A Night in Doha

It’s definitely worth it to fly to Doha to attend an event.  Not only because it’s 45 minutes away from Bahrain by airplane, but also because it’s fun to squeeze your limited activities there around a day or two.

In January 2013, we went to Doha for one night to attend Majida AlRoumi’s concert in Katara and here is how we planned the visit:

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Airline: Qatar Airways (around BD50).

Transportation: It’s not easy to find taxis in Doha. We hired a driver.

Hotel: Grand Hayatt: We chose it because it was the closest to Katara and the room price was good. It was a nice traditional style hotel with friendly staff. But the rooms were small so adding an extra bed wasn’t an option. The room can only accommodate a maximum of 2 people. The city view was beautiful.

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Day 1:

Museum of Modern Art: A must visit whether you love or hate museums. It’s something  to be proud of. You will need a maximum of 2 hours to walk around the halls and view every piece. Once you’re done, have a cup of tea or coffee in the cafe. Spectacular view.

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Katara (cultural village): A walk around Katara to explore the cafes, restaurants, galleries and exhibitions. We had Chapati & Karak while waiting for the concert to start.

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The concert was held in the open air theatre and the setting was beautiful. Comfortable seats (chairs with no legs) were placed on the steps of the theatre. The concert was too good to be true and very well organized. Being a big fan of Majida i enjoyed every second of it. ImageImageImageImage

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All the restaurants in Katara were fully booked after the concert. I was glad that i made a booking at Sukar Pasha Turkish restaurant earlier that day. The food was very good and the decoration was luxurious with an Ottoman touch. Recommended.

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Day 2:

Souq Wagif: We had breakfast in Zatar o Zait and then walked around the souq. Unfortunately for us, it was Friday and all shops started closing by 11:30am for Juma Prayer. Generally speaking, Souq Wagif is a very lively and authentic place to visit and shop for traditional stuff (material, food, birds etc).

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Villaggio Mall:

All the shops, cafes, restaurants, supermarket and cinema in Villaggio Mall were closed for Friday prayer. It was shocking to know that a city where you can see more expats than locals close for hours during the weekend. We had to hide in a cafe (luckily he agreed to sneak us in) till all the places started opening by 2pm. Anyhow, Villaggio is a good place for shopping and hanging out in Doha. We had our lunch in Shake Shack.

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Our Thursday was well utilized but Friday afternoon was a waste of time. We wished that we knew about the closing hours in order to book a morning flight back to Bahrain instead of an evening one.

24 hours in Doha could be a great way to break your routine or have a quick break. Keep an eye on the events that take place during the year. It could be Cirque du Soleil or a concert in Katara. It will definitely be a night to remember.

Istanbul.. How Deep is Your Love?

 

Lists of tried and tested hotels, malls, other attractions and most importantly restaurants and cafes:

Hotels:

1) Park Hyatt: Great location in Nişantaşı, spacious rooms and friendly staff. We faced some issues with housekeeping which was a disappointment but we had a pleasant stay overall.

2) Pera Palace Jumeira Hotel: Since 1892! Staying there is an experience of its own as it’s more of a museum/hotel.  The hotel is now managed by Jumeirah and the room rates are quite high. We were disappointed with the service and some of the room facilities but other than that we enjoyed going back in time. The classic furniture was breathtaking (especially in the corner room that we stayed in). Don’t miss the pink tearoom in the ground floor.

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3) Swissotel: One of the best hotels that overlooks the Bosphorus. The room view is breathtaking (make sure you book a Bosphorus view room). The rooms are spacious and the service is very good. I stayed in it twice and i was pleased both times. If you book an executive room you get to use the Executive Lounge which offers breakfast and snacks all day.

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4) Park Dedeman, Levent: A new hotel right next to Kanyon Shopping Center. Suitable for a casual stay if you’re using public transportation. Note that it’s a 4 stars hotel and amenities are limited.

5) Conrad Istanbul, Bosphorus: If you prefer a hotel with a Bosphorus view and a good rate then Conrad is a great option. The rate is not as high as the other 5 stars hotels that offer a Bosphorus view and the rooms are clean and comfortable.

6) The Sofa Hotel: A nice and cozy boutique hotel in Nisantasi. Recent comments and reviews show a high drop in quality and services though.

7) Radisson Blu Bosphorus Hotel: Great location in Ortakoy with a direct view over the Bosphorus. Tight rooms and not so convenient.

 

8) Hilton Istanbul Bomonti: Twenty minutes walk from Nişantaşı and no access to public transportation (closest is Osmanbey 20 mins on foot). Service and amenities were much better during my first stay but it was the total opposite in 2018.

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9) The Marmara Taksim Hotel: Perfect location for first timers and for those who love Taksim. Excellent if you use public transportation. 

 

History & Culture:

1) Dolmabahce Palace: Separated from all the other historical attractions and so the visit needs to be planned on its own. Only guided tours are allowed and the queue/wait is usually long so it’s better to avoid weekends and peak hours.

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2) Suleymaniye Mosque: The most beautiful mosque interior i’ve ever witnessed. Just look up at the beautiful ceiling and lights and you’d understand. The red carpet is adding a lot to the beauty of this mosque too.

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3) Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque).

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4) Topkapi Palace: Your visit to Istanbul won’t be complete if you don’t visit Topkapi. It is huge, extraordinary and you can feel the history in every brick around you. The garden is the most beautiful part with its amazing sea view. Don’t miss the room where Quran is being read 24 hours and where you’ll see some of Prophet Mohammed’s belongings.

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5) Grand Bazaar: Over 3000 shops and you won’t get bored or tired of shopping. They sell the most beautiful teaware and accessories. Make sure you bargain because you will probably find the same items in other shops.

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6) Spice Bazaar: An L shaped bazaar where you’ll find spices, sweets, teas, loofas, teaware etc. The market behind the Bazaar is even more fun to shop at so make sure to continue shopping outside once you’re done.

