Wondering what life is like in Abu Dhabi and Dubai? We’ve partnered with travel writer Dr. Cacinda Maloney of Points and Travel to learn all about life in the United Arab Emirates through a Q&A session with Abu Dhabi/Dubai expat and entrepreneur Christina Decker.
First, please introduce yourself, who are you and what are you all about?
I’m an American entrepreneur and blogger living in the UAE for the past 7 years with my family. I co-founded a company called ethical muse 5 years ago with my partner and close friend Cathy Leibman. We blog about sustainable luxury, and also design corporate VIP and event gifts made from sustainable and environmentally kind materials.
Christina of ethical muse at a Dubai Graffiti Art Exhibit, UAE. Photo by Jeff Decker.
I remember the day I heard you and your family were moving to the United Arab Emirates. Can you tell us how you got to the Middle East as an American?
My husband is an architect, and in 2008 when his high-profile projects were put on hold in the States, we decided to take advantage of a job offer to move to the UAE. We thought it would just be for a year … but 7 years later, here we still are.
Do you remember your first impressions once you arrived? Did you ever think you would live outside of the United States?
While I always aspired to travel the world, it never crossed my mind that I would have the opportunity to live outside of the U.S. My first impressions of our new country were of the huge diversity of people and how many languages you could hear spoken all around you. Also, how clean it was and how safe it felt. I still feel that today.
Camel rides on the beach, UAE. Photo by Christina Decker
If you had 3 things to recommend for someone who comes to visit Abu Dhabi or Dubai, what would they be?
Whenever someone comes to visit we like to show them a mix of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But, you only want three recommendations? There are so many to choose! I suppose if you only had a day or two to spend here then I would recommend popular tourist attractions. If you can stay a bit longer, there is so much more to share and this list of 3 would quickly jump to 10!
1. I know it sounds super touristy, but we always encourage our guests to take The Big Bus Tour. The double-decker bus has a couple routes to choose from in Dubai and a route in Abu Dhabi. It’s a great way to get an overview of both cities. You can buy a package so you are able to visit Dubai on one day and Abu Dhabi the next. The tours stop at all the great spots and then visitors can decide where they would like to get off and spend more time. In Dubai, the stops include both new Dubai and old Dubai.
2. It seems like no holiday here is complete without a dune-bashing adventure in the desert, followed by an authentic Arabic dinner under the stars, surrounded by the desert sand dunes. It’s a great cultural experience and a lot of fun for singles, couples or families.
3. In Dubai, a trip to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is one you will want to check off your list. Nothing compares to that view at 1,821 feet above the ground. It would be like going to Paris and not experiencing the Eiffel Tower. On the flip side, in Abu Dhabi, a visit to the Grand Mosque is a wonderful cultural experience. Make sure you wear modest clothing and bring a headscarf for that visit. They are quite strict. They also provide abayas (the long black robe) and shaylas (headscarves) for women and khandouras for the men (the long white robe also known as a dishdash) if you don’t come prepared.
Burj Khalifa, UAE, Photo by Jeff Decker
Do you consider Abu Dhabi or Dubai a place where Americans should go on vacation or for exploration?
Absolutely! There is so much to do and see here. I think most people would be surprised to find such a modern and progressive city, home to so many nationalities, amazing restaurants, shopping, beaches, and at the same time, a safe place with a fun nightlife.
Do you ever go exploring the cities on your own or with a friend? If so, do you feel safe?
Ironically, I feel safer on the streets here on a daily basis than I do back in the States. Except when it comes to driving … that can be a bit challenging at times with traffic and some crazy drivers. You definitely need to stay extremely aware when driving. I love to explore new places with friends or my family.
Christina and Cathy, founders of ethical muse. Photo by Jeff Decker
Recently, my ethical muse partner, Cathy, and I went to an old area of Dubai called Bastakiya to explore the art galleries and the old world Dubai feel. It’s the perfect way to spend a couple hours and see another side of Dubai. From there you can also take an abra across the creek to the gold and spice souks. The metro makes it very accessible. I believe the Big Bus Tour has a stop near there too.
Bastakiya, Old Dubai, UAE. Photo by Christina Decker
If you could give one piece of advice to someone traveling to Abu Dhabi or Dubai for the first time, what would it be? Is there anything in particular they should pack?
My advice would be to expect to love it and to plan a long enough trip to explore both cities. If you are traveling all the way over here from the U.S., you should see as much as you can. I would also read up on their customs so you know the rules that must be followed. While they are very tolerant, it is a Muslim country and that should be respected. We are all guests here.
