Flashback Friday: London, United Kingdom

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Houston, We Have a Problem

I don’t know about you but the fact that humans have been to the moon still fascinates me till this day. Not to mention there are astronauts currently living on the International Space Station, sacrificing their lives in the name of science. It’s extraordinary what the human race has accomplished in terms of Aerospace and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Last year I was fortunate enough to spend Christmas in Houston with family friends. They offered to take my family and I to tour the Johnson Space Center insisting it’s a must see for anyone visiting Houston. Of course we gladly accepted, how could we pass up such an awesome opportunity? For those of you who don’t know, Houston is home to the Mission Control Center which manages the space missions of the United States.

We set off in the early morning and got there just as they were opening the doors. Tickets cost 20.95 USD for adults and 15.95 USD for children. We started with the tram tour which is approximately 90 minutes long and takes you to see the Saturn V rocket, outdoor rocket park, and astronaut training facility. Let me tell you, I’ve never felt so small standing next to something than I did standing next to the Saturn V rocket – it’s huge! It’s on display in a warehouse and all along the walls of the warehouse were banners with quotes from astronauts, most of them were really moving.

After marveling at the rocket, we headed to our next stop: the astronaut training facility. In here were several machines and equipment set up for astronauts to train with. All astronauts are expected to undergo years of rigorous training before they are permitted to fly into space and possibly live on the International Space Station (Fun fact: astronauts are trained to walk in space in a swimming pool to feel a gravity-free sensation.)

Having seen the Saturn V rocket and astronaut training facility, we headed back to the main visitor center where there were plenty of other things to do. There was a life-size model of part of a space shuttle on display; visitors can go inside and see what the interior of a space shuttle looks like. We also had access to the Starship Gallery which houses several moon rocks and equipment used by astronauts on the moon. There are a number of interactive activities throughout the center as well, not just for kids but adults alike. One thing I loved to do was step on a scale that tells you how much you would weigh on different planets.

In addition, there are two theatres at the center – one is like a cinema where visitors can view a space related movie, and another is an open-air theatre where a live presentation is given about what it’s like to live in space. We opted to skip the movie and see the presentation instead which went on for about 30 minutes. The presenter was super funny and very engaging with the audience. An audience member was chosen to demonstrate the day-to-day activities of astronauts living in space, such as showering, sleeping, and eating (Fun fact: In order to save water when in space, astronaut urine is filtered and used as drinking water!)

Our last stop was the gift shop and we spent a good 30 minutes in here alone. Like many gift shops, most items were expensive so my siblings and I just chose one item each. My brother got a T-shirt, I opted for a book and my sister a key chain. At the checkout counter we spotted astronaut food for sale and grabbed some to take back home for our friends as we thought it’d make a cool and unique gift.

Verdict: Incredible. I’m so glad I got to visit this center and highly recommend it for families. It’s a great education experience for kids and adults alike, especially science lovers.

Have you been to the Johnson Space Center? What did you think?

Review: Dubai Desert Safari

If there was one thing I wanted to do during my recent short trip to Dubai, it was a desert safari. I had never been to the desert but I’d heard so much about it from friends and thought it would be a wonderful memory to take back home. I did a little research online and found that there are several companies who have desert safari services. They all offer the same 5-6 hour package which includes hotel pick up, dune bashing, camel riding, barbecue dinner at a Bedouin camp with live entertainment from a belly dancer, shisha, henna tattoo, and hotel drop off. The only thing that differs between each company is the price which ranges from 40-80 USD per person. Seeing as though the packages were the same we decided not to pay too much and booked with the Go Dubai company for 57 USD per person. I received a confirmation e-mail right away and a phone call the next day to re-confirm the booking which reassured me that I had chosen a good company. I was slightly worried that the quality of the experience would differ because other companies had a higher price tag, but boy was I wrong!

IMG_0152We were picked up from the hotel as planned and set out to the desert which is a 45 minute drive from the city. The 4-wheel SUV fits six so my friend and I shared it with a family of four along with the guide who was super friendly and funny. At the entrance to the desert were some shops and cafes where we stopped to use the rest room. As we were walking back to the car we were instantly swarmed by locals who started wrapping traditional head scarfs on our heads. I naively thought this was part of the whole tour package until one of the men pointed to the cashier. My friend and I decided to keep the head scarfs as we thought they’d make for good photos, but she bargained with the salesman to give us a good price (Tip: many salespeople rip off tourists at the desert but they will surely lower the price if you bargain.)

IMG_0177With our head scarfs on we departed for the dunes. For about 30 minutes we drove up and down enormous dunes as the car skidded and drifted. It was such an adrenaline rush and got a bit scary at times but our guide assured us that he’s been doing this every day for 7 years so we knew we were in good hands. We stopped at a nice spot and got out of the car to take photos. Our guide took some lovely pictures of us jumping in the air and kicking the sand(which was as smooth as running water). Looking out into the distance, we were rewarded with an incredible sight! Endless rows of sand dunes formed over hundreds of years. The weather was warm and the sunshine felt so nice on my skin, although I recommend taking a jacket because at night it gets a bit chilly.

