The United Arab Emirates
Sometimes, you need to wait a few months to let the memories sink in…
but now that I’ve had time to reflect and process it all, I’m so excited to share this adventure with you and what I learned from traveling to the UAE. Honestly, visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi was the best trip I’ve ever taken - relaxing, interesting, fun, exotic, and beautiful all-in-one. Just WOW in every way. Plus, I had just graduated from West Point and was spending quality time with my favorite lady, Olivia. Such a happy time of my life, I miss it. So why the UAE? What did we do? Where did we stay? What is like to travel in the Middle East, especially during Ramadan? I gotchu, let’s get into it…
If you just want to look at photos of the UAE, click here. You can save all photos to Pinterest to remember this post with "pin it" at the top left of every photo. All locations are linked to Google Maps!
Why the UAE…
After spending a week in Italy with my family, I flew from Naples to Dubai to meet my best friend Olivia. As soon as I stepped off the plane in the exquisite Dubai Airport, I knew I was in for it. Everything was gilded, marble, and regal-looking. Those things you hear about all the taxis and police having luxury cars-it’s true. Olivia and I literally felt like royalty, it was so surreal. The theme of our 3 weeks of traveling (the UAE was followed by Singapore and Phuket) was “let’s go all out” and the UAE screams that vibe. I was attracted to the UAE due to the modern architecture, wealth, desert (which I’d never seen), mix of cultures, and because I studied the Middle East in college. We visited during the off season (June) which I’m always into because it’s less crowded and cheaper (check out my post on How to Travel on a Budget). However, it was suuuuper hot (about 105-115 degrees F). Didn’t phase us though! The UAE totally surpassed expectations and I’d go back in a heartbeat. Also wouldn’t be opposed to living in Dubai for a few years (very high expatriate population and a plethora of job opportunities!)
What we did…
Day 1: We both flew in about mid-day, checked in to our first hotel, and headed to the beach. There are a number of nice beaches in Dubai, but we went to Al Sufouh Beach because there was a free shuttle bus from our first hotel. I always like a “settle in day” after flying and a beach day was perfect. We then taxied to Jumeirah Public Beach where we saw the Burj al Arab, one of the nicest hotels in the world, and watched the sunset. The perfect first day.
Day 2: The second day we hopped on the metro to the Dubai Mall (Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall metro stop). The metro system is comparable to those of Europe - exceptionally clean, efficient, and cheap. There were all women and children cars which we found really interesting. The Dubai Mall in itself was a sight to behold. Floors of shopping, fountains, every brand you could think of, luxury cars on display. It’s also home to the famous Dubai Aquarium and the Burj Khalifa, both of which are must-sees in Dubai. Exploring the entire complex is worth a full day. When the sun went down, we especially loved watching the light show of the Dubai Fountain, right in front of the Burj Khalifa.
Day 3: So since the Dubai Mall doesn’t offer enough shopping (ha, jokes) there’s also the Mall of the Emirates (Mall of the Emirates metro stop). Honestly, this mall is even more ornate even though it’s smaller. But our real purpose of visiting this mall was to Ski Dubai. People, this is a completely indoor ski slope complete with real snow, three different runs, and ski lessons for all ages. It was 114 degrees that day outside!!! Totally unreal. If anything could personify the Dubai as a whole, it’s Ski Dubai. We bought our tickets third party and digitally presented them upon arrival. All ski clothing and equipment was included in the reasonable priced ticket ($45 for 2 hours vs ~$85 on the main website). As avid skiers, this was a must for Olivia and me. After our mini ski vacay and some shopping, we headed back to the hotel, got ready, and went out for dinner on the Dubai Marina. Dinner was followed by some night life exploration. All the nice clubs are in the luxury hotels, typically on the roofs. We hit up Sensation Club and Mr Miyagi's. Yes, it was Ramadan, yes alcohol was offered. I think nearly 100% of the club scene were tourists or expats, though.
Day 4: After a nice breakfast, we metro’d to The Ibn Battuta metro station, located at yet another mall, and went across the street to the Ibn Battuta Bus Station to transition to Abu Dhabi. Taking a bus is the cheapest way to get to Abu Dhabi (other options are to taxi or rent a car). The buses leave every 15 minutes and are $6 per person. Upon arrival to the bus station in Abu Dhabi, we were bombarded with taxi drivers offering to take us to our next hotel. Make sure your taxi drivers are in uniform and have a meter; those are the safe ones!
Other things to see in Dubai: The Dubai Miracle Garden and the Gold Souk Market. We had the time, but wanted to chill and relax more than see absolutely everything on our list. No regrets, next time!
Day 5: Honestly, we did not do too much exploring the city of Abu Dhabi because our hotel, the Shangri-La, was just so amazing. We had food and drinks by the pool, ordered room service for nearly every meal, watched shows, read books, and floated around. Honestly, thinking about it makes me laugh, haha! We lived so large for these few days.
Day 6: Okay, we did get out a little, and it was an absolute highlight: the famous Sheikh Grand Mosque. We had the best views from our hotel and when we actually arrived it was even more magnificent than we expected. All women have to cover, which provided at the entrance. Not only was the architecture beautiful, but the details were truly over the top. The white marble gave it a majestic, clean, and royal feeling. Inside, each ceiling mosaic was more detailed than the next. I really felt like I was in Aladdin the entire time.
