Expat Penguin reporting for duty!
Welcome to my first (and hopefully not last) blog post for a certain Panda’ website. Hot on the heels of my recent international trip to the United Arab Emirates, I was asked to share my experiences for the benefit of those wanting to visit this Middle Eastern country who want something more than the usual Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall visits. I should probably say I was not coerced into writing this post but then again… I don’t want to lie.
Having never traveled abroad before, I wanted to see the sights that were dearest to me on my first international trip: my crazy sisters: Expat Panda and Expat Pug! No other reason really drew me to the UAE because I knew that no matter what I did, nothing could be more special than spending quality time with two of my favourite people in the country where they are living their dreams! (Also Panda and Pug had new wardrobes that were begging to be shared with me- what else are sisters for?)
I follow Panda’s blog avidly. Her PPG lessons and our continuous texts have given me a clear idea of what life in the UAE is like. Although both her and Pug had explained that expats constituted most of the population I was still surprised to see so many different nationalities in a country that is almost 15 times smaller than South Africa. It was difficult to decipher people when they spoke but for the most part, everyone was friendly when approached and helpful. Panda and I planned to maximize my time in the UAE so we decided to do as many activities as possible while I was there. These are some of the experiences I had and my honest ratings (introducing the penguin rating scale!):
Zaya Nurai Island (Abu Dhabi)
One of the things I didn’t anticipate in the UAE was strange weather phenomena. Imagine my surpise to discover that winters in the UAE are characterized by the thickest fog I have ever seen.
On the day we were scheduled to take the boat to Zaya Nurai Island, the fog was particularly thick and we had to wait a few hours before we could catch the boat to the island (something to consider if you book to go during Dec/Jan). For those of you who don’t know, Zaya Nurai Island is a privately owned island home to a 5 star resort. We went as day visitors because… well you should see what it costs to stay there for a night…
After the morning fog had disappeared Panda and I took a quick boat ride to the island. The island had some stunning scenery which consisted of clear waters, white sand and an inviting swimming pool; day visitors are allowed to use the pools, private beach and can basically eat for free at the restaurants because you get a 350AED food and beverage voucher to spend during your visit.
However, our merry island frolicking was marred by the poor customer service by staff on the island. Panda and I were waiting to be attended to at the Smoking Pineapple restaurant for far too long and we were abruptly told we had to leave the island midway through dessert as the last boat would leave the island at 5pm due to inclement weather (blue skies and sunshine prevailed as seen in the photos).
All of staff seemed to be confused about this information and not wanting to be stuck with them through the night we we rushed off (mid-chew) to find a buggy to return us to reception… Only to wait another 20 minutes before being fetched and then we had to wait a further half an hour before we actually boarded the boat at 6pm (which means we had more than enough time to finish our meal!). The staff in general were rude, lazy, inattentive and ditzy. I would advise you to go here if you have oodles of patience to deal with the incompetence- Panda and I are pretty patient from tolerating each other (and 2 other siblings!) for all these years but our limits were being tested!
Louvre Museum (Abu Dhabi)
Born of an agreement between the governments of Abu Dhabi and France, the Louvre Abu Dhabi displays art, manuscripts and objects of historical, cultural and sociological significance. Even though I consider myself an art amateur- I know the famous works that should be known but that’s about it- I was quite impressed by the pieces that the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi offered. Just thinking about how the artifacts had survived through the ages and were now displayed close enough for me to gawk at every angle blew my mind.
The Louvre itself is a gorgeous building and with a 30AED entrance fee for each of us (youth and teacher price), the whole visit was a visual feast. My only complaint about the Louvre was that it was far too busy so Lion, Panda and I couldn’t always read the little signs explaining the art as they were obscured by hordes of tourists.
Much to Lion’s delight (and Panda and mine amusement) we visited the Children’s Museum which had several interactive pieces and a tent which simulated a cosy campfire scene complete with twinkling stars above us and an electric fire to fascinate the little ones.
My favourite piece at the Louvre is actually outside the building- the terrace. It is beautifully built to overlook the port and Abu Dhabi city with a mesmerizing roof. We were able to feast our eyes on a stunning sunset over the sea and the skyline under an exquisite piece of architectural art .
Tip: The time it takes to go around the museum varies from person to person, but it should take about an hour and a half to walk around the 12 galleries. Try to go around sunset as the view is really spectacular from the terrace!
