Sand, sea, skyscrapers, along with food, in abundance, would be the most apt and description of my trip to the United Arab Emirates.
This just completed journey gave me a glimpse into two vibrant, bustling, metropolises. Their efforts to diversify from dependence on oil revenues, seems to be paying dividends.
But first, a little geography lesson, and a briefest of histories.
The UAE is a single country made up of seven emirates, in many ways, similar to our states. It is located on the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to its west and south, Oman as an eastern neighbor, and the Persian Gulf to the north. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are two of the better-known emirates, as well as the two largest cities. The UAE has been an independent nation since 1971, shortly after the British, who had been governing the area since the 16th century, ceded control to the locals. The discovery of oil in the fifties provided the seed money for much of the infrastructure that is in place today.
When we arrived at the Abu Dhabi airport after a thirteen-hour flight from Chicago, to our chagrin, there was no one to meet us from the ground operator, who was coordinating most of our transportation between cities. My first thought was, “Great, here we are in a very foreign country with no driver, and no working cell phone to contact the tour company!” That did not bode well for the start of a ten-day odyssey.
Fortunately, those fears were short-lived, as our very apologetic operator showed up about twenty minutes late, explaining in his Russian-accented English that the flight notifications never showed us as arriving early.
One of the first things we learned on the trip to our first stop, the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, was that the native population of Emirati, as the locals are called, is only about twenty percent of the people living in the UAE. Like our guide, most of the people we met were immigrants from India, Pakistan, Iran, England, France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Australian, Philippines, as well assorted other Arab countries. Not surprisingly, our that driver was from Morocco.
There are a few rules that come into play in an Islamic country, such as the fact that the sale of alcohol is restricted to hotels and restaurants, and liquor is not sold in the stores. Also public displays of affection are frowned upon. I read in the newspaper about a couple of foreigners who were sentenced to a year in jail for indecent behavior, having been caught in the act in a lifeguard’s chair at the public beach.
We saw all manner of dress there, from men in a traditional Arabic “thwab,” an ankle length white cotton shirt and keffiyeh (headdress) and women with the black “abaya,” the over garment, to others in jeans and casual Western wear.
Even at the shopping mall, some women chose to wear the abaya, only allowing their faces to be seen in public, while some went as far as covering up everything except their eyes. However, you could see blue jeans or colorful dresses peeking out from the lower part of the abaya as they walked along. Even some of the abayas had what I can only imagine is expensive decorative gold lace and trim.
When thinking of Abu Dhabi, some people might have a visual picture of the palm-shaped island. That however is in Dubai and is a man made creation, whereas Abu Dhabi is located on a natural island, sitting a short distance from the UAE mainland. Several other islands make up the city including Saadiyat and Yas Islands. The Fairmont where we stayed the first two nights is actually in an area called “Between the Bridges,” and offered a spectacular view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a stunning white marble building, and one of the iconic landmarks in the UAE.
It was also where we had the first of many exotic dinners, at the hotel’s Lebanese restaurant, Cedars Lounge. In truth, we were too tired to go anywhere else the first night, and coming from Chicago, we did not feel the need to eat at the hotel’s steakhouse. The next evening we ventured over to the Souk Qaryat Al Beri. “Souk,” is an Arabic term for marketplace. That term can run the gamut from a fancy retail center, to an old fashioned market with tiny stores, crammed with antiques, and manned by ageless shopkeepers.
The Qaryat Al Beri is relatively new, as is most everything in the UAE, but designed to look decidedly old. We dined at Ushna, an upscale Indian restaurant. The outdoor area sits alongside the creek, with excellent views of the Mosque. I can’t tell you half the things we ate, other than it was great, it was spicy, and as we seemed to do a lot on the first part of the trip, we over ordered.
One of the items I had many times on the trip was mezze, which could best be described as Arabic antipasto – a selection of appetizers consisting of hummus, babaghanoush (eggplant,) olives, cheeses, and other Middle Eastern nibbles. I also came to enjoy “um ali,” a mashup of bread pudding and nuts, that tasted like a cool oatmeal, and served for dessert.
