Vietnamese New Year in Mai Chau

Feb 6 & 7, 2016

On New Years Eve… Vietnamese New Year that is… we headed out of our hostel pretty early in the morning and were driven a few hours up further north into the countryside to stay with a local Vietnamese family.

We stopped along the way at a little shop for coffee although we could have had some luscious wine with snake flavors… Amelia also found the cutest little kitten!

When we arrived at our home for the next 2 nights, there was a large group of other young people staying there that night from the hostel also. We all stayed on the 2nd floor of the families home on mats on the reed floor with mosquito netting… it was chilly and strange but calm and peaceful! Except for the high volume K-pop and karaoke that played all the time!

After a lunch with the rest of the hostel crew, we headed out on little mopeds and motorcycles provided by the home stay family and headed out to explore in the mountains and village a little. My moped had a little different feel from any type of motorbike I’ve driven before… And I’ve actually never driven a moped! I might have nearly crashed into the bushes beside the house when I started off, but I quickly got the hang of it! I rode one myself but Amelia jumped on the back with one of the other guys and we all headed out through the town and up to find a little waterfall and lake in the mountains surrounding the home stay.

The road initially was well paved and pretty safe… Moderately curvy but manageable. Eventually we ended up on more of a gravel/dirt road that often had large potholes we had to avoid! And it got really steep in some sections too! But we all survived and found the waterfall with minimal issues.

We walked down a steep, slippery path to the base of the waterfall. And it was GORGEOUS!!!!!!!

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From the waterfall we went a little further up the road where we found a great lookout looking over one of the lakes in the area. So blue and beautiful! And so sunny and warm up there! (It had been quite cool and grey-ish for most of our last few days so the sunshine and warmth was appreciated!)

There was a little village near the lookout that we walked through… There were so many little puppies in the village and they were ADORABLE! A bunch of them tried to follow the girls back to the lookout but eventually abandoned us to return to their mothers!

As it was getting late in the afternoon, so our group headed back to the village where we found a little bar with a rooftop patio overlooking the valley and we sat in the coolness and quiet and last bit of late afternoon sunshine drinking beer and watching the sun set behind the mountains of Mai Chau.

Once the sun set, we drove back in the dusk to our home stay to join in a huge Vietnamese New Year spread with our hosts and all their extended family.

We were seated in the families home on mats on the floor, clustered around many delicious dishes. Our host kept coming to our group to refill our tiny rice wine cups and toast the New YEAr. The extended family of our host arrived intermittently throughout the evening to share in food and drinks and every time some one new arrived, our host would introduce them to us, followed by a celebratory round of rice wine again!

The very special (and absolutely unappealing looking) rice wine came out at some point… It had some goat unmentionables in it and also part of a snake I believe. It was supposed to be for the men to give them special powers. It would probably just make me sick… But it was interesting to see this part of the culture! One of the guys was brave enough (or crazy enough) to try it.

After dinner… Hours later… We ended up downstairs again, listening to K-pop and the family sing karaoke… We even joined in at some point until we all got too cold and tired and tucked ourselves under our mosquito netting in bed to fall asleep to the sounds of our Vietnamese host partying the night away and singing their hearts out til the early morning hours.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed back out on motorcycles to go check out a great lookout over the valley before we’d head back to Hanoi.

I loved riding those bikes around on the windy twisty hilly mountain roads. Makes me want to get my bike license at home and go motor biking more!!

The lookout was absolutely gorgeous!!! Even though the rice paddies were not filled with bright green stalks of rice, and were brown and muddy, the edges of each paddy were clearly demarcated and it was a beautiful sight regardless. The mountains were layered and faded out into the hazy blue sky… And it was stunning!

We had a great group shot at the top and then headed back down to leave for Hanoi again.

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Back in Hanoi, all of us were staying at the same hostel so after some pre-drinks at the hostel… We went out in search of authentic street food… Looking for some great hot pot.

