I’ve done Sri Lanka a fair few times before, but I’ve never headed inland toward Kandy. That’s where you’ll find Santani Wellness, a luxury health retreat.
This minimalist venue sits on an old tea plantation, nestled between rolling hills and rain-draped mountains. Getting there requires a four-hour flight from Dubai (we took FlyDubai, always cheap and cheerful), a five-hour drive up a mountain, and then a 10-minute tuk-tuk drive to the rooms. With each stage, the chaos of the world dropped away — until, at last, there was just nature.
Santani excels at nature. The rooms, all done in similar styles of four-poster beds and clean lines, have floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto massive balconies. There are two pools: one’s perched atop a hill for sunbathing; the other is tucked between slabs of grey stone, heated with natural salt water. The yoga shala and spa spaces are all open to the elements.
Technology is discouraged, which I think is pretty epic. You can get wifi in your room on request. Otherwise, laptops and mobile devices are best left at home.
When we went, there was loads of rain. But coming from Dubai it was refreshing, a charming chance to sit indoors with a book and a large mug of tea.
I’ll be writing about Santani quite a bit, I imagine, because it’s somewhere I’d definitely recommend. I’ll link the stories as I go along, so you can get a better feel for other elements. But basically, yes. I liked it a lot. It was gorgeous. It was green. It let me switch off. What more could a desert-living gal desire?
Do you want to do Dubai on the cheap?
If you’re not that bothered about doing the outdoorsy stuff (hot air balloon rides, desert safaris, walking around Marina, breathing outside…), then think about visiting Dubai in the summer.
Thanks to the overwhelming heat, the city grows quiet. Expats flee to cooler climes. Travellers don’t visit. And as a result, hotels slash their prices while adding in perks. There’s still plenty you can do (here’s looking at you, theme parks / Dubai Mall / underwater aquariums / Ski Dubai / reclining seats in movie theatres / a thousand other things). It’s just all indoors.
As for where to stay? You’ll see a more comprehensive list of some hotels I recommend over on The Times, but here are three on my radar recently.
Just act quickly. Summer starts slinking away come early October — and prices, unsurprisingly, shoot up as the heat drops down.
Where: The Dubai Marina, a part of Dubai filled with the city’s media and tech crowd. This hotel is flush against the Marina itself, meaning you can see yachts from your window. Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), a pretty beachfront development with restaurants and walking tracks, is only a 10-minute stroll away.
The vibe: This hotel is city slick. Its done in modern lines and crisp contours. Rooms are airy, with floor-to-ceiling windows and balconies over the water. Downstairs there are some of the city’s trendier restaurants, including Marina Social and gin-focused Ginter.
Good for: Business types or folks who like their wifi with a side of premium coffee. The InterContinental has an impressive working lounge on its top floor. Like most business lounges, here you’ll find snacks, meals at certain hours and endless coffee — all included in some of the rooms’ prices. Yet this lounge adds glamour with its wrap-around balcony, one that provides lovely views of the city.
Where: Oceanfront, between downtown Dubai and the Dubai Marina. This super-lush villa-only property is part of Madinat Jumeirah. Wild Wadi is just next door, while the Burj Al Arab perches on the other side. Souk Madinat, a souk-inspired mini mall, is just a five-minute wooden boat ride away.
The vibe: Lush. I’ve done plenty of hotels all around the world, and can say this with complete honesty: when it comes to luxury, Jumeirah Group knows its stuff. It’s not so much the plush settings — although let’s be honest, Jumeirah Dar Al Masyaf is exactly that, with decadent villas in their own summer house clusters, with their own private pools and private fountain-filled courtyards. It’s more about the way the staff float around, discreet but friendly. There’s even a private receptionist sat at the base of your summerhouse. Because, well, Jumeirah.
Good for: Families who want luxury. This property is definitely the most expensive on this list, but it’s also the most decadent. The massive summerhouses and private riads suit families who want a shared space. Also, if you’re a gym nut (aka me), the access to the massive Talise Fitness gym is definitely a bonus.
Where: Opposite Dubai International Airport, in a part of the city I don’t often visit (because #MarinaGirl), but is amazing before or after a flight. Or if you want to do an early morning shoot on the nearby Dubai Creek.
