Greetings from the Middle East! Last week, we were in London checking out Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 and this week, we’re touring around one of the world’s most up-and-coming destinations: Abu Dhabi. Getting to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was half the fun as I took my first spin on the country’s national carrier. But checking into the city’s newest hotel was even better! Then there was the desert safari … initially, I thought this might possibly have been the stupidest thing I’d ever signed up for but the desert BBQ at a Bedouin camp made up for it. If you can’t put your media-induced fears of the Middle East aside, then how about joining Richard Frinta as he explores Rossland, B.C. and San Juan Island? Whatever you decide, enjoy the ride!
CHECKING IN AT HEATHROW
From Central London, I took the Heathrow Express back to the airport and arrived almost two hours before departure, just like a good boy. I was flying Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi and their flights depart out of Terminal 3. After seeing British Airways’ new Terminal 5, T3 couldn’t have looked any more depressing. The good news is there was no wait at check-in and the Etihad agent was pleasant even though she enforced the carrier’s ridiculous one carry-on rule. If that wasn’t enough, my carry-on was over their weight limit of 8kg (17lbs). What a joke! I removed the heavy items like magazines and books and put them in my now checked bag. I hate when airlines do this since my carry-on takes up little space and has everything I need … laptop, cameras, chargers, adapters, foreign money, medicines … To cheat a bit, I did the ol’ bait and switch routine and weighed my bag while my 3lb laptop was under my arm. Haha! It worked!
Heathrow is so busy that most of the time, the airlines don’t know which gate they are departing from so they don’t post the gate number until about an hour before the scheduled departure. I really think it’s just a ploy to get people to shop in their duty free stores but the only thing I bought was a £1.40 ($2.83) bottle of water for just £0.70 ($1.41). There was a promotion running: buy The London Times and get the water for free. What’s crazy is that the guy in front of me paid full price for his water because he said he didn’t want the paper. Duh! The clerk and I both looked at him like he was the biggest idiot around. Uh, hello?! Anyone home, McFly? When my gate (16) finally displayed on the departures board, a sign read that it would take 20 minutes to reach that gate. I don’t know how they reached this calculation because it took me just five minutes.
At the gate, SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) agents were checking tickets and passports. FYI: They don’t stamp your passport to leave England. Inside the pen was a TV tuned to CNN and a shelf filled with free newspapers and travel magazines (CNN Traveler, Business Traveler and Spa Finder). Score! I stocked up and my bag was now back up to 15 kg.
In Arabic, Etihad means “united”. Etihad is the national airline of the United Arab Emirates and although they only began service four years ago, this company is already making some serious strides. In 2007, they flew 4.6 million passengers to the 45 cities they serve in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Because Dubai-based Emirates Airlines has been so successful promoting their destination, the Abu Dhabi leaders figured they would mirror it and start their own excellent airline. That’s why they placed an $8 billion order with Airbus that includes four A380s; Emirates ordered 52! It’s a good thing that the UAE is geographically desirable — it’s sort of in the middle of the world and they are trying to leverage their positioning by acting as an air bridge between Europe, Asia, Australia and the U.S.
LONDON TO ASIA VIA ABU DHABI
I had heard some good things about Etihad Airlines from one of my travel writer friends who took their nonstop flight from Toronto (YYZ) to Abu Dhabi (AUH). Etihad’s other North American gateway is New York’s JFK airport. Currently, I’m on an around-the-world trip and I was stoked when Etihad Airlines came up as my cheapest option to get from London to Asia. They have three flights a day from Heathrow. For this leg I, had our partner travel agent John Dekker (1-800-Johnny-J) book this ticket. I had planned to fly from London to a popular city in Asia but when John Dekker said I would save $600 by stopping in Abu Dhabi for a 90-minute layover, I figured ‘what the heck?’ Abu Dhabi is directly along the path to where I was headed and since I had never been there before, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and spend the night. I’m glad I did!
