Thursday, November 20, 2014

Abu Dhabi – The Pearl Of The World


            The desert has always been the perfect backdrop for romance-  think Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient, all the way back to Valentino’s 1921 movie, The Sheik, in which “a charming Arabian sheik becomes infatuated with an adventurous, modern-thinking Englishwoman and abducts her to his home in the Saharan desert”. 
So it is not surprising that Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte should run away to Abu Dhabi and the deserts of the United Arab Emirates when their New York lives threaten to become mundane, in 2010’s Sex in The City 2.  Its nickname is ‘the pearl of the world’.
While Dubai is the emirate that you hear most about, it is Abu Dhabi, with its more subdued profile, which became the nominative setting for the adventures of the Sex and the City girls. The capital of the emirate, also called Abu Dhabi, has wide boulevards, larger than life architecture and immense wealth.  And right on the doorstep of the city is the immensity of the desert. Perfect backdrop for a blockbuster movie. 

            It is a city that confounds categorization.  On one hand there are gleaming shopping centres, exclusive luxury hotels and expensive yachts anchored in the harbours.  This is a very wealthy city and it celebrates its abundance in daring architecture, like the Emirates Telecommunications Company (Etisalat) Building with its gigantic golf ball at the top or the pointy topped National Bank of Abu Dhabi building.  I saw cars parked casually in front of hotels that would make a car lover’s heart sing – and that you seldom see in the real world.  Shops team with gold jewellery, and perfumeries prepare personal blends of signature aromas for their customers.
            Abu Dhabi is also home to the seven star Emirates Palace Hotel, the most expensive hotel ever built.  It is a fairy tale hotel, with marble halls, gilded domes, and splashing fountains.  Suites open to balconies that look out on the Persian Gulf.  A private butler greets you with chilled champagne and hands over his card with his cell phone number, to be used “whenever there is a need.” Later in the evening, the bath has been drawn, with fresh rose petals sprinkled on the towels, and more petals beside the bed.  There are 114 domes, 1002 chandeliers, 13 restaurants, and a vending machine that dispenses gold. The ATM-style kiosk monitors the daily gold price and offers small bars up to 10 grams or coins with customized designs. It’s an experience tailor made for a Carrie Bradshaw.
            This is a hotel that is a destination in itself, outrageously luxurious, and imbued throughout with the romantic style of the Arabic world.

            But the ancient world lives on in Abu Dhabi.  There is much reverence for the Bedouin life style that existed in these parts up until oil became the driving force of the economy in the early sixties.  So you can see ancient dhows still plying the waterways.  In the souks, piles of dates, heaps of carpets, handicrafts and spices are offered in shops along narrow ally ways and at makeshift stalls and tables.  The Iranian Souk is one of the most authentic souks in Abu Dhabi, while the Al Meena Souk is the place to bargain for carpets. Go to the Madinat Zayed Gold Souk for good buys on jewellery.    In the fish market, local fishermen display their catch like artwork.
If you leave your window open, you’ll hear the muezzin echo through the city, calling its citizens to prayer, five times during the day.  In my hotel room, inside one of the drawers is a prayer rug and a compass.
There is a concerted effort to preserve the Arabic style in architecture, furnishings, and cuisine.  While almost any international cuisine is available, every corner has cafes and restaurants that offer the special foods of the Middle East.  A traditional meal will usually start with mezzeh, a selection of tasty appetizers, often including tabbouleh, hummus and falafel. Main courses include lamb infused with cardamom, saffron, turmeric and thyme, and the meal will end with desserts made from dates, pistachios, and honey, or muhalabiya, a milk pudding served with rose water and pistachios.   Before the meal, diners are welcomed with dates and small cups of ghawah, the fragrant and sweet Arabic coffee .And after the meal, there’s usually  a hookah or ‘shisha’ to help you relax.  This exotic water pipe bubbles smoke through water, and can be spiced up with flavours like lavender, vanilla, cherry, cinnamon, or orange.
The Anar Restaurant in the Emirates Palace Hotel does elegant Persian food, while the Abdel Wahab, near the Grand Mosque serves a simpler take on Emirati and Lebanese dishes.
While most restaurants, particularly those in the large hotels, serve alcohol, many will not serve alcoholic drinks before sundown during Ramadan, the month long Islamic holiday that requires fasting from sun-up to sun down.   This year Ramadan runs from early August to early September
            One of the surprising facts about Abu Dhabi is that less than 20 percent of the population are UAE.  The bulk of the population is made up of expatriates.  That means that the atmosphere of the city is more cosmopolitan and more liberal than one would expect in a predominantly Muslim country.  While it is good manners to respect the conservative mode of dress of the city, most forms of dress are seen on the streets with no problem.  Within hotels and resorts, there are no dress restrictions. 
One of the startling contrasts I witnesses was on the beach in front of the Rotana Hotel.  On a lounge chair, a woman relaxed in the shade, dressed in a black abaya that covered her completely from head to toe.  On the adjacent lounge, another woman sunned in a tiny bikini.  Neither one seemed to be bothered by the other.

