The United Arab Emirates (UAE) never made it on our initial RTW itinerary. I always thought there was a chance we’d end up with a layover in Dubai at some point, but we didn’t plan to stop for any period of time. That was, until we met a lovely family on our Poon Hill Trek in Nepal and made plans to visit them in Abu Dhabi!
Then, out of the blue, I heard from a friend from Canada who told me she’d just moved to Abu Dhabi with her family. Suddenly our 4-day stop wasn’t going to be long enough! But, it was all we had, so we planned to make the most of it.
We flew direct from Delhi to Dubai. It was an easy flight, and after spending 5 weeks in India we were assaulted by the first world cleanliness of the Dubai airport. Everything was shining and sparkling clean!! The man at customs pulled us out of the regular line and we were whisked through the VIP line in no time. After getting a bit of money out of the ATM, we picked up our rental car and were driving down the perfectly paved roads on our way to Abu Dhabi.
The girls spotted a Tim Horton’s on the side of the highway, and we all had a sense of being at home. It was a great feeling!
Daylight revealed that we were still a long-way from home, but Abu Dhabi presented us with more familiarity than we’d felt since leaving Canada 8 months earlier. This was partly due to being in a friend’s house, that looked and felt like it could’ve been in North America. And it was partially due to the fact that we were in a country just as developed as Canada.
There were stark differences, however. The people on the streets were a mix of Western ex-pats sweating in jeans and t-shirts or business attire, Indian and Pakistani expats who didn’t skip a beat in the crazy desert heat, and local Emirates dressed in long white cloaks (men) and abayas (women). I sometimes felt awkwardly dressed, and wished I’d had a few tips on what to wear in Abu Dhabi before visiting! And although we found the familiarity of Tim Hortons, the grocery stores were obviously lacking in pork products.
The Hunt For Bacon
We asked the girls if there was something special they wanted to eat at Tim and Julie’s house. Calais decided she wanted macaroni and cheese (not Kraft Dinner…proper mac & cheese!!), and Kacela wanted bacon. She had no idea that her request was a tad bit absurd given the part of the world we were in. But, Randy decided to oblige if he was able (I think he was craving bacon just as much as Kacela!).
Randy and Tim went out one evening to buy bacon for breakfast the next day, and Randy came back feeling like he’d walked into the “adult-only” section of a Blockbuster, just to buy bacon. The high percentage of ex-pats living in Dubai and Abu Dhabi mean that pork products and alcohol are available, however they’re not necessarily easy to obtain. First you have to FIND the products, which are often tucked away behind a dark curtain making you feel like you’re breaking some sort of rule just by entering the restricted “pork zone”, and then you have to show ID proving that you’re not an Emirate and not Muslim. Even the people handling the forbidden meat have to be non-Muslim foreigners, including the cashier at the check out.
Randy managed to find some rather expensive bacon, and came home feeling triumphant…and excited for breakfast the next day! It was a unique experience, and Kacela especially was more than happy for the extra effort!
The Beach in Abu Dhabi
We didn’t do a whole lot during our rushed four days in Abu Dhabi. We spent the first morning just relaxing and visiting, and then went to the nearby beach for the afternoon. The kids were happy to have a friend to play with, and we were all thankful for the respite from the heat that the water provided. The beach was lovely, although it felt a bit strange to be relaxing on the sand while drinking a Starbucks and being surrounded by skyscrapers!
The kids didn’t seem to mind though, and were thankful for the ice cream stop on the way home.
Julie and I took advantage of the Dads the second night, and headed out for drinks after dinner. We spent the evening relaxing on the patio, talking about mom life and reminiscing about the past. It was so nice, that although we hadn’t seen each other for a few years, nothing had changed. The evening was peaceful, and further added to our sense of “normal” in Abu Dhabi.
We don’t often do many “kid-centric” activities when we travel, instead turning normal tourist activities into something fun for the kids. As a result, they actually love museums and temple hopping, and when given the choice will pick the “local” activity over something kid-specific. However, while in Abu Dhabi, we decided to change this. Both sets of friends had annual-passes to Yas Waterworld, so it seemed like the perfect way to spend the day. We were able to get together with everyone, and the kids had an absolute blast!
We hadn’t seen “the boys” since Nepal, but it took all of about 3 seconds before the kids were besties again. The five kids had a great time playing together. It was the perfect way to escape the heat and hang out for the day. We decided to go all out, and rented a cabana for the day. This gave us somewhere to keep all our stuff, provided a central meeting area, and offered shade to eat lunch with a quiet place for the baby to nap! This made Yas the most expensive thing we did all year (check current prices for Yas here)…even more expensive than the hot air balloon ride in Luxor!! I’d say the splurge was totally worth it though, and the kids would agree.
The only thing Calais was sad about, was that she ran out of time to try diving for a pearl. With our cabana rental, we got the opportunity to dive for an oyster in the mermaid pool. In theory, the oyster should contain a pearl. Calais thought it was something she might want to do, but then got side tracked playing. When it was time to leave she hadn’t done it, and neither had anyone else. I didn’t really think we needed the pearl, and figured if she really wanted it she’d need to make it happen herself. It was a lesson for her in making choices, and ultimately I think she probably had a better time playing with the boys than diving for the pearl.
The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
After two wonderful nights with our Canadian friends, we made our way across Abu Dhabi to stay with Hunter and Heather, who we’d met trekking in Nepal. The boys were in school during the day, but we made the most of our evenings. As soon as they got home from school, all four kids quickly disappeared upstairs and spent hours playing. Calais even came away with a promise note for a betrothal!
