Our Middle East Adventures, Part 2

I’m back with Part 2 of our awesome trip! We spent 3 fun days in Dubai, and we planned to spend the next 3 days in Abu Dhabi. But how to get there? Well there’s lots of options – the Etihad shuttle, Big Bus Tour, catching a local bus, hiring a taxi or hiring a private car (like Uber). The bus options are cheap, but you have to get yourself to the bus station and we weren’t interested in lugging all our stuff all over Dubai. We hired a private car which was awesome. We were picked up promptly in a Lexus, and had a smooth drive to Abu Dhabi. True to form, LM fell asleep almost immediately, but I was awake, just checking out the view.

After about 70 minutes, we arrived at our destination, the Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche. This is a hotel that we’d initially booked, and then booked again for a cheaper rate thanks to a Priceline Express deal. Even at the higher rate, this hotel was totally worth it, but it was a steal for what we paid thanks to Priceline. The staff is super attentive and welcoming. We checked in and were given an upgrade to a corner room on the 18th floor with a gorgeous view. Our room also had a nice sitting area and a large bathroom with another large tub. We thoroughly loved the Sofitel, and between the two hotels we stayed in, I preferred the Sofitel. It’s probably the nicest hotel I’ve stayed in.

After we arrived, we rested for a bit, changed clothes, and then headed to the Emirates Palace for high tea. We'd heard from several people that high tea at Emirates Palace was a must do, so we were excited to try it. Tip: book reservations for the high tea in advance. There are several options to choose from - we went with the traditional high tea. I also opted to try the cappuccino with 24k gold flakes, which was delicious.

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The next morning, we took advantage of the hotel shuttle to Yas Island, where we visited Ferrari World. That's right, we went to an amusement park based on a car company. I was a bit skeptical at first, but it was a lot of fun! The complex is huge, with a ton of things to do - roller coasters, simulators, games, exhibits, and even a go-kart track! My husband drooled over the Ferraris on exhibit, and we had a great time on the rides. We spent half the day there and it went by way too fast!

Ferrari World

We also hit a mall in Abu Dhabi, courtesy of the hotel shuttle. It was impressive, but after seeing the malls in Dubai, it was a bit of a letdown. However, this mall did have a Popeye's, but no red beans & rice #bummer.

We used our last day in Abu Dhabi to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It's the largest mosque in the UAE and one of the few open to the public. Before we began our tour, I rented an abaya in the basement of the mosque. Tip: both men and women can rent acceptable dress if they aren't dressed appropriately to enter. Women must have their hair covered, plus arms and legs down to the wrist/ankle. To rent garments, you give them your ID and they give you a claim slip. When you return it, you get your ID back.

I'd seen lots of pics of the Grand Mosque on Instagram, but I was unprepared for its beauty in person. It's breathtaking and gorgeous. There's so much to see and take photos of, it's a bit overwhelming. The mosque is so grand, and so ornate. There were a ton of people while we were there, but everyone was respectful and enjoying the beauty of the mosque.

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One cool thing that we saw was a sign that displayed the prayer times in Arabic & English

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And this artwork inside the mosque, listing some of the 99 Names of Allah.

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We had to cut our visit to the mosque a bit short, because we had a tour at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital at 2pm. Getting there was an adventure - remember how I said none of the buildings have street numbers? That makes describing where things are...interesting. We also went through like 3 cab drivers before we found one who knew where the falcon hospital was. Once we hopped in our cab we thought we were good...until he suddenly pulled off the road to get gas! We were a bit late for our tour, but we made it to our destination!

So the falcon hospital...this was probably my favorite activity on the trip. Falconry is the national sport of the UAE, and this hospital does tours where you can learn about the birds, the history of the sport, and see how they take care of them. I learned a ton, like how falcons are treated like children by their owners and they often have their own rooms in the house. Falcons also have their own passports, so that they travel to other countries where hunting with a falcon is legal (it's not in the UAE).

After our intro, we were ushered into the exam room to meet the birds. The falcons hang out on those benches, and they are super chill because they have hoods on, which prevents them from seeing. It was so nuts to see all those falcons just chilling!

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The staff took us through a normal examination of the birds, and afterwards each of us got to hold a falcon if we wanted. I can't even front, I was a bit nervous - those talons are sharp! But my falcon was chill, and now I can say I've held a falcon on my arm!

