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Author Archives: Ben Pastore
One of the hardest decisions to make when visiting Dubai with a layover, is what to do with all that time. Dubai is a glitzy, desert-baked playground that is the Las Vegas of the Middle East. You can splash in a water park, go skiing indoors, and shop to your very last cent. But me being me, I wasn’t content to stay within the ever-expanding confines of this modern crossroad city. So naturally, I left the country and ran off to Oman.
Sharing the northeastern tip of the Arabian peninsula with the United Arab Emirates, Musandam Governate is a separate enclave jutting out into the gorgeous waters of the Persian Gulf/Gulf of Oman. With the surge of visitors to Dubai, the region has seen its fair share of tourists looking for an adventure outside of city limits.
Most day trippers arrive via an organized tour, which certainly reduces the navigation and border control hassle. There are basically two options for tours visiting Musandam – you can take a cruise out of the town of Khasab on the western shore, or the town of Dibba on the eastern shore. At the time of writing, the biggest difference is that crossing at Khasab requires official passport control, which may affect your visa situation upon return to Dubai, whereas at Dibba your passport will be checked but that’s all there is to it.
We chose a trip to Dibba since it was more convenient and more importantly, the only option available on our day in town. Our tour was arranged via the hotel desk, so I don’t exactly know with whom we were traveling since we were squeezed into another group. We were picked up at a nearby hotel before taking on more guests in our large, well-air conditioned bus. Once everyone was aboard, we set out across the narrow peninsula and into the undulating dunes of the pervasive desert. Nearing the eastern shore, we encountered the ragged cliffs of a coastal mountain range before passing through a string of small towns nestled against the emerald waters of the Gulf of Oman. Just past the border control we pulled into a baking hot parking lot and were escorted to a small harbor filled with at least a dozen dhows – traditional wooden boats configured to carry tourists to the natural beauty of the peninsula.
Moving northward, the view alternates between the vivid green of the sea and the washed-out stone of the rocky shoreline. In the first bay you can catch a glimpse of the ultra-posh Six Senses Zighy Bay if you’re looking for a reason to stay longer. Continuing north to the next bay, most boats will stop to serve lunch on board and allow time for other water sports opportunities such as snorkeling and rides on a banana boat (if it has one). Guests can also go ashore to laze on the sun-drenched beach. The stark contrast of the water meeting the land makes for some great views, and while neither the snorkeling nor the banana boat ride are ‘not-to-miss’ activities, it’s a great taste of coastal Arabia, and an entertaining day’s diversion.
Price ranges vary from the $60-$100 per person range depending on the season and availability (and whether you choose to leave from Khasab or Dibba). You’ll be picked up pretty early in the morning and count on several hours of driving between the city and the port. When your boat is not in one of the protected coves, it will be subject to the swells of the open ocean, so taking some anti-motion sickness medicine before you board is a good idea.
One last tip: Be sure to inquire of your tour agency if they will be using the same vehicle to take you both there and back. As happens elsewhere, in our case we were taken to Dibba on a spacious, well-air conditioned bus. However on the return, we were told that there was a ‘”problem” with that bus and we were crammed (not an exaggeration – crammed isn’t perhaps strong enough a word) into a tiny van with only the feeblest trace of lukewarm air circulating while the driver raced at seemingly unsafe speeds. This happens far too often to just be coincidence, so do your homework before booking. Had I not fallen asleep courtesy of the 15 hour overnight flight I took the night before, I might have really lost my cool. As it was, the ride transformed a group of relatively content tourists into a cranky, sweaty mass of disgruntled passengers. So, buyer beware…
After spending nearly three weeks touring the paradise island of Sri Lanka, traversing the varied natural and cultural landscape, and hopping from one World Heritage Site to another, I finally found a phrase that I believe best captures this exotically familiar destination: India Lite.
Years ago I described India as being “in your face“. Sri Lanka by comparison is more like an energetic tap on the shoulder. It has all the elements of a trip to India without any of the extremes. It’s not as noisy, crowded or dirty as India – while at the same time its attractions, ruins and architecture aren’t nearly as jaw-dropping either. Overall it’s a good trade-off, and if you’re someday planning a trip to India, it’s a great introduction.
But enough about India – Sri Lanka is a worthy destination in its own right. I will now share my insights on some of the top things to see in this tropical wonderland.
Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island located just off the southeastern coast of that other country I inadvertently keep mentioning. Roughly the size of Ireland, Sri Lanka packs a lot of variety in a small package. Ranging from palm-fringed beaches, steamy jungles, rugged mountains and even semi-arid plains, you won’t have to go far for a little diversity.
