Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Atlanta, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi

Back in high school I used to travel with my dad on his work trips quite a bit. I did mostly online classes my senior year and it wasn't too uncommon for me to pick up and leave for a few days to join him on his 24-hour layovers in Europe. Shortly after I graduated, my dad moved up to captain on the Boeing 777 and I had been dreaming of joining him on another trip (with Nick this time!) ever since! So you can imagine how happy I was when the stars started aligning for Nick's spring break to line up with my dad's rare two-day layover in Dubai. I went to Dubai with my family before we were engaged and had been wanting to go there with Nick for years. It's the type of place you have to see to believe! This was a pretty last-minute trip, but such a dream come true and oh so worth it!

First stop: Atlanta
Even though my dad lives in Utah, he technically has to commute to Atlanta to get to work. His plane covers all of the long haul flights to places like Tokyo, Johannesburg, Sydney, and obviously Dubai. Because of the crazy commute, my dad has a "crash pad" near the airport in Atlanta as is common with a lot of commuter pilots and we were excited to get to spend a day with him around his stomping grounds of the city.

We flew in bright and early on the red eye from Phoenix, took a quick nap, and made our first stop at Waffle House. Because you can't visit Atlanta without going to Waffle House!

From there we took MARTA into downtown Atlanta to go to the Coke factory. Nick had been before back when he was a teenager, but despite being born in Atlanta, I've never really spent much time in the city! We had a fun afternoon touring the museum and of course tasting all of the sodas from across the world.

My dad's flight left that evening so we got to the airport with plenty of time to get to see him do his pre-flight.


And we also got the VIP tour of the pilot rest quarters that are up a little staircase toward the front of the plane.

We settled in for the loooong flight which actually didn't turn out to be that bad. We got to see my dad during his rest breaks and as the cherry on top, got to be there for one of his landing, too!

We arrived in Dubai an entire day later with the time change and got to the hotel around 9pm. We got to ride the crew bus to the hotel and had a fun time getting to know the other pilots and flight attendants. The crew hotel is the JW Marriott near Dubai Creek and they certainly do luxury in true Dubai fashion.

As is tradition with the Dubai flight crew, everyone usually gets together in the evening to mingle and relax over a few beers. We're of course not drinkers, but we did have a good time hearing the story about the flight crew's "football"... aka the beer cooler that gets passed around through the rotating crews that come in every day. Purchasing alcohol in Dubai on the street technically isn't legal, so the incoming pilots buy their drinks from duty-free in the airport and give the hotel staff a little extra tip to keep it until the next crew cycles through a couple hours later. Hilarious.

This particular night was unique because with the time change and scheduling changes, there were two crews of four pilots in the hotel on the same night for their two-day layovers. Nick and I had a great time listing to all the "pilot talk" up in the room for a while, and then two other pilots from my dad's crew took us to one of their favorite restaurants for about 11 pm.

It was about a 15 minute walk to the restaurant into a very residential part of town. A good portion of Dubai's population are male migrant workers who leave their families in countries like India and Pakistan to work in Dubai for 11 months out of the year as taxi drivers, construction workers, etc. I'm not kidding when I say I was the only female in sight the entire night! I never felt unsafe in the least, but it was really interesting to see the demographics of the "real" Dubai outside of the glitz and glamour.

The Eagle restaurant is well known with the pilot crews as a place where you can get great food for super cheap. They certainly gave us a feast! Everything was soooo delicious and the servers were so incredibly nice. It was packed with locals and served a mix of Indian/Pakistani food. We were also the only people there using utensils! All the locals use their hand and flat bread to scoop up the food.

By the time we were done eating it was about 1am and our heads were spinning from lack of sleep. We hit the pillow with heavy eyes and full stomachs!
The next day we took the train and a taxi to Dubai Mall, which when I was there 5 years ago was just barely opening and hardly had any stores. Today, it's the world's largest mall (because, of course, Dubai always has to have the biggest and the best of everything) and is practically the new city center. It's right beneath the Burj Khalifa, which is, you guessed it, the world's largest skyscraper. It was still under construction when I was visiting last so it was awesome to see it in its full glory!I'm not kidding when I say it was a serious feat to get a picture of the entire thing in just one frame! It really is an incredible sight.

