There are few places that can boast a view of London as spectacular as The Shard. As a Londoner through and through, I don’t say this lightly. So when I was invited for cocktails at Gong at Shangri La at the Shard I thought about it for about a millisecond and agreed. Gong is located on the 52nd floor of the Shangri La Hotel which makes it the highest cocktail bar in London. Needless to say, the view from up here is the stuff of urban dreams.
So what do you serve your guests when you are competing with THIS view? It takes years of searching, tasting and creating – a real labour of passionate love. The result? A collection of vintage champagnes, rare wines and an especially concocted menu of cocktails so carefully considered that their theatrical presentation is only surpassed by their taste.
The Director’s Cut
Skipping champagnes and wines (reluctantly) I was keen to sample cocktails from The ‘Director’s Cut’ to end a long working day. This is a menu of 16 cocktails and 4 mocktails inspired by the greatest film directors known for their love of story telling. There are no ”shaken not stirred” drinks served with an olive here. Each cocktail is an experience in itself sending you on a sensory journey of ecstasy.
Fear the Jungle
The first on my list was the fabulously tropical “Fear the Jungle”, inspired by the master of awe Steven Spielberg. The description of this cocktail was so intriguing that more than anything else, I wanted to SEE it. The mix of banana, pineapple skin sherbet and lime is the ultimate energiser. However, what makes for a killer combination is Peru’s national drink of Barsol Quebranta Pisco and Xocolatl Mole which comes from the shores of Mexico. It is served in a terracotta container with bamboo straw covered in ivy. A real scorpion nestled in the ivy reminds you there’s a sting in it – perfection.
The next drink on my list was “Bullet Proof”, inspired by Francis Ford Coppola. Imagine the aroma of this blend of single malt Chardu (12 year old) Scotch Whiskey, Italicus Bergamot and Spanish Oloroso Sherry bonded with liquid smoke. The rich golden colour of the drink against the setting sun simply added to it’s allure. Served in a glass with a rose gold bullet on the side for extra impact I couldn’t stop smiling at the thought of so much attention to detail being paid to a cocktail – exactly how it should be. The taste was smoky, light and warm making it perfect for sipping over a long evening. I couldn’t think of a better drink to end a day.
As I mentioned earlier, there are 20 cocktails in all in this menu. Whilst I encourage drinking responsibly I also encourage tasting all the cocktails on separate visits. The space here is wonderfully intimate. The staff are immensely attentive, witty and hilarious. I hadn’t laughed so much in a long while! The view is incredible as the sun begins to set over the Thames – this is London at it’s wonderful best. Make a reservation if you want to secure yourself the best view. I always maintain that food and drink should be accompanied by two things – a great view and good company. I got both here.
There is no denying that Dubai has successfully transitioned from oil rich emirate to metropolitan tourist hotspot. Tourism is now it’s no. 1 source of income. While it may not be for everyone, shopping, restaurants, unparalleled luxury and opportunities for economic betterment attracts tourists and a workforce from all over the world. As the saying goes, “If you want to meet the world, come to London”. Well, as a Londoner who recently visited Dubai, I can tell you the same felt true of Dubai. It’s workforce in particular – hotel staff, shop staff, restaurant staff, drivers add sparkle to what might otherwise feel like a super shiny, playground.
It’s global workforce is one of the most interesting aspect of this desert turned (man-made) oasis. Conversations and interactions were enriched by each person I met who added an interesting perspective to my experience. And they came from all over the world – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Laos, Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal and South America bringing an old world quaintness to a city so determined to appear modern.
Whenever I refer to visiting the Gulf states, I am asked the same questions by eager travellers who would like to get the most out of their trip without breaking the rules. So, here are 5 common travel questions about Dubai answered:
WHAT do you wear?
Well, if you’re within the confines of your hotel or resort wear ANYTHING – bikinis, strappy tops, shorts, mini skirts, long skirts, sheer tops, ball gown and tiara if you so wish. However, you will need to be more conservative and mindful in public spaces such as malls, souks and public transport. Opt for short sleeved tops instead of strappy tops and keep your skirts and shorts knee length or below. You maybe walking around in a desert but avoid wearing anything too sheer in public spaces. When in doubt my secret weapon is a scarf. Carry one in your handbag and pull it out to cover your shoulders if you feel your attire maybe causing mild offence. It shows respect for local customs and will be received well.
This is short and simple – NO. A peck on the cheek is as far as you should go and only with people you know well. Goes without saying – please don’t do this with strangers, especially if they are female! Save your amorous displays of affection for when you’re within the privacy of your hotel room.
If like me, you love to explore a new place on foot then Dubai is simply not the place. It is far too hot to do so during the day and people seem to love driving. Everything is ostentatious so luxury cars are everywhere. However, I have it on good authority that the Metro system is fantastic – clean, safe and gives breathtaking views of the city. So, don’t forget to hop on a train.
Consumption of Alcohol
All hotels serve alcohol and are fairly relaxed about this. In fact, Dubai is known for its boozy work brunches. However, outside of the hotels alcohol is not readily available and you should avoid trying to buy it. If you decide to eat at a restaurant that is not attached to a hotel it is very unlikely that they will have a licence to serve alcohol.
Visiting during Ramadan
During the holy month of Ramadan everyone you meet will be fasting. It is not mentioned or discussed but you can safely assume that they are. Be especially mindful if you happen to visit during this time. It is forbidden to eat and drink in public during the day. Hotels and restaurants have designated areas for visitors offering dining facilities (usually hidden from the public with curtains or blinds). Small places such as coffee shops are all closed until sunset. However, when it’s time to break fast (Iftar) you can feast like a sheikh. Most hotels offer traditional Arabian buffets which break the fast. Be sure to join in!
What can be said of Marrakech that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? Plenty. A city so alluring that Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes are scattered here in Jardin Majorelle. Marrakech’s magnetism is very real. It charms your soul out of your body like a snake…teasing it, caressing it and hypnotising with colours, noise, smells and an unforgiving heat. You will watch your soul dance a slow dance in a hazy mirage in front of your very eyes. And it will mesmerise you. I experienced serious deja vu here. The unmistakable feeling that somehow, I had been here before, in another time. That I had yearned to be back for all eternity.
A Perfect Arrival
From the moment my feet touched the red earth, all my senses went in to over-drive. The pre-arranged airport transfer seemed perfectly normal until the driver stopped in the middle of traffic and declared that we had arrived. I could see nothing but a chaos of vehicles, animals and people. Cars and trucks moved around with no clear direction and motorcycles weaved in and out of the way of the cars. Donkey carts, monkeys on chains and carts stacked with watermelon weaved themselves between the cars and motorcycles. The heat burned in to my skin. In utter confusion I climbed out of the car, to the middle of traffic, as my driver pointed to a hand cart and said,
“You have to take this rest of the way. The car cannot go to your hotel.”
My first thought was that this was a prank. It wasn’t. Another man to whom the driver referred to as Ibrahim simply took my bags out of the car, without a word, and loaded the cart. I had little choice but to trust and follow Ibrahim across the road, dodging cars and donkeys.
As we walked off, the driver yelled, “Don’t worry. He works for your hotel.”
“Perfect”, I thought. I had arrived in Marrakech.
As it turned out, Ibrahim did work for my hotel and he and I became friends along the way. As we walked, I realised that the lanes inside the medina, where I had chosen to stay, were too narrow for cars and all of this was perfectly normal. Ibrahim pointed things out to me as we walked. He showed me the local school, where he prayed and where to go for food. Our walk together only lasted 5 minutes and I was sorry when it ended. I was having a great time. I couldn’t have planned a better arrival than this.
I was staying at a small, traditional Morroccan riad, a stone’s throw from Jemaa el-Fnaa, which inspired the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. So, needless to say that there was plenty to see, hear and touch but more on that later. We walked through narrow winding lanes past beautiful doors and arrived at the riad. It was all that I could have hoped for and more. They had prepared for my arrival and I had the best room in the house according to the staff – a 3 level room that opened out to the indoor courtyard and fountain. There was an orange tree heavy with fruit outside my window. To the right, Bougainvillea climbed up a pillar and covered the balconies above. I had arrived at a Garden of Eden without the sin.
Arches of the medina.
Hand of Fatima.
I could hardly wait to get outside and feel the full Marrakech effect. I showered, changed and headed straight to Jemaa el-Fnaa. The narrow passages of the medina, which surround this main square, were packed with colourful objects of every kind; spices, shoes, jewel stones, soap and glass everywhere. Hawkers shout across to each other as well as to passers by. There are deals to be made and bargains to be had.
I walked around this market for so long that I got lost and couldn’t find my way back. (A word of advice to anyone wishing to do the same…download the City Mapper app. It works well inside the medina and you will not be at the mercy of the locals to find your way out as I was). Eventually, I did find my way back to Jemaa el-Fnaa and was lucky enough to watch the sun go down over the square. Horse drawn carriages, bicycles and people made shadows against the backdrop of Koutoubia mosque as people moved around in an invisible maze.
Tourists and travellers flocked to nearby roof top restaurants, cameras in hand, to watch the evening unfold. Locals simply went about their day. For those of us on the roof tops Jemaa el-Fnaa became a theatre where the lights dimmed and the actors were on stage. It was Ramadan and the call to prayer melodic and gentle echoed through the square. The sun began to set on cue. Everything became still, frozen for a moment. I couldn’t capture it because by now I was immersed in it. I did not want to break the spell.
Once the call to prayer was heeded the square became louder and louder with the clattering of plates, the sound of a million voices and the preparation of food for breaking fast. I walked down and sat at a long table occupied by a mixture of locals and tourists. The mood was light. It felt like a million different aromas were rising out of the medina. Mint tea flowed like water, open fires grilled meat, fish and seafood and colourful tagines and crockery click clacked against the chattering of people sitting down to their evening meal. I stayed, ate, talked with total strangers, laughed and ate some more and it was almost midnight before I left the table.
Madrasa Ben Youssef
The next day, I ventured to Madrasa Ben Yousef. I walked in the opposite direction to the main square and entered what felt like a burrow of even narrower passages. Ornamental doors added colourful breaks along what seemed like unending lines of arches and terracotta walls. I walked through market stalls, kitchens and was almost ready to give up when the tiny lane I was on abruptly ended. I could see a narrow muddy alley way through a low arch with a handwritten lopsided sign above it that said Madrasa. I had expected a grander entrance, a guard or two perhaps or golden gates even. It was a humble little entrance to what lay inside.
The courtyard of MBY.
I walked through the alley and arrived at the Madrasa – a 14th century Islamic school. Intricate geometric patterns were carved into walls, ceilings and the roof. The floors felt cool against the heat in the air. They were covered in jewel coloured tiles of green, blue, yellow and red. I moved around and made my way upstairs to the classrooms and living quarters which are carved in cedar wood and marble. Tiny rooms no bigger than a few feet. I needed to bend in half to walk through their doors to look out to the courtyard below. The school is truly beautiful and it feels natural to spend hours here admiring it. However, it also attracts big crowds so you’re ushered out from it before you’ve really taken it all in. So if you’re visiting be sure to have all your cameras at the ready.
I planned little else after this and returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa. It is a great place for people watching. Spending an afternoon here is effortless. There are snake charmers, medicine men, tooth pullers, acrobats and even fortune tellers…an endless list of intriguing humans. Stalls piled high with fruit sell orange, mango, avocado or banana juice in any combination you like. The evening drew in and the square once again began to fill with people until it was the heaving carnival of wonder of the previous night. I sat in the square for the repeat performance.
I spent just two days in Marrakech and it certainly wasn’t enough time. I was not here to fit things in a schedule. I really just wanted to BE here. There was liberation from being lost amongst the immense sea of faces. There was also a familiarity that I still cannot explain. I found it difficult to say good bye to Marrakech so I didn’t. I said, ”Until next time”.