Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Visitor from the Old World

The dhow harbor felt like a trip back in time
Peter Cameron, our sailing tactician and friend, stopped by recently on his way to Perth, where he spends a month or so each year at this time, escaping dreary weather in California and enjoying summer in the southern hemisphere. His plane from San Francisco to Dubai arrived after dark so we couldn't see much of the city as we drove through, but nonetheless Peter had many comments and questions about the construction, infrastructure, and life in the UAE. Answering his questions made me realize how much Mark and I have learned and adjusted these past weeks.

Peter was only here for three nights and two full days, both of which were work days for Mark, so I was the designated daytime guide. We asked Peter what he was interested in, and he said he wanted to go to the top of a building and look out at the landscape. What a great idea! I booked tickets online o go to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for Thursday night, and found a place in Abu Dhabi where we could have lunch in a revolving restaurant on Wednesday.

We started out Wednesday morning with a few laps in the pool, which Peter determined was so warm it made him lazy. He also claimed his board shorts slowed him down; I had somehow succeeded in discouraging him from wearing the Speedo he usually wears for lap swimming. Expats and tourists wear their usual bathing attire, including bikinis and Speedos, at hotel pools and private compounds like ours. I haven’t been to a beach here yet to see what people wear in public. Once Tom’s wife Lucy arrives, we’ll go to the beach at the Corniche.

Peter and I spent the day on what I have come to think of as the Abu Dhabi loop tour. From where we live, you can drive the perimeter of the main Abu Dhabi island and see the most famous and important sights. We started out driving the eastern corniche along Al Salam Street, which is like a freeway. I’m now aware that all of the waterfront roads are corniches; the highway exit signs all point to “Corniche” no matter where you are on the island and which direction you are headed. The road along the downtown waterfront is called Corniche Road, and when people talk about the Corniche, that’s what they are referring to.
Have I mentioned that this place can be confusing?

There is very little natural vegetation here;
protecting mangroves is critical.
From Al Salam we could view the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon. As we drove by, I pointed out the kayak rental concession. You can rent a kayak for 100Dhs per hour, which is around $27, although for your first time out you are required to go with a guide (150Dhs) so that you don’t get lost and, I hope, you will also learn about the importance of this ecosystem. Mangrove forests provide wildlife habitat and important ecosystem benefits including the prevention of coastline erosion by ocean currents and waves. This area, which is just a five minute drive from our compound, will be renamed Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park, the first of five national parks to be protected, according to the Abu Dhabi 2030 Plan.

Mangrove restoration project

I’m looking forward to getting my stand up paddleboard by ship soon; then I’ll be able to launch at the kayak site and paddle among the mangroves.

We drove northwest toward the city and Peter exclaimed over and over about the extent of the construction. In addition to buildings and entire developments there are endless roads, exits, bridges, overpasses, underpasses, and pipeline projects. The area we were driving though as we entered the city is the new Central Business District. Abu Dhabi’s city core is being shifted from the center of the main island to its edge, and beyond to include nearby Al Rheem island and portions of the original port at Al Mina.

Our first stop was the Al Mina vegetable market, where we bought some apricots, oranges, and a miniature pineapple. Peter harassed me for not bargaining, but I hesitated. It’s hard to bargain when you are so new to a place that you don’t know what you should really be paying. Besides, those of you who know Peter know that I have to give him something to squawk about.

Iranian market
Every household necessity is available
Next I showed Peter the old shipping wharves at Al Mina, which are being decommissioned. We drove past the workers’ housing and little shops and markets at New Mina before turning back toward the dhow harbor and fish market.

The fishing dhows are a trip back in time
Walking around the wharf among the fishing dhows, we both felt the impact of being far from home. Peter said it reminded him of his traveling years as a young man, delivering yachts to far-flung places. I appreciate that scenes like this are still here for us to see. The Emiratis take great pride in their heritage, which includes fishing and pearling in the waters surrounding these desert islands.

Public spaces and access to waterfront are plentiful here
As I mentioned, portions of the Al Mina waterfront will become part of the new Central Business District. People want to be near the water, and the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council recognized the importance of maintaining a connection between the city and the Gulf. Older cities around the world have spent billions of dollars over decades to revitalize old ports in much the same way. I’m sure that when it’s complete, the new business district will have first-class public spaces with spectacular fountains and luscious landscaping. That’s the pattern here.

