For those of you who don’t know- I have been competing in a local competition. Let me explain.
As a relatively new UAE resident, I have been participating in an ongoing (semi-serious) competition which would determine which was the best city- Abu Dhabi or Dubai?
Even though the criteria was not very well-defined, I was SO confident that my city- Abu Dhabi- would win. My itinerary was the perfect blend of culture, entertainment and beautiful views. It showcased life in Abu Dhabi perfectly and encapsulated the ambience of the city. Check out last month’s shenanigans here. I was cocky- How could I not win?
Then I had my weekend in Dubai. And I realised- in the surreal way you realise that you’ve just been in a car crash or are experiencing an earthquake- that I may have lost. And perhaps not a graceful defeat either- I may have been CRUSHED.
But to be honest, I am not sure… which is why I need your help to decide upon a winner. With that being said, lets review exactly why my ego has been so bruised; I mean, what is there to do & see in Dubai that hasn’t been done to death? What could possibly show off the emirate in a new and unique way that would change my preconceived notions? Time to find out…
I got this note the night before the weekend (instead of some useful packing information):
And then this itinerary on the morning of (too late to change what I had already packed):
Stop 1: Dinner at the Mezza House (followed by a walk through Souk Al Bahar)
My itinerary started on a Thursday night and already I could feel like I was losing (My Abu Dhabi itinerary only began on a Friday afternoon). What could I possibly do on a Thursday evening in Dubai that didn’t involve a brunch or a bar?
Something very simple I was about to find out.
Despite a lengthy walk to locate this restaurant, Mezza House was the perfect blend of contemporary Arabian and Levantine food with generous portions, turquoise blue walls, Arabesque decor and pleasant greenery. The food consisted of a mix of the best of traditional dishes from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan all the while being accompanied by live music from a rather talented Arabic singer. (My major excitement came from finding out that they served koosa bil laban– mince stuffed zucchinis in yoghurt sauce which is my FAVOURITE Syrian dish).
After a sumptuous dinner, we walked out of the restaurant and as we walked to the parking, we were confronted with this view.
This is it, I thought, here we go with the glitzy skyscrapers. But I was wrong. As the fountain started up its hourly show to the soundtrack of a James Bond theme song, hundreds of people crowded around to watch except me. As the crowd parted to move toward the dancing water, I was swiftly being led far away from the madness towards the Dubai Opera House where there was a noticeable lack of people, an abundance of grass and beautiful art installations such as these dandelions.
The massive Dubai Mall lay in front of me with swarming crowds of diners, shoppers and general chaos; Burj Khalifa to my left and the canal just at my feet but where I stood in silence, I felt a millions miles away from Dubai.
Suddenly the curtain began to slip in my mind- YOU MIGHT LOSE, my mind told me. I gritted my teeth and ignored myself.
Tel: +971 50 945 5597
Opening times: 9am to 2am everyday
Panda rating scale: 3 out of 5 pandas
Stop 1: Breakfast at Arabian Tea House in Al Bastakiya
“Why are we driving 30 minutes just to get breakfast? I asked.
“Because this place has the best karak tea in the UAE”, was the answer I received.
As I woke myself up grumpily, I hoped this was the best tea in the WORLD for the hour I was waking up at.
After a 30 minute drive, I realised that it was not only the best tea I may have ever had, but it was quite possibly the best Arabic breakfast I had enjoyed since moving to the Middle East!
Behind a boring and unassuming wall is a charming garden cafe with a shady tree, flower pots, white basket chairs, draped sheer curtains and blue painted wooden benches with crisp white pillow covers.
Arabian Tea House Cafe is a very peaceful place and I almost forgot that we were in the busy Old Dubai area. There was no loud music, all that we heard was a relaxing sound of chirping birds… it was so worth getting up early for!
The curtain slipped another inch and panic began to set in but I brushed it away… I couldn’t really lose. In a city this crazy, there was bound to be some madness that proved all my earlier points about Dubai.
