After 20 years of travel I still haven’t lost a sense of wonder or bemusement about the world, but it is not often now that a destination can really surprise me. A recent visit to Abu Dhabi not only threw me a huge curve ball with how much I ended up loving the country, but gave me a timely reminder of why I love travel too.
I have been to Abu Dhabi a few times now, but only on quick layovers so I have never really spent the time to just explore or enjoy the country, but my most recent visit gave me the opportunity to take some time and do just that.
Given my generally negative feelings about Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s closest Emirati neighbour and a destination I just could not gel with at all, I’ll be honest in that I wasn’t expecting all that much from Abu Dhabi as a destination. I was here for work, to give a keynote speech at a youth expo about responsible wildlife tourism, but it wasn’t somewhere that I would have chosen to come back to just to visit.
Don’t get me wrong I knew it was a really pretty city as city’s go. It was clean, it was safe, it had everything anyone could want in terms of sights to see and things to do, but that is where my expectations ended. Serviceable. Functional. Nice.
Pleasant, but nothing special.
How wrong I was.
I took my time getting ready the first morning I woke up in the hotel. I had arrived after dark the night before so I had pretty much just gone to bed. I showered for longer than I usually do. I went down for breakfast and took my time reading a book while I nursed a cup of coffee and a few extra helpings of fruit.
I was in no real rush to get out there and explore. I knew I wanted to, and the question that I would go out and see as much as possible was never in doubt. I just didn’t have the usual childlike Christmas Day enthusiasm that I get in most new places.
My perceptions of Dubai and jaded alter ego after twenty plus years of travel were clouding my judgement.
So after breakfast I set off to explore. I knew I wanted to visit the Grand Mosque first. I had seen it in passing a couple of times but had never actually been, and given that it is Abu Dhabi’s premier tourist attraction how could I not make it my first stop?
For some reason I turned away from the taxi rank outside of the hotel and decided to walk. It was only ten or fifteen minutes away and the morning sun was still cool enough so why not?
That walk was one of the nicest I have had in a while. I don’t know why, I used to love walking just for walking’s sake but for some reason in recent years had fallen out of love with it. The sun was warm, the air was pleasant and there were just a few people starting their day out and about. I stopped along the way to pet a friendly cat. An armed security guard smiled as I passed and I returned his casual salute with a smile of my own. It gave me time to think.
I found myself just admiring the architecture of the buildings up close, the skyline of the glass and chrome skyscrapers in the distance. Just enjoying the moment and the place I was in. I can’t remember the last time that happened.
That feeling continued after I reached the Grand Mosque. The building itself was spectacular and blew me away with how impressive it was, but it was more than that, it was just the feeling of being able to sit back and enjoy it. It was the fact that I actually could just sit back and enjoy it without thinking of it as work. I am writing about it now of course but I have no sponsorship obligations or deadlines to meet. I of course took pictures but I wasn’t setting up equipment and shot after shot to tell a specific story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. This website is my business and I love it, but it can be all consuming. It had been too long since I had just travelled for the sake of travel.
I was just enjoying being in the moment, and I wasn’t the only one who noticed. A guard noticed that unlike the other tourists who were snapping selfies in the designated spots I was just sitting on my own, quietly watching and admiring the architecture, and he came to chat. I suppose I was a curiosity at this point. The tourist not taking a selfie for the gram. What followed was a pleasant conversation about the obligatory topic of football and exclamations from his friends about Liverpool Football Club when I told him where I was from and he beckoned them over.
I was reminded that it was these interactions, these connections were a huge part of what made travel special.
The next day I found myself at the beach, or more accurately walking along the massive eight Kilometre stretch of gentrified waterfront known as the Corniche, with regular stops along the way to enjoy the sand and dip my toes in the water.
It was honestly one of the most pleasant days I have had in a while. No work, no thoughts, just enjoying what was genuinely one of the nicest waterfronts I have seen in a long time.
With few exceptions I am generally not a big fan of cosmopolitan cities, Singapore being the obvious exception as one of my favourite destinations in the world, but Abu Dhabi really won me over. It was as clean, as modern and as cosmopolitan a metropolis as Dubai or any other major city, but still felt like a small, relaxed village that oozed culture and charm, one of the exact same reasons I love Singapore incidentally!
Abu Dhabi really did enchant me with its easy elegance, it’s beautifully gentrified streets and grand opulent buildings, but it was more than that.
I was just enjoying the act of travel again.
The chance to just be in a place, to enjoy that moment in time, reminded me that travel can still surprise me even after over 20 years, and I love Abu Dhabi for that.
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