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Desert Sands and the Stars - An Abu Dhabi Story

Watching the desert against the evening sun
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Emirates Palace
Veal Hariz + Camel Laban - UAE staples

I typically plan way too much! The reality is, I function in two modes - utter sloth or frenetic busyness! No middle grounds. This tendency of mine is particularly noticeable when I travel. I swing from being extremely spontaneous, fluid, no-planned itinerary self to very organized, minutely planned, day stretching self.

In both cases, I have a lot of fun.. in hindsight. But, the sailing isn't always so smooth during the process. Take for example, my recent trips in Europe and Asia. I swung both ways in those trips. The trouble was I completely forgot about the weather. You see, I don't like heat and the months of August and September had some of the hottest days recorded in all the places I was in, on exactly the days I was there!!! Yeah, right?!

Having gone through Italy and India in blistering heat and its consequences, I decided that I would take it easy on the last leg of my travel - in the UAE. 

To dine as an Emirati was a very pleasurable experience.

I had booked a day's stopover in Abu Dhabi, enroute from Chennai to New York. I was so chilled with this bit that I only applied for the visa a week before my departure date and that only because I randomly passed by the transfer desk in Abu Dhabi airport on my way to Chennai a few days earlier! That and a few months earlier, I had booked a evening desert safari. That was all the 'planning' I had done.

I landed near mid day and checked into the Premier Inn by the airport, chosen for its convenience rather than the amenities. My original plan had been to stay awake the entire night and be a vagabond and head straight to the airport for my US flight. But, two weeks of sporadic sleep and a heavier carry-on meant being an adult and getting a real bed for the night. So, the hotel at the airport it was.


Once I had dropped my luggage and freshened up, I was ready and pumped to explore. A quick google and I had my itinerary for the next 3 hours before my desert safari! My plan - visit the Emirates Palace and the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. That's it. The rest was perhaps for later...

The first thing I realised was Abu Dhabi was not small! In fact, the only means of transport was a taxi and the Emirates Palace was on the extreme end of the archipelago! It took me a good 45 minutes and $35 to get there. Only, to be underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong... the palace is all gold and opulent. But, it is new, built in the last 50 years and that newness shows in the lack of real character. The good thing was that it was air conditioned. The minute I stepped out of the taxi I was whacked by a wave of heat and I decided that I just had enough time to grab some lunch and take advantage of the cool recesses of the palace interior.

Which was  great idea! To dine as an Emirati was a very pleasurable experience. The traditional veal hariz was richly divine, a smooth, savory porridge, thick and satisfying with really tender meat. The accompanying laban of camel milk with a touch of salt and mint was divine, especially on a hot day!

Then it was off to the Mosque, which was another 30 minutes by cab. By this time, I had realised that nothing in Abu Dhabi was walkable, not the least because of the heat. Also, there are no traditional markets. This visit was soon becoming not so great without a plan. Anyway, the mosque....

Despite my less than ideal outlook on Abu Dhabi, by this time, at the newness of the whole place, my first impression of the mosque was awe.. at its grandeur, it's pristine whiteness, it's immeasurable serene countenance. I made a quick tour of it as I was getting late for my tour. I wish I could have spent more time just sitting and meditating there. It was certainly the place for quiet contemplation.

Still, the tour awaited. After some frustrated struggle to find a taxi to take me to the Ritz for the pick up, I found myself relaxing with some Emirate coffee and dates while waiting for the tour van.

Then the fun began.....

desert Safari entourage
camels in Abu Dhabi
Dunes of Abu Dhabi desert
Camels in Abu DHabi desert
Communing with the camel

If you do nothing else in Abu Dhabi, do an Evening Desert Safari!

Before, I even start describing the Evening Desert Safari experience, let me quickly summarise! If you do anything in Abu Dhabi for any number of days, put this on your itinerary. I booked it through GetYourGuide. That link also gives you a list of all the sights you can see in Abu Dhabi and things you can do in the general area around it! Go crazy! Also, a fellow traveler booked the day tour and recommended that as well, particularly, if you like me don't like heat and don't want to pay the price of the cabs and are willing to compromise on time spent in each location.

If you fly Etihad, they have packages that you can use, offered through their travel experience partner, Hala. I flew them but did not use their services, so cannot comment on them. But, Etihad's offerings are, based on several flying experiences, really good. 