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7) Hagia Sophia: A must visit museum (which was a church and then a mosque). There is a great historical background behind it that you don’t want to miss so make sure you take an audio tour.

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8) Basilica Cistern: Where water used to be stored underground. It’s dark, humid, and slippery!

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9) Galata Tower: Climb the tower if you want to take panoramic pictures of the city. It is very tight and crowded on top so if photography is not your thing don’t go up there. The area is full of beautiful shops that you don’t want to miss.

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10) The Museum of Innocence: For literature lovers. This museum is based on Orhan Pamuk’s mesmerizing novel. It is highly recommended to visit even if you have not read the novel. You will fall in love with the details and lose track of time..

11) Istanbul Modern: Museum of Modern Art. A must for art lovers.

12) Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi: Formerly the home of Sakıp Sabancı and currently a museum. Family portraits and furniture are displayed and temporary international exhibitions are hosted there.

Malls: 

1) Istinye Park: The perfect place to shop & dine. International brands are located outside in a beautiful square with restaurants in the center. Inside the mall you’ll find a lot of stores (local/international). My favourite spot is the bazaar (-1) where you’ll find gourmet shops, cafes & restaurants!

2) Kanyan Mall: A one of a kind outdoor shopping mall. Beautiful architecture and atmosphere. Lots of options for dining.

3) Zorlu Center: For shopping, dining, or just hanging out. A beautiful place to be.

4) Vadi Istanbul.

5) Emaar Square.

6) Ozdilek Shopping Center.

7) City’s Nişantaşı For a quick round of shopping once you’re around the area.

8) Akmerkez: One of the oldest malls but it has everything you need. This is a great option if you have limited time to shop.

9) Akasya Mall: The place to shop when you’re in the Asian side.

10) Cevahir Mall.

11) Astoria.

12) Metro City.

 

Restaurants & Cafes:

1) Karaköy Lokantası: Delicious Turkish dishes, marble turquoise walls and a great closure to a stroll around Karaköy’s allies. A family owned non-touristy restaurant that is worth visiting. Booking required.

2) Martinez: I fell in love with this new comer. Excellent service and an enjoyable atmosphere. Some dishes were really good and some were average but I’d love to go again for lunch. Once you book, request an outdoor table as the atmosphere is more vibrant in the terrace.

3) Bazlama: This is the place to be for breakfast nowadays. Colorful and yummy set menu with a sweet lady baking bread by the entrance. Open from Thursday to Sunday only. Make sure to go early to avoid the long queue. Location: Nisantasi.

4) Lokma: A place that never gets old and one of the most popular breakfast spots. Breathtaking Bosphorus view and very tasty food.

5) Delicatessen: Beautiful space and a local crowd. It’s more of a gourmet/cafe during lunch time. The food was fresh and delicious (especially their seasonal menu). Location: Nisantasi.

6) Mangerie: A chic cafe hidden in a terrace in Bebek. It serves Turkish and international food and famous for its breakfast. Get a table in the balcony as the view is not to be missed.

7) Grandma: Everything is phenomenal about this place. The food, the interior, the friendly staff. Recommended dish: Fried eggs in scone. Location: Akmerkez Shopping Center.

8) Nev Lokanta: Located in Kanyon Shopping Center. Good food, beautiful interior and classic Turkish songs playing in the background.

9) Mim Kahve: This cafe is situated in a very narrow and long building in Eminönü that was hard to spot. The sign of the letter Mim written in Arabic was like a secret code or a clue to let you know that there is a magical place hidden inside.

10) Tahin: Suitable for vegetarians. Delicious food and several locations around Istanbul.

11) Passage: Food that is cooked to perfection. The ambience will make you forget that you’re inside a shopping mall. (Location: Kanyon Shopping Center)

12) Norm: For coffee lovers or coffee on the go. Cihangir.

13) Eataly: Wonderland for Italian food lovers with different stations and dining areas for each item. Zorlu Center.

14) VI Coffee & Healthy Living: A great spot to hangout and have a good cup of coffee.

15) Nişantaşı Başköşe: If you are around the area and in the mood for Turkish food then it’s worth a visit. 

16) Sade Kahve: A tiny and bright cafe with delicious Turkish Breakfast overlooking the Bosphorus in Rumeli Hisari.

17) Forno: For breakfast or a load of carbs when you’re starving in Balat!

18) Healin: Organic/ healthy.

19) Magado Speciality Coffee.

20) Murver: Fine dining in Karakoy.

21) Privato Cafe.

22) Yeni Lokanta.

23) Antik: Breakfast by the Bosphorus.

24) Michelle: At Vadi Istanbul.

25) Cup of Joy.

26) Mustakil Coffee & Bakery.

27) Gram: At Kanyon Shopping Center.

28) Sur Balik: Seafood.

29) Cook Life: Balat.

30) Balat Coffee & Guide.

31) Incir Agaci Kahvesi.

32) Alacati Muhallebicisi.

33) Refine Espresso Bar

34) Cok Cok Thai.

35) Bi Nevi Deli.

36) Fida Cafe: A cozy cafe in Balat with good music. Suitable for a coffee break.

37)  Hümaliva Çikolata: A cozy cafe with great music and interesting interior in Nisantasi.

38) Velvet Cafe: Few meters away from Galata Tower. Beautifully accessorized and pretty teaware/plates. Breakfast is served all day.

39) Fasuli: A traditional restaurant in Karakoy that serves Fasulye out of huge pots. Worth trying.

40) Da Mario: A vibrant fine dining Italian restaurant located in Etiler. Book a table in the garden if the weather is allowing. Delicious dishes!

41) Bebek Mini Dondurma: Ice cream on the go. The pistachio is excellent.

42) Starbucks Bebek: Three floors with a magnificent view! One of the most beautiful Stabucks branches in the world.

43) Grandpa: When you need a break from Turkish food, head there for some baked goods and coffee. Beautiful interior. Don’t miss the mini garden in the back!

