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New England Highlights: Part 1

Oak Bluffs Marina, Martha's Vineyard

Oak Bluffs Marina, Martha’s Vineyard

On the way back from a romantic getaway in the heart of the Berkshires, I realized that 2013 was one of the most eventful and memorable years in my life. In transitioning to a new season and eventually a new year, I involuntarily started reliving the highlights of the past few months, which prompted me to write about them all. So I’m finally feeding content to my blog, digitally immortalizing (does cyberspace live forever?) these great memories. Here are some of the greatest activities around New England that I’ve been lucky enough to experience so far.

Exploring

Seaport  District, Boston

Seaport District, Boston

I love my job, but one of the things having a full-time career impacts is the ability to be a free-spirited globe-trotter. The reason I started this blog was to share my travel experiences and inspire the like-minded to explore. This all sounds fantastic when you have unlimited sources of income, but most of us have to become responsible adults at some point and find ways to pay the bills, which tends to put the kibosh on our travel plans. But for those of us whose travel bug keeps bugging, this doesn’t mean quitting what you really love to do. You can still explore and find new, amazing places every day without sacrificing your savings.

Picturesque New Hampshire

Picturesque New Hampshire

New England is perfect for spontaneous day or weekend trips. There are so many towns that date way back and therefore, offer great options for history and culture aficionados. Treat yourself to a date with Boston and hit all its historic neighborhoods. Or you can head to the smaller surrounding New England towns and learn about their own charming stories.

Sunset in Cape Cod

Sunset in Cape Cod

Drive up north and visit beautiful Newburyport with its cute brownstones and excellent fine dining, or experience the spooky spirit of Salem – notorious for its witch-hunting past – especially during Halloween. Explore the South Shore by stopping by in Plymouth and the cozy towns of Cape Cod. Plymouth boasts a beautiful marina and promenade with great seafood restaurants and spectacular sunrises. It also offers historic tours of the Plimoth Plantation with its 17th-century village, an exact replica of Mayflower that dropped anchor in Plymouth in 1620, and the famous Plymouth Rock that symbolizes the site where Mayflower pilgrims first set foot in the New World.

Plymouth Rock

Plymouth Rock

If you’re in more of a northern frame of mind, take a quick trip up I-95 to lovely Portland, Maine. It has an amazing dining scene and offers various activities between the scrumptious meals, like beautiful beaches, biking paths and island tours.

Portland, ME

Portland, ME

To get to know the real soul of New England, be sure to explore the quaint towns of the Cape and the Islands. Cape Cod is a magical place with lovely towns and beautiful wilderness. It has great beaches, picturesque hiking trails and the relaxed charm of a place where life is just a bit more enjoyable. From Falmouth with its secluded beaches to vibrant Provincetown, Cape Cod is a must-experience place in New England.

Falmouth, MA - Cape Cod

Falmouth, MA – Cape Cod

The Islands deserve their own mention. We try to visit Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket every summer. Being on an island is just an other-worldly experience, starting with the beautiful ferry ride to riding a bike in the islands’ scenic meadows, to visiting their lighthouses, which I find extremely romantic, with breathtaking surrounding views. The ones I heart the most are Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard and Sankaty Head Lighthouse in Nantucket.

Nantucket Marina

Nantucket Marina

Beaching

Crane Beach, Ipswich, MA

Crane Beach, Ipswich, MA

Growing up in central Russia surrounded by the nature of the North, New England’s beaches are perfect for me. The contrast of hot July weather and cool, refreshing water beats any tropical paradise for me. The best time to hit the beaches around here is from late June through early September. Here are my 2013 beach picks:

Old Silver Beach

Old Silver Beach - Falmouth, MA

Old Silver Beach – Falmouth, MA

Located in Falmouth, MA, this is the warmest water beach in New England. Sitting in a scenic cove, Old Silver is home to gorgeous sunsets and crystal clear water. The thing to keep in mind is that it’s not as much of a hidden gem at this point, so to get a parking spot in a non-residential lot, you’ll need to get there pretty early.

