12.12.2013 - 12.12.2013
On Thursday, we sleep late (for us), enjoy a leisurely breakfast before packing and getting on the road by 9:30. We're driving to Al Ain for a day of sightseeing and spending the night there as well. Chaz is taking the day off today. Al Ain, the second largest city in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, is called The Oasis City because of the many underground springs surrounding it. Its elevation is slightly higher than the city of Abu Dhabi and also boasts the highest mountain of Abu Dhabi and second highest in the area at over 4000 feet, Jabel Hafeet. Al Ain is approximately 130 kilometers away which takes us just a bit more than an hour to drive. The drive is along a four lane highway with the ever present tree filled medians. The dunes and desert around Abu Dhabi are golden colored interspersed with low bushes and scrub grass. As we near Al Ain the dunes have changed color to a beautiful red, due to a high concentration of iron oxide. I try to catch this color with my camera but was not too successful.
I have printed directions from Googlemaps but, typically none of the street names coincide with my directions. We continue to follow the signs to Town Center as our hotel is near downtown. Suddenly Chaz sees a sign pointing to our hotel, Al Ain Rotana, and makes a quick turn. We're in front of the hotel but the driveway is only a few feet from the turn and we can't slow down quickly enough to turn in. After a U-turn and another trip around the roundabout we're in the hotel driveway and pulling up to the reception area. It's not even 11:00 but we've decided to check in and get our bearings even if we can't get into our room. We are escorted from the moment we step out of the car and greeted by at least three or four people, each handing us off with much formality until we arrive at a small desk where we are invited to sit and relax as there is someone in front of us being waited on at the reception desk. No standing in line here - this is first class treatment. We've splurged on a 5-star hotel, the Al Ain Rotana, as we're only staying one night. The hotel rises to its four story height in a series of stair steps giving a much more imposing facade than its size would normally warrant. Al Ain has a four story building limit which gives the city a small town feel in spite of its half a million residents. We are served coffee in the traditional little Arabian cups while we check in with the extremely polite desk clerk. Most of the clerks are women and are of various nationalities but we are struck by how beautiful they all are, with their dark hair, olive skin and dark outlined eyes. Our room is not ready but we don't mind, leaving our luggage to be taken up, and getting directions to drive to Jabel Hafeet.
Jabel Hafeet is only a few miles outside of town, straddling the border of Oman. We drive through industrial areas and what seems to be miles of cement factories. As we begin the climb up the mountain we marvel at the road which climbs 7.3 miles up the mountain and rises over 4000 feet. The road is three lanes - two rising, one descending. Edmunds.com declared it the greatest driving road in the world. We stop along one parking lot about three quarters of the way up to snap pictures. An Arabian family is enjoying a picnic, but typically have spread their blankets and food on the ground beside the picnic tables, where they lean against the benches. It's actually against the law in UAE to take pictures of strangers, but how I wish I could show you the locals!
When we have almost reached the top we see the turnoff for the Grand Mercure Hotel, where I have planned for us to eat lunch. The lobby definitely wins the "green award", as it is filled with ivy walls and lush foliage. We make our way downstairs and outside to the pool area where we enjoy a nice lunch overlooking the desert floor. At first we thought it might be too windy to sit outside but our hostess directs us to a table that is sheltered a bit from the wind but alas, not from the flies. There's a small children's race track below us with prowling cats that meow just outside the fence once our food is served! But all in all it's another leisurely lunch in the UAE.
On leaving the parking lot we see two new Bentley convertibles exiting ahead of us. In one a man is sitting atop the backseat with an enormous video camera on his shoulder. Later as we are descending we pass them coming up side by side as the man filming is shooting the Bentley on the beautifully scenic road. Maybe we'll see this in a commercial soon!
We drive all the way to the top where there's a large parking lot and a snack bar. There is also a private residence on the very tippy top, I can't imagine negotiated that 7 mile road everyday just to go to the grocery store!! There are numerous caves within the mountains and archaeological sites dating human existence back 4000 years. Amazing! The drive down is fun and curvy as Chaz takes the corners as only a frustrated race car driver can!!
While we obtained directions TO Jabel Hafeet, we neglected to ask how to drive FROM there and back to Al Ain. Somehow we end up east of our hotel but at a red light we see a sign for Al Ain Palace Museum, one of the spots on my list. We find a parking space and walk back to the imposing structure. This is the former home of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. If you remember my entry last year (A History Lesson) he is the Sheikh that was instrumental in forming the United Arab Emirates and also served as its first president from 1971 until his death in 2004. He is responsible for bringing the country into the 20th century and ensuring the wealth of the oil-boom stayed within its borders. Al Ain was his home where he lived the first 50 years of his life. He donated his home as a museum and entry is free.
The Palace is surrounded by a high wall within which many small buildings are connected by walkways, breezeways and courtyards of green grass, bushes and trees.
First we are directed to a long hallway that has been set up as a museum. There are artifacts from recent history such as coins and pottery and guns but also from archaelogical digs of ancient pottery as well. There is a portrait of Sheikh Zayed holding his son, the current Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. I am also struck by a quote attributed to Sheikh Zayed stressing the importance of educating women.
The women lived on one side of the compound and the men on the other, with a family compound in the center. The living areas are generally on the second floors, presumably to catch what breezes there are with low windows with bars for air flow. Here are some pictures of the women's areas, from their "majlis" or living area to the coffee room and bedrooms.
Next we tour the men's area which is similar to the women's majlis. However one large room must be where he met with large groups of visitors that also has a small office beside it. There are guns displayed on the walls and Chaz marvels at the age of one, musing that it must be at least a hundred years old.
There are outdoor areas for sitting and meeting with visitors under a large tent with a beautiful landscaped courtyard in front.
Completing our tour, we're ready for a rest and negotiate the drive back to the hotel. Chaz's great sense of direction puts us on the right street and we're there in no time! We're pleased with our room which is in an adjoining building to the main hotel. Our room overlooks the pool area which is lined on the opposite side with low bungalows with terraces.