Oasis in the desert

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Text and photos by Denise A. Valdez, Reporter

If you tell a fellow Filipino that you are flying to Abu Dhabi, the assumption is almost always that you are going to start working there. And you can’t fault them because as you wait to board the plane for your Abu Dhabi trip, you’d notice that you are surrounded by mothers on the phone, saying their last minute goodbyes to their children. “Mag-behave ka habang wala si mama, ha? I love you, anak [Behave while mom is away, okay? I love you],” implying that they will be gone to work abroad for a long time.

Stories about life in the Middle East are not unfamiliar to Filipinos since many, having heard of the job opportunities in the region, have gone there looking to earn good money to send back home. And along with the money come the stories.

But now one can expect different sorts of stories, told by tourists instead of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), to start emerging as the capital of United Arab Emirates gets more aggressive in welcoming an era of mass tourism.

Going to Abu Dhabi from the Philippines today, one sees scenes of contrasting emotions. At the airport there is the sobbing OFW on the phone and an overly excited family of five taking endless selfies as their journey of exploration starts.

GETTING THERE
Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism has collaborated with airlines and hotels to make it easier for tourists to enter the emirate. Aside from the common option of having your travel agency arrange a visa for you, a Filipino may also tap any three-, four-, or five-star hotel where they’ll be staying at to apply for visas on their behalf.

If you book a flight with Etihad Airways, the airline may also arrange everything for you when you fill out a form on its website. It will then send you your printable visa through e-mail prior to your trip to save you the hassle of visiting the United Arab Emirates embassy in the Philippines.

If you are flying on a budget, Etihad offers a non-refundable economy class return ticket at around $390 or around P20,000. But if you have money to spare, a classic business class returning ticket to Abu Dhabi costs almost $1,300, or around P68,000.

Etihad offers premium service in-flight for business class passengers, with a wide array of food choices and an even wider array of entertainment options in its media system. Accommodating cabin crew also make the trip feel less like a means to get to a vacation, but more like a staycation in itself.

The flight to Abu Dhabi from Manila takes almost nine hours, but the view upon your arrival is relaxing enough to make you forget the hours lost in transit.

DATES AND TOWERS
The emirate is a vast space laced with eight-lane highways, cars moving fast past each other quietly no matter what time of day. Dates trees surround every piece of open land — unless they are construction sites, which is the case for many spots in the capital.

Visitors do have to contend with the country’s dry heat — 34°F on an October afternoon — burning your skin as you walk under the sun. Then there is the high intensity air conditioning inside every closed building, blasting all the heat out of your body every time you enter one.

In the central district of Abu Dhabi, buildings line the roads, each with unique features that the emirate proudly boasts of — an office (Capital Gate) which is the world’s furthest leaning tower at 18°, a 23-storey circular building which is the headquarter of property development firm Aldar, and twin sun-responsive skyscrapers for a government office and bank (Al Bahar Towers).

The multi-billion Yas Island, which opened in 2009, is one of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to draw more tourists to the country. The island intends to be home to 20 hotels in the next few years. Seven are already up and running — the Yas Hotel Abu Dhabi, the Park Inn Radisson, Crowne Plaza, Centro Yas Island, Yas Island Rotana, Radisson Blue Hotel, and Staybridge Suites.

A three-day stay in one of the hotels, Centro Yas Island, would cost almost AED 1,080 or around P15,000 for a queen-sized bedroom that has a pool view. The package comes with a breakfast buffet offering different cuisines and several Emirati favorites.

Aside from its hotels, Yas Island also houses other attractions such as Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, and the Yas Marina Circuit where the annual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held.

ROLLER COASTERS AND THE LOUVRE
If you are travelling with family or you are a thrill seeker, Ferrari World is a must-visit for its variety of rollercoasters and rides, one of which is the world’s fastest rollercoaster with a speed of 240 kilometers per hour.

Warner Bros. World is a dream land for all kids and kids-at-heart who grew up watching Justice League, Looney Tunes, and other shows from Warner Bros. The indoor attraction has six sections of alternate filmic universes with themed halls, shops, rides, and food that are faithful to the fictional stories they replicate.

Beyond Yas Island are more sights, one of which is the newly opened Louvre Abu Dhabi, widely commended for its intricate building design topped with a 565-meter layered dome.

The fruit of a 2007 intergovernmental agreement between Abu Dhabi and France, the new museum first gave a taste of its beauty to visitors in November last year when it opened. Inside visitors can view its permanent collection and imported artworks sourced mostly from France.

In the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection is the world’s most expensive painting — Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which sold for a whopping $450.3 million at auction last year. The painting of Jesus Christ holding a transparent rock crystal was supposed to go on display last September, but this has been postponed to an undetermined date.

FALCONS AND THE MOSQUE
While Abu Dhabi has places that appeal to Western standards of tourist attractions, it also doesn’t fall short when it comes to reflecting its unique culture in plenty of its institutions and buildings.

One of its unique travel destinations is the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, a dedicated veterinary clinic for falcons, which now also welcomes other pets.

What dogs or chickens are to Filipinos falcons are to residents of Abu Dhabi, with almost every household owning a pet falcon. The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital caters to around 11,000 falcons every year, and allows tourists to witness the treatment of these dearly loved winged pets.

Aside from receiving regular grooming and checkups, falcons are also entitled to own a personal passport and may fly next to individuals on a plane. At the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, visitors can learn know more about how the emirate cares for falcons, an interesting visit that allows one a different perspective.

No trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without a visit to one of the world’s largest mosques, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which sits at the highest point of the emirate and visible from any point in the capital.

Named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who unified the seven emirates in 1971 and served as the first president of the United Arab Emirates, the Grand Mosque was born out of Zayed’s personal vision for the place of worship.

The building covers a 12 hectare area with a capacity of around 40,000 worshippers and visitors. It has a courtyard that can fit 31,000 people and a prayer room that can accommodate 7,800 worshipers at a time.

The prayer room is open to Muslim guests, which a Muslim companion said is a “one-of-a-kind experience.”

But even if you do not practice Islam, the Grand Mosque in itself is a sight to behold. The walls of the building, made of a variety of marble and other stone, feature a design which was inspired by Zayed’s goal of unifying the different architectural styles of countries where Islam is practiced.

The dress code for visitors to the Grand Mosque are strict — all guests are required to come in clothes that cover the body to the feet. Women are also required to wear a shawl around the head to cover their hair. But if visitors come unprepared, clothes are available for rent at the entrance of the building.

DINING OPTIONS
And of course, as in any other country, experiencing Abu Dhabi entails tasting its food. A good place for a wide array of Emirati food options is Al Fanar Restaurant and Café, located along the Venetian Village at The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi. Not only does it offer authentic Emirati cuisine, but it also has an ambiance that mimics a desert experience.

If you wish to try other varieties of Middle Eastern cuisine, Maison Beirut at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr offers sumptuous Lebanese food at hefty servings, perfect for families and group dining occasions.

For a more fancy dining experience, a Michelin-star restaurant from London, Hakkasan Restaurant, has a branch at the Emirates Palace, which offers some of the best takes on Chinese cuisine.

Leaving Abu Dhabi as a tourist may be nearly as difficult as leaving the Philippines is for OFWs. Besides being a place of beauty and elegance, it is a place filled with destinations that tell the stories of people who were able to achieve great things by putting in the hard work — whether you are telling the tale of Sheikh Zayed, of Abu Dhabi locals, or its multicultural pool of foreign workers including the many Filipinos you’d overhear chatting in Tagalog during your stay.