Last fall, I received an invitation to join a small group of fellow travel advisors from across Canada on what’s called a FAM trip (short for familiarization) with Kensington Tours, a tour operator I’d used to build some custom, private guided safaris for clients. Getting first hand experience exploring a destination is better than any webinar or article you can read and helps us better serve our clients.
The trip was in November, which happens to be my birthday month and while I hadn’t planned on travelling again in 2019 and the destinations had not even been on my radar, my curiosity and love of discovering new places convinced me not to miss this opportunity. Getting to spend my birthday somewhere warm didn’t hurt.
So I booked my flights and found travel guides at the library and also searched for some good fiction from the area. To my delight, I found a book called Celestial Bodies by Johka Alharthi, winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. She is the first Arab woman to ever win! The book covers several generations living in rural Oman and gave me some insight into a country that I frankly knew very little about. Needless to say, my excitement grew!
I arrived a day early and decided to treat myself and stay at the Westin Dubai Mina Sehayi Beach Resort and Marina. The hotel is located near the base of the ‘palm’ and gave me my first taste of the wonder that is Dubai. Surrounded by tall buildings behind it and cranes across the water where more hotels are going up, the Westin is a lovely little oasis. Excellent food and service. I woke up early and strolled the beach as the sun rose. I could even see the famous Burj Al Arab Jumeirah with its distinctive sail silhouette.
I then joined my group at the Taj Dubai, a stunning boutique hotel in the heart of the business district. I now had a view of the Burj Khalifa – the world’s tallest building. I was on the 18th floor yet I had to look up at all the much taller buildings surrounding us. I could see why they’ve joked the the national bird of Dubai should be the crane. There was construction everywhere! That said, Dubai is very clean and safe. It feels like a futuristic world where everything is so new and modern.
But there is more to Dubai than just the city! Our first excursion took us out into the desert into a conservation area where we got to ride in vintage Landrovers and see oryx and sand gazelles.
As the sun began to get low on the horizon, we gathered with other groups to watch a falcon training display. Our falcon didn’t feel like showing off so she ended up perching herself on a dune and then taking off rather than chase a ball of feathers on the end of a rope to entertain tourists. Falcons are treasured in the United Arab Emirates and are the actual national bird even though they aren’t endemic. Falcons would be intercepted on their migrations and trained by Bedouins to help them hunt for food in the desert. They were very important for the survival of the founding people in the area. Today, they still get very special treatment, cost a small fortune and in some cases get their own seats on planes (hunting with falcons is banned in the UAE so owners fly to other parts of the world to compete and hunt). Because of this, falcons, like the star of the show we saw, are equipped with a GPS tracking system. Turns out she flew back to the camp where she lives so all was well.
With the sun now set, we drove to a replica of a Bedouin camp where we got to feast on traditional food. You could also ride a camel, get henna and sit on cushions smoking a shisha or hookah pipe. To cap off the night, performers sang, danced and played the drums for us. It was magical! Here’s a video of our excursion made by the local company that organized this amazing experience.
The next day, we went to Abu Dhabi, the richest of the 7 Emirates and also the capital of the UAE. As soon as you cross the border from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, the speed limit goes up to a whopping 160km/h (the highest in the world if you don’t count the unlimited Autobahn)! Of course, it’s a straight, flat highway that doesn’t have to deal with freezing and thawing like we do in Canada so it’s pretty smooth sailing but still!
We drove past the Mall of the Emirates (where you can ski indoors) and the almost completed new airport in the shape of a falcon – the Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal. Being the richest of the 7 Emirates, Abu Dhabi helps support some of the smaller ones and even helped pay for the completion of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai when the downturn hit and stalled construction. The city has more trees and parks though it’s still in a desert so there’s an elaborate irrigation system. It is also home to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, an absolute must-see. For women, this is where you will need to make sure you are covering your hair and your ankles and your wrists. Our guide brought us all abayas to wear like you would see in many Arab countries. You can also rent them before entering the mosque. If you have a long skirt and longsleeve shirt and a scarf, you may be ok but don’t wear white. The rest of the time, simply try to dress modestly but I even wore a sleeveless top with no issue. Shorts or short skirts should be avoided unless you are staying at a beach resort.
The other highlights in Abu Dhabi were the Qsar Al Watan Palace and the brand new Louvre museum. Both gorgeous feats of architecture. The art and collections inside the Louvre are also amazing. I just wish we had a bit more time to really see it all… Soon a Guggenheim will be opening there and it looks spectacular too. It’s like an architect’s playground in the UAE.
While the 2 Emirates are less than 2 hours apart, I’d recommend at least an overnight in each to really enjoy both cities and all they have to offer.