We had a few hours to spend around town before we headed back to the hotel for our desert tour we were taking that evening. I had been on one of these with my family before but for Nick's sake, it was an absolute must this trip. And it was worth it! We drove through the famous sand dunes and spent the evening at a mock-up Bedouin camp with dinner and a show. 

Our second day in Dubai we had time to explore all the sights we didn't get to see the first day. We took the sky train to the other side of the city and got to see some great 360 views of the new and old city. There are still just as many cranes as I remember! That place is CONSTANTLY under construction. We hit up Mall of the Emirates, checked out Ski Dubai (although we didn't ski this time around), gawked at the amazing cars and incredibly expensive designer merchandise, and basked in the amazing scents and perfumes that infiltrate practically every department store (in a good way of course). We like to joke that you can "smell" Dubai from the minute you arrive in the airport because everyone who lives there always wears the most amazing scents. They take their perfumes seriously! Oh, and of course there are amazing cars everywhere you look. Especially at the malls. 

We took a taxi over to the Dubai Miracle Garden because I had seen pictures of it that looked really cool. We underestimated how hot it would be walking around in the noon-day sun, but it was a pretty impressive sight to see. Soooooo many flowers.

Then we headed over to the Burj Al Arab which of course is another must-see in Dubai. They don't let tourists on the grounds unless you have a reservation, but maybe one day we'll go inside if we're willing to fork out the $3,500 per night for one of their standard rooms ;) Yeah, right!

Even while being in the midst of the city, it was hard to fathom that even just 50 years ago it was hardly even on the map. The locals were Bedouins and date farmers who practically lived off the land. And today it's one of the wealthiest places in the world and is practically dripping in money. Other than the beach, the natural landscape and climate doesn't really tourists much to do, so they've instead created their own attractions like 7-star hotels, insane shopping malls, indoor ski hills, massive water parks, etc. It's quite the place!

My dad's flight left that night so we headed back to the hotel in the late afternoon so he could get some rest and get ready to go. We sent him off with his crew and although it was sad to have to say goodbye, it really was a dream come true for the both of us to really see him in his element at work and in a foreign city. It's an experience we'll never forget!
It was our last night in Dubai so we wanted to make it back to Dubai Mall for the fountain show. It's like the Bellagio in  Vegas but on steroids. Of course, it's the largest fountain show in the world... because it's Dubai. Haha. 

Since Friday is the holy day in Dubai, Thursday night is essentially their weekend when everyone comes out in hoards to the mall with their friends and family. It made for some fantastic people watching! There are lots of groups of Emiratis out in their traditional dress of black and white gowns, but also tons of expats and tourists from practically every continent and dozens of cultures. 
We found a fun little French restaurant with a patio that overlooked the fountain show and the Burj. The view was totally worth the cost of our overpriced dessert ;)

On Friday we ventured over to Abu Dhabi which is about a two hour drive away from Dubai. The bus system is awesome between the two cities and we had no problem finding our way to and from the stations. This was my first time in Abu Dhabi and our main reason for going was to see Nick's friend and former mission companion Isael Goncalves. Isael grew up in Brazil and moved to Dubai a few years ago. He now works in Abu Dhabi at the Rosewood hotel, which is one of the newest, super modern hotels in Abu Dhabi. It. Is. Amazing! 

These two hadn't seen each other for 10 years and I had heard so much about him from Nick's mission stories. Isael seriously is one of the nicest people I've ever met, and he pampered us from the minute we got into town... starting with a deluxe brunch on the patio! We knew Isael was in the event planning industry but what we didn't know is that he's one of the best sommeliers in the Middle East! He's the head sommelier for the hotel, which means he's in charge of all of the wine lists and purchasing for all of their gourmet restaurants, and he entertains all the VIPs who dine there. We heard stories about everyone from Emirati Sheikhs to the princess of Jordan! We quickly learned that he's a kind of a big deal around the hotel, but he'd never tell you that himself. Every employee around the hotel knows him and raves about how great he is!
Isael hooked us up with some incredible employee discounts including an amazing room. We are normally very budget travelers so this place was incredible to us! 

