24 Hours in Abu Dhabi

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Travel is great. Experiencing other cultures is great. For some, it is also a pretty scary experience at times, as they put you out of your comfort zone. As such, the best advice I can think of when embarking on any adventure is to do so with an open mind, and a certain amount of flexibility. What you are used to, and expect as the norm where you live is definitely not the norm where you are visiting. Expect surprises and deviations. And, consider book-ending a trip with ‘spare’ days on either end if at all possible in light of that reality. With that pre-amble, I’d like to quickly talk everyone through a little ‘travel gift’ we got as part of our Nepal trip in 2016. Yup, as the title illustrates, it was an unexpected 24 hour layover in Abu Dhabi! This was a place we had no intention of making a lengthy visit to, and although we were supposed to have a short stop there before flying home, it was NOT supposed to be a full day. Read on to find out what happened, and what we did about it!

24 Hours in Abu Dhabi

The original flight plan for our trip home from Nepal was Kathmandu –> Abu Dhabi –> Toronto –> Ottawa. To be clear, this journey was already going to take a VERY long time with time changes and flight changes. However, originally, we were supposed to land in Abu Dhabi at 00:40, and depart for Toronto at 02:50. However, political tensions between Nepal and India threw that all out the window. Throughout our trip, we’d been learning about border issues preventing fuel from reaching Nepal. By the end, it got so bad that instead of taking a bus from Pokhara back to Kathmandu, we were instead booked on a flight, as it was a safer bet. We also saw first-hand the effects of the fuel shortage. Restaurants were unable to cook using stoves, but resorted to wood fires to cook a limited menu! It was pretty wild, but we just rolled with it and accepted that whatever would happen would happen. While we were worried we might not be able to fly out at all, we were lucky enough to make it to the airport and get on out first flight, so we thought we’d be safe.

Neat Fountain
Just another pretty fountain on the bus ride from airport

Turns out, the joke was on us. While the plane was able to land in Kathmandu, they couldn’t refuel in Nepal. This meant a detour from the planned journey. Before heading to Abu Dhabi, the plane had to land in India first to refuel. I don’t recall where, but something tells me it was Lucknow. There was no de-planing, just land, refuel, and take off. However, due to the backlog of flights at the airport we stopped at, there was a trickle effect, and what should have been a 1 hour delay stretched to almost 2 hours. End result? We landed in Abu Dhabi about 2 minutes before our Toronto-bound plane was to leave. At least Etihad Airways was good about everything, and immediately re-booked us on the next flight… 24 hours later! They also put us up at an airport hotel we could walk to from the terminal, and comped us food in the hotel as well. So there we were, at 2:45am, exhausted and stranded. However, rather than go to sleep, I logged into free wi-fi and got right to work on planning a day of adventures while Deanna grabbed a quick shower and crashed. Within an hour or so, I’d planned a great day of sightseeing using a Big Bus hop-on-hop-off that could pick us up nearby! It started at 9am, and I had no intention of sleeping in and missing a ‘golden opportunity’!

Back on Tour Bus
Nothing beats a Big Bus Hop on, Hop Off bus!

First thing in the morning, we rushed to the restaurant to gorge on a big breakfast (and maybe snag some ‘pocket bread’ to feed us later). In order to catch our 9am Big Bus, we first had to get to the Ferrari World museum / YAS Mall, which we were able to do with a courtesy bus from the airport. Thank goodness for that, since we had no local currency at our disposal. We nearly missed the first bus on account of being uncertain where to catch it, but eventually made it. Sadly, it was already VERY WARM, and we were stuck wearing our heavier layers based on our original itinerary. Oh well, we’d just sweat and bear it. The beauty of this bus is that it uses two different circuits to take you around to all the major sights of Abu Dhabi, which is growing and gaining sights on a near-weekly basis it would appear. There was no shortage of cranes and shiny new buildings around us as we got closer to the centre of the city. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it was the weekend, or some other special date, which meant most stores and malls were closed, so there was no point in actually visiting the downtown core, which was fine by us, as it meant we’d had more time to explore the cooler sights.

Replica Boats at Waterfront
View towards downtown from the Heritage Village

For our purposes, the cooler sights consisted of a series of old as well as new places to check out this young and growing city that sprouted up from the sands of a desert. Our first main stop after the drive in from the Ferrari World and past the Yas Marina Circuit (of Formula 1 fame), was a place called Heritage Village, which was sort of an open air museum akin to something like Upper Canada Village. Rather than me describing it, here is how an Abu Dhabi tourist site presented it:

Visit the Heritage village to experience the traditional aspects of the desert way of life, and immerse yourself in the time capsule that brings to life a souk, a mosque and an encampment from pre-modernized Abu Dhabi.  You can shop, explore artifacts and watch artisans making pottery, blowing glass and weaving fabric on a loom.
Run by the Emirates Heritage Club, this reconstruction of a traditional oasis village provides an interesting glimpse into the emirate’s past and features public workshops where craftsmen demonstrate traditional skills such as metal work, pottery, weaving and spinning. The craftsmen share their skills with visitors, and occasionally offer them a chance to try them out. 