ETIHAD’S ECONOMY CLASS
I flew in Etihad’s economy class. They call it Coral Economy, explaining why the seats are all coral-colored. Or is it the other way around? I had no detailed information so I really had no idea what to expect. But let me tell you … when I stepped on-board the A340 aircraft, I was pleasantly surprised. The plane was brand new, the flight attendants were all young, pretty and from all over the world though the majority were Asian. The coach configuration was 2-4-2 and as a bonus, the flight wasn’t sold out so I had an empty seat beside me. There wasn’t a crazy amount of legroom but the seats did have a 32″ pitch and they were ergonomically designed with lumbar support, headrests and a footrest so it was better than the American carriers. But without a doubt, the best part about the seats was the 10.4-inch personal LCD screens, loaded with enough entertainment (350 hours worth) to keep anyone busy. To top it off, they even had noise-canceling headsets and power outlets. You don’t even see all of this in many business class cabins.
LONDON TO ABU DHABI
Flight time was just six hours and 10 minutes but we sat on the runway in London for almost two hours because the British Airways plane that had crash-landed the previous day was still causing all kinds of traffic jams. Before takeoff, the flight attendants passed out little plastic containers of water that were neatly piled on a shiny silver tray. Thirty-five minutes after takeoff, they came around with the drink cart and a food menu. Dinner was served an hour later and I had the tomato and Parmesan cheese risotto and the Arabic date cheesecake for dessert. The food was better than average (though not the bread) and then I tried to get some shuteye. Everyone had an individually packaged blanket and amenity kit including socks, earplugs and an eye mask, so folks were comfortable.
WELCOME TO ABU DHABI
I didn’t sleep much; I was too excited about going to the Middle East for my first time and my head was spinning from all the entertainment choices. Heck, they even had live cameras mounted on the front and bottom of the plane so that passengers could view them at any time. We finally arrived at 8:35am, 50 minutes late and for the many passengers who had connections, their planes were held. Customs was quick but the bags took 50 minutes to come out. That was really irritating since I didn’t need to check one in the first place and there was a ton of space in the overhead compartments.
ABU DHABI AIRPORT
Once I entered the main terminal, I felt like I was in the bar from Star Wars. There were people from every different walk of life, all different shapes and sizes. Some were wearing full-on white or black Arab garb while others were dressed in colorful African wardrobes with headdresses. The terminal was old but still flashy with tile pillars. It felt like Vegas’ old Terminal 1. I made my way through the crowd and smoke, looking for the exit.
I was staying at the Shangri-La and the people from the hotel offered to pick me up, but it was more than three times the cost of a regular taxi so I got one on my own. Getting a taxi was easy but trying to get some Dirhams so I could pay for my ride, was not. The closest ATM machine was a good 200 yards, downstairs and outside in the parking lot. It’s a good thing they are in the process of building a new airport. FYI: 1 USD = 3.6 United Arab Emirates Dirhams (AED).
HOW TO CALL
To call the numbers in this story from the U.S., dial the international dialing code (011), the country code for United Arab Emirates (971), the code for Abu Dhabi (2) and then the local number.
I take it most Americans don’t know much, if anything, about Abu Dhabi. In fact, the majority of my friends and family kept asking, “where are you going?!” Some people I spoke to had never even heard of the United Arab Emirates, which is quite sad. I know, I know … maybe I need to start surrounding myself with some more worldly people. Well, at least I’m not dating Kellie Pickler or Miss South Carolina.
ABU DHABI AND THE UAE
A quick introduction to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates (UAE): Abu Dhabi in Arabic means “Father of Gazelle” and it’s about the same size of West Virginia. It’s the capital and the second largest city of the UAE. The largest of the seven emirates in the UAE is Dubai, which is about the same size as Rhode Island. Dubai is 75 miles north and both emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, operate like a family business as the two heads are cousins. The Maktoum family runs Dubai and the Nahyan family runs Abu Dhabi.
