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Part 5: Liwa oasis, Abu Dhabi

20-21.12: Munich -> Dubai
22.12: Dubai
23.12: Dubai
24.12: Dubai -> Sharjah -> Khasab
25.12: Musandam fjords -> Khasab
26.12: Khasab -> Ras Al Khaimah
27.12: Ras Al Khaimah -> Dibba -> Fujairah
28.12: Fujairah -> Al Ain
29.12: Al Ain
30.12: Al Ain
31.12: Al Ain -> Liwa oasis
1.1: Liwa oasis -> Abu Dhabi
2.1: Abu Dhabi
3.1: Abu Dhabi
4.1: Abu Dhabi
5.1: Abu Dhabi -> Istanbul -> Munich

31.12: Al Ain -> Liwa oasis
Liwa resthouse: 464 AED for an old, rather unimpressive room, definitively not worth 464 AED. Medium sized double room with toilet (bathtub with shower, water boiler system), TV, phone, A/C, some basic furniture. No breakfast, no WLAN in the room. Quite old building. The place is ok for a night or two, but not much more than that.
Weather: warmest day so far, with temperatures up to 26C. Sunny, blue sky with a few clouds.

We start driving towards Liwa at 11:20am. At 12:20pm we stop for one hour at an Adnoc motorway service area for some lunch in a KFC restaurant. Many motorway
service areas in the UAE have such integrated fast food restaurants.

Then the drive continues along the motorway. Things proceed rather smoothly on this last day of the year, with very little traffic, except on the road section which proceeds parallel to the coast. There the motorway has only two lanes (otherwise the motorway has three lanes) and one lane is frequently occupied by trucks. Lots of trucks by the way.

The scenery is quite unimpressive. Mostly flat and desertic, some small sand dunes every now and then.

We reach the Liwa oasis at 3:30pm and head straight to the Liwa resthouse to secure the room (we have only a phone booking). Later we realise that the Liwa resthouse is half-empty.

After that we drive to Tal Mireb (Moreeb hill), a very tall dune about 20km north of the Liwa oasis. The road is paved and seems to be quite new. The only problem are the countless narrow curves. Speed limit of 40km/h which nobody follows. Most people drive at at least twice this speed and overtake everywhere.

Lots of cars this afternoon on the way to Tal Mireb. Most are 4WD cars.

The scenery is quite interesting and photogenic. The road passes through an endless sea of sand dunes. Quite cool environment.

At 4:25pm we are at Tal Mireb. Huge sand dune. On the top are a number of vehicles (mostly quads, some motorbikes, no SUVs). Some roll down the dune, some drive up.

Near the sand dune there is a huge plane area where there is sort of a base camp with tents, many SUVs. There is also some kind of sand race track for SUVs. Quite a lot of infrastructure, mostly for SUV and offroad fans.

It seems that the people who come here bring their own vehicle. I can't see any rental facilities.

We spend over an hour in this place. I climb up a sand dune with Alissia and Natasha. The kids enjoy a lot playing with the sand.

At 5:50pm we finally start driving back to Mezaira, the village in the Liwa oasis where the hotel is located.

It's difficult finding a restaurant. The one in the Liwa hotel has a buffet starting at 7:30pm (still an hour to wait) for 175 AED/person. Since we don't want to wait so long, we look for another restaurant in Mezaira. We find nothing suitable and end up eating again in the fast food of a petrol station.

We are back in the hotel around 8pm.

1.1: Liwa oasis -> Abu Dhabi
Mourouj Hotel & Apartments, Abu Dhabi. 532 AED for an apartment with a livingroom, bedroom, office room, kitchen (stove, fridge+freezer, microwave, ironing board+iron, kitchen stuff, clothes washing machine + dryer), two toilets with shower (one with bathtub/shower), A/C, electronic safe, two TVs, lots of furniture, free WLAN (very fast: 49 Mbp/s downlink, 12 Mb/s uplink). Centrally located in Abu Dhabi. 15 AED/day for car parking. Our rooms are on a busy street and the street noise is clearly hearable in the rooms
Weather: again a hot day, sunny blue sky the whole day, little wind, temperatures around 25C in the afternoon in Liwa.

In the morning I ask the staff of the Liwa resthouse if some other streets which go south into the desert are accessible for tourists. There is one for instance which starts after Sabkhah and ends up in a place surrounded by high sand dunes, based on what I can see on Google Maps. The staff tells me that the road is accessible for tourists.

