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What a trip!! We recently returned from a week-long adventure in the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The region is an absolute mash up of old-world customs with new-world luxury and architecture. We enjoyed luxury accommodations, desert adventures, high-altitude sky scrapers, white sand beaches, and historical landmarks during our whirlwind vacation.
This post is a bit lengthy, so I’ve broken it down into the following categories:
- Air Travel/Transportation – How we got there and how we got around.
- Accommodations – Where we stayed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
- Adventures – Write-ups of each amazing activity we enjoyed during our visit, including the Burj Khalifa, Night Golf, Desert Safari, Grand Mosque tour, Gold Souk shopping, and more.
Airfare – $250/person RT
We took full advantage of the Etihad Airways mistake fares from December 2014. These mistake fares were widely advertised around travel blog websites. Our specific flights were from JFK (New York) to AUH (Abu Dhabi). Since we don’t live in NYC, we used our companion pass to spend a weekend in the Big Apple before flying to the Emirates. Mistake fares are a hotly debated topic recently, because new legal action has ruled that airlines no longer have to honor mistake fares. However, I still recommend that you follow @ThePointsGuy and @TheFlightDeal on twitter. This is perhaps the best way to find cheap/mistake airfares!
Our $250 tickets were obviously economy class, but I was impressed with Etihad airways’ economy seats and amenities. We received 2 full meals and one snack, along with multiple drink (booze included) servings during the 12-hour flight. We were also given a nice amenity package, including an eye mask, headphones, socks, ear plugs, toothpaste, and a toothbrush. The seats included an LCD touchscreen with movies, TV shows, and music. We also had a universal power outlet and two USB power plugs to power our devices in flight.
We chose to rent a car, because we flew into Abu Dhabi and we also wanted to visit Dubai. The cities are a little over 1 hour apart by car. We booked the rental car through Orbitz using Ebates to earn an 8.1% cash rebate. I was very surprised how cheap the rental car was, and parking at the hotel was free. I definitely recommend renting a car over using public transport if you plan to visit both Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
While the car was very inexpensive, driving was a bit of a challenge. First, we were unable to convince AT&T to unlock our phones. We had to depend on offline Google maps. The trouble with this strategy is that you can only load a route while connected to wifi. If you make a wrong turn and lose the route, you’re on your own! Trust me… in Dubai, you will make wrong turns! Most of Dubai is under construction, which makes the roads very confusing and different from the mapped route. If you choose to rent a car, I heavily suggest that you pay for the GPS. Additionally, drivers there can be a bit crazy. With the high volume of exotic cars and generous speed limits, I had to use some of my old Cruising’ World skills to avoid accidents. Fortunately, we made it out in one piece, and saved a lot of money in the process!
Dubai – Hilton Dubai The Walk – 200,000 HHonors Points/5 nights
We spent the first five nights of our adventure in the Dubai Marina area. The marina is along the Persian Gulf coast, immediately south of the man-made Palm Jumeirah island. This stretch of the gulf has recently been developed into an awesome promenade area known as The Walk, featuring world-class shopping, movie theaters, fountains, and a wide selection of restaurants.
We decided to stay at Hilton Dubai The Walk, which is in the center of The Walk area. Our 5-night stay cost only 200,000 points. We took advantage of the HHonors offer that allows you to get a 5th night on any 4-night stay. The room we stayed in costs $614 per night if paid in cash! This gives us a redemption value of 1.5 cents per point. HHonors points are typically valued at 0.5 cents per point.
This hotel was a former condominium building that went bankrupt during the financial crisis of 2007. As a result, the top two floors of the hotel are suites that were once condos. Due to my Hilton Diamond status, we were upgraded to a 42nd floor Loft Apartment suite at check-in. At 1,668 sqft, this hotel room was almost the size of our house!! We had a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bathrooms, laundry room, and a staircase up to the bedroom! The hotel facility also included access to two pools, multiple restaurants/lounges, and a private beach. A complementary breakfast buffet was served every morning in the executive lounge, as well as free cocktails in the evening. Hotel staff was extremely friendly and helpful during our entire stay.