THE RICHEST CITY IN THE WORLD
The UAE borders Saudi Arabia, Oman and just across the Persian Gulf is Iran (Here’s a map). One would think that most people here would be Arab but that’s not the case. In fact, only 20% of the country is Arab. The other 80% of the population come from over 180 countries to make or spend their fortunes in this land without taxes. According to CNN, Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world. “The emirate’s 420,000 citizens, who sit on one-tenth of the planet’s oil and have almost $1 trillion invested abroad, are worth about $17 million apiece. (A million foreign workers don’t share in the wealth)”.
But Abu Dhabi didn’t start out that way. Not long ago did Bedouin tribesmen roam the desert and pearl divers have huts where the city is today. The first paved road wasn’t completed until 1961 but Abu Dhabi has taken a different approach than Dubai. They are learning from Dubai’s infrastructural mistakes and have always kept their moral values. But I did hear they are a bit jealous that they are not as internationally recognized as Dubai. But these guys don’t have to worry … from what I saw, it won’t be long before they take the lead.
Things changed for Abu Dhabi in 1958 when British explorers discovered the world’s fifth-largest crude oil reserve here. Then in 1968, the UK withdrew from the Gulf and in 1971, the Emirates gained independence. Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was the emirate’s beloved ruler from 1971 to 2004. He was respected by the US and Europe because of his religious tolerance and pro-Western stance. His eldest son Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan took over as President of the UAE. Both of their visions are what put Abu Dhabi on the map.
LANGUAGE AND RELIGION
The official language is Arabic but English is widely spoken; I met just one person who didn’t speak English. Even the street signs and menus are in both Arabic and English. The official religion is Islam but those of other faiths are free to attend temples and churches; they just can’t try to convert others. In most Muslim countries, weekends are Thursday and Friday. That’s because Friday is the Islamic holy day. However, the UAE feels they can’t afford to take two days off from the Western workweek so weekends here are Friday and Saturday.
WHEN TO VISIT
The best months to visit Abu Dhabi are October, November, December and March, April and May. May to September daytime temperatures range from approximately 104°F to 113°F (on average, about 40°Celsius).
AIRPORT TO THE HOTEL
The drive from the airport to the hotel was just 15 minutes. My driver was going 180km (111 mph), 20 km over the speed limit. The fare was 50AED ($13). When I saw the sign for Dubai, my driver informed me that it would take about 90 minutes and cost about 325AED ($88). I was tempted. I was surprised how green Abu Dhabi is. There are lots of parks and wide, tree-lined streets.
SHANGRI-LA QARYAT AL BERI
I checked into the brand-spanking-new Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, situated on 8.5 hectares. The hotel had a soft opening in August 2007 and they are still working on the second phase, which includes meeting rooms, souk, villas and residences. Once it’s completed, there really won’t be much need to go anywhere else for anything, except to go sightseeing.
WELCOME TO THE SHANGRI-LA
As you know, the Shangri-La is one of the top hotel chains in the world and their excellent service was evident the moment my taxi pulled up. I was immediately greeted by a bellman, then a beautiful woman opened the main door for me; see the video at the end. The impressive lobby was filled with shiny marble, picture glass windows and high ceilings. Like all guests, I was offered some Arabian coffee and fresh dates. I’m not a coffee drinker so I almost choked on it, it was so strong and bitter.
The hotel is staffed with workers from all over the world and their uniforms were really cool. Even when I am overseas, I rarely feel like I’m overseas but here I did and it was due to a mixture of things: the people, the wardrobes and the hotel design. The Shangri-La has 214 luxurious rooms and suites with modern Arabic- style interiors and exteriors. I loved the fact that it wasn’t a high-rise but rather two four-story buildings. Every room has a balcony or a terrace and when I walked out onto mine and saw the huge white mosque in the distance, I was wowed yet again. When this mosque is completed, it will be the world’s second largest; the largest is The Masjidilharam in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
I felt like running around and checking out all of the hotel’s facilities; the spa, two gyms, four swimming pools, the beach and the almost-completed “souk” – a traditional Arabian market that is connected by a waterway, featuring Arabic gondolas called abras. But I was tired, dirty and hungry. So I flipped on the flat screen TV and jumped in the hot shower and got cleaned up. The rooms are built solid and I didn’t hear any construction, hallway traffic or guests next door … I’m not even sure if there were any. The owner of the hotel owns the largest construction company in the UAE so no wonder the place was built up to standards and quickly. However, the shower drain was slow to flow but I gather they’ve fixed that by now.
