The year before last we went to Oman and loved the climate, the culture, the people and the hotels! We had the taste for this part of the world and this year visited Abu Dhabi and Dubai, not just for the dates, which are in plentiful supply!….
Neither my husband nor I would consider choosing a city break holiday in isolation, with our free time spent on a pristine man made beach minutes from the hum drum of the city. We are happy to ‘do the city’ for a day or so, but that isn’t what makes our trips tick.
In the past few years we’ve made a good play at becoming air mile royalty in a way that maybe even Prince Andrew might aspire to! We surprise ourselves in how quickly they accumulate. Needs must then, another holiday was needed!…
Our flight to Dubai was with British Airways in first class – I can’t think of a better way to travel, but I love that it is a rare treat that starts the holiday off in such an exciting way.
This holiday was special as it coincided with my husband’s 40th birthday – so pulling out all the stops for him was key! In the Concorde Lounge I arranged for Ben Stiller to stop by and have his photo taken with him… Not quite, it was fate – but I saw this man walk into the lounge with very funky styled hair and remembered his face from Zoolander and Dodge Ball, Mr P then got up the courage to go and say hi!
Once on the plane the treats continued – it is all about who you know and the captain had been convinced by one of his former colleagues to give Mr P a tour of the flight deck!!
By this point we felt like we’d been on holiday for days and were fully relaxed – the air bridge hadn’t even been removed!!
On landing at Dubai we headed south for a fair few hours! Driving over here is easy, the signs are good and the roads are safe, and straight. We did drive through a sandstorm, but we came out the other side….
We headed into the desert about as far as you can go before hitting the Saudi border and stayed at a sublime Anantara resort called Qasr al Sarab (palace of the mirage). I’ve written more about it for theluxtraveller.com already, but in summary – I am so glad that we looked beyond the relative hassle of reaching the middle of nowhere and went there! Quite something – the location is remarkable and the whole place will grow on you during your stay (suffice to say I was already looking at other Anantara resorts online before we’d left – this place usurped the Chedi Muscat in my books and I’m staggered that anywhere could!!). although my husband has just said Chedi still just gets it for him!
While we were in the desert we didn’t do a great deal! We’d had busy Januarys and so being somewhere like this was what a doctor would have ordered!! We did enjoy complimentary spa treatments, camel riding and falconry to support our review of the property, all of which were wonderful and I would happily have paid for!
One day we left the hotel for a few hours in our hire car (as expected, many surprised faces) and headed over to Liwa. This is a massive area of natural oasis and there are a number of forts that were built many years ago as look-out places to protect the valuable water supply in the area. It was fascinating to visit one – which was essentially a giant sandcastle!!
Another highlight was a sunset ‘walk’ up the largest sand dune by the hotel to get the best sunset view!
I’m glad I wore my gym kit because it was certainly a work out!! As expected – sand everywhere! My socks have been washed a few time since, and yet there are still grains left! We were the first of the hotel guests to make a play for the dunes and as a result got to walk on them untouched – there were some footprints from the day before but they were mostly covered by wind blown grains! Up on the top of the dunes really puts into perspective just how remote a location we were in (bar a few roads and small settlements) – the sand went on for as far as the eye could see, and further!!
After spending the main part of our holiday here, the obligatory city visits were upon us! We were very sad to leave Qasr al Sarab but thankfully had some very different places to stay for the rest of the trip!
We spent 2 nights at the Shangri La in Abu Dhabi city and I couldn’t get enough of the stunning view of the mosque from the hotel pool! I didn’t get bored with that view – incredible architecture and the whiteness looked stunning against the blue sky!
We did visit the mosque one morning, but it is such a tourist trap that it wasn’t a relaxing place! When we had visited the Muscat mosque previously (which opens very early in the morning to tourists) it was virtually deserted and that allowed us to see its true beauty. But this mosque does not open to visitors until 9am.