By sheer coincidence, the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship was taking place the first weekend we arrived. We decided to watch the action on day two, and descended on the course just in time to see Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and Martin Kaymer tee off, We followed the trio for the first nine holes, along with the majority of the other spectators present. At one point, one of Tiger’s shots landed within eight feet of our position, and we got an up close look. Later, one of McIlroy’s drive strayed beyond the ropes, nearly landed out of bounds. We strode up just in time to witness one of those amazing shots that only the top pros can make; out of the sand, under a small tree, to within fifteen feet of the cup.
Our visit to the tourney that day was a shortened one, because our afternoon destination was a tour of the Grand Mosque. That was the one place where strict adherence to the Islamic dress code was a must. There was a list of do’s and don’ts near the entrance. Shorts for men and short skirts for the ladies were not permitted. Any woman who did not have her head covered was required to put on an abaya.
There was no official tour so we joined the masses that were streaming in an out of the main prayer hall. The main prayer hall can accommodate seven thousand people. The carpet we trod on is the world’s largest carpet at 60,000 square feet. The entire building and grounds has room for forty thousand worshippers. The inside was as spectacular as the outside, with column after column (ninety-six in all,) covered in marble and mother of pearl. The building is named after Sheikh Sayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the first president of the UAE, who initiated the construction, but never lived to see it’s completion. He is laid to rest on the grounds.
The following day, we moved to our next hotel, the Westin Abu Dhabi, which is located on the golf course that hosted the aforementioned tournament. Had we done a little research prior to arrival, we might have stayed there the entire weekend. To say the least, it was a thrill to be located a chip shot away from the first tee. Our arrival Saturday afternoon coincided with a few of the last pairings reaching the eighteenth green. Then we retreated with a number of the hotel guests to the sports bar, where we sipped on over priced beer and feasted on English Premier League soccer with a number of golf fans from the UK.
The reason we didn’t arrive at the Westin until late in the afternoon is that earlier that day we made the ninety-minute drive east to the city of Al Ain, where we visited the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. You’ll notice the Sheikh’s name comes up a lot. He truly brought the country from a backwards Bedouin existence, to the modern country it is today. Many roads, bridges, buildings, and schools bear his name. The museum is an old fortress, which served as Zayed’s residence. It has been restored to approximate the look and feel of visiting it sixty years ago, before the oil boom. In addition, we stopped at Jahili Fort, another old fortress that has been turned into a museum. It hosted an exhibition of photographs by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who lived the modest existence of the Bedouin tribes for two years in the late 1940’s, and took thousands of pictures during his treks across the harsh desert. Our last stop before lunch was to see a camel market, something I can truly say I have never experienced before.
That evening, we dined at Agadir, the Westin’s Moroccan restaurant. We found out later that all the chefs and, the waiters were brought in from Morocco in an effort to be as authentic as possible. For appetizers, we had spiced soup along with Moroccan filo pie, filled with pigeon (it was not as gross as it sounds) quite tasty actually, and covered with crushed almonds and orange blossom, then glazed with honey. The main course was “couscous royal,” a combination of lamb, chicken, merguez (mutton) sausage and vegetables. As usual we over ordered and ended up taking our desert of pastries and cookies back to the room.
The next day it was off to Dubai, but not before one of the best breakfast buffets we had on the entire trip and watching some of the final pairings tee off. They love their buffets in the UAE, and every hotel had amazing displays of food, both Arabic and well as Western and Asian fare. There was something about the preparation, choices, and taste that made the Westin’s buffet rise above the rest.
Abu Dhabi has is share of architecturally eye catching edifices, but nothing prepared us for what we saw in Dubai.
Now I live in Chicago, so I’m used to seeing a skyline with tall towers.
There is an eight lane highway covering the eighty miles between the two cities. The border between the Emeriatees is about halfway there. The Abu Dhabi part of the highway is lined with small “ghaf” trees planted diagonally on the side of the road, as well as the median. That probably acts as a buffer to keep sand from blowing on the road. You pass through a few suburbs along the way. The minute you reach the Dubai border, the trees disappear and all you have on either side of the road is flat desert scrub, and the occasional low, rolling dunes and wild grasses. Off in the distance are some of the industrial buildings from suburban Dubai.