On our way back from the Sheikh Grand Mosque, we got picked up by a taxi driver, Judith, who was so incredibly sweet and kind to us. When she dropped us back off at the Shangri-La, I asked her what if she was working the next day, and if so, if she would drive us out to our next hotel, the Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort, which was about a 2 hour ride from the city of Abu Dhabi. She agreed and made the drive the next morning! And then, came back and picked us up again after our stay in the desert! Although the taxi companies were safe, since we were driving out to the remote desert, Olivia and I felt safer with a female taxi driver. We’re huge Judith fans.
Day 7: After two hours driving through the desert we finally arrived at we arrived at Qasr al Sarab. I can’t even explain how amazing this resort was. The rooms, amenities, pool, and overall concept of staying in oasis in the Arabian desert was the most foreign and thrilling thing I’ve ever done. Also, that evening, we splurged on the Sunset Camel Trek (be sure to reserve beforehand!) First of all, I love camels so seeing them was magical, but riding them through the dunes felt like I went back in time to when the three wise men went to visit Jesus’ birth. And the whole time we were riding our camels, our amazing guide was snapping pictures of us to save the memories, without us even asking her to. After the ride, we were greeted with cold water, tea, and snacks, and ran around on the beautiful sand dunes. I’ve never felt so happy and in love with the world. I often reflect on this camel trek and all the laughs Olivia and I shared. I’m honestly getting emotional writing this, haha.
Day 8: The next morning, we enjoyed the resort itself and the pool. This pool was so incrdible. It was HUGE, had these amazing floating cushions you could lounge on, and had multiple swim-up bars. Portions of the pool were even covered if the desert sun became too much. After we got our fair share of relaxing in, we returned (via Judith) to Abu Dhabi City and check into Emirate’s Palace. Yes, PALACE. Honestly at this point of the trip, everything was just so funny. We were living so outside our means (but it was all budgeted so not too crazy!)
Day 9: So, the Emirate’s Palace. What a place. Honestly, we probably didn’t have to stay there and could have just visited for a day, but it’s fun to say we stayed in a place. Plus, the entire day we got to enjoy yet another amazing pool all day until our late night flight to Singapore for the next chapter of our adventure!
Other things to see in Abu Dhabi: the Louvre - Abu Dhabi (a modern art museum), Saadiyat Public Beach, Observation Deck at 300 (amazing views), and the Zaya Nurai Island Resort (similar vibes to the Maldives).
Where we stayed…
I believe in order to get the full UAE experience, you have to stay in the nice hotels. Living the luxe life is just part of it all. We thouroughly enjoyed every place we stayed and I wouldn’t do it any other way. Of course, they were not the most fiscally responsible choices, but that was all taken inter consideration. Again, read my post here on travel budgeting and prioritizing.
Atana Hotel - Dubai. Honestly, this was meant to be our budget hotel compared to the others, but it was so luxurious because that is always the standard for accommodations in Dubai. We chose this hotel because it was near a metro stop (Internet City metro stop) and centrally located in the city.
Shangri-La Abu Dhabi. I had seen so many photos and read countless amazing reviews about this hotel that staying here was simply a must. And as I explained above, we took the majority of our time in Abu Dhabi just to enjoy the hotel. Not only were the views beautiful, but the hotel was simply amazing and had so many restaurants, shops, and more to offer. I’d go back any day.
Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort by Anatara. I can’t recommend this resort enough. I would have stayed here for days if I could afford it. If you’re looking for a totally foreign experience, this is it. Worth every penny.
Emirates Palace Hotel. If I had to give up one hotel on this trip, this would be it because it could have been a day trip, but the pool made it more worth it.
Traveling during Ramadan and other cultural bits…
Ramadan is the holy time of year in the Islamic faith. Although up to 80% of the country’s population is foreigners, Muslim traditions are still adhered to. During the month of Ramadan, eating in public from sunrise to sunset is illegal. It is likely that tourists would just be corrected rather than arrested, but out of respect for the culture no one eats or drinks publicly. Not all restaurants are closed, however, for there is money to be made! For example, in the malls, there is a sectioned-off eating area covered by either massive black curtains or temporary walls.
All the restaurants on the streets had curtains covering the windows, even if they were open. One time Olivia and I were craving Starbucks (typical). We were served our drinks, but then they were put in brown paper bags to carry out in public until we got back to our room. The whole situation was so fascinating to Olivia and me. I mean, it was obvious people were still eating and drinking during the day, since it was notionally hidden, everything was fine. Overall, there seemed to mutual respect and understanding for both Western and Muslim cultures.
Like I mentioned above, we noticed there were specific metro cars designated for women and children. Honestly, it made it really nice because these cars were not as crowed. The dress of women ranged from full burka (including covered face) to women walking around in miniskirts and crop tops. Seeing this extreme juxtaposition of dress in the malls was so fascinating. I’m sure judging happened on both sides, but people went about their business.
Consuming alcohol, according to some sites on the internet, is technically illegal, but widely accepted. Also, eating and drinking in “public” at the hotels was allowed, so we generally ate our meals there during the day. Once the sun went down, the fast is broken and restaurants open. If we could wait that late (the days were really long) then there were so many awesome deals on dinner (like 50% off!) Overall, the UAE seemed to have a great deal of tolerance and traveling during Ramadan was not much of an inconvenience. In fact, I enjoyed learning about and experiencing the culture.
I really don’t have enough good things to say about the UAE. I had high expectations after doing so much research for planning the trip. All my expectations were surpassed with flying colors. We nailed the perfect balance between relaxation and adventure - all I can ask in a vacation. I’ll be back UAE! Thank you for reading, that’s all for now, folks!