The Vibe: This is definitely a business hotel by night and brunch spot at weekends. The business lounge here is on the ground floor and busier than that of the InterContinental. A buffet is set out for breakfast and evening snacks, and spirited drinks seem popular once the sun sets. On that note… The brunches here are definitely a draw. I didn’t go (loud noises definitely not my scene), but I’ve got it from several sources.
Good for: Anyone flying in and out. It’s also handy if you feel like exploring old Dubai, given its airport location. Also the gym here is impressive. It’s been recently redesigned and refurbished, now acting as a standalone gym where folks can buy memberships. Think multiple rooms, a functional training area, an outdoor pool… Right, enough of that.
And as an aside… We woke up at 5am to catch the sunrise over the Dubai Creek before heading to Bastakiya to take some fun photos. Unfortunately we were sort of ushered out of the latter (something about concerns over our photos being for a commercial purpose, which they weren’t, because Instagram, but it didn’t help that I had a model and a fitness babe with me). But it’s a great way to start the day.
It’s summer in Dubai and people have fled the inevitable heat, heading out in drips and drops through May, floods through June. By 6am, temperatures push 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
Those of us who stay, we work around the swelter and the sweat. Early mornings. Late nights. And quiet moments stolen on even quieter beaches.
Like this, here. A friend and I snuck out with sunrise to play at being photographers. Afterwards we hid inside her villa and sipped coffees.
They felt cooler than the air outside.
I’m not the best at researching a place before I go – an ironic trait for a travel journalist, but there we are.
I think part of me likes the idea of a place being a bit of a mystery, particularly in this age of information saturation. It’s like going to a movie; if I read a review first, I can’t help but think about those words while watching the film. It bleeds into my mind. Sometimes, travel can be the same.
And then sometimes I’m just really, really busy before a trip…
All this to explain Thessaloniki, Greece, and why the destination wasn’t quite the white-walled, blue-roofed island fading into the sea that I had packed for.
No, Thessaloniki is far more city grunge and sharp edge than that. It’s Greece’s second-largest city after Athens, with plenty of sea but more ports than beaches. The hard lines of buildings reminded me of Berlin: practical, industrial, productive.
Yet that’s not to say the city isn’t beautiful. It is. There’s astounding beauty in its history. Founded in 315 BC, Thessaloniki has played host to numerous religions and different ruling groups.
There are even 15 monuments deemed UNESCO World Heritage sites around Thessaloniki.
The White Tower is certainly one of the most interesting. This monument sits on a beachfront promenade with a history spanning back to the Byzantine Empire. Previously it was used as a prison and a place of execution – earning the name ‘The Red Tower’ for the blood that dripped from its walls.
Now the walls are clean, the prison replaced by a museum, and the history tangible.
Add to that churches and towers, and there’s plenty to see in this northern Greece city – particularly for history buffs.
Food here is massive. Think wedges of cheese, hefty bread, olives dripping in extra virgin olive oil and salads flavoured with the same. Meals can last several hours.
“Everything goes slower in Thessaloniki,” people said repeatedly. It’s about calming down, relaxing, unwinding.
Students and lovers stroll along the waterfront promenade. At night, you’ll catch street musicians playing songs for coins.
I was only there for a few days, but I’d say that’s enough for this ancient, industrial place. It’s worth a short weekend getaway, one where you allow plenty of time for lengthy feasts and long walks by the water.
Where to stay: The MET Hotel. This design hotel is all things edgy and trendy. Quirky modern art fills the walls (like eyes blinking or trees changing seasons). Rooms are minimal with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of natural light. From the rooftop you’ll get great 360 views of the city, plus there’s a pool that’s a nice spot to lounge during the day.
Getting there: FlyDubai fly direct to Thessaloniki. The trip takes around 5 hours and 30 minutes, with minimal time in the small landing airport. Try Business Class for lounge access, blankets, larger seats, and one heck of a delicious French toast breakfast.
I am in a Middle East on the cusp of change.
Two days ago, women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive for the first time. Here in Dubai, the country is trying to find ways to allow freelancers in and businesses to stay. Visas are being offered, extended, changed.
