Anything Under The Sun

Grand Mosque Mystique. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at Night

Anything under the sun.  Well at least that is how I remember or describe Abu Dhabi.  It seems like anything is possible here.  Dubai may be the most popular of all the Emirates in the UAE but Abu Dhabi is still the capital; and it has several reasons for being so.  As one travel guide puts it, Abu Dhabi is not afraid to challenge World Records.  To start, Abu Dhabi has the world’s largest hand-loomed carpet (which is found inside perhaps the grandest mosque in the Arabian peninsula).  You can enjoy the highest high tea in one of the city’s latest observatories.  You can ride the world’s fastest roller coaster here.  With its geographical location under the sun, it is one city championing sustainable energy.  Abu Dhabi also has the world’s most leaning building (Capital Gate Tower which is tilted at 18 degrees; four times more wayward than the leaning tower of Pisa).  And to highlight its cultural ambitions, it is a city with the branch of the famous Louvre outside of Paris.  Among upcoming others (whew).  🙂

Abu Dhabi is a popular day trip destination for people traveling to Dubai (a 2-hour bus ride from Dubai’s bus station in Deira).  A day trip to Abu Dhabi however wouldn’t do it justice.  I was in Dubai last year and stayed there for a week.  I basically resisted the day trip temptation.  I’ve read somewhere that Abu Dhabi is equally beautiful and deserves a proper visit and write-up of its own.  So I made it a point to visit the place while the temperature and the heat is still at its moderate.  This is a late post by the way.  🙂  Below are a few practicalities.

A Mid-summer Night’s Dream. Yas Marina & Yas Viceroy Hotel at the Blue Hour.

  1. Traveling to the UAE is never cheap (for me).  Without a sponsor in the UAE, I have to fly with Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi’s official airline) and get them to sponsor my online Visa application.
  2. But food and transportation cost in Abu Dhabi felt less expensive for me (compared to Singapore where I am currently based).  🙂
  3. Hotel accommodation costs are high, but plummets during the summer months.  So if you don’t mind staying inside malls, early summer is the best time to book a hotel in this wonderful city.  That’s what I did here.  🙂
  4. There are no trains in Abu Dhabi (as far as I can remember).  While taxis are the most convenient way to get around, you will appreciate the lay of the land better and feel like a local (or save more money) by riding the bus.  Abu Dhabi has reliable and comfortable bus services with air-conditioned bus shelters and stations.  Get a rechargeable green card from the airport.  Cards can be recharged at most bus shelters.  I got my card free from a very kind, tourist-friendly Starbucks barista.  🙂
  5. It is best to book a hotel near the city center or around Abu Dhabi’s central bus terminal (Al Wahda Bus Terminal).  I stayed at Centro Al Manhal by Rotana (along Airport Road) which is conveniently located behind Al Wahda Mall and Al Wahda Bus Terminal.  The hotel facilities and services give you the best value for your money (I am not getting a fee for this recommendation by the way).  Most bus services to major attractions stop infront of the hotel; so you need to remember only a few bus numbers.  In this write-up, I will assume you will book your stay here.  🙂

Needless to say, travellers come here for the desert safari experience.  But I honestly don’t like extreme sports and desert safaris.  Sorry about that.  My boring bias has always been towards architecture (and food) which is the best way for me to understand a new city.  🙂  But there is more to Abu Dhabi than just the desert safari experience.  I share my photos below.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque:  This is Abu Dhabi’s iconic and most recognizable attraction.  I have seen hundreds of photos of this mosque before; all taken from the same angles that it almost already felt like cliche.  But seeing the mosque with your own eyes will leave you in awe.  The architectural detailing is magnificent and the scale of the structure is overwhelmingly amazing.  I am an architect and I believe that the amount of effort and detail you put in the design of a religious facility is directly proportional to your faith in the Supreme Being that you worship.  Like most places of worship however, access is allowed only at certain areas (which explains why we end up with similar photos).  It was a bit smoggy during my visit here so the haze created a different color cast in the twilight sky which gave my photos a different mood despite the familiar shot angle.
(Tips: Admission is free | Take bus 31 from Airport Road | Visitors must wear trousers | Women must have their heads covered before entering the Mosque)