44) Must: It is impossible not to notice this restaurant while strolling around Nisantasi and impossible to resist walking in. The decoration is too attractive to ignore.

45) Not Just Coffee: Excellent coffee served in a very cute space in Cihangir. Highly recommended for coffee addicts.

46) Dem: A very pretty cafe in Moda (Asian side). A great place to have some tea and cake in the afternoon. Another branch is available in Karakoy.

47) LOL Coffee Roasters: It’s tough to settle on a place when you’re in Karakoy, but if you’re looking for a good cup of coffee then you won’t go wrong with LOL.

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48) Naif: Beautiful interior and good food with a Turkish twist. Located in Karakoy.

49) Taze Lokanta: Famous for its Manti. Located in Kanyon Shopping Center.

50) Aşiyan Kitap Kahve: Colorful and calm with books and a quiet crowd. Located in Üsküdar (Asian side).

51) Pim Karaköy: Located in the center and buzzing side of Karaköy. Good Food.

52) Ulus 29: My number one restaurant in Istanbul. The atmosphere is classy yet fun and the view from the balcony is breathtaking. It’s very hard to make a decision once you go through the menu and sharing is the best option. Their dishes are unique.

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53) Kale Cafe: A perfect choice for a local breakfast with a Bosphorus view. You will be seated on the pavement and the strangers next to you will seem as if they are sharing your table, but this could be one of the most relaxing breakfast experiences you’ll ever have. You will be served some basic dishes (and tea of course) as soon as you are seated and then add whatever you wish to try from the menu. Sipping Turkish tea while watching the seagulls spread their wings and fly around the Bosphorus bridge is always the most delightful experience in Istanbul.

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54) Aşşk Kahve: Beautiful interior and view but the food is overrated. It is a popular place especially for Khaleejis so if you want to avoid the crowd choose another place on the same road or try the other hidden branch in Nisantasi.

55) Nusret: Nusret Steakhouse is one of the most popular and busiest restaurants in Istanbul. Nusret Burger is more casual and several branches are available. The steakhouse is now open in Istinye Park Shopping Center.

56) Tom’s Kitchen: Located in Zorlu Mall. A great option for brunch.

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57) Sütiş: There are several branches of Sütiş but we were told that the one by the Bosphorus (Emirgan) was the nicest. We went for dinner and it was full and vibrant but the food options were limited. For breakfast, it is one of the top of most delicious places in Istanbul.

 

58) Develi Restaurant: A good option for a Turkish meal when you’re in Nişantaşı. Delicious Meze in a modernized Turkish atmosphere.

59) Van Kahvaltı Evi: You will never get enough of this yummy Turkish breakfast. It’s a tiny place in Cihangir and totally worth visiting.

 

60) House Cafe: Perfect for a casual meal, good food and chilled atmosphere. The breakfast is very good too. You will find a nearby branch wherever you go. My favourite branch is the one in Ortakoy (especially the outdoor area overlooking the Bosphorus in summer).

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61) Kitchenette: A similar concept to House Cafe. Casual and relaxing.

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62) Masa: One of the most popular restaurants in Istinye Park. Always busy and vibrant.

63) Nezih: Another awesome traditional restaurant that serves breakfast by the Bosphorus.

64) Doğaya Dönüş Bistro: A heavenly cafe for vegetarians. You can pick and choose what you desire from the available pots and cold dishes and have a colorful plate filled with delicious and colorful veggies. Location:Nişantaşı. 

65) Dandin:  A very cute bakery/cafe tucked in one of Karakoy’s busiest allies. Beautiful interior and tasteful quick bites.

66) Saray Muhallebicisi: One of the most famous casual Turkish chains. Breakfast is not to be missed. 

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67) Meze by Lemon Tree: A very small restaurant that serves modern Turkish cuisine. It was rated number one on Tripadvisor in 2009. Delicious food.

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68) Topaz: Turkish fine dining at its best. It’s overlooking the Bosphorus and serves modern Ottomani cuisine. If you’re not a fan of formal dining then this is not the place for you.

69) Zoma: Japanese restaurant located in Ortakoy (Radison Blu Hotel). Extremely delicious. We celebrated New Years Eve there and it was a perfect location to view the fireworks by the Bosphorus. Another branch is now open in Istinye Shopping Center.

70) Chillai: Delicious food and chilled atmosphere especially during sunset. Located in Bebek.

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71) Kosebasi: Even if it’s franchised in your country, the taste in Istanbul is completely different.

72) Hamdi: Delicious local Turkish food located next to Spice Bazaar. Worth a visit. Make sure you try the pistachio kebab.

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73) Cafe Firuz: For a quick meal when you’re in Cihangir.

74) Mado: A good option for a quick stop for tea/coffee and dessert. The Kunafa is to die for and the Sahlab is popular.

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75) Zamane Kahvesi: A small local restaurant in Nisantasi. It serves the most delicious Turkish breakfast I’ve ever tried. Very fresh.

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76) Laledan Restaurant at Ciragan Palace Kempinski: Grand breakfast buffet with a view. Endless variety of food and it all tastes excellent. You won’t be able to stop eating. Highly recommended.

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77) Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta: One of the traditional restaurants in Sultanahmed that serves a set menu of salad and kebab. It’s nice to be experienced once in a lifetime. It’s a three floor crowded restaurant that is perfect for tourists. The kebab was delicious but i didn’t like the aftertaste of it. There is a place right next to it, owned by the same person, that serves delicious local desserts. Worth a visit.

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78) Hunkar: A Turkish restaurant in Nisantasi located beautifully below the ground floor of a building. We tried their Iftar menu and it was an amazing experience to have Iftar the Turkish way. Their dishes were unique and not the typical Turkish dishes we try everywhere.

