The Vikings long snapper and his wife took a trip to the Middle East this offseason.
*EAGAN, Minn. – *With a 2017 African safari in the rearview mirror, Kevin and Lauren McDermott’s most recent journey took them to the sand dunes of the Middle East.
The Vikings long snapper and his wife share an affinity for adventure, a wanderlust sometimes quenched by an overnight on the North Shore but best-satisfied by an overseas trek.
“I think we were looking for a part of the world that we had never been before,” said Kevin.
It’s not necessarily an easy task for the McDermotts, who photographed gorillas in Rwanda, honeymooned in New Zealand and have explored the unique landscape of Iceland. But this year’s destination partially was picked on the suggestion of Lauren’s sister, a flight attended who has spent time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Lauren, who had been to Egypt with her family but not to the Arabian Peninsula, was eager for “something different, something new.”
In February, Kevin and Lauren took the nearly 13-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE with a population of more than 610,000. Upon arrival for their two-night stay, the couple was cognizant to dress in clothing that covered knees and shoulders in respect of the culture.
Attire was just one aspect of the trip that had been carefully thought out.
Kevin’s role on the football field requires precision, attention to detail and consistency. The McDermotts approach travel-planning in a similar fashion.
When asked how much of their vacations are spent spontaneously, with little-to-no agenda in mind, Kevin and Lauren exchange a glance before laughing.
“Not at all,” Kevin said.
“We’re both Type-A personalities,” Lauren added almost simultaneously.
“Very much so,” Kevin quickly confirmed.
Most trips, whether two days or two weeks, are carefully planned by Kevin and Lauren, who dive into reviews, research of the area, even studying Instagram posts to find “off the beaten path” restaurants or hotels that might catch an eye. Lists are created and itineraries arranged.
As in the instance of clothing choices, it often pays off.
“If you just wing it and walk around in a tank top and shorts, you could be walking around and unintentionally offending a lot of people,” Kevin explained.
The couple spent two nights in Abu Dhabi, a more urban, tourist-targeted city. It was there that they toured the Sheikh Zayed (“Grand”) Mosque, which opened in 2007 and is the largest in the country. The Grand Mosque is also one of the few mosques in the world open for public visitors during certain times of the day. Female visitors are lent a specific floor-length garment to wear while visiting.
“All of the flowers and things [on the pillars] are made of inlaid marble, and the detail is just amazing,” Lauren said. “And it’s pretty recently built, which is a contrast from seeing so many older churches on previous trips.”
After two days in Abu Dhabi, the McDermotts drove two hours south toward the border with Saudi Arabia, where they stayed in the Empty Quarter. Encompassing most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula, the Empty Quarter is the largest continuous sand desert in the world.
The hotel was constructed as a unique destination by the UAE government and delivers water to its guests all the way from Abu Dhabi.
“It’s just miles and miles of endless sand, as far as the eye can see,” Kevin said.
“It really is surreal to see waves of sand as far as it goes,” Lauren added. “It’s really kind of breathtaking.”
The McDermotts enjoyed meals at the hotel restaurant overlooking a sea of sand beneath a white-hot sun that appeared to consume the entire sky. Their stay fell over the region’s “dead of winter,” and yet temperatures hovered in the 90s throughout the day.
“They said that during the middle of August, you can cook a steak on the sand – and it will only take a couple of minutes,” said Kevin, who explained that summer temperatures have been known to reach more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
The couple enjoyed a respite from frigid Minnesota winters, however, and a shared highlight of the trip was a guided drive across the sand dunes.
The two opted for a slower drive due to Kevin’s recovery from a shoulder injury suffered at Green Bay, and the leisurely tour provided the McDermotts with a unique experience.
“It’s pretty wild. I mean, you’re practically vertical on some of these dunes,” said Lauren.
Kevin learned that drivers in the desert drain the air out of their tires to a certain PSI to ensure a better grip on the sand. Along the tour, their driver stopped the car for a photo opp at the location used to film Jakku in *Star Wars: The Force Awakens, *decided on after the driver spent a week with the film’s location scout.
“Talk about picky – it all looks the same,” Kevin quipped.
Another aspect of the dune drive was the opportunity to interact with a falcon, a highly respected bird in UAE that is commonly conditioned by Bedouins to help hunt smaller animals.
The self-identified animal lover, Lauren was quick to volunteer her wrist as a perch for the falcon, whereas Kevin – “there’s no way” – opted against the intimate interaction.
“It actually bit me,” Lauren said, laughing. “The [trainer] said, ‘He’s just playing with you’ – I don’t know about that. They said they have no real loyalty and are super temperamental … I was fine, though. It was pretty funny.”
The McDermotts spent the last leg of their trip in Oman, where they stayed three nights in a resort at Jabal Akhdar, a terraced landform that is part of the Al Hajar Mountains. The higher elevation made even brief hikes more challenging, but thinner air also produced magnificent sunrises and sunsets over the mountains.
Kevin and Lauren spent their days in Oman exploring the small villages and markets, where they were able to enjoy beverage and food items that the region is known for.
“We had never had Arabic coffee, and we had [a local] take us to the market and show us what to get to make it – and then we brought it back with us, along with some dates,” said Lauren, who purchased rose water, a common ingredient distilled in the area.
Kevin, who captured an impressive photo outside their hotel on his iPhone, appreciated the distinctive climate and landscape.
“Because of the difficulty of surviving in a rocky landscape like that, there’s just a bunch of juniper trees and small brush,” Kevin described. “It’s mostly rocks, and it’s a very cool climate.”
The McDermotts’ passion for photography was sparked in New Zealand, and the camera is now a must-have for trips taken together.
“We had some really unique landscapes to take photos of, and I’m always learning,” Lauren said. “On the last trip (to Africa), it was a lot of photographing animals and learning about that. This was a lot of landscape, trying to fit so much more in the photo. It felt like a completely different type of photography.”
While Lauren tends to take the lead behind the lens, Kevin found himself drawn more toward the art on their most recent trip.
He recalled the challenges created by the unique environment.
“It was a lot harder to work with the lighting on this trip, because there’s just so much of it. The sun is never shaded,” McDermott said.
“We didn’t have a golden hour,” Lauren echoed with a laugh, referring to a time of day that is ideal photography because of diffused or softer sunlight.
“But it was a really great trip to photograph because there were just so many amazing landscapes,” Kevin added.
Photographs snapped overseas captured an element of the McDermotts’ trip, but memories go much deeper than a glossy 4x6. It’s the new experiences and warmth of complete strangers that will make the lasting impact for Kevin and Lauren, who were enlightened by this exploration.
“I think sometimes Americans maybe have the misconception that in the Middle East, you’re going to feel unsafe,” Lauren said. “But we felt completely safe. People were so incredibly friendly and welcoming to us – that was a really great aspect of our trip.”