We found a tiny little place where we sat on those silly little plastic chairs with our knees around our ears… And cooked our on dinner in little hot pots on the table. It was DELICIOUS tho!!!

All of us were pretty wiped and in bed early after a crap sleep in the cold the night before, plus, Amelia and I were headed out early the next morning to the highlight of our whole trip… A 3 day tour of Halong Bay!!!!

But our home stay in Mai Chau was a wonderful way to spend the Vietnamese New Year and it was so great to be able to see rice paddies and the mountains and have a very authentic Vietnamese experience with the locals! They were such friendly people and it was incredible that they opened their home to us like that on such a special few days of the year!

 

Vegetable Village

Hoi An is beautiful for its contrasts. The Old Town sophistication of Hoi An with its textiles and art and beautiful European influenced South East Asian port city architecture… in start comparison to the lush, green verdant farmland and simplicity of nature and a farming lifestyle in the surrounding countryside…

We loved our walks through the bustling but still quaint and quiet Old Town… but I loved to trade it in for cycling along narrow paths that divided lush green rice paddies… down quiet country lanes through small suburbs of Hoi An where homes often had vegetable gardens for “lawns”… encountering farmers walking their water buffalo down the paths… or cows munching grass along the roadside…

I had heard about a “vegetable village” just outside the town, so on our last day, we cycled through the farmland to Tra Que Vegetable Village. The village is rare in the sense that few, if any villages in Vietnam earn their income based primarily on vegetables… although it has become a tourism highlight now due to the quiet and peaceful setting where one can wander through fields of vegetables grown without any chemicals and only natural fertilizer from an algae found in the Tra Que village lagoon. The vegetables are beautifully fresh and there are many places one can take a cooking lesson and learn to make delicious, fresh Vietnamese dishes.

We wandered through rows of vegetables… bright green lettuce, herbs of all varieties, fluffy stemmed carrots… and eventually found a restaurant where we were served the simplest but most delicious food I’ve had in a very long time. We started with a lovely juice cocktail with cucumber and basil… Followed by fresh vegetable rolls that were so beautiful and bursting with herbs and slivers of tasty veggies… delicious deep fried spring rolls, and fresh shrimps wrapped with a few fresh herbs and dipped in a sweet chili sauce… It was a gorgeous way to showcase the village vegetables!

It was such a gorgeous way to spend our morning/afternoon… and a perfect last day in Hoi An!

Next up: A couple Spa/Beach days!!!

Vacation in Vietnam

End of January 2016

The end of January… end of probation (the mandatory 3 months in Saudi Arabia without vacation to prove you’re a responsible employee…) and my bestie and I are headed to Vietnam for 2 completely amazing weeks away from work!!!!

Riyadh -> Doha -> Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon).

Flying Qatar airways for the first time… even economy class is lovely on a Dreamliner!!!! And Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar… is definitely the nicest airport I’ve ever been too!!!

We had a couple hours wait in Doha before our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) so we found a lovely steakhouse/wine bar/piano bar where we ordered dinner and settled into luscious leather seats to listen to some lovely piano music and sip glasses of wine. Such a relaxing start to the trip!

And… my bestie is AMAZING! She surprised me with a gorgeous white gold necklace with my name written in Arabic! I’d always admired hers… and, being the extremely thoughtful individual that she is, she got me one of my own!!

Eventually we flew out of Doha to Vietnam, and landed in the crazy that is Vietnam mid-day I think? I can’t remember. I think my body was pretty stunned by travelling all night after working a full day before getting on the plane! We retrieved our backpacks (oh yeah… I should mention that this is my first ever “backpacking trip!!!!!! It took a little to minimize my packing style!)

As a side note, to avoid confusion, I should briefly explain that Saigon is the original name of Ho Chi Minh City… it was renamed after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Still most commonly called Saigon by Vietnamese and tourists alike.