As we approached the city, we saw a cluster of high rises and started looking for the fabled Burj Khalifa. That turned out to be the Dubai Marina, a three-kilometer stretch of high rises condos and apartment building along artificial canal city on the Persian Gulf. We continued on for another twenty minutes before the downtown business district came into full view.
The architecture is a) stunning b) impressive c) imposing or d) all of the above
The buildings are everywhere. Each ongoing construction project seems more outlandish and eye catching than the next one.
Check out the view from our room at the JW Marriott Marquis. Their claim to fame is that at eighty stories, it’s the world’s tallest hotel only building. The hotel actually has twin towers. The one we stayed in opened only in November. The second structure isn’t even completed yet. Our room was on the forty-third floor. We even managed a foray up to the lounge on the seventy fourth floor, but were a bit disappointed that it only had views on two sides, and that was partially obscured by some of the windows decorations. It also had balconies that appeared to be solely for look, because you couldn’t go out on them. Go figure. The hotel itself was another example of the over the top design in Dubai. Among other things, it boasted a fabulous bakery with some outstanding French pastries. The property is located in an area called the Business Bay, a few short kilometers from the main downtown area.
Our concierge advised us against taking at taxi to go to the Dubai Museum, fearing that we’d spend much of the time stuck in afternoon traffic. He recommended taking the Metro. Dubai’s subway system is clean, modern, and efficient. It was also very crowded at rush hour. So once we bought our tickets (about $1.25) for a one-way fare, we jockeyed for position on the platform, then fought our way through the mob to enter the nearest car. Once safely inside, I looked around to notice that I was the only male in the car. While normally that would not be a bad thing in a Western country, in the Middle East women can and do prefer some segregated facilities. So after a few mumbled apologies, I made my way into the next car. No harm, no foul. People were particularly nice on the train, going out of their way to tell us where to change trains, and what stop to exit.
That was the easy part. Trying to find the Al Fahidi Fort and the museum was another thing. There were no signs at the station, so we relied on people to point us in the right direction.
The fort, which dates from the late 1780’s, is the oldest structure still standing in Dubai. Admission was three Dirhams (less than a dollar.)
Per Wikipedia: The museum was opened by the ruler of Dubai in 1971, with the aim of presenting the traditional way of life in the Emirate of Dubai. It includes local antiquities as well as artifacts from African and Asian countries that traded with Dubai. It also includes several dioramasshowing life in the emirate before the advent of oil. In addition to artifacts from recent discoveries as old as 3000 B.C.
After the museum visit, we took a water taxi across the Dubai Creek to the old market area, where we were overwhelmed by the Gold Souk. It was like Chicago’s jeweler’s row on steroids. Store after store selling watches, rings, gold chains, earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Hundreds of shops, literally. So we retreated to the relative safety of the nearby Spice Souk, and bought a few items from a charming, middle-aged shopkeeper who was from Iran. Based on his recommendation, we found a Persian restaurant and enjoyed a meal of traditional Iranian fare.
The next day we set our sights on the tallest building in the world.
You might know the towering Burj Khalifa from its supporting role in the movie Mission Impossible 4. Tom Cruise dangles out of the building at breath-taking heights. What’s simply amazing is looking up from the observatory on the 124th floor, and seeing another forty stories of building soaring over our heads. The building itself is so much larger (2717 feet tall with 163 stories) that it makes the fifty and sixty story edifices look simply puny next to it. At times the tower itself can take on a surreal look. http://www.burjkhalifa.ae/language/en-us
In the UAE, they love their malls. The Dubai Mall has over 1200 stores. Every brand name from the US can be found there, plus top retailers from the UK, Spain, France, and Germany, a full size ice rink, and wait, there’s more – the Dubai Aquarium.
