It’s a case of now or never. If I don’t start skiing now, I never will.
Helpful Emily, at the I-Site bureau in Queenstown recommends an Easy-Ski beginners’ family package at Cardrona, “the easiest place in Queenstown for beginners”. I’ve heard this “easiest place” pitch before and I’m sceptical. Ski-ing from any viewpoint across my considerable span of years, always looked hard and that’s why I’ve never tried it before. But as I said, it’s now or never. So, with vouchers in hand we head to over to Quest on Shotover Street for waterproof jackets, pants, gloves, goggles and helmets. Oh the blessings of being average. Everything I try, fits.
Next morning, 7.45 sees us garbed in ski-gear, waiting in the dark at the bus-stop on Frankton Road. Our orange easy ski bus arrives and on we hop. Our driver, Sean is a cheery chap, with a repertoire of self-deprecating witty banter, interspersed with advice for the wise and well-behaved skier. During Sean’s silences, the radio pumps out current hits and two cherubs in matching blue helmets, goggles and overalls engage in a deep and lengthy battle of knowledge. The journey is long (45 minutes) but this background soundtrack helps to pass the time as we coast around the lake and wind up through the snow-dusted tussock and into the perfect white world on the mountain.
We descend from the bus into the aftermath of a pillow fight, or so it seems. Little white feathery flakes fill the air. “It’s snowing!” the cherubic know-alls announce. We hurry towards the sanctuary of a low, dark wooden building and in through a door marked rentals. I find myself at a screen, scanning in my mi-ski pass and then filling in onscreen details of weight (average) height (ditto) and age (a glance around the room tells me this is well above average) At the other end of the room room, I’m swiftly bundled into boots, and with skis and poles under my arm and voucher in hand, I clump out to class.
I’m relieved to find that while most of my classmates are children, there is one older couple. Our “classroom” is gentle 6-foot incline. Monika, our instructor is Swiss and from the easy way she lopes around in her skis, it’s clear she’s spent a lifetime on them. As soon as attach mine, I begin a backwards slide but, in a flash, Monika stops me. Step 1, she explains as she spins me sideways, is standing still on skis. From there, she marches me in crab-walk up the side of the slope – Step 2!
Once we’ve mastered standing, walking and stopping, we graduate to the beginner’s slope. This is serious stuff, with a “carpet” to carry you to a ledge at the top. Up here, we learn to turn and slow down. I suffer some spectacular falls, my skis fall off, I battle to snap my boots back into them, I drop my poles and whizz down the slope without them. But, by the end of the morning I can follow Monika in a cautious crocodile. By the end of the day, I can zig-zag down the slope and weave my way through a line of poles. I’m having such fun that I can’t believe I’ve never skied before.
Little known and even less visited, Niue was, for a long time, just solitary dot on the map, at the heart of the Polynesian triangle, in the south of the vast South Pacific Ocean. As tourism beat tracks into the neighbouring Cook Islands, Samoa and Tonga, Niue remained untouched. One plane flew in each week, from Auckland, bringing expat. sons and daughters for a brief return home, along with a few visiting officials and the very occasional traveller. But generally, as a tourist destination, Niue was largely unheard of and completely overlooked. But not anymore! Now, Niue is emphatically “on the tourist map”. Niueans are showing the world that they have much to be proud of, a great deal to offer and an eagerness to share it.
First and foremost, Niue can boast of a landscape like no other. The island known affectionately around the region as “the rock” is a raised coral atoll (at 269 square kilometres, it is the largest in the world in fact) 69 metres above sea level on its high side and 28 metres above sea level on its low side. It is edged with rugged cliffs which drop down to small, sheltered, secluded beaches with natural rock swimming pools, cleaned by the sea and warmed by the sun.
Surrounding the atoll is a hard coral reef, a haven for a host of marine life and, with its clear, warm waters, a mecca for divers. The whole atoll is pierced with a labyrinth of caves, many of which have never been explored. Some caves shelter secret, pristine pools many of which have never seen a swimmer. Others shelter rock formations, straight from a fantasy movie set.
Niue’s Huvalu Rainforest is home to a wide variety of natural fauna and flora and has been declared a conservation area to protect these. The warm sheltered waters around Niue teem with fish and at certain times of the year humpback whales come to breed.
Interestingly it is the things that Niue doesn’t have that are perhaps its greatest source of pride. Niue has no crime, no traffic congestion, no traffic lights and no pollution. As the world’s smallest independent nation, with a population of less than 1500, it has no crowds!
