Sweet Life in the Sandpit | American Expat in Dubai Blog
Welcome to the Sweet Life in The Sandpit, a comprehensive site on great findings in the UAE, as well as a personal blog about my life. Find out what its like to be an American girl who went (semi) local, and follow me on my journey here in the mystical sandpit of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Over the past few years, we’ve built up a bit of a tradition where we host a pre-Ramadan lunch on the Friday before Ramadan starts. Its our last chance to hang out with family and friends without being exhausted from a full day of fasting. Its also a way of preparing and letting our kids experience the joys of the upcoming month.
Although we gather a lot during Ramadan, its always late in the evening and the kids are more than likely already asleep (or cranky and in desperate need of sleep!) and thats one of the main reasons why I like to host something in the day time, before the month begins. Sometimes we host it at home and some times we opt go to one of the many brunches in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. This year, we decided to have it at home and had top-notch quality catering done by Imperial Catering. They did a lovely job in setting up a gorgeous iftar-like set up in our backyard for our 15 adult guests and 6 kids between us.
After letting them know the date, they scheduled a visit to see the space and what kind of set up would work best. Initially, I wanted something indoors so that it wouldn’t compromise food quality, but while they were setting up on the day of the event, I soon realized that it would be much better, space-wise, if the entire buffet was set up outside.
They worked seamlessly in changing the set up and took everything outside, where the space was perfect for a full buffet. My initial worry about food going bad (if it was kept outside) was taken care of when they told me that all of their equipment and trays were durable in any weather, and won’t compromise the quality of food.
The guys who came were amazing in both organizing and in serving. They were very experienced and did a flawless job of setting up the entire buffet.
Since we wanted it to be Ramadan-themed, they even brought little table decor items, which was super thoughtful!
There were 4 different areas of the buffet: the salads, the mains, the desserts and the kids buffet. All of the food was incredibly delicious and they carefully prepared plenty to satisfy every kind of palette!
We wanted Arabic dishes with a bit of a mix, so in addition to traditional regional dishes like harees, ouzi, molokia, biryani, hammour, stuffed vine leaves and mouttabel, we also had exotic pineapple salad, pastas, steaks, mashed potatoes, etc. It truly was the perfect buffet menu for a group of people who like a mix of cuisines.
Before I go into how much weight I’ve lost, let me tell you a bit about my journey the past few years– and I’m going to be super transparent in everything! I’m 5’3″ (161 cm) and I’ve always been between 50-54kgs (110 – 120lbs) before I had kids, but my entire weight and body completely changed after I had them. This is to be expected, but I never thought that I would gain SO much weight even after I was done with my pregnancies. After delivering my first, I never really made too much of an effort to lose weight or change my diet. Life gets real busy when you’re a new mom without full-time help!
I stayed at a steady 65kg. When my son hit 2 years old I found out I was pregnant with my second. Since I didn’t lose weight from the first pregnancy, I was much heavier during my second. By the time I gave birth, I was 75kg and that was when I decided that I really needed a change.
Right Bite: The First Time Around
When my youngest was 2 months old, I tried Right Bite for the very first time. I loved the food, my incredible and dedicated dietician, Riham and the service. I even wrote a review about it, which you can read here.
I, however, didn’t stick to it for long because I found myself cheating quite often. It was hard dealing with a 2 year old and a breastfed newborn on a 1,200 calorie diet and I felt that the plan would be much more helpful to me once I stopped breastfeeding.
Fast Forward 2 Years
So last summer, we got back from a few weeks in LA and realized just how BIG I had gotten. My BMI was nearing 30 (the highest its ever been outside of pregnancy) and I was feeling horrible about myself. I was 76.4kg and I was even heavier than I was right after giving birth! There were only a few clothes that fit me and even those ones were getting tight. I gain weight in the worst places– stomach, face and arms– and its not flattering at all! I hated shopping because it was so hard to find clothes for my size (especially here in Dubai) and I even started feeling out of breath from simple things like walking around the mall.
It was definitely time for a change! I tried working out, but it wasn’t helping much and I soon realized that what I needed the most is a change in my diet. I experimented with different diets, but with a busy lifestyle as a full-time working mom (plus a side business) and 2 young kids, it was so hard to stick to them. Thats when I gave Right Bite a call.