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79) Mikla: This restaurant was recommended in several websites and i was expecting a very special ambience. The location was practical (rooftop of Marmara Pera Hotel which was opposite to our hotel Pera Palace Jumeira). I booked a table in the balcony which is famous for its spectacular view of the city, but i arrived to find that the balcony was closed. Another surprise was that we had to select one of their three set menus (which didn’t include any chicken!). The service was slow and i got the feeling that this place was once the place to be, but not anymore!

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80) Mahallenin Kahvesi: Located in Beylerbeyi in the Asian side. This is the cafe were Omer & Elif used to meet in Kara Para Aşk. Excellent breakfast and your eyes will never get tired of scanning all the collections around the walls.

 

81) 360: Not one of my favourites but nicely located on the top floor of a building in Taksim. The atmosphere is electric with shows every now and then. It feels like a circus to me but people like it. The food is good.

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82)Küçük Ev: A delicious quick bite. Can be found in food courts and different streets. Good doner.

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83) Haskral: A traditional Turkish restaurant that serves the famous chicken which is stuffed with rice, cooked and served in rock salt. It’s a popular place for Khaleejis.

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84) Osmani: Casual Turkish. Average food. Located in the basement of Istinye Park.

85) Istinye Kahvecisi: When you need a break from shopping have a cup of Turkish Coffee here. It is located in the Bazaar section in Istinye Park (-1).

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86) Big Chefs: International and Turkish dishes with several branches around Istanbul.

87) Karakoy Gulluoglu: The best Baqlava in Istanbul that comes in different flavors and shapes. You choose the size of the box and, you select the baqlava that you want to add and you pay according to weight. They also wrap it and pack it for you so its more practical to go on your way to the airport. Passing by to have a quick fresh baqlava with a cup of Turkish tea is a must do.

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Outside Istanbul:

There are many cities and areas outside Istanbul that i wish to visit which includes Antalya, Antakya  Bodrum, Cappadocia and Izmir. The furthest i’ve been is Bursa, passing by Iznik on our way.

1) Iznik: It was famous for pottery making during the Ottoman period and Ibn Battuta stayed in it in 1331. If you’re a fan of history make sure to pass by Iznik to see some monuments and leftovers of a great era.

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2) Bursa: Getting to Bursa was a very interesting experience because we used two forms of transportation (car and ferry). We drove to the port, parked the car inside the ferry and enjoyed the one hour journey across the sea of Marmara while sipping tea on the top deck. We continued our way to Bursa by car and made a stop at Iznik.

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Our first stop in Bursa was at the Grand Mosque where we prayed Juma Prayer. The mosque was mesmerizing and some verses from the Quran were written on the columns. It was packed with locals who rushed from the nearby shops to perform Juma Prayer.

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Next stop was at the Green Mosque. It was small in size but rich with history.

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I will never forget the flavorful meaty taste of the lunch i had in Bursa. It was in a local restaurant that served one dish only: Meatball with Pita (Iskender Kebab).

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Shopping in Bursa was crazy. We literally went crazy because the prices were much cheaper than the prices of the same products in Istanbul. Everything we were looking for was available in one multi-story shop.

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We wrapped up our day trip with a relaxing walk around Tophane Park where the Bursa Clock Tower was located.

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3) Princes’ Isles: I visited the island out of curiosity after hearing a lot of good feedback about it. We toured around the old houses in a carriage and had seafood by the sea for lunch. That was it. There was nothing else to do over there. I actually found the ferry ride to the island much more interesting than the island itself, as the ferry stops in other islands to drop and pick passengers on its way to the main island (they are a total of nine islands). Cars are not allowed in Princes’ Islands. People move around on horses and carriages or bikes. It’s more of a residential area for residents who move there during summer to have a break of the city life.

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Planning a trip?

In my opinion, the best time to  visit Istanbul is in October. The weather is cool and breezy around that time of the year and the roads and venues are not as busy as the summer season. It starts getting busy again around Christmas/New Year time. But if you decide to celebrate New Years in Istanbul, make sure to book a restaurant by the Bosphorus to have a close view of the fireworks. I was excited to experience Ramadan in Istanbul, but  to my surprise there was nothing special other than the Iftar set menu that restaurants offered. The opening hours of the shops did not change and restaurants didn’t close during the day.

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Gulf Air and Turkish Air fly direct to Istanbul and tickets cost around BD200 or less during low seasons.

Enjoy your trip!

Travel Journal: Bangkok, The Mall Culture

Duration of stay: 3 nights.

Date: 28-31 October 2012

Flight: Direct 7 hours flight on Gulf Air Bahrain-Bangkok + Thai Smile for internal flights.

Purpose of trip: Transit after our holiday in Phuket + shopping.

Hotel: Siam Kempinski. It was the most interesting part of our stay in Bangkok. I can say that it was one of the best hotels i’ve ever stayed at and deciding to stay there was a wise decision. Mainly because most Arabs who visit Bangkok stay at Intercontinental and we didn’t want to go with the flow. The location was also great, right next to Siam Paragon shopping mall. What i loved about the hotel the most is the high ceilings that gave it a grand feel and of course the beautiful colorful flowers all around. It was a pleasure to the eye to see those gorgeous unique flowers every time we walkied in and out of the hotel. The breakfast buffet was good enough and the overall service was very good. The only negative thing about it was the concierge. When we first arrived we wanted to have Thai food for dinner, the man behind the concierge desk said that everywhere closes by 10pm but there is one place that closes at 10:30. We had to walk for 20 minutes to reach that place to find out that it was already closed by 10:15! (the owner + waitress were extremely rude). I also asked him about any local markets other than the Floating Market and he said that this is the only market. I didn’t bother to do my usual research as we were on a tight schedule but i later found out that there were other markets (the Night Market for example). Another thing is that i was keen on visiting malls with local brands in addition to the international ones that were mentioned in many brochures. He also said that those were the only malls available. I don’t know if it’s because of the language or that he really wasn’t familiar with the city. I didn’t trust his answer and asked around and found out about two of the most interesting local malls in Bangkok, MBK and Platinum. However, everything else about the hotel was perfect.

