~ ABU DHABI
My feet collapsed into the sand as I was slowly climbing the dunes of the Abu Dhabi Desert, the white fabric of our guide’s gandurah fluttering in the wind ahead of me. The sun was about to set, hovering over the horizon and casting orange shadows on the sand. Once I’ve reached the top, my long dress twisting around my ankles, there was hardly any sound except for the soft camel calling coming from afar. The desert stretched for miles and it almost felt like being trapped inside an hourglass.
I smiled and looked back waving at my fellow travellers, Lorena and Rafaela, as they made their way up the dune. Just like me and a bunch of European and South African bloggers, they joined Club Med and Etihad Airways on an adventure that was about to take us from the sun seethed Emirates to the Maldives.
We gazed over the horizon, gradually getting swollen by darkness as the tip of the sun began its descent behind the dunes. It was hard to believe that less than a day ago I was on the plane, waving goodbye to the clouds hanging above London and looking forward to the travels ahead, sipping a glass of champagne nonetheless.
The stillness of the desert reminded me of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque which we visited a few hours earlier, at the wake of the golden hour, just as the call to prayer began echoing through its pearly-white walls. Considered the most important worship site in the Emirates, the stunning Grand Mosque boasts a magnificent combination of marble, gold and semi-precious stones gathered from around the world, put together into a fairytale-like perfection. It’s been my dream to visit and, as it turned out, the reality exceeded my expectations.
We weren’t the only ones at the mosque and yet, aside from the quiet murmurs of the afternoon visitors and the muffled footsteps on the marble floor, the mosque was silent; a grandiose backdrop for abaya-draped figures, making their way along the flowery mosaics. Just then, in the midst of silence, the masjid walls echoed with the hauntingly beautiful sound of the call to prayer, filling every corner with so much beauty and emotion that it almost made me tear up. I was raised Catholic (although I wouldn’t call myself religious), and yet, no church or any other place of worship has ever given me the chills the way the call to prayer did that day in Abu Dhabi.
The desert wind blew my dress and I shook off the memories of the mosque. We gathered our things and headed to the camp at the foot of the dune where we were joined by the rest of the bloggers. It was my third time spending an evening in the desert but it certainly didn’t make the sight unveiling in front of us any less magical… The path leading to the camp was marked with lanterns. As we approached the tents, lined with richly draped carpets and comfortable cushions scattered across the floor, we were welcomed by the sight of a dining area set up right on the desert sands, lit by the flickering lantern light. Large carpets spread across the ground were covered with red cushions; in the middle of each carpet, there was a low wooden table with a huge basket on top, brimming with fresh fruit.
The rest of the evening was a magical blur filled with long chats over steaming cups of Maghrebi tea and Arabic coffee, the scent of cardamon and fresh mint floating towards the starry sky. Of course, our feast wouldn’t be complete without the local speciality – heads of lambs served on a steaming bed of rice. Slightly morbid, yet delicious, we all tucked in and continued on till the evening turned into a late night.
The trip to the desert was a fabulous culmination of our day in Abu Dhabi, and a magical continuation of my journey with Etihad. My handbag filled with sand and heart filled with joy, I found it hard to fall asleep that night as I laid my head to rest at Eastern Mangrove Hotel & Spa. I couldn’t stop thinking about our next destination – the Maldives.
Far from the stillness of the Abu Dhabi desert and the grandeur of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, our next adventure took us to the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Speeding across baby-blue waters, the churning sea foam kept splashing my face as our boat reached the shore. The sun was shining bright; I squinted and leaned forward to catch a glimpse of the hazy silhouettes of over-water villas hovering over the lagoon. Maldives were proving to be everything I expected and more before we even had the chance to reach the land.
Our destination, Club Med Finolhu in the North Male Atoll, was like a paradise painted by an artist’s brush, mercifully brought to life by someone too generous not to share its striking beauty. Club Med managed to find heaven on Earth and turn it into an experience so luxurious and unreal that I was almost scared to blink, fearing it would all disappear. There were exotic drinks on arrival as the smiling staff, dressed all in white, greeted us at the jetty, surrounded by crystal-clear, perfectly still waters, home to shoals of colourful fish, baby sharks and rays, lazily making their way towards the shore. Over there, palm trees were gently swaying in the wind, casting shadows over the sand so white that it almost looked like snow.
Drunk with excitement, we made our way to the villas accompanied by our butlers (yes, we were all assigned a butler each, which begs the question – what is my life?!). Gasfinolhu is a tiny island so getting to our accommodation didn’t take more than a couple of minutes. This is where the magic really happened. Each villa sat on the beach, overlooking the ocean. If there’s one thing more delightfully amazing than gazing at the ocean from the porch of your very own five-star villa, then it’s looking at it from the private pool of the said villa, as you’re sipping a glass of ice cold champagne served to you on arrival – which is exactly what I did the moment I had the chance to jump into my bikini (again, what is my life?!).
