When I left Vancouver in 2008 for my first expat stint in Abu Dhabi, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Ten minutes before the telephone interview that got me my job, I was googling whether Abu Dhabi was a city or a state or a country. A couple months later I got on the plane thinking Abu Dhabi would be just like Istanbul, the only other Muslim capital I had been to – you know, like Europe, but with some mosques.
I learned so much in my three years there: about me, the Middle East, and expat life. A place that was very foreign to me to start, slowly, and sometimes painfully, became home.
I recently went back to Abu Dhabi to visit friends and to see what some of the developments I planned on paper look like in 3D. I easily killed a couple weeks, replaying the greatest hits and mixing in some new stuff.
Want to rock the capital for a day like a seasoned expat would? Here’s your itinerary, based on a few very pleasant days I just had.
8:00am Run On The Corniche
Lots of people hear Abu Dhabi and think sand, and there is lots of that, but there’s a lot of teal blue ocean as well. The most developed part of the capital is set on an island, parts of which are edged by a public seawall called the Corniche. If you’re staying anywhere near the waterfront, a run is a great way to start the day. It’s clear, sunny, 20 degrees, and on the Corniche there’s no chance of getting run over (unlike every other asphalt surface in town).
10:00am Breakfast At Jones
Join the stroller moms and stay at home wives for breakfast at Aussie import Jones The Grocer. They make a proper Americano and gourmet breakfasts in a café/gourmet grocer setting. Open your laptop and eavesdrop on all the scandal being discussed before doing a bit of work.
12:30pm Go To The Beach
In the land of endless summer, afternoons should be spent at the beach or the pool or both.
Many of the luxury hotels in town allow non guests to pay for day use of the pool and health facilities, and some of these hotels also have beachfront. I always hit The Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. Grab a lounge chair by the 50 metre pool surrounded by palm trees, or wander a bit further to find an umbrella in the sand on their private beach. There’s a poolside restaurant that knows its way around an umbrella drink and the hotel itself is gorgeous, even if you only walk through.
Abu Dhabi has public beaches as well and the best of the bunch is the new public beach on Saadiyat Island. The soft white sand with patches of sea grass and rolling waves is the most natural beach in the city; parts are pristine enough to be turtle nesting grounds. Be warned – in Abu Dhabi, public doesn’t mean free – it’s AED25 (CAD$7.50) to get in and another AED25 for a lounger and an umbrella. But in a country with no income tax or property tax or sales tax or any other kind of tax, user fees seem pretty justified.
6:00pm Sundowners With Your Working Friends
Your expat friends of employable age who are not stay at home moms will be working while you while away the afternoon at the beach. No one moves to the UAE to be unemployed.
So clean yourself up and meet them at a pretty hotel with a view for post-work drinks. They will loosen their ties and talk about the crazy that is commonplace in a multicultural work environment that has more money than sense.
You could try the rooftop of the Yas Hotel, although it’s a bit far out of town, on an island the Emirate built to host the F1.
Or there’s Anantara’s new Eastern Mangroves, with a view out to the salt-water forest and the private islands owned by all the people who run things there. One evening we watched the sun set as a swarm of helicopters ferried guests to a party on one of the islands. It was very 007.
If you really want to blend in, hit the Belgian Beer Café at the Intercontinental Hotel. You’ll get Belgian beers served by Philippina wait staff who can’t pronounce them, to off-duty Brit engineers who drink to the point of not being able to talk.
9:00pm Eat Something To Kill The Weekday Buzz
Your working friends will have to head back to the office tomorrow so they need to eat. Head to someone’s house and order Lebanese takeout, the expat lifeline. My favourite in town is Al Safadi, in the base of the building I used to live in. You order four things, they show up with ten.
You and your people make plates and migrate to the balcony, eating in the green glow from the mosque, listening to the call to prayer. Food is cleared away, someone makes a round of Old Fashioneds – because by then, bourbon on a school night seems like a good idea – and people who never smoke at home light up. Conversation devolves into how much longer each person will stay (everyone says not long and has been saying that for years), and why we fail at relationships. I’m putting my money on the smoking and the drinking and the overworking and the wanderlust.
People filter out and grab cabs to take them home to bed so they can get up tomorrow and do it all over again. You and your host go back to the balcony, put on The National, and feel like Matt Berninger is singing only to you when he says:
Turn the light out say goodnight, no thinking for a little while
Let’s not try to figure out everything at once
It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky
We’re half awake in a fake empire
We’re half awake in a fake empire.
Photo credits: Brian Yap (Jones), Lee Kirk (Fairmont beach), Brandon Shigeta (Yas Hotel)