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Malls:

Walking around the streets in Bangkok was not so pleasant. If you put the humid and hot weather aside, the roads are smelly and not clean. We got a feel of the city when we took that 20 minutes walk to the closed restaurant, other than that we spent our stay jumping around from a mall to the other. I see Bangkok as a huge mall. Because that’s the only convenient thing you can do over there.

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1. Siam Paragon: Was my favourite. It’s huge with lots of international brands of all kinds. The best part about it was the restaurant area, especially the Food Hall part. All kind of restaurants spread around in a beautiful random way. Not in line or in blocks. It felt like each restaurant walked in and selected its own space without previous planning. I loved it and we had few meals there because the variety of restaurants was very interesting. We dined in Four Season Restaurant (Chinese, average food), Coffee Bean by Doa (the food looked interesting but we had dessert and it was nice), there was a Thai restaurant that had a long Thai name and served casual Thai cuisine which was average, and the Fish & Chips (Cafe Fish) was very delicious although it was the least busy place for some reason.

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2. MBK:

Just like an indoor market that sells local products; t-shirts, shoes, clothes, hair clips, bags and few souvenirs too. My discovery here was finding out how Food Courts operate in Thailand. The usual food courts that we know about consist of different restaurants, whereas in Thailand it’s one huge court with different types of food that operates under the same restaurant (like one huge restaurant with different units). One unit serves noodles, the other serves rice, and another one for juices, even Halal food had its own unit. How it works is that you buy coupons at first and then use them to place your order. It was an interesting experience to try it although the food was not that good. Another thing that grabbed my attention was a huge box for collecting used books.

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3. Emporium Mall:

Mainly international shops and a department store with posh Thai brands. Size wise it wasn’t as big as the other malls, but you can find what you’re looking for and finish shopping in an hour or two. It didn’t seem to be a tourists destination as almost all the people there were either housewives or students with their uniforms on. I was so happy to see one of my favourite bookstores Kinokuniya there. We also enjoyed tea & scones in TWG tearoom that had the longest tea menu i’ve ever had to go through.

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4. Platinum Fashion Mall:

This was the kind of mall that i was looking for. Local designs at cheap prices. It is very crowded and tight that you will suffocate and push people to manage to move but it’s worth it. They have some trendy funky outfits but you have to have the energy to search to find good pieces between all the piled clothes. Most people walk around pulling a huge pully to put all the shopping bags inside. Luckily they sell those pullies there and i got one which made shopping there much more practical and fun.

5. Discovery Mall: A small shopping center with few shops that i didn’t find interesting. I love the Thai bag brand Naraya and there was a big shop there that i enjoyed shopping at. There was a store that sells funky stationary and home accessories which was interesting. One of the girls didn’t feel like shopping so she spent an hour having a massage somewhere in the mall. There is a nice Starbucks there too.

If i’ll ever go to Bangkok again i will only go for shopping. Restaurants and malls close at 10pm so a group of girls will have nothing to do after that other than chilling at the hotel. I was expecting a variety of fine dining restaurants but the nearest restaurant that was open after 10pm (20 mins by car from hotel) was Eat Me and it was completely empty. It was a lovely restaurant and the food was good.

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Taxis are the best way to move around and they charge less than Tuk Tuks. The taxi drivers are not really friendly and they don’t undertand English. Some of them are bad with directions too.

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I think that i should visit Bangkok again to cover the tourist attractions starting from the Floating Market and cover the markets and malls that i didn’t get a chance to visit or didn’t know about this time. The shopping there was convenient and enjoyable and i can say that it’s one of the best cities for shopping. I would love to try other hotels too. The only thing that i don’t think that i’ll be excited about is the food. Since i only had sea food my options were limited and kind of tasteless. The supermarkets and bakeries were fun to shop at also.

If you’re a massive shopper i recommend Bangkok to you. If not, don’t bother..

Travel Journal: Phuket, The Elephant in the Room.

Travelling in winter can be hectic with all the overcoats packing and layered clothes. Far east is a blessing to those who wish to travel to a beach and summery destination during winter. And Thailand is one of the top options for a vacation between November and February (The monsoon season starts in March and ends in October). Our trip was by end of October and luckily the weather behaved well. It never rained during our stay in Phuket (4 nights) but it did rain when we left to Bangkok which wasn’t an issue since we spent all our time in malls.
Flight: Direct Gulf Air flight from Bahrain to Bangkok. Duration was around 7 hours. It was published in local newspapers a couple of months ago that GA will cancel this flight among others. But if you happen to book on it in the near future make sure to travel on Business Class as the Economy Class can be described as a jungle. Kids crying, people kicking seats and knocking on toilet doors, and damaged seats! It was a horrible experience.We spent a couple of hours at Bankgok Airport, which was huge and a bit tiring since we had to pick up our luggage, go to the 4th floor and check-in all over again at Thai Air counter. It was a subsidiary airline called Thai Smile. The cutest part of it is was when it played pop music during/after landing and all passengers started singing along. The colors were fresh, the snacks were good, the staff were friendly and the aircraft was very clean and not so tight.

Landing on Pucket was one of the most beautiful landings i’ve ever experienced. Fluffy clouds, rocks and mini islands spreading in the blue sea. Take off was also beautiful when we left to Bangkok as the sun was setting.

Phuket Airport was a typical island airport. Small and cozy with massage chairs that came handy after 5 days of touring the island.


Hotel:

Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort (Karon Beach) was a perfect choice as it owned a private beach and it was 10 minutes away from Patong Beach and all the restaurants and shops around it. It was a family hotel which was good as we were 3 girls and all we had in mind was to relax on the beach.

I wasn’t very happy with the service. I found the staff a bit confused, not so helpful/friendly, and they didn’t understand English very well which was disappointing for a 5 stars hotel with guests from all around the world.