As far as what to pack, regardless of which season you are traveling, make sure to pack a swimsuit (bikinis are allowed!), and women should always bring a light cardigan or wrap. You will see all types of fashion choices here and at the hotels and resorts any type of clothing goes, but when in public places it’s respectful to cover your shoulders. You won’t find everyone adhering to that, but I feel as guests in this country we need to stay respectful. Emirati tolerance and hospitality is amazing, so the least we can do is respect their rules. Besides, the air conditioning inside most places is set so cold that you will be happy to have a sweater just to stay comfortable.
Can you share some of your most unique or favorite experiences since arriving in the UAE?
I love being on fast boats in open water. There is a Yellow Boat tour in Dubai that will take you out to sea and stop on the backside of both the Atlantis Resort and the 7- star Burj Al Arab for fabulous photo opportunities.
Atlantis Resort, Dubai, UAE. Photos by Christina Decker
I also enjoyed a weekend stay at Qasr Al Sarab, a luxury hotel out in the middle of the Empty Quarter; a vast desert beyond Abu Dhabi with beautiful orange hued sand dunes.
Qasr Al Sarab, United Arab Emirates, Photo by Christina Decker
You are in the middle of nowhere, a real getaway, living a true luxury experience. During our stay we had a private family camel trek outside of the hotel grounds amidst all the towering dunes. So memorable.
One thing to mention, which is still on my bucket list, is to explore Sir Bani Yas Island — a natural island located around 1-½ hours from Abu Dhabi. It is home to a number of different wildlife species that you can discover on a safari. You can choose to spend the night at the 5-star luxury Anantara Resort, or just go for a day trip. There is full-service spa, fabulous dining options and a range of activities, or you can hang by the pool. The island is only accessible by seaplane or water taxi.
Do you have any favorite dining spots?
There is definitely not a shortage of restaurants here! I have so many favorites it’s hard to narrow them down, but I’ll try!
Inexpensive eats: Lebanese food is always a family favorite. When we are craving a meal of mixed grill, hummus and Arabic salad our go-to place in Dubai, with a casual family atmosphere, is Reem Al Bawadi. There are a few different locations in Dubai, but our favorite one is in the Marina, with outside dining and a view of the harbor and a skyline backdrop. In Abu Dhabi, we love Lebanese Flower.
Luxury eats: It doesn’t get much better than Nobu at the Atlantis Resort for me.
Hip/trendy eats: Tom and Serge is our go-to breakfast spot every Friday morning in Dubai. I also frequently head here to meet girlfriends for lunch. Owned by an Australian and a Spaniard, their menu is healthy, fresh, modern and unique with fresh juices and great coffee. On top of fabulous food, the industrial aesthetic and loft-style vibe add to the appeal for me. It is always crowded and full of great energy.
With a view: 101 Dining Lounge and Bar at One & Only The Palm is right on the water and has my favorite view – the Marina area skyline. Even though I live in Dubai, I always feel as though I am on vacation when I have the opportunity to dine here. The service and the food are excellent.
Have you stayed in any of the hotels that are over the top in the UAE that I hear so much about? Have you experienced high tea or a spa there?
In Dubai we have stayed at the Atlantis, which always lives up to its 5-star quality and service and is a fun stay for the entire family.
Atlantis Resort, Dubai, UAE, Photo by Christina Decker
In Abu Dhabi we have stayed at Qasr Al Sarab, which I mentioned above. I highly recommend this understated luxury resort in the middle of the Empty Quarter. The orange sand dunes surrounding the property go on for miles and make you feel like you are truly having a Middle Eastern experience, so far removed from the city.
The vast desert beyond Abu Dhabi with beautiful orange hued sand dunes, UAE. Photo by Christina Decker
I have tried high tea at the Ritz Carlton, but on my wish list is to indulge in high tea at the over-the-top Burj Al Arab. Visitors are not allowed on the property unless they have a reservation for dining or are a guest staying there. Reserving a “tea time” is the perfect way for a tourist to enjoy their afternoon cup and experience this high-end property without paying the high price to stay overnight.
In Abu Dhabi, Emirates Palace would be on the list. I have been to this decadent hotel, complete with an ATM machine that dispenses gold bars instead of cash, for informal tea but not high tea. During Christmas time, the giant tree was strewn with real diamond and jeweled ornaments.
Best spa experience: For me, it was a Bastien pedicure at One & Only The Palm.
I heard there was an indoor ski mountain! Have you tried it?
Yes, there is! A favorite with locals and tourists, my boys and husband have enjoyed skiing there on a few occasions but I haven’t personally tried it.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you about your move to the UAE or about Abu Dhabi and Dubai that you want to mention?
I didn’t even touch on the beaches and the shopping…there is also a growing art scene, extreme sports, and of course plenty of green to be found if you are a golfer …
And the list goes on!
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