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The last demonstration in the exam room was the feeding. Falcons are hunters and they eat meat, so they fed one of the birds a quail. Check out my adventurous husband, who volunteered to feed the falcon.

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The tour continued with a walking tour of the rest of the grounds. The facility also houses a family of owls who live outside. There's also a special room where the falcons can live while they go through their molting season, where they shed their old feathers and grow new ones.

Once our tour was over, we cabbed it back to the hotel where we packed and chilled until it was time to hit the airport. Our flight back to the US left at 3am, so we were at the airport at midnight. The Abu Dhabi airport has an US customs pre-clearance facility, where you go through customs before you even leave the country; when your flight lands in the US, it's as if you just got off a domestic flight. Our flight back was less full than our first flight, so we had a bit more room to spread out. I did my sleeping, eating, and moving watching routine once again.

Since we've been back, I've been asked a lot what I thought of the trip. My answer is always that it was an amazing trip and I'm so glad we went. I never thought I'd ever go to Dubai or the Middle East, and we did it! I enjoyed myself so much and got out of my comfort zone. A destination like Dubai is good for someone who is just getting into world travel, because it's so easy for English-speakers. All the signs are in English, and so many folks speak the language, you can get around easily. I also loved taking an international trip with my husband, that wasn't a honeymoon. We both love to travel and it was cool to see how we would do on a world adventure.

Now that we've (finally!) taken this trip, it's time to plan our next one, for our anniversary in March. Where should we go? Leave your suggestions in the comments! 

Our Middle East Adventures, Part 1

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Hey yall! LM and I just spent an amazing week in the UAE – Dubai and Abu Dhabi specifically.

What were we doing in the UAE? Vacation of course! This story began last Christmas, when Etihad Airlines had super cheap fares to a variety of destinations. I snagged us two tickets to Abu Dhabi for less than what it cost us to fly to Atlanta for Christmas! Because of our wedding & honeymoons in the spring of 2015, I booked our travel for October, when it’s cooler.

After almost of year of waiting, and seeing everyone’s cool photos, it was finally our turn to travel! Prior to the trip we did a bunch of research to figure out things to do/see, where to stay, and most importantly, how to make our flight as comfy as possible. Shoutout to Tripadvisor, Seatguru and Black Girl in Abu Dhabi, which were my main resources for information.

Our journey began on a Wednesday, when we drove from Minneapolis to Chicago, which was the closest city that Etihad flies from. We could have hopped a flight, but it was easier and cheaper to just make the drive. Our flight to Abu Dhabi was scheduled to leave at 1pm on Thursday, so we drove down Wednesday evening and spent the night in a hotel.

Our departing flight from Chicago was a Boeing 767 and it was PACKED. LM and I sat in the back, which turned out to be great. The plane was a 3-4-3 configuration, and we were in the first 2 seats of the 4 seat section. I did appreciate the many amenities provided by the airline – not just a pillow and blanket, but also eye shades, ear plugs, and noise-cancelling headphones. During our 14 hour flight we were served several meals and snacks, plus plenty of drinks. I spent the flight falling asleep to movies, while LM spent most of it walking around and doing shots with a flight attendant in the galley.

After what felt like forever, we finally landed in Abu Dhabi. When we disembarked, we were greeted by a representative from Pearl Assist, who escorted us through customs. After we exchanged a bit of our money, we then hopped on the Etihad shuttle to Dubai. Tip: if you’re flying on Etihad, the shuttle to/from Dubai is free, but your boarding pass is required. It’s also suggested that you reserve your seats in advance. The trip to Dubai took a little over an hour, ending at the Etihad Travel Mall. From there, we took a cab to our hotel, the Bonnington Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

The Bonnington is in a great area – it’s in a development with restaurants and various shops, and it’s a 10 minute walk to the Metro and tram. The Metro can get you all over Dubai, while the tram will take you to the Marina, Jumeirah Beach and Palm Island. I wish I could say that I was clever when I booked this hotel, but we really got lucky. Initially we’d booked a hotel near the Dubai Mall, but it was expensive. We took a gamble on a Priceline Express Deal and got the Bonnington at a great rate. The hotel was beautiful, and the service was top-notch. Our room was spacious, and the bathroom with huge! It had both this amazing deep tub plus a huge walk-in shower.

