• Dubai and Abu Dhabi, UAE •
Two years ago on a late April afternoon, I found myself realizing that I had paid off my student debt, had a full-time job, and had never been overseas in over ten years. A 2-in-1 trip to the UAE (particularly, to Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and Hong Kong fuelled my inspiration for somewhere with “sun”, “sand”, and “sights”.
Forget that my family had to leave me behind for the Philippines on Christmas ’14 when I was still in my three-month new hire probation. Or the fact that I would visit California and New York a year later, both of which I do not recognize as overseas; they are literally my neighbours. I really had not stepped foot out of North America in years, so last year my boyfriend and I booked tickets, six months in advance, for Dubai and Hong Kong.
Both hours apart and only connected by our Emirates flights (which by the way, has astounding service, delicious food, and sufficient leg space even in economy), there really was no relation between the UAE and Hong Kong except: (1) after seeing endless photo opportunities I wanted to go to both countries, and (2) fortunately my boyfriend had family we could stay with in Hong Kong – so why not? Even though he had visited a couple of months prior.
We arrived in Dubai on a late September evening just last year; it was humid enough that getting out of the air-conditioned airport caused my lens to fog up (I took pictures right away).
It was hilarious walking from the metro station to our Holiday Inn. It involved trudging through sand and pedestrian-unfriendly roads with luggage, alongside what I’d like to say is similar to a freeway, and past construction where the workers looked at us and probably thought “wth”, “lol”, and “look at these foreigners”.
At the time, I had just purchased my Fuji X-T10, so I didn’t have the skill nor the lens to take the photos I do today. So our first day (of five) was a little rough (and my photos rougher) but we managed to meet our itinerary that included visiting Jumeirah Beach, Dubai Mall, the Burj Khalifa, and shops near Khalid Bin Al Waleed(?) station. We even achieved 30 000 steps!
Of all the places to try sushi, I know. In my defence though, I have never tried conveyor belt sushi; Japan is still on my to-go list. I also reconnected with the chicken and spaghetti meal combo from Jolibee in Dubai Mall. One thing we didn’t try were local dishes or street food because #beginnertraveller issues and I was not going to have diarrhea ruin my trip.
Out of all the malls we visited (Dubai Mall, Ibn Battuta Mall, Mall of the Emirates, and Mercato Shopping Centre), I enjoyed Ibn Battuta the most. With as many shops as the Eaton Centre here in Toronto, it was by far the most visually unique to walk through.
Just a magical place in itself, the Souq Madinat is a modern take on the traditional souqs you would find in the Deira region. We came at night so a lot of the restaurants and shops were closing soon, and some areas were restricted because residences were also in the premises, but we managed to sneak a photo of the Burj Al Arab from a cafe porch. Some people chose to ride the abras (also available to cross the Dubai Creek, though not sure how safe those are) but we opted to walk around since the boat ride would have left us with very little time to explore.
The camel desert safari was the highlight of my trip. If you ever visit Dubai or Abu Dhabi, make sure to go on a desert safari. We bought passes from Viator (which I believe was with the well-known luxury Platinum-Heritage company) and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Fact: camel racing is a popular sport. (And you’d think they are slow, eh.)
Rather than dune-bash in a regular SUV or a vintage Land Rover, we chose to ride a camel to the exquisite Bedouin camp set up for us. We had a group of 50? people so it wasn’t crowded, and we ate delicious food – camel meat was surprisingly tender and appetizing. And the tea! It was where my love for English Breakfast tea began, even though I could have bought it from my local No Frills.
But the way they brewed the tea, ugh, so good. And I bought a pack of English Breakfast from the duty free store at the airport (nowadays No Frills, or an asian supermarket).
The approximate cost of travelling from Dubai to Abu Dhabi by coach bus was 25 AED, or less than $10 CAD. So cheap! We stayed at Centro Al Manhal, which for some reason was $80/night at the time but I thought we really got a bang for our buck considering how modern and clean it was. And plus, free wi-fi because they were fixing it at the time.
We stumbled upon the paid area of Corniche Beach. We even paid to sit on a beach chair and have an umbrella. While the beach itself didn’t have the white sands and green-blue-hued waters of Jumeirah Beach, it was nice, secluded, and seeing the sun set felt like a dream.
A must-visit in Abu Dhabi is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Do remember to wear conservative clothing. I got in with a long sleeve shirt, light jogger pants, and a head scarf, even though I was sweating profusely.
Our last day in Abu Dhabi, and the UAE in general, was at Ferrariworld. Although I had to go on the Formula Rossa (actually, all of the fast rides) alone, we had fun. The way my boyfriend thinks of it is that if both of us went on the Formula Rossa, I’d have no picture.
Like him, I’m not keen on roller coasters, but after visiting Canada’s Wonderland the summer prior and riding the major roller coasters, I’d say I primed myself up for this moment. We even did a test drive around the island with a Ferrari California (more than 500 AED) – with me in the back seat with my novice G2.
Quite splendidly and leaving us bubbling with energy for more travel, our journey to Dubai and Abu Dhabi ended. Although still under development, these regions in the UAE are sprawling with ultramodern ideas and advancements in technology, aiming for betterment and to be a “must-go” destination. I can can only imagine what these areas will be in the future.
Things I’ve learned, and what to consider for your visit:
- Rent a car. It is probably wise to do so as you’ll save loads of time getting around. Taxis indeed are more affordable compared to Toronto, but service/cost varied with us. I am not sure what it is like today – hopefully better – because during our visit, the public transport system was rolling out a tap-and-pay option for taxis with the Nol card, but some taxi drivers claimed they did not have it in their vehicle, when the cars clearly had decals stating you could tap-and-pay.
- Purchase the red Nol card in Dubai. If you don’t plan on renting a car, purchase the red metro card (ie. Nol card) which you can reload and use on their trains, buses, trams, and taxis (and make sure it’s the red/white taxi you take).
- Download an offline map app. Although we knew our routes beforehand, it saved us from mass confusion when we decided to take detours and explore more. I don’t remember the app I downloaded, but it provided me with routes, times, and the cost of travel in AED to our destinations.
- Bring your water bottle. And take advantage of free, clean water when you find it. Back here in Canada, we take our clean water for granted. I’m not suggesting being a cheapskate – we, too, occasionally had to buy water – but areas you may not think of where you can refill your bottles are malls and your hotel (in the lobby or fitness studio).
- Do not go to the souqs on a Friday! We made the mistake of going to the Deira region in hopes of visiting their souqs, but I (I was the one planning) totally forgot they had hours for prayer in the afternoon, so a lot of the shops were closed. It was also quite interesting and almost uncomfortable that I would be the only female around.
- Try to bargain. Bargain whenever you can for souvenirs, and sometimes at the mall (we tried bargaining for a camera lens I found, and although we did get a bit of a discount, I decided it be best if I just bought it back home where I could still return it). We were just too timid to take bargaining full force, but the discounts we got we really appreciated.
- Try sky diving. If you’re into the sport, I’m sure the view of Dubai from above is just as amazing. The sky diving centre is just a little out of the way and quite costly, so we didn’t add it to our itinerary (but it’s still a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!).