Abu Dhabi: A Cultural Oasis in the Desert

“Our grandfathers and ancestors have left a wealth of cultural heritage we are proud of.  We shall conserve it and build on it as it is the soul of this land and its future generations.”  Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

Often seen as the quiet, more conservative neighbor to glitzy Dubai, Abu Dhabi is establishing itself as a 21st century, world-class cultural center. The discovery of oil in the 1960s and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan‘s vision for a prosperous nation transformed Abu Dhabi from  a sleepy, pearl-diving fishing village with an uncertain future into the wealthy political, economic and cultural metropolis it is today.

Saadiyat Island is the site of Abu Dhabi’s dynamic cultural development project, the  Saayidat Island Cultural District.  Five Pritzker Prize winning architects were selected to build five venues as part of this visionary project sure to attract architectural, cultural and art aficionados from all over the world.

The Zayed National Museum (Foster & Partners) will celebrate and honor the late founder and UAE visionary Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and celebrate the cultural legacy of Abu Dhabi and the UAE.  The National Museum is partnered with the British Museum for this endeavor and is slated to open in 2016.

Jean Nouvel designed the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi.  The Louvre Abu Dhabi is partnered with the Musee Du Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Centre Pompidou in France and will utilize a unique curatorial concept demonstrating the connections between civilizations and cultures.  The museum is slated to open in 2015, although visitors can get a taste of what’s to come by visiting Manarat Al Saadiyat’s current preview exhibit.

Proposed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi/ photo skyscapercity.com

Proposed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi/ photo skyscapercity.com

The architect of  Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Frank Gehry, designed GAD to reflect and “recall the region’s ancient wind-towers… in a fitting blend of Arabian tradition and modern, sustainable design (credit).”  The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will house permanent collections, exhibitions and educational programs that support its mission of examining modern art through multinational perspective and understanding. This museum is supported by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and is scheduled to open in 2017.  If you are interested in the thought process behind the design, you can investigate that here.

Saadiyat Island model for future development

Saadiyat Island model for future development

Saadiyat Island Cultural District will also house the Performing Arts Center, designed by Zaha Hadid and a Maritime Museum by Tadao Ando.

Things to Know

As you can see from the dates listed above, the key museums have yet to open.  Do not let that deter you from visiting.  The Manarat Al Saadiyat  in the Cultural District is currently hosting two brilliant exhibits.  “Birth of a Museum” offers a preview of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s initial collection. “The Saadiyat Story”  provides a slick, interactive presentation about the island’s past, present and future.  In all honesty, The Saadiyat Story was my inspiration for this post. The excitement and pride about Abu Dhabi’s past, present and future is contagious.

There is a very nice cafe within the Manarat building, so despite the feeling of being “way out and away” from all things city, you can be well fed and happy.  If that isn’t your cup of tea, you can have exactly that at the newly opened St. Regis just up the road.

The Saadiyat Island master plan is here for anyone interested in the other districts and venues slated for development on the island.

As always, check times and details before you go.

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How To Swim in the Dead Sea…

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Rachel and I vowed to make the most of our last day in Jordan.  We rose with the sun, slipped on our bathing suits and headed down the stone path to the Dead Sea.

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No one else, save the hotel cat, was out and about.  We had the beach, the mud and the Dead Sea all to ourselves.

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We rejoiced at being the first people to scoop the cool, slippery mud from the clay pot that morning and took turns covering each other from neck to toes with black goop.  The wind was warm and the water calm.  A perfect day for a last day.

No, you're right...that isn't me and it isn't Rachel. Did you really think I would subject to you a picture of me covered in mud in a bathing suit?  Silly readers. This gentleman should give you an good idea of what to expect. You're welcome on all counts.

No, you’re right…that isn’t me and it isn’t Rachel. Did you really think I would subject to you a picture of me covered in mud in a bathing suit? Silly readers. This gentleman should give you an good idea of what to expect. You’re welcome on all counts.

We tried to wait the requisite 20 minutes for the theraputic mud to dry before deciding that 15 minutes was “good enough” and walked down the dock to the water.

This is really one of us...just not me.

This is really one of us…just not me.

Unlike the day before, we were now floating-in-the-Dead-Sea experts.  No crashing and splashing around today, no slipping, giggling or ungainly flopping about as we entered the water.  We just stepped in, turned around to face the shore and sat down.  It truly is a surreal experience, this inability to sink (or swim for that matter) in the Dead Sea, but that is completely the point.  One does not swim…One bobs, floats, drifts. One luxuriates.