The idea for today is to explore a bit more of the Liwa oasis, then drive to Abu Dhabi in the afternoon or evening.

We leave the hotel at 11:30am and start driving east on the road towards Hamim. First however we stop at the Adnoc petrol station to buy some food for lunch, because it's unlikely that we'll find a restaurant when we want to have lunch.

Along the street there interesting views of palm trees surrounded by sand dunes. Every now and then a house. The road is good, but the speed limit is 80km/h.

After some stops, at 12:45pm we reach the junction of the road which leads into the desert. But it doesn't look like a road open for tourists. First of all the surface is horrible. Perhaps suitable for very big trucks or 4WD cars, but not for saloon cars. Then there are street signs warning about poisonous gases. Finally there is a board stating that the area is restricted. Apparently this road leads to a Shah oil or gas field.

We get back on the main road and drive to another road which leads into the desert a few km further east. This one at least is paved, but it ends prematurely in the middle of nowhere, and only continues as a dirt track.

I conclude that the only desert area suitable for tourists in a saloon car is the Tal Mireb one. Since we are just 50km away from that, we decide to drive back.

We reach Tal Mireb at 2:10pm and have a closer look at the area. In the middle there is a small park with a meadow and a children playground. There are even some public toilets. Then there are tents for people who want to stay overnight (100 AED per tent, A/C power available, toilets, but the tent is empty: you must bring a sleeping bag). It is possible to rent dune buggies, but they are very expensive (see below).

We have a picnic near the playground, then I drive closer to the slope where people drive up and down. Lots of activity: dune buggies, motorbikes, 4WD SUVs and even a pickup truck drive up and down. The 4WD car and the pickup truck don't make it to the top, only to the lower third or the dune.

Then we get back to the place where they rent dune buggies and rent a unit, paying 350 AED for 30 minutes. Not sure why such a simple thing should be so expensive. Perhaps you pay for the fact that this place is so remote and that the thing is available for you.

I sign a paper and hand over my passport and start driving. No idea what happens if there is an accident or if something breaks, i.e. if there are some insurances. Alissia is with me in the buggy. We have no helmets.

It's the first time I drive such a thing and must admit that it's not easy to drive on a sandy surface full of tracks of other cars or buggies. The buggy is continuosly shaking heavily.

I try to drive up a dune, one with a not so steep slope. It quickly gets scary. Probably I do not have enough speed because after a while we get stuck. I try to turn the unit and drive back down, but the buggy tilts a bit to the side. An unpleasant feeling. Just 10 minutes have passed, and I'm already hoping that the half an hour is over.

I manage to bring the thing back down. Now my sweet little daughter wants to drive the thing. Hmmm.... ok, but you only drive here in the bottom where it is flat. Alissia starts driving and quickly gets familiar with the thing, driving quite fast.

We do a few more rounds, alternating the driver, then return the buggy to the rentor. Then we drive to a quiet spot in Tal Mireb and spend some time walking on the dunes.

At 5:40pm we start driving towards Abu Dhabi. Between 7 and 8pm we have a dinner at a Pizza Hut restaurant along the way, then reach the hotel in Abu Dhabi at 9:40pm.

2.1: Abu Dhabi
Mourouj Hotel & Apartments, Abu Dhabi.
Weather: another sunny and hot day. Temperatures up to 26C, strong sun. Some clouds in the sky, otherwise the sky is blue.

We leave the hotel quite late after 11:30am. We initially start driving towards the Zayed Grand Mosque, then change plans and drive instead to the Corniche, arriving there around 12pm.

It takes a while to find a parking, because we are driving on the seaside, where there are no car parkings. After some driving we finally turn left and park the car in a side street. Parking is not free (AED 2 for the first hour).

Then we walk to the Corniche. Finally a nice seafront promenade. Very wide, with lots of activities and shops/cafs/restaurants. Beautiful beach nearby, with white coral sand. Nice skyscraper skyline in the background.

I start taking some pictures of this beautiful beach until all of a sudden some security guy tells me it's forbidden to take pictures and in addition on the beach I must wear a swimsuit.

