Leave It All Behind
Urban retreat at the Townhouse 27, Belgrade, Serbia
Belgrade may not be classically beautiful but therein lies its appeal. It is gritty and, dare we say it, real – so real you can almost smell the concrete in the air. But when you see the grey Soviet blocks of the past, against the beauty of the winding, cobbled streets – old, wooden stores overgrown with ivy and bookstores lining the streets – they become so much more than what they actually are.
July is the perfect time to visit as the climate is warm and the country’s biggest music festival, Exit (exitfest.org), takes place between 7-11 July in Novi Sad, an hour’s train journey from the capital. While you’re in Belgrade, you should take in a sightseeing tour starting at Republic Square and going on to Kalemegdan Park. It’s home to the Belgrade Fortress and zoo, and is a favourite outdoor place for Belgraders. Near the top of the park, Strahnjica Bana street is home to many of the city’s trendiest bars. But one of Belgrade’s highlights is the number of floating restaurants along the rivers, called splavovi. Stara Koliba restaurant (star akoliba.rs) can be found in the wooded Usce area of Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) and is one of the best places to get fresh fish. Dinner will cost about Dhs150 a head.
There’s no better place to rest your head than at Townhouse 27, in the centre of the old city. Stylish and original, it’s a boutique hotel that offers impeccable service and luxury accommodation.
Details: Fly to Belgrade via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) for approx Dhs3,000 return. Stay at Townhouse 27 (townhouse27.com) from Dhs1,000 a night including breakfast.
Escape to Africa at The Residence, Zanzibar
Once a hidden gem off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, or the spice island as it’s known, has edged its way onto the radar of luxe travellers. But it still retains a bewitching authenticity, courtesy of its rich heritage, muddled by generations of invaders from the Portuguese and British to the Indians and Omanis. In the capital Stone Town, Colonial buildings in peeling pastels have thick wooden doors and the cuisine is a mix of African and Indian flavours. With so many cultures co-existing harmoniously, pace on the island is slow, but deliciously so.
The Residence Zanzibar is the perfect place to rest your head and occupies a remote corner of the island characterised by Zanzibar’s ubiquitous white, sandy palm-fringed beaches and clear turquoise Ocean. It’s an eco-friendly luxury retreat with 66 villas, each with its own private terrace, swimming pool and 24-hour butler. In tune with its green credentials, you can explore the island by bicycle, or venture further afield with organised trips to the spice plantations, ancient Persian baths and Omani palaces. Off-shore, water safaris are a great way to discover what’s under the ocean, as well as snorkelling and diving. Back at your pad, wind-down at the spa with its private garden showers before heading to one of the resort’s seven restaurants.
Details: Fly from Sharjah to Nairobi with Air Arabia (airarabia.com) for approx Dhs1,500 return. From there, fly with Kenya Airways (kenya-airways.com) for around Dhs1,800 return. A one-night stay at The Residence Zanzibar (theresidence.com/zanzibar) starts from Dhs3,700.
Paradise found at Mandarin Oriental, Chiang Mai
It’s a well known fact that many people plan to visit Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand for a few days before hitting the southern beach scene, but then end up staying for much longer than intended. And it’s easy to see why it deserves more than a quick stop. When it comes to cosmopolitan cool with a quirky cultural edge, it doesn’t get much better than this city nestled neatly by the Burmese border. In a mere hour’s flight from Bangkok you can be meandering its hip streets filled with food vendors, art shops, massage parlors and cute cafés. The vibe is chilled, there’s hustle without the bustle and everyone is seriously smiley. Conservation measures mean there’s a ban on high rise construction so you don’t feel hemmed in and it’s also home to more than 300 temples. Doi Suthep is one of the most auspicious, rising 1,676km above the city and providing breathtaking views. A stop at the Borsang village (umbrella village) to pick up a unique hand-painted souvenir (from 200Baht) is a must, as is a visit to the Tiger Kingdom and Elephant camp (measaelephantcamp.com). Come evening, the city kicks off with its famous evening Night Bazaar boasting hundreds of stalls selling the likes of Thai woven fabrics, silver jewellery, hill-tribe crafts, clothes and the obligatory bronze Buddhas. Once all shopped-out, rehydrate at the Riverside bar and restaurant, (9 – 11 Th Charoenat). This rambling wooden building has tables on the veranda overlooking the river where you can enjoy live music before hailing a tuk-tuk back to paradise.