Coast Guard Beach

Coast Guard Beach - Cape Cod

Coast Guard Beach – Cape Cod

Getting there might be a pain, especially if you get stuck in usual route 6 traffic, but after driving for a couple hours and taking a shuttle to the Cape Cod National Seashore, you’ll see why it’s worth it. The seashore has numerous beaches with dunes and lighthouses, and Coast Guard is one of them. My favorite part of being there is even when it gets too crowded, you can always find a secluded part by walking just a few hundred feet to either side. The water is pretty chilly but again, it can be a blessing to some people. Sometimes, you can see seals playing in close proximity to the beach, which can attract sharks, so check in advance to make sure the beach is open.

The North Shore: Crane Beach, Plum Island and The Singing Beach

Crane Beach

Crane Beach

The North Shore is very different from the South Shore, and I always go back and forth as far as which I prefer, because both are beautiful. Crane Beach is located near Ipswich, MA. It’s not very long or wide so it might get crowded but it still is very picturesque. During low tide, the beach reveals its hidden sand bars, making it easy to walk out into the ocean. While there, be sure to check out Crane Estate, a beautiful mansion on top of the hill overlooking the water.

Lobster Shack, Plum Island

Lobster Shack, Plum Island

Plum Island is a stretch of several beaches and is ideal for anyone who enjoys long strolls along the water. The dunes shape a unique landscape, making these beaches absolutely stunning. The side road seafood shacks offer the freshest daily catch that is so good, even the memory of it makes my mouth water.

Singing Beach, Manchester-by-the-Sea

Singing Beach, Manchester-by-the-Sea

The Signing Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea is by far my favorite beach. It’s also a cove beach with high cliffhangers and amazing views. It’s accessible by MBTA, which is another plus because parking is reserved for local residents only. There is a big parking lot next to the train stop, but be prepared to walk a mile or so to the beach itself. There is a $5 entrance fee.

Siasconset Beach in Nantucket

Edgartown Lighthouse, Martha's Vineyard

Edgartown Lighthouse, Martha’s Vineyard

I love this beach not just for what it is but also for the preceding journey. It’s a wonderful beach in the remote town of Siasconset. We usually take the Polpis bike path as it leads you through the scenic creeks, past the Sankaty Lighthouse and some old-fashioned New England houses with their own unique charm. Hitting the beach is a great reward after a rigorous bike workout, as it’s secluded, quiet and beautiful.

New England is special in that it offers such a variety of experiences in a relatively small area, trust me when I say this was just a taste of all the amazing things you can do here. In my next post, I’ll tell you about some of my other favorite outdoor activities that will make you just as happy without breaking your budget.

St. Petersburg: The Cradle of the Vanished Monarchy

St. Petersburg Canals

St. Petersburg Canals

The scene: St. Petersburg. The street: Nevsky Prospect. The locals are rushing to work, the tourists are slowly strolling about and gazing around, and rollerbladers are dancing among the throngs of people haphazardly but in complete control. Welcome to the northern capital of Russia: the eternal cradle of the Russian royal heritage.

Peter and Paul Fortress

Peter and Paul Fortress

St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress that once served as a state prison for political criminals. Peter, one of the greatest emperors that ever ruled Russia, was eager to transform the traditionalist and medieval society into a modern power by opening a window to Europe and expanding the empire he had in mind. He definitively reached his goal and was followed up by his Romanov successors who continued riding the coattails of his military and economic glory. St. Petersburg became a true European pearl with marvelous palaces, cathedrals, theaters, parks and canals.

Griboyedov Canal

Griboyedov Canal

As part of our Russian vacation, we devoted three days to exploring Peter’s creation, which was definitely not enough to get fully acquainted with all its historical sites. But we did our best.

St. Isaac Cathedral

St. Isaac Cathedral

The first night we decided to take it easy and do some walking along Nevsky Prospect – the main avenue in the city – toward the Neva River. Passing by the Church of the Savior on (Spilled) Blood – an ornate Russian Orthodox basilica that was devoted to the emperor Alexander II who was assassinated on that very spot; the semicircular Kazan Cathedral built as a memorial to the Russian victory over Napoleon Bonaparte; the gorgeous St. Isaac Cathedral; the magnificent Bronze Horseman – a monument that Catherine II devoted to Peter I, thereby equalizing her greatness to his; the Baroque-style Winter Palace and Uprising Square – the playground for all the major coup d’états, and other numerous historic sites, I tried to soak in as much energy as I could to satisfy the history nerd inside me.

