OK, although I’m back now, I kept notes along the way (and couldn’t post them because I didn’t quite finish them, the Internet connection was dodgy in the hotel, and also because I didn’t have enough time!) and so these are ‘live’ observations, except now collated and better organised 🙂 I’m going to do a couple of posts organised by topic, the first being this, on practicalities: getting around etc. I’ll also do one on eating out and on things to do (what I actually did plus recommended), and I’ll see if there’s anything left after that!
Practicalities: getting around, where to stay and other useful bits of information
Getting around: whereas Dubai has the awesome, spotless underground system, Abu Dhabi does not have anything. Your two main options are taxi or bus. A third option if you’re like me is walking: it was a little too warm to do it in the middle of the day, but in the later afternoon and mornings I loved it as a way to get to know the area, and also assess how far places really are from your hotel! I took a bus to and a taxi from the Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre on my first day, the taxi costing about 10 AED. When I checked a map and decided to walk, it was only a mile from my hotel and took me about 15-20 minutes to walk! It’s not for everyone, but I loved soaking in the atmosphere,which you can only really do when you’re literally in the middle of it wandering around.
Taxis are pretty cheap and ubiquitous; a friend who has lived there advised me to only take the silver ones and NOT the gold and white ones. I think the latter are a negotiate-and-fix-your-price to a destination, but I didn’t bother as the silver ones are totally trouble-free to take. They also seem to have become much better regulated in the UAE than they were a few years ago: in 2008 my family and I got into a taxi in Dubai driven by a young Pathan who was new to the job and got us totally lost, but refused to switch off the meter. After a dramatic show-down where his cousin or brother turned up and tried to diffuse the situation, and the passionate young driver refused our money (for the right fare if he had not got horribly lost) by throwing it on the floor in front of our hotel, we were all left a little shaken by the experience and understandably apprehensive about taking a taxi in Dubai. However, last year we had a very good experience with all of the taxi drivers we had, but this was the first time I was going to experience the taxi service in Abu Dhabi, and as a single female. I had nothing to be worried about: the drivers were all very professional and the meter was on at all times. The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel (about 35km) cost about 65 AED (roughly £11). It cost around 15-20 AED to get from the hotel to the Emirates Palace, which is a must-visit, and approx 35 AED to get to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, again another must-see.
If you are not in a hurry and want to save some money, take a bus! The bus maps and routes can be found at http://www.ojra.ae/ – select ‘Abu Dhabi City Local Bus Services’ from the pdf maps in the list. The bus fare is 2 AED (approx 20p), and several routes serve the major malls (Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Mall and Al-Wahda Mall). It’s perfect for shorter journeys, too, where it feels a bit extravagant (and not very cost-effective) to take a taxi, but you don’t feel like waking. The bus drivers tend to speak reasonable English, so ask them to tell you where to get off for a certain destination.
One of the things I loved was the separate section for women and children in the buses and also the Dubai underground. The front of the buses in Abu Dhabi are reserved for women, so I felt a lot more comfortable about not having to get up close and personal with a staring male stranger (the non-Arab men do stare, particularly the Indian and Pakistani men). In Dubai, the women-only carriages are marked on the platform and inside, and it’s strictly enforced: women have no problem telling slightly bewildered and unassuming male tourists that this carriage is not theirs. The remaining carriages are mixed, although most local residents will observe the segregation, except for families who will stay together in the mixed carriages.
Hotels: hotels are generally cheaper in Abu Dhabi than Dubai, and the standard is still very high. My hotel was located on Khalifa Street, near the Corniche. The location was ideal to get everywhere easily (whether by bus, taxi or foot), as it was one street north of Hamdan Street and New Airport Road, which are two major roads with lots of buses travelling down them. I would recommend this area to stay in. (The photo is the view from my window :)). Overall, Abu Dhabi was very safe: I walked from Al-Wahda bus station back to my hotel late at night, and apart from some stares, had no trouble at all. How did I select my hotel? Like everyone else, TripAdvisor is my indispensable friend for researching hotels and doing price comparisons!
(On a side note, I am researching beach hotels for my brother who wants to make a solo trip himself 🙂 The best beach hotels are the Emirates Palace (great location just off the Corniche, beautiful hotel, but expensive) and the Shangri-La (beautiful hotel, attached to a nice souk with crafts and jewellery shops, but at a distance from the main city), but both with some cons attached. It depends on what you want to do and what’s important to you).
Currency: the currency of the UAE is the Dirham (AED), and at the time of writing the exchange rate is approx 5.9 AED to £1. I exchanged some money on Edgware Road (much better than using a high street exchange service), but actually I got a better rate in Abu Dhabi or, better still, Dubai. The rate in the malls is a little poorer than in Deira but still better than here. If you’re tempted to use your card as much as possible, remember that cash is king here! A lot of places take cash only, including taxis, small shops and some restaurants (eg Baskin Robbins, LebaneseDhabi Flower), and many of the shops in the souks eg Spice Souk in Dubai, smaller Arabic perfume stores etc. I ended up having to withdraw cash from an ATM (they have HSBC and Standard Chartered ATMs in some of the big malls) because my £70 cash allowance was not enough!
If I can summarise the above from a single female traveller’s perspective, it would be to say that you can travel around safely and comfortably in Abu Dhabi, whether by taxi, bus or by foot.
Other practical notes…
Language: obviously the official language is Arabic, but English is widely spoken, and I was not in a situation where I was stuck in a linguistic impasse with somebody. If you happen to speak Urdu or Hindi, this is also very useful, as most taxi and bus drivers will be Indian or Pakistani, so will speak Urdu/Hindi. You could say it was the unofficial secondary language of the UAE; realistically, you are going to have little contact with Emiratis and other Arabic-speakers as they will be too busy shopping at Cartier or inspecting their fleet of yachts to mix with the hoi polloi. I found myself speaking Urdu regularly, and I like to think my mum would be proud.
A small point which made me stumble: Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE operates with a 3-pin system for electrical appliances. I thought that they used the two-pin system, but I’m obviously about 5 years behind, if not more, as the voltage and plugs in the hotel room were 3-pin I.e., the same as in the UK. If you have left behind your UK Apple adaptor and have two Apple devices with you, that’s no so good. Lesson learned.