We’re already waiting on deck 0 when the Costa Serena anchors at 9 AM at Abu Dhabi harbor. After two stops in Oman it’s the next stop on our six day Persian Gulf cruise. We want to get a head start on our one day visit to the biggest of the seven emirates that together form the United Arab Emirates. It’s less touristic than neighboring Dubai, but has a star attraction: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
We’ve seen there is another big cruise ship in port, so we want to get to the mosque before the tour groups start arriving from 10 AM onwards. As soon as we get off the ship we hop into one of the taxi’s waiting in line in front of the cruise terminal and have the driver take us to the mosque. No haggling about prices here, the taxi rides on the meter and fares are very reasonable.
Wearing an abaya
First stop as we arrive at the mosque: The cloakroom to pick up an abaya, the loose over-garment worn by many Muslim women. I’ve got my own scarf and long skirt to be suitably covered up for entering the mosque, but Roel wants me to put on the black robe because he thinks it will make for pretty pictures of me against the white marble that the mosque is entirely built of.
On presenting my ID I can lend an abaya for free. Two hours later I’m glad I can take it off again. With temperatures slowly rising to 25-30 degrees Celsius it’s just too hot to wear an extra layer of clothing, especially as it is made of a synthetic material. But the mosque is absolutely amazing, I’ve probably never seen a mosque more beautiful before.
Beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
White marble inlaid with mother of pearl, big Persian carpets and huge crystal chandeliers make for an opulent but elegant structure. In fact the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, constructed between 1996 and 2007, sports the biggest Persian carpet (measuring 5,627 m2 and weighing 35 tons) and one of the seven chandeliers is the third largest chandelier (with millions of Swarovski crystals) in the world. It has room for 40.000 worshippers, so it’s huge.
We’re glad we’ve come to the mosque as early as possible. Early morning has a softer light which makes the white marble less bright than in the hard midday sunlight. But most of all we get to enjoy the inside of the mosque in relative peace. As we exit the main prayer hall the tour groups have arrived and it gets crowded inside. Luckily the outside has much to admire too. Before and after the oil dollars
It’s almost 11.30 AM when we get into a taxi to take us to the Heritage Village, a reconstructed village that’s supposed to give you an insight into how people lived here before oil was found in 1958 and the emirates got rich beyond imagination. We’re disappointed. It’s unimaginative with some souvenir shops disguised as handicraft demonstrations. A waste of our precious time, even though it’s free.
After eating lunch at the nearby Marina Mall – and finding it hard to find something that resembles authentic food among all the fast food stalls – we decide to check out what the rulers of Abu Dhabi have done with their oil dollars. The Abu Dhabi skyline – sometimes called the Manhattan of the Gulf – is not as impressive as that of Dubai, but still it shows that they love to let their money roll.
Emirates Palace Hotel
This is most obvious at the Emirates Palace Hotel, that cost over three trillion (!) dollars to build. Marble, gold and crystal (there are 1.002 Swarovski chandeliers) are the key words here. There’s even an ATM that dispenses gold. Staying here is only for the super-rich, but as a mere mortal it’s also possible to take a peek inside and maybe drink a Palace Cappuccino sprinkled with gold flakes.
When we get to the entrance gate of the hotel after the 20 minute walk from the Marina we’re told however that we can get in ‘Only by invitation’. Maybe it’s our shorts and open sandals. A sign near the entrance indicates that these are forbidden. Many other people are being turned away as well. From other people we later learn that they’d arrived by taxi and didn’t have any problem getting in. Maybe that’s the trick. Double standard
But luck is on our side. As we walk away we meet up again with a British couple we’d spoken to just 15 minutes earlier on our way to the Emirates Palace Hotel. It appears they’re staying at the hotel and offer to whisk us past the entrance gate onto the hotel grounds, us being their ‘guests’. Our ‘hosts’, like us, are wearing shorts and sandals.
Apparently it’s ok to walk around the hotel in shorts and sandals when you’re a paying guest, but not when you’re visiting. Talk about a double standard. It’s reflected in the hotel itself that seems mostly built to impress, what it certainly does. But it has a very formal and distant feel about it at the same time, not like a welcoming place to stay, a home away from home. Walking away we agree that we’d never stay at a place like this, even if we had ten million euro. We’d rather stay at a nice local guesthouse.
Walking the Corniche
It’s already midafternoon when we start walking the entire length of the Corniche, the long boulevard along the beach. We want to rent bicycles at first, but 7,50 euro per hour for a badly maintained bike puts us off. The Corniche seems the only place in Abu Dhabi where people come to walk. Especially at the end of the day when people (mostly tourists, expats and migrant workers) also come to jog, cycle, sit or chat.
During the daytime we’d only seen a few tourists walking in the streets, which were almost devoid of human life. People move around in cars here. It gives Abu Dhabi a bit of an eerie feeling. The beaches look quite inviting, but we haven’t brought our swim wear. As we see the cruise ship’s chimney with the Costa logo in the distance we decide to walk all the way back to the ship.
A mistake. Three hours after we started walking the Corniche, the sun has already set, we finally arrive at the entrance to the harbor. Here we are stopped; pedestrians are not allowed to walk on the harbor terrain. After waiting for half an hour and seeing countless taxi’s and busses pass us by, the hop-on/hop-off bus offers to take us to the cruise terminal.
Have we seen it all?
No. Abu Dhabi has a lot of amazing architecture like at Ferrari World, the Yas Marina Formula 1 race circuit, the Yas Viceroy Hotel and Masdar City which were in another direction we took. Maybe next time (when more new buildings have undoubtedly been added).
We visited Abu Dhabi in March 2015