Destination of choice – Laax, Switzerland

By Shereen Shabnam

Switzerland is always a good idea as there are so many destinations within the country that have different attractions and vibes. One such place is Laax, a family-friendly haven dedicated to alpine adventures but offering more than just skiing. The area comprises the village of Laax, together with Salums, Cons, Laax Murschetg, and Laax Dorf.

Laax is part of the Weisse Arena Gruppe, which combines and markets the resorts of Flims, Laax and Falera under two brands. The winter programme is thus positioned under brand Laax, while the summer programme of Flims Laax Falera falls under brand Flims.

We enjoyed being there in the summer, as Flims Laax Falera becomes one large outdoor ‘playground’ for active guests.It offers a large network of hiking trails for walkers and has numerous wellness hotels. Falera, with its many patrician houses preserves the charm of a Graubünden mountain village, great for family holidays.

We especially enjoyed taking a Gondola to the summit of Crap Sogn Gionmountain 2252 meters above sea leveland toured the fascinating Galaaxy, which took us back to the past era of vinyl records, VCR videos and much more.

We then headed to the hiking trails, leading to beautiful lakes and enjoyed a culinary trail, which allowed us to sample some lovely local delicacies and organic, homegrown, innovative, gastronomic dishes.

We also spent a lovely afternoon visiting Lake Cauma, a breathtaking area where we walked through thick woods and relaxed by the exquisite turquoise lake, watching people swimming, chilling out, sunbathing and rowing. The Lake is surrounded by forests and contains a wooded island in the centre, where you can relax in complete tranquility.

Among the other beauty spots we came across here is Laaxersee or Lag Grond in the village of Laax Grisons, an excellent place for fishing in the summer.During one of our hikes, wealso managed to catch a glimpse of the breathtaking gorge, Ruinaulta, a canyon created by the Anterior Rhine between Ilanz/Glion and Reichenau and known as Switzerland’s `Grand Canyon’.

In the winter, visitors can enjoy 235 kilometres of snow-assured pistes across 100+ square kilometres around the ‘Crap Sogn Gion’ mountain. In fact, Laax attracts snowboarders and skiers from all over the world to its surrounding pistes and hosts important international snowboarding contests, such as the Burton European Open and the European Freeski Open LAAX.

Laax facilities include four snowparks, over 230km of pistes for all levels, as well as The Freestyle Academy, an indoor freestyle hall, which has trampolines, various skateboarding facilities, boulder area, airtrack, slackline and different sized kickers for skiers, bikers, snowboarders or skaters.

For bikers, Flims Laax Falera is a haven offering330 km of bike routes with marked trails and plenty of variety for every level, whether professional or beginner. An exciting way to explore the region is to book a bike guide and combine summer sports, such as hiking, downhill and mountain biking. 

The villages in the area are great places to have coffee, chocolates and make use of the facilities, including supermarkets, post offices, bakeries and various shops. There are around 40 shops spread through the three base villages, the majority of which are in Flims selling holiday essentials, ski gear, and local souvenirs. There are also food speciality stores where you can buy Swiss cheese and chocolate.

Both Flims and Laax have witnessed a design explosion in recent years, with architects favouring contemporary cool. In spite of this, traditional styles are still very much in evidence. The oldest surviving building in Laax was built in 1580 and the first hotel in 1880. Of particular interest is RestaurantCavigilli, Flims’ oldest house, dating from 1453, which comprises a Gothic parlour and an elegant dining room.

In Laax, we stayed at the Signinahotel overlooking a beautiful mountain panorama and close to great restaurants and places with a variety of recreational activities. We spent our evenings sampling Italian delicacies in the Ristorante Camino and other gourmet restaurants in the neighboring Rocks Resort, which, in addition to great eateries, features shops, biking tracks, skate boarding and roller-skating arenas.

To get there, Laax is only 45 minutes away from Chur by bus and roughly two hours from Zurich by car. We took the Swiss Pass and travelled from Zurich to Chur by train and then on to Signinahotel in Laax by bus – a wonderfully scenic journey in itself.