            This is a city of beaches.  Abu Dhabi is actually a T-shaped island, connected by bridges to other islands and to the mainland.  There are over 400 kilometres of coastline.  The Corniche, the elegant walking path in the centre of the city, is a favourite place for walking, jogging or biking, and is lined with cafes and shops.  A white sand beach stretches for 2 kilometres along its length, and there are landscaped parks and picnic grounds.
            Day trips from the city into the desert give visitors the chance to experience the nomadic life of the Bedouins.  You can visit the large camel market at Al Ain, where white robed locals barter for the best camels, and you can see every size, from babies to full grown, of this ancient ‘ship of the desert’.  You can ride a camel through the dunes, sleep in a Bedouin tent and dine under the stars in an encampment. A popular activity is dune bashing, or wadi bashing, where practised drivers take you on hair-raising races through the desert, sliding down the sides of one dune and skidding up the next.  You can even surf the sand dunes, or play golf on sand links, with a portable circle of grass that you tee off from.
            If you tire of the sand, Al Ain, 150 kilometres from Abu Dhabi, is the ‘garden city of the Gulf’, an oasis in the sand and the home of the Royal family.  It is a much more rural city, with a National Museum, the Hili Archaeological Park and surprisingly, an Olympic sized ice skating rink.  me of the best scuba diving in the world is to be found in the clear waters of the Persian Gulf.
            This is one of the safest and most cosmopolitan cities in the UAE, and I felt very
comfortable here.  Most people speak English and there is a casual acceptance of western ways, while the life style and history of the desert region has been both preserved and celebrated. 
            Abu Dhabi is the perfect city to begin an exploration of the Middle East.

Travel Information
 The United Arab Emirates is a federation of seven Arab emirates, with Abu Dhabi being the largest, and the capital.  It also has the largest oil reserves.

Canadians do not require a visa to visit Abu Dhabi.
Etihad Airways has three direct flights a week from Toronto to Abu Dhabi.
Where to Stay:
General Information:

© Barbara Ramsay Orr

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Hague: The Widow of Indonesia

The Dutch Royal City

 The Hague is often called The Widow of Indonesia as many of the 
plantation owners and employees of the Dutch East India Company 
came from here and returned to here.  The exotic flavours they brought back 
show up in almost evey corner of this elegant Dutch city.

Morning sun streams in through large windows, bouncing off white linen and silver, and making the red velvet chairs glow. In one corner, men in conservative business suits and crisp white shirts sit drinking their morning coffee and consulting their iPhones. 
It’s eight am on Monday morning in the Hotel des Indes, the favoured headquarters for lawyers, politicians and diplomats who conduct business in The Hague.  And since this is the Royal City, home of the World Court and the Dutch parliament, there is much serious business to be done.
There’s a problem, though.
Step outside the revolving brass doors of Hotel des Indes, and you face the seductive charms of the Lange Voorhout.  A corridor of green linden trees, a famous bi-weekly outdoor antique market, little secret gardens, and casual sidewalk cafes make thinking about business difficult.
Welcome to the vibrant dichotomy that is The Hague, a city that has been labelled the greenest city in Northern Europe as well as the world centre for peace and justice.   Its decisions affect the whole world, and its Indonesian rijstaffel is world famous.
Somehow these competing elements manage to strike a balance – the serious business of world issues and governance finds a comfortable fit with the not so serious business of enjoying the simpler pleasures of life – dining, shopping, lounging in the sun and people watching, in this, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.

First you have the unexpected juxtaposition of buildings in the old city.  The elegant town houses and embassies that line the Lange Voorhout as it parades up to the 13th century Binnenhof, the buildings that house the Dutch parliament, could be illustrations in a textbook of classical architecture. 
But raise your eyes above the Binnenhof and you’ll see the modern skyline, where tall skyscrapers are multiplying.  It doesn’t feel like a disconnect, however.  There are traditional canal house design elements suggested in several shapes.  In typical Dutch fashion, the locals have given each building a nickname – the pristine white city hall designed by Richard Meier is called “The Candy Box”, the green domed one is labelled “The Citron Press” and  Michael Graves’ Castalia, the new Ministry of Health building, is deemed “The Tits of Den Haag”  because of its two distinctive pointed towers.
But there are more layers to the architectural landscape of the city. The Hague is the Art Nouveau capital of the Netherlands. Remember to look up often as you walk through the streets of Den Haag to see the architectural details that have been preserved above shops and cafes.

