Abu Dhabi

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Clare and I flew Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi on the remarkable aircraft that is the Airbus A380. You’d be hard pressed to find a more spacious, comfortable and smooth-flying plane. And despite the grumpy airline staff, it was a very pleasant flight; I had no problems passing the 7 hours and 20 minutes by reading “Secrets of the Sommelier” (a book that Clare’s mom gave me for Christmas) and watching La la Land (which, Emma Stone’s dancing aside, was a pretty solid movie).

Our plane landed in Abu Dhabi at 1:20am and we were welcomed by Katherine, Brian and Daniel. We picked up our rental car at the airport, drove home and proceeded to the first main order of business for that day: sleep. Following a good nights rest, we decided to spend the rest of the day relaxing at The Club – where we got a one week membership, had a green smoothie and tuna salad for lunch, laid in the sun and swam in the sea!

The beach of the Club was a bit different to the beaches back home: the ocean views were largely filled with telephone dishes and Skyscrapers on the islands across the way, the visibility underwater was close to zero and the swimming space wasn’t much longer than the the pool in my local gym. But I was happy to just being at the sea and lying in the sun that I didn’t mind at all. In fact, The Club was such a lovely and relaxing oasis for Clare and I that we went there almost every day of our trip!

Sunset was enjoyed with gin cocktails at The Shore and dinner was with the family in the club’s fine dining restaurant called “The Vista”, where I was treated to an absolutely amazing “Pan Fried Goose Liver Flamed in Armagnac” starter and a “Slow Cooked Wagyu Beef Brisket with poached Omani Lobster Medallions” main (the lobster may have tasted like it was frozen beforehand and the wagyu beef was drowning in red wine sauce – but for desert food it was still top class).

The next day we got up at the crack of dawn to go kayaking through the protected Mangrove National Park. Our tour guide was a friendly Filipino from Ilo-Ilo who helped us spot purple crabs roaming the banks, blue crabs swimming underwater and grey herons feeding on the shore. As we kayaked through the mangroves, he told us how 70 percent of the Arab Gulf’s fish species spend the beginning of their lives sheltering in the mangroves and also how the mangroves are endangered due to dredging and the increasing levels of salinity in the local waters. After a couple of hours of paddling our little morning excursion came to an end, so we went to the Club for a much needed (second) breakfast and a bit of R&R by the sea.

Around 2pm, we started feeling a bit peckish so we decided to go to the Mina Fish Market at Zayed Port for lunch, a recommendation from our tour guide earlier as a place to have great fresh fish. And boy were we in for a treat! We roamed through the myriad of fish stalls – trying to find which vendor had the freshest fish at the best prices – and brought our selection of tiger prawns, sea bream and kingfisher to a popular looking griller to be cooked. It was delicious! The marinade on our food was moorish and everything was grilled to perfection. We had a feast and it only cost us about £7.50 each. What a treat!

Going from one extreme to the other, we jumped in the car and drove to the Emirates Palace, a luxury hotel currently ranked as the second most expensive hotel to be built in the word (at £1.9 billion). We were welcomed with the melodic tones of a traditional three-piece band playing classical Arabic music while we soaked in all the opulence around us: oversized floral arrangements, antique styled furniture and old-world class with a mix of gold and neutral hues. It was here where we had the Palace Cappuccino – coffee that was sprinkled with flakes of 24-Carat gold! Putting aside that it costs £12 a cup and that I don’t really care much for cappuccino’s, I’m glad Clare convinced me to partake in the unforgettable experience of drinking 24-Carat gold coffee in such a luxurious setting.

That evening we had dinner in the house. Clare’s dad cooked Lamb and served us a 1996 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. It was 6 years past its best and any sign of primary fruit was long gone. Nonetheless, I did heavily appreciate the gesture of him opening such an old bottle in my company.

The next day we went to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in the morning in time for the 11am Free Tour. Probably with no thanks to drinking wine the previous night and then heading out in the morning without anything to eat or much to drink, Clare felt rather unwell that day. We powered through the 1-hour tour anyway, marvelling at what is probably the most beautiful mosque I’ve ever seen. They say after seeing the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, you don’t need to see the Taj Mahal in New Delhi. Being that I don’t have a burning desire to rush to India for my next holiday, this saying works well for me! Anyway, among the many highlights of the tour was seeing the world’s largest and looking up at the word’s second-largest (but ugliest?) chandelier (made in Germany with thousands of Swarovski crystals from Austria and glasswork from Italy). hand-knotted carpet (designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi and hand crafted by 1,300 artisans)

After the tour finished, Clare had a bowl of granola and a fruit smoothie to revive her spirits. We sat down for a while until some energy developed within her, and then we went to the Central Souk Market, which was more of a high-end shopping mall selling Arabic clothes and merchandise than the traditional bazars that conjure in the mind when one hears the word “Souk”. We also visited the Iranian Market in Port Zayed (which had more similarities to a 99p store than anything else ). Being conveniently around our favourite hangout, we went to The Club (can’t go through a day without a visit to the Club!) for the usual beach & tanning combo.