Before going down stairs for lunch I logged on to the Internet. I wanted to let everyone know that I made it safely to the Middle East despite their warnings. Internet in the hotel cost 90AED ($24) for 24 hours but for some reason, Skype wasn’t connecting. So I logged onto Skype.com and discovered that it was being blocked! This was a first! Check out the reason that was given … I captured a screen shot so you could see. I’m not sure how Skype’s content is “inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the UAE,” but I wasn’t going to argue. Just to be sure, I typed in XXX but naughty sites were blocked, too … sure enough, I got the same message. Now that I can understand. I suspect that Skype is blocked because they want people to use their own telecom providers so they can make more money.
The food at the hotel was awesome! I had lunch at their signature Chinese restaurant called Shang Palace. In a matter of steps, I felt like I had traveled from the Middle East to China. Everything from the food, staff and décor were authentic. Afterwards, I took a tour of the lunch buffet in the room next door and it was even more impressive. They had everything including three gigantic monster chocolate fountains (milk, white and dark chocolate). I had the breakfast buffet in this same room the following morning. Again, they offered every possible option and it was one of the top 10 grandest breakfast buffets I’ve ever sampled. Seriously, have you ever seen filet mignon and eggs at a buffet? Only in the UAE! And the breakfast buffet cost just 90AED ($24) per person. Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi, Tel: (971) 2 509 8617.
One of my Canadian friends from Los Angeles had moved to Abu Dhabi a few months before so I invited her to go on an abbreviated city tour with me, arranged by the Abu Dhabi tourism board. Ziad from Arabian Adventures (email@example.com, Tel.: +971 (0) 2 6911711) met us right on time in the lobby. As I walked out of the hotel, in came a sheik with three women behind him, all in traditional, floor-length black abayas. I’m assuming they were his wives and I would love to know how these guys manage to live with multiple women. Someone’s got to do a reality TV show.
EMIRATES PALACE HOTEL
On the tour, I was surprised that there was so little traffic as I have heard that Dubai is just one big traffic jam. Our first stop was the Emirates Palace Hotel. It turns out The Shangri-La is regarded as the second nicest hotel in Abu Dhabi. And the claim to being the grandest goes to the Emirates Palace. Get this: it’s not only the nicest hotel in Abu Dhabi but it’s the most expensive hotel ever built … it cost $3 billion! I guess they one upped Dubai’s Burj Al Arab’s sail-shaped hotel, which was a cool $1 billion. The 302 guestrooms here go for $1,000 a night and the 92 suites run about $10,000. No matter what, all visitors to Abu Dhabi should go inside to gawk. The Grand Atrium is 60 meters high, 40 meters wide. The place has over one million square feet of marble imported from Italy, Spain, China and India. My neck cramped and my jaw dropped when I looked up to see all the silver and gold glass mosaic tiles on the dome. If that wasn’t enough, the hotel even has 1,002 Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Elton John was scheduled to play that night and President Bush had been in town the week before for a conference. Emirates Palace, Tel: 00971 2 690 7150/1 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many hotels also offer up to 50% off their regular rates during Ramadan and are less during the smoking hot summer months.
