Dispatch, Abu Dhabi: The best of both worlds


Ken in Abu Dhabi

Travel Weekly’s Kenneth Kiesnoski is in the United Arab Emirates. His second dispatch follows. Click to read his first dispatch

This visit to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates has turned out to be a study in extremes. In the course of the last 48 hours, I went from a leisurely overnight stay in one of Abu Dhabi’s most desolate areas, the Liwa Desert, to a busy day of touring the UAE’s most urbanized, bustling and westernized city, Dubai.

Hospitality, infrastructure and services were, of course, of the highest standards in both spots — the UAE is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, after all — but the contrast in surroundings and experience couldn’t have been greater.

My journey began with a two-hour ride from the city of Abu Dhabi to the luxurious Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort in the Liwa Desert, part of the sparsely populated Rub al Khali (or Empty Quarter), which takes up a third of the Arabian Peninsula.

Isolated amid, and nestled into, the shifting sand dunes of the Liwa Desert, this Anantara resort appears, suddenly, like a welcome mirage out of nowhere once you’ve passed through the dusty, one-horse (or one-camel, more likely) village of Hameem.

Qasr Al Sarab, Arabic for “Mirage Palace,” is isolation, and serenity, at its best. The resort is built to recall Abu Dhabi’s forts of yesteryear, and outside its mock-ancient walls you find … mostly nothing. At least at first glance.

I communed with the emptiness of the vast Liwa on two excursions from Qasr al Sarab. First up was a leisurely sunset camel ride through the surrounding dunes, guided by two local Bedouins.

A fierce wind kicked up and a sandstorm threatened. Despite a mouthful and eyeful of granules, I’ve rarely felt more peace than atop that good-natured, sure-footed camel. I quickly came to appreciate Bedouins’ reliance on these beasts.

The following morning, I woke before dawn to scale the dunes on foot with the staff naturalist. As we plodded up almost 300 feet of dune in the pre-dawn light, the sands eerily groaned under my steps. The otherworldly moans would cease only when Amar, my guide, stopped to point out gazelle or sand-cat tracks, pick up a flaky “desert rose” stone, or squeeze salt water from the stems and leaves of the few scraggly plants eking out a parched existence.

Exhausted, we sat alone atop the highest dune — a full-moon setting behind our backs — and looked east to watch the sun rise over the resort at our feet. Sun up and spell broken, we then tore down the dune, running all the way to the slightly more verdant valley below. As I shook the sand from my sneakers, a part of me envied the Bedouins and their Empty Quarter.

Then it was back on the bus to Abu Dhabi proper. The next day, I met up with one Gafoor K., an expat native of Kerala, India, and my driver and guide for a seven-hour trip north to Dubai.

After driving through stretches of endless desert, the landscape became filled with power plants and electrical towers, then seemingly endless rows of futuristic office buildings, shopping malls, metro stations and luxury hotels.

The Rub al Khali this is not. This is Miami on steroids, which is not a criticism. Dubai is an enthralling, even enchanting place. There is some heritage on offer, found at places like the Dubai Museum and the spice and gold souks, but the city’s real charms are more modern.

There aren’t as many construction cranes in evidence as in still-booming Abu Dhabi, but a similar conspicuous consumption — along with globalization, multiculturalism and a “supersize-it” sensibility — is.

The evidence? The sail-like Burj Al Arab hotel. Three man-made, palm-shaped islands just offshore. The enormous Dubai Mall. All populated by bag-toting shoppers decked out in everything from modest Emirati abaya and kandura robes (okay, perhaps by Gucci but still traditional) to T-shirts and shorts.

And then there’s the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I may be a somewhat jaded New Yorker, born and raised amid a world-famous forest of skyscrapers, but my heart took a leap when the Burj lurched into view.

A ride to the observation deck on the 124th floor became my dearest wish. Alas, it was not to be. Tickets were sold out for the next few days. Not the Empty Quarter, indeed.

So I settled for a snapshot at the foot of the tower and then did what I saw the Emiratis around me doing: I shopped.

For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.

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