From https://visitabudhabi.ae/
Shady Camel
Nothing to see here, just a Camel enjoying the shade.

Heritage Village was a great first stop, and gave us an understanding of how these large Middle Eastern cities evolved from tiny desert camps into what they are today. This was also an opportunity to learn more about, and appreciate, the Arabic cultures and their arts and crafts. After getting our fill on the cultural side, it was time to meander towards the ultra modern and ultra chic. For this, we headed towards sights like the Marina Mall, and eventually making our way towards a place called Jumeirah, at Etihad Tower. More specifically, we wanted to make our way to the Observation Deck at 300, Abu Dhabis highest restaurant. Yes, there was a semi-hefty entrance fee to take the elevator up there, but given this likely ‘once in a lifetime’ stopover, we forked it over. Once emerging from the elevator, and collecting our jaws up off the floor, I can assure you it was worth the price of admission! From the vantage point(s) all around this observation deck, we were able to really take in and appreciate the majesty of this city. I’m using the term majesty quite correctly in this case.

Sprawling Presidential Palace Grounds
Just another palace under construction, no biggie.

From the lofty heights, we were able to take in the UAE Presidential Palace (seen above), the Emirates Palace Hotel (seen below – probably a 5-star out of 4 type of place), as well as great views of the downtown area. While we experienced budgetary challenges as far as indulging in any food, no one seemed to mind that we only went up for the view. The weather was stunning, and as much as we could have stayed up there for hours, there were other sights to see. Luckily, this had been quite a nice reprieve from the oppressive heat of the outdoors in the midday sun. However, time marches on, and the ever-present ActiveSteve itinerary pressures were mounting, and it was time to move on.

Emirates Palace Hotel View
The damn impressive Emirates Palace Hotel

The final stop on our self-guided tour was a stop at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Although I hadn’t quite planned it this way, our arrival coincided with the end of the day, a thinning of the crowds (which were large), and an amazing desert sunset. It is very difficult to do justice to this architectural marvel in words or pictures, but believe me when I tell you it was STUNNING! During peak period of the year, such as Eid, over 41,000 people will visit per day. Here is what the Big Bus site has to say about this mosque:

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the jewel in Abu Dhabi’s crown. It’s fair to say this is one of the most important pieces of architecture in the Emirates. And one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. The Mosque is crucial to the culture of Abu Dhabi, so no expense has been spared in its design and construction. Everywhere you look you’ll see white marble, inlaid with elaborate floral designs. Check out the interior walls too, which feature stunning gold glass mosaics.

Big Bus Tour description of Mosque
Glistening Mosque
The boringest, plainest view of the Mosque possible, and still amazing!

The Mosque welcomes people from all over the world and of all different faiths, as long as you are respectful of the importance of the sight. For Deanna, this meant needing to go underground in order to secure a full-length, head covering abaya (or was it a burqa? The difference always confuses me). There were plenty of other rules in place, but all common sense in my mind for a place of worship. The mosque was so vast, that just walking around it would have taken us a very long time. We stuck to the main walking routes, which was enough to get a good sense of some of the interior spaces, which were all very ornately decorated. I have a lot more pictures of it over on flickr if you’d like to see them, or just click through the album embedded at the top of this post. By the time we wrapped up our mini tour here, the sun was starting to set. While staying a little longer may have yielded amazing sunset shots, I had to settle for what I got, lest we were to miss the final bus taking us back to our starting point!

Sunset at Mosque
Desert sunset at the mosque

Once back on the Big Bus, the temperature had finally started to drop down, now that the sun was setting. So much so that we actually started to feel a [relative] chill as we raced along back towards the Ferrari museum. With that our layover was drawing to a close. In the morning, we’d skipped the Ferrari museum in preference of getting on the first bus, but now that we were done that, we decided to at least pop our heads in for a brief moment to check out some of the cars. We also wandered the attached mall a little bit to get a sense of how folks around here shop / live. We’d decided to just take a taxi back to the airport, as it wasn’t clear how we might find a bus to take us back at this later hour. We still had plenty of time to catch our flight, but honestly, we were pretty exhausted, not to mention hungry. With a lack of cash, we sort of skipped over eating most of the day. Easy sacrifice to make for a day of adventures and memory-making, right?

Obligatory Stop at Ferrari World
One (of many) VERY Bright Red Ferrari.

So there you have it folks. 24 [unexpected] hours in Abu Dhabi. We could have done like several other that were stranded. They stayed at the airport in their hotel rooms. They filled up on free food at the hotel restaurant. They watched TV, and surfed the web. Shame on them! For what amounted to less than what the hotel room would have cost, we had a full day of very cool adventures in a city we would have otherwise not had a chance to explore. This was made all the better by the fact that we DIDN’T have to pay for a hotel or extra food. What started out as an inconvenience turned out to be yet another highlight of our ‘Nepal’ trip. There’s a lesson in there for these times I think? Look at the upside of things, not the downside. Life is too short to squander opportunities! Till the next time, take care of you and yours!

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