Me, floating...

Me, floating…

The Dead Sea is a hypersaline (33%!) lake located between Israel and Jordan at the Earth’s lowest point on land (1388 ft below sea level).  It’s referred to as a “dead” sea since the only things living in the sea are minuscule amounts of bacteria and fungi.  I chose not to think about bacteria and fungi and instead celebrate the fact I didn’t have to worry about jellyfish or sharks. I also celebrated that I, a known aqua-rock, can float effortlessly while reading a book/newspaper.  It really is quite an experience and quite justified as the restorative properties of a swim in the Dead Sea are legendary.

So, that’s how we ended our time in Jordan…bobbing on the quiet waters of the Dead Sea, serenaded by a gently flapping Jordanian flag at sunrise and reflecting on the wonders and ancient history of Jordan, the generosity and hospitality of the Jordanian people,  the thrill of seeing Petra and our magical night in the Wadi Rum.  Can’t wait to go back.

Things to Know

We stayed at the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort.  There are a number of other hotels and resorts located on the strip of land adjacent to the Dead Sea.  We absolutely enjoyed our stay at the Movenpick.

Movenpick

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The location was excellent, the access to the Sea was convenient and it had a number of pools and lounging-about areas throughout the resort.  The breakfast buffet was spectacular and the resort had a number of dining options for lunches and dinner.   The resorts along the sea have a definite “self-contained” feeling, and guests are apt to swim, dine and sleep at their particular resort as the public beach options along the coast aren’t particularly well-suited for non-locals.

A few rules…

1.  Wear and old bathing suit.  The combination of mud, salinity and sun is not kind to fabric.

2.  Consider wearing swim shoes.  The bottom of the Sea is filled with rocks and crystals that cut tender feet. Cuts on your body, no matter how tiny, will sting when you enter the water.  Be ready.  It’s tolerable, but noticeable.

3.  I was told the lower elevation protects you from sunburn.  Wear sunscreen anyway.  Trust me.

4.  Do NOT shave for 3 or 4 days before you enter the water.  Do you remember that scene from Home Alone?  Yes, it hurts that much (see rule 2).

5. There is an art to entering the Dead Sea gracefully.  Walk into the water, turn around and sit down.  Imagine you are sitting on a swim noodle when you sit down…same process, just without the noodle. Enjoy!  Bring a book or newspaper for posing your “Look! I’m floating in the Dead Sea” photos.

6. When you try to go from place A to B, use your hands as rudders.  Steer. Flipping over on your stomach and trying to “swim” to shore is inefficient and ineffective.  You essentially end up looking like a demented sea horse, rocking back and forth in one place and getting absolutely nowhere.  I know this because I tried.

7.  Refrain from splashing water on your face or into your eyes.  It hurts.  The lifeguards often keep eyewashes just for this purpose.

8.  Don’t drink the water.

9.  The mud feels fabulous and is great for the skin.  Try it!  Try it multiple times.  It is best to try multiple, short “sessions” in the Dead Sea…interspersed with trips to the showers and pools.

10.  Enjoy the view.

Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions!

Black Tea and Desert Sand

I have to be honest. I am not a desert person. I’m more of a mountain, beach or someplace-where-things-grow person. My bad attitude stems from a US cross country road trip and a stop to admire the desert in Arizona. Everyone talked about the beauty of the sand, the colors in the rocks and the starkness of the landscape. I was extremely underwhelmed (sorry Arizona..I wanted to love it, I really did) and I mentally ticked off all deserts as being not-for-me.

Wadi Rum  photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum was an entirely different desert experience and my time there qualifies as one of my most memorable travel experiences. The scenery was spectacular, our experiences were exceptional and the Bedouin hospitality unmatched. My only  disappointment was that I only spent a day and a half in a place that deserved much more of my time.  I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) is a World Heritage Site located in southern Jordan. Made famous by the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, the desert is now a protected area encompassing 720 sq kilometers of dramatic granite cliffs, sweeping desert sand and hidden canyons. All expeditions into the desert are guided and travelers interested in jeep tours, camel or horse trekking, climbing, hiking, walking or camping must make a reservation (more information below).  As much as I wanted to camel trek through the desert, our time was limited and a jeep tour was the most efficient way to see the highlights of Wadi Rum.

