United Arab Emirates: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Oman

I have been sitting idle at 147 countries visited for several years. Palm Springs, Palm Beach, Oxnard (California), Seattle, Puerto Rico (not a separate country), Finger Lakes (NY) and Puerto Vallarta have been my recent trips. I realized it was time to move forward.
Ron Kapon at the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have been sitting idle at 147 countries visited for several years. Palm Springs, Palm Beach, Oxnard (California), Seattle, Puerto Rico (not a separate country), Finger Lakes (NY) and Puerto Vallarta have been my recent trips. I realized it was time to move forward.

An ad for Pacific Holidays  showed up in my inbox. One of their featured trips was to Dubai. The price was right and the trip coincided with my mid-March spring break from teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The address listed was a few blocks from the Path station I used to take to my Hudson County Community College wine class in downtown Jersey City.

When I walked into their office and I noticed about a dozen desks and people on the phone, apparently selling trips. This did not look like a retail/customer walk-in operation. I was assigned to Ruta Kliucininkaite who explained all the details of the trip. Included was round-trip coach on Emirates Airlines, meet and greet at the airport and transportation to the Savoy Central Hotel & Apartments (part of a four hotel operation) where I was to spend five nights (I bought a sixth night and single occupancy).

The hotel, Savoy Dubai, has 154 rooms and is located in the Bur Dubai section of town. There was a rooftop pool, sauna, Jacuzzi, fitness center with a buffet breakfast included in the price. My room contained a refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, stove, kitchenette table and king-sized bed, with a full bathroom, couch, desk and large television. I checked out the hotel (I gave it 4.5 Stars with a very friendly, helpful staff) on Trip Advisor (good to very good reviews), arranged for a front row aisle bulkhead seat and gave Pacific Holidays my credit card. The total cost was just under $2,000.

Included in the price was a half-day morning city tour, an evening Dhow dinner cruise on the canal, Burj Khalifa visit to the 124th floor observation deck, a full day in Musandam (Oman) with lunch, a desert safari and BBQ and a return trip to the airport. I bought trip insurance since my decision was made a few months from my actual departure. I almost had to use the insurance when a huge snowstorm was set to hit the NYC area on the day of my departure. Emirates contacted me and asked if I could leave the day before. Yes, I could and I then added another night at my hotel.

I had never flown Emirates before. The Airbus A380-800 was only half full (I had an empty seat next to me). There were 399 economy seats, 76 flat-bed business class seats and 14 private suites in first class. The flight crew was from 8 different countries and was very friendly and helpful. The food was quite good for airline cuisine and a small bottle of German Rhine wine was included. My personal television had lots of movies and television shows. I watched La La Land (loved it) and parts of several other movies. I managed a few hours of non-deep sleep.

After landing on time I had a 15-minute wait for my bag. Passport control was empty and Royal Gulf Tourism was there to greet me. Half an hour later I was at my hotel. The 12-plus hour flight and 8 hour (ahead) time difference took its toll. I had an early dinner ($15 for three courses and quite good) at the hotel and it was off to bed.

Since I had nothing scheduled for the first day, I decided to explore the Old Town (Al Raffa) area on my own. I was given general directions at the front desk and just started walking toward Dubai Creek. For 1 DM (about 15 cents) I boarded a small boat that took me across the creek. You can also drive over a bridge (did that the next day on the city tour). I walked along the Spice & Gold Souk (market) and looked at store after store all filled with gold rings, bracelets, earrings, watches etc. All the shops seemed to carry the same items. Each had their hustlers outside trying to entice buyers inside. A return boat trip and a 10-minute walk brought me to the Dubai Museum (repeated on the city tour) at the 150-year-old Al Fahidi Fort. The displays depict Dubai from its beginnings to modern times.

The next morning I had a 4-hour city tour by bus (part of my package). I found it a waste of time. We revisited the Dubai Museum and the spice and gold markets (not their fault I did them on my own). I hope our guide his commission for the sales made at a rug shop and at the souks because we spent over 40 minutes there only had time to take a photo of the Jumeirah Mosque–from across the highway and did not even stop for a photo at Atlantis The Palm Dubai. We just drove by it. We did stop briefly for a photo of Jumaira Beach and the world’s only Seven-Star resort- Burj Al Arab. I gave this tour a 2.5 with a 0 for the guide.

I had become friendly with David Froelke when he taught property management at FDU. He is a senior vice president at the Related Corporation which owns the Galleria Mall in Abu Dhabi. When I mentioned my trip to Dubai he said that his company would like to host me at the Galleria Mall. I thought great, that would be country 149. I was a bit disappointed when I learned that the UAE was the country and Dubai & Abu Dhabi were cities within the UAE. Back to 148 (until my trip to Oman). The champagne will have to wait for another trip when I reach 150.

