Thursday, 12 January 2017

Xmas & NY in Dubai & Abu Dhabi

Day 1: Burj Al Arab + Mall of the Emirates

We were glad to be able to settle ourselves into our guest room in Auris Plaza Hotel in Al Barsha early at around 11:00 before heading out for a Christmas Eve's Afternoon Tea at 13:00 in the Skyview Bar on the 27th floor of Burj Al Arab. Taxi fare from Al Barsha to Al Arab was AED25, and we managed to report to the reception by 12:40 and then be seated at a first-come, first-served window table. As much as we would fancy a festive afternoon tea, but would rather not spend AED625 per person if the reservation was not also "an entry ticket" to the hotel. We had had even better afternoon tea back in London at just 40% of this price, but we were very pleased with the overall experience at the Skyview Bar nevertheless.
After the big meal we took a 20-minute walk northeast for even more good shots of Al Arab both in daylight and at sunset at Jumeirah Beach, then from which we took Bus 81 back and spend a little while to explore the Christmassy Mall of the Emirates.

Day 2: Hot Air Balloon + Dubai from a Seaplane + City Centre Deira

Pickup time for Balloon Adventures Emirates's "Sunrise Hot Air Balloon, Falconry and Wildlife Safari" was 05:25. After some wait for other guests at other hotels and some 40-minute drive to the desert, failure at first attempt to take off had us worried sick especially when unpleasant experience of cancellation of the same in Crans-Montana Switzerland few years back because of "the wind" was recalled. We could see the pilot and his whole team of workmen worked very hard and so not long after we were thrilled that the balloon was finally up in the air right before sunrise. I was surprised the falcon actually flew with us on board. While some could support this mighty bird of prey with only one hand, I just could not, not for that kind of weight. There might not be that much to see over the desert, but it was the 1-hour balloon flight that counts! Hot Air Ballooning over Dubai Desert is a must-do!
Breakfast at the Bedouin camp was basic but then we did enjoy the 40-minute Desert Safari on an open top 1950’s Land Rover.
This afternoon we flew up high in the sky again but on a Seawings's seaplane that departed from Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club. Without doubt, this 40-minute of cruising by seaplane, with large personal windows offering uninterrupted views of Dubai’s iconic monuments such as Burj Khalifa, The Palm Jumeirah, Burj Al Arab, The World Islands, etc., is the best way to admire city of Dubai. To great surprise, we managed to get the first-come, first-served premier seats at the back for the best of the best views.
It was almost 17:00 and we were there in the north anyway, so we thought it would be a good use of time to visit City Centre Deira just nearby, before heading back to Al Barsha, this mall is not worth a visit otherwise.

Day 3: Self-Drive Dune Buggy Safari + Camel Trekking

Dune Buggy Safari was another highlight of our year end vacation. Instead of joining an all-in-one tour with only 1 hour buggy ride but not drive, and moments of camel ride and sand boarding, we opted for a 4-hour self-drive dune buggy safari which was almost like a buggy rental accompanied by an experienced guide of Big Red Motorsports. What made it out of this world was just luck that we could have this one-to-one tailored safari thanks to absence of any other tourists that morning.
The back-and-forth journeys between city and dessert was unavoidable. We were there again in the late afternoon standing by for our 40-minute sunset camel trekking. Luckily, we had happy private moments with our camels. Also included in the package were shisha pipes, Tanoura dance show, Indian but not Arabian buffet dinner, belly dance show, etc., at the Bedouin camp, final destination of tourists from all different tours of the day. Everything at the camp was just average. I had had no choice but to book this kind of "tour for the mass" via GetYourGuide because tours available elsewhere allowed only minutes on a camel.

Day 4: Downtown Dubai

The day began with a photoshoot of Burj Khalifa against the azure background, followed by a tour inside Souk Al Bahar, a mini shopping center with natural stone corridors, high archways, subdued lighting and arabesque decors of rhythmic linear patterns, and last but not least a glimpse of Dance of Water and Light at the Dubai Fountain at 13:00 and 13:30.
The huge Dubai Mall is nothing exceptional. There was not even a Christmas tree as the centrepiece. Searching for a vegetarian meal in Dubai Mall, and anywhere else in Dubai, was a real effort. Right next to the food court where we had lunch were abnormally long queues for entry to Burj Khalifa that prompted us to worry about reserved ticket collection way earlier than our desired entry time at 16:30. None of the staff was doing the job well as guests were directed to whichever queue randomly without even being heard. In a state of total chaos we managed to collect our tickets only to be fooled again into believing that we should join another queue right away to go up. I was glad I ignored that piece of advice and came back at our chosen entry time which was perfect to enjoy panoramas up there both in daylight and after sunset. We opted for the most expensive AT THE TOP SKY just because we wanted to visit all three levels instead of two, but we were surprised none of other hidden privileges such as VIP waiting room, fast queue up and down, refreshments on level 148, etc., was mentioned on the website. We strongly recommend AT THE TOP SKY also because of the unbeatable views on level 148 where lots of nice shots are made possible via a gap between the upper and lower glass panels, and with the major crowds concentrated on the lower levels, the SKY experience with ease was worth the price.
Back on ground we enjoyed another Dance of Water and Light at night, and of course some more photoshoots of Khalifa before heading back to the hotel for a good night sleep required for the next long day away in Abu Dhabi.

