I realized recently that while I love writing and traveling, I don’t love writing about traveling. At least not exclusively. This blog was originally intended to be a journal of sorts to remember the travels we take as a family, particularly during our expat years. And while I still want it to include details of our trips here, I also want to open it up to include other information about our lives. I want to remember what this time in Abu Dhabi was like beyond just our travels.
While we are nearing the end of Tony’s initial 2 year work contract, we are not planning to move back to the USA this summer (we are visiting). About a year ago Tony and I began the “what if” conversations and decided that as long as he had the option, we wanted to extend our time here at least one more year. Planning beyond that is difficult, as much depends on how the next year goes. For now, the three of us are very happy here and the benefits to staying another year are clear — the continued opportunity to travel, save money, and have quality time together as a family. Tony remains very happy with his job and so will extend his contract for the 2017-2018 school year.
Matteo is doing well. He is enjoying his class at preK and has a “best friend” — a little boy from Peru who shares his love for superheroes. Tomorrow is his preK graduation ceremony, though the term continues through most of June. I’m not sure yet when Matteo will take his summer break — for now, I plan on him going as the time with the other children really benefits him. This boy — he is our pride and joy. He brings us so much happiness ever day of our lives and we feel so grateful that we get to be his parents.
In Abu Dhabi, children begin kindergarten when they are 4 (by September 1st). That means Matteo (my baby!) will be going to kindergarten in September. Kindergarten spots in Abu Dhabi are incredibly competitive, but we are happy that he has spots at two great schools. We are leaning towards one over the other, and will have to decide in the next week where we want to send him. Will share more information about that soon :).
We’re getting very excited for our summer travel plans. Tony has outdone himself in planning a summer packed full. Want to feel dizzy with me? Here’s a bulleted list of the places we will be visiting this summer (please don’t hate us):
Livonia and Traverse City, Michigan (USA! USA! USA!)
Cincinnati, Ohio (USA! USA! USA!)
A few more days in Helsinki (where Tony will be running his first marathon!)
Budapest, Hungary (we will pick up a rental car to road trip the rest of our time in Europe)
Ostrava, Czech Republic
Back to Budapest for our flight back to Abu Dhabi
I am equally excited and nervous for the summer ahead. I guess Tony decided that in case this is our last summer as expats, he needed to pack the travel list FULL. I’d say he succeeded.
So thats our brief update from Abu Dhabi. I hope we can see as many family/friends as possible when we’re in the USA this summer. More to come!
We are back home in Abu Dhabi after a really great travel day last week. On Thursday morning, Tony packed up and left Geneva for Paris. He booked our flights on points and for our return flight there was not reward availability for all three of us to book the direct flight Geneva to Abu Dhabi. Instead Tony booked two business class seats on that flight for Matteo and I, and then booked a three leg flight path for himself that would take him home by going Geneva back to Paris, then to Doha, Qatar where he would have a 7 hour layover before flying to Abu Dhabi on Qatar Airlines. Tony genuinely enjoys flying and had not yet flown on Qatar Airlines so he was excited for the chance to check it out — especially since he was able to book first class seats for the latter two legs of the trip.
Tony left in the morning, leaving Matteo and I the majority of the day to pack and relax. Our flight was at 8:30 pm, so there was no rush to get to the airport. Our Airbnb host kindly let us move check out from the default 11 am until 4 pm — which we greatly appreciated! We were lucky that there was not another guest scheduled to come in on the same day. I scheduled an Uber to pick us up from the apartment shortly after 4pm and Matteo and I made our way to Geneva International Airport.
The airport was very busy with holiday travelers, but we found the staff kind and professional. Because we were so early for our flight, we had to wait for about an hour before we could even get in line to check our suitcase with Etihad, but we passed the time as best we could. Matteo hung out in his stroller (we still love our City Mini!) and watched some downloaded episodes on his iPad while we waited. Once it hit 5:30, three hours before our flight, we were able to check in for our flight, make our way through security, and go to the lounge to wait. The lounge had light snacks and beverages, wifi, comfy chairs and bite sized swiss chocolates that kept Matteo happy while we waited.
