Circle Cafe: An Adorable Oasis in the Middle East

One of the things I love about visiting unfamiliar places where friends live is that they have had the advantage of time to find all sorts of hidden gems around their area. (For our friends that visit us in Los Angeles, I have a ton of them!) So we were thrilled to visit some of our friends’ favorite places in Abu Dhabi.

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On our second day there we had a delightful and delicious lunch at Circle Cafe. It was a lovely place with enormous windows that let in an incredible amount of natural light, which was soothing and hapiness inducing. AbuDhabi150

I’d not thought about creating a design theme around one geometric shape before, but somehow the “circle” theme was inspirational to this interior designer and became a successful grounding element for the entire cafe.  Circles were repeated in the tables, chairs, ceiling, and lighting fixtures throughout the cafe. Even the placemats were circles.AbuDhabi151

And smartly, those circles were broken up by beautiful brown leather chairs and natural wood tables that were set up in an invitation that seemed to say “come in, stay a while, bring your laptop or borrow a book and be our friend for the day.” And there were a few people there who had done just those things it seemed.AbuDhabi157

I loved the unfinished wood pieces along the sides of the space as well. I am a total sucker for combining modern and vintage/antique furniture, so this subtle nod to that method made me feel right at home.
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Of course I also felt at home staring at their baked goods all during lunch. Yum! I should also say, they had chosen the perfect gray wall color to contrast with the white furniture and trim. This place feels much like what I hope our kitchen will feel like when we’re finished redecorating it!AbuDhabi152

And I loved their paper lighting fixtures. They are definitely decorative (I don’t think these would light the space at night in the slightest), but I love the way the light within glows through just enough to highlight the edges of the strips that make up this whimsical design.AbuDhabi139

Ok, I know this isn’t design related, but I can’t resist mentioning how delicious these juices were. The green one was the best mint lemonade I had the whole trip. Yum!AbuDhabi137What do you think? Do you like the design of this cafe?

Architecture of Abu Dhabi and Dubai

One of the things I was most excited about when planning our trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai was the chance to see, in person, some incredible architecture that I’d only previously heard about in books or on the web. Because the area is so new, and so rapidly developing, there is a tremendous amount of innovative, almost futuristic looking design on their skylines. Some of the skyscrapers will make you feel like you’re living in a science fiction movie. By contrast, there’s also an effort to create full-experience environments in some other cases. Those buildings seem to emphasize opulence, sometimes boast a specific theme, and have a bit of the feeling of Las Vegas or Disneyland. Going from one to the other can seem a little disjointed at times, but it’s all an important part of the look of the cities.

In Abu Dhabi, there was a recurring style element of buildings that almost looked like sliced sausages, with the roof sitting at an extreme angle. We saw this all over the city.

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Of course there’s the surreal environment I talked about last week created at the Grand Mosque. This design was the result of a combined effort by architects and designers from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

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We also stopped by Ferrari World to take a look at that architectural feat. It’s an indoor theme park (so imagine a structure big enough to house Disneyland), home of the fastest rollercoaster in the world. Designed by Benoy Architects, the scope of the structure is hard to describe. There’s no easy way from the ground to get a good view of the entire building, but from the pictures I’ve seen of it from above, it doesn’t look real! The design of the building and it’s entryway were quite modern and futuristic feeling. And very smartly, the architects included a light funnel to bring daylight into the center of the structure.

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In the more residential parts of Abu Dhabi, we came across a different kind of design style altogether. These buildings were much more modest, and seemed to embrace the desert and Middle Eastern cultures and traditions much more than the competitive skyscraper designs.

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I loved these bridges, which combined so many different shapes; they were geometric but also somehow organic at the same time. They were always a really interesting view on the water.

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Next to a museum we spent some time in, we also stopped to take a look at the UAE Pavilion. Designed by Foster and Partners for the 2010 Shanghai World’s Fair, the entire structure was reassembled in Abu Dhabi and is now used as an international art museum. Unfortunately it was closed the day we went, so I didn’t get to see the inside. (Side note: Right nearby they are working on building a Louvre and a Guggenheim museums, which promise to be spectacular!)

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Our friends who live in Abu Dhabi have an apartment high up in one of this cluster of buildings. They are new skyscrapers, built within the past couple of years, and definitely seem to fit with the efforts to build now with future design in mind.

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But then they have a view of Emirates Palace, which is just about as opposite as you can get. Emirates palace has a bit of the pretend-world feeling that Las Vegas tends to have.