Right Bite, The Second Time Around
Because I’ve tried it out before, I knew the quality of service and food were impeccable. I was certain that Right Bite was perfect for a long-term change. I met with my dietician, Riham, and she did a complete analysis of my body, weight and lifestyle. She recommended that I start on the Renew You Plan, which allows basically every type of food and is a total of 1,200 calories per day.
Its what I’ve been doing for the past 7+ months and its the only thing that has ever worked for me. I reached the target that Riham set for me and I’ve lost over 15kgs so far. I’m currently at 61kgs and I have another 4 kgs or so to lose for my personal goal, but for my height and body type, my weight now is completely healthy and I can see and feel a huge difference! Even the clothes I wore before I had my first kid fit me!
I can’t describe the feeling… to know that a goal that I was so aching to achieve has finally been met is so empowering.
The Plans and Lifestyle
There are many plans on Right Bite, and I’ve tried out a couple of them including the Renew You, the Detox and the Low Carb. For me though, I think the Renew You plan works best. I love my carbs, cakes and sweets and don’t like to be restricted. There are SO many options to choose from daily (literally about 15 different choices per meal) and it satisfies every craving. It also helps that choosing meals is super easy to do! Its all online.
I have one cheat day, Friday, where I can eat anything I want and usually its sushi, poke or something thats not on the Right Bite menu. I almost never cheat with pizza, cheesecake, sandwiches or any other food that I can easily get during the weekdays on Right Bite. Its really the perfect plan if you’re like me and don’t like to be limited.
I’m also not very active and didn’t work out the entire time I’ve been on Right Bite (tisk tisk, I know). I did start roller blading with the kids every once in a while and do activities that I find fun, but the gym and I are just not very good friends. Had I been working out during the past few months, I’m sure that I would have lost even more weight, but its just not my thing!
Every once in a while, I’ll have 2 cheat days a week, but my body has gotten so used to correct portion sizes that I know that I won’t overdo it. During vacations, I obviously can’t take my beloved Right Bite with me (although I do order small snack jars to take with me to curb sweet cravings). I never gained weight during my trips. Thats how I know that weight loss on Right Bite is completely sustainable!
The food is incredible. Trust me, I’ve seen the quality of food on other meal plan services because I’ve had friends and co-workers try out different ones, but Right Bite is definitely the best! The variety is amazing and I never get bored. I have the freedom to let them know my dislikes (e.g. capers, artichoke, pickles, etc.) so that they don’t include them in the meals. The seasoning is always on point and it doesn’t lack flavor. I do like a bit of spice, so I add some chili flakes to some dishes and its perfect!
Here in the UAE, A LOT of people aren’t getting quality sleep. It’s not shocking because most of us have fast-paced lifestyles, lots of social events and busy work schedules. To add to all that, raising babies and toddlers (who are not on proper sleep schedules yet) can make you infinitely more sleep deprived!
One of my resolutions for this year was to be better-rested; after all, its the backbone of being productive! I changed my bed, pillows, mattress and even the way that my bedroom gets cleaned and sanitized. Most days, I take a quick warm bath to calm my body and mind and ease myself into ‘rest-mode’. I use lavender-scented pillow sprays before going to bed and I find that scents have a huge role to play in dozing off. Its an essential way to get your mind and body completely relaxed, just moments before you sleep.
I had a really hard time finding good quality sleep products here in the UAE, so I ended up bringing some from LA. Had I waited just a few months more, I wouldn’t have to do that because now there is an entire exhibition that is ALL ABOUT SLEEP! The Sleep Expo Middle East is happening this very weekend from April 11-13th, 2019 at Dubai Festival City Arena and will have everything you could possibly dream of (haha, see what I did there) about sleep.
There will be a Sleep Care Zone where you can experience free services like Yoga-Nidra classes, sleep consultations, foot massages and so much more!
There will be experts that will be doing talks about sleep for pregnant women, babies and children, dealing sleep deprivation/insomnia and many other topics.