Besides saying you’ve been in the world’s most expensive hotel, the main reason to come here is to see firsthand how the city is modeled and how the city is spending $100 billion … yes, billion … on infrastructure over the next five years. It’s all to attract more vacationers. Saadiyat Island is the biggest project. It’s a 670-acre cultural district designed by the world’s best-known architects. For instance, Frank Gehry is designing a 323,000-square-foot Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel will create a 258,000 square foot Louvre Museum, the only extension outside of Paris. Zaha Hadid is designing a Performing Arts Centre and Tadao Ando is designing a new maritime museum. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2011-’12 at a cost of $27 billion. The other $73 billion will go towards a new stadium, golf courses, hotels, housing and a 650-foot-high translucent tent so residents can play outdoor tennis, take boat rides, or relax at the pavement cafés all year round.
Ziad and his driver showed Tonja and me around the city. We learned that Abu Dhabi is a T-shaped island that juts into the Persian Gulf. We drove by malls, the famous cornice and stopped by the western tip of town to see the traditional wooden dhows.
Ziad asked if I wanted to go on an evening desert safari (cost: 275AED = $75). I didn’t ask what it entailed because just the words ‘desert safari’ sounded good. I conjured up images of camels crossing the barren sunlit dessert and meeting Bedouin tribesman. Unfortunately, dune bashing in a 4×4 slipped my mind. Who the heck invented this form of torture? Our Syrian driver thought he was Kelly Slater, surfing giant waves. I, on the other hand, thought it was a sick joke at first and that I was on some kind of UAE candid camera show. But my new mates (a family from Australia and siblings from Germany) confirmed that this is what they had signed up for. How we didn’t roll is beyond me but the driver was outstanding except for the fact he wouldn’t let me leave after I got carsick within the first 10 minutes. FYI: This was the first time I ever remember getting carsick.
GET ME OUT OF HERE!
Five minutes of this might have been fun but an hour? I don’t think so. I tried to pay the Syrian driver to get someone to pick me up or drop me off so I could hail a taxi but he said we were 30 minutes outside of the city and there was nowhere to go. I was trapped and everybody had to wear seatbelts and keep the windows closed. The worst part: I was the last person to be picked up in the six-seater Pathfinder. I didn’t know that Pathfinders had six seats until I got stuck in the little person’s seat way in the back. In the States, this is the area where our animals typically happily roam. But there I was, hunched over with my feet sideways on top of a stranger who happened to be the second biggest guy in the van. Why he didn’t switch places with his nine-year-old daughter (sitting in front of me) was beyond me …
From the moment I jumped in, I knew it was a bad idea. After I offered the girl $10, she kindly switched seats with me but it was too late. The damage had been done. When our driver finally stopped to let some more air out of the tires, I jumped out and said, “I’m leaving.” He said I couldn’t because of insurance reasons and that I would never make it back, anyways. I begged him again to call someone and I offered him all the money in my pocket but he wasn’t biting — though I could see he was tempted. He said he would take it easy but when we got back in the car, he gave me a crazy smirk and floored it towards the tallest of the dunes. I think he was getting a little revenge for some of George Bush’s foreign affairs policies. Why didn’t I say I was from Canada?
ABU DHABI DOO!
Fortunately, after round five, three others began feeling nauseous too (I’m actually starting to feel it again just writing about it), so he let us out while he drove like a maniac up and down the hills while we watched. It was really cool to watch but not a fun to experience (unless you like those sick amusement park rides). The sun finally began to set and there were just 10 more minutes of car torture before we reached a camel farm.
After a brief stop, we drove another 10 minutes to the camp, which could hold a lot of guests but it must have been a slow night – it was just us. It was quite chilly out (I’m glad I brought my sweater) and the BBQ under the indigo moonlit sky, was really worth the whole experience … just make sure you get the front seat. The pictures don’t do it justice but the stars and moon were just incredible. Before dinner, a Bedouin tribesman who lives at the camp (he didn’t speak English) took us for a token, 100-yard camel ride. It was short and sweet and after the tasty dinner, everyone had the opportunity to smoke some of his apple tobacco out of a hookah pipe. There are a variety of safaris available (I hear they are better in Dubai) but this one was from 4pm to 8:30pm.