Want to know how to travel in style, just like the pros? We check in with frequent fliers to find out how often they fly, their favorite destinations and what they never leave home without.
Name: Hajar Ali
Occupation: Founder of Urbane Nomads and Travel Like A Humanitarian
College: Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (Now Rajaratnam School of International Studies)
College major: Strategic Studies
Facebook: Urbane Nomads
Short bio: Founder of Urbane Nomads, a travel company specializing in luxury travel to remote places and Travel Like A Humanitarian. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and first woman to cross the Empty Quarter.
How many countries have you been to? According to the list on Travellers’ Century Club, about 60 countries.
How many continents have you been to? Five.
Earliest travel memory: The most impactful earliest memory was, as a pre-teen, when my family and I were driving past the Red Sea. I saw a man, dressed in all white, galloping on a grey/white steed on the beach. It was such an elegant vision that I decided I was going to ride horses there and then.
Favorite international city: Istanbul. I don’t know a city with more soul or a more poetic skyline. It used to be Beirut followed by Buenos Aires. I think I’d start enjoying Buenos Aires more once I pick up more Spanish. Also plan on spending some time in the Estancias in Pilar, etc. on the fringes of Buenos Aires.
Least favorite country: My least favourite city is Tehran but only because I think I stayed there longer than I’d intended.
Country with the meanest immigration officers: I was going to say Tehran for its severe lady custom officers but I just remembered Marrakech. Ironically, I had a lot of problems at the airport because of my Muslim name. I’m assuming that the immigration officers believed that I’d stolen the passport since I didn’t look Arab or African and therefore couldn’t possibly be Muslim.
Favorite World Heritage Site: Lamu Old Town. Where your airport transfer is a full-fledged dhow and, being completely pedestrianized, your sole modes of transportation on the island would be on foot or by donkey. A common view from my room would be donkeys and women in purdah walking past. Swahili architecture is stunning and the traditional baths were reminiscent of the baths in the kampong houses in Malaya. Another reminder of how coastal trade would have created a cross-influence of cultures and traditions was when I attended one of the pre-wedding ceremonies in Lamu. The rites, scents and props brought back memories I was barely conscious of, of Malay weddings of old that I might have attended when I was a child in the late ‘80s.
Favorite airline: I like Qatar, Singapore Airlines, Emirates. Also Air France for its music and movie selections and have a fondness for Malaysian Airlines. The staff always seem genuinely warm and it was the airline I’d taken to Beirut on my first long-distance solo trip.
Favorite aircraft type: African bushplanes. Flying low to view wildlife, buzzing airstrips in remote parts of Africa and the personal stories of its many colourful pilots—Africa is always amazing!
Aisle or window: Aisle.
Favorite airport lounge: I don’t think I travel to enough major cities. Singapore’s JetQuay is really nice and I want to try Cathay Pacific’s First Class Lounge in Hong Kong, the latter a city I’ve yet to go to.
Favorite international airport: Skardu airport in Pakistan for the stunningly rugged landscape as you land and Calafate airport in Argentina, both for its stunning natural scenery as well as for its Carlos Ott-designed sleekness.
Favorite hotel: This is difficult. In terms of chains, I like the Singita hotels and the Four Seasons Resorts. One-offs: I loved Malikha Lodge in Putao in the Burmese Himalayas. For such luxury to exist in such remoteness is incredible and I loved how the original owners had put in a lot of thought into making the hotel an environmental and socially responsible project. Titilaka by Lake Titicaca is also amazing for the soul, as is Lemarti’s Camp in Laikipia.
Favorite island: Vamizi was interesting, largely because it’s such a schlep to get to.
Favorite beach: I don’t believe I’d enjoy a beach holiday. My favourite beach-related travel experience though was in Putao where, after some time rafting down the Nam Lang river through incredible scenery, we’d found an advance team had set up picnic and sunbathing spots for us on the beach and were ready for us with water and fresh towels.
Favorite fancy restaurant: Feriye Lokantasi in Istanbul. I love its location by the Bosphorus, incredible views, historical setting, food, and immaculate service. The restaurant serves sarayi cuisine (food reconstructed from Ottoman palatial archives).