Visas are often on my mind these days. I’ve resigned from my full-time role at the magazines. While I’m still handling them, I’ve stepped back from my dream job. Now it’s all licenses, legalities, setting myself up as a professional content creator in a city that is still very much defining what it means to create.
It’s a terrifying shift, a painful one, but one that in a breath feels completely right.
I am here in the Middle East, on the cusp of a change.
I get overwhelmed in crowds. I prefer silent spaces, spots where I can narrate my own little story while strolling along. Which means, basically, I’m a bit of an odd duck in big cities.
Istanbul is no exception. This vibrant, picturesque spot (deemed the most ‘Instagramable city’ by quite a few blogs, because apparently that’s a thing) is teeming with people. There are crowds. Absolutely. Every. Where. Head to the 3,000 shops of the Grand Bazaar? Crowds. Walk to the historic Topkapi Palace? Crowds. And let’s not even get started on Istiklal Avenue, the famous boutique-lined street that heaves with bodies.
All the crowds are understandable — Istanbul is magnificent. It’s beautiful. It has a fabulous mix of history, of East and West, of mosques arching into the sky and tiny alleyways scented with spices. There’s a pulsing beauty here worth seeing.
Yet for quiet travellers like me, the real charm lies in branching away from the massive sites. I head to the side streets instead.
There are many of these. They snake up and down small cobblestone roads and steep hills. You can buy Simit (a traditional Turkish sesame bagel) for pennies from a street vendor, wandering with the city’s many stray cats at your feet. You won’t want for beauty — the city has mosques at nearly every corner, with a growing number of hipster shops tucked between spots to buy rugs or spices.
Of course I’d recommend still doing the classic sites. The Travel Hub has done a great job of detailing where to go, what to see, how, all that grand stuff. To miss the Blue Mosque, to skip the Spice Bazaar, it would be a bit like heading to Paris and ignoring the Eiffel Tower.
Yet don’t let those things be your idea of the city.
Grab Istanbul Tourist Pass (an actually very clever pass that gives you hop-on-hop-off access; guided tours of famous sites, airport transfer and a wifi dongle) and head to the lesser known districts along the Bosphorus. In waterfront Emirgan you can grab a traditional Turkish breakfast at a spot just across the street from where the boat docks: tomatoes, olives, bread, cheese, all of it drenched in olive oil. Go for a wander across Galata Bridge and grab sardine sandwiches from boat cafes bobbing in the water. Let the city come to life.
In a place this historic, that can be a magical thing indeed.
FlyDubai does regular flights between Dubai and Istanbul. Business Class comes with lounge access, blankets, in-flight films, a meal and limited wallet strain. In my opinion, FlyDubai puts other ‘budget’ airlines to shame — even without Business Class.
Transparency note: We were at these hotels as complimentary guests, so there’s that. But honesty is still key. *insertshrugemoji*
I loved this property. Opened in 2017, the venue has been crafted to positively drip with Ottoman art. Bathrooms are full of mosaics, while chandeliers and carved wood fill the lobby.
At breakfast you can sneak across to the private dining area to grab an amazing shot of the sun rising over Istanbul’s skyline. The Afiya Spa does a solid traditional Turkish Bath (bubbles and massages and all).
Were I to come again, I’d book into Ajwa’s new neighbourhood apartment. This nearby four-bedroom venue is separate from the hotel, great for friends. It stretches over multiple floors, has its own private winter garden and outdoor area, private hammam and kitchen.
While Ajwa was all things ancient and embellished, this Park Hyatt property was slick and minimal. It’s nestled just opposite a park and surrounded by plenty of luxury shops.
Upstairs there’s an outdoor pool and trendy bar, although when we visited it wasn’t quite hot enough outside for swimming.
Photos by Andrew Marty of The Travel Hub.
How to explain the splendor of a ball? The lights, the fireworks, the delicate press of feet against grass and under silk gowns, the swirling chaos of many stages, multiple stages, the temptation towards gluttony, the piles of food glistening under the stars, the way the college itself with all its old stone buildings sits lit up like a fatted calf, gleaming in reds and purples from the lights projected throughout it… how do you explain that?