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

We started our day in the desert with Mohammed, one of the local Bedouin Huwaitat tribal members and jeep tour guide extraordinaire.  We met Mohammed at the visitor center and piled into our covered (thankfully!) 4 x 4 and drove off in the direction of the desert. He explained what we were going to see that day and peppered  our conversations with anecdotes about the Bedouin, his family and life in Wadi Rum.  Just before we drove through the visitor center gates, Mohammed said “Hold on!”, pulled a hard left and tore into the desert.  He took great joy in testing the capacity of his vehicle and my sense of adventure by driving up and over the top of the dunes as fast as possible.  It was exhilarating and the views were spectacular at every turn.

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia's time in Wadi Rum

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia’s time in Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Mohammed promised to show us all of the locations featured in the Lawrence of Arabia films as well as locations significant to Bedouin lifestyle and history.

Intro to camels, 101 with Mohammed

Intro to camels with Mohammed

He knew we were obsessed with camels, and stopped periodically to visit with the locals and let us chase the camels around with our cameras.

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Some of our most magical moments in Wadi Rum were the quiet ones…sitting in absolute serenity on the high dunes, watching the camels or the occasional jeep go by.

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Lest you think we were just sitting about and letting Mohammed do all the work, we did a little scrambling up the rock cliffs.  In the photo above Rachel and I are discussing which one of us will  climb up to rocks to the bridge overhead for the photo.

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I lost (or won, depending on how you look at it).  Mohammed thought this was hilarious.  I’m not pathetic.  I am barefoot, in a skirt and it’s a looonnnggg way down to the desert floor.  So there.

tea in the desert1

We ended our day with Mohammed making tea in the shade of the red sandstone cliffs as we lay about, sipping the delicious tea  and soaking in the beautiful sand dunes, mountains and vistas of Wadi Rum.

Things to Know

Desert excursions can be booked at the Wadi Rum Visitor Center.  If you find bargaining and negotiating stressful, you should consider booking ahead online through any number of reputable and local agencies. I personally recommend booking ahead using Jordan Jubilee ‘s suggestions or UTA booking service. . The local Bedouin have embraced the concept of TripAdvisor for ratings and direct contact information.  Do your research before booking.

The tour vehicles used in Wadi Rum are purpose built vehicles.  They are old, but reliable and easily repaired with whatever is on hand. Some are fully enclosed, some are pickup trucks with benches in the back.  Make sure you know what you are getting.

Bring your own water, snacks and other necessities with you into Wadi Rum.  There are one or two small shops on the outskirts of the desert and none within the boundaries. Be prepared.

Dress appropriately.  Temperature is dependent on time of day and season.  The summer is oppressively hot (over 34C) and winter is cold.  Daytime and nighttime temperatures vary as well.  Best to check here before you go.

Stay longer.  We had just enough time for our jeep safari and an amazing night under the stars during our one night stay.

We stayed at the Milky Way Ecolodge, situated within the Wadi Rum protected area.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner.  You can read my review here and/or here

Petra by Night

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Petra is undoubtably a highlight of any trip to Jordan. Spending a day (or two or three) in Petra allows visitors to enjoy all the Rose Red City has to offer, but some say the best and most dramatic introduction to Petra is at night.  Ticket holders to the Petra by Night program gather at Petra’s entrance  (near the Indiana Jones gift shop 🙂 ) to wait for a guide.  After a brief introduction and a request for guests to approach the Siq and tomb in silence, the group follows a Bedouin guide through the dramatic, candlelit canyon.  Constellations peek through the Siq roof and shadows play along the red  canyon walls.  Cats scamper in and out of the caves and outcroppings, keeping a wary eye on each passerby.  After the initial crowd surges ahead, the groups thin to couples, stragglers and those anxious to bask in the beauty of the Siq (almost) alone. Someone invariably whistles the Indiana Jones theme amdist fits of giggles. Voices hush in anticipation of the big moment just around the last bend in the Siq walls…the first glimpse of the fabled Treasury, illuminated by hundreds of candlelit lanterns.  Most visitors stand slack-jawed at first, drinking in the moment, measuring it against what they imagined it would be.  Once their eyes adjust, they shuffle to a spot on the blankets spread on the ground in front of the Treasury and enjoy tiny cups of hot, sweet tea served by traditionally-dressed Bedouin men. There is a wave of shush-ing as guests and hosts plead for respectful silence. A man, hidden away in the cliffs, begins to sing.  After a short music program, visitors wander among the lanterns, snapping pictures and conspiring to stay behind for a few moments of tranquility before being gently ushered back into the Siq. The entire experience, including the walk back home, is magical.