Port operations have moved to Khalifa Port, which is part of a new industrial zone called the Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD.) Phase 1 of five is operational but still under construction. KIZAD is on the Sheikh Zayed Highway between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. You can read about KIZAD at http://www.adpc.ae/en/article/ports/khalifa-port.html

The Palace Hotel marina was fairly empty
We bypassed the fish market because we were having dinner and Trivia Night at The Club. Instead we drove along Corniche Road toward the Palace Hotel, circling around to drive past the gates of the Presidential Palace. You don’t see many guns in the UAE, but the guards here are armed. There is a marina out by the Palace Hotel, and we tried to get in to look at it, but the security guard wouldn’t allow it. I was curious to see how full it was and what types of boats were there. As it turned out, we got to see it later, from our higher vantage point.

Marina Mall is in foreground, Volvo headquarters is in
the area between the marina and the cityfront
Next we turned toward the Marina Mall and Heritage Village area, where preparations are underway for the Volvo Ocean Race competitors’ layover in late January. The big kickoff event is a Coldplay concert on New Year’s Eve. I thought it would be fun to go to the concert, but our group wanted to do something more low key for New Year’s. The VOR is a sailboat race around the world which began in the 1970’s as the Whitbread Round the World Race. Peter sailed it in 1981-82. This year’s fleet is comprised of six boats, including an entry from Abu Dhabi, all of which are using the newest technology in boat design and construction, sails, and instrumentation. Each boat is equipped with video cameras and the crews are fitted with microphones; there are daily Facebook updates. What a difference from when the boats would sail over the horizon and disappear until, weeks later, they would reappear at the next port on the circuit. Another interesting feature of this year’s race is that the exact location of the Abu Dhabi finish line is a secret. Once finished, the boats will be loaded onto a ship and escorted through “Pirate Alley” to finish in Abu Dhabi. Mark is trying to figure out exactly how these logistics will work, but they are doing a good job of keeping it vague. For all the info, go to http://www.volvooceanrace.com/en/home.html

"Buy land, they're not making it any more."
What would Mark Twain say about Abu Dhabi?
Finally it was lunch time, and we headed into the center of the Marina Mall, one of the biggest of Abu Dhabi’s many malls. We went up the glass elevator to Tiara Restaurant in the Burj Al Marina, a tower that reminds me a little of Seattle’s Space Needle, or perhaps a water tower in the Midwest. It takes 65 minutes to complete one revolution, and we had views of Abu Dhabi and the Gulf. The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol but like most higher-end places here they serve “mocktails.” Along with the bread basket, our server brought us each a little shot glass of mint lemonade. This drink is good enough to make me forget how much I’d like to sip a glass crispy white wine, and I don’t think Peter missed his Heineken too much, either.

All we need to get onto Lulu Island is a boat.
As we revolved, we speculated on what might be planned for some areas. Lulu Island intrigued us. Visible from the entire length of Corniche Road are its red mounds, palm trees, and beach umbrellas, and from above you can see how the palm trees and other vegetation are planted in neat rows.

There are no bridges to Lulu Island and it has no marinas. What gives? With a little research, I learned that this man-made island was completed in 1992, and has been the focus of several development plans, none of which have materialized. Lulu Island is one of four districts discussed in the 2030 Plan, as a site for development of tourism, housing, and recreation while preserving open space and public access to its beaches. Ownership is shared by two developers. According to the article in the following link, the latest planned project has apparently been suspended, and the island is being used for recreation while the owners look the other way. http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/environment/lulu-island-closed-to-the-public-sort-of

Sometimes delays result in something that’s better in the end. Lulu Island is an interesting site and I hope that, when plans are finalized and whatever development occurs begins, it will have received the benefit of lessons learned from the countless projects that are already underway here.

No matter your view, the Capital Gateway building is remarkable.
I snapped this photo on a walk around our block.
On the way home we passed by the Capital Gate building, which has taken the title of the world’s “Farthest Manmade Leaning Building” away from Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa. Its inclination is 18 degrees. The 18thto the 33rd floors are a Hyatt hotel, with several restaurants, bars, and a “sky spa.” Hmmm. 

I feel a bit more reverence for the Grand Mosque.

We also rounded the Grand Mosque, which Peter thought looked like a space station for aliens.

That night at The Club, we played Trivia. Our team included Mark and me, Peter, Deb and Dana, Tom, and Tom’s British friend Lee, who Peter called a “pommie.” The Club used to be known as The British Club, and its pub menu is still features some very British dishes, including steak and kidney pie which Lee ordered and judged delicious.

Another classic offering is haggis, with sweetbreads and offal. Yum! I ordered a baked potato.

We didn’t win, which would have meant that our all drinks for the night would be on the house, but we were fourth out of twelve and I did guess a lucky number and win a bottle of wine. Not bad for a new team.

What’s a “pommie?”

It’s what Australians call the Brits: Prisoner of Mother England.

Next up: an account of our trip up the Burj Khalifa. And no, we didn't run into Tom Cruise.

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