Abu Dhabi – Courtyard Marriott Downtown – 15,000 Marriott Points
During our one night in Abu Dhabi, we stayed at the brand new Courtyard Marriott. I was amazed to see that this hotel was a Category 4 reward and only cost 15,000 points. The lobby and rooms were very modern, and the location was great! The hotel connects to a souk (market) and shopping mall. It is also a short walk away from the Corniche, a lovely stretch of beach and parks along the gulf. The front desk staff was also very helpful in making a last-minute dinner reservation for us at Emirates Palace!
When in the Middle East, you MUST check out the vast expanses of desert. We booked a tour which included dune bashing, sand boarding, camel riding, belly dancing, henna tattoos, hookah smoking, and an authentic bedouin barbecue under the stars!
The first activity was dune bashing, which involved our tour guide driving the SUV at full speed over the sand dunes. It was like a roller coaster, except with the real possibility of rolling the vehicle. Fortunately, our driver was an absolute professional, and our ride was thrilling but very safe. We did see what can happen when amateur drivers attempt to dune bash (see below)!
After dune bashing, we stopped the SUV’s near a tall sand dune and our guide announced that we would be sand boarding. He pulled a snowboard from the trunk and took it to the top of the dune. I hopped on the board with my bare feet and rode to the bottom of the dune. I brought my GoPro along for the ride and managed to capture myself eating sand in a nice crash. Enjoy.
After boarding, we loaded up to head to the “Desert Gate” for camel rides and an authentic bedouin BBQ. My wife was particularly excited to ride a camel and, of course, take the obligatory camel selfie. The BBQ was very tasty, and the belly dancing show did not disappoint. We also smoked a hookah pipe and my wife got a henna tattoo. At the end of the dinner, all of the lights in the area were turned off so we could lay back and admire the desert stars. It was fantastic! We then climbed back into our SUV and returned to the hotel to pass out!
Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall/Fountain Boat Ride
No trip to Dubai is complete without paying a visit to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower! We purchased tickets to the sky deck, At The Top, well in advance to ensure we would see the sunset from 126 stories above the ground. Sunset tickets sell out fast! To access the tower, you must go through the Dubai Mall, one of the largest shopping malls in the world. We decided to arrive a few hours early to explore the mall before ascending the Burj.
This mall was HUUUUGE! Instead of simply having stores, they have entire districts within the mall – for example, a denim district or purse district. We also walked across a bridge to visit the nearby Souk al Bahar. This souk was like a flea market, and had all sorts of items ranging from handmade wares to art to blatant touristy trinkets. Prices in the souk were much better than the mall, so buy your gifts here!
We returned around 5:30pm to board the express elevator up the Burj. When we reached the sky deck, I was amazed at how high we actually were! We could see for miles in every direction. We walked around the deck taking pictures for a while, and then posted up at a window for a view of the sunset. If you want a good sunset view, be sure to claim a window early, because they fill up quickly. We watched the sun slip below the horizon, and then marveled as the whole city began to light up.
After descending the tower, we headed to the enormous fountain area. We boarded a boat which rides the perimeter of the fountain during the show. This show was incredible, and it easily puts the Bellagio fountain show in Las Vegas to shame. It was especially cool to feel the spray from the fountains on my face during the boat ride.
Dubai is one of the few places in the world to feature a fully flood-lit 18-hole golf course! Due to the extreme heat during the day, night golf is a way to allow golfers to play without completely over-heating. I set a tee time for 7:45pm to be sure that my entire round would take place under the flood lights. Despite the late time, the temperature was still 99 degrees when I teed off! The course was immaculate and also very challenging. I was amazed at how well the grass is maintained despite the extreme desert environment. Many holes feature water hazards, in which I deposited quite a few balls! The whole experience was very surreal, especially when I could look up and see that I was surrounded by skyscrapers. Be sure to pack your own glove and a few golf balls – they are very expensive in the pro shop.
We decided to take a day and visit “Old Dubai” and the world-reknowned Gold Souk. This place is absolutely over-the-top! The entrance to the Souk features the world’s largest gold ring, and every store window is completely filled with 22 karat gold jewelry. (I learned that 22k gold is 91.6% pure, as opposed to 18k, which is only 75% pure.) The whole place is a sight to behold. Despite the flea market appearance, do not expect significant discounts here. Gold jewelry prices were based on weight, purity, and the spot price of gold. Some stores allow negotiations, but others state a price and will not budge.