What surprised me most at the mosque was the tourists arriving to visit – not having thought about the religion or the culture that they were staying within. This frustrates me so much. A couple from our hotel left on the same mini-bus as us – he was in shorts and looked like an urchin as a result and his wife had not thought to bring a headscarf. The mosque is prepared for this ignorance and has hooded gowns that can be borrowed, but I do wonder why people visit a country if they aren’t prepared to acknowledge and respect its culture….
We also popped into the city and spent a little while mooching around – we went and turned our noses up at the gaudiness of the Emirates Palace gold-plating (and checked out the Gold Bar vending machine) and were staggered with just how quick buildings are going up and the number of cranes!
We also visited the fish market (a little off the tourist trail as our taxi driver got lost…) and had a lovely stroll along the beach on Saadiyaat Island. Beyond that, I’m not sure how much there is to see? I am probably doing the city a complete disservice by saying that, but if I’m honest we saw as much as we needed. We enjoyed our hotel, and I enjoyed people watching fellow guests after such a quiet time in the desert!!
Final stop on our Arabian adventure was Dubai. But Dubai has for a long time been on my “avoid like the plague” list… I’m not a fan of wealth in an ugly form and didn’t really associate visiting here with a holiday! But we lucked out – I stumbled across a boutique guesthouse/hotel in the old quarter of the city, worlds away from everything that I didn’t want to stay at in the city – the XVA Art Hotel.
The XVA Art Hotel was a hidden gem (and does great mint lemonade – if you are going to stay somewhere teetotal then the drinks need to be good). It would have been nice to be at a hotel with a swimming pool but we were in the city for little more than 24 hours and so we got the best value for money we could have without paying through the nose for a pool, and got to see a little piece of somewhere that very few people will.
We absolutely made the most of our time in the city. We arrived in the evening and headed straight out to Al Karama for a spot of handbag shopping. However, we also learnt that I am a bag snob and I wasn’t impressed enough with the quality so I will continue to buy at full price!! The hotel was fab for recommending where to go and they directed us to an amazing Rajasthani restaurant – no one spoke English, but we dined incredibly well regardless (and dining out is cheap when a) they don’t serve alcohol and b) you stray beyond the bounds of a hotel!!
The next day we had one day in the city and see it we must.
We took ourselves off to the Palm to ogle at the scale of the reclamation. Whilst not necessarily somewhere I would ever want to spend more time, the physical impossibility of what they have done is worth seeing and Atlantis is an incredible building. From there we went to the beach front – the souk at the Jumeirah has plenty of choice of shops and restaurants and is relatively peaceful compared to the rest of the city. A lovely stroll along a public beach right next to Burj al Arab was a nice way to enjoy the sunshine of our last day and take in the quirky view.
Final stop of the visit was the Burj Khalifa. We had pre-booked our tickets for 4.30pm when the light was starting to fade. The building is ridiculously big, there isn’t any other way I can describe it. Our wide angle lens struggled to capture it all, it was that tall. The scale of it is even more apparent from the top – everything looks small and you get a real sense for how elongated the city is. At 6pm the fountain show (worlds biggest – obvs) starts at the base of the tower and is quite something. Set to music it is almost like watching ballet! Very spectacular. The BK is then incredibly well lit as night falls.
I was staggered by how many hotels are in this downtown area. I would liken it to going on holiday to Canary Wharf… No matter how good the hotels are, what a strange place to holiday….
Final supper on this trip was a 3* hotel up the road from the XVA. Last night of holiday and we really wanted one last ‘week night’ drink with our dinner and the Arabian Courtyard hotel had a great Thai restaurant with that rare thing in this part of the city – a bottle licence! Happy days and a happy end to our trip, much nicer than expected.
Our flight home was the following morning and we were burning up some Virgin air miles that would have expired. I have only ever flown with our flag carrier or a OneWorld partner so this was a brave new world… Even the camel looked nervous!
Great holiday – already looking at where else we can visit in the UAE… Incredible memories of this trip: