Because why not, right?! After some coaxing (haha, just kidding...like I need coaxing to travel), a friend and I decided a little rest and relaxation was in order. She was just back from traveling, and I wanted to unwind a little before our trip to the US...seemed like a reasonable (deliriously ridiculous) excuse to take yet another vacation, amIright?
Jet Airways has a flight for ~Rs. 25,000, which is just shy of three hours duration, that leaves Pune on a Friday around 8pm, and returns on Monday morning at 5. This makes for a perfect, quick adventure, especially for people who have a Monday-through-Friday or who want to go with someone who does. It's fast, it's relatively inexpensive, and it's super convenient...if you live in Pune, I don't know why you're still reading this blog. Go book your ticket then come back to this.
We just came off an Indian summer so it wasn't life-ending for us, but it's worth noting that right now is the hottest time of the year in Abu Dhabi and temps are butting up to the 45ºC (112ºF) mark. As you're looking at all the pictures here, pretend you're standing in front of an open oven and you'll have an accurate representation of how it was there for me. Even the sea water was 33ºC (92ºF). If you don't mind that, CONGRATS! Off-season travel here might be just the thing for you...apparently it is for me, since mostly all of my trips in the past two years have unintentionally followed this trend.
We stayed at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, a Starwood property, which was about 30 minutes from the airport. I would describe it as more of a 'mega resort', mostly just because when I went to use the gym, I found out it was a few minutes walk across the from the hotel, past a few restaurants, a shopping arcade, then down a pathway...all still on the resort grounds. Even still, the staff did a great job of making it feel more intimate than it was, which is really nice since I don't usually like the institutional feel of traditional resorts. There are also 'super luxury' villas which can be rented, a helipad, and a ton of other onsite amenities so...yeah. It's huge. And gorgeous. And it's on a beautiful beach with hotel attendants and white sand. To add to that, the interior scheme is all done in a composed seaside motif with neutrals, blues, and lots of fresh flowers, which got my brain into instant vacation mode. Thumbs up from this beach girl, St. Regis!**
The aim of the weekend was to keep it low key and relax, so we just did a few things. Lots of shopping at Yas and Marina Malls (in my opinion, Yas was WAY better), the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and our resort...I had already done the dune desert tour and falconry thing in Dubai, and it was incredibly hot so we tried to limit our day hours spent outdoors to only the true must-see locations which, for us, were the mosque and the resort pool.
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was pretty and peaceful. It's new, like most things in Abu Dhabi, but maintains an atmosphere of being almost ethereal and timeless. Before going in, I left my ID (my old NJ driver's license) with the staff in exchange for an abaya, which is the required attire for women who aren't dressed to the standards the mosque requires. I was wearing tight pants that day and did not have a headscarf, so on it went.
We walked the perimeter of the exterior, a long gallery of columns with inlaid marble flowers and golden crowns, before heading to check out the interior. Once there, we removed our shoes, and were welcomed by a huge entrance of marble, inlaid with intertwined morning glories. It was gorgeous and it was everywhere: on the floors, the walls, and the throughways. Inside, it was air conditioned, and we walked barefoot on the hand-knotted wool carpets that covered the entire floor. The mosque website says its the biggest hand-knotted carpet in the world. Wow!
There are huge, colorful chandeliers, and some interesting glass windows, which I'm sure we would have learned more about had we taken the tour, but it was too hot to linger and we tried to make our time there brief. If I go back during cooler weather, I'd take the tour because when I got home and read the Wikipedia article (a.k.a. the most reliable source on the internet) I realized I missed discovering a LOT of stuff there.
After braving the heat for 45 minutes, we got a taxi and made our way to Yas Mall so we could get our shopping fix. Compared to a lot of other cities in India, we have a decent variety of international brands at our local mall in Pune, but the shopping in the UAE can't be beat.
One of my favorite things about the malls in the UAE is the smell that comes from the perfume kiosks in the center of the hallways. They are frequently burning incense with some amount of agarwood, or oud, which gives off an invitingly rich, earthy, amber-like fragrance. I regretted buying a bottle of perfume in Dubai, so made sure not to repeat the mistake. I picked up a fragrance from Touch of Oud, though especially fell in love with a Molton Brown unisex fragrance, an indulgent blend of saffron, oud, and frankincense called Shisur...it was just too much of a splurge to justify on an impulse.
Like all of my travel destinations, Abu Dhabi did not disappoint me when I went to the grocery store, a French one called Géant, which was absolutely GIANT. Deli counters, cheese counters, fruit counters, a dry fruits sections, spice counters, produce sections, a berry section, bakery, etc. -- this place had EVERYTHING, and in fact, I think this is the best place to get souvenirs. It's also just something fun to do everywhere I go, and I always discover something new. This time I found laban, an unsweetened liquid yogurt drink with a hint of mint. It was briny but refreshing in contrast to the heat. I also picked up some Lebanese Coffee with cardamom, which has been divine in my espresso machine, iced, with cream and sugar.
The next and final day we repeated the shopping + pool itinerary and enjoyed our final hours traipsing around the resort. We took fequent dips in the pool, stopped at a restaurant called Turquoise for a pre-dinner drink, then enjoyed our last meal at Santoya where I ate the best salmon dish I've ever had. The salmon fillet was in this velvety tamarind sauce and had a large crispy salmon skin resting on top with some greens underneath. The texture/flavor complementation was out of this world.
Our flight left Abu Dhabi a few minutes behind schedule, but as it was a midnight-ish departure, I could barely process what was going on; my mind was already switched off. I slept, for the first time in my life, through the entire flight and even had a whole row to myself (!!!!!!!!!) to stretch out. We arrived in Pune around 4:30am, cleared immigration in minutes, and headed home for a few hours sleep before jumping back into the daily grind.
I'm sure it's obvious but I highly recommend Abu Dhabi for a weekend and, for families, I think it would even be a great place to spend a week, given all the activity-centered things to do. It seems there is a hotel for every budget, and once you get tired of lounging at the pool there are a ton of other options nearby: Formula One racing, super giant movie theaters, water parks, desert dune tours, malls...plenty to keep parents and kids occupied. Also, it seems that providing excellent customer service is a top priority among hotel staff and anyone, really, in a customer-facing role. We never had to look far or hard for an answer to a question or a helpful face, which I would imagine is a big plus when traveling with kids.
Thanks for a great time, Abu Dhabi!
** I was not endorsed by any company to stay anywhere or visit anything or to provide this feedback. The opinions expressed are merely my own impressions and observations as a traveler. I think a good experience deserves sharing, and I sure did have one here :-)