Church of Savior on Spilled Blood

Church of Savior on Spilled Blood

Going to St. Petersburg at the end of July, we managed to experience the lingering remnants of the phenomenon known as the White Nights, which normally lasts from May through July. During these fleeting months, it never really gets pitch dark and stays light until midnight and even after.

Bronze Horseman - Monument to Peter the Great

Bronze Horseman – Monument to Peter the Great

After having a bite at the great Gogol restaurant (named after the famous Russian novelist), we proceeded on a 90-minute ferry ride on the beautiful canals and the Neva River to see the lit-up so-called northern Venice. The crowds start gathering at the Palace Bridge to see the drawing of the multiple bridges so that the big cargo ships and cruise liners can pass through in the nighttime. Sitting on a ferry, wrapped in a warm blanket, and listening to romantic tunes, it was the perfect ending to my first date with St. Petersburg.

Winter Palace at Night

Winter Palace at Night

The next morning we started by touring the state museum of Hermitage in the Winter Palace. Seeing the interiors of the rooms where 18-19th century ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting bathed in the court intrigues, I felt swathed in the robes of Russian history. After the Hermitage we hired a private boat to tour the St. Petersburg canals. I was especially moved when I saw the building on the Moyka canal, where the Pushkin family used to rent an apartment and where the famous Russian poet died of a fatal wound inflicted by the treacherous George Dantes.

Peterhof Fountains

Peterhof Fountains

The next day we took a ferry to Peterhof – a series of palaces and gardens built for the royal family just outside the city. This beautiful complex is often referred to as the Russian Versailles, with its ostentatious fountains turned on each day at 11am in a celebratory explosion of opulence. Covered in marble and adorned with gold, the watery cascades sparkle in the sun, making everything around it cheerful and magical.

Moyka, 12 - Where Pushkin Died

Moyka, 12 – Where Pushkin Died

We devoted the rest of the afternoon to the Russian Museum (classic and modern art) but to be honest, we almost dragged ourselves through it. A lesson for the future: don’t try to jam everything into a few short days. Chances are you won’t enjoy it all so pick a few sites if you’re limited in time and focus on them.

Kazan Cathedral

Kazan Cathedral

We spent our last evening at a great restaurant called Terrassa, located behind the Kazan Cathedral with a gorgeous view of St. Petersburg, and we ended up on the rooftop of an old friend’s apartment drinking wine and contemplating the beautiful views of the city during the magic hour.

Peter's Palace

Peter’s Palace

I have to say I’ve always been a fan of Moscow but this trip has entirely changed my perspective. St. Petersburg overwhelms you with its beauty, its amazing historical spirit and is definitely one of the most fascinating and picturesque cities that I’ve ever visited.

Mikhailovsky Palace

Mikhailovsky Palace

Resources
Apartment rentals: airbnb.com
Gogol Restaurant
Terrassa Restaurant
Peterhof
The Hermitage
The Russian Museum

Ramblings of a Social Media Junkie: Facebook & Instagram

Boston - taken with Instagram*

Boston – taken with Instagram*

I haven’t been traveling much recently because I’m now what’s considered a yuppie – a twenty something-year-old working professional with a career path in mind. However, I have to say I’ve lucked out big time with my job. Most of you know I work for a small PR agency with a big ego, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to travel a lot for work – Las Vegas, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Paris… those are all my work trips, and they all are pretty memorable! So I try to take advantage of traveling to many amazing cities all over the world and do a little bit of exploring along the way.

In addition to my work trips, I take a lot of day-cations around New England, especially in the summertime. And one way to share these travel experiences is by sharing the images – of the views I’ve seen, the food I’ve tried, the people I’ve met. So I’m constantly thinking of creative ways to do that and the best outlets to use.