After a minor confusion about pick up that was relatively easily resolved thanks to the hospitality of the Ritz Carlton, I was off on a 40 minute drive to the desert! I slept a lot of the way as we drove out of Abu Dhabi city, recuperating from all the water I had lost from standing in the sun for 15 minutes! When I awoke, the driver had stopped briefly to let gas out of the tyres, in preparation of driving on sand...

After a couple of 'photo' opportunity stops to view, enjoy and capture the desert vistas of unending beige sands contrasting against the piercing blue of the cloudless sky. I tried to conjure up visions of "Dune" and the Atreides family, but, really, I was just lost in the wonder of unendingness. You can guess it was my first time in the desert. I was loving it. Even the heat was abating! The setting sun against all of this is spellbinding sight and I am still lost for words.

Then we went riding dunes. Now, much as I have heard of it and seen the Toyota Land cruiser ads (which happened to the convoy choice!), I was definitely not prepared for what was to come. If you love roller coasters, this is nothing. If you don't, it is a pretty decent way to understand what that is. It was lurching, it was diving, it was thrilling, it was exhilarating! It felt invincible, particularly, when the drivers showed off their skills of twisting and turning on the steep slopes of the dunes..

There was quick pit stop to admire some desert creatures, such as camels. This was not fun sadly. I am not sure if it was the breed or that they were old, the animals looked fairly scrawny with disproportionately skinny legs; Atleast, compared to the ones I had seen in Turkey and Israel! Nevertheless, I managed to have a pleasant commune with a particularly friendly and expressive lady camel. That was fun!

More dune riding, by which time, I was an expert, ha!, and then it was off to the camp for dinner, henna tattooing and a really short camel riding (literally, 2 minutes). Oh! Let me pass on a tip - while riding a camel, lean backward; the beast lifts with its hind first and sits with its front legs first. The dinner itself was sumptuous (the biryani in particular) followed by some 'belly' dancing and other activities. It was fitting to end the way, in quiet, in the dark, gazing at the stars. Although, I have seen better night skies in the countryside of Ireland, it was a wonderful experience to share a space of solitude in a camp full of people!

Emirates Palace
Etihad Towers
Boys in Desert
Emirates Palace

Food and Culture Notes:

Although I did not meet a single Emirati (it is really hard to see anyone other than tourists wandering about in the day), I heard a lot of stories about their lifestyle from the immigrant workers. Citizenship to the UAE is coveted because of the monetary and other perks that it entails. Even children of immigrants are not allowed to be citizens creating an interesting disparity of haves and have nots. Yet, there is no discontent about it and, certainly, no crime related to it! 

While the city expands, at the pace not before seen anywhere else, you can see the skyline literally changing in front of your eyes. Black and White money makes its way in, to purchase property and apartments at sky rocketing prices. It certainly feels like a bubble, but, so far, a contained one!

From the food perspective, I was surprised to find that Emiratis consume more chicken than red meat! Chicken is kind of the national meat and there are interesting and ethnic 'fast food' joints serving it. If you are looking to find some ethnic markets or souks, food or otherwise, you are likely to be disappointed, unless you want to go to the wholesale fish and vegetable or carpet markets. I asked several residents about it and was pointed towards Carrefour or other malls in the city. I found this rather ironic! That said, food in general spectacular in the city, no matter the price point. I am curious where they get the ingredients from. Nearby Al Ain is supposed to be lovely for all that old world stuff, so a day trip, if you have time, would be a good idea.

Drinks.... For a Muslim country, the cocktails I tried here were some of the best I have ever had. And, I am saying this with my snooty New Yorker hat on! The Ritz where I was dropped off after the desert tour, gained my patronage by being absolutely wonderful to me even though I was not a guest. To show my appreciation, I decided to empty my wallet at their lovely Barfly by Buddha Bar. What an investment that was! The Old Fashioned, my favorite cocktail, came with Japanese flavors and real time cherry wood smoke (you can see doing that in the photo below). It was beautifully crafted both in flavor as well as showmanship! A grapefruit spritz got a good dose of grapefruit foam made onsite. The drinks are not cheap, costing a walloping $25 per drink but for the taste, pizzaz and quantity (1.5-2x normal pours), I'd call it well worth it. It is the Ritz after all, and, you certainly don't want to go there looking to get drunk.... just amused in a sophisticated way! :D

smoked old fashioned! - Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi
Ritz Carlton  Abu Dhabi - Cocktail making
Abu Dhabi Desert

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