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

Emirates Palace & Etihad Towers:  The ambitious Emirates Palace Hotel feels more like a cultural hub and tourist spot than a luxury hotel.  The expansive hotel grounds dominates the western end of Corniche Road.  You don’t need to check in as a guest to check out this hotel as it is open to the public.  Appropriate attire is a must though (no shorts please). Don’t miss the beautiful atrium ceiling (as well as the coffee sprinkled with gold leaf) and stay a bit longer to see the hotel outside when beautifully illuminated at night.  Across the hotel courtyard is Etihad Towers, a cluster of sexy and modern buildings competing with the hotel for your attention.
(Tips: Admission is free | Smart Casual Attire | Take bus 31 from Airport Road to Al Marina)

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

City Views from Jumeirah at Etihad Towers:  I always bring home a photo of a new city taken from a high vantage point.  Few things can match the exhilaration of standing on top of a city’s tall building.  And if my schedule permits, I will wait for early evening and take a photo of the city at the blue hour.  Enjoy the highest high tea at Observation Deck @ 300, a cafe at the 74th Floor (Tower 2) of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers; a cluster of beautiful and modern buildings punctuating the western end of Corniche Road.  The cafe has breathtaking views of the city and the Corniche shoreline embracing the Persian Gulf.
(Tips: Admission is Dh95 which includes the Dh55 for food | Take bus 31 from Airport Road to Al Marina | Etihad Towers is just across Emirates Palace)

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

Abu Dhabi Louvre:  Few places can match the vision and ambitions of Abu Dhabi which accommodates a branch of the Louvre outside of Paris.  Unlike other museums, the Louvre’s exhibits focus on human commonalities rather than regional differences.  The highlight of this facility is the intricate metal ceiling under the dome which reminds me of the interior of a Bedouin tent used by desert nomads.  Like the Bedouin tent, the thick ceiling mesh brings the interior temperature down; with the mesh creating beautiful specks of light and allowing the hot air to rise and pass through.  This creates a breeze which lowers the interior temperature even more.
(Tips: Admission is Dh63 | Take bus 94 from Al Wahda bus station along Muroor Road across Al Wahda Bus Terminal | Bus 94 terminates at the Louvre | There is a cafe within the museum serving one of the best burgers 🙂 )

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

Abu Dhabi Heritage Village & Breakwater:  The glitz of modern Abu Dhabi will not overshadow its seafaring and nomadic roots.  Abu Dhabi Heritage Village is a microcosm of a desert and nomadic life.  The Village features a museum, a small souq (market), exhibitions of traditional crafts, examples of wooden dhows (boats), and a small desert environment.  A few steps outside the Heritage Village will lead you to the breakwater (marked by the big UAE flag) where you get a panoramic view of Corniche Beach and the city skyline beyond which looks really romantic at night.
(Tips: Admission is free | Take bus 31 from Airport Road to Al Marina | Bring lots of water)

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

World Trade Center Mall & Etihad Sqaure:  World Trade Center Mall is located at the base of the World Trade Center Towers (the city’s tallest building).  The mall atrium with its rich decorative timber latticework is a modern rendition of a traditional atmospheric souq.  Adjacent to the mall is Souq Central Market which shares the same design theme but focuses on local specialties and shopping for souvenirs.  The widest and best selection of dates can be found here.  🙂  Outside the World Trade Center Mall is Etihad Square, a traffic island featuring five concrete street monuments which symbolize traditions of Emirati life and Bedouin hospitality.
(Tips: Take bus 94 from Al Wahda bus station along Muroor Road across Al Wahda Bus Terminal)