Green Planet (Dubai)
Before coming to the UAE, PAnda asked me to research some stuff that I would like to do. The first item on this list was Green Planet due to my studies in zoology and botany.
Just so you know, Green Planet is a large four storey complex, mostly consisting of a pavilion that is decorated as a piece of the South-American rainforests. The creators managed to gather more than 3000 types of animals and plants here, creating comfortable habitat for them. What is more, all the animals are not restricted in movement across the pavilion, even birds fly wherever they please.
I was immensely curious about Green Planet and had two vital questions-
An indoor tropical rainforest- HOW?
And most importantly WHERE ARE THE SLOTHS?
Both were answered by the friendly and knowledgeable staff. Panda and I felt like we were receiving VIP (Very Important Panda/Penguin) treatment even though that was not an option when we paid the entrance fees. Meeting the one of the sloths, however, was an option so Panda (being the generous sister that she is) treated me to fulfilling one of my lifelong goals. We began our visit with a languid walk around the structure, starting from the top and working our way down, through the biodome, alongside the largest indoor, man-made and life-sustaining tree in the world.
We passed South American toucans, hyacinth macaws, geckos, crocodile lizards to pre-hensile tailed porcupines and several terrariums (sealed glass containers) with live insects like the ‘goliath birdeater tarantula’ (world’s largest spider found in South America) and weaver ants from Southeast Asian forests.
Mists are sprayed and temperature and humidity levels are regulated to recreate the sensory experience of a tropical rainforest so dress for 30 degrees no matter the temperature outside!
When it was time for one of the 2 resident sloths to be woken up, Panda and I were whisked away by more helpful staff members towards the meeting room and we watched as the sloth was wheeled in. My heart melted as I watched the sleepy creature chew fruit I had fed her whilst her eyes were closed. We spent half an hour stroking her soft fur, getting her to eat (sloths are picky eaters and they have no shame in letting you know this) and learning about these fascinating animals. I suspect Lola the sloth was not completely awake for most of our encounter but she does have a 20 hour daily dosage of sleep to fulfill and this just multiplied her cuteness factor by 100.
I also held a millipede and a beetle whilst Panda declined to do the same (her loss) and the handlers told us more about the bugs. Without a doubt, it was an enchanting experience and my favourite experience in the U.A.E.!
Tilal Liwa Resort (Abu Dhabi)
One Saturday we decided to get away from the usual Abu Dhabi/ Dubai scenery in order to see something different. We drove across the emirate of Abu Dhabi to Al Dhafra where we enjoyed some desert scenery and pool time at the Tilal Liwa Resort.
The poolside hammock and loungers were a bit too comfortable so I fell asleep whilst Lion and Panda frolicked in the pool (aptly named Oasis as it overlooked the seemingly endless desert). Tilal Liwa has a host of activities available but we were most interested in seeing some camels… my wish was granted when we spotted this sight before our eyes!
Sheikh Zayed Mosque (Abu Dhabi)
Simply put: this mosque is dazzling and is MUST SEE when visiting the UAE. PAnda has written extensively on this mosque before (I wonder how many times she has had to take visitors here) but it really is breathtaking. Expat Bee and Expat Lion joined us for this excursion… Lion and Panda are such veterans at mosque visits that they even pulled out their own abayas from the back of the car. Bee and I marvelled at the marble stone as well as the ornate calligraphy on the walls up close in the sunlight.
As a bonus, we visited Wahat Al Karama one evening which is a war memorial in Abu Dhabi. This hidden gem has the BEST view of Sheikh Zayed Mosque (perks of your sister being a blogger).
Standing in front of the Pool of Reflection is the only way to get a shot of the entire mosque as it is inexplicably large. Panda and I went to the Pool at sunset to capture the complete awe that the mosque exudes at night.
Tip: Even though it was winter when I visited, it’s better to go at night when it’s considerably cooler and the mosque is lit up spectacularly.
