ampr fyi: abu dhabi state of mind

August 17th, 2010

This week’s rendition of AMPR FYI comes from Dena DiOrio.  Hailing from the great state of Ohio, Dena has been with AMPR for two years.

Abu Dhabi State of Mind

Waiting for my flight to board at the Etihad gate at JFK felt like waiting for any other flight, although it was most definitely not.  I was on my way to Abu Dhabi, capital city of the United Arab Emirates, in the Middle East.  First time for me to the region, so I was extra psyched.  The 13-hour flight was long, but bearable, with all the on-demand movies, music and games one could possibly want while cruising at 36,000 feet above cities like Trabzon, Erzurum, and Shiraz.

Arriving at AUH, I passed through immigration (U.S. travelers received their tourist visas upon arrival) and was off to find my driver.  The air was heavy and humid, with the tinge of salt water.  Palm trees were everywhere.  Yep, I was definitely somewhere tropical!  During the 2 ½ hour drive from the airport to the coastal town of Jebel Dhana, the backdrop of a starlight sky was enhanced by flames shooting out of oil rigs dotting the desert like candles on a birthday cake.   I spent the night at the hotel before catching the boat transfer to Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of the mainland.  The ride across the Arabian Gulf was reminiscent of the Governor’s Island ferry ride, but in very choppy and brilliantly emerald waters. Arriving safe and sound, I dedicated a mangrove seedling to “PACE” (Latin for in peace) and headed on my way.  All visitors to the island have a chance to make a personalized dedication that is planted with a mangrove seedling. 

Off to see the hotel, Desert Islands Resort & Spa, I climbed aboard the Desert Islands 4×4 (NB, Desert Islands is also the name of the eight islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi).  We drove across sand and dirt and expanses that look like we were on the moon.  And in the distance, the hotel grew closer and closer.  The safari lodge feel is present when you arrive.  On the outside of the property, the entrance portico is a large white overhang reminiscent of a safari tent, and on the inside, two-story high ceilings with beautiful and intricately designed chandeliers hang down. Very laid-back luxury.  There are artifacts everywhere, all paying homage to HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late ruler and founder of the UAE.  Sheikh Zayed, for those who don’t know, is revered throughout the country and portraits of him, usually with one of his falcons, are in all lobbies and public spaces.  It was Sheikh Zayed who founded a wildlife reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island, the next stop on my tour.

The Arabian Wildlife Park is home to over 30 species of flora and fauna, like sand gazelles, hyenas, fellow and axis deer, ostrich, and cheetahs, just to name a few.  Our guide (originally from South Africa) was super knowledgeable about all the animals, plants and the history of the island.   The same guide led us on a kayaking expedition through the mangroves that afternoon.

 After a few days, it was time to say good bye to surf and say hello to sand!  Into the famous ocher dunes of the Liwa Desert I went.  The drive through the dunes was spectacular.  The sand shimmered like it was airbrushed with red and gold, and the dunes seemed to roll along into eternity.  After making a quick turn at Al Ruwais onto Qasr Al Sarab Road, we proceeded to go deeper into the desert.  Soon, the dunes were getting higher around the sides of the car.  And then as if a mirage was in front of me, two huge pillars marked the entrance to Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.  A ‘mirage palace’ indeed, Qasr Al Sarab is like a castle rising out of the sand.  The grandiose entrance reminded me of a drawbridge over a moat (you cross over a bridge) leading to the front gate of the castle.  When you get to the other side, there are fountains and lush greenery and some of the finest cars valet parked around you.  It’s like being at a car show!  Then the massive doors open and in you walk to the stately lobby, with a beautiful chandelier, trickling water fountains, and exquisite Bedouin artifacts.

Outside of the main hotel area, the rooms, suites, and villas spilled off like little villages, each slightly different from the next (i.e. small details, like the tiles would have a different patterns  or different color mosaics).  And what I couldn’t get enough of was the sights of the dunes undulating in the distance as far as the eye could see.  Next stop, a camel trek into those dunes led by a local Bedouin.  Having never rode a camel but growing up riding horses, I thought this would be easy.  NOT.  Camels are double jointed and their legs literally collapse underneath them when they go to sit.  That said, when the camel man gives the signal to stand up, the camel dips his keaster up into the air, meanwhile catapulting the rider forward. Then, all of a sudden, the camel stands up on its front legs, and the rider is whipped back into position.  Saddling up on a camel is not the easiest thing, but trekking through the dunes at sunset is most definitely worth the ride.

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