Pristine Paradise – Gstaad

By Shereen Shabnam

During a recent Switzerland trip, we explored numerous parts of the country before venturing to Gstaad, which is a playground for holidaymakers who prefer a touch of exclusivity for their holiday experiences in a unique landscape that is full of tradition, sports, delectable cuisine and culture.

Gstaad is known as a major ski resort and a popular destination amongst high society and the international jet set. Set amongst soaring mountains and prestigious international boarding schools, it is a popular holiday destination for royalty and celebrities. Cable cars connect surrounding ski areas such as Wispile and Rinderberg, with hundreds of kilometers of all-level pistes and cross-country trails.

We started our journey at the centre of Gstaad, which is the most popular and fell in love with the shortest “shopping mile” in Switzerland. With luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, luxury chalets, the car-free resort was a delight as we walked along the picturesque promenade and tried some of the local delicacies.  explored the local galleriesand exclusive shops.

Retail therapy in Gstaad is a delight with designer stores that include Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chopard, Brunello Cucinelli, Prada, Moncler, Ralph Lauren, and Cartier as well as boutiques that stock labels such as Chloe, Dolce & Gabbana, Tod’s, Burberry, Dior, Oscar de la Renta, and Marc Jacobs.

While my teenage daughter enjoyed river rafting thanks to the wonderful staff of the Huus Gstaad Hotel, my favourite part of the visit was going up the mountains for tobogganing, watching my daughter try different games and inhaling the fresh crisp air that makes the lungs feel good.

The countryside in Gstaad offers a versatile and diverse sports programme with hiking, mountain biking, paragliding and golf. Gstaad is also a wellness destination and guarantees an unsurpassed variety of leisure activities, spas, healthy cuisine, sports centres and indoor swimming pools.

Food lovers will be happy to note that Gstaad is also a paradise for fine diners, with more than 100 restaurants ranging from cosy raclette restaurants to acclaimed gourmet venues. Our most memorable meal was a five-course meal at Ultima Gstaad.

 

Leaving Gstaad is not easy as the wonderful views from cosy terraces, the picturesque mountains, fresh alpine air, gourmet cuisine, indoor games near warm fireplaces and outdoor adventures leaves an imprint on the heart and soul.

When I think of a perfect holiday now, my mind wanders to the warmth of the staff and the cosy lobby area of Huus Gstaad and this ultimate hospitality is what makes it a destination that attracts visitors back to the beautiful alpine heaven more than once.

 

Al Inclusive Hospitality – Rixos Bab Al Bahr

By Shereen Shabnam

Located on the pristine beach of Al Marjan Island, a world-class man-made island, nestled in the waters of Ras Al Khaimah,Turkish hotelchain, Rixos Bab Al Bahr first opened its doors in the UAE with its all-inclusive concept that has proven to be a success with both local and International visitors.

Ras Al Khaimah is only a short drive from Dubai and the Emirate features endless sandy beaches, untouched deserts and favorable weather all year round, which facilitate an array of tourist attractions.  I stayed at the Rixos Bab Al Bahr and experienced the essence of traditional Turkish hospitality, as is the trademark of the hotel chain.

The  ‘All inclusive – All Exclusive’ stay at Rixos Bab al Bahr is a signature offering from Rixos Hotels, who are experts in luxury all-inclusive concept.  The concept very aptly accommodates the Turkish hospitality philosophy of extending attention and services beyond imagination, making every guest’s experience an exclusive one.

The hotel offers a mix of deluxe and premium rooms as well as family, junior, senior and king suites, the property is ready to cater to all family sizes. The ‘All inclusive – All exclusive’ stay at Rixos Bab Al Bahr includes unique dining experiences in several restaurants and bars, a night club, spectacular evening entertainment programs, Rixy Club and Teen’s Republic, Rixos Royal Spa with a marvelous Turkish Hammam, on-site souk for local artifacts, accessories and souvenirs.

