A mosque isn’t usually top of my ‘places to visit’ list. But the Sheikh Zayed Mosque was no ordinary place of worship. It was as if the architect smoked too much hashish and conjured up an edifice straight out of his favorite Arabian fairytale.
Despite the minor hassle of having to don a black abaya and hijab to look like a pair of East London immigrants, my mom and I were pleasantly surprised by our visit 8 years ago.
The gorgeous monument, with its 80 white marble domes, is reminiscent of Taj Mahal on steroids. It is no less magnificent inside, where the walls and floors twinkled with precious stones while the ceiling dripped with monumental crystal chandeliers.
Just like its more famous sister Dubai, Abu Dhabi was built to impress.
Christened the capital of UAE because it occupies the majority of land (and therefore oil), the city looked shinier and more irresistible than ever on my second visit, with glass-and-chrome skyscrapers that rose like lustrous flower stalks in the distance. It is a massive departure from the mud huts and palm-frond dwelling that used to characterize the city – and the whole country – before oil changed everything in 1958.
We made the Louvre Abu Dhabi our first stop this time. If there was anywhere I could flaunt my mom bod and unkempt tresses without being told to hide it under an abaya, it was here, at the only overseas outpost of this venerable French institution.
Despite the massive crowds and the lack of artistic bravado (sadly, there weren’t any paintings depicting nipple-tweaking here), I enjoyed this museum more than its original. We found ourselves gaping, among other things, at a colorful sarcophagus created for an Egyptian princess…
…ancient funerary masks from China…
…a stunning 18th-century Samurai armor that once belonged to a Japanese feudal lord…
…da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronniere, Mona Lisa’s less popular (but no less enigmatic) sister.
…and even some Manga.
Looking at all the art even inspired my little one to create one of his own.
But best of all, you exit through a doorway that takes you right into the heart of the building – the pièce de résistance if you may – where slivers of sunshine streamed through a soaring latticed dome, casting intricate shadows on the blocky white buildings, which included a children’s centre. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, it was a breathtaking blend of futuristic and traditional.
This wow-factor continued at the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi’s answer to Dubai’s ultra luxurious Burj. Sitting at the far end of Abu Dhabi’s tree-lined corniche, it was one of the world’s most expensive hotel ever constructed. Domes, marble, floor-to-ceiling gold, loud Asian tourists by the busloads…you name it, this hotel’s got it.
We managed find some respite from the selfie sticks in Mezlai, the hotel’s upscale restaurant focused on Emirati specialties like camel tongue, camel chops and boiled shark. We opted for dishes that were lower on the excitement scale, namely, the Chilean seabass and lamb. The food was sensational – I’d actually left wishing I had tasted the camel tongue.
Our accommodation, the Intercontinental Abu Dhabi, was far less palatial but had everything we need for a fab vacation: a waterfront location with plenty of alfresco restaurants at its doorstep, a private beach, a playground with a bouncy castle, and even a movie theatre with its own popcorn machine – both complimentary, of course.
The kids had a blast – until Ari fell down on the boardwalk and took a splinter to his finger. Any attempt to remove it with a tweezer made him howl in pain even more, resulting in a thousand-dollar trip to a hospital staffed entirely by foreigners and a tetanus shot to the bum.
All was forgotten the very next day, when we headed for Warner Brothers World, a theme park set entirely indoors. It had six immersive zones to explore, from DC’s gloomy, gritty Gotham City to the cheerful, comic expanse of The Flintstones’ Bedrock; a wonderful mix of thrill and family-friendly rides and, not to mention, enough character meet-and-greets to put both Disneyland and Universal to shame.
Seeing Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam and Tom and Jerry brought me back to those good ol’ days when I spent Saturday mornings in front of the telly, watching cartoon characters beat the living shit out of each other.
Since my boys were positively enamored with superheroes, they were reduced to bumbling blockheads when they met Superman and Batman and could only giggle uncomfortably when The Flash asked if they’ve have been naughty.
Mommy, meanwhile, was excited by different things – SHOPPINGGG!!!! (I don’t usually shop in theme parks, but the merch is pretty darn cool here).