Imago at Hotel Hassler in Rome has amazing views but for food and service, my go-to favourite is the Hotel Raphael. I remember going through the crowds and madness during a post-election riot in Rome and then having this amazing dinner with a friend in the Hotel Raphael. Cheesily echoing a theme of the Grand Budapest Hotel, it was a welcomed “glimmer of civilization.”
On my go-to list is Lysverket in Norway which I’d planned on going to after a kite-skiing trip. The journey involved in getting to Lysverket—a train trip and a cruise through the Norwegian fjords, makes this a real destination restaurant.
Favorite hole-in-the-wall: Ezo seafood in Hirafu Village, Niseko. A cult favourite, this requires an advanced booking to ensure a seat. Great seafood and good place to unwind after a day of skiing.
In Singapore, I love Warong Nasi Pariaman, a nasi padang (rice with several dishes to choose from and the cuisine of the Minang people in West Sumatra, Indonesia). My extended family had grown up with the food and the place is so popular the best dishes run out within two hours of opening.
Favorite bar: The Horn Bar at the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai. The wall art features grotesque mythological figures from various regions in Myanmar. I’d asked the staff where I could get the same (the Golden Triangle border) and I believe this was one of the first things that created an interest in visiting Myanmar.
The jazz bar at the Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai is also nice when the old jazz band is performing.
Favorite fruit: Acai. I had acai smoothies almost everyday when I was in Rio. I try to get the same back in Singapore but the stores rarely have it in stock.
Favorite food: I’m largely pescetarian so it never takes long for me to decide what I want on a menu.
Drink of choice (in the air and on the ground): Water.
Favorite travel movie(s): Cheesy but true—the Before Sunrise/After Sunset trilogy. I also enjoy giallos—a lot of movies in this genre feature beautiful scenery of the Italian countryside and landmarks.
Favorite travel show(s): Hardly watch TV.
Favorite travel book(s): George Orwell’s “Burmese Days”—bought and finished in Myanmar and Kiran Desai’s “Inheritance of Loss”—bought at the airport during a 5-hour layover and which I finished on the flight back. I remember being depressed for an entire week after reading the book. No one captures the futility of human existence better than South Asian writers.
Right now I am reading: “Disaster was my God”—the outlaw life of Arthur Rimbaud. Fact is stranger than fiction and Rimbaud’s multiple incarnations as bad-boy poet and arms trader in Ethiopia is surely worth reading.
Top 3 favorite travel newsletters/magazines/blogs: The Culture Trip, Reorient and Cornucopia.
Favorite travel website(s)—besides JohnnyJet.com, of course! Passion Passport is nice.
5 things you bring on a plane: Facial spritz; a jacket to keep warm; L’occitane cuticle cream; and because I’d run out of things and need to bring up the obvious, phone and passport.
What do you always seem to forget? Thankfully I hardly forget anything important.
What do you like least about travel? The time spent waiting in airports.
What do you want your loved one to buy you from an airport Duty Free store? Something the country is famous for—locally floral teas that “bloom” in China, Royce Chocolates in Tokyo and other desserts in Hokkaido and almond dates in Dubai.
Favorite travel app(s): Guidance, an app that lets you know the Muslim prayer times in different cities in the world. Whatsapp which we almost take for granted now and I’m now toying with Air France’s music app, an app that allows you to point your phone towards the sky to listen in on what’s playing. The music is different in different cities. Love both the whimsicality of the idea as well as Air France’s playlist.
Most embarrassing travel moment: In Bhutan, brushing my teeth in my undies and coming out into the room to see one of the hotel staff adding wood into the fireplace.
Worst travel moment: My patience was sorely tested in the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. The photos were incredible though and it’s always the toughest trips that make the greatest impression.
What’s your dream destination? Quite a few but on top of the list would be Kamchatka, more of Africa (Congo, Southern Sudan) and I want to try the five-gaited Icelandic horses.
Favorite travel charity: I’d not personally contributed to this but recently found out about Tracey Friley’s “Passport Party” project which “gifts underserved American girls aged 11-15 with their very first passports.” I think it is a brilliant idea. Another project, not a charity but an initiative, is Paired Air, a website where you can find NGOs looking for supplies to be delivered to them. You can help out by volunteering to deliver these supplies if it coincides with your travel destination.
Best travel tip: Always be in the moment. I can’t emphasize that enough. To be able to experience the place as it is without a thought of what’s past and what’s next. It helps to travel alone so you’re not caught up with who you were “back home.”