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Dubai sometimes took that Vegas-like pretend world to another level. We took a stroll through Atlantis, a huge, over the top, themed resort that made me feel like I could be in the king’s castle in The Little Mermaid. No corner was left untouched by the ocean theme. They even had a very impressive aquarium.

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The Dubai Mall also had an amazing aquarium, sharks and all. And outside of the mall was a dancing water fountain, designed by the same people that designed the water fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

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Dubai’s reputation in architecture is a bit more well-known, largely because of two buildings. One is the Burj Al Arab, designed by architect Tom Wright. Built to look like a sail, it is currently the fourth tallest building in the world. It’s a high end luxury hotel and sits on a manmade island, connected to the mainland by one bridge.

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And the other is, of course, the Burj Khalifa, by architect Adrian Smith. The Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. It’s hard to mentally process just how incredibly enormous this building is. It only starts to become clear when you realize just how much taller it is than any other building that surrounds it. It is so tall in comparison that it gives the impression of being the only building in the sky. To put the sheer height of this incredible structure into perspective, there is a new project I heard about recently in Los Angeles to build the city’s tallest building, which will sit 78 stories high. The Burj Khalifa has 163 floors, and you would be able to see the curvature of the earth from the top. Aside from the extreme height of it, it is a beautiful building. It really seems like this perfect precious gem among all that surrounds it. This was my favorite building we saw, and having drinks on the 124th floor was one of my favorite moments of the trip. Only since I’ve been home have I begun to realize how rare of an opportunity that was.

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Dining and Design in the UAE

For our entire vacation in the Middle East, it struck me how well we were eating. We never had bad food, not even once. It also struck me that the service at restaurants in the UAE was always top notch. Really impeccable. We certainly felt spoiled! Here is a highlight of our favorite dining experiences from the UAE.

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One night, the friends we were visiting took us to their all time favorite restaurant in Abu Dhabi, called 18 Degrees (named because if the building it resides in, which is built at an 18 degree angle). It was an opportunity to meet their friends (mostly expats from the US and the UK) and for them to share with us one of their favorite places.

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The interior embraces the building’s lean, and seems to use the steel reinforcement as an important element of the decor, rather than trying to disguise it.

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The kitchen is open to the dining room, and we were lucky enough to be sitting right next to the kitchen so we were able to watch the magicians at work.

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When we got to our table, the restaurant manager had left this note for each of us, addressed to each individual person. This was not prearranged by our friends, just something that they did to make us feel welcome and well taken care of.

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All of the food was incredible. They had started us off with a variety of appetizers, already divided into a sample plate of sorts for each of us, to ensure we could all try each one. Then our main courses arrived. I ordered their duck leg (which was our friend’s favorite dish there… which such a shining recommendation, I couldn’t resist) and it did not disappoint! Definitely the best duck I have ever had. And we even had a chance to tell the Michelin rated chef as much. He came out to our table a couple times to see how we were doing and to chat with us a bit.

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They treated us all to complimentary champagne, and then of course we drank lots of wonderful wine. And after our meals were done their cheese specialist came downstairs with these unexpected and quite decadent variety of cheeses, some as old as 15 years and all unpasteurized. The staff described each cheese in detail, just as they had done with each appetizer, meal, dessert, and cocktail (each by their own specialist). If you know me well, you know I love cheese… a lot! So I was in heaven!

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AbuDhabi610Just the next night, to cap off a day in Dubai, we had reservations for another incredible place. Rather than pay an entry fee to ride an elevator to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, we opted to have a luxurious evening of cocktails at the bar and lounge on the 124th floor, called Atmosphere.

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Yes, the cocktails were unique and delicious. And yes, the service was once again amazing. But I was in interior design heaven, surrounded by what looked to be glossy bent mahogany, like something you might see on a very expensive yacht. The warmth of the wood exaggerated the warmth of the sunset coming in through the windows.

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And yes, we were 124 stories up for sunset. This photo will not do the view justice… it’s hard to describe just how far you are able to see while looking out a window at that height. It doesn’t seem real!

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On our final night in Abu Dhabi, before the four of us jumped on a plane to Istanbul, we took my hubby to Emirates Palace for dinner at Hakkasan, an awesome Asian fusion restaurant (which I understand has locations in several cities around the world).

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I loved the decor! Once again, we felt surrounded by beautiful wood, but this time in a form much more open.

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There were a couple different seating set-ups, but all were both modern and comfortable with great use of materials like wood and leather.

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Outside, there was what seemed like a bridge or boardwalk leading to beautiful, almost tropical looking, outdoor lounge areas.AbuDhabi706 AbuDhabi708

Once again, the food was to die for. It started with some delicious, tender, perfectly flavored dim sum.