So, if you’re looking for an unspoiled, uncrowded, perfect Pacific Island for your first post-Covid holiday, head to Nuie!
The Four Barrels Wine Walk around Cromwell in Central Otago, is the day out with everything. First of all, it’s a good walk. Then, with the Pisa ranges on one side and Lake Dunstan on the other, the setting is magnificent. Finally, it takes in four of Central Otago’s best wineries which not only offer the opportunity to taste some wonderful wines but also bring you face to face with some interesting people with fascinating stories. If you weren’t a complete lover of wine before then you probably will be after this.
When we set off on the Four Barrels Wine Walk, the countryside was shrouded in mist. It seemed much earlier than mid-morning. Perhaps it was a little early for wine-tasting?
But at Misha’s Vineyard, overlooking Lake Dunstan and the snow-dusted mountains, the open sign was out and the tasting room was warm and welcoming. Established in 2004 by Misha and Andy Wilkinson on steep slopes overrun by rabbits and rocks, where Chinese gold miners once chased their dreams, the vineyard now produces some of the world’s best Pinot Noir. Misha is the daughter of an Australian opera singer and the influence of her stage side early years is reflected in the names of the vineyard’s wines. The list is a mouth-watering read – Cantata (focused palate of concentrated sweet berries and spice) High Note (sophisticated nose of violets and blackberry). Limelight Riesling (aromas of lemon lime sorbet with notes of apple and cinnamon) Before leaving we redeemed our $10 tasting fee against a case of this.
The mist lifted on bright sunshine and a cloudless sky, as we followed the lakeside path, across the stony river terraces, through vineyards and farmyards to Aurum wines.
Aurum is a family affair. It was started in 1997 by Tony and Joan Lawrence. In 2004, their son Brook and his French wife Lucie joined the team and in 2006, Aurum produced its first vintage.
Lucie, a third-generation winemaker, trained as oenologist at Dijon University. She met Brook when they were trainees at Domaine d’Arlot in Nuit St Georges in Burgundy. Now she’s Aurum’s principal wine maker while Brook looks after the viticultural management of the estate. Aurum’s reserve wines are named after the couple’s daughters, Mathilde and Madeleine.
The Aurum tasting room is located in quaint little cottage in a country garden, shaded by an old-man walnut tree and bordered with natives. It overlooks a grove of Tuscan olives. We began our tasting with the famous Aurum Amber wine. This was a new discovery for me and a delicious one. I followed with the Mathilde Pinot Noir and finished with the Madeleine Pinot Noir.
It would have been easy to while away the afternoon on the sunny verandah, but we had two more wineries to visit and more tasting to do.
Across State Highway 6, high on a steep hill, Scott Base commands a spectacular view of Cromwell, the lake, the vineyards and the Pisa Range.
Established in 1994 as Mt Michael Vineyards, it was acquired by Allan Scott Family winemakers in 2007 and re-named Scott Base. The family donates a percentage of Scott Base wine sales to the Antarctic Heritage Trust which curates Scott Base, Antarctica. They also provide wines to Trust events and activities.
Space at the Base is a cosy and relaxed tasting room, nestled into the lee of the hill. The views are mesmerising. Space at the Base offers a delicious platter of local cheeses, bread, olives and grapes, to accompany wines from the Scott Bass as well as the Alan Scott vineyards. They also offer a selection of craft beers from Moa Beer which was founded by Allan Scott’s son, Josh.
The shadows were lengthening as we re-crossed Highway six and wound around the vineyards to
Wooing Tree Winery.
Wooing Tree Winery takes it named from a famous Cromwell landmark, where since the very early days, sweethearts have sat, whispering sweet nothings and watching the sun go down. It is a popular place for proposals and now for weddings.
Wooing Tree Winery is a family owned and run business. Stephen and Thea Farquharson along with Stephen’s sister and brother-in-law, Jane and Geoff Bews are all committed to producing top quality grapes and wine.
Originally from Central Otago farming families, they did their O.E. in the UK and Switzerland from1998 to 2004. While there, Steve studied viticulture, winemaking, the wine trade and WSET Diploma in Wine at Plumpton College. He then set up a wine import company, Extreme Wines, selling wine in the UK from 2003 to 2004. Jane also studied viticulture at Plumpton College. They all came back to Cromwell to run the vineyard at the end of 2004 in time for their first vintage in 2005.
The Wooing Tree, tasting room is light and spacious, again, it overlooks a beautiful garden setting with views over the vineyards. A taste of 2018, Beetlejuice Pinot Noir followed by a 2017 Pinot Gris, while listening Jane Bews tell the Wooing Tree’s story made the perfect finale to the Four Barrels Wine Walk.