Since it’s an island, you’ll arrive in Sri Lanka either by air or sea. Assuming you’re not on a cruise ship, your international flight will land at Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) which is closer to the beach/fishing town of Negombo than the capital Colombo. With many flights either landing or arriving in the wee hours of the morning, you might want to consider a brief stay here at either the start or end of your journey. The main beach is broad and (relatively) trash-free with many reasonable lodging and dining options nearby. It’s not the French Riviera, but still a pleasant place to spend a night or two around your flights.
The capital is by far the most cosmopolitan destination to be found in the country. The area around the Dutch Hospital and World Trade Center is where you’ll find the fanciest hotels and most happening shops and restaurants. If you’re looking for a night on the town – along with some stunning sunset views from the rooftop bars – this is the place to be. Other than that, there are some great shopping opportunities in the Pettah Market, and for great city views and high brow accommodations (or even just afternoon tea) the classic Mount Lavinia Hotel in the southern suburb of (you guessed it) Mt. Lavinia is a setting right out of the 1800’s. It’s not a must-see world city by any means, but if your travels through the country leave you yearning for some more modern comforts, it’s certainly worth at least a night’s exploration.
Heading south along the coast (or better yet, inland via the fast and traffic-free highway) the former Dutch stronghold of Galle boasts a fort and old town that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort walls jut out into the Indian Ocean, providing some great sea views and a scenic walking route along its perimeter. Within the still intact ramparts is a tightly-packed warren of heritage homes and boutique shops and restaurants. After watching the sun set on the west side, cross over to the east side to the Dutch Hospital (yes, Galle has one too) for dinner looking out to sea.
Just a few kilometers south of Galle is the beach town of Unawatuna. Set around a crescent of protected water, it’s a great place to catch some rays, and if you want to hang out for a few days there’s plenty of cheap accommodation to be found. If you’re looking for those iconic shots of fishermen out in the water up on stilts, just go a few more kilometers down the coast to Koggala – but be prepared to pony up if they catch you trying to snap off shots without offering some payment.
Located well inland at the Peak Sanctuary area (it will take a good 4 hours from Colombo), this Buddhist pilgrimage site is a popular destination with nature lovers as well. Avoid coming on full moons and holidays unless you want a crowd, and be prepared for a grueling climb up seemingly never-ending stairs. The goal is to arrive by sunrise to see the amazing landscape materialize into view. In my case, I got a great view of the inside of a cloud, but still took pride in making it to the top. I learned a lot during my exhausting ascent (and equally exhausting descent) and have lots more to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice to say, if you’re fit and up for a unique adventure, work this place into your itinerary. Worst case scenario, the lush greenery of the gorgeous tea country will be worth the trip on its own merit.
Once a mighty religious center, this World Heritage Site still buzzes with Buddhist activity centered around the gigantic stupas that rise out of the surrounding jungle. For those less interested in religious affairs, you can still walk among the many ruins or admire the troops of langur monkeys that roam the sprawling complex. Be sure to buy your entrance ticket or else you’ll risk the wrath of the officials.
If you’re not Buddhist, you might not find this place terribly interesting, and honestly I was put off by the tremendous amount of trash thrown about by visiting pilgrims. This is the first time that I’ve ever visited a World Heritage Site for which it wasn’t worth going out of my way, let along the price of entry. But if you’re in the neighborhood, it is certainly not something you see every day.
Arguably the most-iconic site in Sri Lanka, this fortress perched atop a rocky outcropping is a World Heritage Site that is worth both the price of entry and the effort needed to reach the top. Meaning ‘Lion Rock’, there’s little to suggest a lion other than an enormous set of ‘paws’ carved at the base of one of the myriad stairs that wind their way up to the top. If you’ve already climbed Adam’s Peak, this will seem little more than a stepladder by comparison.
An ascent starts with a ground-level walk through stone pools and gardens before you hit the stairs. Once past the ticket check-point, you’ll be routed up a spiral staircase to view a collection of ancient paintings of buxom Sri Lankan women of days past before spiraling back down to continue your trek along the cliff face. Passing the giant lion paws, you’ll have some more vertical moments before reaching the ruins of a citadel up on top. The view is fantastic, with hills, mountains and the occasional statue poking up through the nearly uninterrupted jungle.
Close to Sigiriya, is Minneriya National Park. This woodland of evergreens and scrub forest is home to a variety of wildlife, but the stars of the show are the herds of wild Asian elephants that roam freely. If you come during the dry season (June-September) they’ll likely be congregating around a series of artificial reservoirs in large numbers. My late afternoon visit (we were the last Jeep in) had us arriving to a group of herds that conservatively numbered around 100 elephants.