When we got to our gate to board our flight, we were quickly called for boarding. Upon giving our boarding passes to be scanned, the Etihad employee asked me to step aside as they needed to print new boarding passes for us. I just reminded them that I was traveling with a minor and asked that they make sure our seats were together — he double checked the computer, smiled, and let me know that our seats were still together, but we were being upgraded from business class to first class.
I was so excited! I knew the flight wasn’t sold out, and even though I’ve heard of frequent fliers being upgraded before, I’d never experienced it for myself. This was a great flight for it too — I was flying by myself with a 4 year old, and it was an overnight flight where the added comfort meant a far better chance for sleep. When we boarded the plane, we excitedly checked out the first class cabin. Matteo and I definitely got some skeptical and worried looks from fellow first class passengers, and I totally understood as we all know that a small child can be a wild card on a flight. I was so proud, though, as he quickly showed his skills as a frequent flyer. He sat down, fastened his seatbelt, enjoyed a water and a cookie, and was asleep before the plane even took off.
I stayed awake longer than I would have had I not been seated in first class, but I wanted to experience it! The Etihad service is phenomenal — kind and attentive. They were so helpful with Matteo too. Noticing that he was already asleep, a flight attendant grabbed me right after take off (when the crew is up and moving, but passengers are required to remain seated) so that we could recline Matteo’s sleep in to the bed position and get his sheets and blankets right away. I thought that was so kind! It worked too — Matteo was asleep from before take off until I had to wake him upon descent in to Abu Dhabi airport.
Longer trips are definitely harder on Matteo now as compared to when he was younger. We arrived last Friday morning, and as I write this on Wednesday morning we are still struggling to get him in bed before 11 pm Abu Dhabi time — and we are only dealing with a 3 hour time change between here and Paris/Geneva. Thankfully, we still have until January 8th before Matteo has to go back to school, so there’s still time to adjust. Getting back in to the routine of school will be great for him — he is really missing his friends.
It is always nice to be home, but made even more so as we returned to Abu Dhabi at its prime season — lovely mild weather and tourists everywhere. To our family and friends who are/will/might consider a trip here — whether to visit us or not — this is the time of year to do it! It is gorgeous!
We don’t have any trips booked yet for 2017, but have some ideas we’re working through and will be excited to share them as they are booked. For now, we’re ready to enjoy January here in Abu Dhabi, and plan to do some activities here as we enjoy the city that will be bursting with tourists for the next few months.
Christmas vacation is here! That means we get to spend ten days in Paris and three in Geneva!
Before the vacation could begin though, we had to get to Paris. Fresh off of practically 24 hour travel days getting to/from Malaysia, I was so relieved that this time we would only have to deal with one direct flight Abu Dhabi to Paris. Utilizing our American Airlines points, Tony was able to secure Business Class seats for the 7.5 hour flight.
When booking an Etihad flight with American Airlines points, you don’t get to choose your seats and so while we ended up with two seats next to each other, the third seat was four rows up and on the opposite aisle. Up in row 8, Tony got to relax, sip champagne and watch movies while back in row 12 with Matteo, it took me 4 hours to get through a 1.5 hour long movie, and I ended up logging about 1,000 steps according to my Withings watch with only 2 steps between my seat and Matteo’s.
I kid, I kid. Honestly, Matteo was great on the flight, but he was busy; wanting/needing snacks, distractions, the iPad, his headphones, his batman toys, activity pack, stickers, all at different times and then back out again once I had put them all away. Oh well, he still does GREAT flying and for that we are so grateful.
We arrived in Paris at around 2 pm local time. Getting through passport control and collecting our bags was a piece of cake. My favorite part of flying business class with Etihad is their chauffeur service — a ride to/from the airport. By the time we left the airport in Paris, we were beginning to hit rush hour. It ended up taking almost 2 hours to get to our Airbnb apartment in the Opera district but we just got to sit back and relax.
The Airbnb we’re staying at is a first floor, 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We’ve been very pleased with the location. The only negative is that the washer/dryer isn’t working — which is a bummer as when packing as lightly as possible, we factored in being able to do laundry at the 2 Airbnbs we’re staying at on the front and back end of the trip. For what it’s worth, Matteo’s doing his part to lessen the dirty laundry pile by insisting on wearing the same superhero shirt for the last three days.
Each day, we choose a “big” attraction to see in the morning (when Matteo’s at his best) and then “secondary” sightseeing for the afternoon. So far we’ve been able to visit the Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, and we’ve taken a river cruise down the Seine as well as vintage shopping, visiting the Lego store, shopping at Galeries Lafayette, and browsing the shelves at the beautiful book store Shakespeare & Company.
The food we’ve sampled so far in Paris has been wonderful! One of the ways we save money when traveling is by only eating two meals a day (a late breakfast or early lunch + dinner) and thanks to the Airbnb, we’ve been able to grocery shop in order to avoid eating out every meal, but what we have had, we’ve enjoyed. Of note was a beautiful breakfast/brunch near the Sacre-Couer at a restaurant called Hardware Society. YUM. We’ve also indulged a bit in street food — there’s a crepe stand about a block away from our Airbnb. We also walked through the Christmas market at the Champs Elysees, and each sampled a treat along the way (Tony ordered mini pancakes with fresh strawberries, I had a beignet).
We are really enjoying our time in Paris so far. The good thing about being here for 10 days is knowing that we can take our time — our days don’t have to be packed from morning to night in order to see it all. And that slower pace is nice for Matteo too, who definitely needs a break now and then in order to stay happy as we travel (that, and a stready diet of Goldfish crackers and McDonald’s chicken nuggets).
Tomorrow we check out of the Airbnb and in to the Park Hyatt. It will be fun to get to see another Paris neighborhood and we know from experience that the Park Hyatt amenities will be second to none. I’ll be looking forward to sharing more of our trip over the coming week.
p.s. Thank you to Tony’s high school French teacher, wherever you are. He retained enough knoweldge from his two years of French to do quite nicely ordering food and asking simple questions. I am so impressed!
I am so behind recording our travels since this summer. Last I left off, I was writing about our time spent in the US — we spent several weeks in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio before leaving and stopping in Amsterdam on our way back to Abu Dhabi. While I still want to write about those trips, I want to record our Malaysia trip while its still fresh in my mind.
Tony read about the St. Regis in Langkawi, Malaysia while working on some travel hacking research. He searched the dates for time that he knew he would have off at the end of November/beginning of December for the UAE’s National Day. The rates for this 5 star property were dirt cheap and Tony was able to find a good deal on flights as well. The caveat on being that our travel day would have 3 legs both on the way there and back — Dubai to Doha then Doha to Kuala Lumpur and finally Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi.
Knowing my own limits and those of Matteo, I was hesitant to book simply because of the worry of that travel day. Typically, for shorter trips (week or less) we try to avoid complicated, long travel days, but this was one of those times when the opportunity presented itself and it felt like now or never — so we went for it.
The travel days were hard. I’ll state that clearly, right out front. We flew overnight, and while we slept better than we had over our summer economy overnight flights, it was still not enough rest. That said, the flights themselves (our first on Qatar Airlines) were as comfortable as you’re going to get in economy. Purely from a parent with a small child perspective, they were great — Matteo had a child’s meal provided quickly and it was food that he would actually eat (well, part of it) which was a first for us. They also had a great inflight entertainment selection and provided a Monopoly themed activity kit that we had so much fun with.
When we arrived in Langkawi, we were met right outside the luggage area by our driver and escort from the St. Regis resort. They showed us to the BMW 7 series that was waiting for us in the parking lot, complete with refreshing towels, cookies and chilled water. What a relaxing way to end a loooonnngggg overnight of travel. The drive to the resort was about 30 minutes. As soon as we pulled in to the St. Regis’ private driveway we began to enjoy the beauty of the resort.
As gorgeous as the St. Regis is, I admit that this was not a perfect trip. There were several hiccups at the beginning of our trip, things that are not becoming of a 5 star resort. Tony addressed his concerns with the property management though and they were eager to make things right, starting with upgrading our room to a pool suite.
We were disappointed in the weather while in Langkawi, as the rain and clouds prevented us from doing some of the items on our wish list. Still, we had a blast spending a day at the Wildlife Park — where Tony and I each had a parrot on our shoulders, and we fed birds straight from our hands. I wish I had photographs of this, but they would only allow their photography (which they then charged outrageously for prints) so just take my word it was neat!! Matteo in particular had SO much fun feeding the animals and learning about the displays.