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

Ferrari World & Yas Marina (Yas Island):  Ferrari World is a unique amusement park and a celebration of all things fast and furious.  The world’s fastest roller coaster can be found here and is as close as you can get to riding a Formula 1 race car.  I didn’t ride that one but was content in watching other people go through the experience. 🙂  In between the fun rides and thrills are exotic car exhibitions and live shows.  The Ferrari World entrance is inside Yas Mall.  Also within Yas Island is Yas Marina connected to the beautiful Yas Viceroy Hotel.  The best way to experience the Marina is to walk along the promenade in the evening when the yachts and the waters of the marina are illuminated by the beautiful mantle of Yas Viceroy Hotel.
(Tips: Admission to Ferrari World is Dh250 | Take bus 195 from Al Wahda Bus station along Muroor Road across Al Wahda Bus Terminal | Travel time is 1 hour | A looping shuttle service will take you to the different attractions within Yas Island | Warner Brothers Studios is an upcoming attraction in Yas Island)

(click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)

A holiday in a hot desert environment is something unusual, but is always an eye-opener.  It will certainly change your perceptions of the Middle East.  So in this write-up, I am also hoping that Abu Dhabi will no longer be just a day trip destination. 🙂

So there you go.  This is my photographic and written account on this beautiful and peaceful Emirati capital.  I hope I got you inspired and as always, excited.

Thank you for reading.  See you in my next post.  Cheers!!!  🙂

Dubai Retrospective

A Light Between Oceans. Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach at Sunset.

I got this idea from one spontaneous traveler.  He would spin a globe and stop it with his index finger.  He will look at the place where his finger had landed and then pack his bags or suitcase quickly to go to that place.  I did the same thing.  My finger landed somewhere in the Gulf (or purposely made it land there) and decided that it’s Dubai.  At least it had to be because it’s the only place I know that is within that neighborhood.  So I literally ran to the airport and fly to Dubai right after that.  Of course I am just kidding. 🙂  I believe I planned this all along and I am not a spontaneous traveler.  My passport is not really one of the strongest in the world, so traveling to Dubai is a challenge.  Besides, the Middle East (or Western Asia) is a dream (up until now) and way over my travel budget.  Looking back now, it was not also the best time to visit the place.  Summer has started and it was 40 degrees during the day; with the heat a different kind of painful on the skin and the air a bit stifling and suffocating for first timers.  But it was also the time to take advantage of lower hotel rates and speedy Visa processing.  I lodged in my Visa application on a Saturday afternoon and got the Visa the following day (a Sunday).  So if you don’t mind staying inside malls during the day (which I am sure you don’t), early summer is a good time to visit this wonderful country.

I am doing quite well at the moment, happy and busy with work; having found a job in a new company with a more positive atmosphere.  I am inspired again and I can draw again; doing now what I believe, the things I was always meant and supposed to be doing (with the added bonus of deciding for myself which direction my projects should go, which maximizes my time) and still manage to squeeze in a bit of time-off from work.  A big project was coming up over the horizon and I needed to prepare for that one.  So despite my busy schedule, I decided to go to find fresh inspiration and do something else other than my architectural work (in this case, to practice photography). 🙂  And what is a better place to find inspiration in architecture and to do travel photography than in Dubai?

The Fountainhead.  Burj Khalifa and Souk Al Bahar at the blue hour.

I’ve read somewhere that Dubai can be viewed in two ways: either as a stopover destination for people traveling to Europe (if you’re coming from Asia), or a place where you can do something different or impossible.  I have to agree.  I really love spending time in stopover and day trip destinations because it’s in these destinations where you will find the most interesting places often overlooked by travelers and day trip packages.  Impossible is also a word that you will not find in the Emirati’s dictionary.  Dubai is preparing to host the 2020 World Expo, so a lot of architectural projects are pretty much well on their way; most of which are without precedent.