Returning to her native Dubai in 2010, after 9 years in the US, Arva Ahmed “felt like a stranger”. The city had “exploded” and her old neighbourhood had been left behind, its stories swept aside in the race for bigger, better, newer.
As a way of re-discovering the places she remembered from her childhood and highlighting the simpler side of the city’s story, Ahmed started a blog. Using food as the connecting thread, she wrote about restaurants “that were hidden away, off the beaten track, serving dishes that didn’t pretend to be anything more than they were”.
The blog was highly successful. Still, after a couple of years, it wasn’t enough. Now, Ahmed wanted her readers to experience that food and those places for themselves. She wanted to take them on a first-hand food adventure. Selecting restaurants that could weave into the narrative of old Dubai and choosing dishes for their significance and their stories, as well as their consistency and unique tastes, she launched Frying Pan Adventures.
Recently, with my Dubai family, I joined Frying Pan Adventures Middle Eastern Food Tour.
We meet Arva outside the Metro Station in Deira. This is her patch. On an adjacent corner is the apartment building where she grew up, then settled again when she married. Staying in a Dubai Hotel and Resort understandably gives her the impression that she is now a guest in a place she once considered home.
Armed with tour bags (water, headphones and hairnets) we turn down a side street. Our first stop is on Murraqqabat Street. In the tiny falafel shop we peer into the kitchen and watch the chefs turn out plain falafel (chickpea fritters with coriander and parsley) and falafel mahshi (stuffed with shatta or chilli paste, sumac spice and onions). Then, at street-side table, we stuff pita bread with falafel, foul (slow-cooked fava beans) hummus with tatbeela (green capsicum, garlic and lemon sauce) thoom (garlic aioli) and pickles. This is typical, simple Dubai street food, Arva explains. It’s the kind of food she ate as a child, on Friday family outings, in this type of place, on a street like this. For Palestinian Dubai, it’s a taste of home. What, Arva asks, is the taste of home for each of us? From Sauerkraut to Lasagne, from Yorkshire Pudding to Pumpkin Pie, from Hagis to Hangi and humble mince on toast, each dish holds a story. There’s food for reflection here but it’s time to pull on hairnets and head into the blaze of light across the pavement.
We find ourselves in a local Palestinian institution famous for its sweets, cakes and desserts, including the iconic Kunafa. This sweet cheese pie is said to date back to 10th century Palestine, where it was prescribed by doctors to stave off hunger during Ramadan. It is still a Ramadan dish and as we discover, the ultimate hunger-buster. Chef Abu Ramzan welcomes us into the kitchen. He earned his kunafa stripes in Jordan’s premier patisserie-confiserie. He earned his name, which means father of Ramzan, on the recent birth of his son, Ramzan. Tossing ghee, Nabulsi cheese and kataifi noodles, rosewater and nuts onto a hot plate, Abu Ramzan spins them into an aromatic, sizzling kunafa. The only way to eat it, Arva claims, is hot off the hob. She’s right! It explodes in the mouth – stringy, sticky, crunchy, creamy, sweet and tangy!
We set off again, further along Murraqqabat Street. Every year, since it all began in 1996, visitors stream through here, spending millions at the Dubai Shopping Festival. Even now, on this working week evening, it’s buzzing. Among the crowds and the noise, the Lebanese sweets shop is an oasis of calm. Sitting in a circle we learn the secrets of Gahwa (Arabic coffee with cardamom) Don’t fill the cup to the brim! Shake it for a refill! Had enough? – hand on cup! There’s Ma’amoul madh (spiced date bar) with ‘natef’ (cream made from soapwart roots) and bukaj (knapsack-shaped baklava) to eat, or, for the faint-hearted, to take away.
Weaving through back streets, past neighbourhood cafes, brightly-lit barbers’ shops and shrouded beauty salons, we arrive at an Egyptian Pizzeria, on Al Riqqa Road, in the shadow of the Riqqa Mosque. We crowd around the counter to eat. This is pizza, but not exactly as I know it. There is a familiar yeasty crust. But then, there’s feteer with basturma (beef pastrami), aged Egyptian roomi cheese and spicy shatta sauce – the tastes of Egypt.