We’ve just gotten back from another vacation in Phuket. No matter how many times we visit the island, we’re still madly in love with it. Its an incredibly fun vacation spot for the entire family– and we always travel here as a family for this very reason.
Thailand is a very open and easy country to access from the UAE, as its only about 6 hours away by flight and it allows all of our passports (I’m American, hubby and kids are Emirati and our nanny is from the Philippines) to enter with visa on arrival. This makes things very simple for us– no prior paperwork needed and short notice travel is a breeze!
Because its such a gorgeous place, and because its so easy for us to travel here, we come to Phuket quite often. Every time we travel with the kids, I always get questions on Instagram DMs about how I choose the activities, etc. I thought I’d do a full article/guide on vacationing in Phuket as a family, split it into the best resorts/hotels, restaurants and activities (for both adults and kids), so enjoy the read!
What you need to bring:
I always tend to overpack, but Phuket really doesn’t require you to bring too much, as you can find quite a lot of things for much cheaper than it is back at home. When traveling with there kids however, I would highly suggest that you bring their medicines (paracetamol, cough syrup, mosquito bite spray/cream, etc.) and their specific brand of diapers and milk.
All of the swimwear, floaties, sunscreen, hats, toys, etc. can be bought in Phuket for a fraction of the price that they sell it for in Dubai.
There are also loads of places to buy clothes for adults and even though I pack a minimum of 1 outfit per day for myself, I always find myself choosing to wear things I buy while there. Trust me, don’t over pack! Save that luggage space and weight for the shopping (and loads of soaps) you’re going to bring back with you.
What you need to know:
Thai people are in general VERY kind people. They are so helpful and especially when they see that you are traveling as a family, they always try to help you. There are some things, though, that might catch you off guard– e.g. I got told off by a local woman for taking pictures of miniature pineapples at the supermarket (I’m still confused as to why, haha). You are not allowed to do anything disrespectful when it comes in regards to Buddha– this includes getting tattoos of buddha, etc.
Where to stay in Phuket:
We’ve stayed in about 7 different places in Phuket, but here are the ones that I would highly recommend for families:
Movenpick Resort & Spa Karon Beach Phuket
This resort is MASSIVE– so massive that we stayed for 4 days and didn’t cover a fraction of the entire place. We stayed in a 2-bedroom villa and its actually 3 bedrooms total! There are amazing pools for the whole family, play areas and so many restaurants and activities that you could literally spend an entire 4 days inside the resort and not get bored. You can read the full review here.
These are full-on villas, with kitchens, laundry rooms, private pools and garages. Its all of the comforts of home, as well as the luxuries of a hotel (cleaning services, breakfast, etc.). Its amazingly spacious and private and perfect for large families or groups of friends. We stayed in the 3-bedroom pool villa, but there are 2-bedroom villas, 6-bedroom villas and everything in between. Rawai Park, an amazing play area is just across the street and its perfect for kids! Here is the full review for our experience there.
This resort has its own private beach– literally. A lot of resorts say that they have their own beaches, but this resort is literally hidden in a beach of its own. The location itself is just a few minutes from both Karon and Patong. The resort has been around for decades and they’re very well-known. We stayed in their 2-bedroom suite and it has a breathtaking view!
This restaurant is royal Thai cuisine done right. Royal Thai cuisine is different from the Thai food we usually get in Dubai (or in the West), which mainly focuses on Thai street food. If you’re looking for a fine-dining experience and a taste of refined Thai food, this is the spot! The details of the restaurant (the art, the decor, the outfits they wear) and the food are impeccable. Our menu was even scented with jasmine! We tried a variety of dishes and I have to say that my favorite was their Lobster in Red Curry. Make sure to get it when you go!
Baan Rim Pa came highly recommended by my husbands friends, so we decided to give it a go. Honestly, its one of the best restaurants I’ve been to in Thailand and I truly understand why they’ve won so many awards (they literally have an entire wall of awards on display as you walk in). The restaurant is on a small cliff, facing the Andaman Sea. Unfortunately we were running a little late that day and ended up missing the sunset, but I can only imagine how incredible the view would’ve been. The view aside, the food and service were impeccable. The service was flawlessly on point– you can tell by the small details– like when they changed the candlelights, it was all done at exactly the same time for all of the tables in the restaurant (yes, I’m that picky and yes I notice these things, haha). We will DEFINITELY be coming back here again.