Our first exposure to Vietnam was a little crazy. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the traffic… but imagine how a school of fish swim… and then picture those fish as dilapidated cars or mopeds… and the mopeds are carrying probably a mother and father and one toddler and the mother is holding a small infant and theres a box of groceries on the back and a small tree and potentially a cow… (the cow is probably pushing it a little… but the rest is legit)… and the cars and mopeds all swarm together and cross paths and beep their horns continuously… rushing forward as soon as theres a small gap that opens up before appearing to nearly crash into each other again… It was insanity! I was white knuckled every time I got in any type of vehicle and I thought for sure we were going to get in a car accident at some point on our trip through Vietnam. (we made it out unscathed though… didn’t even witness a single accident!)

Anyways. Found our hostel in District 1. Crashed for a few hours. Then went a wandering the streets around our hostel looking for some fabulous pho for dinner. I’d seen that Pho Quynh had great reviews on Foursquare (didn’t know how much I could actually count on Foursquare in Vietnam) so we wandered around a couple blocks several times, before realizing we kept walking past it! It was a packed little place on a street corner, filled with locals and expats, where we sat outside on the corner on metal chairs with traffic zipping by only feet away. Despite Saigon being hot and sticky, that hot soup tasted amazing despite the heat… probably cuz the Tiger beers we drank with it were amazing!! Fun fact: upon further research now that I’m home, apparently this place even made it into Lonely Planet it’s so great!

Seriously sleep deprived so we didn’t have the energy required for Saigon nightlife… but we did manage to wander the streets around our hotel for a bit… found a bar where we had a couple drinks sitting on flimsy wooden chairs along the sidewalk, just people watching and taking in all the crazy awesome and fascinating scenes the busy night scene had on display…

And then, early-ish lights out for us sleep deprived nanas. Mekong Delta tour tomorrow!

Iftar Buffets: Perks of Ramadan

Ramadan… the holy month of fasting in Islam.

Days of depriving oneself during the day… Followed by nights of family time and friendship… and food and drink that is much more appreciated than usual.

Being non-Muslim, I didn’t participate in fasting. But I was somewhat deprived of food and water during the day as I couldn’t openly eat or drink at work.

Iftar is the meal that breaks the fast… the first meal Muslims eat after fasting all day long. It starts immediately after Maghrib prayer, the sunset prayer. (Almost sunset below… over the fountains at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh).

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Riyadh has many beautiful hotels which hold large Iftar buffets. The Ritz-Carlton is supposed to have one of the best. This was the first Iftar buffet I experienced with friends.

So much food. It was unbelievable! Salads, seafood, hummus etc. Huge platters of kabsa and a full roasted lamb… a pasta station… traditional arabic foods… and a massive dessert buffet with traditional Arabic sweets, heaps of baklava, fresh fruit and a massive chocolate fountain… it was SO good!!

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I ate dinner with a few of my Western and Arabic friends… it was a beautiful evening of laughter and food and just enjoying the opportunity that Saudi has given us to celebrate together… this religious and cultural holiday!

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The next Iftar buffet I went to blew the Ritz out of the water! The Narcissus hotel… probably one of the most gorgeous hotels in Riyadh… smaller than the Ritz… but it smells amazing inside… florally… I couldn’t place the scent initially… but then I clued in… the Narcissus is a flower… obviously they’d make the hotel smell like the flower it is named after!

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I went with a group of girlfriends… one last supper together before I move back to Canada… one last Iftar buffet as Ramadan was due to end the next day. The East meets West buffet. Initially we were seated outside, but when we requested to be moved inside as it was too noisy outside with all the air conditioning… they seated us at a long table in a beautiful private dinning room.


