The Dubai and Abu Dhabi Adventure

As is normal when we travel, my wife and I had to make a rapid decision on where to go, check fares, and review immigration requirements in a few days. Although competing with Hongkongers who are tired of traveling can be difficult, we are lucky to live in a city that serves as a regional center for a variety of carriers.

In the busy Hong Kong-Dubai segment, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways offer seats from the basic economy class to the Emirates First Class, which provides passengers with spacious suites, gourmet dining options, onboard showers in certain aircraft, and access to exclusive airport lounges.

We almost always settle for the cheapest fares and those that suit the short window available during Chinese New Year holidays. But occasionally we get seat upgrades by simply dressing well and being corteus to check in staff, or by the occasional luck that came with Cathay Pacific’s “fanfare” promotion.

The excitement of “fanfares”

Just like booking badminton courts or securing Taylor Swift tickets, Cathay Pacific “fanfares” were popular weekly fare promotions offered in Hong Kong. They typically featured discounted fares on a variety of routes, including both business and premium economy classes.

The promotions were typically announced on Mondays or Tuesdays, and fares were usually valid for travel during the following week or so. So for those awaiting the best deals, one must do quick thinking and decide to book a particular destination on offer, as seat allocations are limited and often get exhausted moments after launch. Popular destinations included Phuket, Seoul, Milan, Vancouver, and Los Angeles.

For example, in January 2017, Cathay Pacific offered roundtrip fares from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in business class for as low as HK$29,900 (approximately US$3,800).

The Emirati Opulence at Dubai Airport

Arriving at Dubai International Airport highlights the city’s futuristic opulence. Soaring ceilings adorned with magnificent calligraphy and massive glass windows overlooking the glittering Dubai cityscape set the tone for a sumptuous welcome. Consider palm palms, cascading water features, and shimmering gold decorations!

Dubai is a very cosmopolitan city, and the airport reflects that. Expect to see people from all over the world dressed in anything from business suits to traditional costumes, resulting in a colorful and dynamic atmosphere. The rhythmic speech in many languages will keep your senses alert.

This affluent emirate is known for its love of luxury and fashion, which can be seen throughout the airport. Expect to see people sporting brand names and well-designed attire, which will add to the glam atmosphere. Though I find it a little garish and fake, many people enjoy the display of grandeur through the dazzling components employed in its doorway to greet tourists and welcome inhabitants.

Dubai International Airport is designed for efficiency. Immigration queues move quickly, thanks to biometric scanners and self-service kiosks. Baggage claim is usually swift, and there are plenty of currency exchange counters and duty-free shops to keep you occupied while you wait. Unfortunately for my wife, her visa check hit a snag, and that cost us precious time we could have spent heading to the hotel and slumping into our beds to augment lost sleep time. But she’s glad to have stopped by again for her chance to grab one of those Longchamp bags, more reasonably priced than her favorite brands.

We managed to snag a couple of tickets to Dubai and quickly applied for a pre-arranged visa with the help of my high school classmate Elisa, who works as a manager at Dubai Duty Free.

A taste of luxury accommodation

When we travel overseas, accommodation is often chosen based on affordability and accessibility. As a sleepy head, my philosophy has always been, “If I can sleep comfortably and it’s not far from transport options, it’s worth booking.” We look for comfortable beds, clean and spacious bathrooms with good water pressure, and basic amenities like towels and toiletries.

Consider how much time you’ll spend at the hotel. If it’s just a crash pad between adventures, prioritize convenience to transportation hubs and sightseeing spots over some fancy shmancy branding only used to make friends envy on social media. Compact, well-designed rooms can offer everything you need for sleep and hygiene while saving on cost.

But in this case, there’s an exception. In other cities, the cost of staying at the Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites is probably out of reach and impractical. In Dubai, though, we were tempted to book it, as if to say, “We can only dream about it 99% of our lives, but with this 1%, let’s experience it at least once in our lifetime.”

I thought I had reserved only one room, but the suite we received featured three ensuite rooms, large living areas, fully supplied kitchens, and exquisite bathrooms. It was large enough to hold eight guests with plenty of room to spare.

The term “luxury” is subjective and may differ depending on who you ask. However, this is one of the most luxurious accommodations we’ve ever had.

The Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites is conveniently located in the heart of Dubai Marina, among several of the city’s most renowned attractions. Take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront, board a yacht for a sunset sail, or shop at Dubai Waterfront Mall. A short taxi ride away is the lively Souk Madinat Jumeirah, which offers cultural immersion.

The Middle Eastern shopping experience

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much about Dubai except to see the well-known landmarks such as the iconic Burj Al Arab and the hyper-skyscraper Burj Khalifa. It’s Chinese New Year’s break, so it’s the time of year when the weather in Dubai is relatively pleasant and has not reached the scorching temperatures experienced during the summer months.

It is incredible to see so many Filipinos in this corner of the world. When you are at a shopping mall like Dubai Marina Mall, which is conveniently located right on our doorstep, shops are well represented by kababayans who work in customer-facing roles such as sales associates, cashiers, customer service reps, and restaurant staff, as well as those behind the scenes (cleaning crew, administrative staff, maintenance workers, and finance professionals) and highly skilled positions like marketing professionals, IT specialists, and human resource personnel.

This makes me proud because, despite the obstacles they confront, Filipino workers thrive worldwide.

No wonder it’s not surprising to often hear familiar conversations while passing through a typical shop with Pinoy staff:

“Kailan an off mo next week?”
“Pasuyo naman sa balikbayan box mo.”
“Uuwi ka ba sa Pasko?”

The sheer scale and architectural magnificence of Dubai malls leave many visitors awestruck. Think soaring ceilings, cascading water features, and intricate gold accents. For example, one might remark on the “breathtaking views of the city from the observation deck at the Mall of the Emirates, feeling like you’re walking through a palace.”

Coming from Hong Kong, where retailers prioritize efficiency and space utilization, the shopping mall experience in Dubai can be mind-blowing. Each shop has ample room for clients and a diverse product selection. My wife had redefined window shopping as a visit to a specific shop, say, ECCO or Birkenstock, where she would spend longer hours perusing the items on sale and summoning her impulsive instincts before asking me to “take a look at this” and “do you like it?” as a subtle quest for approval and a step closer to the cashier.

Customers seeking exclusive goods and exquisite shopping experiences frequent high-end fashion labels and designer boutiques. Finding the latest Dior collection at Dubai Mall, with personal stylists on hand to help, is not uncommon for high-end labels.

Many malls cater to families with specific play spaces, themed zones, and kid-friendly activities, similar to those found in malls throughout the Philippines. Kids would appreciate the penguin encounter at Ski Dubai, as well as the Dubai Mall’s underwater zoo. This was a pleasant change for us from the tedious duty of spouses sitting in the corner while wives inspect bags, shoes, jewelry, or clothes with laser focus.

The Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo has three separate ecosystems: a rainforest, a rocky shore, and a living ocean. Each zone represents a distinct habitat, exhibiting the wonderful species that call these regions home. Watch cheerful otters play, pose with one of the 50 brave eagle rays and cow nose rays through the glass, and meet Humboldt penguins in their icy Antarctic habitat. It was more than simply a display of fascinating aquatic species; the event also taught the young and young at heart about the unique biodiversity beyond the waters, as well as conservation efforts, particularly for those considered endangered.

Beyond the sights and sounds, the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo evokes a sense of wonder and respect for the ocean’s majesty. It’s a journey that educates, entertains, and leaves you with awe and inspiration.

Compared to Hong Kong, where shopping mall visits are part of a weekend itinerary among locals and visitors, shopping in Dubai malls can be expensive, especially for luxury goods. While diversity exists, the emphasis on high-end fashion and luxury brands can feel overwhelming for budget-conscious shoppers. Dubai malls are generally not a destination to hunt for affordable clothes.

Some visitors might find the over-the-top luxury and opulent atmosphere of Dubai malls artificial and disconnected from the city’s culture.

Dubai Tennis Championships

Elisa, also offered us tickets to watch Dubai Duty Free Tennis, which then featured top seeds Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and coincided with our visit.

She was so gracious to host a dinner with us before we watched the games. The matches were played on the hard outdoor courts of the 5,000-seat Dubai Tennis Stadium, located close to Dubai International Airport.