The St. Regis’ sister property the Westin is right next door so one day we spent the morning over there, enjoying their pools and beach. They also had very cheap kayak rentals which Tony was able to enjoy. The Westin property wasn’t as new or lavish as the St. Regis but the property’s multiple pools and outdoor activities would make it a GREAT choice for families. The St. Regis definitely had more of a romantic feel, though there were several families with young children staying there.
Our room rate included two meals a day, breakfast and either lunch or dinner. With the time change, we tended to eat breakfast late in the morning and would then chose to eat dinner. We also had a $100 USD equivalency daily credit that we could spend on food or at the spa. Typically, we used it on drinks at the pool but the $100 credit was quite generous with the prices at the resort and we never spent the full amount.
This was our first trip to Asia. Some of our assumptions played out as expected — neither of us loved the more traditional food, which I know will cause some who enjoy Asian cuisine to want to throttle us, but we tried, I swear! The one thing that kept this trip from being a home run was honestly the weather, nothing we could control. Had we had sun and clear skies, the beauty of Langkawi would be unmatched. We’ve been so fortunate, on our travels, to have great weather. That streak had to end at some point. Matteo sure had a blast though. By the last day, he was begging us to live at the hotel!
Now we’re back in Abu Dhabi with just enough time to adjust back to this time change and prepare for our Christmas trip. We leave next week for Paris!
During the first weekend in May, Tony, Matteo and I packed up and made the 1.5 hour drive to Dubai for a long weekend spent at the Park Hyatt Dubai.
We love to stay at Hyatt properties because of our award status with the chain, which gives us extra benefits like suite upgrade when available, late check out, free breakfast, etc. This Dubai property followed in the footsteps of the other Park Hyatt properties we’ve stayed at, it was absolutely beautiful with fantastic service.
The property is spread out, with separate buildings attached by breezeways and walkways. Every square inch of the property was gorgeous — with the blue and white theme, and modern, luxurious furnishings leaving us saying “wow!” throughout our stay.
Upon check in, we were upgraded to a suite which meant that we had a large bedroom and a separate living area (where we could roll Matteo’s cot at night). Also of note? The gorgeous bathroom that featured a HUGE tub!
With several restaurants, a great pool, gym, and spa, we didn’t feel the need to leave the property for the duration of our weekend stay. Because it was Mother’s Day (US) weekend, Tony and Matteo surprised me with a morning at the spa where I received a wonderfully relaxing massage.
Our weekend was quiet and relaxing — the perfect preparation for the end of school year crawl that awaited us back in Abu Dhabi as we wait for our mid July summer break and the exciting line up of travels we have planned (UK > US > Netherlands).
We will definitely make plans to return to the Park Hyatt Dubai property for a future visit when we want to get away, but don’t have the time/inclination to leave the UAE. A great, relaxing weekend!
Abu Dhabi to London is neither a quick nor easy flight by most people’s standards with about 8 hours in flight time from runway to runway. It certainly seems out of the way to go for an extended weekend break. Thanks to the world of airlines miles and points traveling, though, this route can be a once in a lifetime experience on its own even without experiencing the destination. Having just returned from 4 nights in London, I can easily say that this trip served as a wonderful reminder of why we started earning miles and points and got into this travel hacking game in the first place.
For 40,000 American Airlines miles each way and about $350 in taxes I was able to find availability to experience the most luxurious and private cabin in air travel booking the Etihad A380 “apartment” in the sky en route to London to watch Chelsea take on Stoke City on March 5. My trip began Thursday morning with a 9:00 am departure and finished on Monday night with an 8:30 pm arrival back into Abu Dhabi from Heathrow. In between I was able to explore London, get a taste of a real winter, take in a Chelsea match, and take a day trip to Birmingham to visit some friends.