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Then we shared a few main courses, family style if you will. My favorite one was the sea bass cooked in wine (I’m sure the menu described it much more eloquently!) But the lotus root dish was pretty amazing too, I’d never had anything quite like it before.

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And when they learned that it was his birthday, they brought this dessert out so we could sing to him embarrassingly. Because what would a birthday be without that.

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One thing I feel certain about is that Abu Dhabi and Dubai are doing it right when it comes to hospitality and dining. No expense seems spared in the design, and the service could make any average joe feel like a millionaire!

What do you think? Do you like the design of these restaurants? Does the food look intriguing?

Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque

While in Abu Dhabi, we took some time to visit the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi’s grand mosque. This was the first mosque I had been to, and quite an extravagant one for me to make my introduction with. (This mosque is worlds away from the seemingly ancient mosques we visited in Istanbul the following week.) As I mentioned earlier this week, Sheikh Zayed was the president of the Emirates and the beloved leader who was responsible for the oil lease arrangement that ensured the wealth of their country and its natives. This enormous structure is a striking symbol of both that extreme wealth and of their dedication to the Muslim religion.

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This mosque is the source of the daily prayer for the entire city. Unlike the centuries-old mosques of Istanbul, which seemed to almost compete for your attention, in Abu Dhabi the call to prayer is broadcast out to all of the surrounding mosques in one unified declaration.

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The outside of the mosque features pools of water meant to shows the mosque’s own reflection when lit up at night.

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The floors and columns throughout are climbing with vines of inlaid stone floral designs. An incredible variety of stones  were used for these designs, and they are the most colorful ornamentation on the grounds.

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Gold leaf is also used in detailing and on columns, highlighting the opulence of all the materials used.

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When you first walk into the lobby area, before entering the courtyard, you immediately begin to get a sense of the scale of this enormous place, with high ceilings and the even higher inset undersides of the domes. Each dome is ornamented like lace, and each seems to be of a different design than the last.

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A little bit of a precursor to our trip to Istanbul, there were also a couple walls of Iznik tile designs. We would be seeing lots and lots of this in Turkey!

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Even the ablution room (where worshipers go to wash their hands and feet before prayer) is an incredible place, built almost entirely of green marble.

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The entire structure is constructed of white marble. Between the marble and the bright, hot sun, when you enter into the courtyard you feel like you might be in a glowing white dream world.

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There is an incredible amount of detail carved into the marble, again in the form of these beautiful, lace-like vines.

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Each dome is topped with a crescent moon, an important symbol for Islam.

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The lobby at the entrance to the prayer room boasted a different kind of design. Almost a combination of the inlaid stones and the carved white marble, these flowery vines used the same tremendous variety of stones but were embossed rather than inlaid.

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The chandeliers throughout use Swarovski crystals, including this one in the lobby, and were surrounded by even more elaborate ornamentation.

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You are greeted by more gilt gold as you enter the prayer room.

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The grand mosque’s prayer room is large enough to house 40,000 worshipers at a time.

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Upon entering the room, the first thing you will notice is the giant Swarovski crystal chandelier, estimated to be the third largest chandelier in the world. It’s also surrounded by a tremendous amount of beautiful ornamentation, some carved and some inlaid.

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It seems that little goes untouched by ornamentation here. Inlaid mother of pearl, carved marble, and gilt gold details can be seen throughout.

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Not even the wood elements, like the carts that hold copies of the Quran for worshipers or the wood panels that line the room, are free of this incredible detail and craftsmanship.

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The wall opposite of the entrance is not only peppered with the names of the profits (written in Arabic), but the detail around them glows from daylight being subtly let in from the outside through the vine-like designs.

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The carpet that lines the floor in the prayer room is the world’s largest carpet, handmade by more than a thousand people. It is one piece that covers the entire floor, and is even made to perfectly fit around the flower-petal column bases.

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The Sheikh Zayed Mosque is otherworldly, a sight I am so glad we took time to experience while we were there. A product of architects and designers from around the world, the craftsmanship is impeccable and the use of materials and ornamentation seems to be of another era altogether. It’s hard to imagine this was just recently built (in 2004). It’s such an integral part of the Abu Dhabi horizon, it seems that it should have been there forever.

What are your thoughts on the ornamentation and inlay?