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The food was absolutely heavenly. Tempura prawns… the best item on the menu. Beautiful scallop salad. Sushi. Traditional Arabic food. Indian food. Italian. Salads. Beautiful meats. Fresh fish. Fried goodness. And then… beautiful deserts… more chocolate fondue… And then… Saudi Champagne, arabic coffee and dates… peppermint tea after dinner…

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The food was INCREDIBLE!! Definitely the best buffet I’ve ever had in Riyadh… but it was really the company that made the night so special! We arrived around 630 for dinner and definitely didn’t leave until almost 9. I’ve never spent so much time over dinner as I do here in Riyadh! But generally, you get into conversation and enjoy the time with friends and before you know it you’ve spent a few hours over dinner.

imageimageimageAnd then… probably one of the highlights of the evening… a beautiful baby grand piano in the lobby of the hotel… I couldn’t resist sitting behind it and stroking the keys… couldn’t play it though because I’m pretty sure that would have offended more than a few people! Music is almost never played in public in Riyadh… and especially not during Ramadan. So I’ll have to wait to play a real piano for another week or so until I’m back home…

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So Ramadan for me hasn’t been about fasting… but it has been about family… my Saudi family. It’s been about culture. About educating myself on Islam and the traditions and beliefs and values. It has been really wonderful.

Family time…

January 22-February 14, 2015 My last family dinner… last family games night… last night with the whole family together for a while actually. My heart is breaking. I love living and working in Saudi Arabia, but being back home with my family reminds me how much I absolutely love them all and miss spending time with them. I am devastated to think of leaving and going back to KSA in just a few days. Even though I have a lot to look forward to… trips to Europe, Dubai, etc… all sorts of travels and adventures and great life experiences to come yet… But I know what is ahead of me. I know the struggles I’ll face on a daily basis in Saudi Arabia. The frustrations and inconveniences that drive me mad. The stress. All the stress. So much stress. When I originally moved to Saudi Arabia, I was sad to leave my family, but so excited to come and have this great life experience. And it has been really great. But now I know what it is. The good and the bad. And knowing the bad makes it so much harder to leave my family behind and come back here to the bad, even if there’s lots of good as well!! Regardless… I’m going to cherish this last night we have together. We started the night with bowling… my niece’s first time bowling!!! Not sure what she loved more… running around and throwing the balls (quite pitifully but so adorably!)… or drinking Joel’s milkshake!! image imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageAfter bowling, we went out for dinner… the food was so good… check out my fabulous salad!!! And dad and Eric were obviously thrilled with their steaming desserts! imageimageimage I miss family dinners!!! They’re seriously my favorite times at homes. Everyone around the table, talking and laughing. And we’re a family who loves debates and big discussions… so at home, especially Sunday lunches turn into big debates. It’s stimulating. It challenges us. It makes us open our minds as we don’t all share the same perspective on everything! imageimageimage For me… the best part of the night though, was when I stepped away from the table, leaving my phone out… and when I came back, one of my siblings was on my phone taking a selfie. At first I laughed when I got it back… and then I looked at the picture… and the ones before it… and realized my entire family had passed my phone around the table… taking a selfie so that I’d have a picture to take with me back to Saudi of each of them… and then I cried. Just a simple little thing, but so thoughtful… imageimageimageimageimage           This wonderful group of people I’m blessed to call my family… image Can’t wait to come back and see them… and as it’s the 1st of July as I’m writing this… it’s only about 2 weeks away from now!!!!!!

Bahrain: Beaches & Christmas

December 6, 2014

Bahrain bound!! Finally… after a very stressful morning in Cairo where I desperately attempted to change my flights from Riyadh bound to Bahrain bound… I managed to get on board a flight headed to Bahrain… did one of those “I’m not looking cuz I just can’t cuz this is going to hurt my bank account but I’ll hand over my credit card because I really don’t want to go back to Riyadh yet” moves…

Met up with a friend and spent 4 blissfully relaxing days in Bahrain… at the absolutely gorgeous Ritz Carlton Bahrain Hotel & Spa for the first few nights… and the last night at the Sofitel as there was a big international security conference in Bahrain and a triathlon that weekend so the hotel was fully booked for our last night.