Our next experience takes us to Iraq, and the restaurant, with Deira Clocktower at its shoulder, seems another country, in another age. Wall-hangings and screens show scenes of ancient Iraq. We sit on high-backed, carved chairs while waiters in formal dress serve tanoor bread, amba (mango pickle) tomatoes, onions with sumac (sour berry spice) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves) The centrepiece is Iraqi Masgouf, the traditional dish of slow-smoked carp-like fish, glazed with pomegranate molasses. Described as the ‘taste of freedom’, Masgouf recalls a vanished time in old Baghdad. Then, restaurants, just like this one, lined the banks of the Tigris. Fish were pulled from the river and cooked fresh. Waiting for meals, just like ours, diners sipped Araq and watched the boats glide by, while in the twilight, young girls and boys stole secret glances. It was a time of peace.
Our last stop is at an Iranian sweets shop in Riqqa Al Buteen Plaza in Maktoum Street. Among the bins of fragrant spices, nuts and dried fruits, we taste our final dish – Faloodeh (icy sweetened noodles with rosewater and lemon juice) and saffron ice cream. Arva hands out awards (eating one’s way across five countries is after all, no mean feat) with a last question for each of us. What was our favourite dish? For me, it was Masgouf, not just for the taste but for its story and for the nostalgic ambience of the restaurant.
When she started Frying Pan Adventures, Arva Ahmed “wanted to show that while you could sip the most expensive cocktail on earth, in a glitzy bar, in the world’s tallest tower at one end of Dubai, you could also enjoy a simple, but exotic meal in a modest street-side café at the other”. She does more than this, though. She takes you into her Dubai and brings its streets, its cultures, its people and its stories to life.
The high point of our visit to the
beautiful little seaside village of Akaroa in Aotearoa New Zealand last
January, was our stay at Beaufort House luxury BB.
Built in 1878 by English Barrister, George Nalder and his wife Mariane, Beaufort House was originally named The Wilderness, because of its location on an untamed hillside in the, then, remote Grehan Valley. In their “wilderness” the Nalders constructed a grand house of native timbers – totara, rimu, matai and kauri – complete with servants’ quarters tucked away further up the hillside. They surrounded it with magnificent gardens and trees, roses, camelies, magnolias and a Bunya Bunya or Monkey Puzzle.
In late 2012, the current owners,
Sharon Rees-Thomas and Noel McGuigan, bought Wilderness House. At the heart of 21st century
Akaroa, it is no longer a wilderness but a carefully tended one-acre garden
with lush lawns and flower beds. A boutique vineyard slopes across a hill
behind the house and birdsong echoes through the tall, leafy trees.
Although Sharon and Noel have renamed The Wilderness as Beaufort House, they have carefully preserved its story in the antique furnishings and in the names of the five guest bedrooms.
The Nalder Room was named, of course, after George
Nalder. His keen interest in Botany and Ornithology is reflected in the décor.
Through the window you can see the monkey puzzle tree, the magnolia grandiflora
and the cornus he planted 135 years ago.
The Shepherd Room recalls Wilderness House’s
second owners – Constable and Mrs Shepherd. This room has its own
private balcony, which gets the first of the morning sun all year round.
The Fyfe Room remembers the Fyfe sisters who
ran Wilderness House as a boarding establishment in the mid-19th Century. From
this charming corner room, you can see all the way down to Children’s Bay and
the surrounding valley.
The Walker room is named after the Walker family who owned the house in the late 20th Century. In their time, extensive renovations were completed and the vineyard came into its own. The spacious bathroom, looks out, fittingly, over the vineyard.
The latest addition to Beaufort House, the ground floor Beaufort Room, is furnished with an antique French Queen size bed, a chandelier and overhead reading lamp, complete with an authentic tassel-pull cord.
Beaufort House is stunning in every way. It’s
a grand old house, gleaming with gorgeous native timbers. The furnishings and
the décor are perfect. The rooms are comfortable and cosy, with immaculate
bathrooms stocked with delicious toiletries. In every corner of the property there
is something beautiful to behold.
What makes Beaufort House truly special though, is its delightful hosts. After years of masterminding weddings, cocktail parties, corporate lunches and special events in their Christchurch restaurant, Noel and Sharon are experts at hospitality. No detail is spared to make their guests’ stay memorable.
Despite the practical demands of this busy B&B, Sharon and Noel are always up for a chat. Both have interesting stories. Sharon worked for many years for a prominent telecommunications company, while Noel travelled to numerous exotic destinations as senior driller in the offshore oil industry. Past businesses include a 500-acre farm and a ski and snowboard rental shop. Noel is also the proud owner of a 40’ Beneteau yacht named ‘Roaring Meg’ and a veteran of many ocean voyages.