In Chang Mai, paradise comes in the form of the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi – a sprawling, tropical kingdom set amongst 60 acres of lush greenery in the rolling hills. The air is an intoxicating mix of oaky wood and incense and the soundtrack is the chirrup of exotic birds and the gentle tinkle of chimes. Opened in 2006, the luxury hotel is part colonial and part traditional. The artifacts hail from Burma; crafted rugs, authentic tiles and statues add to the rustic charm and if you look closely you’ll spot surreptitious pottery figures rising from the shrubbery. During the day you can relax by the two pools, hang out in the extensive library or take part in one of the many daily activities from Vinyasa yoga to Thai cookery classes (‘the secret to Thai cooking is always stirring and always smiling’). Be warned though – whatever you cook may not hit the dizzy standards of the sumptuous food served in the signature restaurants. Le Grand Lanna sits on a raised wooden pavilion and serves traditional northern Thai fare (the spicy sausages pack a punch), while Farang Ses is one of the best French restaurants this side of Bangkok. And oh, the Dheva Spa! Inspired by an ancient Mandalay Palace, it’s the ultimate in relaxation and treatments range from specialised body wraps to Chinese reflexology. If you can lift yourself out of your horizontal stupor and make it back to your suite, it’s hard to know what to do first – do you hang out in your own personal steam room, kick back in your private pool on your veranda overlooking tranquil rice paddy fields or tinkle the ivories on your piano? Yes, piano. Less of a resort; more of a destination.
Details: Fly with Emirates (Emirates.com) to Bangkok for Dhs3,915 return. From there, fly Bangkok Airways (bangkokair.com) to Chiang Mai for approx Dhs430 return. A night’s stay at Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi (mandarinoriental.com) costs around Dhs2,500.
Yoga retreat at the Yas hotel, Yas Island
If you live life in the fast lane, take your coffee as double espresso and your bedtime at stupid o’clock, the chances are that The Yas Hotel Yoga retreat is just what the doctor ordered. The 2pm check-in means you have plenty of time for a leisurely 45-minute drive from Dubai to the relaxing poolside overlooking the Formula1 Grand Prix circuit. Once you’re completely chilled out, take your pick from the hotel’s six restaurants; from seasonal dishes at Origins to the Zen tranquility of Kazu. Don’t overdo it, though, because yoga is at sunrise and you’ll need to be bright eyed to appreciate the marina views from the 217-metre high roof. The Hatha yoga classes are led by specialist instructor Josie McKenlay of Vital Flow, a leading yoga studio in the Middle East. Soft-spoken Josie works the session to everyone’s needs from gentle beginners’ options to advanced Vinyasa techniques. The class focuses on four key elements – strength, flexibility, mobility and breathing. By the end of the morning’s class you’ll be left feeling energised and definitely warmed up for a big food fest, which is handy as the breakfast, held in Origins, is a fully fledged buffet of healthy fare.
Finally, complete your zen-like experience with a treatment at Espa Spa. Included in this package is an hour of any of the healing treatments to release mind and body tension. And if that doesn’t do it, head for the ladies-only Hammam for some authentic cleansing under the tranquil Arabian skies. So, after a weekend of relaxation, yoga, massages and enough time to meditate poolside, you’ll be more in touch with your inner Buddha than ever!
Details: The Yoga Retreat at The Yas Hotel (theyashotel.com) is available every Sunday and Monday until 31 August and costs from Dhs2,260, based on two people sharing.
Gourmet getaway at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, Abu Dhabi
If you’ve ever fancied gorging yourself on food, glorious food, you’ve come to the right place. This 36-hour package includes a Friday brunch and breakfast the next day, topped off with lunch by the pool as well as any mid-afternoon ice-cream snacks. The day starts with early check-in at noon, giving you plenty of time to make your way to the brunch at CuiScene and Italian restaurant Frankie’s. The package includes the Moet & Chandon brunch, but you do have the option to go bubbly free. Whatever your choice, a clinking of glasses is the perfect way to start your brunch as you peruse the food on offer.
CuiScene houses all your usual suspects; sushi, seafood, Chinese, curry and a traditional carvery station featuring roast chicken, beef and lamb. Frankie’s is more sedate and a bit further away from the pianist who does an excellent rendition of The Godfather theme tune, and houses a fantastic selection of antipasti and lots of pizza.
After a night in possibly the most comfy bed in the world, breakfast is eaten in a calmer CuiScene than the day before and the buffet features an assortment of goodies, from egg-white omlettes to waffles.