A travel connection introduced me to Dakkak Travel and Dubin Thomas. They are a competitor to the company Pacific Holiday uses (Royal Gulf Tourism) for its tours. Dubin kindly offered me a complimentary desert Safari & BBQ dinner. And it was an adventure.  Shameer Ali, our driver used his four-wheel drive as a toy. Up and down, over and under and around the sand dunes he went. Thank goodness I had skipped lunch. I held on tight and screamed a lot which seemed to embolden Shameer to try even more stomach turning tricks.

Getting there was a 5, but once at the Bedouin campsite it went straight downhill. The sand was blowing and whipping everything around. We sat on mats (I borrowed someone’s chair) for an hour with no instructions. We couldn’t even get something to drink. Finally, they offered coffee, tea and water. More sitting and waiting. As everything was blowing away they finally moved us inside a tent. Better, but still no food. The buffet opened. Thanks to Shameer I got into line. I would rate the food and, the wait as well as lack of announcements, a 2 out of 5. The belly dance and fire-eater show was okay. Shameer pulled the car around next to the back entrance so we did not have to walk to the parking area.

Day 4 was cloudy so I decided to stay at the hotel and write. That evening I had scheduled a Dubai Dhow Cruise, with dinner, along Dubai Creek (a Dhow is a one or two-masted Arab sailing vessel). I sat with 5 other folks who I had met at my hotel. I would have preferred the open top deck but was told that was reserved for another group. I did get them to put on the AC in the enclosed deck. There were no announcements made as to where we were and what we were passing. The buffet was adequate and the “dancing man” show took place right in front of our table. The cruise gets a 3, which would have increased, to a 4 with commentary.

Day 5 was all about Abu Dhabi. It is one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al Quwain. It is the largest emirate by area as well as the capital. It also has the largest population with 2.34 million people, out of a total UAE population of 8.1 million. Located about 100 miles from Dubai, they control about 95% of the oil in the UAE. That explains why the Related Corporation, in a joint venture with a local company, decided to build the Galleria Mall on Al Maryah Island. The area had been desert just a few years ago. Across the street from the Galleria Mall will be something for us ordinary folks– a mall with Macy’s and Bloomindales, plus a food court.  Did I mention that President Trump’s company is building a golf course in Abu Dhabi?

Gold ceiling at the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque. Photo by Ron Kapon.

Maybe the biggest WOW! of my trip was the hour tour of the sixth largest mosque in the world- Shekh Zayed Grand Mosque. In 1996, the UAE founding fathers decided to build this cultural and religious landmark on 30 acres (1996-2007). All material used was sourced from nature (marble, glass and semi-precious stones). There are 82 domes featuring pure white marble decorated with gold glass mosaics. The main prayer hall has the largest carpet in the world (5,700 square meters). The main courtyard has an area of 17,400 square meters. The mosque is large enough to accommodate over 40,000 worshipers, while the main prayer hall can hold over 7,000. The largest chandelier in the world hangs in the main prayer hall (it weighs 12 tons). There are over a thousand columns decorated with marble and semi-precious stones.

View from 124th Floor of the Burj Khalifa

Day 6 was spent relaxing, writing and sunning. Later that afternoon I was taken to the 124th floor of the Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building. The tour begins at the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest in area with 1,200 stores. There is an indoor ice rink, Dubai Aquarium and underwater zoo, as well as the Sega indoor theme park. There is a multi-media presentation of the history of Dubai and the building of the Burj Khalifa. I was told that except for the early morning tours every other hour grouping is sold out. I was allowed to skip the line and was escorted to a private elevator. I am not sure if it was my age or the fact that I walk with a cane, but I am grateful for that extra service. There was an outdoor space (open at the top only) as well as indoors-on floor 124. Floor 125 is enclosed. For an extra fee one can ascend to the Sky Lounge on floor 148 (the building has 160 floors).

I would strongly suggest they ban selfie sticks. I was hit twice as I tried to look out the windows. The other negative was the bus parking area.  Most of the buses looked alike.  I spent more than half an hour before I finally found my tour bus.

Day 7 was a full day in Oman at Musandam, an Omani peninsula that juts into the Straits of Hormuz, the entry into the Persian Gulf. Its location gives Oman as well as Iran control of that strategic strait. Around 20% of the world’s oil passes thru the straits. It is about a two-hour trip from Dubai. We do have to show our passports as we enter Oman; it is not part of the UAE. The jagged coastline features fjord-like inlets and is home to dolphin and marine life. Dhow cruises are very popular. Our boat had two decks. I chose to get some sun on the upper deck. A few people snorkeled; a few chose to rest at the private beach. The rest of us went swimming and then riding on a banana boat. The driver made sure that everyone fell into the water. I chose to watch from the boat. There was a buffet lunch served and we were soon back at the dock and aboard our van back to Dubai.

My last day was all about relaxing and packing. The tour company picked me up 3 ½ hours before my flight. I spent an hour at the Diners Club affiliated lounge- Marhaba. Great buffet that puts U.S. lounges to shame. Long 14-hour flight back with not much sleep. Easy passport and baggage pickup. Car service home and to bed. All in all it was a great trip!

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