10 reasons to love the Middle East

10 reasons to love the Middle East

You can buy gold bars from an ATM and make chewing gum a symbol of eternal love

There are a lot of things you can't do in the Middle East. Just ask that couple who got caught kissing on the beach in Dubai a few years ago. Twice. 

But there are a lot of things you can do, that you can't do anywhere else. Here are some of the best.


1. Bash dunes, Dubai

dune bashingCamels are fun, but can you shred sand on one?

There’s nothing like blasting music while riding a four-wheel drive haphazardly up and down sand hills to feel the rush that comes from dune bashing.

So much for slow-paced safaris and quiet dinners in tents -- this is one way to experience the desert that you can only do in the Gulf.

In Saudi Arabia, dune bashing is most popular in border cities such as Al-Khararah.

It's easier to find companies that organize dune bashing tours in Dubai, but the activity is just as popular in Saudi Arabia.

The only catch is that you either drive your own car, or rent quads from Bedouins if you happen upon them in the desert. 

Dubai Dune Bashing; +971 55 268 0498; bookings@dubaidunebashing.com; www.dubaidunebashing.com

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2. Buy gold bars from an ATM, Abu Dhabi

gold atm machineRecession? HAHAHAHAHA!

ATMs in Abu Dhabi’s fanciest hotel, the Emirates Palace Hotel, are no ordinary machines; some dispense bars of pure gold.

The gold ATMs in the hotel are gold-plated as well, offering curious customers 320 options that range from gold bars to customized coins.

Prices are constantly updated to reflect gold’s value in international markets, making this a pricey souvenir that can also be a good investment.

Or an interesting way to get rid of lots and lots of loose change.

Emirates Palace Hotel, Abu Dhabi, UAE; +971 2690 9000; www.emiratespalace.com

3. Rave in the desert, Morocco

desert ravingDon't forget the water.

It’s a wonder how everyone is able to get to the right place. "So you make a right after the fourth dune and a left by the palm tree?"

During cooler months, rave parties spring up in random locations in Morocco’s desert. 

Hundreds of people bring music, food and drinks to bring the sandy dunes alive -- usually when there’s a full moon. No funny business though; police are often present at the parties and can be tougher than border control.

Best way to hear about the parties is by word of mouth and making friends with locals. For big events, like New Year’s Eve or weddings, commercial operations can organize a party in the Sahara desert.

Your Morocco Tour; +212 622 454 191; yourmoroccotour@gmail.com; www.your-morocco-tour.com

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4. Visit a church-mosque-museum, Turkey

Haghia Sofia The face of many faiths.
Close to the heart of downtown Istanbul lies a mosque that was a church for nearly 500 years; religious harmony has real meaning in a country known for its history of faiths.

From a Roman Catholic Church in the 1200s to a Greek Orthodox church 200 years later, Haghia Sofia was a mosque for 500 years, from the 1450s until the 1990s.

Now it's a museum. Patrons can see portraits of Jesus next to a wall inscribed with words from the Quran. Aside from the stunning fusion of religious influences in the interior, the grounds boast fountains and manicured lawns.

Private Istanbul Tours; +90 256 613 1203; contact@istanbultoursonline.com; www.istanbultoursonline.com

5. Visit haunted caves, Oman

"Give it up, the phone's long gone."

In the remote Selma Plateau region in Oman, you may hear noises coming from a cave known as Majlis Al Jinn, Arabic for "meeting place of spirits."

Different points in the cave, one of the 10 largest in the world, are named after the American couple that discovered it in 1985 -- one of them never made it out alive.

As of 2008, people are no longer allowed to descend into the cave to explore on their own; it now serves as a show cave that attracts nearly 100,000 visitors a year.

Get there by car or hiking to the Selma Plateau or through a guided tour that includes other show caves in Oman.

Sun & Sand Tours; +968 9937 3928; naseeb@sunsandtours.com; www.sunsandtours.com/adventuretours

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6. Fish from a highway, Egypt

Abbas Bridge CairoNot recommended during protests on the bridge.
Abbas Bridge is part of a major highway in Egypt that crosses over the Nile river -- and in a crowded city like Cairo, there's no sense in wasting the little pavement space available.

People bring lawn chairs and go fishing right off the bridge, with cars speeding close by. This makeshift fishing pier is most popular with locals during summer -- although any fish caught is usually thrown back into the Nile.

See a Google map view here. Bring your own lawn chair.

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7. Drink in a bomb shelter, Lebanon

B018Look up to see the impressive star roof.

One of the hottest clubs in Beirut, B018 is designed to look like, and definitely feels like, a bomb shelter.

Insert speakers, bring in the crowds, add a roof that retracts to show the starry sky -- all the makings of a wild night.

Quarantaine, Beirut, Lebanon; +9611 5800 18; www.bo18.com

8. Spend US$100 on tea, Dubai

Burj Al Arab "All this for US$100? We''ll take two."

Surprisingly, this isn’t just for people with an obsession with tea. Yes, US$100 for tea sounds a little extreme, but tea time in the world’s only seven-star hotel is more about the experience than the flavored water.

Polished service, gloved waiters and sweeping views from the Skyview Bar are designed to give a taste of royalty and indulgence. You also get all-you-can-eat finger foods and a chance to try exotic teas. 

Burj Al Arab Hotel, Beqach Road, Dubai; +971 4 301 7600; baarestaurants@jumeirah.com; www.jumeirah.com

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9. Walk a chewing gum-lined street, Tunisia

Sidi Bou SaidWho needs Santorini?

The Tunisian village of Sidi Bou Said looks and feels exactly like a Greek island. The blue and white houses overlook a marina in this tiny town that's centered around one street.

It boasts Lover’s Walk, a tree-lined street where couples stick chewing gum onto trees as a tribute to love -- not everlasting, but love nonetheless. 

On the north coast of Tunisia, 20 kilometers from Tunis, roads and trains give easy access.

10. Visit the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar

Museum of Islamic ArtDesigned by Chinese American architect Leoh Min Pei, designer of the Louvre.

When the Museum of Islamic Art opened in Doha in November 2010, the glitterati of the art and architecture world flocked to Qatar as if the Louvre were being unveiled for the first time.

The building itself is said to be the last that renowned architect I.M. Pei worked on in the culture space. Home to one of the largest collections of Islamic art in the world, this museum is one of a string of cultural initiatives that are making a big name for the small Gulf nation of Qatar in the art world.

Museum of Islamic Art; Doha, Qatar; +974 4422 4444; www.mia.org.qa

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Originally published November 2011. Updated April 28, 2012.