I discover a board with rules, of what you are allowed to do and not to do on a beach in Abu Dhabi. It seems that people here are rule freaks. On all other beaches in the UAE nobody would care what you do on a beach (as long perhaps as you don't run around naked), but here in Abu Dhabi you have to be very careful about what you do on a beach.
I get the impression that the local rulers want to isolate as much as possible the beach life from the city life. And there are lots of guards and security staff to enforce these rules.

Shortly after 1pm we walk back to the car and drive to the nearby Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. This is on a small peninsula facing the beach area. Lots of tourist buses next to the heritage village. I struggle to get throgh, then manage to find a parking for the car.

I take some photos of the skyline of Abu Dhabi, then walk to this heritage village. And indeed this is sort of a heritage area, an open air museum showing the old Abu Dhabi. But the heritage area in Dubai (Bastakiya) is set up much better. Much bigger spaces, better buildings. Here in Abu Dhabi the heritage area is cramped in a small compound and is hopelessly overrun with tourists.

There are some shops selling handicrafts, some small museum with exhibits, but overall the place is not too interesting. It would seem that the local authorities planned this compound so that it would be far out of town and would keep the tourists in one small area so that they won't disturb the locals.

Life in Abu Dhabi is more strictly regulated than life in Dubai. On the other hand, the entire city is very clean and well managed. Lots of elegant buildings. mostly modern (today I see nothing old), wide streets with up to six lanes. Some traffic in the streets, but mostly not much, i.e. few traffic jams.

At 2:15pm we drive back to Abu Dhabi city. We have a fast lunch in a Subway restaurant, then at 3:20pm start driving towards the Zayed Grand Mosque.

At 3:45pm we stop behind the mosque for some pictures. The mosque is absolutely beautiful, white and gold. Then we drive to the main entrance. Access is easy, i.e. you don't have to register, buy tickets, queue up, go through security checks.

Women (who want to enter into the prayer hall) must cover their head with a headscarf (they can borrow a black overcoat in the mosque compound). Children do not have to do so. Men are not allowed to wear shorts in the prayer hall.

The mosque, both the exterior and the interior, is absolutely stunning, extremely photogenic.

But also here there are some rule freaks. When I for instance knee down to take a shot with the camera at ground level a staff tells me it is forbidden to sit on the ground. So I explain that I'm just kneeing down a moment, but the guy still insists that I stand up.

We are at the mosque until after sunset. At 6:30pm we drive to the Al Wahda mall near the hotel. Heavy traffic in the streets near the mall. Lots of people who want to drive into the mall. Not surprising, because tomorrow is Friday, a public holiday, and people want to do the weekend shopping.

We have a rather unimpressive dinner in the food court of the mall (the food simply isn't good - UAE foodcourts in malls are not comparable with foodcourts in malls in SE Asia). Then we shop briefly in the Lulu hypermarket and are back in the hotel at 10pm.

3.1: Abu Dhabi
Mourouj Hotel & Apartments, Abu Dhabi.
Weather: a bit more fresh than yesterday. Sunny, blue sky with some clouds, windy.

In the morning I check with Falcon Aviation if it is possible to do a helicopter flight over Abu Dhabi. The 20 minutes flight costs AED 900, a bit pricey, but would give the opportunity to get some cool shots of Abu Dhabi. I call the hotline and hear that 3:30pm might be possible today. The guy then emails an information package. Surprise, surprise, it's forbidden to use DSLRs in the helicopter. Only smartphones or compact cameras are allowed. Fine, I'll then skip the helicopter flight.

We leave the hotel at 11:40am and get to the car. Unpleasant surprise: there is a fine for wrong parking, for a whopping 500 AED. It turns out that we parked the car in some area for locals only and were not aware of this. The fine is from Mawaqif. The hotel staff suggests to go to the office of Mawaqif tomorrow and try to get the fine reduced. 500 AED (=100 Euro) is a bit steep for wrong parking.

It's 12pm when we finally start exploring Abu Dhabi. We're not exactly early birds, and in fact moving a group of four people (with two kids) is not that easy. Quite some time passes getting everybody ready to leave.

We drive to the fish market near the harbour. The idea would be to eat some delicious grilled fish. Supposedly you can buy your own fish and get it grilled there.

Driving to the fish market should be very easy, but because the road network has changed and the Sygic maps are not up to date, we spend some time going in circles before reaching the destination. But despite these problems it is easy to drive in Abu Dhabi, much easier than driving in Dubai.