There are a number of touristy things to do in Abu Dhabi, but we skipped out on many of them, except for the Grand Mosque. On our last evening in Abu Dhabi we went for a lovely dinner, then stopped by the Grand Mosque just as the sun was setting. It was absolutely stunning! The kids ran around the open space, playing hide and go seek and tag. They even humoured me and posed for a few pictures!
The colour of the Mosque’s lights change from white to purple depending on the cycle of the moon. It was lovely all lit up with the soft purple lights of the crescent moon, but I’m sure it would be equally as spectacular with the full moon white lights! Either way, it’s definitely worth a sunset stop if you find yourself in Abu Dhabi.
Daytime at the Grand Mosque
The Grand Mosque was so beautiful at night I decided that I couldn’t leave Abu Dhabi without also visiting during the day. After a sad good-bye with our friends, we went back into town to check out this incredible structure. It’s similar to the Taj Mahal, although on a different scale. The white marble is stunning against the stark blue sky, and there’s SO MUCH intricate detail within the entire complex.
Thankfully it wasn’t too busy when we got there, but it still took us an hour or so to explore the whole complex. I wish we would’ve read this guide on how to visit the Grand Mosque, we would’ve been more prepared! Our visit took slightly longer than it needed to because Randy thought he could get away with wearing shorts. He most definitely could NOT, so he had to run back to the rental car to change into pants. They had grey abayas for females to borrow at the entrance, so I was able to quickly cover myself up and find a place in the shade to wait for Randy to return.
The Mosque is massive, and although there are thousands of visitors each day, it’s possible to spread out a bit so it doesn’t feel overly crowded. We all marvelled at the flower details set into the marble, and the girls danced under the gorgeous crystal chandeliers. It was a very different scene from our sunset view the night before, but I don’t think I could choose one over the other. Both a daytime visit and a sunset visit are necessary in my opinion!
Once we felt like we’d seen all the Grand Mosque had to offer, it was time to head into Abu Dhabi for one last lunch with Julie. We ate the most delicious Shakshuka I’ve ever had, then jumped in the car to drive back to Dubai for some much needed shopping and stocking up on “supplies”. Randy had found his desperately needed flip flops in Abu Dhabi, and Calais had found Kacela’s birthday present, but I still needed replacement sandals! We also wanted to see the Burj Khalifa up close and personal.
Dubai Shopping & The Burj Khalifa
One thing the girls have gained an affinity for this year, is the appreciation for the “world’s biggest/tallest/best”. We went up the Canton tower in Guangzhou, which is the 7th tallest building in the world. Since then they’ve talked periodically about visiting the TALLEST building in the world. We were so close, it seemed wrong not to visit!
The Mall of the Emirates is absolutely gigantic, and we assumed we’d be able to accomplish everything we wanted to and more. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. I couldn’t find my sandals anywhere (I was looking for something VERY specific), but we did get some other shopping done. We also watched the water show at the base of the Burj.
Calais was a bit disappointed that we weren’t going UP the tower. She appreciated it from the bottom, but couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t have bought tickets to go to the top. I hadn’t looked into it ahead of time, and it’s most definitely a buy-in-advance kind of ticket. In her mind there’s no point visiting the tallest tower in the world if you’re not going up it!! (If you don’t want to make the same mistake as us, you should prebook your Burj Khalifa tickets!)
Aside from the epic fail of not pre-purchasing tickets to go up the Burj Khalifa, we enjoyed our time in the UAE. It was incredible to meet up with friends, both new and old, half way around the world. They both opened their homes and offered us the most generous hospitality. We were in desperate need of a bit of “normal” at this point, and we didn’t even know it! I’m pretty sure this stop gave us the energy we needed to keep going for months afterwards. It really made us realize how the world is both big and small, all at the same time.
Things To Know Before You Go To Abu Dhabi
Where We Stayed
We stayed with friends, and it was absolutely fabulous!! It’s a good thing we stayed with friends, because everything we did was relatively expensive so this helped offset the cost!
Where We Ate
This is where we had the most delicious Shakshuka EVER!! It was seriously so, so good and I’d go back to Abu Dhabi just for it!
This is an upscale restaurant in the Ritz Carlton, and serves up traditional Emirate food. The kids had fun playing on the old safari jeep and running around in the open courtyard. The food seemed overpriced for what we got, but then again everything in the UAE seemed overpriced compared to the budget-friendly places we’d been traveling through for the previous 8 months!
What We Did
Corniche Beach in Abu Dhabi
This is one of the main beaches in Abu Dhabi, and it’s free!! There are a few others close by where you can pay to rent a chair, or pay to enter, but the free beach provided everything we needed for a few hours of fun in the sand.
This was the most expensive thing we did during our entire year long trip, but it was worth it. The kids had an absolute blast, and it was great to get a break from the heat. It seems like a massive water park is just something you have to do in the UAE, and Yas Waterworld is a great one to visit!
Check the price and buy your tickets for Yas Waterworld here!
Me and my fear of heights were happy to see the world’s tallest building from the ground, but Calais wasn’t impressed she didn’t get to go to the top. I promised her we’d go up on a future visit to the UAE. Next time I’ll be more prepared and buy our tickets in advance!
Check the price and buy your own tickets in advance!
How We Got Around
We rented a car through rentalcars.com and I’m not sure how we would’ve managed without it. Public transportation in the UAE isn’t amazing, especially if you’re traveling between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was our first rental car of the entire trip, and the first time Randy had drive in 8 months. It’s amazing the sense of freedom we had with our own wheels. I highly recommend renting a car if you’re staying in the UAE for any length of time.