Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All that glitters really is gold

But you don't need to be rich to enjoy Abu Dhabi

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It's not cheap getting to Abu Dhabi or Dubai, and many of their hotels are geared to high-rolling oil-and-gas men or F1 fans.

Yet it's entirely possible, indeed advisable, if you want to see how the vast majority of people live in the U.A.E., to enjoy a different, far less expensive, tourist experience.

Desert tours into the Empty Quarter near Liwa are offered by a number of groups. They offer same basics: pickup and drop-off, sunset BBQ, an option to overnight, perhaps some dune-bashing (though from an environmental point of view, you might not want to participate in this; the desert ecosystem is fragile, with many endangered flora and fauna). You can book these tours via the Internet or when you arrive in Abu Dhabi.

Here are other experiences to enjoy in Abu Dhabi or Dubai:

-- A free tour of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. This masjid is said to be the third-largest in the world. It is a feat of architectural design, a wonder that stands alongside the grand cathedrals of Europe and India's Taj Mahal. It boasts the largest Persian carpet in the world (5,627.137 square metres), made of New Zealand wool, and the third-largest chandelier in the world, made of Swarovski crystal. But more important is the stillness, the peace, you'll feel here. Dress modestly, in long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Women must wear an abaya and a head scarf, provided free at the entrance.

-- Walk along the Corniche and its beaches to Heritage Village on the point near the Marina Mall. This is a free DIY tour of what Abu Dhabi looked like 50 years ago, before oil money was spent on infrastructure and development: lots of palm-frond buildings, plus a camel or two for riding. You can learn about the 52 varieties of dates found in the U.A.E. and eat at an inexpensive restaurant. If you're there for dinner, you can watch the Gulf waters darken and the lights turn the Abu Dhabi skyline afire.

-- A free tour of the Emirates Palace Hotel. At the gate, tell security you're going to one of the hotel restaurants or cafés, but once you're past them and parked in the massive, free, underground parking, the hotel is yours. Warning: Don't wear shorts. The restaurants are the finest of the fine in Abu Dhabi and the café top-notch, but be prepared to spend for the privilege of eating there. Walk through the hotel's public areas and admire the craftsmanship, the glassed exhibits of jewelry and local artifacts. If you're lucky, there's an art exhibition. And take note: Everything that appears to be gold, is in fact, gold.

-- Only hotel restaurants serve alcohol to tourists, and since a majority of people in the U.A.E. are Muslim, a hotel restaurant isn't a good place to mingle with locals. If you insist, the Captain's Arms behind Le Meridien offers decent pub fare and pours a solid pint, and the menu of the Belgian Café in the InterContinental is typical steak et frites or moules et frites, plus the best selection of European ales in the city. Better yet, try a non-hotel restaurant and eat among the expats who actually built Abu Dhabi: the Lebanese Flower on Defence Rd., the India Palace or any in the Arab Udupi chain, Cantina Laredo (Khalidiyah Mall), Hanoi Vietnamese restaurant and the Royal Orchid (Thai). The freshest juices come from Forty Fruity kiosks all around the city.

-- Take a bus from the central station behind the Al Wahda Mall to Dubai to visit the gold, spice and perfume souks. (The souk in Abu Dhabi burned in 2004 and was never rebuilt in its original form. Instead, a multi-storey tower called the "central souk" replaced it. But it's a mall.) Walking through the souks is free. You're on your own to negotiate any purchases. Afterward, take an abra, a wooden shuttle costing less than $1 to ride, to the western side of the Dubai Creek to eat and stroll around the Bastikiya, one of the oldest settlements of Dubai, with marvellous wind towers and narrow alleyways.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A1

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