Dubai: What a desert safari is like
When I made plans to visit my parents in the Middle East, I picked up a February 2007 issue of Budget Travel to read its feature on Dubai ("Just Add Money"). The writer claimed that the country’s popular desert safaris were…well…lame. But I wanted to do one anyway.
Aside from lizards and camels, you won’t see many animals. In essence, a desert safari involves a jeep drive through enormous mounds of sand (called "dune-bashing"), and a stop at a campsite where you’ll have the opportunity to ride camels, get henna tattoos and be entertained by a belly dancer during dinner.
The real draws are the ride and subsequent view. When we got in the car, our driver and guide from Desert Link (011-971/4-283-0504, desertlinkdubai.com) advised us to fasten our seatbelts. As we started barreling through the dunes, at points on the brink of teetering over, Jasim sat sans seatbelt, fiddling with the radio. A guy in our jeep dubbed him "the Master" as he fearlessly drove us through peaks and valleys.
Around us, there were miles of sleek fiery orange hills, only crumpled by the tracks of our predecessors. It was thrilling, albeit slightly dangerous. After about 20 minutes, our pack of eight jeeps stopped to watch the sunset. A group of American college kids had brought snowboards and immediately started jetting down the dunes. I knew the $60 was worth it.
Desert Link runs half-day and overnight safaris, but the half-day is more than enough time; you’ll even get to stargaze after dinner. Other operators include Net Tours (011-971/4-266-8661, nettoursdubai.com) and Orient Tours (011-971/4-282-8238, orienttours.co.ae).
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This Weekend: A new park in Washington State
Cama Beach State Park on Camano Island, about a 90-minute drive from Seattle, will open this Saturday. The 433-acre area is the first state park in Washington in more than a decade. The entire project took 18 years and $35 million; the land was once used for logging and was a fishing resort for about 50 years. In addition to typical activities—picnicking, hiking, and fishing— the newest attraction the park is offering is overnight accommodations in 31 restored cabins along the waterfront. The experience is straight out of 1930s, at the height of the resort's popularity. Think small, quaint porches, rocking chairs, and handmade quilts. The park opening has caused such a stir that the cabins are booked through October. The opening will be from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, June 21, and is free to the public. The park is located at 1880 S. West Camano Drive, Camano Island. For information or reservations, call 360/387-1550.
This Weekend: Pause for the Pledge of Allegiance
Dig out your American flag and fly it high this weekend; Saturday is Flag Day. To celebrate, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Md., is holding the 29th annual National Pause for the Pledge of Allegiance. At 7 p.m. ET, organizers ask that you put down your hot dog, take off your hat, and say the pledge. Fort McHenry will celebrate with singing and dancing performances, speeches, and a wreath-placing memorial. And cap off the evening with another great American tradition: fireworks. Entrance fees to the park are $7 for adults; kids are free. (nps.gov/fomc) For other things to do this weekend, see our Family Travel ideas.
Where's your family headed?
School's out, the weather's warmed up, the pool's open—it must be summer. Families will head in droves to Orlando, the Grand Canyon, a national park, or the beach. Is your family headed to one of these tried-and-true destinations, or is this your year to do something different? In short: What are your family's travel plans this summer? Just back? Share your family story with us at my Budget Travel, like user amyem, who wrote about her whirlwind trip to London and Paris with her three kids—including her four-year-old!
Hotels: First Aloft opens in Montreal
After more than a year of hyping its new lifestyle brand, Starwood unveiled the 136-room Aloft Montreal Airport last week. A reservation search turned up Internet-only rates of $107 ($109 CAD) for June 28 and July 4 and $156 ($159 CAD) for June 19. Aloft hotels will open later this year in Minneapolis, Minn.; Chicago O’Hare, Ill.; Philadelphia Airport, Pa.; Lexington, Mass.; Ontario/Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.; Rogers/Bentonville, Ark.; and Beijing, China, according to the Montreal press release. I got the inside scoop on the Aloft concept back in 2007, when I chatted with Ross Klein, then president of Starwood’s Luxury Brand Group (he just jumped ship to Hilton)… Klein credited guests of the company’s W hotels with the inspiration for Aloft. “We do a lot of events, and one of the things that kept coming up each year was ‘I live in X city and I know we’re not really big enough to have a W, but it sure would be fun,’” he said. Seeing an opening, Klein said the company set out to combine the hipness of W with lower room rates and a different location strategy. Most Aloft properties will be near corporate or college campuses, at airports, or slightly removed from major cities and tourist attractions. Instead of Boston, for instance, an Aloft will open in Lexington, Mass., this summer. Aloft hopes to attract W loyalists as well as point-to-point travelers looking for a more appealing place to stop for the night. “The landscape for roadside hotels was very polyester, very fluorescent, and anti-social,” said Klein. “Those things we heard from our guests were very anti-W, which is social, uses lots of natural materials, and has room products that are residential and have lots of personality.” To test the products for Aloft, the company went so far as to build two sample rooms and public spaces in a huge warehouse in Hawthorne, N.Y., where they experimented with layout, lighting, finishes, and music. The results: rooms with nine-foot ceilings, large windows, and platform beds, and a living-room-like lobby (complete with a pool table) that encourages hanging out. You can also expect hotel-wide Wi-Fi, a pool, a bar, and a 24-hour snack area. “We’re hoping to make memories along the way and make the select-serve hotel category memorable versus forgettable,” said Klein. MORE HIP HOTELS InterContinental’s Indigo and NYLO, whose first property opened in Plano, Tex., are two more chains catering to a style-conscious clientele. Read Brand News for details.