An early evening aperitif is a Beaufort House tradition. So, after an afternoon exploring Akaroa village, a nap in the sunny Walker Room and a soak in the bath with its vista over the vines, we joined Sharon, Noel and our fellow guests on the sunny terrace in front of the house to enjoy an antipasto platter with a glass of Beaufort House Chardonnay.
In the morning, we all met again for breakfast in the dining room, at a huge round table set with antique china, glassware and silver. Much of the produce served at Beaufort House is home grown in the kitchen garden or sourced locally. It includes fresh juices, cereals (including Sharon’s home toasted muesli) seasonal fruit and natural yoghurt, Noel’s country breakfast (bacon, eggs, tomatoes, sausages …) freshly baked croissants (bien sûr, in this former French settlement!) with homemade jams, along with freshly ground coffee and wide selection of teas.
one-night stay at Beaufort House was all too brief, but we’ll be back,
It’s nice to know, too, that this grand old house is protected by the local Council as a notable
historic Akaroa building and the Nalders’ Monkey Puzzle tree is protected as a
notable Akaroa landmark.
Akaroa, on Banks peninsula, in Aotearoa New Zealand’s South Island, has a superb setting, a fascinating bi-cultural history, quaint colonial architecture, a great ambiance and a small, artistic, welcoming population that seems dedicated to preserving and sharing all four.
The township sits at the edge of a long, deep harbour, in the shelter of steep, gold and dark green hills. Against them the sea is luminescent turquoise. The long view from the summit road overlooking the town is one of the country’s best and most memorable.
Akaroa’s human history begins some 800 years ago, with the arrival of the great fleet from Hawaiki. The first Iwi, or tribe, to settle here were Waitaha, followed later by Ngati Mamoe and later still, in the 17th century, by Ngai Tahu. The hilltops are still traced with the terraces of ancient pas. Modern settlements, Marae and churches now stand on the sites of ancient villages and the descendants of those first Iwi still live, meet and worship there.
By the 1830s, Akaroa had become a European whaling centre. Then, in 1838, with a view to establishing a French colony, Captain Jean Langlois negotiated a land deal with the local Iwi and set sail for France to seek funds and to recruit settlers. By the time he returned, the Treaty of Waitangi had been signed, the Union Jack was flying from the hilltop and the land deal was declared invalid. Nonetheless, the French stayed and Akaroa village became Aotearoa New Zealand’s little patch of France. It still is and many of the descendants of those first French settlers still live in the district. French family, and first names, are common here.
To learn more about the history of the area, visit the Akaroa Museum. Both the displays and the film, shown in the Courthouse theatre next door, give an excellent overview. Be sure too, to take a drive to the Maori and Colonial Museum at historic Okains Bay.
To steep yourself in the ambiance of Akaroa, take a stroll through the streets – or rather, rues and chemins – past charming colonial houses with tall, narrow windows and tiny front gardens, blooming with the daisies, hydrangeas and roses typical of the south of France. Study the French signage! Browse in the shops, check out the local produce, the antiques, the crafts and the art. Stop for a coffee or a meal in one of the town’s cafes and restaurants français. Explore the old French Cemetery. Light a candle at historic St Patrick’s Church. Head out to the wharf for a magnificent harbour view and with a bit of luck you’ll see a cruise ship sail in or out.
To experience truly outstanding and unforgettable Akaroa hospitality, stay at beautiful Beaufort House.
It’s late afternoon. The sun slants across the dunes, throwing long shadows behind the sparse desert grasses. Everywhere there is sand, vast rolling hills of it, ridged and scored as if by the sweep of an invisible tide.
We’re in a caravan of white Toyota land-cruisers. I’m wedged into the centre of the back seat, thrust backwards as the vehicle strains towards the top of a ridge, then hurled forward as it tilts over the crest, rolls sideways and plunges down. There are screams and expletives from my travelling companions. I’m mute with terror.
In the driver’s seat, Ramzan is po-faced and silent behind his sunglasses. With one hand on the wheel, he steers us up and down the dunes. Ed Sheerin’s In Love With The Shape Of You blasts from a speaker behind me.
I’m light years from my comfort zone, heading into the Arabian night, location – desert wilderness, destination – a camp somewhere out there in the dunes, distance – unknown. I’m alone with my language, cut off from my culture, far from anything familiar. My only means of communication is an eye roll, a scream, a gasp. This is travel adventure, I think
Just an hour ago, Ramzan picked us up from our hotel. We sped down the freeway, through the sprawling outer fringes of Dubal, past scattered enclaves and occasional lone houses. We pulled in at a busy general store, the last outpost before the desert. My fellow passengers robed up – black abayas for the ladies, white robes for the men, checked headscarves for both. Later, standing on a dune, with my shoes full of sand, the sun burning through my city active-wear and my hair whipped into stringy threads by the scorching desert wind, I wish I had too.