What about the way students gather on the bridge, pressing together to look out over the river that is suddenly no longer filled with water, but punts? “You could walk across it,” said a friend of mine as we crushed together for a moment, staring out at the hundreds and hundreds of people below. They had come to watch the fireworks; they had come to watch the ball.
“I feel strange being here in my suit, like this, with everyone down there,” said N, holding his glass of wine and looking at me.
“Don’t. Just wave.”
How do you explain the nine stages, the 82 acts, the 300-something performers, scattered throughout St. John’s College like little forgotten gems? Comedy shows, silent discos, magic, a rave with neon colours and smoke machines casting the entire tent into the madness of a clown’s dream. How do you detail that?
“They want to make you feel almost frustrated,” a friend told me at one point. “There is so much to do. So many things. Performers. Acts. Games. Things to watch. But you can’t do it all. And that is the point of the ball…”
We tried though, rushing from the ponies that pranced delicately on their hind legs (“You don’t realize how -rare- it is to see this!” exclaimed Z as she remained stubbornly beside the horses) to the low-slung bean bag seats surrounding shisha pipes. We visited the silent disco. We considered the bumper cars. We wandered through the court that was covered in fake snow and smiling penguins, past the one draped in rich fabric, one representing the Victorian Era (“Look! You can get your hair done!” “…my hair is already done.”) and on and on. But we didn’t see nearly half of it.
And the food… how in the world do you explain the food and drink, the decadence so strong it makes heads reel and stomachs stretch? So many courses, so many niblets, from crepes and waffles as the sun rose to curries, pies, cupcakes, meats, cheeses, plates and plates of cheeses (“But where is the bread?” “Shhh. Just eat the cheese.”), fruits piled onto tabletops, mangos and apples and berries (“I found passion fruit!” “That is NOT meant to be a drinks mixer”), and all of it just waiting to be consumed? We wandered the entire night never really ceasing to eat. It was more of a challenge than the bumper cars, more tempting than lazer quest, to taste and sample what every tent had to offer.
The drinks were just as varied and just as available: mixed cocktails of vodka, wines, mead, beer, juice, freshly pressed berry drinks in bright pinks that tasted like melted popsicles but carried the punch of something potent, champagne, gin and tonics, whiskey, rum, tequila.
Z and I marked each other’s arms every time we had a drink. “It’s a challenge,” I stated. “To see who can last the longest.”
We both lasted the longest.
How can you capture the fireworks, the powerful explosions lurching into the sky, casting light over so many young faces and so many black-tied students? Together they stood like little soldiers, arms and elbows draped together, swaying with the music even as one firework after another exploded upwards. I caught Z’s elbow. “Wow.” I could only gasp over and over, at loss for words. “Wow.” The rolling green that is St. John’s Backs was full of viewers, all of them likewise gasping, likewise holding their breath to the timing of the music and the pulse.
“It is so much better than Trinity’s fireworks,” said M. “So much.”
These things perhaps can’t be explained, not in a way that fully captures the splendor and champagne-haze hours of ball. For even my best descriptions won’t quite capture the poignant beauty of the scene, the delicate realization that it was all amazing and simultaneously all timed, a ticking clock of splendor. The ball lasts for fourteen hours. I saw the sun go down and rise again over black-tied students. Yet as it starts, so it must end – and this is what makes it bitterly sweet, one of those things that even as you grasp at it, trying to claim each minute back, each second back, it is escaping away.
“It’s light out again,” said Z as we sat sipping tea and wine. “It’s daylight.”
“Don’t let it be daylight. That means the ball is almost over.”
“Not yet. It’s the summer solstice. We still have time.”
She was right and wrong; for we had time, time enough to eat and drink, seeing friends and playing games – but not enough. The ball ended with the St. John’s Gents standing in blazing red serenading in the morning. Breakfast was served.
“Not yet…” I wanted to say. Don’t let it be over yet, for this was my last St. John’s May Ball. It was also the marking of what ended my time as a student, as a Johnian and a Creighton-kid, as someone tied to school books and school norms.
The ball has ended. I have finished.
And while I’m not quite sure I can explain it all, the hazes and colors and love, the way the fireworks caught the silk of dresses and the students gasped together in delight, I can say one thing for sure: the journey was amazing.The ball was amazing.
…and the ponies didn’t hurt.