IMG_0262After dune bashing, we headed to the Bedouin camp site which is a further 20 minute drive away. The site is shared with other safari companies but we were the first group to get there. We spotted three camels on a hill just outside of the camp entrance and hopped on them for a ride. Camels are super tall, I had no idea! And they’re really friendly animals. By the time the other groups arrived it was dark and I was so grateful to our guide for getting us there early because we took some amazing sunset shots (Tip: there’s a professional photographer that takes photos of you while on the camels however you are charged extra for these. I suggest you give your cell phone to the guide to take some photos so that you won’t have to pay any unnecessary additional costs.)

IMG_0274Next, we headed inside the camp site where we were greeted with a date and cup of Arabic coffee. The camp site itself looks like something out of the Disney film Aladdin. Tents, carpets, candles, and even a camp fire were set up,  it all looked so charming. Once everyone had arrived, the primary entertainment act came on stage. A male dancer dressed in traditional clothing spun around non-stop for what must have been 20 minutes, all while throwing things in the air and changing outfits. I was really impressed. After the show they opened the barbecue buffet, by then it was about 7pm and I was getting hungry. I thought the food was average, mainly because I’m Middle Eastern myself so I’ve had better but from what I could tell the other tourists seemed to like it. There was hummus and tabbouli, and a large plate of rice with several hot stews to choose from. There was also a stand giving out shawarma and falafel. Following dinner, a belly dancer came out and danced for 20 minutes. Everyone was clapping and dancing along to the Arabic beats, it was a fun way to the end the night. We left right after the belly dancing and were back at the hotel around 9pm.

Verdict: An authentic once in a lifetime Arabian experience that is not to be missed when visiting Dubai.

Have you been on a desert safari? How was your experience?

Weekend in Dubai

So I mentioned earlier on the blog that I’d be heading to Dubai for a three day getaway with one of my best friends. I recently got back and despite being a short trip it was quite fulfilling because we got a lot done. My friend and I had both been to Dubai before so this trip was mainly for relaxation rather than tourism, and we chose the perfect time of year to go. Dubai has beautiful weather in March unlike the summer months where there’s scorching heat. Anyone who’s planning a short trip to Dubai, this was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Friday

We arrived in Dubai at noon and headed straight to the hotel to check in. We stayed at First Central Suites in Tecom for 2 nights. The hotel is located in a quiet area not far from downtown and close to the metro. The staff was great and the room was spacious, the only downside is that we had to pay for WiFi and breakfast wasn’t included in the room price. Nonetheless after we checked in we had a quick bite at the hotel restaurant and immediately embarked on a desert safari which I’d booked online in advance (detailed review coming soon). The safari lasted 6 hours so by the time we got back to the hotel we were pretty knackered and slept right away.

Day 2 – Saturday

Woke up early and had breakfast at a café across the street from the hotel. We then took a taxi to Jumeirah Beach, a large stretch of sand with restaurants situated all along the boardwalk. Many hotels are located on the beach which charge visitors for access to their beach beds. We opted not to pay for a bed and instead went to the free zone of the beach located toward the end of the boardwalk. It was a hot and sunny day and we spent a good 3 hours tanning before we decided it was time for a dip in the crystal clear water. After drying off we chose a restaurant at random to have lunch. We sat on the second floor and were rewarded with a stunning view of the sea. After lunch we headed back to the hotel because I was scheduled to meet up with a university friend who had recently moved to Dubai for work. We sat  in the hotel lobby and caught up for an hour before it was time for me to get ready for the Drake concert. If you’ve never been to Dubai an alternative to a concert would be Dubai Mall(the largest mall in the world) for some shopping and dinner. Also catch a glimpse of the magnificent Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, which stands just outside of the mall. Don’t miss the Dubai Fountains right under Burj Khalifa which put on a spectacular musical show every 15 minutes.

Day 3 – Sunday

Woke up early to check out and left our luggage in the hotel lobby. We went to the same café as the previous day for breakfast and then headed to the Mall of the Emirates. This is the second largest mall in Dubai and is a 10-minute drive or less from the hotel. We split up and spent the day shopping, met up again for a late lunch and then went back to the hotel just in time to leave for the airport.

Have you ever been to Dubai? Did you like it?

Climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

Growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, I always loved heading to the city because everything was so grand and majestic. Being up close to the iconic bridge and Opera House that decorate the harbour and make it recognizable all over the world truly makes one appreciate the beauty of Sydney, especially as a young kid.

I was probably about 10 years old when I first heard that one can climb the bridge, and I knew since then that it was something I wanted to do. I’m not afraid of heights so that wasn’t an issue, but there’s a certain age requirement so I had to wait a few years before I could do it. I ended up moving away from Australia a year later but during my last visit to Sydney I was determined to climb the bridge before I left.

I asked my cousin and one of my best friends to tag along with me and they were more than happy. We went ahead and booked tickets online on the official website. Prices are quoted in Australian dollars and range from 148 – 368 dollars for adults and 118 – 148 dollars for children depending on the type of climb, time of day, and time of week you wish to climb. We chose to do the weekday night climb which takes about 4 hours and includes a group photograph, short video from the summit, a cap, certificate of achievement, and a free pass to the Pylon Lookout.