Obviously, tourists come here to experience the Desert Safari, as well as Skydiving.  Tourists (and even the locals) take the time to escape from the big city and into the desert landscape of Dubai and come back later refreshed.  A desert experience can be amazingly mind-clearing.  But I didn’t do all that (for fear of getting sand or dust into my camera 🙂 ).  I didn’t do skydiving either.  Sorry about that.  I’m a certified bore; and extreme sports and adrenaline rush can really make me sleep to death.  Besides, I honestly really don’t like guided tours and traveling with a group (except with my wife and daughter).  I could very well read my travel guide beforehand so I could maximize my time in my destination.  But I love and enjoyed the architecture of this beautiful city.  If you’re an architect, it would be a sin not to see Dubai in your lifetime.  Suddenly, 40 degrees for me was not so hot anymore. 🙂

Arabian Nights. The beautiful Madinat Jumeirah at night.

So you see?  That’s the good thing about travel and photography.  It helps you (and others) change perceptions about certain places.  It’s a counter to the never-ending stream of images provided by news media which oftentimes focuses only on the negative.  This recent trip certainly changed my perception of the Middle East.  I stayed here for five days.  If you plan to do the same (or have plans of coming back), you should be able to cover the following places:

1) Deira and Bur Dubai: Deira is one of Dubai’s oldest districts oftentimes overshadowed by the glitz of the modern city.  Built around Dubai Creek, its most prominent feature is the cluster of souqs (or markets) connected by narrow lanes and alleys which can be very busy in the late afternoon (particularly the Gold Souq).  The Abras (traditional wooden ferries) are still in use here today; not so much for transporting merchandise but for sightseeing along Dubai Creek.  Bur Dubai provides you with a glimpse of Dubai’s past.  Take a tour around the beautifully restored Al Fahidi Historic District and understand Dubai’s beginnings at the Dubai Museum housed inside Al Fahidi Fort.

2) Burj Al Arab and Madinat Jumeirah: Burj Al Arab (perhaps Dubai’s most recognizable and iconic building; and the only 7-star hotel in the world) sits along the beautiful coast of Jumeirah Beach.  Madinat Jumeirah (another recent development) is a modern rendition of a traditional Arab village built around an artificial river flanked by palm trees and signature restaurants.  Don’t miss Burj Al Arab at sunset and see Madinat Jumeirah at night when the buildings are beautifully lit with Burj Al Arab in the background.

3) Downtown Dubai: Burj Khalifa towers over Downtown Dubai, the city’s main urban hub and a major destination for sightseeing tourists.  Climb your way to At The Top (Burj Khalifa’s observation deck at the 124th and 125th floor) and experience the exhilaration of standing on top of the world’s tallest building.  Dubai Mall (the mother of all malls as they call it) is nearby with its overwhelming 1,000 or more shops.  Adjacent to Dubai Mall is the equally handsome Souk Al Bahar, with its grand colonnaded atrium and signature restaurants, most of which have enviable views of Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain at night.

4) Dubai Marina and Palm Jumeirah: Dubai Marina is a posh private residential development and provides you with a glimpse of the Dubai high life.  The best way to experience the Marina is by walking along Marina Promenade in the evening where you pass by fancy restaurants and berthed yachts set against glimmering high rise buildings.  Opposite Dubai Marina Beach is Palm Jumeirah, a palm-shaped artificial island jutting into the Gulf; with several residential and commercial developments along the Palm’s fronds.  At the tip of the Palm along the outer crescent is Atlantis The Palm (another hotel development) and the adjacent Aquaventure Waterpark, a family theme park.

A visit to Dubai usually includes a day trip to Abu Dhabi, which you can reach in 2 hours by bus from Deira.  Sadly as always, I really don’t like day trips.  Abu Dhabi I’ve read is equally beautiful and deserves a proper visit and write-up of its own, which I look forward to doing so soon. 🙂

So here you go: my personal postcards from this beautiful and peaceful Emirati outpost.  I hope I kept you inspired and as always, grateful.  Enjoy the images as much as I do.  See you in my next post. Cheers!!! 🙂

(Click on any of the images below to activate the photo carousel)