We pass camel farms, flimsy fences in the middle of nowhere and flat-roofed huts, but apart from us, there’s not another human in sight.
With a sense of regret and relief we roll into camp. There’s a faded, sand-blasted look to it, but within its walls there’s shelter from the wind, shady corners and cool shadowy rooms. There’s a stand with cold drinks and tea. I make a beeline for it. Nearby a white-robed man is preparing shisha. I try that too. Next, I line up to hold a hooded falcon. Its wrinkled feet curl around my arm.
Outside the walls there are more adventures; quad-biking, camel rides and sand surfing. I watch two bikers disappear in shower of spraying sand. I opt for a camel ride. It groans when it feels my 56 kilos on its back, staggers protesting to its feet and moans loudly as it takes a short circle around the carpark. I swear it gives an extra forward lurch as I dismount. I head over the dunes to check out the sand surfing.
The sun is setting now and an orange glow filters up from the horizon. Back inside, I sink onto the cushions at my stage-side table. On the left a couple of white-robed men giggle like schoolboys at the halfway point of a wine-bottle while their black-robed wives twitch and fidget over cans of red-bull. On the right a gang of lads in checked headscarves drag with concentration on sheesha and survey the scene through cool, narrowed eyes.
We cue up for dinner – ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. After the parched, monochrome desert landscape, the brightly-coloured dishes on the buffet (tabouleh, cucumber with yoghurt couscous, chicpea and rice, curries and kebabs, chicken, fish and lamb) are a welcome sight.
Night falls. There’s a bright orange moon overhead and a scattering of stars in the dark sky. It’s showtime. To the beat of urgent drums and the clash of cymbals, a young man in heavy embroidered skirts whirls onto the stage. His skirts separate into layers. They light up. He peels them off layer by layer, revealing more and more with brighter and brighter lights, all the time spinning faster and faster on the spot, a master of control and balance. Later, he invites a trio of ladies to give the skirts a whirl. Their clumsy attempts highlight his mastery of the art. The music changes. A belly-dancer takes the stage. We all love a belly-dancer. There’s something surprising and delightful about her exposed flesh and sinuous movements in this modest culture. She shows her skill but doesn’t seek to flaunt it against the audience’s efforts. Thank goodness!
The evening is over. The moon throws silver light across the car-park. Ramzan is waiting, a dark silhouette against his white Toyota. ‘Are we going on the dunes again?” ventures a timid voice. “Show us your night-driving skills” says a bolder one. But Ramzan is giving nothing away as he rolls out of camp. I must confess to a tinge disappointment when we turn onto a straight, sealed highway and speed towards Dubai’s distant glow.
The desert safari is a quintessential Dubai experience. Do it with Arabian Nights.
This post is dedicated to Gerard Moore Junior (taku tama arohaina) whose generosity took me to the top.
From a distance, Burj Khalifa is alarmingly fragile. Up close it’s terrifyingly tall. At night, it’s a slender silhouette of gold light against the ink-black sky. In the daytime, it cuts like a giant blade of steel and glass into the blue.
For a while, I admired this stellar centrepiece of downtown Dubai from below. But, as mountains are to adventurers, so are towers to travellers. They compel us to climb them. From the Eureka to the Eiffel, I’ve conquered a few. In the end, I had to do the Burj Khalifa too.
Yet, I was nervous, as I waited with my fellow travellers for the At The Top Sky tour to the Burj Khalifa’s 148th floor. The couches, cushions, potted palms, Arabian coffee and platters of dates in the SKY Lounge did nothing to dispel the disturbing pictures haunting my thoughts. In one I was stranded in a lifeless elevator, deep in the burj’s concrete core. In another I clung to a flimsy ledge that tilted slowly into space. Was Burj Khalifa, a tower too many, too high?
Still, when the time came, I put my fears aside and followed our guide, Ahmed, into one of the burj’s 57 elevators.
As we soared skywards at an ear-popping 65 kilometers per hour, with the urgent drums of the Burj Khalifa’s dedicated elevator music beating ever faster, images of tall city landmarks streamed past.
Somewhere, up beyond the very tallest of them, we stopped for the Burj Khalifa’s story. It’s a bold tale and Ahmed told it with righteous pride. It began with a big dream – of a mighty burj, or tower, that would stand as an emblem of Dubai and as an iconic landmark to the world.
