We were in Abu Dhabi a few years ago and had a fabulous tour of the city. We decided to take another city tour because a) we had enjoyed our visit to the spectacular Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and b) the tour would allow us to see the insides of the Emirates Palace Hotel, unlike the first tour. When we initially signed up for the tour, there was a 16 person limit. When I checked on the day of the tour, that number had grown to 37! Not exactly the experience we had hoped to have.
Nonetheless, we decided to proceed. Since Abu Dhabi was our first stop in the UAE, all passengers on board the ship would have to go through immigration before starting the tour. And, the ship’s arrival had been moved forward an hour – a perfect storm of inconvenience! All of the ship’s excursions and those on private excursions would be trying to get through immigration at the same time. Fortunately, the Emiratis running the immigration process were quite efficient. The only fly in the ointment was that NCL only had two guest services reps to collect the passports before we could leave the port. No big deal, except that they had to give receipts for the passports as they were collected, so it took awhile.
Finally, we were able to board the bus for the tour. Just outside the port gate was a traffic circle with a sculpture in the middle. It represents 4 flasks of rose water. Rose water is offered to guests on arrival at a home as a way of saying “welcome”. It is also offered after eating, and as a guest is leaving.
We stopped at the Date Market, which is located right outside the port gate. Date trees are everywhere here – over 44 million have been planted. People are fined for picking dates because so many were getting bee stings. Not only are they fined, but the police will make them sit out in the hot sun for the remainder of the day. At sundown, they are given something to eat and drink and are sent home. The only exception to this rule is during Ramadan – all are allowed to pick dates after sundown.
We were given 20-minutes to sample and/or purchase dates from the many vendors in the shops (there are 20 shops selling 120 varieties of dates). Our tour guide gave us her sage advice: “Never say no to a date!”. Every shop had one or two men to “encourage” you to visit their shop. Though there were plenty of people (all of the tour buses seemed to be stopping there), there were also plenty of shops! We taste-tested a few varieties of dates and ended up purchasing the chocolate-covered ones (duh). As if we needed additional food on a cruise ship!!! In addition to the date market, there are fruit/vegetable, meat, and fish markets in the same complex. Locals do much of their shopping there on the weekend – Fridays and Saturdays.
Next on the agenda was a visit to the Grand Mosque. On the drive, we learned about the meaning of Abu (father) Dhabi (gazelles). It is thought that the name was derived from Sheik Zayed’s brother’s habit of chasing gazelles, which are common in this part of the world. It is known as the political and armed forces capital of the UAE (Dubai is the fashion capital). There are 7 Emirates in the UAE that joined forces in 1971; each a separate sheikhdom. It is very safe here; there are cameras everywhere, including drones that watch from up above. It you are caught on a minor violation (traffic stop, jay walking, etc.), you receive a fine on your smartphone within 5-10 minutes. If you are caught committing a major crime, you are deported within 24 hours. Only 20% of the population are Emirati. They are not immune from deportation, but unlike others, are allowed to eventually return. Only Emiratis can own property here, and the only path to citizenship is to marry a Sheikh. All others lease their homes. All must join the army (male and female). There are 210 nationalities represented in the country and multiple religions. Religion is so important that if your boss refuses you time for prayer, the boss can be immediately fired!
Of the 1225 mosques in the UAE, the Grand Mosque is still not the biggest – it is only the 3rd largest. The mosque is enormous – I can’t visualize how big the larger ones are! We were told that in Saudi Arabia, there is a mosque that can handle 10,000,000 visitors and unlike the Sheik Zayed Mosque, you must be Muslim to enter.
There are 4 minarets and 82 domes, each of which is tipped with 24 karat gold. In 2019, a new entrance was created for visitors. We would be entering through there.
The tour guide provided abayas for the ladies. I brought one I had purchased on our last visit to the UAE. There are also rental abayas available for those touring on their own that did not plan ahead and dress appropriately.
In order to reach the mosque, we went down an escalator into a mall. Looking up, you can see how beautiful the entrance is!
Next, we walked through a shopping mall, and down a series of corridors. It was quite a long walk for some in our group. We met up with the tour guide at the end, where there is an identical escalator that takes you back to ground level. I was quite surprised to find that she would not be escorting us through the mosque; we would not be given a guided tour. I learned so much about the mosque from the guide on my first trip here; it is too bad that others in current group would not be able to hear all of the fascinating information about its construction.
The mosque has separate lines for visitors and worshipers. There is a “tourist tour” that takes you around the entire building, including marked photo stops. This was quite different from last time.
Also, we were able to enter the mosque (after removing our shoes) last time; this time, not. We were able to stand at the entrances to the various rooms and take photographs. Yes, I took plenty of pictures!
Several on our tour were over 30 minutes late returning to the bus, which is one of the reasons I don’t like being on big bus tours. The more there are on the tour, the more likely it is that you will miss part of your itinerary because people will run late or get lost. And yes, this is exactly what happened on this tour!