We watched wildcard entry Naomi Osaka, the future world number one, defeat Kristina Mladenovic of France 6-2, 6-2, and British Johanna Konta defeat Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-6, 6-2. I did not bother to check who won the tournament but later found out that Roberto Bautista Agut defeated Lucas Pouille, 6–3, 6–4, and Svitolina defeated Russian Daria Kasatkina, 6–4, 6–0, for the crown.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church

With its liberal views on religion, Dubai is home to several branches of faith, boasting over 50 places of worship catering to various religions and denominations. For instance, there are about 40 churches among Christian denominations such as Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, and Evangelicals.

Overlooking Rashid Hospital, Oud Metha Metro Station is the closest rail transport to get to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Ash Wednesday was commemorated in the previous week, so a lenten church pilgrimage was part of our itinerary.

My assumption then was that the church would be filled with Filipino Catholics, but it turned out that attendees come from a diverse ethnic background, notably South Asians, and not just Filipinos. There are masses in 13 languages, including Filipino, Ukrainian, Urdu, Malayalam, Arabic, and French. I don’t know if there is any church that celebrates mass in a greater number of languages.

We went there for an evening mass, the seventh and last celebration for the day. Yet the congregation spilled over the church interiors, and the courtyard was also filled with the faithful.

It’s nice to see a huge number of believers of the Catholic faith in this part of the world, while the number of Catholic churchgoers in Europe is declining, mainly due to secularization, an aging population (fewer young people join the Church), and changes in attitudes towards family and marriage that contributed to a decreased adherence to religious doctrines and practices.

The soukes and abra ride in Dubai Creek

We walked into the Deira Old Souk to experience the local bazaar. There, you can immerse yourself in the aromatic world of saffron, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, and a variety of other spices that entice the senses.

I had no idea saffron was the most costly spice in the world until a local vendor explained its function and usage in cooking, dyeing textiles, scent, and medicine. I’ve learned that saffron is hand-made and that producing a pound of it takes a lot of work. Those grown in Iran are regarded as the greatest quality and most expensive, followed by Spanish and Kashmiri kinds.

The next store to visit was one that offered dried fruits and nuts. My wife’s renal function has declined; thus, she has become more fussy and mindful about what foods she consumes. Nonetheless, we were drawn to the unusual flavor of dried dates and purchased a couple packs for personal consumption and as Chinese New Year gifts for friends back in Hong Kong.

We also saw a few coffee shops that serve handmade mixes of Arabic coffee and traditional teas, as well as local Emirati specialties like luqaimat (fried dough balls) and khabees (date syrup), but we were too hesitant to try them.

Instead, we stopped at Nando’s, which both my wife and I promised to do every time we found a branch in areas we visited. So far, we’ve visited Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Washington, D.C., and Dubai.

The midday sun was scorching, so my girlfriend only needed a serving of cold sugar cane drink to quench her thirst. We next chose to take the abra, where we sat on a wooden dhow, the salty breeze ruffling our hair as we glided over the sparkling waters of Dubai Creek.

We were sold on this potentially short, once-in-a-lifetime adventure at Deira Old Souk Abra Station for only 1 AED for the 5-7-minute journey. For that amount, you might expect basic, if not adequate, facilities. Don’t anticipate soft chairs or air conditioning, and enjoy the simplicity. It’s good to get away from the cold blows of A/C in shopping malls and enjoy the fresh air while sitting shielded from the sun.

There were few other tourists at the time, so the line moved quickly. In some ways, the experience was similar to that of Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, which spans Victoria Harbour between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui for a small cost but also provides sightseeing opportunities in addition to transportation. During our abra tour, we gazed at the traditional wooden dhows, towering buildings, and bustling souks that lined the banks of the Dubai Creek.

Life in the lens from the fast lane

As the day came to a conclusion, we quickly jumped on the nearby train station, which is part of the Dubai Metro network that is divided into three distinct lines (Red, Green, and Blue) and accepts Nol Card payments for each journey.

As the train goes over the city, huge landscapes unfold underneath you. Witness the renowned Burj Khalifa piercing the horizon, the winding Dubai Creek, and the lively streets bursting with activity. The tour takes you through a variety of urban environments. Modern skyscrapers give way to traditional souks, lush green parks appear alongside harsh deserts, and the glistening coastline welcomes you with blue waves. Look into the daily lives of Emiratis. Observe women wearing colorful abayas, workers on a construction site, and businessmen conducting meetings.