After checking in and resting up for a bit, we ventured out to explore Dubai. We found the Metro, and figured out how to buy passes. Tip: get a daily pass; it’s 22 AED (~$6) for unlimited rides all day. We decided to visit Mall of the Emirates, which is 1 of the most famous malls in Dubai. This mall is home to Ski Dubai, the indoor ski slope. Listen, this mall was INSANE. I visit Mall of America all the time, and Mall of the Emirates puts it to shame. Any and every retailer you can imagine was in this mall, from low-end to the high-end luxury brands. I did enjoy visiting some of the luxury stores. Honest moment: shopping while Black in Dubai was a new experience - I didn’t have worry about things like being followed or receiving poor service. We explored the mall and had dinner, before we returned to the hotel for some rest.

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Day 2 we had an open morning, so we hopped on the Metro to visit the Dubai Mall and see Burj Khalifa (aka the tallest building in the world). We weren't interested in going to the observation deck in Burj Khalifa so we just admired it from the ground - and yes, it's super tall. The Dubai Mall was fantastic, with tons of shops and restaurants. In one section of the mall, there's a line of American restaurants, which surprised me - Red Lobster next to PF Chang's next to Texas Roadhouse. It's also home to a large aquarium which we initially planned to visit, but we ran out of time. After visiting for a bit, we hustled back to our hotel for pick up for our desert safari experience.

There are a ton of companies that run a desert safari - we went with Arabian Adventures, and booked the Sundowner. On the safari, we were taken out to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. The safari starts with a short falcon show. Next you go driving through the sand dunes (if you get motion sick you won't like this part) and you make a short stop in the dunes for photos. The last stop is a permanent camp where you have dinner, watch a belly dance show, take camel rides and get henna.

 

LM and I on the desert safari!

The desert safari was fun....but it felt very generic and cookie-cutter. Every moment was perfectly choreographed to keep you on schedule and it didn't feel super authentic. It was like the McDonald's of experiences, if that makes sense. It's also designed to churn as many people through as possible. It's a cool thing to do on your first time to Dubai, but I didn't walk away feeling like I'd had an authentic experience.

Day 3 was my favorite day in Dubai. We began the day by meeting a friend of my husband's - he and his wife have lived in Dubai for 4 years. We had lunch and he shared a ton of information about live in Dubai, being a Black expat, etc. Also we had some yummy sushi at a conveyor belt restaurant, which are always my faves. After lunch, we took the Metro to the gold and spice souks, which are big markets. In the gold souk, every 5 feet there was a guy trying to sell you watches, jewelry, fake bags, etc. Nuts! We also randomly stumbled upon the Heritage House, a home that was converted to a museum to highlight traditional life in the UAE. I liked exploring this museum and learning more about the culture.

Fresh caught seafood dinner on the beach!

In the evening we met up again with LM's friends for dinner at a seafood restaurant. This restaurant serves fish and shrimp that were caught the same day, and you get to pick out your fish when you order. We ate on the beach, enjoying the breeze and the conversation. We then walked off dinner with a stroll through Jumeirah Beach, where I captured this view of Burj Al Arab. To end the night, we headed to the The Address hotel in Dubai Marina, where we had drinks and dessert at the pool lounge. The hotel has a beautiful infinity pool and I was mesmerized by the gorgeous view of the marina and the skyline. It turned out to be the perfect way to end the Dubai part of our trip.

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Other thoughts/observations about Dubai:

  • All the signs are in Arabic and English - super helpful for us English speakers
  • I saw a lot of American cars, which surprised me. Mustangs, F-150s and Suburbans are popular. Also, almost all the cars were white, which I'm sure is intentional.
  • I did a lot of people watching, and it seemed like almost everyone was a foreigner.
  • There are a ton of US companies with offices in Dubai.
  • Everything is super clean and everywhere we went, I saw people cleaning, sweeping, etc.
  • Dubai is very safe - we walked around after midnight with no issues.
  • Every restaurant delivers, even McDonald's!
  • The currency exchanges in the malls have the best rates - hold out to exchange most of your money there.
  • Try to arrive so you attend the brunch at The Atlantis - we missed it but I heard it's amazing.

Next up, Part 2 in Abu Dhabi!