The fish market is a bit less picturesque than I had imagined, but still quite interesting. A big hall where all kinds of fresh fish are sold. The fish lunch however doesn't materialise because there is no place where to sit down and eat a fish. You can buy the fish and get it cooked, but this takes time (hours). One fish cookery tells us to bring the fish now and pick it up by 3pm.

Around 1pm we drive to the Corniche and look for a suitable beach. There is one big public beach, 1.3km long, extending along the Corniche from northeast to southwest. We stop there for a while. While I check the beach, the kids play in a playground. The beach is fine, but there are no showers or changing rooms.

So we drive to the same spot where we have been yesterday (because I remember I saw some beach establishments there). We arrive there shortly before 2pm.

This is the families beach and all infrastructure (showers, toilets, changing rooms) is free. For a chair and/or beach umbrella you need to go to the next beach (10 AED fee per person).

We are in this beach until almost 4pm. Today there is some cold wind blowing, so it's a bit chilly to swim. But the kids have no problems and immediately rush into the water. Then we have some icecream and leave.

I bring Shirley and the kids to the Marina mall, then spend some time exploring the area. All very clean and well kept, with nice views of the skyline.

Next I drive to the Emirates Palace hotel, the 5 stars establishment (apparently it cost 3 billion USD to build this place). At the road check the staff asks if I have a reservation, but lets me in after I say that I want to go to the bar. I wonder what the standard way of getting in here is - perhaps by calling in advance and booking something.

After parking the car in the car park, I have a closer look at the place. Quite high end, nice architecture and setup, fountains, nice gardens, private beach. The room price on Expedia is 512 Euro. Perhaps this is the price for the cheapest room.

Inside the building there are lots of beautiful decorations. Lots of gold colour, I'm a bit lost initially, but then I realise that most guests of this hotel are average people, or look like average people.

Lots of staff everywhere. The reception staff wear some funny black and gold overcoat.

At 5:20pm I'm done visiting this place and drive to the heritage park. I'm planning to get some blue hour skyline shots of Abu Dhabi.

Lots of people in this spot at this time of the day, and in fact it's not easy to find a parking for the car. After parking the car I proceed to the scenic spot, where I stay until 6:25pm. Then I walk back to the car and drive to the Marina mall.

Lots of cars here right now, and in fact it takes more than 10 minutes to find a parking. I'm only in the Marina mall shortly before 7pm.

In the mall I reunite with Shirley and the kids, who have spent almost three hours in the kids zone gaming area. We have some dinner and drive back to the hotel. This time we manage to be back in the hotel before 10pm.

4.1: Abu Dhabi
Premier Inn Abu Dhabi Capital Centre. 252 AED for an elegant room, a bit small however. Contains a bed, sofa, table+chair, LCD TV, phone, fridge. Toilet with bath/shower combo. Located in the business area about 11km southwest of the centre of Abu Dhabi. Nice hotel, but too far out of town (although Abu Dhabi has no such thing as a town centre).
Weather: hot, sunny with a spotless blue sky. Today would have been a perfect day to go to the beach. However, once you are out of the sun. it gets quite fresh and even on the beach there is a chilly wind. Weird combination of chilly wind and strong sun.

In the morning we check out at 11am then walk to the Mawaqif office to settle the parking fine. Some discussion, in the end they reduce it by 25% because we pay within two weeks, but not more than that. The girls at the counter agrees that the fine is too high but can't do anything.

Then we drive to the cultural district on Saadiyat island, arriving there at 12pm. The problem is that most attractions (Louvre museum, Guggenheim museum etc.) are still being built and are not open yet.

There is just this Manarat al Saadiyat museum which is already open. In fact some tour buses stop in front of it. We have a look at it. The entry is free, and the museum contains some collections of contemporary UAE artists. Most are rather unimpressive. This museum looks like a white elephant, built by people who have too much money and are trying to create something special, but fail to do so. By the way, the staff tell us that our kids are not allowed to make noise and have to walk slowly.

But it is interesting to see what plans Abu Dhabi have with Saadiyat island. These are very ambitious. Essentially they are planning to cover a large part of the island with buildings, parks, a yacht harbour, hotels etc.

Around 12:40pm we drive to the public beach on Saadiyat island. This is not far from the museum area and is close to a Hyatt hotel which is currently under construction. It's the only beach open to the general public. There are also other beaches on Saadiyat island, but somehow these are not accessible (there is no road near these beaches, no car parkings, you'd have to walk over construction areas).