I created an Instagram account a while ago but have never really felt the need to Instagram photos since that’s what Facebook is for. I had an account because it was a fad but it seemed like double work to me. However, recently I discovered that I became much more involved in it. I look at the likes, I like other people’s pictures, and I am kind of intrigued to observe my friends’ lives through their photographic timelines.

I also realized that Instagram has become an outlet for me to share as many pictures as I want without being “judged” by the Facebook community. I’ve noticed when someone overflows their timeline with too many images of themselves, their food, their pets, etc., some people on Facebook tend to get annoyed. As if there is some kind of unspoken etiquette about what’s acceptable/not acceptable to post on FB. I have to admit though, I’ve been guilty of that myself. But then I realized that Instagram is perfect for that – it lets you upload as many interesting weird images as you want without being one of the few. Your images tend to get lost in the noise of other pictures and nobody thinks you’re a photo maniac anymore.

But here is a thought. Facebook is coming up with the new timeline to make the social network more visual by enhancing the image settings and making your profile picture-rich. Facebook famously bought Instagram last year for a cool $1 billion. Will they try to integrate Instagram-purpose and make FB a one-stop shop for all your social networking needs?

What are your thoughts on this? Has FB been around long enough now that certain unwritten etiquette rules exist? Do you see Instagram as a place to share images you wouldn’t share on FB? What does this mean for the future of Instagram? Could FB replace Instagram as your primary photo-sharing service?

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Fearless

When someone calls you fearless and you realize that it is the best compliment you’ve ever heard describing your personally, it’s pretty powerful. Because even if you look like this in the eyes of other people, you know that you are scared as shit because you are smart and you know that everything has its own consequences, but you would hate yourself and regret it for the rest of your life that you hadn’t gone for it. And that’s what makes you fearless. Doing things that you dream about, working hard to advance and appreciate every single moment in the meantime.

Best Restaurants of Boston’s South End

This post has long been overdue. Every time I wanted to write about my favorite restaurants in Boston, and specifically the South End (and I am thoroughly convinced that South End dining is the best dining in Boston), I would just yield to the tempting images of succulent food born in my imagination and head over to one of those places instead of actually writing about it. But this time, I am broke strong and hey, Restaurant Week is coming up, so I decided to finally share all my not-so-secret-but-precious restaurant gems in Boston. From French haute cuisine to mouthwatering Spanish tapas to classic American staples, this post will be your must-try guide to the best restaurants in Boston’s South End.

1. Toro

Toro

Photo Courtesy of Toro

This cozy tapas place on Washington street is one busy Boston hot spot. The fact that Toro can afford to not take reservations and only serve walk-ins already says it all: the average wait time is about two hours. The Chopped-winning chef will blow your mind with some of his house specialties: the grilled corn on the cob slathered with melted garlic aioli, juicy hamburguesas with pickled onions, and flavorful smoked duck drumsticks are definitely worth the wait. The place itself is very cozy and casual – chalk-board drawings, long tall tables and my personal weak spot – open kitchen – will make for one amazing dinner experience. This place gets my own Best of Boston award!

2. Aquitaine

Aquitaine Boston

Aquitaine on Tremont boasts classic Parisian chic without the pretension. Excellent service, a relaxed atmosphere and outstanding food make this restaurant my number two pick. It is perfect for a date night – very romantic but not cheesy. The only quibbling drawback is that the tables for two are set very close to each other, so you might get involved in other conversations, but why is that a bad thing?! Plus after a glass of wine or two, I start talking much louder, so I hear no one but myself. Besides your classic French dishes such as French onion soup, steak frites and Sole meuniere, which are very tasty, this restaurant has the best dessert in Boston – its chocolate caramel bread pudding is out of this universe. Crispy on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside, this desert is one indescribable burst of flavor.

3. Stella

Stella

Photo Courtesy of Stella

Stella on Washington is an elegant Italian restaurant. Its summer patio is one of my favorite hangouts in Boston. The dominance of the white colors in the décor makes it very Milan-esque and posh. In terms of food, I always go for roasted salmon and spaghetti squash or one of its grilled flatbreads with combinations like roasted duck and pickled onions or braised short rib and fig jam. (Gosh, I think I will start drooling soon).