OrientAsia is one of the restaurants located in Movenpick Karon Beach Resort & Spa. We went there for dinner with the whole family and it has a very relaxed, but also very upscale vibe. There’s live music, a full buffet and also an extensive a la carte menu. There’s outdoor and indoor seating and kids are totally welcomed. They’re very family friendly! We ordered from the a la carte menu and everything was so delicious. The cuisine is mostly Thai, but there are also some other pan-Asian dishes on there. The prices are very affordable, which is quite surprising due to the location and ambiance (you would think its a lot more expensive than it is!). I really loved their appetizers and the presentation of them– my favorite was the fish cakes, they are the best in Phuket!
Ah Pum’s… I’ve literally been to this restaurant over 20 times. It’s my go-to restaurant in Phuket and usually its always for take-away. Its a very casual spot and located next to a few Arabic restaurants in Patong that my husband likes to order from, so while he’s there ordering his meshawi, I’m at Pum’s ordering my Thai Red Curry with Prawns. Its literally the only thing I ever order there, even though they have so many Thai dishes on their menu. If you’re looking for a very casual, clean, well-kept Thai restaurant thats very easy on the wallet as well, this is the place! They also have cooking classes — I took one once, and its a one-on-one experience. I learned how to make Tom Yum Goong, but never applied it in my actual life (I use the excuse of not being able to find the freshest ingredients here in the UAE, but in reality, its because I know I will mess it up)!
If you’re feeling like steering away from all of the spicy Thai food, Buffalo Steakhouse is actually an amazing place for Western food. They have really good quality steaks and all of the food we ordered there was very flavorful. The variety is really good too as they have all of the Western staples as well as some Thai and Asian dishes. Service however, was not anything to write home about. They were very slow, served all of the starters and mains jumbled up together and it felt like they were ignoring us most of the time, as it was always difficult to get their attention. The food, however, really made up for the bad service and thats why I would really recommend it.
Our airport pick up was ready and waiting as soon as we got out of Phuket Airport. Rawai VIP Villas sent a large van, fully equipped with water, snacks/sweets and an incredibly kind driver to take us. Within about 50 minutes, we were in Rawai and checking in to our villa. We went to the reception area to handle formalities and give a deposit (their deposits are very affordable compared to most hotels!), and then we were lead to our villa.
Since our flight got in at night, we couldn’t really explore the grounds of Rawai VIP Villas and nearby Rawai Park, so we had to wait until the morning for that. The location, however, is just a 2 minute walk from Rawai beach which has loads of restaurants, shops, bakeries, family marts, massage parlors, etc., so we knew that if we ever needed anything, we wouldn’t need to go far.
The Rawai VIP Villas has villas for large and small families/groups of friends. While we stayed in the 3-bedroom Lux Pool Villa, there are villas from 2 bedroom to 6 bedroom! You’re sure to find something that fits your family comfortably!
The villas are completely private. We had our own garage, own pool, 3 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms and a spacious yet homely living and dining area, fully-equipped kitchen and a laundry room.
The bedrooms are not interconnected so you have plenty of privacy— this is amazing if your traveling in a group of friends. All of the bedrooms have their own bathrooms and the living space is communal. The living room, dining room and kitchen are all in an open-space layout.
The pool is a proper pool, not just a small plunge pool, as in most hotel villa properties. Its quite deep as well, so get floaties for your little ones (which are easy and cheap to get in Phuket, you don’t need to carry it with you in your luggage).
Its a fully serviced villa, so you have the best of both worlds— the privacy of an actual villa without any of the disturbances of a hotel, but also a services (like cleaning, water, etc.) whenever you need it.
So you can get an idea of the 4 bedroom villas, have a look here:
We’ve been to the Al Bahou Friday Brunch at Movenpick Ibn Battuta several times before, so we knew exactly what to expect (but as always, were incredibly impressed)! I’ve written an entire review on it before, because I truly believe its one of the best brunches in town, but this time I want to tell you guys about celebrating my little Jude’s 2nd birthday at this brunch.