12,000 people, of 196 nationalities,from 149 countries, came together to build the dream. Chicago architect Adrian Smith designed it, taking inspiration from the ancient towers of Islam and the desert flower, hymenocallis, or spider lily. In 2004, construction began. 6 years, 22 million man-hoursand 1.5 billion dollars later, it was completed. At 828 metres, the Burj Dubai was the world’s tallest building. On January 4, 2010, it opened, re-named as the Burj Khalifa, in honour of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE. That same year, it won the World Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat’s Global Icon Award. The dream had come true.
Now, here I was at the heart of that global icon, surrounded by world wonders. I was at the centre of the largest vertical city on earth, home to the world’s highest nightclub, library and mosque. I was heading for the highest outdoor viewing platform on the planet, 555 metres from the ground.
With the music winding to a crescendo and with outlandish feats of celebrity daring playing out on the elevator walls, we soared up again. I stared, mesmerised and horrified, as a grinning Tom Cruise flapped around the burj’s spire while Spiderman inched up its sheer glass walls.
The lift delivered us to an oasis of quiet, calm, and stillness. There was soothing orchestral music. There were flowers. There were waiters with trays of drinks and petit fours. There were smiling hostesses to guide us around. There was soft carpet patterned with rippling sand. There were armchairs beside tall windows which curved out into the sky.
I sat and looked down. Below, Dubai fell into patterns. Buildings shaped into cylinders. City blocks formed squares, rectangles and triangles. Roads curved and cut between them, curled into petals and pointed in parallel rows towards the horizon. Parks and gardens became bands and circles of green. Ponds, pools and streams turned into oblongs, ovals and wriggling snakes of blue. Then, defying the order of the built city, there were patches of parched dirt – some etched with the beginnings of future construction, others just fragments of desert.
On the world’s highest viewing platform, safe behind a solid glass wall, I stood in the sky. I felt rushes of fear and exhilaration, of arrogance and awe. I could see all the way across the desert to the end of the earth. I could see where the sea dissolved into the sky. Below, the city was tiny and fragile. People were slow-moving specks. Big words, like omniscient and omnipotent came to mind.
In a dark theatrette, I waved my hand through a tube of light and watched myself take flight on giant screen. Launching from the burj’s spire, I glided through space, circling around landmarks, swooping over rooftops, between buildings, through windows, into shops and houses, into the everyday lives of old Dubai. I peered over the shoulders of men smoking shisha and women stirring pots. I chased after children in the streets. Now I really felt superhuman.
I could have lingered on high forever, in this rarefied state, but in truth, I’m a mere mortal. I belong on earth. I need the noise, the sun and the warm air below.
“Leaving already?” asked the hostess at the elevator. I’d been there for hours but she seemed sorry to see me go.
Down on level 124 I was back in the busy real world. I was swept from the lift into a photo studio. There was a flash. Minutes later, a picture showed me smiling foolishly from a beam on the half-built burj. I joined the memorabilia hunters in the souvenir shop. Among mugs and key rings, I found something new and slightly unnerving – leftover burj bolts. I circled the deck. Below, the neat patterns of Dubai had disappeared.
One swift, silent elevator and a long, slow escalator took me down to earth.
I wandered alone in the quiet ground floor gallery where the At The Top Sky experience ends. Here, interactive stations tell the stories of the people who built the Burj Khalifa.
It’s a perfect finale. It is fitting that the last words on the greatest project in human history should come from the architects, engineers, contractors, artists, tradespeople, craftspeople and labourers who worked on it, shaping 330 cubic metres of concrete, 31,400 metric tons of steel, 103, 000 square metres of glass and 15, 500 square metres of embossed stainless steel into the world’s most iconic tower.
Cost of the At The Top Sky Tour – 500 dirhams. Value – priceless.
Oamaru’s Victorian Precinct is full of wonderful surprises. Every time I visit I discover another. My most recent and, to date, my most wonderful find was Home Gallery Fine Arts and Living on the top floor of a former grain store, overlooking the old harbour.
I have some beautiful memories of Art Galleries. They’re memories not just of treasures but of amazing spaces and extra-ordinary vistas. I remember the Tate Modern as much for the view of the Thames, the millennium bridge that spans it, and the dome of Old St Paul’s against the sky behind it, as I do for Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. I remember the azure sea framed in the deep, white stone windows of the Picasso museum at Antibes as well as the great works it houses.