I stayed there for only one night so did not try all that was on offer but active guests can enjoy water activities and excursions at an additional charge. Rixos Bab Al Bahr proudly presents an assortment of Restaurants and Bars of true gastronomical experiences from all around the world.

Guests looking for something more relaxed can head to Aisha Lobby Lounge that offers a wide selection of freshly brewed coffee and teas. The Pool Bar and the Sea & See beach bar are great places to enjoy the sun and sand.

The ultra ‘All Inclusive – All Exclusive’ offer at Rixos Bab Al Bahr goes beyond comfortable stay and limitless dining. A daily dose of live entertainment designed by resort’s dedicated, professional and extremely talented entertainment team caters to the preferences of guests of all ages.

Rixos Entertainment Square, the venue for live shows and performances features a live band performance of different genre of music as well as instrumental and acoustic to set the mood with dance shows, operas, acrobatics and other performances by artists of international eminence.

The water sports facilities at the resort under the supervision of a well-trained team. Guests can go sailing or kayaking at leisure, surrender to the winds as they go windsurfing, opt for banana or jet skiing if they enjoy riding the waves or go fishing for a pastime.

For families traveling with kids, staying at the Rixos Bab Al Bahr, will benefit from the exclusive Rixy Club that offers an exceedingly proficient and multi-lingual team, dedicated to turning children’s experiences to memorable moments through age-tailored entertainment programs.

My teenage daughter enjoyed the thorough activity programme for Teen’s Republic, the club for the teenagers between 13 to 19 years offering a gamut of activities.

Guests can also indulge in the exclusive shopping haven at the resort that sells local artifacts, souvenirs and accessories and take back home tangible memories of our weekend away. For down time, enjoy the Rixos Royal Spa, which has a myriad of treatments and rituals as well as contemporary practices specific to Rixos’ Turkish heritage like the Turkish Hammam, which is one of the spa’s signature areas, delivered with great authenticity.

 

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Natural Sanctuary – Bled in Slovenia

By Shereen Shabnam

One of my most memorable travel destinations recently was to Slovenia with Turkish Airlines. The first stop was at a lake town called Bled,a popular tourist destination in Slovenia known for its emerald green lake, a wonderful restaurant on top of a mountain with picturesque views and a medieval castle.

On arrival, we had an enchanting boat ride across the lake, which is the highlight of a visit to Bled. It is best to take some time to take in the ambience, watch the swans and ducks on the lakes and enjoy the lush green mountains in the distance.

A hike up a hill followed the boat ride as we climbed a stone staircase with 99 steps to have lunch with panoramic views and a visit to take pictures of the waterfront, the church of assumption andthe castle of Bled.

The Bled Castle is the oldest castle in Slovenia. There is also a museum at the top with the history of the castle, some interesting fossils and archaeological findings and a tempting gift shop selling food and the arts and crafts of Bled.

Being a food lover, I stopped to taste the famous Kremsnita cake, which was as delectable as the locals claimed and better than any cream cake I have ever sampled during my travels.

Adventure tourists will enjoy the famous hiking trails that start from Bled. They are called Pokljika, Mount Stol and Triglav. For those on the look out for picturesque views, The Vintgar Gorge has a scenic route that is serene with a lovely waterfall.

Some sites I wanted to visit but missed out on is the Postojna Cave Predjama Castle and the Lipica Stud Farm that produces horses for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Visitors from the Middle East who love equestrian sports can enjoy tours, rides and lessons that cover dressage and how to control horses.

Lake Bled is an ideal destination for a perfect summers day. Dress casual and comfortable to make the most of the visit as the activities involve rowing, hiking, exploring and enjoy the photography opportunities.

 

 

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Exploring Taiwan – The Land of Breathtaking Beauty

By Shereen Shabnam

With rich cultural diversity and traditions as varied as it’s beautiful natural landscape alongside tall towers and a thriving business environment, Taiwan is full of surprises for visitors.