4. Stephi’s

Stephi's Burger

Stephi’s is my go-to weekend brunch place. I might be a bit biased because some of my friends work there, so it just feels like home when we go there every Saturday for the famous house Bloody Mary as one of the perfect hangover cures, but I am definitely not biased toward Stephi’s’ food – it’s simply delicious. The pretzel-crusted crab cake benedict…words fail me. The savory meatloaf hash, arepa con chorizo or the classic Stephi’s burger are exactly what you need on a wintery weekend afternoon. You can also order a custom-made Bloody Mary for complete satisfaction – add salami & cheese, classic olives, peppers or even a Slim Jim and be happy.

5. Gallows

Gallows

Photo Courtesy of Gallows

I love Gallows for three reasons – the amazing view of the Boston Cathedral, its funky design elements and delicious Poutine, a classic Canadian dish comprised of French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Gallows also laid the foundation for one of the most magical weekends of my life – Memorial Day weekend of 2011. It was our first summer in Boston and we were just discovering the Sound End for ourselves. Our friend Dave took us on a South End bar crawl and Gallows was among many other restaurants and bars, but there was something very special about this place. Maybe it was Anchorman on TV, or the classic 90’s hip-hop, or their delicious house cocktail The Grapes or Wrath, but I experienced the moment of Zen-like happiness. It’s when you realize that life is good and you’re surrounded by amazing people and you live in the best city in the world, that you almost want to scream to release that nubbin of excitement inside you. The bar is also famous for its burgers and charcuterie.

6. Union Bar & Grille

Union

Photo Courtesy of Union Bar & Grille

For me, Union is neck and neck with Gallows, not to mention they’re next door to each other. I don’t have a particular favorite dish here – all the food is very tasty, with a Southern twist. The bar area is my favorite – it’s charming and cozy. The banana bread beer tastes like liquid desert, and the pomegranate martini will knock your brain out your skull. The crowd is very South End-y, which gives it a neighborhood feel and makes everything even better.

7. Beehive

Beehive

Photo Courtesy of Starchefs.com

Beehive on Tremont is definitely a scene – the place gets crowded on weekends and the bar becomes filled with single Bostonians shooting looks at each other from across the bar, which is very entertaining. The live jazz (and other equally pleasing genres) is a big plus. Last time I was there, a girl with a deep, beautiful voice was performing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in a throaty, bluesy interpretation. Her voice crawled inside of me and honestly made my eyes water. This is a place where I would bring people from out of town to show them the real Boston scene. My menu recommendations are mezze platter and Moroccan couscous. By the way, the chef also won on Chopped.

8. Orinoco/El Centro

Orinoco

Photo Courtesy of Orinoco

These two eateries are located on Shawmut, right across the street from each other and both of them offer awesome Latin American cuisine. Orinoco is famous for its Venezuelan specialties: its delicious arepas and empanadas and rustic interior design will win over anyone who is interested in going ethnic. El Centro is a traditional Mexican restaurant and a perfect summer place. I always go for the fish tacos – they are one of the best in Boston. Alex prefers the chorizo quesadilla and swears by it. Everyone is super friendly and eager to please.

9. Salty Pig

photo-2

If you crave good beer and good charcuterie, Salty Pig is the place to go – literally the best charcuterie I’ve tried in Boston. And it’s not just the cured meats – it’s the condiments perfectly paired with savory meats and cheeses. You can find good salami or prosciutto in many places, but try finding balsamic onion jam or red wine jelly anywhere else. My perfect charcuterie sandwich is grilled crostini, Dijon mustard, spicy soppressata, chicken liver mousse, Robiola cheese and balsamic onion jam. The bathroom walls are plastered in Far Side cartoons, and the rest of the interior is decorated with chalk drawings, which make the place super funky. And how surprised was I when I learned they were drawn by Abe, my classmate from EF International. It’s a small world, indeed.