Tel: +9714 353 5071
Opening times: Sunday to Thursday: 7.30am to 10.00pm everyday
Panda rating scale: 5 out of 5 pandas
Stop 2: Fly boarding at JBR Beach
After a quick nap (good food makes me sleepy), we were off again.
“Where are we off to next?” I asked hopefully.
“JBR” was the short answer I received.
‘This is it!’ I thought. An area more famous for its traffic than its beach… Abu Dhabi will get the upper hand again I thought smugly. We NEVER have traffic the way they do at JBR in Dubai.
My heart dropped into my hands as we parked the car and entered the metro station and walked to the tram station.
And as we glided past the traffic on the road and the skyscrapers in the air, I leaned my head back in the air conditioned carriage and knew I had lost in this category again. Abu Dhabi has no well developed public transportation system other than a bus network that isn’t half as extensive as Dubai’s metro, tram and ferry system. Damn, damn and double damn.
I said nothing though. Just walked toward the Ritz Carlton beach where we found Seawake adventure who would give us an hour of fly boarding lessons.
“I should’ve updated my will” I thought as I watched what this activity would entail. See for yourself:
Flyboarding is basically hovering over the water with jetpacks attached to you; the water propels you upwards and you’re attached to a jetski. The person on the jetski is the one who controls the power/speed. You can jet underwater, and all the way up to 23m above the water. Somersaults, backflips and all sorts of crazy stuff is possible once you get the hang of it, although I only had a 30 minute session so that was a bit beyond my ability levels just yet- or maybe ever knowing me!
You get a bit battered from falling in the water at first but my main struggle was screaming as I fell and of course all the salty water went into my mouth (YUCK). Once you focus and get your balance in order though, its pretty amazing to be jetting over the water feeling like a superhero. I would DEFINITELY do that again!
What do you need? Bring along some water, something to tie your hair up and a towel.
What to wear? SECURE swimwear… like seriously secure.
Panda Rating Scale: 4 out of 5 pandas
Stop 3: Dinner at Bab Al Shams Hotel
After all that falling and flying, I was starving and eager to eat. However, I discovered that dinner was another 30 minute drive away. Goodness, people must be starving all the time in Dubai… it takes ages to get anywhere!
Little did I know that once again, the drive would be 100% worth it. As we drove further, the city lights became a distant memory and I was soon surrounded by deep brown sand, little bushes and tall palm trees. Were we still in Dubai?
Dinner at Al Sarab Lounge at the Bab Al Shams Hotel was more than a meal- it turned out to be an experience. Dinner was served with the sun setting before my eyes- scarlet, then amethyst, emblazoned the enormous sky, then it darkened to obsidian. Stars shone as sugar spilt over black marble, glistening above me as I enjoyed the delectable food on offer.
I was silent as I drove back to the city that night because the truth is…
I hate to lose more than I love to win.
Tel: +9714 809 6194
Opening times: Sunday to Thursday: 4pm to 1am; Friday & Saturday: 4pm to 2am
Panda rating scale: 4 out of 5 pandas
Stop 1: Hot Air Ballooning and wildlife safari in the desert
The sun wasn’t anywhere near the horizon when my alarm woke me up for my next adventure. But this time, I KNEW beforehand it would be worth it because I was finally getting to tick something off my bucket list that I had wanted to do for YEARS…. Watching the sunrise in a hot air balloon.
After a short car ride (which I completely slept through), I woke up to find myself on a dirt road leading into nothingness. However once disembarking a closer look showed me that we were in the desert and that I was not the only one somewhat sleepy but still excited. I stood shivering in the cool desert air as a crew of knowledgeable swarthy gentlemen were inflating the balloon; some of us huddling extra close so as to get a bit of the warmth that comes off the burner as it blasts hot air into the balloon.