We listened to live Jazz at The Shore that evening. The girls had free bottomless vodka cocktails and I sipped on a gin tonic while the band played standards from Miles Davis to Chet Baker.

Later that evening, we went with Daniel to a jewellery store in the centre to pick up his engagement ring for Siobhan. I entertained myself by learning about all the nuances when it comes to the 4 C’s of diamonds (Color, Clarity, Carat and Cut). Some of the differences are hardly noticeable to the naked eye but have such an impact on price that it begs to ask: who really cares if it’s a VVS1 instead of a VS2 if the difference can cost you your child’s education?

Following her feeling unwell the day before, Clare had a much needed lie in on Thursday morning and we didn’t leave the house until about noon. Destination? The Club!!! (where else?)

We arrived just time for lunch, so we quickly made our way to the pool where I had a South Indian Fish and Green Mango Salad and Clare had one of her favourite comfort foods: fried rice. I then laid on the beach for the next two hours, determined to turn as brown as the Arabs that travelled the desert, and did a few laps in the sea. We then made our way to the pickup point for our desert safari excursion, where we were collected at 5:15 and driven for an hour to a section of Abu Dhabi that was rich in dunes and home to an Arabic camp.

Clare, Brian, myself and a British girl were transferred to a 4×4 car for our dune bashing ride. It was my first time and I thought it was friggin awesome! Bit like being in a 4×4 rollercoaster ride on the dunes with a Fast and Furios driver (who we quickly deduced was dating the British girl. The definite give away was him playing Lionel Richie when he took her for a solo ride on the dunes).

When we arrived at the camp, Clare and Brian went Camel riding and I went sand boarding. A buffet dinner followed. I smoked a shisha pipe and drank Arabic tea, and we danced the night away!

Friday was the start of a brunch that lasted two days… Following our jaunt to The Club for a morning swim to build up an appetite, we went to Ritz Carlton to partake in their famous Friday brunch. We got there and I quickly sussed out what to drink and eat: the Cabernet Sauvignon was surprisingly good for a buffet wine and the crab was delicious, along with the salmon with truffle tartare, wagyu beef, foie and pork belly.

Unfortunately, sometime in between eating one of my desert plates and sipping on my coffee, my brain quickly shut down and all my body could do was throw up. Memories of the rest of the afternoon are minimal, but they mostly include: throwing up in the restaurant toilet, Clare calling out my name in the toilet after I was in there for apparently half an hour, sitting outside with my head over my shoulders while the McAndrew clan chatted away, walking to a bar where I didn’t actually make it to the table as I felt more comfortable perched on a deck near their bathroom, using their bathroom and then jumping on a cab to go home. And somewhere amidst all that, I managed to lose the spare house keys that were in my left jeans pocket.

I didn’t manage to contribute very much when all that started other than “I’ve been poisoned” – which funnily enough turned out to be true. I probably won’t be having crab again for a while (which I’ve identified as the culprit as one of them tasted highly suspicious when I bit into it… twice)!

The next day we were meant to go to Dubai, but I was still recovering from food poisoning and in no condition to do very much. So we just went to the club to get out and get some fresh air. I just laid in the sun for a while and we went home where Brian kindly prepared something simple for dinner (and for my ailing belly): roast chicken.

On our last full day, we went to Dubai. It took a bit longer than expected as the GPS had maps from a time long gone, so it took us down strange roads that led to strange places. But we got there eventually. We visited the Dubai Mall (the largest mall in the world) that stands right across the Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Mall was a large yes, but still nothing more than a mall. The main reason why we wanted to visit it though was to see the massive aquarium inside that spans two floors and is home to sharks, manta says and all sorts of marine life.  I thought the descriptions of it were a little too exaggerated and wasn’t massively impressed, so Clare and I didn’t waste any more time in the mall other than to feed ourself in the food court and moved on.

Using our reliable GPS, we took a 1 hour drive (instead of what should have 20 minutes) to the historical district of Dubai. We visited the Gold Souk where Clare was in a spell under all the gold bracelets and earrings, and rode a water taxi across to the other side. As a whole, Clare and I thought Dubai was too stressful (traffic was a nightmare) and ugly (I thought it would have pretty skyscrapers like Hong Hong but nearly all of them looked to be built for function more than aesthetics), BUT at least she found 2 camel stuffed toys to bring back home for only 25 dirhams. We drove back to Abu Dhabi and brought dinner from the Mina Fish Market. We celebrated your last meal with NyeTimber Champagne and an Australian Syrah.

We left the house at 6:15am on Monday morning for our flight back home. It was nice arriving back in London early that day… it gave us lots of time to unpack, grab some dinner and sleep the night away.

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