate the puffins. We were later than planned to leave the glaciers because we saw the seal, which then, of course, had a knock-on effect on the timings. We start with a tasty fish paté with prawns in a dill mayo, and the main course is chicken in a curry sauce with rice (which makes a pleasant change from boiled potatoes), accompanied by a very nice bottle of Chablis. Dessert is yet again Ellen's famous chocolate orange balls. Not that I am complaining - they're delicious.

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From here we have a three-hour cruise to a fjord where we will be landing on the beach to look for foxes. I have already decided that I won't be going; partly because as I am still in a lot of pain, I really don't want to do any serious hiking, nor do I not fancy hanging around for several hours waiting for Mr. Fox to make an appearance; and partly because I don't have rubber boots for the wet landing. Seeing the weather when we arrive, it definitely confirms that decision for me: grey, dark and rain. Jeanette has also made up her mind not to go, and we are looking forward to having the ship to ourselves for a few hours. David has gone back to bed for a nap, and I tell Vide not to wake him as I know he wasn't that keen on the idea either.

The crew has lowered the zodiacs, and one by one the other photographers arrive in the saloon, all dressed up for the outside world, hanging around awaiting instructions. After some discussions, the decision is made that we will skip this stop. Apparently, the foxes can be very hard to find, and with less-than-ideal photographic conditions, it doesn't seem worth the effort. It doesn't appear to be an unpopular decision, and soon the passengers are back into indoor clothes and raiding the fridge for beers. Having been warned that it could be rough seas for the next few hours, David and I go to bed while we can still walk in a straight line. We are both feeling a little under the weather with sore throats, so bed seems to be the best place for us.

Thank you so much to Arctic Wildlife Tours for this amazing adventure - truly a trip of a lifetime.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:52 Archived in Svalbard Tagged zodiac cruise glaciers back seal norway fox bear polar svalbard pain bubbling silence crocs painful knee spitsbergen painful_knee isbjørn origo ms_origo spitzbergen wildlife_cruise arctic_wildlife_tours artcic_wildlife bear_yoga hyena_penis lilliehook lilliehøøk engine_problem glacier_ice bearded_seal painful_back Comments (6)

Cruise Day 7 - 2 polar bears, fin and blue whales


View In the Realm of the Ice Bear - Svalbard 2023 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At some stage in the night, we left the ice floes behind and headed south. We were still 'driving dodgems' as I went to bed last night, hitting a particularly large frozen block just as I was getting up from the table, jarring my back in the process.

I take advantage of a travel-only morning to wash my hair, knowing that we won't be called on to go out in the zodiacs (not good with wet hair). I can't ever remember my hair being quite so matted. Being tied up at all times, and taking my hat on and off numerous times a day has taken its toll on it, and I struggle for a long time to get my comb through it this morning, leaving a large ball of hair behind.

Bears 14 & 15

My backside is getting increasingly sore from sitting on a hard surface all the time (the only comfortable seats on this ship are in the crew saloon), and despite having a solid eight hours of sleep I feel completely knackered this morning; so after breakfast, I tell Leiv that I am going back to bed, and to be sure to wake me for polar bears. 'We'll be there in 30 minutes' he says, so I stay. Just as well, as a mere ten minutes later we get the now familiar "Polar bear, get ready for the zodiacs" call.

Tommelbreen

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There are two bears on the beach near the carcass of a walrus, and they couldn't be more different: one is reasonably clean, with a cream-coloured coat, the sort of colour you'd expect a polar bear to have. The other one might as well be a brown bear, as he is covered in so much walrus blubber that his coat is dark brown in places, especially on his legs and bum.

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As we reach the beach, I notice my camera is firing on manual focus, despite the lens showing as being set to automatic. I slide the AF-MF switch a few times. No difference. I dial in various focus settings on the camera, still manual focus. By now I am panicking, thinking I shall miss the whole experience. I try to take some shots while focussing manually, but that really doesn't work in a moving zodiac. Eventually, I turn the camera off and back on again, and that seems to do the trick! Phew. I later find out from Gunnat that this can happen when you take your camera from a warm place into the cold and if switching it on and off doesn't work, taking the battery out and putting it back in again should do the trick. Useful to know.

The white (ish) bear soon walks off, climbing up the hill, leaving us with the dirty one.

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He is still hungry and proceeds to the remains of what once was a walrus. The stench from the carcass is so putrid that it turns my stomach, but it doesn't seem to deter the bear. We watch him for the best part of an hour, as he tries to pull out the remainder of blubber and any other tasty morsels that might be left on this rotting dead animal. No wonder they often have diarrhoea.

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When the bear circles around his dining table and turns his bum to us, it is time to leave. The fog is closing in now, giving an eerie atmosphere, Apparently, the glaciers here create a circle of dry cold air, which usually results in the bay area around the bear(s) being reasonably mist-free

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From here we have a long journey ahead before we reach the next planned destination, ETA some time between 22:00 and midnight, so we have some downtime now. Lots of downtime. Too much downtime. This is what I don't like about cruises, although here it is a necessity and has been worth it, but it has helped make me decide that I won't do another cruise for a very long time. With up to ten hours of just sailing, now is the time to catch up on some sleep. My back has been getting progressively worse as time has gone on here, so I retire to bed with my ice pack which the crew has kindly kept ice cold in the freezer for me.

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Dinner

We have an interesting combination for this evening's meal: turkey dinner, with Brussels sprouts, creamy gravy, boiled potatoes (obviously), lingonberries, and.... melon salad.

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I think Ellen calls the dessert Pineapple Tosca: slices of pineapple with an almond topping, served with a really creamy and tasty vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.

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Whales

We've just finished the dessert when Mikel pops in to say there is a fin whale off the starboard side of the ship. All out. I spend a great deal of time on the top deck, trying to catch the whale as it surfaces, it being rather difficult to estimate where it is likely to come up. There are three fin whales in total and they surface many, many times.

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The steps to the top deck

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It's as if they are performing for us, it is quite incredible to see. The captain tells us he has never seen such a display before in all his years at sea! Sometimes they are right by the boat, as you can see from David's videos:



We finally go back inside, take our coats off, sit down, and I pick up the rum and coke that I abandoned earlier, which is now very watered down with the large chunk of glacier ice that Gustav put in.

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Rum and Coke with glacier ice

This time it is Leiv who interrupts the peace: three blue whales. For a different viewpoint, I go to the bow of the ship this time, and while they don't come up to blow very often, I do manage to get a picture I am happy with.

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Finally, at 23:30 we stumble into bed, knowing full well that we may be woken up again in just a few hours, as we are heading to the beach where we saw a walrus carcass (but no bears) on the way up. Vide will only wake us if there are bears there, and I confess to secretly hoping there are no bears so that I can sleep through.

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Thank you to Arctic Wildlife Tours for this amazing adventure of a lifetime.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:10 Archived in Svalbard Tagged wildlife polar_bears whales dinner safari mist bears svalbard arctic isbjørn origo spitzbergen walrus_carcass ice_floes arctic_wildlife arctic_wildlife_tours tommelbreen pack_ice ice_bear zodiacs blue_whale fin_whale Comments (6)

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