Day 5: Abu Dhabi

We were concerned about safety of driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi but failed to come up with an alternative - would you trust a taxi driver more than yourself with a 1.5-hour trip on a notorious road? This morning we took a taxi to Jumeirah Beach hotel to pick up a rental car at 08:00. Being extra cautious on the road the journey ended up fine. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was the reason of overcoming all the hassle of travelling to Abu Dhabi. Visitors must observe the Islamic dress code. Abayas are available for women not already dressed properly and some sorts of thawbs for men wearing shorts. The majestic mosque did not disappoint. Visitors are free to explore most of the outdoor areas and with shoes off a magnificent hall with light golden decor.
At around noon we arrived at Etihad Towers and ascended to Observation Deck at 300 on 74th floor, the highest vantage of Abu Dhabi for stunning views across the Capital with a 360 degree view at 300 meter high. We enjoyed walking around the observation deck, shooting great photos of the city from New Presidential Palace, Emirates Palace to Abu Dhabi Corniche, etc. The visit would have been perfect if service was not that horrible from ticket purchase, table searching, food ordering, to bill payment. Cakes were not bad but certainly did not taste as good as they looked.
From right outside Emirates Palace just across the road are the best viewpoints of Etihad Towers. Emirates Palace is a landmark Abu Dhabi hotel that draws tourists as well as guests to its extensive grounds, private beach and opulent interiors on the far western end of the Corniche. We spent a little while inside before departing for Masdar City, the world's most sustainable eco-city.
There was not that much to see in Masdar City but we had so much fun travelling on Driverless PRT Personal Rapid Transport Pod cars back and forth. We then departed for Yas Mall for some dinner. Again, with caution on the road, we arrived back in Dubai at around 21:00 safe and sound.

Day 6: Atlantis The Palm + Souk Madinat Jumeirah + Ibn Battuta Mall

It took some patience before a taxi driver who knew about the Monorail Station - 11 Al Sufouh Rd finally came along. Return ticket to Atlantis Aquaventure Station costs AED25 per person. There are some good views of Royal Towers when approaching the station. We were glad that we spent our year-end vacation of 2015 in Atlantis Paradise Island in Bahamas instead of this tiny version in Dubai. Visitors could hardly see anything except for a glimpse of The Lost Chambers Aquarium, some souvenir shops and restaurants. We did go beyond for a walk on the waterfront.
12 minutes walk south from Monorail Station back in 11 Al Sufouh Rd Bus 8 brought us northeast near Souk Madinat Jumeirah whose low-rise buildings topped by wind towers lit up at night to cast a romantic glow over winding canals and glorious outside eateries. The Souk is such a magnet to tourists as well as residents also thanks to a viewpoint of Al Arab over its canals.
With some more walking and another bus journey we were there at Ibn Battuta Mall in less than an hour. This world's largest themed shopping mall consists of six courts, each of whose designs are inspired by some of the countries visited by the great Moroccan Berber explorer, Ibn Battuta: Egypt, India, China, Andalusia, Persia, and Tunisia. This hidden gem quickly became our favorite mall of the trip. Since it is located in the southwest end of Dubai, we had our dinner here at almost half price of the same we could get in Dubai Mall.

Day 7: Jumeirah Lakes Towers + Dubai Marina + Buddha Bar

The Jumeirah Lakes Towers, JLT, is a large development in Dubai, which consists of 80 towers being constructed along the edges of three artificial lakes as well as the JLT Embankment of 8 tower facing Jumeirah Islands. Full of high-rise buildings surrounding sparkling lakes, the best thing about JLT, at least for us, is that it is one of the very few walkable areas in Dubai. I would have promenaded with more joy if I was not a full brunch savoured by mosquitoes.
Walking around Dubai Marina took us almost a full day. There are some truly lovely dusk and night views. We wished there were more walkable areas like this.
We were excited for some real good cocktails together with a tapas style dinner at Buddha Bar Dubai as this had received much higher ratings than its counterpart in London. Presentation as well as the taste of cocktails were exceptional; food was quality but expensive for what it was; but it was the pleasant dining experience in an elegant ambience we paid for.

Day 8: Dubai Creek + Downtown Dubai NYE Fireworks

We started the day late and went all the way up by metro to Dubai Creek where we visited textile souk, spice souk, and gold souk, followed by the historic district Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood. There was nothing extraordinary. The fun part was to cross the harbor back and forth by abra which cost only AED1 per ride.
Another highlight around this old part of Dubai was our cheap but surprisingly good vegetarian Indian buffet lunch that cost only AED20 per person.
At around 16:00 we departed for Downtown Dubai where we began our marathon journey at 19:00   walking from Dubai Mall to the best viewing area for the irresistible NYE Fireworks Display. Despite sufficient control points set up by the police, we constantly struggled among the unexpectedly uncivilised crowds until we finally settled into a satisfying viewing point at 21:00. Lots of rests with juicy exotic fruits from Waitrose were what we needed in the hours to come. The show was spectacular but we were not so sure anymore if it was worth all the suffering, not to mention another marathon journey to get to the third metro station north from Dubai Mall way before we could lie down at the hotel at 02:00.

Day 9: Dubai Mall

We started our last day at midday and did nothing exciting but explored the giant Dubai Mall that we barely glanced through the other day. There was really not any Christmas tree! We had a sweet lunch at Galeries Lafayette le Gourmet, and then with a little more window shopping we headed back to Mall of the Emirates for dinner before collection of luggage for the return flight at 02:25. 
The trip itself was awesome, but the fact that Dubai is not at all pedestrian-friendly and the problem of indiscipline were the bad parts.