The travel expereince began early on Thursday morning as I was greeted with a chauffeur at my apartment, picking me up in an Audi A4 — this pick up service is complimentary for all premium cabin passengers traveling aboard Etihad. After a quick 10-minute ride to the airport, I was greeted curb side with a luggage porter who quickly grabbed my bags and escorted me to the private business/first class check in in Etihad’s dedicated Abu Dhabi Terminal. At the first class check-in counter there was at least a dozen agents in the lobby and I was the only guest. I was quickly greeted, offered a new boarding pass, and then escorted the 25 steps to a dedicated passport control agent. Before I knew it, I was past security and on my way to the Etihad premium lounge.
The lounge itself was large and fairly crowded, but there was plenty of space to stretch out, relax, and order an omlette. First class passengers were given a roped off area in the lounge offering more privacy and were also offered a complimentary treatment at the lounge’s Six Senses Massage facility — including the option of a haircut or shave in the barber shop. At 8:00 am, I made my way to enjoy a wet shave prior to boarding — I had a wonderfully close shave with a straight razor — and then headed a few hundred meters down to Gate 10 where passengers were already boarding.
Boarding the A380 was an unusual experience since it is a double decker plane; the premium cabin is on the upper deck and had a separate boarding gate from economy passengers. Aboard the plane there are 8 private apartments and one 3 room “residence” which comes with a personal butler. Of the 8 available apartments, 5 were occupied on my flight in addition to two passengers in the residence up front. Upon arriving in my booked apartment 3K, I was blown away at the amount of space and the beauty of the cabin. The color tone and designs worked perfectly together. The entire cabin was inspired by many of the design elements of Islamic architecture and the middle east that emphasize symmetry, patterns, and creative lighting. The apartment is designed to have a seating area, that faces a long bench which can be folded out into a bed (made up upon request). Additionally, there was a mini-fridge, a lit vanity, drawer for personal storage, personal coat closet, and 24” TV screen that rotates so it can be viewed while laying in bed or stays flush with the cabin wall for viewing while seated.
After taking in the beauty and luxury of the cabin, the flight crew came over one by one to introduce themselves and offer me a pre-flight drink. I ordered a cappuccino that came on a beautiful silver tray complete with dates, a hot towel, and a hand written welcome note from the crew leader on board. Shortly after I had my drink, the on board chef came by and went over the “on-demand” dining menu and I ordered an omlette to be served after takeoff along with a sparkling water. I was also given my choice of timings for taking a shower during the flight and booked an appointment for an hour before landing. As we reached cruising altitude I was served some tea, along with a dish of warmed almonds, cashews, and a few olives. My omlette was delivered to my apartment about 30 minutes after we reached cruising altitude and the dining experience was nothing short of five stars with a table cloth, fine china, and Etihad branded designer flatware.
After breakfast the table was cleared and I scrolled through the in flight entertainment which featured live TV and radio stations in addition to hundreds of on demand movies and television shows for streaming. The “E-box” selection was extensive and it included many new releases; during this flight I watched The Big Short and Apollo in addition to streaming BBC news and CNN international live. About 4 hours into the flight, I had the bed made up and decided to get in a little nap and test out the bed. The crew made up the bed ,outfitting the bench with a mattress pad, sheets and an additional pillow for sleeping. While they made up the bed I changed into my Etihad sleepwear which was handed out at the start of the flight. When I returned the bed was made up and I got a quick hour of sleep. I didn’t want to sleep too long since it was the middle of the day, but if this were a red-eye flight it would be easy to get hours of uninterrupted rest as I found the bed quite comfortable; it was on the firm side which is perfect for me.
After my brief nap, I ordered the salmon lunch which was delicious. Along with the Salmon I had a glass of Duval Leroy Brut Rose along with a glass of sparkling water. The salmon was phenomenal and the entire presentation was amazing again. After the salmon, I had a cheese tray along with a glass of 12 year Glenlivet. Shortly after lunch, I was given a towel and taken to the shower suite as it was time for my designated appointment. Last summer on our Amtrak trip from LA to Seattle, we had a shower in our train cabin, and while this shower was larger than the Amtrak option, it was not large by any means. The shower was a bit of a novelty but it was also quite refreshing to arrive in London showered and ready to explore the city. Though not large, the shower’s water pressure was good, the body wash and shampoo were terrific, the water was hot and the experience was memorable. After heading back to my apartment, I ordered a gin and tonic (of course) and settled in for the last 45 minutes or so of the flight.
