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Dahab: Fun in the Sun on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

Dahab: Fun in the Sun on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

January 13th. 12 pm. Dahab, Egypt.

My gray Arabian horse, Oscar, starts prancing beneath me. I feel his powerful muscles coil in anticipation as we turn off the paved road and approach a mile-long stretch of hard-packed sand.

dahab egypt

“Are you ready?” my guide asks.

“Ready,” I reply, and release my hold on the reins.

Seconds later we’re thundering down the straightaway, galloping through the sand as Arabian horses have for millennia. These animals are bred for the desert; every drop of their purebred blood is designed for speed, endurance, and the relentless Egyptian sun. Oscar’s breaths come steady and fast and his long silver mane whips into my face as we fly along the shore at speeds nearing 40MPH.

To my right, the barren red peaks of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula stretch towards the sky. To my right, there’s nothing but the open expanse of the Red Sea and–off in the distance–the purple peaks along the coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Welcome to beautiful Dahab.

I’ll come right out and say that current travel advisories tell visitors not to go to this part of Sinai. It’s considered “dangerous” for travelers and “should be avoided” on travel itineraries.

Of course, like the rest of Egypt–and the rest of the world–there are potential dangers that exist. But during our five days in this absolutely breath-taking resort town, the only things I felt were happy, safe, and exuberant. The locals are the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met anywhere in the world.

And since there are so few visitors these days, they truly do treat you like royalty. We experienced that our very first night, when we rode in the back of an old Jeep out into the desert for an authentic Bedouin dinner, cooked and served by the campfire.

dahab egypt

But anyway, back to the sunshine.

We’re staying at the cozy Amanda Hotel, located right on the shore of the Red Sea. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, have treated us like long-lost family from the moment we arrived.

dahab

dahab

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Dahab is a stunning little town, full of funky street art, coffee shops, and family-run businesses. Along the seaside path that meanders through town you’ll find joggers with dogs, locals on horseback, mothers pushing strollers, and street artists at work.

If there was a dry, desert version of the Caribbean, this would be it.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

For me, it was love at first sight. The sky and the sea are so blue it almost hurts your eyes. The mountains shift from red to chestnut to gray to lavender, depending on the time of day. The air is crisp and dry and the temperature hovers between 60-70 degrees.

I’ve found my happy place. It is Dahab.

From here, we’ve explored Saint Katherine’s Monastery and climbed to the top of Mount Sinai. We also took a ferry across the Red Sea to Jordan to explore Petra–but that’s for another post.

Let’s return to Oscar and our gallop across the sand.

When we (finally) reach the end of the straightaway, it’s time to untack the horses and go for a swim. I haven’t done this in ages, since I had my own horse in Florida–and I’m psyched.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Back and forth we swim through the most amazing crystal-clear water I’ve seen in a long, long time. The water’s a few degrees cooler than my Floridian blood prefers, but hey…I’m not about to complain.

After we dry off and saddle up again, we head back towards town past a literal cemetery of beachfront resorts. The 2011 and 2013 revolutions hit all of Egypt’s tourism industry hard, but especially so in Sinai. Beautiful high-rise resorts now sit eerily empty, their windows sandblasted, their pools dry, their lounge chairs rotting in the sun.

It’s easy to imagine the town in its heyday, and it’s sad to see what it’s become now that so few people are traveling here.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

By the way, I didn’t have to try hard to get these photos with no people in them. In fact, I didn’t have to try at all.

There’s virtually no one else here.

But anyway–enough dwelling on the negatives. The upside is that we had the whole place to ourselves and our pick of leisure activities to enjoy!

My ride on Oscar was awesome, but it wasn’t my only outdoor adventure in Dahab. We also signed up for an excursion to the Blue Hole, via a slightly untraditional mode of transportation.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

As if riding camels isn’t awesome enough (how cute are those ears?!), riding camels along the beach is seriously cool. The peaks of the Sinai Peninsula spread out before us, while the mountains of Saudi Arabia rose from a gray haze across the sea.

It was pretty trippy. In a good way.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

As always, Jeremy was such a good sport. I drag the poor man on all sorts of four-legged adventures all over the globe–even though he’d prefer to be on the ground.

He’s a keeper for sure.

dahab egypt

When our seaside camel trek was over, we continued our journey via Jeep to the famous Blue Hole. One of the best-known dive sites in the world, it’s also the most dangerous.

How dangerous? A staggering 130 divers have died here in the last 15 years alone! The beach surrounding the Blue Hole has been nicknamed the “Diver’s Cemetery” because of all the commemorative plaques and tombstones lining the rocks.

dahab egypt

Danger aside, the Hole itself is a sight to see, both in and out of the water. The little spread of dive shops that have popped up around the site is reminisce of an old west town. I half expected to see a stagecoach come rolling through!

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Since neither of us is PADI certified, we rented some snorkeling equipment and prepared to brave the chilly water. While the Europeans and Russians bragged about how warm the water was, I tried to control my chattering teeth as I slid on my fins and forced myself to get wet.

Let me tell you–the chattering teeth were worth it. We hugged the shallow rim around the bottomless blue abyss, marveling at the brightly colored coral and fish. Hundreds of them–thousands of them–all just inches below the surface. The water was the clearest I’ve ever seen, far clearer than the Florida Keys, Belize, Hawaii, or southern Thailand.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

I had no idea water could look like this. Makes me wonder how incredible the oceans must have been hundreds of years ago–before modern industry polluted them!

On our final free day in Dahab, we ticked another activity off our bucket list: sandboarding! We saw it once in a travel show and always wanted to try it, so we were thrilled when we saw a place in town advertising it for a very reasonable $15.

Done.

We’re picked up by a kindly man and his 14-year-old son (who doubled as our sandboarding instructor) in a beat-up car with equally beat-up snowboards sticking out the back. Off to a great start already!

We drive out into the desert to a surprisingly tall dune located just off the (one) road leading inland. No boots, no fancy equipment required. Just you, your board, your bare feet, and hundreds of feet of sand to climb.

Where’s a chairlift when you need one?

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Let me be the first to say: This is NOT as easy as it looks! Unlike snowboarding, where the snow does most of the work for you, you have almost no maneuverability in sand this deep. You can’t turn an edge or carve down the hill.

You pretty much have to straight-line it down and hope for the best.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

After climbing the dune and making four or five runs, we were sufficiently exhausted (and had sand in places we didn’t know it was possible to get sand). It was officially time for a shower and a seaside meal in town.dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Yes, it really is that beautiful. No, we never wanted to leave.

Especially after we tasted these incredible dishes: calamari tagine, beef shish tawook, and two scoops of date and hibiscus ice cream.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

It was a delicious end to our five fun-filled days in Dahab. We were sad to drive to the airport at Sharm el Sheik and leave Dahab behind, but I have a strong feeling we’ll be back someday!

dahab egypt

 

Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt

Saqqara, Memphis, and the Pyramids – Touring Ancient Egypt

January 4th. 5 am. Cairo, Egypt.

I’m listening to the call to the prayer (the first of five for the day) from the nearby mosques. Through the walls of the hotel room, the beautiful, haunting sound reverberates loudly, assuring everyone is awake.

cairo

Well, not to worry – with the jetlag, I was already wide awake anyway.

I’m sitting in what’s arguably the softest, most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. The funny thing is that the 3-star hotel we’re staying at, across the river from downtown Cairo, has definitely seen better days. The shower is so small I barely fit inside it. The bathroom door doesn’t actually latch shut, and, like everywhere else in Egypt, there’s no heat in our room. (Granted, most of the year it’s scorching hot here, but the first week in January? Not so much).

Anyway, I digress. My favorite feature of this old-but-charming hotel? The elevator doesn’t actually have any doors. You step inside, press a button, and watch the floors go by as you ascend or descend. (Don’t get your fingers caught!)

And yet, despite its humble appearance, this rundown hotel has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. This hotel seems to be a tiny representation of Egypt as a whole – ancient, rundown, yet strangely and surprisingly comfortable.

Let’s face it – Egypt has always been a wild card on the world scene. From Biblical times all the way up to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been a major player. For over 4,000 years it’s flexed its mighty muscles, exerting a powerful influence on the politics and social structure of the Middle East.

To be fair, most of what we hear of this ancient country – one of the oldest civilizations on earth – is negative. We hear that it’s dangerous, dirty, crowded, and unpredictable.

Is it true? That’s what we came to find out. And yet – like this deliciously comfortable bed in an old hotel – we’re already discovering there’s a lot more to Egypt than meets the eye.

Arrival in Egypt

If you know us at all, you know we’re typically very independent travelers. Given the uncertainty of the times and the enormous scope of the country, we opted to use a tour company this time around. I gotta say – it was awesome to step off the plane in Cairo and find a smiling Egyptian man holding a sign with my name on it!

We breezed through immigration and hopped into a private car (no taxi queues here!) to be whisked away to our aforementioned hotel. The driver was lovely, pointing all sights along the Nile and downtown Egypt along the way – in perfect English, I might add.

When we reach the hotel, we’re greeted by a pretty blond Hungarian woman named Emily who now calls Egypt home. She sits us down to review our 14-day itinerary – every tour, every flight, every train ride. She explains we’ll have a private driver and guide each day (with the exception of Petra, where we’ll join up with a larger group). Then she shows us to the local supermarket, ATM, and Vodafone store, where we got Sim cards for our phones. She wished us well and made us promise to call if we encountered any issues.

After that, we were officially on our own. Since the tour didn’t start until the following day, we had the afternoon to ourselves.