It was an easy decision to make because the set up is PERFECT for a kids birthday party— there are kids play areas, a bouncy castle, a kids buffet room, face painting and so much more! What I especially like is that, the play areas are so close to the brunch area, unlike so many other brunches that have their play areas (if any) in a completely different part of the hotel. I didn’t have to plan anything extra at all for the kids because the entertainment was already done for me!
The adults, of course, had an amazing array of food to choose from— its one of the most delicious brunches in the city! With almost every cuisine you could possibly crave (Arabic, Indian, sushi, traditional British roasts, Moroccan, etc.), you are certain to find something (or everything) that you love. There are even separate rooms for cheese, Chinese food, as well as non-halal items.
For my little Jude’s birthday, I ordered a cake from the hotel and emailed them some “inspo” pictures to get ideas from. We had a very small celebration, but I still wanted to make sure that Jude had a gorgeous cake to remember it by. They used some elements from the pictures and created something new. It turned out very cute and the kids loved it! The singer sang “Happy Birthday” to Jude, who as you can see, was in utter shock, haha!
We’ll definitely be coming back again for more brunches and I wouldn’t mind hosting another birthday party (for us, or the kids!) at this brunch. If you haven’t tried it out yet, book it as your next brunch!
Schooling in Dubai is expensive, guys— literally 10k-20k USD per year (and thats starting at pre-school)! Well, now Landmark Group’s initiative, Beat Diabetes has an amazing initiative going on that allows your kids to learn about healthy eating and win amazing prizes (like free schooling!) at the same time.
The Super Kidz initiative from Beat Diabetes is a drawing contest for kids aged 4-6 and a writing contest for kids aged 7-10. Spend a bit of quality time with your little ones, like I did with my 4-year old Khalifa, and teach them a bit about whats healthy and whats not. Have them draw it out, or write about it while helping create the Super Kidz comic. When they’re finished drawing or writing, submit it here and wait to see what prizes they might win!
The Super Prizes include school scholarships at GEMS, an iPad and so much more! What are you waiting for?! Sign up before times up!
Traveling, for me, is a way of getting away from the usual rush of daily life. My favorite destinations to visit are ones that make me feel like I’m a world away. After taking the Accor Travel Personality Test, it was confirmed that I’m definitely The Escapist. I love to escape into something very different from my reality. Life in Dubai is beautiful, luxurious, fun and always exciting, but sometimes I just want to get away and be in a serene, calm and simple place. Over the past few years, I’ve been noticing that my travel choices have been mainly to beach cities and tropical places.
My husband and I always travel with our little ones (Khalifa- age 4 and Jude age 1), so when it comes to traveling, we carefully choose locations that are kid-friendly, but also have plenty of fun options for the two of us. In addition to that, we also try to choose hotels that have spacious suites, since we don’t want to feel confined to a small space— especially with two kids that love to run around. I love staying at Accor hotels for this very reason!
Here are some of the places that we like to escape to:
1. Phuket, Thailand
Phuket is one of my favorite destinations to visit and even if I visited it on a yearly basis, I wouldn’t ever get bored of it! Its a wonderful mix of beach and small city life— this means that we can go to enjoy the secluded tropical beaches, but also not feel like we’ll miss out on any fun.
2. Koh Samui, Thailand
Koh Samui is a lot quieter than Phuket, and when we go there, we purely go to enjoy the luxurious resort villas and the private beach front access they offer. Its one of the best places to go to when you just want to relax.
3. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
KL is a lot like our city, Dubai, in many ways— there are lots of modern high-rise buildings, shopping malls and it has a very cosmopolitan feel. I love the convenience of traveling there with children because of this. One very stark difference between Dubai and KL, however, is that KL is tropical and it has a beautiful Asian charm to it!
4. Every so often, when we aren’t able to completely escape to a remote island, we love to do staycations here in the UAE. Along with several others, one of my favorite city getaways in Abu Dhabi is the Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche. It’s incredibly elegant, in a central location and the rooms and suites are spacious for our family. We always choose suites that face the beautiful blue waters of the Abu Dhabi Corniche. On weekends, (sometimes when we’re not staying overnight) we love to go to their Friday Brunch, as it has something for everyone!