Next, it’s time for the pool and beach. Overlooking the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the beach is small, but big on entertainment, with a trampoline and kayaks. Recline on a sun lounger with a good book, while chilled bottles of water are brought to you in an ice bucket. Lunch can be ordered to your lounger, but if you need a stretch, head to the poolside restaurant where you can enjoy gourmet burgers and smoothies, before more poolside chilling and a late check-out at 6pm.
Details: The 36-hour Weekend package is priced at Dhs1,699. Rates are exclusive of 16 per cent tax and are based on double occupancy. Fairmont/babalbahr.com.
Eco-retreat at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai
Many people get lost on their way to Al Maha, which is understandable as it’s easy to miss the tiny exit off the highway that leads you to an off-road camp where a guide then takes you to the resort. But this is how it should be. It’s exclusive and it’s unique – at least for Dubai. Al Maha lies at the heart of the emirate’s conservation efforts and combines chic luxury with eco-principles that mean you can indulge without the guilt. Secluded amid an impressive desert landscape, Al Maha was built to resemble a Bedouin camp, with individual suites set apart for privacy. Each villa has its own pool, sundeck and views over the dunes below. Green and stylish, Al Maha’s expansive nature reserve is built on an underground lake that sustains the entire resort. So while many couples choose to enjoy some peace and quiet, you do have the option to explore the wildlife reserve, with two desert activities included in a night’s stay. You can choose from wildlife drives, camel riding, nature walks and desert safaris. After, you can dine at Al Diwaan restaurant (men come prepared, only shirt collars, trousers and closed shoes will get through the doors), which is quite possibly the most romantic setting in the emirate.
After a day of desert activities, what better way to unwind than at Timeless Spa, which offers everything from Rasoul to detoxification. As an added bonus, the use of the steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi are complimentary for hotel guests.
Details: A one-night stay at Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa (al-maha.com) starts from Dhs2,590, including breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Family safari at the Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa, Sir Bani Yas Island
Just when you thought you’d seen it all, you discover another obscure corner of the UAE, in this case about eight kilometres off the coast of Abu Dhabi, on the island of Sir Bani Yas. A ruler’s retreat built by the late Sheikh Zayed, it was his palace’s guesthouse, but is now home to the Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa. It’s a three-and-a-half hour road trip from Dubai, then on to a plush catamaran bound for Sir Bani Yas. The rooms at the resort are simple, but comfortable in earthy colours and beautifully crafted furniture. Holidaying with children in 45 degree-plus temperatures is never easy, but that’s where the pool comes in – it’s temperate and shallow enough to entertain your brood for hours on end while you top up your tan.
There are lots of ways to explore the lunar landscape of the island, including by kayak, bicycle, on foot or via open-top jeep. This is ideal for inspiring your little ones as you’ll get a close-up glimpse of wild gazelle and oryx, loping herds of giraffes, two sleepy cheetahs and a pack of hyenas. The air is constantly alive with birdsong from a fluttering population of rare and native species and the guides are quick to point out all the critters that lurk in the bush. For those working mothers who’d like to jettison their family for a couple of hours, retreat to the spa for an Arabian-themed treatment. Then it’s time to chow down at seafood restaurant Samak for some interactive food-fun shelling prawns and declawing lobster.
Details: A one-night stay at Anantara Desert Islands (desertislands.anantara.com) starts from Dhs700, plus 16 per cent tourist tax, but stay until 31 August and get up to Dhs500 room credit every night.
Thrill seeking at Ferrari World, Yas Island
Take your time to get to Ferrari World on Yas Island, because once you get there, you won’t stop. At speeds rivalling those experienced by F1 drivers, the rides at this theme park will give you more than your fill of thrills, sure to quicken the heart of the most die-hard adrenalin junkie. Built to accommodate thousands of visitors, it’s rare to hit a queue, so even if you haven’t booked in advance, you should be able to pick up tickets quickly and head straight for the action.
We advise equipping yourself with a strong shoulder to grip onto when you try the first ride, G Force. Just watching people being strapped in and propelled into the sky may look like a breeze until you find yourself in the hot seat. Just like the name says, you’ll be blasted 62 metres through a roof at G Force speed and suspended at the highest point. Take in the amazing panoramic view for a few seconds before you’re plunged back to earth and then back to the heavens. If you’re left feeling shaky, take a break with a stroll around the Ferrari’s museum or try a remote control Ferrari on the race track. Once you’ve found your balance again, head to Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster. You’ll be rushed from 0 to 100km/h in less than two seconds, reaching speeds of around 240km/h. Through the rest of the park, there are 3D and 4D cinema experiences, a kid’s area and a host of things to keep you entertained through to the evening, where you can enjoy the entertainment show with acrobats and a Justin Bieber tribute band. And if that doesn’t raise your heart rate, we don’t know what will!