Once we checked in at the Bridge Climb center, we were immediately placed in a group with about nine others. Each person took a minute to introduce themselves before we headed to the locker room to change into our climb suits. Every climber is required to wear a special jumpsuit equipped with all the necessary climb gear such as a waist belt meant to be clipped to the railing of the bridge, headphones, a beanie among other things. For safety reasons phones and cameras are prohibited and everyone is required to remove all jewelry items. We then went into the training facility where we spent about 45 minutes being taught how to utilize the climb gear. Within the training facility there’s a replica of the most difficult part of the climb, a vertical ladder, which each climber practiced on before we departed for the actual climb.

The climb itself was super safe and surprisingly easy. I expected it to be a steep climb but the steps are so big it feels as if you’re walking on a flat surface. The guide we had was fantastic, so friendly! He made us laugh throughout the whole journey which eased our nerves. We kept our headphones on throughout most of the climb to hear the guide talk about the history of the bridge and point out all of Sydney’s landmarks. We stopped a couple of times to take photos which you can purchase on the way out. We also had the opportunity to film a short video at the summit which you can access through e-mail for free.

The feeling once we reached the summit is indescribable. The sense of accomplishment I felt was amazing and standing on top of one of the most beautiful cities in the world really put things in perspective for me. I was so glad I got to experience this with people I love and I encourage all of you to do the same when visiting Sydney if it’s within your budget. It’s truly an unforgettable experience and makes for a great birthday, graduation, anniversary, or Christmas gift idea 🙂

Have you been to Sydney and done the bridge climb? Tell me about it below xx

Review: Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour

As I was searching online for things to do before heading to London last June, I came across the Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio tour in which you get to visit the set and see the making of the films. Being a Harry Potter junkie, I knew I couldn’t leave London without doing this. I booked my ticket online with Premium Tours and got the student discount for 51 pounds (I later found out you can get cheaper tickets on the official website for 33 pounds. This price doesn’t include transportation like the former does although you can get there for 2 pounds by shuttle – details provided on the site). The tour operates daily at different times throughout the day and takes around 6-7 hours with transport. I recommend going in the afternoon so that you can do some sightseeing in the morning and grab some lunch before you head out.

Once I arrived and entered the venue, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Since I had booked with a tour company, we skipped the queues and began the tour right away. First stop was the Great Hall, the famous dining area of the four Hogwarts houses (Fun fact: In the first film, real candles were used to create the illusion of floating candles in the Great Hall ceiling, up until wax started dripping on the actors and they had to replace them with animated ones). Throughout the Great Hall and the entire studios, there were mannequins dressed in the actual wardrobe that the characters wore which was really cool.

From the Great Hall we continued out to the main studio which contained all the well-known sets such as the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, the potions lab, Hagrid’s hut etc. I was a little disappointed that they were fenced off and that we couldn’t go inside; nonetheless I was happy to see them up close. Along with the many sets scattered around the studio, there were countless props on display. My favorites were the golden snitch, the golden egg from the Triwizard tournament, and the door of the Chamber of Secrets (Fun fact: The opening of the door was real mechanics and not animation, they actually built a mechanic door which they were able to operate and open with a remote!) There was plenty of interactive things to do as well, like having a video shot of yourself riding a broomstick around London, but you were charged extra for these things.

Walking out of the main studio, we made our way to the back lot. This area is home to the famous Privet drive, Godric’s Hollow, the Hogwarts bridge, the Knightbus as well as the enchanted car that Ron and Harry used to get to Hogwarts in the second film. There’s also a small shack that sells butterbeer (Fun fact: This is one out of only two places in the world that you can get butterbeer). Of course I couldn’t resist trying it and happily snapped a photo. It tasted pretty good, like a carbonated vanilla drink.

After sipping on butterbeer, we went into the second studio. In here were the man-made magical creatures and beasts featured throughout the films, such as Aragog the spider and Dobby the elf. Next, we walked into the set of Diagon Alley! This was probably the best set out of them all because we were able to walk up/down the main street which included places like Ollivander’s wand shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezies, and Gringott’s bank.

Lastly, we entered a dark room where a model of the Hogwarts castle and grounds that was used for the long shots in the films was on display. From there we entered the gift shop and that marked the end of the tour. The gift shop itself was just as impressive as the studios. There were hundreds of items to buy, from house robes and scarves to chocolate frogs and wands. Unfortunately, most items were expensive so I walked out with only a scarf, a mug, and key ring.

Verdict: It was a truly magical experience. The amount of work and effort that went into making the Harry Potter films really impressed me. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Harry Potter but I learnt a lot in visiting the studios. The fun facts provided in this review are courtesy of the super friendly studio staff, most of whom were extras in the films. I rate this tour 5/5; it’s definitely a must-see for any fan and definitely worth its price. Best part is that I can finally say that I’ve been to Hogwarts 😉

P.s: A new set, platform 9 & ¾, is expected to open March 19th!

Are you a Harry Potter fan? Have you been to the Harry Potter Studios or theme park? Let me know your thoughts and make sure to check out the gallery below xx