Cairo: Day 1

Item number one on our list (shockingly) was getting some lunch. Since you know we’re major foodies, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.

We took the locals’ advice and sat down with two big bowls of koshary, the unofficial comfort food of Egypt. Prepare for a carb coma, because you’re getting a bowl layered with pasta, rice, more pasta, lentils, and tomato sauce. Garnish with a few fried onions, zesty vinegarette, and a dash or two of hot sauce, and you’ve got a delicious meal for about $1.

cairo

RIP, my low-carb diet. See ya in two weeks!

Our jetlagged bodies were begging for rest (especially after consuming 19 pounds of rice and pasta), but we knew better than to give in. To combat our drowsiness, we grabbed an Uber and sat in traffic for over an hour (welcome to Cairo) to go get a late afternoon glimpse of the Pyramids.

A few fast facts about Egypt:

100 million people, 90% of which live along the fertile Nile River.

25 million in Cairo, making it the largest city in all of Africa.

NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS.

Yes, you read that right. 25 million people, no traffic lights. I’ll let you imagine what the roads look like.

But you know what? With the horns honking and the horses and donkeys clip-clopping and the Arabic music blasting over the taxi’s speakers, it’s kind of awesome. All the dust you inhale because the windows are down? Not so awesome – but hey, that’s what showers are for).

Along the main road through Giza leading out to the Pyramids, you’ll pass A LOT of police checkpoints. In fact, even our humble hotel greets guests with a massive metal detector. Roadblocks are set up everywhere to slow traffic down (not that you’re moving fast) so heavily-armed police can keep an eye on things. At one point, close to the Pyramids, they even had dogs sniffing all the vehicles and trunks.

A little unnerving? In a way. But in a place like this, I’d rather see them take extra precautions than not enough.

Our Uber delivers us at the historic Mena House Hotel, a 5-star gem that’s sat in the shadow of the Pyramids since 1869. If Disney World had an Egyptian themed resort, this is what it would look like. 40 acres of lush green lawn, fountains, gilded ceilings with glass lanterns, colorful archways, and a too-good-to-be-true backdrop of the Pyramids in their backyard.

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

Once we’d retrieved our jaws from the floor, we took a seat at Terrace 139, their beautiful outdoor restaurant. Over pots of Egyptian mint tea, meze platters, and a tandoori platter, we drank in the sight of the only-remaining Ancient Wonder of the World.

mena house cairo

mena house cairo

Then the sun started to go down and the temperature plummeted, reminding us that our Thai blood and flimsy coats weren’t doing us much good. We sat in our first Cairene traffic jam on the way back to “our side” of town and succumbed to jetlag at the ripe ol’ hour of 7:30 pm.

Mint tea and in bed before 8 pm. We’re a couple of real party animals!

It’s okay, though, because we needed some energy for the day that lay ahead.

Cairo: Day 2

We awoke stupid early (thanks to jetlag and the aforementioned call to prayer). Eventually, the breakfast buffet opened and we headed downstairs to find nothing less than an Egyptian feast spread out before us.

We’re talking falafel, freshly baked bread, soft Egyptian white cheese (similar to feta), crisp veggies, boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and our personal favorite: ful (pronounced “fool”), a savory dish of cooked fava beans, cumin, garlic, lemon, and other spices.

Good thing we were hungry!

At 8 am, our guide for the day, Abdul, and our driver, Makmud, arrive to claim us. Both men speak impeccable English and are warm and friendly. We’re feeling very good about our upcoming day!

First Stop: Saqqara

We head south out of Giza about 45 minutes to the ancient complex at Saqqara – both the oldest and the largest archaeological site in Egypt.

saqqara

It’s kind of surreal driving along the relatively green Nile Valley, where palm trees and tall grasses abound. Then, all of a sudden, you come up over a rise and there before you is the great Sahara Desert. It’s nothing but you and sand for almost 3,000 miles – a distance greater than the width of the entire United States!

But don’t worry, Mom – we’re not venturing out into the desert (not this trip, anyway). For now, we passed through three more security checkpoints (lots of big guns and bigger dogs – these guys are no joke) before we parked at the nearly deserted entrance to Saqqara.

saqqara

Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is how EMPTY everything is! From what we hear, prior to the 2011 Revolution, you’d be jostling through these sites with thousands of other tourists.

But these days? It’s like a ghost town – a little eerie considering the sites are full of crypts, tombs, and mummies!

I’m not complaining, though, because empty historical sites make for fantastic pictures. (Do we really want to see a Chinese tour group in every photo?) Abdul leads us through the columned entryway and over to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, believed to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt.

saqqara

saqqara

saqqara

saqqara

Next, we got to climb down an ancient shaft beneath another burial mound to see an (empty) sarcophagus and hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling. The passageway was maybe four feet high, so you’re crouched pretty low – recall my morbid fear of caves? – so I dove right in before I had the chance to change my mind.

saqqara

saqqara

Next Stop: Memphis

After touring a few more tombs, we climbed back in the car and headed next to the Memphis Museum. This open-air museum contains artifacts that remain from the ancient capital city of Lower Egypt (remember that the Nile flows from south to north, so the southern half is “Upper Egypt” while the northern part is “Lower Egypt”).