What is the experience like? Well… Before you know it, you are being ushered into the balloon; there is no time to think or snap a photo, its time to climb into that basket and hold on tight as the balloon takes off. While there’s quite a bit of shouting and heat as we’re lifting into the air, we’re soon at 4000 feet and I’m stunned by just how quiet it is. There are about 15 of us in the basket, but each of us seems to realise the importance of quiet at this moment. It’s as if the stunning sight of the sun’s light slowly spreading across the desert and the fact we’re floating high above it all has rendered each of us speechless. The next 40 minutes passed in this serene way as the sun peeked her head from below the horizon behind the Omani mountains. Whether we were stunned into silence by the experience or were just not awake enough for conversation, we were all wide-eyed, open-mouthed observers as we float over the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and so too did my hot air balloon ride. “Landing positions!” Captain Richard shouts as we begin to descend. We dutifully bend our knees, grip the ropes, and lean back as we’d been instructed prior to take-off.
We strike the sand and just like that we’ve hit the ground and we’re all hanging onto the ropes and dangling precariously. There are a few surprised cries as we tip to a point where we’re almost lying on the ground on our backs, and then we’ve levelled out again.
As I clambered out of the basket I had a thought as I headed toward the falcon handler for a photo… “Did I just do that? Wow!”
Right after the ride, we were able to enjoy a gourmet breakfast complete with hand-cut smoked salmon, caviar, bread selection and fresh fruits in one of the fanciest desert camps in Dubai.
We were then transported around the conservation area for a private wildlife drive via a vintage 1950’s Land Rover. I finally got to see the national animals of the UAE- the oryx- as well as some camels, birds and a lizard (none of which interested me much hence a complete lack of photos!).
We began the journey out of the desert and back to civilization, I had a good think about my position.
The realization hit me rapidly in the face that not only did I just lose a competition… but I may just have experienced the best weekend of my life!
What do you need? Nothing other than your camera/cellphone. You must book beforehand though!
What to wear? Prepare to climb into a high basket so wear something you can move freely in. You should take a light jacket as it is chilly in the mornings and sunglasses for when the sun rises. You’ll also be traipsing through the desert so prepare to get sandy.
Tel: +9714 440 9827
Panda rating scale: 5 out of 5 pandas
Stop 2: The Surf Café
Our final stop was a great quirky café hot spot set up along Jumeirah Road with loads of natural light pouring in through the floor to ceiling windows. I am a strong believer that life is about balance, and what better way to balance out an active day out in the sun than with some killer milkshakes and a delicious burger?!
The food is globally inspired and there is something for everyone- whether vegetarian, vegan or just plain fussy. It was buzzing, vibrant, and fun!
Tel: +9714 346 6292
Opening times: Saturday to Wednesday: 7am to 10.00pm; Thursday & Friday: 7am to 10.30pm
Panda rating scale: 3 out of 5 pandas
It was a tiring weekend and as I drove back to Abu Dhabi, I had to evaluate the things I had learnt based on my experiences. Dubai was the land of opportunity; the land where anything was possible and that lesson had just revealed itself to me over the weekend. Even when I thought I had done all the main attractions that appealed to me, another layer was peeled back and I was exposed to a different side; a side that made me walk along the streets in the cloying heat; swim in the sea and push my body to do things its never done before; to take in sceneries of desert, animals, sunsets and sunrises from a multitude of heights without a single air-conditioned mall or skyscraper in sight. I was impressed with this city in a way I never thought I could be and my preconceived notions were shaken. While everyone around me was saying that they have been to Dubai and seen Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, its actually possible to have a truly authentic and unusual holiday with the help of a little research and recommendations from residents. Granted, I would never want to live there but now I could see why others love to live there! And I think that was a major discovery for me.
In the Dubai vs Abu Dhabi debate it seems impossible to choose between these two Emirati powerhouses. If you want it bigger and taller, then Dubai is probably your best bet, as nobody does it better than them! If you want something slightly more refined although still with the vast Arabic wealth on display, then a visit to Abu Dhabi may suit you better.
But honestly, no trip to the UAE is complete without a visit to both and as for where to live… its simply a matter of personal preference.
So its time to weigh in on the heavy question that has loomed over me for the past week: did I win or did I lose? Who do you declare in a winner in this competition of showcasing the best of what our cities have to offer- Abu Dhabi or Dubai? Let me know in the comments below!