The variety of restaurants inside the hotel was interesting and made dining convenient for us. The rooms were spacious enough with a lovely balcony. Ours was overlooking the huge beautiful pool which was a great morning view with all the tropical palm trees surrounding it. It was the biggest pool i’ve ever seen or more like different connected pools that were suitable for chilling and swimming, for kids and adults. Swimming in it was very refreshing.

The beach was very clean and the water wasn’t too cold or hot either. It was perfect for swimming or just dipping especially with the beautiful greenery surrounding it. And thank god the waves weren’t crazy at that time.

What made this hotel interesting is the little elephant that was roaming around the hotel everyday. I was laying on the beach one afternoon with my coconut drink reading a book when i suddenly saw an elephant walking between all the beach chairs. I freaked out because the chapter i was reading was called “The Elephant in the Room”!!

One more interesting thing is that the reception was outdoors. Something different!

Activities:

1) Beach/pool: The main and most relaxing activity in Phuket is to lay on the beach with a book and swim every other while. I found that more interesting than everything else we did. We started our day early (by 7am). And after breakfast we headed directly to the beach which was quiet and only got crowded by 11am. Nothing was more refreshing than a swim in the pool after spending long hours under the heating sun.

2) Walking around Patong Road: Patong Road is very lively and full of sea food restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s fun to walk there at night, discover the island products (t-shirts, accessories etc) and have dinner in one of the local restaurants afterwards. JungCelyon is a nice mall with good cafes, shops and restaurants that is worth a visit.

3) FantaSea: FantaSea is a lovely Thai show that demonstrates the Thai culture in a beautiful way. I won’t ruin it by saying more details. The theatre is located in a park and the tour includes two hours in the park plus dinner in a Thai restaurant inside the park. We didn’t include dinner in our tour but we went for the park option which was a bad decision as there wasn’t anything interesting to see. My tip is to go for the show only.

4) James Bond Island Tour: We didn’t have enough time to cover more than one island tour and we had to choose between James Bond Island Tour and Phi Phi Island Tour. We decided to go for James Bond as the canoeing looked more interesting than snorkeling in Phi Phi Island. We were a group of 14 people on a speed boat with 2 tour guides. We cruised through beautiful scenery and stopped by incredible islands. James Bond Island was only a small part of the tour and the other stops were much more fun. Canoeing between different caves was the best experience in the trip. Walking inside a dark cave with torches while bending not to hit our heads was another unforgettable experience. The tide was low so we were walking through water that reached up to our knees at some point. Visiting a floating muslim village was a bit sad as the people were extremely poor. But the lunch we had there was extremely delicious.

Food:

After completing the Thai Mission (visiting every Thai restaurant in Bahrain) i was very excited about finally having Thai food in Thailand. It wasn’t as good as i expected. It was different. Or maybe we just didn’t have enough time to cover many restaurants and try different kinds of dishes. Also, i didn’t have any beef or chicken there which makes it unfair to judge a cuisine by having sea food only.

1) The Coffee Club: My favourite discovery in this trip. I tried it first in the airport and fell in love with their soft chocolate chip muffin. It was out of this world. We went again for coffee in Phuket and another time for breakfast. A must try.

2) Savoy: A famous sea food restaurant in Patong. You select your order from a fresh selection of sea food which gets cooked the way you want it. It’s absolutely delicious. The atmosphere is amazing too. A full house with a band playing all kind of music.

3) Le Siam: It was a Thai restaurant located in JungCeylon Mall. From the outside it looked very tempting. But almost all their dishes contained pork which made it very hard to select something with no chicken or beef too. We ended up with few dishes which weren’t very good.

Hotel Restaurants (Le Meridien):

1) Beach BBQ: A serving station overlooking the beach. You pick a bawl of noodles or rice and add your choice of raw chicken or shrimps etc plus vegetables and sauces then you give it to the cook to stir fry it. The beauty of it is that you’re creating your own dish. I definitely loved my dish!

2) La Fiamma: Another serving station overlooking the beach that serves delicious pizza. There was a weird shiny lizard roaming around but no one dared touching it. Luckily it didn’t ruin our apetite.

3) Pakarang Restaurant: Theme nights and different cuisines every night. The Italian night was too good to be true. Breakfast is served there but it gets too crowded.

4) Le Cafe Fleuri: The breakfast buffet is also served here and it’s a better option than Pakarang although it serves the same food. It’s more quiet and less crowded.

5) Tonson Bar: In between the pools. Lovely atmosphere and good international food.

Duration of stay:

4 nights were barely enough to enjoy the beach or cover all the activities. I think that a total of 6 nights would be good enough to enjoy the island in every way.

Travel Journal: Sri Lanka.. Connecting with Nature..

This trip came in a time when i really needed to disconnect from everything around me. Starting from the political situation in Bahrain to the small daily details like the annoying Blackberry chats. We were a group of seven girls in our late 20’s. Some of us were mums, married, and single. It was a beautiful combination other than the fact that we’re old best friends. Some of them wanted to go to London, but i said my usual sentence to them: “If you have the chance to travel to a new place, why waste your money in London?”. The other option was Thailand. And as much as i wanted to go to Thailand, i felt that it was a good chance to go to Sri Lanka. And so it was. Sri Lanka travel research was not so easy. I went through many websites and reviews but it was still hard to tell where to stay. Their tourism agencies and hotels were not online-friendly and very confusing. We contacted a travel agent here and he dealt with all the details.

And it was finally time to get away. Feb 4th 2012. As expected, the gate was full of cute housemaids who were going back home!

It was a smooth 5 hours Gulf Air direct flight to Colombo. It passed quickly as we had dinner, watched a movie and slept. My movie choice was bad. McDreamy fooled me to watch one of his silly movies: “Flypaper”

I make sure to request a Low-calorie meal before every flight. To my shock, the low-calorie meal i got on this flight in business class was the same meal that i got on a flight to Istanbul in economy class. The only difference is that it was served with an inedible salad!

