The sparkling lights on the world’s tallest building, the Bhurj Khalifa, dominate the view from my hotel window. I’m sitting on the sofa in my 15th floor room in the Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai waiting for my large bath to fill. It’s been a hectic couple of days since my 8am arrival in Dubai airport some 36 hours earlier. I’m looking forward to a relaxing soak and the chance to absorb downtown Dubai’s stunning cityscape for the last time. This was my inaugural visit to the United Arab Emirates and wanting to make every moment of my two nights and three days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I’d hit the ground running after disembarking at Dubai airport. I’d done my research and booked what I considered would give me a taste of the two largest Emirate cities, including selecting hotels with a hint of luxe. But I was travelling alone and in a predominantly Muslim country I’d not travelled in before, where the ratio of men to women is three to one.
Would I feel safe and secure exploring these two cities?
Travelling the Sheikh Zayed highway
Dubai and Abu Dhabi are only 150 kilometres apart. How to travel to Abu Dhabi from Dubai, depends on budget, with taxi, private car or rental vehicle all possible options. Having flown with Emirates Airline, I chose the complimentary transfer bus Emirates provides from Dubai airport to Abu Dhabi. Hopping on the bus in the designated lane just outside the arrivals hall at T3, in just over an hour’s drive down the six-lane Sheikh Zayed Highway (there’s another six lanes in the opposite direction) the bus stops at the Emirates building in downtown Abu Dhabi.
In an unfamiliar city, I’m not sure of my next step, when several taxi drivers step forward ready to take bus passengers to their destination. I have no idea of the layout of the city, nor how far away my hotel was, but my friendly driver from Pakistan conversing in broken English, points out some of the landmarks, and it wasn’t long before we’d reached the grand entrance of the Shangri-La Al Qaryat Al Ber Hotel.
It was hard to leave my air-conditioned hotel room with a balcony view of the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Mosque, but I was on a schedule. My first stop was the Louvre Abu Dhabi on the Saadiyat Island (translates to Island of Happiness.) Opening in November 2017, this Louvre outside Paris museum is the first of its kind in the world.
Abu Dhabi’s leaders paid a large amount of money (said to be $525 million) to the French Government for the rights to use the ‘Louvre’ name for 30 years. A few hours after wandering through this incredible architecturally designed space, viewing artefacts from different periods and civilisations I felt culturally ‘enriched’. How many galleries can you get up close and personal to a Van Gogh original without vast crowds obscuring your view?
The next morning, my half day city tour with Arabian Adventures ($55) introduced me to a few Abu Dhabi delights, including the stunning Sheikh Zayed Mosque, a grand and opulent monument to the country’s founding father.
Its 82 dazzlingly white marble domes and four minarets are difficult to miss when driving around the city. Strolling past the bejewelled columns and viewing the Main Prayer room’s seven crystal chandeliers, the largest one weighing an incredible 12 tonnes, is a ‘mind-blowing’ experience.
Later, I taste dates (the palm tree type, not the romantic one) inspect the catch of the day at the fish market and wander around the Heritage Village, observing the old wooden Arab fishing vessels on white sandy beaches, a cultural reminder of the city’s historical fishing village roots.
Dubai, where bigger is better
It’s impossible to stop staring out the taxi window as I enter the centre of Dubai. After Abu Dhabi, it feels like Dubai’s cityscape is on steroids. As my taxi pulls into the driveway of the Downtown Renaissance Hotel, Dubai, I’m awestruck by the sheer size of the Bhurj Khalifa building a few blocks away. I must jump out of the taxi to take in the full view of the world’s tallest tower, reaching 828m to the sunny sky. Entering the hotel’s lobby, I gain a hint of Dubai’s vibe – modern, funky and slick – in complete contrast to the elegant old world charm of the Shangri-La hotel I’d left behind in Abu Dhabi.
I enjoy a cocktail and aperitif in the Italian themed eatery, BASTA!, before catching a taxi to the Al Rigga metro station. This is the meeting point for Frying Pan Adventures’ Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage tour.
Our group of seven are made up of tourists and ex-pats (I’m the plus one). We’re guided through the back streets of one of Dubai’s first urbanised communities by a pocket dynamo named Nahla.
Half Jordanian and half Bangladeshi, Nahla has called Dubai home for four years and her passion for the city is palpable. Over the next four and a half hours we follow her for 3km, stopping at various restaurants and cafés, tasting dishes from Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. I’ve never eaten such fresh falafel, and the saffron infused ice-cream dessert consumed at our last stop on the tour will forever be my favourite.
On my final day in Dubai, I catch a taxi to the old town of Bur Dubai on the eastern side of Khor Dubai creek. My first stop is at the Dubai Museum. Apparently, the museum was overlooked by Dubai’s rulers when they invested in the city’s refurbishment. I found the displays tired and not very engaging. The nearby textile souks were livelier. A few shop vendors gently harass, trying to encourage me to enter their store. It’s harmless fun, and they’re easily dismissed by a smile and wave of my hand, indicating I’m not interested in the best saffron and softest pashminas. At the harbour, I catch a traditional ferry boat (abras) across the creek, handing over the one-dirham fare (less than $1) arriving in the old town of Deira and into the spice and gold souks.
Instead of a taxi, I use the Metro to return to my downtown area. This modern, clean, quick, easy to-use mode of transport, delivered me safely and very economically (8 dirhams = $3) to the Dubai Mall. The world’s largest mall spread out over 548,000sqm, comes with an ice-skating rink and an aquarium, should shopping not be your preference. As one of the very few attractions in the mall that costs nothing to see, the skeleton of the 155 million-year-old Diplodocus Longus dinosaur in the Grand Atrium was certainly one of the highlights.
Which Emirate: Dubai or Abu Dhabi?
My taste of the two cities was just that, a quick overview of two fascinating metropolises. Dubai is the glitzier, flashier and more commercial option with an extensive nightlife on offer to keep those who prefer after-dark activities over daytime explorations.
But as a solo female traveller, nightlife experiences were not high on my agenda. Abu Dhabi provided more traditional, cultural experiences and I enjoyed the slower pace. But to miss one and not experience the other would be short-changing yourself. I enjoyed my experiences in both cities and left wanting to return to explore further.
Always a good sign!
If you’re using the complimentary Emirates bus to travel between Dubai and Abu Dhabi ensure you hang onto your boarding pass as you will need to show this to the bus driver before hopping on the bus in the designated lane just outside the arrivals hall at T3.
Before you leave Dubai airport, consider how much luggage you have and what you will need. Depending on whether you’re at the end or the beginning of a trip, there is no need to lug a large suitcase around for a short stay. As I was coming from Europe with rather a heavy suitcase, I discovered the short-term storage at Dubai Airport online. Rather than lug this huge and heavy bag around on my own, I opted to check it in for a few days. It ended up costing me $46 for 64 hours.
The taxi drivers preferred to be paid in cash, so make sure you have some local currency on hand (dirhams) and have an idea what the exchange rate is so you’re aware of how much you are handing over in Australian dollars.
At the Louvre, I highly recommend hiring the audio guide which is an apple tablet with audio-visual information.
What to wear
Men and women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees. Be especially considerate of your clothing choices during Ramadan.
Jennifer Johnston travelled independently but her stay in the Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai and the Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage Tour with Frying Pan Adventures was courtesy of Dubai Tourism. It was a packed itinerary for the two nights and three days which did not allow for much relaxing around either of the Hotel’s enticing pools, much to Jennifer’s regret. She is determined to return.