Global Village (Dubai)
Expat Bee arrived in the UAE and Panda wanted to treat her to a surprise that involved unicorns (Bee’s favourite animal) so off we went to Global Village to find a unicorn inspired café. The entrance queues were lengthy so we split up and when we finally entered (after paying a small fee) we were overwhelmed by the amount of people present. Although we could not visit every section of the park, which was built to emulate different countries around the world, the places we did see (Europe, Kuwait and the Americas) left a lot to be desired. The stores located in these spaces didn’t really equal the theme they were associated with which created false and overall kitschy impressions of regions both Panda and Bee had visited previously. The Unicorn Vibes Café offered us an average ice cream sandwich even though the flavours sounded interesting. Global Village was unfortunately a disappointing experience for all of us. Can we get our 15AED entrance fee back?
Capital Hyatt High Tea (Abu Dhabi)
Panda loves High Teas and she’s passed on this affinity to both Expat Pug and I. Honestly though, who doesn’t love a high tea? those cute sandwiches and sticking one’s pinky into the air as you delicately sip Lapsang souchong tea…. bliss! Naturally, we had to try at least one High Tea and Panda chose the Hyatt Capital Gate in Abu Dhabi and it didn’t disappoint! The hotel served us a selection of savoury and sweet tea time treats and each aspect was so elegantly presented that it was almost unsurprising when we began eating and everything turned out to be as scrumptious as it looked.For 100AED per person (in a city where the average price for high tea is around 215AED per person), Panda was most impressed (bloggers have high standards).
It was the perfect setting for Bee, Panda, Pug and I to bond and as a bonus, the high tea is served in the lounge leading out to a beautiful terrace overlooking the sea. It was a marvellous surprise to be able to catch such a gorgeous sunset.
Desert Safari (Abu Dhabi)
Expat Lion and I were keen to meet some camels up close and personal so Panda sent us on a desert safari. This was a first for both of Lion & I and on the whole, a crazy experience. We were taken on a bus ride out of the city towards the desert. Our first stop was at a camel farm and we had the opportunity to take photos of and with these charming creatures. Lion and I were thrilled.
The next leg of the safari involved us getting into an off-road vehicle and being driven though the desert. The car climbed dunes at precarious angles and just as Lion and I came to terms with how high above flat ground we were, we went dashing down the other side. It was exhilarating and we enjoyed some spectacular sunset views.
We parked at the site where a barbecue dinner would be served. There were more camels present and somehow Lion and talked ourselves into riding one. Sand boards were also present for those who were inclined to that sort of activity (Lion).
As night fell, it was time for henna application and then a delicious supper whilst the temporary tattoos dried and we watched the night’s entertainment: a Dervish dance followed by belly dancing. Lion and I were exhausted when we returned to Panda around 10pm but it was worth it!
Turtle Lagoon (Dubai)
On the day we had to drive to Dubai to drop Expat Bee off at Dubai Airport, we stopped off at Madinat Jumeirah to visit a famed turtle lagoon. Madinat Jumeirah is a gorgeous hotel in Dubai joined with a souk (well, a recreation of one for tourists not brave enough for the one in Bur Dubai) and also includes an open area where one can view some rehabilitated turtles (for free!).
There are also scheduled feeding sessions on Wednesdays at 11am and Fridays at 1pm so maybe next time I am in the UAE, I will get a chance to feed a turtle!
Kayaking (Abu Dhabi)
Expat Panda and Lion have done this before and a more detailed post on their experiences can be found here. However, this was one of the last activities I did before I left the UAE and I am so happy that I ended my time off with such a peaceful and relaxing activity. It was great to see the greenery of the mangroves in Abu Dhabi- something most people who live there don’t even get to see! We also messed around a lot as you will see in the pictures…
It wasn’t particularly strenuous and this not-so-fit penguin managed the 5km tandem paddle easily. A blissful and languid activity that most people can enjoy!
A few things I ate, drank & enjoyed:
Freakshakes at Black Tap (Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai)
Lebanese cuisine at Sambusek (Rosewood Hotel, Abu Dhabi)
Arabic Breakfast (Camel Station, Abu Dhabi)
Moroccan breakfast (Almaz by Momo, Abu Dhabi)
Desserts (Gossip Cafe, Abu Dhabi)
Lebanese cuisine (Mosaic, Abu Dhabi)
And for some cool instagram pics, be sure to check out City Walk in Dubai with its murals and European street-feel! That’s all from me Panda Peeps… comment to let me know what your favourite bit of my trip to the UAE and also, if you would like me to contribute to this blog in the future!