We are at this beach shortly before 1pm. It's a nice beach, with beach chairs, umbrellas and facilities, but getting in costs 25 AED/person. A bit pricey if you go there with the family - 100 AED for a family of four. By comparison, the public beach in Abu Dhabi is free and if you want chairs and an umbrella it's 10 AED/person.

Near the beach these is a golf course. Not sure which establishment this is part of.

We only spend 15 minutes at this beach (we were not planning to have a beach day anyway, and in any case there is a chilly wind so it's too cold to swim), then drive to the Ferrari World theme park.

This is on Yas island and we need about half an hour to get there. It's 1:45pm and we would like to have lunch. The idea is that there should be some restaurants in or next to this theme park.

The Ferrari World is a theme park and exhibition centre centered on the Ferrari cars. We walk in there and quickly discover that entry tickets are quite expensive. 240 AED/person, no family packages. For the four of us we'd have to pay 960 AED (almost 200 Euro). For this price you are allowed to use all the attractions, except the very special ones which cost 100 AED/ride.

We are caught a bit by surprise and are not ready to spend so much money for a couple of hours in this place. Unfortunately all restaurants are inside the park, so if you don't purchase the entry tickets you can't eat in these places.

This leads to the problem that by now it's 2 something pm and my ladies still haven't had lunch. For the small ones I buy a pretzel to temporarily fill the stomach, but the missus isn't willing to have a sandwich - quite understandable after so many days of lunches consisting of fast food or sandwiches.

So we walk back to the car and I key in the nearest shopping mall into the car navigation system. We drive there but this place turns out to be a supermarket. So we ask somebody, who suggests to go to the Al Raha mall. We do that and at 2:40pm we are finally there.

The Al Raha mall is a few km south of the Ferrari World (but by car you need to drive more than that) and is a small size mall. Not that high-end and not that impressive, but has a Lulu supermarket, many shops, a food court and many restaurants. Next to it is a hotel/beach establishment and a strange vertical pizza/pancake shaped building.

We have a late lunch at 3pm in this mall (pretty good meal by the way), then shop around a bit. After 4pm we start driving to the hotel.
On the way I stop briefly at the Grand mosque for some photos. We reach the hotel by 5:40pm.

In the evening we rest a bit, do some more shopping in the nearby Mushrif mall (quite nice and flashy), then prepare the bags for the trip back to Germany.

5.1: Abu Dhabi -> Istanbul -> Munich
Home, sweet home
Weather: freah at night in Abu Dhabi. Not too cold in Munich when we arrive (around 6C).

At 1:10am we drive to the Abu Dhabi international airport. Getting there with the navigation system is easy. What takes more time is to find out how to return the car.

After asking some people I find out that you have to drive into the parking house next to terminal 3, park the car there, then walk to the car rental counters and ask somebody to come and check the car.

The car check runs smoothly, i.e. no damages are reported. We have driven a total of 2073km in these two weeks, on average almost 150km/day. After returning the car I go and look for Shirley and the kids (I've dropped them at the departures of terminal 1 - didn't know the terminal number, but guessed right).

We check in and receive seats in different rows, because the plane is full. Later in the plane we'll swap seats with other people and manage to be more together.

The Abu Dhabi international airport seems to be a quite oldish airport. Not as modern with futuristic architecture as the new Dubai airport. It's also quite small.

The gates area has a completely insufficient number of seats. Only the first few people who arrive manage to grab a seat, all the others have to stand.

Very few people travelling with kids at this time of the night. At 3am we start queueing up at the gate. The flight is scheduled for 3:40am, but only departs after 4am.

The Turkish airlines plane, a modern Airbus A321, has individual large LCD screens in each seat.

We land in Istanbul on time at 6:45am local time, then have to rush like hell and even jump the security check queue and only manage to arrive at the gate of the Munich flight at 7:25am, 10 minutes before the scheduled 7:35am departure.

The layout of the Istanbul airport is not good. Very long distances to cover, needless security check for passengers who have already been screened in other airports, bus transfers to/from the plane. In my opinion at least 1:30 hours are needed in Istanbul for a plane change to have a sufficient safety margin.

The flight has some delay and only departs after 8am local time. It's again a modern A321 with individual large LCD screens in the seats. We land in Munich more or less on time at 9:25am, and are at home after 11am.

Copyright 2014 Alfred Molon