Like the Picasso Museum in Antibes, Oamaru’s Home Gallery is a memorable space. Just like the Picasso House, it’s not a purpose-built space, but a space that has been re-purposed. Just as Picasso’s sea-side villa became a showcase for the master’s works, so this old grain store has become a showcase for New Zealand artists. In the Picasso Museum works of art are scattered through living rooms and courtyards. In Home Gallery paintings hang on the limestone walls where once sacks of grain leaned. A display of Persian rugs lies scattered across a work-worn wooden floor. Like the Picasso Museum, Home Gallery has spectacular windows with unforgettable views. They’re tall, broad and arched at the top like church windows and set in aged limestone walls. They look out across the Pacific Ocean , Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, with its warm, turquoise light.
Home Gallery is clearly still an old grain store. Light streams in from skylights and through the cracks in the double loading doors at the far end of the room. The ceiling is crisscrossed with heavy beams. The old conveyer that once hauled heavy sacks through the building sits still in the centre of the room. There’s a lingering smell of wheat and hessian. It isn’t hard to picture people at work here – the thud of grain-sacks and the creak of pulleys. It must have taken imagination and vision to see it as showcase for art – imagination, vision and a great deal of hard work.
Home Gallery of fine arts was established by artist/ photographer Lucy Gardner in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes. The devastation of the city had left artists without spaces to show their works and the local community without places to engage with art. Home Gallery was a new beginning ‘inspired and driven to help create places to deliver art for local community to engage with and provide audiences for investing in artists’ work’.
This inspiration and drive no doubt sustained Lucy Gardner, through the mammoth task of transforming the old grain store into a gallery. For weeks, she says, she spent all day, every day, scrubbing the beams and freeing the skylights of dust and cobwebs, cleaning the windows and walls of dirt and grime and sweeping debris from the floor.
Now Home Gallery is a clean, light, quiet and restful place – a perfect backdrop for some beautiful works of art. They include pieces by significant New Zealand artists, from Beatrix Dobie to Charles Worsley as well as photographs by Lucy Gardner herself. Standouts for me were; Blair Grieg’s moody, misty oils which capture Aotearoa’s unique landscapes and singular light; Brian Strong’s Profiles of the West and The Summer Front with their glimpses of bush, waterfalls, tranquil bays and brooding skies; Lisa Wisse’s clair/obsur A Timeless Land where the light traces a path across the sea between dark hills and islands to the sky; and Lucy Gardner’s band and club life photos.
I have just finished reading Ariana Huffington’s Thrive. Among the “pillars” she sees as essential to thriving is a sense of wonder – the kind of feeling inspired by works of art, views and nature.
Home Gallery offers many wonders – the windows in those limestone walls, framing the Pacific ocean; the old grain-store – a piece of Oamaru’s past; and most of all, those wonderful works of art with their insights into Aotearoa New Zealand and the way we see it.
If you can’t drop into Home Gallery Fine Arts and Living to enjoy its wonders (but it’s worthwhile making the effort to do so) then visit www.homegalleryfinearts.com
It’s WOW, or World of Wearable Art, time in Wellington.
Every year in September, in Wellington, New Zealand’s cool little capital, designers from all over the world unleash their creativity in this extraordinary competition where art, in every expression and material meets fashion in all its forms. Competitors vie for over 150,00 dollars worth of prizes. The most coveted reward of all though is an internship in creative Nirvana, Weta Workshop.
WOW draws international costume designers and their creations (some of Madonna’s unforgettable garments are on display this year) as well as established locals and their works. It also brings complete unknowns and absolute design novices of all ages and from all walks of life, into the spotlight. The competition’s history is rich with heart-warming stories of the “little people” who have taken to the WOW stage – like the middle-aged commercial cleaner who dreamed up a stunning plastic frock worthy of a Disney Cinderella.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Wellington for the main event but I was there for the build up. Wellington is a place accustomed to thinking the outside the square. It has carved serpentine roads into vertical hillsides, planted elaborate houses on slivers of cliff, underpinned precious public buildings with rubber foundations to withstand earthquakes, built a hive for MPs then called it the Beehive and created an edgy, layered fashion look to defend against gale-force winds and sideways rain. So I wasn’t surprised to find that Wellington had come with an innovative way to advertise and preview the wonderful WOW experience.
Pink cubes, called treasure boxes, with multi-level and multi-sized peepholes, all around the city, provided glimpses of wearable art from WOW festivals past. I spent my day in Wellington, running like a Pokemon gamester, defying traffic hazards, short-cutting through shops and offices, hot on the treasure box trail. Fixing my eye, then my camera, to the average-level peephole, I enjoyed my very own WOW experience and brought away WOW memories to share.