Trains run at regular intervals, ensuring shorter wait times and more efficient commutes. You will rarely have to wait more than a few minutes for the next train.

What interests me is the nomenclature of the Dubai Metro stations. Stations are traditionally named after their location, like Tung Chung station, which is a MTR station in Tung Chung. However, in Dubai Metro, these stations can be “adopted” with naming rights from commercial firms, similar to how NBA stadium names can be changed from Staples Center to Arena.

In May 2010, the Red Line’s Al Quoz station was renamed Noor Bank. However, five years later, it was renamed Al Safa. It will be called Onpassive in January 2023. Consider the effort required to update station signs, network map labels, voice-over announcement recordings, and mobile app updates with each name change. Not to mention the initial uncertainty for tourists who are familiar with the station’s prior name.

We ended the day with a view of the Burj Khalifa’s Chinese New Year wishes. We are used to towering structures in Hong Kong, such as the International Commerce Centre, Central Plaza, and The Centre (where I used to work), but the majestic height of the Burj Khalifa (828 meters) blew us away.

A quick trip to Abu Dhabi’s cultural and modern attractions

We don’t know when we’ll be back in the UAE, other than the usual layovers for Emirates and Etihad flights from Hong Kong to Europe, so it’s a good idea to make a quick stopover in Abu Dhabi.

The prevailing impression of the UAE’s capital is that it is less glitzy than Dubai, but I believe it is still worth a visit. The distance between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is roughly 130 kilometers, so the journey time is pretty quick.

We took the van and traveled for two hours, arriving in Abu Dhabi at 11 a.m. The temperature was already in the mid-30s, which was starting to sap our energies. The first visit was to the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which has white marble facades decorated with delicate flower patterns and gilded lettering. Towering minarets penetrate the sky, lending a majestic air.

All guests are welcome to enter, but men must wear long trousers and shirts with sleeves at least elbow-length, while women must wear an abaya, a long, flowing robe, and a headscarf to cover their hair. Until recently, this criteria was available for free loans to women.

With the heat of the sun a huge impediment, we chose to visit Yas Marina Circuit, located on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi and a sanctuary for petrolheads and F1 enthusiasts. It’s more than simply an attraction; it’s also an instructive immersion into the intricacies of formula racing, as visitors can follow in the footsteps of racing icons on an enlightening tour of the iconic track. Alternatively, go up close to the pit lane, podium, and race control.

As the name suggests, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi celebrates everything about the legendary Italian brand, including interactive exhibits, simulators, and even a thrilling rollercoaster ride.

After a quick walk around the grounds, we became more interested in finding snacks and thirst-quenching drinks, and we spent the remainder of our time relaxing on available benches while waiting for our trip back to Dubai.

Build memories through experiences, not buying handbags

Before traveling back to Hong Kong, my wife and I had one last item on our bucket list to complete. That is to experience the Burj Al Arab by eating breakfast there. The view from outside is obviously magnificent, but I was interested in the interior. It was an obvious choice for us to share a meal at this post-Valentines Day gathering. If we can’t afford to stay there (a night costs $1650 or P92,200), we can at least eat the food they serve.

We reserved a table at 8:30 a.m. at one of its restaurants, Sahn Eddar, which means “reception of the house” in Arabic. I’m not excellent at reviewing restaurant menus, so we’ll skip that portion. However, the Sahn Eddar’s displays inspiration from Arabian forms and symbolism, blended with a contemporary twist by its team of foreign designers.

As expected, the staff, who were also Filipinos, provided exceptional service, as if they were trained to read our body language and anticipate our requests for bottled water or directions to the restroom. However, as is typical of Filipinos, the cozy and welcoming ambiance made us feel at ease, and the restaurant’s wealth did not intimidate us.

We walked away satisfied and delighted after requesting a quick photo shoot for memories. Outside the historic monument, I conducted extra picture shoots for my favorite model. (Did you know that my wife’s maiden name is Modelo?)

We were happy that our brief journey to the UAE allowed us to see a distinct side of a sophisticated metropolis. I learned about Arabian culture from the people I spoke with at traditional Arabian businesses, our tour drivers, the innumerable Filipinos we met at the church, shopping malls, and fellow guests, as well as Elisa Yana. Most importantly, we made memories.


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