We arrived to Colombo at dawn. It was funny to see electronic shops all over the airport selling fridges, airfans, ovens, ACs and all kinds of electronics just like being in Souq al Manama.

It was still dark when we left the airport gate and met our tour guide who was going to accompany us during the whole trip. We got into the private mini bus and started our journey to Kandy. A three hours drive on crazy bumpy roads. It was funny at first, especially that the driver had a TV screen in the bus and played an Indian concert for us. But we all got car sick as time passed. I had to switch my seat with one of the girls as i was sitting in the back seat and jumping up and down with every bump. I get motion sickness easily.

When we finally arrived to the hotel the sun was already up. Earl’s Regency hotel was on top of a mountain and it stood out between all the greenery. We were too exhausted to look around after the long road trip and our rooms were not ready. We decided to have breakfast till then.

We had no idea how the country was generally like. Whether it’s clean or dirty or the people were rude or sweet. The style of the hotel gave us a safari impression since it was wooden brown. The flies flying all around our breakfast plates & the dirty Sprite bottle my friend got gave us a dirty impression about the country!

The rooms were not ready YET. And we had few hours to rest before we start our Day 1 tour. Three of us decided to walk around and discover the hotel.

After a long long wait, and after falling asleep in the lobby, the rooms got finally ready one by one. All i remember is throwing myself on bed.

We only had a 2 or 3 hours energy nap. We started our tour in excitment and almost forgot how tired we were. I put on my first boho outfit as all i packed for this trip was bohemnian style clothes. It was literally all i packed. I switched off my mobile and left it at the safe in the hotel room. It was a great chance to detach and free the mind.

We asked the tour guide to take us to the cleanest restaurant in Kandy for lunch. Everyone warned us about how awful the food in Sri Lanka was but we had to have a full Sri Lankan experience and try it. Not realizing that in Kandy only Sri Lankan food was available. The only franchise we came across during our stay was one branch of KFC & we didn’t try it.

A couple of us went down to inspect the restaurant. The tour guide said that it was one of the fanciest restaurants there. It was more like a 2 starts restaurant in Bahrain. But it looked clean and so we approved it!

The view was beautiful.

This bread was so delicious that we ordered more of it. Maybe because it was the only delicious thing on the table.

Sri Lankan Biryani. Awful.

A sort of Chicken Makani that was not so good but we ate it anyway.

Our second stop was a beautiful garden called Royal Botanic Gardens. It was so clean and refreshing that we couldn’t believe that we were in Sri Lanka. It felt like Europe.

It started to rain as we walked around breathing all that fresh air and it was an amazing feeling.

This cute dog was following us as we walked around the garden like a bodyguard.

The dog part was normal. But what was not normal were the monkeys running all around us. They didn’t attack anyone and there were groups of them.

The traditional show that was next on the schedule turned out to be too silly that we left half way through. It was a typical tourist attraction.

We were supposed to visit a famous temple in Kandy next (Temple of the Tooth Relic). It got dark and rain got heavier. The security guards didn’t allow some of my friends to enter the temple because they were covering their heads. And they asked us to take our shoes off and walk on the wet ground to the temple. As long as we saw the outside of the temple and heard the story behind it, we decided not to risk walking barefoot on the wet ground and went back to the hotel.

The day in Sri Lanka was short as the site seeing and activities were planned during the day but there was nothing to do at night. I loved the idea of going to bed super early and waking up with dawn. We ordered room service and went to bed.

We agreed with the tour guide that we’ll be ready at 7am. We were going to the Spice Garden and it was a three hours drive so we had to move early. I woke up at 5am and it was still dark.

The drive to the Spice Garden was bumpy as usual yet beautiful. It was raining and everything around us was green. The roads were narrow and simple homes and shops were on the sides of the roads. It was then when we got to feel the city and see how life was like there. People were very poor and they spent their day selling bananas, taking care of animals and farming.

Everything was colorful;  the houses, the clothes people were wearing, the umbrellas they all were carrying. Comparing their umbrellas to the umbrellas you often see people carrying in London was interesting. It’s all black in London when it’s all the colors of the world here.

I also loved how they were dedicated to their jobs and did their work with passion. I noticed that in every person i interacted with; the traffic police, the money exchange cashier, the driver etc. Their jobs were simple but they worked from the bottom of their hearts.

We noticed that all the ladies who walked around the roads were wearing short sleeve shirts and medium length skirts. All of them. It was like a uniform or an official costume!

Our tour guide, Asanka, was funny and very friendly. Our long conversations with him made all the long road trips easier to take.

We reached the Spice Garden after 3 hours and it was still raining.

We were impressed of how organized the Spice Garden was. There were titles and products next to each plant and a guide who explained everything.

They served us tea with milk. It tasted special and different since they added some of their herbs to it.

There was a shop selling all the herbs and products of the garden. Perfect gifts for friends and family in Bahrain.

We then headed to Dambulla city were the ancient rock Sigiriya was.

We went on an elephant ride before climbing the rock. All seven of us sat on one elephant while feeling so sorry for him. We fed him bananas as he wandered around and we sang a Sri Lankan song that the man guiding the elephant taught us.

On top of the poor elephant.

Walking through Sigiriya felt royal. Water, greenery and endless steps. We climbed 1200 steps till the very top of the ancient rock. Three of the girls gave up and stopped before reaching half way. But the rest of us decided to keep climbing. It was sunny and hot but very enjoyable. There were different types of steps along the way which made it harder. But it was worth it.

And then we had to go all the way down! Our legs were already shaking.

The drive to lunch was different. It felt like being in a jungle. Driving on sand and rocks between cows that blocked the way for a while.

The tour guide told us that he’s taking us to a hotel for lunch. And this turned out to be the hotel:

We had Sri Lankan food again and it was bad.

A safari car was waiting for us outside the restaurant. It took us to the Safari where we were expecting to see many wild animals but ended up seeing few elephants only!