When visiting this souk, be aware of the MANY sellers of counterfeit goods. You will be bombarded with offers to buy fake designer watches, purses, and fragrances. Some of the sellers are very aggressive and will follow you as you walk. I expected this and directly stated “NO, we are not interested!” as they approached. If you show even the slightest interest, they will not back off. To be clear, all of the stores sell authentic goods, but the “independent” sellers are peddling fakes. If you are interested in purchasing one of their purses or watches, be brutal in your negotiation. You may end up with a very close replica watch for just a few dollars. 🙂
As I mentioned above, our hotel featured a private beach. I did not expect a nice beach in the middle east, but I was very pleasantly surprised! Our beach featured white sand and clear water. We went for a swim in the warm, salty water and then set up lounge chairs to let the waves tickle our toes. Vendors along the beach offer camel rides, jet skis, and parasailing. It was a bit odd to see camels walking around while laying on a beach chair!
Our hotel was very close to the smaller manmade palm island, so we drove out to the tip of the palm. The Atlantis resort and a large waterpark sit at the very far end of the island. We parked the car and walked into the Atlantis shops. The shops feature all sorts of luxury goods, and even a gold ATM!
The Atlantis resort also features Neptune’s Aquarium. We did not want to go into the aquarium, but we were able to see most of the large tank from the hotel lobby. We marveled at the sharks, rays, and endless schools of fish in the enormous tank.
Everyone who hears we went to Dubai seems to want to know if we skied on the indoor slope. The answer is no, but we did check it out. The slope can be found at one end of the Emirates Mall, and it features a few ski runs. I do 100% agree that an indoor ski resort is absolutely incredible, but I cannot imagine enjoying a 20-second ski run. We did walk through the ski lodge area, and it is all very well done. I actually felt like I was in a mountain town in Colorado. They also feature a penguin show every few hours.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center
When we arrived in Abu Dhabi, we drove directly to the Grand Mosque. This mosque is an absolute work of art! It features domes, reflecting pools, ornate chandeliers, and white marble columns with inlaid design work. The dress code at the mosque is very strict. Women must cover themselves from ankles to wrists and wear a head covering. They do offer abayas (hooded robes) free of charge. Guards patrol all areas to ensure that all rules are followed! They do not allow men and women to touch, even while posing for a picture. We really enjoyed the magnificent architecture.
A short walk from our hotel brought us to a beachfront promenade known as the Corniche. This 8-kilometer stretch of beach/boardwalk/green space is very pleasant for a sunset stroll. We walked along the water’s edge, admiring the clarity of the water and enjoying the sand between our toes. Then we walked up to the wooden walkway and met a few random cats, who followed us for a little while. Bikes are also available to rent in the area.
Toward the end of the Corniche sits a massive, $3-Billion resort known as Emirates Palace. This place defines the word luxury! Unfortunately, we did not spend a night at the Palace, but we did have an amazing dinner there. The resort itself contains 14 restaurants, cafes, lounges, or bars. You must make a reservation at one of these to be granted entrance to the front gate. We selected Le Cafe, so we could try the Palace’s signature dish: a 24 karat gold covered camel burger!! The concierge at our hotel helped set a prime dinner reservation, and we were very excited. When we arrived, we were immediately overwhelmed with the absolute splendor of the complex.
The cafe was situated in the center of the lobby with a grand piano pumping out uber-classy music. We were seated and ordered the house special burger, along with the Palace Chocolate Cake and a Latte for dessert. EVERYTHING we ate and drank was covered in gold!! To answer the follow up questions – 1. Yes, gold is safe to eat. 2. No, we did not poop gold dust. (Sorry to disappoint!)
Overall, we could not have asked for a more amazing trip to the U.A.E. Although we ran into some prior skepticism from those who learned we would be traveling to the Middle East, we felt COMPLETELY safe and welcome the entire time. We made sure to research the laws and customs of the area beforehand, to ensure we were respectful of the people and their culture. My wife chose to wear conservative clothing, although we found it not to be strictly enforced in Dubai. We would highly recommend this trip to anyone looking for a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. Pictures definitely do not do the trip justice. For additional information on the Emirates, visit Discover Emirates. Please feel free to leave your comments and/or questions below! Thanks for reading!