This Week I Loved… Travel Edition: United Arab Emirates

(aka This Week in the UAE We Hope To Have Seen…)

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (Photo Credit – http://visitabudhabi.ae)

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UAE Pavilion (Photo Credit – http://www.constructionweekonline.com)

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Emirates Palace (Photo Credit – http://commons.wikimedia.org)

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The Arabian Desert (Photo Credit – http://www.nature.com)

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The Burj Khalifa (Photo Credit – http://architecture.about.com)

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Ferrari World (Photo Credit – http://www.bestdubaiholidays.com)

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Sunset Yoga (Photo Credit – http://www.timeoutabudhabi.com)

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Next week we’ll be moving on to Turkey! Stay tuned to follow us along on our journey.

Today We Are In: the United Arab Emirates

At this point in the week, we have been in the UAE for four days visiting with these wonderful friends.

469We’re spending this week in Abu Dhabi, where they live. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and is second to Dubai as the largest city in the UAE. Because it is a quickly developing city and one of the most expensive cities in the world, we are expecting to see lots of newly constructed skyscrapers and gorgeous resorts. We’re also expecting a hot sandy desert surrounding the city. We’ll be staying with our friends right near Emirates Palace.

Abu Dhabi is also home to Ferrari World, which is “the largest indoor and first Ferrari theme park.” It looks gigantic!

We’re also planning to get into Dubai this week, since it’s only about a 45 minute drive from Abu Dhabi. Dubai is a bit of an older city, and so we’re expecting more historical structures among the giant sky scrapers there. Dubai is home to the tallest building in the world and architectural phenomenon  the Burj Khalifa. I’m super excited to see it in person, and even better we will be celebrating my husband’s birthday over dinner there. It will be a birthday to remember, for sure!

Have you been to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, or do you want to go? What would you want to see there?

How I Fit Everything I Need For A Two Week International Vacation Into One Carry-on Bag

Ok, to be fair, the time of year helps a lot. In the UAE we’re expecting low temperatures of around 85 degrees and highs in the 105 degree range (Fahrenheit). My history in Arizona makes me specially qualified to be able to predict what this will be like (hot, but manageable). Then in Turkey we’re expecting lows of around 62 and highs in the 75 degree range. Just like California! I have to admit, it is definitely comforting to have a pretty good idea of what to pack. I am a chronic over-packer, but this time I was determined to pack light. There is the likelihood of doing a load of laundry at our friends’ apartment in Abu Dhabi before we all jump on a plane to Istanbul. But even so, this was challenging. Here’s how I did it.

Dresses are key! When packing for a vacation like this, I wanted to be able to dress light for the weather, be comfortable, and also have a few different outfit options over the course of the trip. There will be lots of pictures, after all! I started with these four dresses. Dresses take up much less space than a pants/shirt combo.

DSCN0828I do want to switch it up a bit though, so planning ahead I put together a variety of outfits. These lightweight khakis are ankle length and I love that they’re colorful, but not too loud. I’m bringing a lightweight long-sleeved sweater and an easy-going white t-shirt to pair with them.

DSCN0860I am, and probably always will be, a jeans-kinda-gal, so I couldn’t resist including these outfits too. I tried to include a variety of sleeve lengths to account for the range of temperatures we’ll be experiencing.

DSCN0863I’m aso bringing a couple lightweight cardigans and a jean jacket. These will serve two purposes: they will keep my arms warm on a cool night, and they will also function as lightweight cover-ups when we’re in conservative areas that may traditionally prefer women to be more covered. These three basics will work with just about every other item of clothing I’m bringing with me.

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I threw in this catch-all little black number for a night on the town, specifically for the hubby’s birthday dinner at the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It will be a cause for celebration!

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I’m also making sure to bring a swimsuit for those luxurious resorts we’re hoping to drop into in Abu Dhabi, and my favorite yoga outfit so I can go to one of the classes our friend will be teaching while we’re visiting her and her husband in the UAE.

DSCN0845And of course shoes. This is a little more tricky and one of the areas I usually have the most trouble with, but this time I packed shoes on a need-only basis. I’m also lucky that my friend there has the same size shoe as me, so if I need an alternative option I can borrow one of hers. (That’s the plan for shoes to pair with that little black dress I’m bringing for the hubby’s birthday dinner!) So for bare necessities, I chose a loafer and a sandal. Both are Born shoes, which are super supportive and comfortable. Comfort and support are necessary with all the walking we’ll be doing.

DSCN0851Adding in a couple sets of pajamas and of course all the underwear and toiletries I will need, and the suitcase is pretty full. But not too full, so I can carry my bag on the plane if I want to. Mission accomplished! It’s a little heavy, but I’m sure the hubby will help me lift it into the overhead compartment if I bat my eyes a little bit. 

Do you think you could do it, pack for two weeks in a carry-on?