Marvelous Mayfair: 48 hours in the exclusive London neighborhood

The Mayfair area of London. (Shutterstock)
Updated 11 December 2018
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Marvelous Mayfair: 48 hours in the exclusive London neighborhood

  • One of the most lavish areas to be in London, Mayfair
  • Truly something magical about West London

DUBAI: It’s the most expensive property in the British version of “Monopoly,” reflecting its lavish status, so a trip to London’s Mayfair isn’t going to be a budget getaway. But there’s more to this affluent area than high-end shopping — all you have to do is take the time to explore. Mayfair is home to numerous art galleries, restaurants, cafés, parks, and more, and the festive period offers the perfect backdrop, with spectacular decorations.

There’s truly something magical about West London during the holidays, so if you have never visited the English capital in the colder months before, it’s well worth the extra thermals.
Covering the well-known areas between Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly and Park Lane, Mayfair is home to several prestigious properties and landmarks, including Claridge’s, The Dorchester, The Ritz and Green Park. It’s also cemented its reputation as an international art hub, thanks to the big-name galleries scattered all over.

One that definitely shouldn’t be missed is The Royal Academy of Arts in Burlington House, which dates back to 1768, making it the oldest fine arts society in the world. It marked its 250th anniversary with a newly expanded campus this year. We visited the Oceania exhibit (which runs until December 10), featuring 200 fascinating pieces spanning 500 years, all exploring the history and identity of the continent, and including work from New Guinea, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, and Australia. Fun fact: Meghan Markle’s first solo appearance as a royal saw her attend the opening of this exhibition.
Food in Mayfair is an art form in itself. You’ll be spoiled for choice, with everything from Indian fusion to Japanese on offer, and many halal options available too. For lunch, book a table at the exceptionally Instagrammable NAC Mayfair, a staple of the area and one that continues to delight with its incredibly friendly service and delightful dishes. Must-tries are the truffled mac and cheese, plus the ridiculously delicious crushed milk-chocolate cookies, served with the nicest ice-cream we have ever sunk a spoon into, and topped with Frosties.
Dinner will require a little more planning. We were lucky to find a table at the trendy Hide — which earned a Michelin star just five months after opening earlier this year. It’s best to reserve as soon as you book your flight. Launched by acclaimed British chef Ollie Dabbous — a self-described “mixed grill” who was born in Kuwait and is of Lebanese-French heritage — Hide is the place to see and be seen; chances are you’ll bump into a celeb while you are there. The à la carte menu is reasonably priced (mains are around $45), with dishes made of seasonal offerings, sourced from small farmers and suppliers across the UK.

Claridge's hotel. (Getty Images)

While we did mention earlier that there’s more to Mayfair than shopping, there’s still nothing wrong with a spot of retail therapy while you’re there. But skip the big chains and famous designers, and opt for the more unusual merchants instead.
Browse Burlington Arcade, the renowned covered shopping destination that opened in 1819, before stopping at British perfumers Penhaligon’s for a one-on-one perfume-profiling session. Based on your hobbies, interests and personality, an in-house expert will be able to find the perfect fragrance for you.
For another quintessentially British experience, cross the road to Lock & Co. Hatters, the world’s oldest hat shop, founded in 1676. Having dressed figures including Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, and royals from the GCC, this institution sells all types of hats for men and women. Even if you don’t end up buying anything, it’s worth a visit just for the experience.
All that walking will no doubt leave you feeling hungry, so make your way to the Sheraton Grand London Park Lane, which has teamed up with Lock & Co., to host a special millinery-themed experience that includes sandwiches, and hat-shaped cakes and scones all served in the brand’s signature hat box. It’s the perfect way to end your shopping trip.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.