Walk away from the Binnenhof and find the Denneweg, then turn right along Jagerstraat and left onto Smidwater.  Here you’ll find #26, a faithful example of Art Nouveau architecture that is privately owned and in the process of being restored to its former glory.  The mail slot is a very cool stylized cat.
In contrast, just across the canal is #16 Nieuwe Uitleg, where the exotic dancer and suspected spy Mata Hari lived.
The Bijenkorf Department Store in the Grote Markt area is a fine example of The Amsterdam School of architecture. 
Radiating out from this sedate city heart are streets that bend and twist, opening onto ‘pleins’, or squares, offering seductive shopping and cafes that lure you to linger for a coffee and a stroopwaffel, the thin waffle cookie with a thick syrup in the middle that the Dutch make so well.  
The shopping is good. Along Hoogestraat you’ll find Ogen, Eduard Pelger, Dunklemens (famous for its croquettes), all up market Dutch shops.  If remarkable undergarments interest you, be sure to visit Marlies Dekkers’ shop on the Denneweg to pick up a unique and provocative ‘little nothing’. Amble by the interesting shops in the grand glass roofed Passage, or swan around in the cafes and sops in the new Haagshe Bluf (The Hague Boast!).
The Nooreinde is acknowledged to be the most fashionable shopping street. The Maison de Bonneterie is an upscale department store that is frequented by Queen Beatrix.  Pauw, Purdey and Hoogeweegen Rouwers are rumoured to be favourite shops of the young Dutch royals.  Gallery Arte Fortunata features artist Bas Meeuws whose photographs of floral still life, epoxy-sealed on metal, are an homage to the golden age masterpieces of Bosschart and  van Aelst.
And further along, on the Paleis promenade, cheek by jowl with the shops and galleries, is the Paleis Noordeinde, Queen Beatrix’s working palace.  It is not open to the public, but you can walk through the restful palace gardens on the opposite side. 
Farther out from the centre in the well treed neighbourhoods that are home to many ambassadors, there’s the imposing bulk of the Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice.

If it wasn’t already difficult to concentrate on work in this lively metropolis, there is the added allure of the beach. A fifteen minute tram ride brings you to a whole new face of The Hague.  The beach culture at Scheveningen lures city dwellers out to swim in the North Sea, walk the miles of white beaches and gentle dunes or to lounge in the sun on plump sofas with a glass of cold beer in one of the many clubs along the boardwalk.  The candy-confection Kurhaus Hotel sits like a Victorian lady in the middle of the boardwalk busyness.  There are evening fireworks shows over the pier all summer.


Another compelling distraction is the museums of The Hague, the city’s real treasures.  The Mauritshaus, labelled the most beautiful museum in the world by the New York Times, is hands down my favourite museum.  The building has just re-opened after extensive renovations.  It is a small museum, but its collection, displayed in high ceilinged rooms painted in jewelbox colours, is spectacular. It contains some of the most famous works from the old Dutch Masters, including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and View of Delft, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp  and Carel Fabritius’ Goldfinch

The Escher Museum, housed in a former palace on the Lange Voorhout, the Museum Het Paleis, displays the convoluted works of the famous Dutch Graphic artist.
The Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum) specializes in classical modern art, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Monet, Sisley, Degas, Bacon and a large collection of Mondrians. The building was designed by Hendrik Berlage, a Dutch architect who pioneered modern archtiecure.
A visit to Panorama Mesdag, the oldest 19th-century panorama in the world that's still in its original site, is like a journey to the past.  It is a cylindrical painting from 1881, created by Hendrik Willem Mesdag of The Hague School.  It shows a vista of the sea and the dunes at Scheveningen.
These are all special museums, beguiling to any art lover, and they add a cultured edge to the city.
There’s plenty of inducements to linger over dinner. You can dine here very well.  The Hague is often called The Widow of Indonesia as many of the plantation owners and employees of the Dutch East India Company came from here and returned to here.
Garoeda is one of many Indonesian restaurants specializing in the Rijstaffel, or Rice Table, a dizzying collection of dishes served on a bed of rice.
“The rijstaffel is more Dutch than Indonesian in style,” says my guide Remco. “We don’t like to waste anything, so the ladies who ran households on plantations wouldn’t throw out the leftovers.  Instead they had them served in a collection, with rice, at the end of the week.”  Now it’s a culinary tour de force of Indonesian specialties, but it was originally the result of Dutch parsimony. 
Reflecting the multicultural nature of its people, The Hague has many international restaurants.  Wox is a new Japanese fusion restaurant near the Hojviver, the pond that surrounds the parliament.  You can watch Dutch parliamentarians coming and going from its windows.
Saur is one of the best fish restaurants in the city, while Taste is a wine bar with an outdoor patio that looks out to the hojviver and the Mauritsthaus. T’Ogenblik is a sweet café that was recently voted the restaurant with the best service in the Netherlands.
Cafes like It’s Raining Fishes and Pulchri have hidden garden patios for a quiet meal and there are quaint prooflocals like Djuiden on …  to enjoy a chilled jenever, the Dutch style gin, at the end of an evening.
Be sure to stop at the Pizza Hut at the Noordeinde 140, not for the pizza but to look at the interior.  The building dates from 1707, and the ceiling decoration and fireplace are original. 
And when work get too oppressive, locals can slip away to sit in one of the 100 or so hidden hofjes, enclosed garden residences originally built as almshouses to house the elderly poor, but now lovely secluded garden apartments.
It may be difficult to stay focused on work in The Hague, but it is very easy to enjoy the pleasures of this worldly city. 

Getting There: Air Transat, Air Canada, fly regularly to Schiphol Airport.  Catch the train out of the airport and you will be in The Hague in about forty minutes.  There are frequent trains each hour.
Getting Around:  This is an easily walkable city but there is also a convenient network of trams that will take you all through the city and out to the Dunes.
Where to Stay
Hotel Des Indes
Lange Voorhout 54-56