Arriving at the Ritz for the first time on the trip was amazing… the roadway to the hotel bathed in purple light from the many lights strung above the road…

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I was wondering if this was normal for the Ritz… (In Riyadh there’s beautiful lights everywhere, any time of year!)

But when I entered the lobby, I clued in as I saw my first bit of Christmas!!! And what a gorgeous display it was!!!! Living in Saudi, where Christmas is definitely not celebrated or seen in any way… no Christmas trees or Christmas lights anywhere… no aisles full of chocolates and candy canes and delicious Christmas treats… no carols and holiday music playing every where for months… no sign anywhere to indicate Christmas is coming. So I’d kind of forgotten that Christmas was less than a month away. Until I entered the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain and saw the 3 story tree…

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And there were poinsettias everywhere!!! That made me happier than  almost anything else I saw there that weekend!!!! My dad owns greenhouses back in Canada and grows acres of poinsettias every Christmas. So our house is always fully decked out with Christmas red and sparkly poinsettias… and when I walk out to the greenhouse at  it is always a sea of red holiday cheer!!

So I was absolutely thrilled to find poinsettias here!!

imageMoving on. The weather was gorgeous. Sunny. Relatively warm… 20-25 degree during the day… little chilly for chilling on the beach, as I’ve definitely adjusted to Saudi temps and 20-25 is definitely not sit in the sun in a bikini weather anymore!!! Definitely doesn’t feel like it’s winter and nearly Christmas! Nothing like the nearly Christmas weather I’m used to!!

The beach at the Ritz is beautiful!! It’s one of the few hotels in Bahrain that actually has its own beach. And soft blue lagoon with pretty white sand…

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Sitting on a lounge chair, listening to the gentle sound of little waves lapping on the shore line… sipping a ice cold G&T… feeling the warmth of the sun saturating through my clothes… it was wonderful!

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And SO supremely relaxing!After 5 days of crazy rapid travel through Egypt and all the noise and commotion and history overload… it was the perfect way to spend the last weekend of my first week of leave out of Saudi Arabia! The last 5 months of living in Saudi have been really really good and I really didn’t feel overly restricted or at the end of my rope and really needing a break away from Saudi. But being here and being able to fully relax, I realized how much I did need the break away. And relaxing on a beach is definitely my ideal way to truely destress!!

And the beach isn’t the only gorgeous spot at the Ritz Bahrain… the pool area is amazing… there are a bunch of great restaurants and bars… and lovely garden areas. It’s just generally a gorgeous resort!

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There’s even a pond/stream with FLAMINGOS in it!! Apparently at one point there used to be a lot of flamingos on the island, but now they’re nearly extinct on the island… but not here at the Ritz!

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(excuse the flamingo selfie but I just had to :P)

Continuing on with the relaxing, a friend of a friend showed us around Bahrain and took us to heaps of lovely restaurants. It was wonderful to not even have to worry about how to get there and where to eat or anything like that! And every place we went to was incredible! An couple Italian restaurants, Masso and Oliveto’s, a steak house called the Meat Co, a Japanese restaurant: Mirai, and Villa Mamas, a traditional homey little restaurant that had probably the best Arabic food I’ve ever eaten in my life! And apparently Villa Mamas was started by a lady who even grew her own herbs and everything for the restaurant!

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One of my favorite nights was at Olivetos… they had a great live band… I’ve seriously missed live music. Excuse the crappy quality of the video below… but the singer had an incredible voice!! And this is probably one of my favorite songs! Hadn’t heard it in ages either!

For the record, Olivetos is  really pretty too… Huge bonsai trees set all throughout the pool in the center….

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And finally… For the last night/day we moved to the Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa Hotel… a really nice resort… but located a good 20km out of the city center so getting anywhere was a bit more difficult and definitely took a lot longer!! But the resort was beautiful… a lovely beach also and the relaxation just continued.