My visit began with a tour of the Taipei 101, architecturally created guided with Feng Shui principles as a symbol of the evolution of technology and Asian tradition with traditional design elements, works of art and modern treatments. It comes with Indoor Observation decks plus a premium multi-level shopping mall adjoining the tower with hundreds of stores, restaurants and clubs.

The journey continued with visits to Chiayi, Alishan, Sun Moon Lake and beyond wandering through cultural attractions, lakes, hillside stations, tropical forests and sampling a wide variety of cuisine including ample choice of halal delicacies.

Taiwan offers the gamut of different cuisines and I enjoyed the Chinese, Indian, Moroccan, Japanese dishes alongside the traditional local specialties like Tainan milkfish and desert dumplings in restaurants and night markets in between sight seeing and shopping.

A visit to Taiwanese temples is a must for people watching as they gather to worship, enjoy local festivities nearby and to peruse the local art house often found in each city.

Highlight of the visit was the Lantern Festival, which is celebrated each year on the 15th day of the first lunar month to mark the grand finale of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

This first full moon day of the New Year symbolizes the coming of the spring. People usually celebrate this festival by enjoying family dinner together, eating Yuanxiao (glutinous rice dumpling), carrying paper lanterns, and solving the riddles on the lanterns.

At the Taiwan Lantern Festival in Chiayi, I found the grand celebration with music, dance, light shows, 4D visual effects and the grand lanterns all around me magical. My Taiwanese friends said they sometimes write their wishes on the sky lanterns because it is believed as the lantern fly into the sky; it is a way to pass on your wishes to gods above.

A visit to the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum was a delightin Chiayi County. The museum is set on 70 hectares of land next to a large scenic lake with gardens. It has an unmatched collection of e artifacts and priceless treasures from distant places.

 

Another attractionlocated in Qigu District, Tainan is the Qigu Salt Mountain set close to Qigu Lagoon, the largest inland lake in Taiwan, which is rich in ecological resources and the habitat for winter migratory birds-black-faced spoonbills. There are a number of recreational activities like go-karting, antique machines exhibition and the Doo-doo trains making it an interesting Tainan tourist spot for visitors of all ages.

Other enjoyable excursions included exploring the Sicao Mangrove Preserve and the Taijiang National Parkwith ecological and cultural landscape alongside culture and history. The Alishan National Scenic Area was also memorable. 

Another breath taking experience was of course Taiwan’s largest Lake, the Sun Moon Lakelocated in the mountains of Nantou. I took a late afternoon boat tour and thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. The area around the lake is home to tribes and scenic views. Leaving Taiwan was not easy especially from the Sun Moon Lake.

From the UAE, getting to Taiwan was fairly easy on Emirates Airlines, which flies to direct to Taipei daily. The city is a great starting point to get to the other popular tourist spots.

 

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Classic Elegance – Luxury at every turn at Villa Magna, Madrid

By Shereen Shabnam

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On the way to my Spanish home recently, a stop in Madrid led me and my family to discover the luxury Villa Magna in Madrid where the ambience celebrates the old and new in a space that only be described as classically elegant.

In the last century, where this modern building stands today on the Paseo de la Castellana, was the Palace of Anglada which was demolished in the 1960`s. The hotel on the same site shows the same sophistication and after an extensive renovation, the luxury hotel has become a home to regular visitors who love the Bauhaus concepts and Chinese screens that combine to create a welcoming and luxurious atmosphere.

From the moment we were picked at the airport by a private chauffeur to the moment we left, the experience we had was more than amazing. The Concierge led us to the most interesting exhibitions and fashionable boutiques in Madrid but the highlight of the excursions was our teenage daughter experiencing the VIP shopper experience at El Corte Ingles…a must for all GCC visitors.