I loved this train that crossed the road!

The Safari ride was very hectic as the driver went around for a couple of hours looking for animals. They were hiding for some reason! And of course, it was even more bumpy than the main roads but it was fun being in it.

The drive back to Kandy was too long especially that we were too tired after climbing the rock. It got dark while we still were in Dambulla so there wasn’t any nature to look at on the way back. But Asanka was there to the rescue again and we laughed a lot with him. Our names were very hard for him so he came up with a nick name for each of us. Mine was Monalisa.

I woke up the next day at 4am feeling nauseous and couldn’t go back to sleep. But i got myself together and got ready for our tour. We stopped by a wood carving factory/shop on our way to the Tea Factory.

The roads to the Tea Factory only made my condition worse. We kept going upwards over the mountains and it was a very long drive as usual. When we finally reached the Tea Factory and started our tour inside, the awful smell didn’t make it any easier. They explained the traditional way and the modern way of processing tea leaves from A to Z. The bad smell was disappointing to all of us since we all were tea lovers.

Tea shopping was the best part after that factory tour. A walk under the rain between all the greenery was refreshing and i started feeling better.

Then we headed to this beautiful waterfall. We had to walk down some steps (STEPS AGAIN) to get close to it and take pictures but we weren’t allowed to step inside. We had lunch in a restaurant overlooking the waterfall but we were fed up with Sri Lankan food by then so each one of us ordered a plate of french fries!

There was another way to climb down and swim under the waterfall. Five of us went for it and it was the best experience in this trip. We didn’t actually swim but walked over the wet slippery rocks, put our legs in the cold water and walked through it. It was very refreshing.

On our way back to the hotel we got to know a very touching story about our tour guide Asanka. He was speaking on the phone in English saying: “Mama, are you in Paris? Where is Papa? In London?”. We were all thinking that he was joking as usual but then he told us the whole story. Asanka lost his home in the Tsunami as he was living in Galle by the sea. One of the people who came to help afterwards was an old British man who got to be friends with Asanka. He bought a land for him and helped him build a new home. A while later he came to visit Asanka with his wife and stayed with him in his new home. He said that he started calling them Mama & Papa since then. His sad story doesn’t end here. He lost his wife five years ago in a car accident and now he’s taking care of his 7 years old daughter. Asanka is a very sensative man and you can see the sadness and pain in his eyes. He beleives that he’s a bad person and that’s why God punished him with all that. He was open minded when it came to religion disussions which was very imformative for him and us.

Since we reached the hotel before sun set i asked the girls to have tea/coffee in our balcony. It was such a waste that we never used it. We squeezed in the balcony, some of us having tea and some having coffee (Nescafe & coffee mate was something else there!! Too good), watching the sun set and discussing hair loss, a typical topic discussed by girls in their late 20’s/30. It got dark, we went inside the room and ordered room service. It was a perfect closure to our stay in Kandy.

Some pictures of the hotel room. It was more like a resort with outdoor rooms. My favourite part was the balcony.

Woke up the next day at dawn as usual. I had to take a picture this time. We packed our bags, had the last breakfast in Kandy and headed to the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawela.

After the usual long drive we reached the orphanage. It was owned by the government so it was very organized and well planned for tourists. Once you walk in after buying the tickets you get to see this gorgoeus scene infront of you:

In this orphanage they provide care to elephants found in the jungle without their mothers. It became a tourists attraction later on and there are specific timings to feed them and watch them shower.

This was a blind elephant. They make him cut woods.

Time for a shower:

Then it was time to head to the capital city Colombo. Traffic was insane in Colombo but there were proper roads and franchises! It was a normal city and totally different from Kandy.

We stopped in a place called Boulivard. A small dining area with restaurant stalls serounding it. We were happy to see normal food but we were concerned about the cleanliness of the place. We ordered sandwiches. Mine was TOO spicey that i was certain that my tummy will suffer the next day.

There was a cute ice-cream shop behind. They had NUTELLA ice-cream.

Next to the ice-cream shop there was an amazing store called Odel. It was the perfect place to buy souvenirs as it was modern and not expensive.

We toured around Colombo by car. Look at how beautiful this stadium is.

The hotel was extremely nice. Grand and breath taking. Huge lobby with many luxurious restaurants. The rooms were just perfect. Lovely gadren view and the bed was extremely comfortable. We were sad that we were only going to stay in it for a night and a half! It was called Cinnamon Grand.

We spent the rest of the day discovering the beautiful hotel.

Had dinner in an Indian restaurant in the hotel called Chatni. The food was good but different than the Indian we know. Each page of the menu was titled with an Indian city with dishes from that city listed in the page.

I was right about the spicy sandwich i had for lunch. I got a stomach ache and was stuck in the hotel the next day. Half of the girls went to Galle where they met Asanka’s daughter and went on a boat ride in the river. The other half went to Bentota for the beach. Luckily the hotel was beautiful so i had a relaxing day reading by the pool and watching a TV series that i got addicted to called The Big C.

When the girls who went to the beach returned, we went for a walk around Colombo. I love walking around cities to feel them. It started raining, we ran into a shop and asked for umbrellas and bought these colorful ones that reminded us that we were still in Sri Lanka.

We found a sari shop in the middle of no where that sold beautiful and expensive saris. We bought some for our mothers.

On our way back to the hotel i suggested taking a toc toc. How can we be in Sri Lanka and not experience a toc toc ride? It was a crazy, fun ride.

We had our last dinner in an Italian restaurant in the hotel called Echo. I’m crazy about Italian food and this was one of the most delicious Italian restaurants i’ve ever tried.

Loved the design of the menu.

And that was it. We napped till it was 2am and headed to the airport. We were sad that we were seeing Asanka for the last time and he was extremely sad too.

The airport was a total mess. Possibly the worst airport i’ve ever been to. But after a wonderful, relaxing and active trip, it didn’t matter. We were all happy and i slept all the way back home..