The villa itself was a dream. Gorgeously decorated, with gentle music playing from the TV, it was almost a destination in its own right. The living room with an open-plan bar led to the bedroom, dominated by a large podium bed, with dimly lit Moroccan-style lamps hanging on each site. To the right, the beach in its postcard-like perfection was gazing at me through the large windows – it was hard to believe that I was going to wake up to this view every morning.
The outdoor bathroom, which immediately reminded me of Bali, was the size of the bedroom and made me feel as if I walked into an open-air spa. I could hear the palm leaves rustling in the wind and birds singing as I looked around. The large, white bath placed in the middle of the room was facing a bed scattered with cushions; there was also a shower tucked away in the corner. The air here was hot and sticky, a sudden shock after leaving the air-conditioned bedroom, and I immediately felt like jumping in the shower. I wasn’t short of choice – since Club Med don’t do things by halves, there was a shower room waiting for me in the indoor bathroom next door, leading to a beauty room.
I almost didn’t want to leave the villa but I was eager to explore. With all our villas lined up by the beach, this meant bumping into other bloggers who seemed to have had the exact the same thought. I waved at Marisa sipping champagne on her porch, then followed the shoreline till I spotted Lorena and Rafaela taking pictures of something they noticed in the sand. They waved at me and I joined them for a dip.
The evening tide was low and the water was reaching just above our ankles, even once we kept walking away from the shore. The seabed was covered with pieces of coral, its rough texture rubbing against our feet. We were greeted by yet another sunset, so different from the one last night. The sky turned orange and purple, lining the ocean with silver threads. Tiny, white crabs nervously made their way towards the water, dragging miniature spiral shells on their backs. With the sun setting, their little bodies were casting millions of small shadows on the beach, making it look as if the sand was in constant movement. The sunset marked dinner time and we headed to the bar to enjoy a few welcome cocktails, and then to the over-water restaurant. Resting on large pylons submerged in the ocean, the restaurant served a mix of French and local cuisine, a nod towards Club Med’s French roots. As expected, the food was a delight and a perfect way to end yet another glorious day.
The next morning began as a narrow ray of light slid from behind the curtains and made its way across my bed. I gazed it at it lazily, still half asleep. Then, suddenly, I remembered where I was and sprang out of bed, opening the curtains to the sight of perfectly blue skies, turquoise waters and, of course, my pool. It was around 7:30am when the breakfasts was served (I thought it would only be appropriate to order room service and have my breakfast on the beach) but the sun was already scorching hot, so I had to move to the shaded poolside. It was still quite early and I had the whole beach to myself – a perfect time for a quick swim. The water was calm and perfectly warm as I looked around in amazement, still in the state of disbelief that this was going to be my home for the next couple of days.
What followed over the next few days was nothing short of a dream. From boat trips to the nearby Club Med Kani and relaxing by their over-water villas, where I felt as if I got sucked in between the pages of a glossy travel magazine; to rose petal baths, courtesy of my butler, Afeef, and sunset-watching, the only thing I wished for was that the time would pass slower.
The day before our final departure, we headed to the nearby island of Thulusdhoo, about 20km from Male. With the otherwise calm ocean suddenly getting rough and windy, it was a bumpy ride, but very much worth it. Thulusdhoo is a local island, with the Coca-Cola factory considered the heart of its economy. Not short of charm, the island was a stark contrast to our resort but that’s precisely where its beauty lied – hidden behind the chipped walls, the carefree smiles of children and the gentle swaying of fishing boats tied up along the beach.
One of the things I value most when travelling is the opportunity to meet and mingle with the locals. Because of the nature of the Maldives, where the majority of tourism is based around the resorts, this isn’t always possible so I was very grateful to Club Med for giving us the chance to witness the local way of life.
Our final day on the island started, and ended, in torrential rain – which didn’t stop me from finishing off my bottle of champagne as I sat by the poolside, watching it pour down. The palm trees bent as the wind raged through the beach, scattering large raindrops into the pool. It was still warm and there was a certain charm about the dark-grey clouds gathering over the sky. As it turned out, even the stormy weather couldn’t take away from Finolhu’s beauty.
I was sad to leave, but my journey back certainly made up for having to say goodbye to the paradise – Etihad upgraded me to business class which made me, yet again, wish that the time would pass slower so I could enjoy the experience just a little bit longer. I was flying on an Airbus 380, which is a double deck. Not that I usually pay attention to the planes’ specs, however, in this case, the extra space meant that the business class came with a beautifully designed lobby (think 1960’s New York). Needless to say, that’s exactly where I sneaked off to once we were airborne. Enjoying a glass of (virgin) bloody Mary never felt so good! This wasn’t the only highlight of my flight – champagne on arrival, massage seats and delightful food that looked, and tasted, as if it popped out of a restaurant’s kitchen, all added to the experience.
I arrived to London sunkissed, my head filled with wonderful memories. Travelling to Abu Dhabi and the Maldives was like living out a beautiful daydream. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I was getting on the tube – as always, the journey was hectic, busy and crowded but I could still feel the warm sun on my skin and sand under my feet.
In addition to the hotels and experiences mentioned above, I would also like to thank Yas Marina Circuit, Etihad Innovation Centre and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi for having us and making our stay and experience in Abu Dhabi so very magical!