Highlights here are the fallen statue of Ramses II, the second-largest sphinx in Egypt (believed to be Queen Hatshepsut), and an alabaster mummification table.

memphis

memphis

memphis

memphis
Mummification table

Making papyrus

On the way to lunch, we stop briefly at a papyrus shop to see first-hand how the world’s first “paper” is made. Then we pull up the stables near the Pyramids, down a quick bowl of koshary, and prepare for our ride.

Horse Riding Around the Pyramids of Giza

We’re introduced to Horus and Aziz, our fearless mounts of the day. Our ride takes us through the crazy streets of Giza, up a tall sand dune, and across the open desert south of the Pyramids.

cairo

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’ll let my photos do the talking here:

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

Words cannot describe how monumentally SMALL you feel gazing at these magnificent structures. It was also incredible to be almost the only ones there, save for a few other tourists riding camels and horses nearby.

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

If you’ve ever wondered if the Pyramids are overrated – they’re NOT.

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

pyramids

In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect introduction for our trip to Egypt!

pyramids

Horse Riding in Bali: Temples and Rice Terraces

Horse Riding in Bali: Temples and Rice Terraces

I don’t often wake up before my alarm. I’m not what you’d call a “morning person.” However, there are exceptions.

And one of those is when I’m about to go horse riding in Bali.

I awoke at 6am on the outskirts of Ubud at the charming Kamandhani Hostel. (A little gem of a place, tucked at the end of a very quiet street but only a few minutes’ walk from the liveliness of Ubud.)

ubud bali

ubud bali

A few cups of insanely delicious Balinese tea later, and I was ready to go when my driver arrived. We cruised north through Ubud and out into the endless green of Bali’s interior.

Where does one go for the best horse riding in Bali? I’d done my research ahead of time and decided on the 3-hour advanced ride at Ubud Horse Stables. This establishment has received stellar reviews, and rightfully so. No skinny, neglected Asian horses here. Their herd of imported Thoroughbreds and Appaloosas are beautifully cared for and professionally trained. The level of care, riding, and service are comparable to any reputable stables in the western world.

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

Upon my arrival, I met Duke, Raja, and Cola (the black, white, and chestnut horses, respectively). All were beautifully groomed and had lovely dispositions. After signing the appropriate forms and discussing my riding history, I was paired up with Cola for the day.

ubud horse riding bali

My only regret of the day is that it wasn’t sunnier. But hey, it could have been pouring rain, and that would’ve been worse! Despite the overcast and the stickiness of the morning, spirits were high as I set out with a French woman named Mathilde and our Balinese guide. We also had a photographer following us on his motorbike!

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

What’s horse riding in Bali like? It’s AWESOME. The trail wound through a local village and out into the rice terraces. All the greenery and water reminded me a lot of Florida, where I grew up and learned to ride. Once we were used to our horses and the landscape, it was time to open up and let manes fly.

horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

A word of warning to those dreaming of galloping through rice fields: When they say “advanced ride,” they MEAN it. We hauled butt down these trails and up several very steep hills. If you’re not extremely comfortable in the saddle at all speeds and terrains, better stick with the beginner or intermediate rides!

For me, it was heaven. Cola behaved wonderfully all day, whether we were blazing along or enjoying a stroll through the flooded fields.

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali

ubud horse riding bali
Riding selfies are hard!!

Our ride included a mid-morning stop at a local warung (restaurant) for breakfast and tea. After a few more gallops we stopped at an orange grove to rest the horses and enjoy some local produce.

horse riding ubud bali

horse riding ubud bali

bali children

My awesome day of horse riding in Bali was winding to a close. We gave our hard-working horses a nice long rein as we walked through the village back to the stables.

horse riding ubud bali

horse riding ubud bali

horse riding ubud bali

Having had the privilege to do a lot of cool rides around the world, I have to say that my experience at Ubud Horse Stables was one of the best! The staff was experienced, friendly, and spoke excellent English. Most importantly, the horses were well cared for and well-trained (always a concern in a foreign land). And we got to ride at all paces, which is always a bonus for advanced riders!

After bidding farewell to Cola, I returned to Ubud and enjoyed a much-needed massage at the fabulous Spa Bali Ubud. Then it was time to meet up with hubby for some happy hour cocktails at Mingle Cafe & Bar.

spa bali ubud massage

mingle ubud

My day of horse riding in Bali was awesome, but it was time to get back on the road. Stay tuned for our next adventure!