5. Los Angeles, California
Although we live in Dubai and my husband is Emirati, I’m from Los Angeles. Although LA is not really an escape for me (because I’m so familiar with it), its always an escape for my husband and kids. They love that the lifestyle is so different from the way it is in the UAE, how there are many more outdoor and nature-based activities, and we all love the fact that we can spend time with my family there. For my kids especially, this is an escape because they get spoiled rotten by their grandparents!
What kind of traveller are you? Do you like to escape from reality when you travel (like me)? Do you seek adventure and thrill? Or maybe you are just a curious person with a need to explore. See what kind of traveller you are through thisPersonality Test and find out your best match destination in the Middle East.
If you love to travel, the Middle East is one of the most beautiful destinations to explore, and you can select through a plethora of Accor Hotels to see which one is the right one for you here.
*This article was done in collaboration with Accor Hotels.
Dubai is home to two Ritz-Carlton properties, one in DIFC and one in JBR. Although both are beautiful, the JBR one is much better suited to our needs, especially since we have two little ones in tow! The Ritz-Carlton in JBR has been around for a while, so of course I’m familiar with the property (having gone there several times for dinners and gatherings), but this was the first time we booked a stay there.
Its located at the very beginning of JBR, and its a hidden gem. You can’t really get a glimpse of what its like from the outside (while your just driving past it on JBR), and there is a zig-zag driveway that takes you to the front entrance. Its the perfect city resort–right in the middle of everything, but once you’re on the property, it doesn’t look like you’re on JBR at all!
The hotel itself has a luxurious Arabic-style decor in the lobby. Our check-in was smooth and we were escorted to our suite within minutes.
Our Family Suite:
We stayed in the Family Suite, which is a 2-bedroom suite, with a living/dining room, 3 bathrooms and 3 balconies. All of the balconies opened up to views of the beach!
Every year, I host 1-2 iftar gatherings for friends and family. This year, once again, my son Khalifa’s birthday happened to land on a day in Ramadan. Personally, I love that its been this way for the past couple of years because it makes it easier for me to organize.
I wanted it to be a very intimate gathering this year, with just close friends and family. We decided to have it at Bayside Restaurant in Steigenberger Hotel, which is located in Business Bay. I’ve been to the hotel several times (for Brothaus, the Spa, gatherings, etc.) , but this was actually the first time for me to try out Bayside Restaurant.
From my side, it literally required absolutely no preparations aside from booking Bayside Restaurant for 10 adults and 5 children, as well as letting them know what cake we wanted.
Yes, they do cakes. No, I’m not just talking about your basic buttercream roses and ‘Happy Birthday’ written in cursive. The hotel’s cake artist Nickola is INCREDIBLE at what she does. She made the exact cake that we wanted– a 4-tier dinosaur cake (oh yeah, that was the theme, by the way!), filled with plenty of foliage, hand-made dinosaurs of all kinds, a dinosaur-themed ‘4’ and a volcano to top it off.
Its the mother of all dinosaur cakes! My son was OBSESSED with it and was sitting next to it the entire evening.
Our table was a long row, and although it was in the open next to the other tables and buffet, it felt like we did have our own personal space.
Since it was just a small gathering, I just got some dinosaur table decor from Party Center (we always go to the one in Media City), and arrived about 15 minutes before iftar to decorate the table to the theme. To be honest, I had my heart set on this giant 5-foot dinosaur balloon from there but it wouldn’t fit in the car! We ended up having to get a smaller version, but it did the trick.
The hotel’s staff were so helpful in setting up and placing things where they needed to be.
The Iftar Spread:
Bayside Restaurant is the Steigenberger’s all day dining buffet restaurant, and during Ramadan its where the iftars are held. I LOVED the buffet spread because there were so many different things but it wasn’t an overwhelming amount. They’ve got different areas for the Arabic mezzes, salads, fried starters, a great variety of mains, a full lamb ouzi, mixed grills, shawarma, a selection of desserts (including pannacota, rose cheesecake, all kinds of cakes, Arabic desserts, fresh fruits, etc.) and a variety of Ramadan drinks.