By contrast, the super sized Mall of America outside Minneapolis has just over 500 stores. The Dubai Mall has nearly twice the retail space as the MOA, checking in at hefty 5.4 million square feet. There was no chance we were going to eat American, but we could have at TGI Fridays, PF Changs, Outback Steakhouse, or California Pizza Kitchen. Instead we chose to enjoy a mix of local and Asian food at the Social House, an outdoor eatery facing the large fountain that was part of the complex. The Dubai Fountain is renown in its own right, and features a water show produced by the same people that created the famous fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas
We never got to see the inside of it, but one of the other uber-malls in Dubai is the Mall of the Emirates. This 520-store behemoth boasts Ski Dubai, an indoor ski slope. Yes, you read that right – a year round, indoor ski area that can accommodate up to 1500 guests on 242,000 square feet of surface area, or roughly three football fields.
http://youtu.be/Witt1TpWZnA (Travel Channel video of Ski Dubai)
Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was our stay at the Al Maha Desert Resort.
If the tall buildings and modern city life epitomize Dubai, then the Al Maha is the antithesis of the hustle and bustle of the busy metropolises. Instead of traffic jams and crowded malls, there are camels, gazelles, Arabian oryx, and birds. Situated on 225 square km, fifty minutes south of Dubai, Al Maha is a peaceful, tranquil, and graceful oasis in the Emerati desert. It boasts forty luxurious one-bedroom suites, designed to look like Bedouin tents from the outside, yet as plush as any of the hotel rooms we stayed at on our journey. The resort includes a first class restaurant, and a full-featured spa with several treatment rooms as well as a fitness center, pool, sauna, and steam room. None of other hotels, however, offered falconry, camel riding, horseback riding, or nature out into their own desert landscape. The best activity was a 1 1/2 hour excursion zipping around the giant sand dunes in four-wheel drive vehicles. The adrenaline pumping, stomach-churning experience is not for the faint of heart, and never to be undertaking after a meal.
Our suite had its own private deck and an infinity pool overlooking a beautiful desert vista. Just about every day, the gazelles, which roam freely on the property, would stop and graze just outside our window. It was wonderful just to listen to the birds chipping in the early morning hours, and just after dusk. Everything is spread out over the hotel portion, so it was a delightful five-minute walk back and forth to the main lobby and restaurant.
Once again the food was simply outstanding. Our international culinary adventure the consisted of Sri Lankan fare, some of the spiciest food I’ve ever eaten. And we ordered it medium hot. Our Indian server commented on how spicy it can be, and he’s used to a hot palate.
There is a cool video on their website introducing the property.
The last three days of our saw our return to Abu Dhabi. This time we relocated to Saadiyat Island, a large, low lying island connected to the mainland by several causeways. We stayed at the St. Regis, right on the beach. There are some very ambitious plans to develop the island, which will include the only branch of the Louvre to open outside of Paris, a Guggenheim Museum, a concert hall, and more hotels and apartments. There is already an 18-hole golf course designed by the legendary Gary Player.
We spent an afternoon over in downtown Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace Hotel, where we delighted in having afternoon tea. The hotel is one of the most expensive hotels ever built, at a cost of over three billion dollars. When you see the inside you understand why, from the marble floors and gold inlay. It only has about 400 rooms, but has additional high-end suites reserved for heads of state and the Emerati royal families and their guests. One of the rather unique features of the Emirates Palace is the presence of a gold vending ATM. Shoppers can insert cash and receive gold coins or nuggets. We chose instead to do our shopping along Hamdan Street, and at the Abu Dhabi Mall, not quite as spectacular as the Dubai Mall, but a shopper’s paradise nonetheless.
Our last full day was spent being bums on the beach. The hotel has nine kilometers of pristine beachfront along the Gulf. Sorry for the continuous mentions of distances in km, but that’s the way it works over there. If you want, do the math. One mile is 1.6 km.
The final amazing dining experience we had was back at the St. Regis. The Sontaya restaurant featured a variety of Southeast Asian cuisine. We both had fish that was exquisitely prepared, and at last, we ordered just enough food to be able to finish everything.
The next morning it was back to the airport for the long journey back the US. We were sad to leave, but happy to be returning home. It was a wonderful trip. We saw so much, yet still missed out on some things we would have liked to have seen, such as Ferrari World, billed as the world largest indoor theme park, and Yas Waterworld, a brand new water park that had its grand opening while we were there. Given all the construction that was in various stages of development, I can only imagine what the UAE will look like in a few years.