We drove from the mosque to Yas Island, which is known for its Formula One auto racing track as well as its amusement parks. We passed by a really cool coin-shaped building. Yas Island is a man-made island. Everything on it has been brought in, including the birds. One of the main attractions here (other than the race track) is Ferrari World, famous for its red roof with the Ferrari logo on top. It was impossible to get a photo of it since I was on the wrong side of the bus. We would be given an hour at the Yas Mall, the largest mall in the UAE. Yes, it is even larger than the Dubai Mall! Yas Mall has over 1500 stores. We reached there at about 4 pm; it was to be our lunch stop. So glad we planned ahead and had a snack before leaving the ship. 4 pm is closer to dinner time than lunch time!
After we ate, we had a little bit of time to walk across the sky bridge to Ferrari World. We just saw the entrance area because a ticket cost 310 AED; nearly $85 US! There are a couple of amazing roller coasters here, including Formula Rosa which reaches nearly 5G’s of speed and is considered to be the fastest in the world. Our guide told us that people oftentimes pass out when the roller coaster drops. There is also mountain climbing and sky diving inside the silver domed area.
Across the street from Ferrari World and the Yas Mall are a Warner Brother’s theme park and Waterworld, a theme park where you can do unlimited pearl diving and keep the pearls you find.
We had a fairly long drive to the District area, where the newly opened Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum is located. Due to people getting back late at the mosque and at the mall, we would be missing much of the tour, including Emirates Palace. My husband and I were not too interested in the Louvre (been to the “real” one a few times), so were extra sad at missing the other promised stops.
We passed by the Grand Mosque; due to the time of day, there was a traffic jam of people heading there for evening prayer. We drove along the Corniche, past the Emirates Palace, past the Etihad Towers (where Fast & Furious was filmed), and past many people out for an evening stroll along the lovely beach. There are electric scooters for rent; the first 15 minutes are free. Also, there are separate beaches for men and women (as well as coed beaches). If you want to go to a segregated beach, it will cost you 10 AED. Women from Saudi Arabia like to come to the beach wearing their burkinis!
As we drove, we learned a bit more about life here in Abu Dhabi:
- There are over 1.33 million people that live here. Only 20% are Emirati; 46% are Indian, 20% are Asian, and the rest are from a variety of countries
- Emiratis are given 70,000 UAD (both bride and groom) when they married. This money is to help the woman if her husband leaves her or dies.
- There is a very low birth rate here because most marry in their 30’s or 40’s
- There is no dating here; it is illegal.
- Arranged marriages are the norm. It is better to have a daughter, because you can demand a high dowry for her. Sons families are expected to provide everything for the wedding (and after).
- Traditionally, when a man found a woman he was attracted to, he would tell his mom. His mom would tell his dad, and his dad would talk to the dad of the girl to arrange the marriage. If the answer was yes, the marriage would take place. If no, no marriage. The daughter had no say; it was completely up to her father. Traditions have changed some over time, but not completely.
- When a woman gets married, her palm is hennaed. Dark henna is used; the darker the better. Why, you may ask? Because as long as the henna is visible, the woman does not have to do any type of work (including house work). She is supposed to be bonding with her husband, not working. Typically, this takes 15-20 days, but there are a ways of making the henna last longer!
- It can get pretty hot here – as high as 54 degrees Celsius with 80% humidity. People stay inside when it is that hot.
- When it rains the storm drains get blocked because of the sand that blows in from the surrounding desert so the roads flood.
- If one of your neighbors complains that you are not keeping up your house, the government can fine you 50,000 – 60,000 UAD (around $14,000 – $16,000)!
- Traditionally, women wear black abayas because black keeps away the evil eye. I can assure you that it does nothing to keep out the heat!
- Men wear white from head to toe because it is cooler. They wear a checked headdress. The color tells which country they are from.
- The black ring used to hold the headdress in place used to be used on camels and horses. Apparently, the animals don’t sit down on their own, and so would continue trudging through the desert until they died. The rings were used in some manner to get the animals to lie down.
- Men also wear a decorative white tie that was made by their wife or mother and soaked in perfume so that when they were away from home for long periods of time, traversing the desert, that they would be reminded of home.
- Don’t jaywalk here – there is a 100 – 200 UAD fine that will be delivered to your smartphone immediately.
- You won’t see semi trucks driving around during the day; they are only allowed on the roads at night.
By now, we had reached the Louvre. Someone had to pay big bucks in order to use that name! It is one of 7 museums in the District Area of Abu Dhabi. The design of the Louvre is such that during the day, light from outside lights in the inside. At night, light from inside lights the outside. It is quite beautiful. Due to running behind schedule, people would have only about an hour to tour (it costs about $18 for admission). Our guide said that you would need a day to properly tour it. We decided against it, as did 4 others in the group, so we took a cab back to the port.