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Sunday, November 9, 2014

My vacation to Abu Dhabi and Oman - Part 1

About a month ago I took a week-long vacation to the city of Abu Dhabi and the country of Oman. In this blog post I will try to focus on the best elements of that trip instead of every moment because I'd be writing all day. It should be noted that I traveled in a group of 5 ex-pat teachers (including myself), and none of us had been to these countries before.

We spent Friday in Bahrain, exploring the area of Adliya. Overall this was a decent area of town, quiet and containing several nice restaurants. We unfortunately couldn't visit the Grand Mosque of Bahrain because of Friday prayer but we got some great photos of it.
Grand Mosque Bahrain

We had an evening flight so I spent the afternoon reading outside of a Starbucks in a mall. I've found that on flight days, I really like to just sit and read, assured that I'm ahead of time and have a plan for getting to the airport.

Check-in at the Bahrain International Airport was smooth and quick. I was surprised to see prize cars parked alongside travel goods! Our flight was also quick and easy, setting us down in Abu Dhabi (which is an hour different) in the middle of the night. We'd decided to rent a car from Abu Dhabi and drive around Oman. I won't call it a road-trip because we definitely did not sleep in the car or in tents beside the car, but in nice hotels.
Prize cars in the Bahrain airport

Speaking of the car, while everything did work out and we had enough drivers, it was quite frustrating to find out that while women are allowed to drive in the U.A.E. and Oman, I'm not allowed to drive a rental car because I am still too young (under 25). I therefore took the post of navigator for the majority of the trip, and my first task was directing us to our Abu Dhabi hotel.

Our hotel was very nice, I'd recommend it: Aloft Hotel Abu Dhabi, though they have many sites worldwide. It was definitely a young, party-happy hotel, which was evident by the swarms of party-goers existing a pool party as we checked in.

On Saturday we went to visit the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque, renowned as being one of the largest mosques in the world. The shimmering white domes were beautiful against the blue sky. Again, we weren't able to go in, but we we enjoyed wandering around the outside taking photos.
Me at the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

One thing I should note, the weather was hot during this whole trip. There wasn't a day I didn't sweat through what I was wearing. Just know that October in the Gulf is like July in the US (east coast). Luckily it was also fairly windy, but still, if you don't like heat, don't come to this part of the world until at least November.

After the Grand Mosque we drove down the corniche and went to Marina Mall. I was quite impressed with the scale of Abu Dhabi, and it was very clean. We wandered around the marina area and got some photos of the skyline.
A building in Abu Dhabi

We spend the evening relaxing by the hotel pool and went out for dinner by the corniche. Afterwards we walked around a fountain on the corniche and took a (almost everyone included) group photo. It always surprises me how empty the corniche is during the day but at night it is swarming with people. The temperature is certainly nicer in the evenings.
Almost all of our group at a fountain on Abu Dhabi's corniche


We left Abu Dhabi in our rental SUV the next morning and drove toward Oman. The roads were pretty clear and it was fairly easy to cross the borders, though it cost more than we'd expected. Arrival visas in hand, we approached the mountains of Oman, vastly different from the flat lands of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi. This was our view as we began our trip around Oman.
Driving into Oman from Abu Dhabi

Our goal was to get to Muscat before dark, so we decided not to stop in Sohar, but instead pulled off at a small town just south of it for food at the grocery store. I have a theory that you really get to know a place if you spend enough time in its grocery stores. In this one I had the fun experience of having a very nice Omani clerk help me find peanut butter. (Success!) We then took our goods and, reasoning that if we drove left we'd hit the ocean, drove through the small town until the road opened up to an empty beach. We ate lunch overlooking the waves before venturing down to explore the shoreline. Here's my video from the beach. Just before we left our beach spot, a car pulled up behind ours and an Omani man stepped out, introduced himself (seemed to welcome us - as we were obviously tourists) and asked if his wife (in the passenger seat) could take a photo of him with some of us. I avoided this interaction but some of my teacher friends got in the photo with him and even had him pose in a photo with them. It seemed very random but he was nice and seemed to only want the photo. Something similar had happened at the fountain in Abu Dhabi but a polite decline was all I'd had to say and they'd moved on. Perhaps it's just the appeal of foreign-ness and photos are the best way to capture that.
An empty beach south of Sohar, Oman

We drove into Muscat while it was still light and arrived at our hotel after a few navigational issues. Muscat is a fascinating city because it is build into the valleys of the mountains on the coast. In this way the buildings sit at the base and mountains carve up the city into different areas.

Cultural observation: Starting with when we crossed the border into Oman, there were a few instances where assumptions were made about our little group. The border guard asked if we were family, as did a police officer at a checkpoint, saying "Family, yes?" This would have been a family of 1 man and 4 grown women. At the Muscat hotel, though the reservation was under one of our female member's names, the man at reception asked for our male member's passport as well as accepting her passport. I won't pretend to explain these interactions but it was something we all noticed and joked about for the rest of the trip.
The view from our hotel apartment in Muscat
Overlooking Ruwi area of Muscat, Oman
In my research I'd found out about a local beach in Yiti, about an hour south of Muscat. Monday morning we drove out to spend the day at this remote beach. As we left the city, we climbed up into the mountains (luckily we had 4WD) and got this great view of our area - Ruwi. Jumping photos followed, of course. On the road to Yiti our driver stopped the car excitedly exclaiming "Burros!" Three donkeys were standing on a bluff over the road.  

   

Yiti was well worth the drive. The water felt great, the sand was soft (and hot), and the rocky cliffs gave it a secret feeling. It was a local beach so we were careful to dress modestly. We spend several hours on the beach - swimming, picnicking, a people-watching. A friend and I swam/walked (it was very shallow) out around the main cliff and found a private beach. Crabs had dug holes in the sand, inadvertently creating mounds of sand beside the holes. Another friend had been out there earlier and said that she'd swam with turtles! We weren't as lucky but the adventure around the cliff was wonderful.

Yiti beach, Oman
On our way back to Muscat we stopped at the Shangri-La resort just to see it. Really, if you have the funds, this is the place to stay. We snapped some photos and headed to the Sultan's Palace next. Oman is a Sultanate and the palace was very impressive. We wandered around the main area for a while, passing other tourists. We didn't go in but it was beautiful area.

Some of our group near the Shangri-La
Sultan's Palace, Muscat, Oman
Sultan's Palace, Muscat, Oman















After the Sultan's Palace we drove along the corniche and decided to climb an old fort tower. The view from the tower was amazing in the late afternoon light.

 
Next we explored the Muscat Souq and I bought a few things. The vendors were willing to make deals, which is always nice.

As my friend and I walked through the souq, vendors asked us to come and see their goods, touch the soft llama-fur scarves, try on the perfumes, and select your trinkets. One vendor even lit the scarf's edge so that we could see that it wasn't synthetic. I felt pretty safe there though being with a friend (another woman) was probably better than walking alone. The souq was crowded since it was early evening.

Me at the Muscat Souq
When we returned to the car, another friend had stopped to ask for a photo with some Omani men because she really liked their traditional outfits. They obliged and conversely took a photo with her. The atmosphere in Muscat was very polite and I definitely didn't feel unsafe.

We left the corniche area and had dinner back at our hotel apartment. Our male group member had bought a traditional Omani outfit and promised to show us at a later date.

More in the next post - Part 2!

Muscat harbor in the early evening
Me jumping, overlooking Ruwi area of Muscat, Oman