10. Tremont 647

photo-3

Last but not least on my list is Tremont 647, a true neighborhood bar/restaurant. We devour its $2 tacos almost every Taco Tuesday. On weekends, they feature pajama brunch, which doesn’t even need further explanation. The southern cooking is outstanding. During the summer, they do bourbon pork Mondays – that’s when Alex goes completely insane. Being here just feels right and if you live in the neighborhood, you’ll see the same happy faces all the time. Its next-door neighbor – Sister Sorel – is a cool lounge space that reveals the true spirit of Boston’s South End.

11. B&G Oysters

B&G Oysters

B&G Oysters receives an honorable mention from me. I haven’t dined there yet but I love the bar and the oysters. We’re having dinner there next week so I’ll keep you posted.

So here you go, check these places out and let me know what you think about these Boston gems. I dare you not to like these amazing restaurants.

Most of these venues participate in Boston’s Restaurant Week that starts March 17 – a good reason to leave your stove or your favorite delivery behind and immerse yourself in the ultimate culinary experience of the Boston South End. Enjoy!

The Historic Boston Blizzard

Boston Esplanade

Boston Esplanade

You probably all know by now that I was made in Russia (well, technically USSR) and having 30 inches of snow or more was pretty typical for our winter, especially in the region where I grew up (Ural Mountains). So when Boston was pummeled by the blizzard this past weekend and Nemo was the most popular word in my Facebook feed, I had mixed feelings.

For someone who grew up in a place where schools only close when it’s -30C (-22F) outside, having a really white winter is a part of our everyday life. But listening to CNN’s coverage of Nemo and with Governor Patrick declaring state of emergency, I was subject to the same feelings of anxiety and precaution as everyone else in Boston.

What’s most important of course is that everything ended well, and as a bonus, Boston looked pretty impressive covered with all that snow. Venturing out in the city the morning after was so amazing – Boston felt like a ghost town. No cars, no traffic, no noise – just pure nature and unhappy people digging their cars out happy people playing in the snow.

I caught a terrible bug the very next day. Even though I hadn’t felt that sick since high school, it was so worth it to enjoy all that snow! It made me feel like I was in Russia again, and brought back all those childhood memories — when building snowmen and sledding down the hill was a typical Saturday afternoon. So bring it on, winter, let it snow again!

Mass Ave

Mass Ave

Beacon Hill

Beacon Hill

The Pru

Dave, Conqueror of All That Is Snow

Fenway Park

Fenway Park

South End

South End

The Compulsive Traveler

The Compulsive Traveler

Charles River

Charles River

The Charles River Park

The Charles River Park

The Hancock Tower

The Hancock Tower

Alex

Alex

Back Bay

Back Bay

The Public Garden

The Public Garden

The Commonwealth Park

The Commonwealth Park

Dubai: The Las Vegas of the Middle East

Beautiful Sunrise in Dubai

Beautiful Sunrise in Dubai

To be honest, I was procrastinating to start this post for almost a month, writing it all off on tiredness and a busy work schedule. But the truth is Dubai just happened to be my second mismatch. This city, no matter how modern and vivid it is, was just not for me. However, for the sake of my readers, I’ll try to stay a true storyteller and deliver an objective overview of the new mecca of the Middle East.

My first visit to Dubai happened in 2001, and back then Dubai was already one of the most impressive urban gems. Tall skyscrapers, part of its contemporary landscape, organically fitted in the scenery of the Arabian desert and secluded Middle Eastern culture. Men wearing traditional snow-white dishdashas were driving Porsches and Mercedeses, and women, covered from head to toe in black abayas, unveiled luxurious Dior and Chanel dresses and expensive jewelry underneath while fixing their make-ups in the ladies rooms. That contrast mesmerized me. Finding virtue in modern technology and economic advances, this emirate stood firmly by its traditional values. It still felt like immersing myself in a completely different culture; it felt like being in the Middle East.

View from the Kempinski hotel

View from the Kempinski Hotel

More than 10 years had passed, and my dad set to organize a New Year’s family reunion to be celebrated in Dubai. I heard on my occasions that Dubai progressed even more: artificial islands, show-off hotels, tallest skyscrapers, largest shopping malls – I was in great anticipation to see all that.