At the park entrance you have to pay an entry fee plus a little something for a required guide that will join you in your vehicle. Figure between $15-20 U.S. The route will take you through a rutted dirt road where you can see monkeys, peacock and other residents, before opening up to a grassy plain around the water. Be prepared to get up close as the elephants graze their way across your field of vision, and be extra prepared for some great photo opportunities as baby elephants weave their way in and among the adults looking to feed, run and play. If you care anything for animals, and the chance to see them in the wild, this stop is a must-see.
Once the site of an enduring kingdom, Kandy is a bustling city perched in the mountainous interior of the country. Its main claim to fame is the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth. But even those of other faiths will enjoy its scenic setting and cooler, dryer temperatures compared to the coast. I’d suggest at least a day here to take in the sights or at least cool down a bit.
If you don’t feel like trekking all the way out to Minneriya, the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala is a decent stand-in. While a far more “pre-packaged” experience than an elephant safari in the north, it does allow for some up-close interaction, and is ostensibly, all for a good cause.
After buying your ticket, you can watch the handlers bottle-feed some younger elephants. And for about $2 you can buy a basket of fruit to hand-feed an adult elephant who will be more than happy to take it off your hands. Just a side note: elephant tongues are puffy and sticky, so you might want to bring some hand-sanitizer for when you’re done.
Next you are granted access to a side street brimming with souvenir shops (including the ubiquitous elephant print pants you’ll see everywhere) where you can also watch a herd being brought down to the river for a bath and some playtime. Bear in mind that you will be asked to show your ticket, so hang on to it. You can also run ahead to the Hotel Elephant Park which overlooks the river where they bathe. Order a snack or beer and revel in the sight of more than a dozen elephants spraying and splashing around in the swift-moving waters at the edge of the jungle.
Looking back on what I’ve written, it’s obvious that I saw quite a lot in my nearly three weeks in-country. But by no means did I see it all. However, I saw enough to clearly affirm that Sri Lanka has a wealth of attractions to keep a visitor busy across a broad range of interests, and that there’s enough to see, do and experience to justify the tedious amount of travel time to get there. If you’ve never been to the subcontinent, Sri Lanka is a great introduction to this fascinating region of the world. And if this is as far as you go, it will still be one place that is very much worth the price of admission.
Do you have any questions or comments about visiting Sri Lanka? Leave a message below!
The Grand Canyon is a big place. Like, really big. In fact, it’s hard to describe just how big it is – almost as hard as describing just how amazing the view is. With all that space available, you’d think the last issue a visitor to this marvel of the natural world would encounter would be a crowd. But on the South Rim, especially near the visitor center, hordes of tourists from around the world can frequently be seen jostling for space at designated lookouts in search of the perfect canyon ‘selfie’.
The further you spread out from this epicenter of tourist activity, the more the crowds lessen. But if you’d like to have the entire canyon pretty much to yourself, allow me to share a little-known secret spot I discovered (after some ‘net research) that proved to be the highlight of my visit to one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
At the South Rim visitor center you can help yourself to a complimentary map – not that it will do you any good. Shoshone Point does not make an appearance. Right there, that tells you that they want this place to remain a secret – which is surprising considering that it is equipped with a picnic area and working restrooms. Apparently it’s meant for groups, but if you’re traveling as individuals there’s nothing to keep you from wandering over.
To get to Shoshone Point, it’s best to use your own private vehicle, though if you’re up for a long walk it’s not an impossibility. As you approach the visitor center, take a right on Desert View Drive. Not long afterwards you’ll pass a turnoff that’s only open to the free shuttle buses called Yaki Point Road. Just about a mile east of that is an unpaved parking area with no signage indicating where you are, located on the canyon side of the road. Pull in and get ready for a mild walk (approximately one mile) through pine forest to the lookout point. Alternately, you can take the bus to Yaki Point or the South Kaibab Trailhead (which is a great alternative and an excellent place to get down inside the canyon) then hoof it back down the road. Just a note: keep an eye out for wildlife. No sooner did I pull into the parking area when I came face to face with a coyote who decided my presence wasn’t his cup of tea and he skittered off.
When to Go
Naturally, the heat in the middle of the day is less appealing to hike in, so for comfort as well as better lighting for photography, I recommend coming first thing in the morning, or for a great show, come around sunset. Just bear in mind that there are no railings and it is a long (long) way down, so watch your step in the waning light.
Can You Keep the Secret?
There’s no point in knowing a secret and not being able to tell it. I think this post embodies that. So feel free to share this secret spot after seeing it for yourself – that is if you have any words after witnessing that view – and you’ll still likely have the whole canyon to yourself. And if someone asks you where you heard about Shoshone Point…you didn’t hear it from me.