Last day in Dubai
Back in Dubai we dined at the Address Fountain Views hotel that had opened just a couple of weeks before our visit. After a tour, we sat outside, overlooking the Burj Khalifa that has lights dancing across it every night and will even honour any country celebration their national day by projecting the flag along the tower. The night we were there was Oman’s National Day as well as Latvia. So if you show up on Canada Day, you can expect to see our flag on the tower during the lunch light show!
The next day we finally got to go visit the tower itself! We had tickets to the 124th viewing platform but Kensington Tours surprised us with upgraded tickets to the 148th viewing platform. The visibility was quite good though still hazy considering there is often fine dust in the air from the desert. To give you a sense of the height, to tower itself reaches 828m while the outdoor observation deck that we got stand on is at 555m. That’s a whole 2m taller than the very top of the needle of the CN Tower (553m). A little bit mind boggling to say the least! If you want to go even higher, there is the world’s highest lounge at the 156th floor where you can eat and have a cocktail!
After our trip up the tower, we drove to Dubai Creek and crossed it in a traditional boat called an ‘abra’ to explore what’s known as “Old Dubai”. One might think that in this part of the world, old means OLD but because oil was only discovered in 1960s, the desert meant there were only small sheikdoms and bedouins that were nomadic so not a lot of monuments. The oldest is a fort from the late 18th century. Old Dubai does have a more cultural and historical feel than anywhere else, however, and we had a wonderful traditional meal at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Our host was a young woman in her 20s who let us pepper her with questions to get a better understanding of their culture.
The next day, we left the maze of scyscrappers and man made ‘palms’ and ‘worlds’ and flew to Muscat on Oman Air. At the brand new airport, we got VIP service. Something that Kensington offers as an add-on or included in packages depending where in the world. This service means you are greeted right when you get off the plane, get on a cart and taken to a VIP lounge with restrooms, beverages and snacks before going to a special line to clear customs. What a dream!!!
Our hotel was the Kempinski Hotel Muscat, a resort hotel right on the beach. This hotel is large and very family friendly. There’s a kids club and even a bowling alley! There is a large main pool as well as a smaller one for kids. It’s within walking distance to a lovely marina.
One noticeable difference in Oman is the lack of tall buildings. In fact, no building is allowed to be over 14 stories high and they have a very distinct style of architecture. Even the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is more understated than the one in Abu Dhabi but still breathtakingly beautiful and boasts one of the largest chandeliers and handwoven carpets in the world. I also noticed the Sultan’s palace inspired the lobby of our hotel.
The other big difference is the landscape. Oman is very mountainous and they come right up to the coast in Muscat so it’s very picturesque. The combination of the two make for an understated beauty. Modern but without being in your face about its wealth. While driving along the coast we stopped in the famous Muttrah Souk as well as a wonderful museum full of old artifacts. It was the day after their National Day that is also the Sultan’s birthday. Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, has ruled since he was 29 years old and ousted his father in 1970 making this the 49th National Day. Sadly, he died on January 10, 2020. While he was married briefly in the 1970s, he never had children so his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq Al Said has become the new Sultan. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain the great progess and diplomacy that his cousin brought to Oman and the volatile region.
Nizwa Fort & Jebel Akdhar
The following day we drove up into the mountains, stopping at Nizwa Fort before arriving at our hotel for one night only, the exquisite Anantara Al Jebel Al Akdhar. Jebel means mountain and akdhar means green. When we got there is was grey and threatening rain but the views where spectacular nonetheless. Perched overlooking a gorge, where Princess Diana once stood, this luxury hotel is one of the top in the region. Along the edge, you could see lush terraced farms and villages. It was quite cold so I was glad to have my down jacket and a raincoat. It rained all night but in the morning, the skies were clear. I was once again up before sunrise and captured some of my favourite pictures from this trip. Such a peaceful place. At breakfast we learned that the next part of our trip – a drive through the desert to a wadi – had to be cancelled due to the heavy rains that had now moved into that areas. Instead, we got to stay a little longer and decided to go for a hike which allowed us to explore the villages we could see along the edge. It ended up being one of the highlights for me though at the same time, I would love to return see what I missed, along with other spots that are quite popular, including an area where green turtles nest and you can see the young make their way back to the ocean.
The drive back to Muscat was just as breathtaking winding back down the mountains and along dried river beds. We had one last meal together at a wonderful restaurant in the marina near our hotel and then it was time to say goodbye to a group of strangers who had now become friends. Along with my photos, new friendships are what I cherish most from every trip.
Is Oman a place you’d like to visit, or Dubai or Abu Dhabi? Should I put together a group tour or are you ready to explore on your own, perhaps with your own private guide? Contact me here or visit my other tours here.
Finally, have a look at the video made by the talented Adam Monastero who joined our group to create content for each of us to share. Not only is it a great way for me to relive the experience but hopefully for you to get a taste of this intriguing part of the world.