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

And indeed, Dubai boasts the tallest building in the world. Burj Khalifa, reaching up to 830 meters (2,722 feet), is the glass covered giant that sparkles in the mid-afternoon sun and lights up at night. The observation deck located on the 124th floor will reveal the magnificent panoramic view of the city. Tickets can be purchased online or at the ticket office downstairs.

Armani Hotel, also located in Burj Khalifa, is another popular tourist trap. Elegant, classy hotel designed by Giorgio Armani is worth taking a peak at. The AT.MOSPHERE restaurant on the 122nd floor is definitely more of an observation experience than a food fete. Make reservations way in advance and expect some minor trembling while walking from the elevator to your table. The mind-blowing view compensates for so-so food.

Aquarium in The Dubai Mall

Aquarium in The Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall, located downstairs, is the largest shopping center in the world. Not only does it offer hundreds of stores and restaurants, but also an indoor ski resort and ice-skating rink. Its aquarium is also pretty impressive. Watch fascinating sea creatures cruise around in a huge water tank, or buy a ticket and observe them fly above your head while walking in an underwater tunnel. The sharks are very frightening. You can also pay extra for a unique diving experience. (How cool would it be to get attacked by a shark in front of hundreds of witnesses?!)

The Singing Fountain Show

The Singing Fountain Show

Another captivating experience was seeing the singing fountain show next to The Dubai Mall. An amazing performance that is repeated every 20 minutes or so can be a perfect accompaniment to a lazy dinner at one of the multiple restaurants surrounding the pool.

One & Only Resort

One & Only Resort

Be sure to check out the extravagant hotels and a beautiful marina of Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago of man-made islands. Atlantis, Zabeel Saray and One & Only are perfect examples of how luxury has become a business card of Dubai. One & Only was my favorite. Even though it’s a pretty posh resort, it also feels very cozy. It has a nice beach bar with an amazing view of the marina. It’s needless to say that the prices are outrageous. My cocktail that consisted of champagne and strawberry puree was only $50.

My $50 Cocktail

My $50 Cocktail

Eating your way through Dubai is another story. The city features some incredible restaurants – that I can’t deny. My recommendations are listed below. But be aware that most of the restaurants don’t allow young children, so consult with your concierge or call ahead to make sure you can bring your toddlers with you. Everyone speaks perfect English.

Dim Sum at Hakkasan Restaurant

Dim Sum at Hakkasan Restaurant

Someone told me that Dubai’s officials offer architectural firms all over the world to submit their boldest project ideas and if chosen, realize them on Dubai’s land. And it’s true – in Dubai, you can see the wildest, most twisted skyscrapers that stand by despite all gravitation laws. The city has two precise replicas of the Empire State Building, and to be honest, they look pretty modest and even dull among other outrageous architectural masterpieces.

The Palm Jumeirah Marina

The Palm Jumeirah Marina

But despite all that, Dubai might not be the city I would like to come back to. It’s too “screamy” for me. It’s trying a little too hard to impress you. It’s like the Vegas of the Middle East: lots of lights but not too much depth to it. What I liked back in 2001 was its organic combination of modern facilities and a true Middle Eastern character. In 2012, I didn’t see that many locals wearing dishdashas and abayas and didn’t feel the mysterious vibe of the Arabian Peninsula. All I saw was very westernized. Multiple Cheesecake Factories and Starbucks shops made me wonder why one would ever want to sit through a 13-hour flight and travel across nine time zones to see a very Americanized city.

All in all, Dubai is very interesting. Some people worship it, some don’t get it. I belong to the second kind, but I will let you make your own conclusion. After all, the purpose of that trip was to spend time with my family, which made those 26 hours of flying absolutely worth it!

Restaurants:
Hakkasan – a modern Asian fusion. Try the jasmin tea marinated short ribs and honey glazed Chilean sea bass.
French restaurant at One & Only – try the three-course pigeon dish.
Pier Chic – amazing seafood and view.
Buddha Bar – good food and a funky atmosphere.
Zuma – the best Japanese restaurant in Dubai!

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