Details: A general admission ticket costs between Dhs165 to Dhs225, depending on height. Park opens every day except Mondays, from 12pm to 10pm. Visit ferrariworldabudhabi.com.
Cooking class at Nobu, Atlantis, The Palm
Over a welcome drink, you’ll meet your fellow, wannabe chefs before you’re introduced to the delicate art of sushi making. As intricate as it appears; once you get the rice sussed it’s all about fancy rolling and special pressing techniques to join all the ingredients together. Next, head chef, Herve Courtot, and sous chef, Damien Duviau, take you to their immaculate kitchen to demonstrate how to make battered tempura. Again, every sharp-knifed move is made with precision, slicing the shrimps and vegetables just-so in order for the batter to coat them perfectly. This all leads to the final stages, where you’ll learn the secret of the restaurant’s signature cheesecake. It may look tricky, but you’ll discover it’s a simple process of whisking up the right ingredients and scooping out the measuring bowl of cream cheeses, sour cream and vanilla bourbon.
The atmosphere is relaxed and the chefs are happy to answer questions along the way, including what is the most popular dish (black cod, in case you were wondering). They’ll give you insider tips and cooking advice, like if you serve ginger garnish on a plate facing in the wrong direction to a Japanese person it will mean that you want to kill them. You’ll never learn that in a book! Once the session is up, you’re treated to a three ourse meal of Nobu’s signature dishes, including champagne and sake, the perfect end to a fun and informative few hours. And it doesn’t end there, you’ll be sent home with the sushi you made earlier, so you can sample a little of your own genius in the comfort of your living room.
Details: The three-hour course, Nobu lunch and Nobu apron cost Dhs1,250 per person. Email Dxbemail@example.com or visit atlantisthepalm.com for more details.
Beach and snorkelling at Le Méridien Al Aqah, Fujairah
Just two-and-a-half hours from Dubai, Fujairah is worth the drive. If you’re car-less then contact Al Boom Diving and they’ll transport you to Le Méridien Al Aqah and back again for Dhs150. Book your dive or snorkel trip in advance, so you can organise the rest of your day around it. The trips run at midday, 3pm or 5pm and your underwater excursion is guided by the new managers of the resident Al Boom Diving, Adrian and Cathy. Their knowledge is second to none, so if you’re experienced or a newbie they’ll put you instantly at ease. That Fujairah holds some of the region’s best reefs is no secret and speedboat trips will take you out to Snoopy Island or Dibba Rock, which are teeming with turtles, reef shark and a million different types of fish. You’ll spend an hour there before heading back to the hotel for a well-deserved feast. There are lots of food options here; a light seafood salad at the Gonu Bar & Grill followed by chilling out on one of the lime green bean bags on the sand is the ideal way to end the day. By 6pm you’ll be pleasantly shattered, and after a quick shower at the dive centre you’re ready to begin the journey back to Dubai.
Details: A round-trip transfer from Dubai to Al Aqah with Al Boom Diving is Dhs150 per person. A two-hour snorkelling trip costs approx Dhs150 per person. Call (04) 342 299.
Summer Day Retreat at the Talise Spa, Madinat Jumeirah
Set against the stunning backdrop of Al Qasr beach and the iconic Burj Al Arab, the retreat starts with an invigorating sunrise Yoga session at 7am. Once you’ve finished contorting your body into Downward Dog and Warrior, you can enjoy the spa facilities as well as full access to Al Qasr beach. The Talise Spa is also surrounded by a verdant garden, making you feel like you’re in a silent hideaway, rather than in the middle of a busy city and many hours can be spent meandering down its paths, enjoying the peace and quiet.
Lunch comes with added goodness at Magnolia Restaurant, which is located alongside the treatment rooms of Talise. The restaurant has embraced the concept of wellbeing and uses only the freshest and mostly organic ingredients to create nutritionally balanced cuisine – it’s the perfect addition to your wellness retreat.
After spending the day beaching it and using the spa facilities that include a steam room, sauna and Jacuzzi, wind down with a rejuvenating Talise Signature Massage and freshen up with a Talise Mini-Facial (90 minutes in total).
Details: The Summer Day Retreat at Talise Spa costs Dhs545. Call (04) 366 6818.