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I saw one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’d seen in a long time… there’s nothing quite like the sun setting over the ocean!!!

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So when I had to leave on Saturday night to head back to Riyadh to work Sunday… I was definitely disappointed.

But honestly, it was an absolutely wonderful first week out of Riyadh… and I can’t wait to see where the remainder of my 54 days of annual leave take me!!!! Home next?! And now I’m going back to Riyadh feeling refreshed, relaxed, and rejuvinated. Ready to take on Saudi again… the challenges and frustrations but also all the wonderful experiences and life lessons I’m getting! Plus I’ve got so many great friends there… so even though Christmas is coming up and I’ll be away from my family… I’ll have my Saudi family ❤

Next up on the blog… Christmas in Saudi?

The Globe = Princess Life

October  2014

The Globe. The beautiful shining ball near the top of Faisaliyah Tower. The restuarant that every expat in Riyadh must try at some point in their lifetime in Riyadh. The ultimate view of the Riyadh skyline.

On a whim, my friend Sarah and I decided to go to the Globe for dinner one night as we had nothing else to do and both of us were dying to check it out for ourselves! Fortunately, it was during Hajj, so the restaurant was quiet and we were easily able to get a reservation for that same night.

We were dropped off at the base of Faisaliyah tower… whisked up an elevator that was swayed every so slightly… to one of the highest floors… where we stepped out of the elevator and into another open, glass elevator that whisked us up a couple more floors into the Globe.

The elevator doors opened and in front of us lay the beautiful, shining, sparkling city of Riyadh in all its glory. It was absolutely breathtaking!!!

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The restaurant was quite dark, highlighting the beauty of the Riyadh skyline.

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The service was absolutely phenomenal. We felt pampered from the moment we arrived at the restaurant. We were ushered to seats on the edge of the floor, near the outside of the Globe so we had an unobstructed view of the city.

image We ordered delicious (non-alocholic) drinks… and recieved beautiful qail egg appetizers (on the house) to start… along with a mound of beautiful fresh bread!

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I also savoured a beautifully smooth and creamy potato soup with salmon…

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Followed by a melt-in-your-mouth duck fois gras…

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The main course was absolutely delectable. I had the best roast lamb I’ve ever had in my life!!!!! Crusted with herbs and pistachios… it was incredible!!

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And then to finish… a beautiful creme brulee and specialty coffee (unfortunately non-alcoholic again).

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Every mouthful was an absolute ecstasy! My taste buds were singing. Every sense was overwhelmed. The beautiful view. The gentle classical music in the background. The overwhelmingly gorgeous tastes of the food. And enjoying it all with my lovely friend Sarah who was enjoying it all just as much as me.

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After our meal, the host, who was supremely friendly and helpful, offered us a table up in the cigar lounge (one floor up at the very top of the Globe) so we could linger a while longer. Unfortunately all the tables were full, so instead he took us down to the observation deck so we could look out over the city and even took pictures for us!!!

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After we’d had our fill of the beautiful view… and the strong winds, he took us back up to the Globe and presented us with beautiful grape juice cocktails and Saudi coffee while we waited for our driver to come pick us up.

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It was an absolutely phenomenal experience. Next time will most likely be different as the view the first time, is definitely what makes the experience so much more special. But… I know I will thoroughly enjoy every time that I visit this place!! Next time for high tea perhaps?!

As a note… the Globe is really expensive… it’s not an every weekend kind of place to go to… but it is definitely worth it to go check it out as it’s more than just food… it’s the whole experience!!! More “reviews” of great Riyadh restaurants to come… but for now… check out Blue Abaya’s post on the top 10 restaurants in Riyadh!

Now for the next chapter in princess life… (Just kidding… I’m no princess!! But I do feel like I’m living a dream sometimes here!!!)

Masalaam

xo

annemarie