The flight arrived in London early and by the time we were at the jet way it was about 12:15. All premium passengers were given fast track cards for passport control and this allowed me to breeze through the airport stopping only briefly at the passport counter and then waiting an additional 5 minutes for my checked bag to arrive. At Heathrow there was an Etihad counter with the chaffier driver’s ready to take passenger’s to their final destination and this was complimentary up to 100-mile radius of the airport (an additional charge for anything past 100 miles). My chauffer met me and escorted me to a beautiful BMW 7 series and we headed into London to my Airbnb in the Victoria neighborhood. It was about a 45 minutes ride with traffic and it was great to head straight to my destination without having to bother with the Heathrow Express into town.
By 1:00 pm I was at my destination and ready to begin the next leg of my weekend adventure in the UK. Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with every aspect of the flight and transfer in both Abu Dhabi and London. Etihad has really spared no expense or detail when it comes to their premium 1st class product. It was a memorable experience and it made me excited to try again in a few days time upon my return from London.
Last week the three of us made the drive up to the northern most emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, for a weekend away. We left quite quickly after Tony returned home from work on Thursday afternoon, hoping that by leaving early in the afternoon we could avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic near Dubai. We still encountered a fair amount of traffic getting through Dubai, but the rest of the drive was smooth sailing.
The purpose of the trip to RAK was for Tony to participate in his first official half marathon. I say first official half marathon because it is not unheard of for Tony to run this distance on one of his longer runs on weekends. The man is a strong runner! This race is known as “the fastest half marathon in the world” due to the flat course and typically ideal conditions. I’ll let Tony speak more about the race in a later post.
For our weekend away, we chose to stay at a Hilton property, the Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort. The property is very close to the architecturally lovely Waldorf Astoria, but rather than one large building full of rooms and suites, the Hilton Al Hamra has a series of smaller buildings housing rooms across the property. While we didn’t golf on this trip, there is an absolutely beautiful golf course surrounding the property. It seemed to be quite busy all day long and was clearly one of the biggest draws to this resort on this particular weekend.
The grounds of the hotel property were absolutely beautiful! We had an upgraded room in a small building housing about 8 total rooms, right on the beach. The paths around the property easily led us to the other amenities that were there to take advantage of — a lovely pool, children’s playground, outdoor refreshment stands, beach rentals, as well as the main hotel building that housed three restaurants, a coffee shop, concierge, and the spa.
Matteo has been to the beach before, but the easy access to the beach from our room on this trip made this trip extra fun for him. He loved picking up seashells to throw back in to the surf, playing in the surf, and running away from the waves as they broke on the beach.
The weather was cooler than what we’re used to, at highs in the low 70s, but the water wasn’t freezing so we were all comfortable wading in ankle deep and enjoying the sunshine. Evenings on the beach got quite cool (for desert acclimated people like ourselves) and the brisk wind was a change from the very warm winter we’ve been enjoying in Abu Dhabi.
Tony’s race was early on Friday morning (he crushed it) and he was back by late morning. Our preferred status with Hilton means that we enjoy a free breakfast at their properties, so when he returned the three of us went down to eat at the buffet breakfast in the main building. The breakfast selection was great, including a fresh egg station and even real pork bacon and sausage! Breakfast was packed at 10 am on Friday afternoon, but on Saturday we went early, at 8 am and enjoyed a largely empty dining room.
The hotel was in easy walking distance of a mall which meant that we could get a (less expensive) dinner just a walk away. We did indulge in room service for dinner on Friday night, which we both enjoyed as well.
On Friday afternoon, Tony surprised me by booking an appointment for me at the spa! I had a glorious massage and a manicure. The service at the spa was EXCELLENT. Perhaps the best spa experience I’ve ever had, or at least tied with my time at the Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi last year. It was an unexpected, and very appreciated, two hours of pampering spent all by myself in glorious quiet.
I was surprised at how lovely RAK was (I didn’t realize what a beautiful resort town it is), and at just over a two hour drive, I definitely think we will make a return trip in the future. If nothing else, we plan to be back next year for the half marathon again.