Everything in the room was controlled by the iPad... curtains, lights, TV, speakers, you name it. Nick had way too much fun opening and closing the curtains at the touch of a button. Haha. 

And as if the day couldn't get any better, Isael and his friends in the hotel spa hooked us up with an amazing afternoon of treatments because he knew it was our anniversary weekend. We had a Cleopatra milk bath in an incredible Carrara marble bath and steam shower room. THEN a couples massage. We were in heaven! 

 Later that night, Isael took us over to the Yas Marina where we had dinner overlooking the yacht club and F-1 circuit. We didn't fork out to drive Ferarris on the track this time although I'm sure Nick was dreaming of it the entire night :)

We walked through the famous Yas Viceroy hotel and watched the cars on the track for a while. It was fun to actually be at the place you see on TV all the time! The next day on Saturday we visited this incredible place:

Sheikh Zayed Mosque is definitely the crown jewel of the UAE and it was just as incredible as everyone says it is! It is incredibly massive, gleaming white, and is opulent in every way. the amount of detail put into this place is truly remarkable!They request that all women are covered when visiting the mosque so before you enter the grounds, you're given a traditional abaya and hijab. It was kind of fun to try out for a few hours but oh boy, it was hot! 

We took a guided tour and learned so many neat things about this place...everything from religious symbols to the details of construction. 

This place opened in 2007 and took 11 years to build. Its entire facade is marble, with 1096 columns on the outside and 96 inside in the prayer hall. All of them are inlaid with different colored marble and mother of pearl. 

The chandeliers are massive and made by Swarovski (of course). The largest one on the right is 33 feet wide and 49 feet tall!

The carpet inside the prayer hall is said to be the world's largest carpet. It took about 1,200 people two years to make it by hand! All in all, they say the entire building cost close to 1 billion dollars to complete. 

The inner courtyard is kept meticulously clean (which is a big task with all the dust and sand in the air) and is almost blinding to look at because it's so white! I loved learning more about Islam and seeing firsthand one of their most holy places. 

After that we stopped by the Souk mall in Abu Dhabi for a delicious Lebanese lunch at Tarbouche Al Basha. The skewers and mint shakes were to die for! Isael has great taste in food! 
And because flying standby comes with a predictable level of unpredictability, we decided to stay an extra night at the Rosewood because flights filled up back Atlanta at the last minute. But it worked out because we actually got to celebrate our anniversary at a fabulous hotel instead of on the plane!
Isael took us on a tour of the brand new Cleveland Clinic that literally opened its doors the week before we got there. Since the hotel is just across the street from the hospital, Isael was involved in a lot of the opening events as well as entertaining all of the U.S. doctors that they hired on at the hotel. This place was absolutely stunning. I mean, have you ever seen a hospital with marble inlay floors??

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool.  And that night the Rosewood staff sent up a delicious chocolate cake for us and we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the pool. An anniversary well spent! 

The next morning we enjoyed one last delicious breakfast in the buffet room:

I can say that was probably the first time I've ever had breakfast underneath a crystal chandelier with actual honeycomb on my plate! Amazing in every way! 

And then we said goodbye to our dear friend Isael who was the best host we could have asked for! We're already looking forward to the next excuse we have to visit him in Abu Dhabi! We started our long (and what turned out to be very complex) journey home, beginning with the bus ride back to Dubai. To make a long story short, after missing the first flight back to Atlanta, we spent an extra night in Dubai and ended up buying Nick a one-way ticket on Emirates the next morning so he could get back for school. I spent the following day in Dubai by myself at the hotel, and went back to the airport that night to try for the next Delta flight.... which I didn't get on. Hmpf. Thanks to my brother Aaron and the ITA Matrix, he found me a one-way ticket back to Phoenix via Gulf Air for an incredible price (given the fact that I purchased it at the ticket desk). It took me through Bahrain (yes, Bahrain!), Frankfurt, and Dallas, but it got me home the next day!   

It was quite the trek, but now I can say I've been to a country that few other people have in the Middle East... even if it was only for a couple hours ;)
All in all, this was an incredible trip from start to finish and it was a true adventure in every sense of the word! We got to check a lot of things off of our bucket list and made so many amazing memories.