The hotel lobby is warm and welcoming with a large window offering a marvelous view to the Magnum Patio. To add a sophisticated touch the walls were adorned with Bauhaus and Vienna Secession designs. Different styles also combine among the furnishings: Louis XVI rosewood consoles, exotic screens and rugs with their geometric shapes give warmth to the marble floors.

The Restaurante Villa Magna has beautiful natural light, complimented by the choice of light colours and a large framed mirror that reflects the space as a painting. The beauty of the carpentry work and the relaxing upholstery combine to make a perfect ambience relaxing.

The Lounge, off the Lobby of the Villa Magna, is the ideal setting to meet friends, discuss business or enjoy a relaxing meal at any time of the day. We spent our lunchtime mainly there with a selection of snacks, light lunch dishes whilst enjoying views onto the Lounge Terrace and Paseo de la Castellana beyond.

The room we stayed in was spacious, comfortable and washed with soft lighting, bright colours and warm fabrics. It was tastefully done and every detail was taken care of…from attending to my love for chocolates to the availability of prayer mats in the cupboard.

 Our day excursions meant revisiting our favourite Madrid attractions starting from the “Art Triangle” the Prado Museum, the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, the Mercado and the Reina Sofia Museum to walking through Plaza Mayor and retail streets dotted with local and international brands.

The Villa Magna´s Fitness Club is equipped with the latest Technogym equipment and a team of fitness experts to provide a personalized fitness programme. The Wellness Club is a quiet area to be pampered with luxurious body treatments and skincare in a retreat of tranquility and naturally I opted for a massage on arrival.

Withthe city’s main shopping streets and attractions at the doorstep, the Villa Magna offers the most exclusive and ideal place to stay while visiting Madrid.

 

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Pearl of the Adriatic – Dubrovnik, Croatia

By Shereen Shabnam

Dubrovnik in Croatia is a city for all seasons and one of the world’s most prominent tourist destinations. Surrounded by unique medieval ramparts, Dubrovnik attracts visitors for its rich history, mild climate, traditional hospitality and its many festivals, open-air events and architectural treasures.

I explored Dubrovnik, a UNESCO registered protected world heritage site during the evening and in the day taking in the charm of bustling streets, art and different cultural events.

Walking along the promenade during the day meant coming across various art and artefacts on sale as well as live music performances. The open air performances add character to the different areas of the old town classical and jazz music and brings rhythm and charm into an already dazzling atmosphere.

While wandering through the markets, we toured the filming location of the ‘Game of Thrones’ television series and enjoyed some retail therapy of the related merchandise for fans back in the UAE.

The best part of Dubrovnik was exploring the old city, which had interesting markets, art galleries and city walls with fortresses offering beautiful views of the city, the open sea and the Island of Lokrum.

For panoramic views of Dubrovnik, visitors can take the cable car and set out on a scenic adventure that includes breathtaking views of the old town and enjoy the sunset. Make time to head to the Island of Lokrum and Elaphiti Islands or visit the Trsteno Arboretum, which is a protected monument of nature.

Dubrovnik is a great destination for adventure sports or active tourists who enjoy horse riding, hiking, cycling or sailing. A jeep safari or a canoe tour is also an interesting way to explore the area.

Dubrovnik was a gastronomic delight with an abundance of fresh and delectable food, often seasoned with olive oil. Try the naturally grown vegetables like courgettes, cabbage, aubergines tomatoes as well as seafood prepared in a simple way.

I had a full day exploring the old town and came across a Salvador Dali exhibition, which was an unexpected delight. Visitors who enjoy experience centres will enjoy The Cultural History Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Archeological Museum exhibition at Fortress Revelin, the Dubrovnik Natural Science Museum and the Dubrovnik State Archives.

The natural scenery in the area and panoramic views of the coast on the way to the old town in Dubrovnik were definitely some of the most memorable moments in Croatia.  I am already planning my next venture into the land of fortresses and medieval architecture.

Turkish Airlines recently added Dubrovnik, Croatia to its expanding network with three weekly flights for visitors intending to explore this beautiful city.

 

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