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I can’t decide if it would be better to see Petra by day or by night first. Some feel it is best to see  Petra in the daylight, when it is easier to orient yourself and truly appreciate the magnificence of Petra.  Some say the first glimpse should be by candlelight as it might have been centuries ago. Regardless of the order you choose, Petra at night offers a beautiful and unique opportunity to enjoy one of the Wonders of the World.

Have you been to Petra?  Do you think it’s best to see it at night or by day first?

Things to Know

Petra by night takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays.  Tickets cost 12JD and are available from Petra’s ticket office/ Visitor Center.  Check information locally when you arrive, as days and times may change.

If you can’t get to Petra, you can enjoy watching it via live cam.  I spend entirely too much of my time watching it.

Where to stay

We stayed at the Movenpick Petra jut outside the entrance gates.  The hotel was beautiful, the food excellent and the staff efficient and friendly.  I would return in a heartbeat (the breakfast buffet is legendary). There are other hotels conveniently located in the small town and a few Bedouin camps that offer overnight stays nearby.  I only write about or support hotels where I’ve stayed, so I can’t really recommend other hotels. My review on tripadvisor is pending.There is a wide variety of accommodation, suitable for every taste and budget.  Do your research.

If you have any questions about visiting Petra, feel free to ask!

“Why Do You Sleep in the Road?” A Night in the Wadi Rum

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Mohammed dropped us off at Milky Way Camp and drove off in a cloud of desert sand. Our camp host showed us to our tent and invited us for a cup of tea, which we gladly accepted.   It had been a long day and we were exhausted. I don’t know why we were so tired…jeep trekking, tea-drinking and dune-running in the Wadi Rum desert all day?  Perhaps.

camp tent best

As much as we wanted to sit in the tent and drink tea for hours, it was getting late and we had to scramble if we wanted to watch the sun set across Wadi Rum. Rachel and I set down our tea cups, grabbed our cameras and set out across the valley. We saw a hill in the distance and decided the top of that hill would be the best place to catch the last rays of sun.  We walked for 20 minutes and decided to sit down for a minute to rest.

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We sat silently for a long time, enveloped by the incredible beauty of  Wadi Rum. We watched a herd of goats heading home, a pair of camels wandering across the sand and the last rays of sun dropping behind the mountains.  It was absolutely silent and so….peaceful.

I heard the engine before I saw the jeep.  I screamed for Rachel to wake up.

It seemed our “sitting for a minute to rest” had turned into “tipping over and falling dead asleep in the sand” 500 feet from camp. I turned to see the jeep idling 20 feet from us.  The driver was a young-ish man, traditionally dressed in a shemagh and white robe. He looked at me through the windscreen.  I looked at him.  We stared at each other for a minute or so before he stuck his head out the window…

Man:  “You from the camp?”

Me: “Yes!”

Long awkward pause.   He grinned.

Man:  “Why do you sleep in the road?!”

What road?  How was I to know the weed-less part of the sand is considered the road?  I told him we were walking to take pictures of the sunset and got tired.  He laughed hysterically.

Man: “You like the Bedouin…you tired, you sleep… you awake, you go.  Come.  I will give you a ride to see the sunset.”

Rachel and I piled into the front seat of  the truck and barreled across the desert with our new friend, Abdullah (also manager of the tourist camps in Wadi Rum) just in time to see the sun sink behind the mountains.   Another instance of  Arabic hospitality.  Shokran Jazeelan, Abdallah. It was a beautiful sunset.

sunset wadi

Things To Know:

Milky Way Ecolodge is situated within the Wadi Rum protected area of Southern Jordan.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner,

Candles provide lighting at night in the tents and at dinner, but it’s a good idea to bring a flashlight/torch/headlamp.

Children are warmly welcomed!

The accommodations were lovely, the food was good, the company exceptional.  Sitting in the silent desert watching the Milky Way spread out across a pitch-black night sky while listening to Abdullah tell stories about growing up in Wadi Rum was magical, at least for these city girls.  Go.  

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about our stay in Milky Way Camp!