There are several shows that require audience participation, including the DC Superheroes Training Academy, where young children don capes to fight alongside Wonder Woman, Robin and Green Lantern to a chorus of awws from onlookers, and also Meet Bugs! (And Daffy!), where Mika made his first onstage debut as Taz by doing what he does best: acting insane.
We dined at The Starlight because it is the theme park’s signature art deco-style restaurant. The food was fantastic for a theme park but portions were a little on the small side.
It is supposed to be a character dining experience and, while the only characters we met in there were Pinoy waiters, I was secretly glad that I didn’t need to deal with having a superhero’s bulging crotch in my face while I was busy with lunch.
We spent our final day at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, a unique establishment aimed at providing comprehensive health care services to the UAE’s favorite animal after the camel.
But first, we made a pit stop at the adjoining Saluki Centre, where the barks of excited dogs greeted us. It’s a breeding and training facility for these regal greyhounds, much beloved in by bedouins for their hunting ability. It also happens to be one of the oldest breeds in the world.
Like it’s so old that mummified bodies of salukis have actually been found buried with the pharaohs.
Several salukis were outside getting their bath when they were accosted by my children. But judging from how calm they remained, looking at us disinterestedly like how an A-list celebrity would at a commoner, it was apparent they were used to the attention.
Back at the hospital, a staff gave us an insight into the importance of falcons in the region – the best birds cost an upwards of $100,00 here and many have their own passports! – before ushering us into the heart of the hospital.
Apart from the patients, who waited patiently with leather hoods over their eyes on astroturf perches for treatment, the interior looked oddly similar to a regular hospital. Doctors and nurses in blue scrubs buzzed about with a sense of purposefulness, and there was also an operating theatre for falcons in critical condition.
There wasn’t an ongoing medical procedure that we could witness, but we did manage to catch a pedicure session.
After sedating the bird with gas, the nurse proceeded to trim the bird’s talons with an electric grinder.
We were allowed to feed the birds some raw meat at the end of our session, and it was there, with one outstretched leather-bound hand supporting a feathery friend, that my heart expanded.
The Arabs may be hurtling headlong into the 21st century with their love for all things big, new and shiny, but here was a centuries-old tradition, splendid and moving in its timelessness.
Intercontinental Abu Dhabi This family-friendly resort may be showing its age, but it still has plenty of great facilities, including a buzzy marina, a private beach a five-minute stroll away and plenty of entertainment for the little ones. Rooms are clean and comfortable. Breakfast is not that great, but you’re unlikely to go hungry with that many restaurants at your doorstep. $$$
- Abu Dhabi’s site are spread out, so you need a car and several days to truly enjoy the city.
- The city isn’t just made up of manmade wonders, contrary to popular belief. There are few attractions for nature buffs as well: endless stretches of clear blue sea to swim in, an impressive wildlife reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island (accessible only if you’re a guest in one of the Anantara hotels on the island), and the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park.
- If you are visiting the Sheikh Zayed Mosque mosque, be sure to dress conservatively. For both men and women, legs and arms need to be covered – so this means no shorts or skirts above the ankle. It gets quite hot during the day even in winter, so be sure to keep those fabrics light and loose. Alternatively, there are abayas for rent. Admission is free and so are the guided tours if you’re interested. Be aware that the opening hours are different during Ramadan.
- It isn’t necessary to prebook your tickets online for the Louvre. Queues for the on-site cafe and restaurant, however, are much longer, so be prepared to stand in line or dine elsewhere. Be sure to check out the children’s centre if you’re traveling with kids. The place is stroller friendly.
- It if free to visit the Emirates Palace, but you need to adhere to a smart casual dresscode if you’re planning to dine in one of its many restaurants.
- You can comfortably do Warner Brothers World in a full day. A combo ticket is good value if you’re planning to visit any of the other theme parks on Yas Island: Ferrari World or Yas Waterworld.
- You can visit the saluki centre for free but will need to take a guided tour for the falcon hospital. These informative tours happens twice a day (10am and 2pm) and last 2 hours. It does not be booked in advance.