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How 12 Hours In Abu Dhabi Became the Best Layover of All Time

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Last Christmas at around 7 a.m., my phone blew up with texts about a fare glitch on Etihad Airways. Hopping online, I saw a flight to India that my friend Melody and I wanted listed at half price and I didn’t sweat the details, I clicked purchase. Somewhere between opening gifts and eating my fourth plate of food, I actually read my itinerary and noticed we had a massive layover in Abu Dhabi.

“What!? 12 hours?” I texted Melody. “There ain’t that many camel riding selfies in the world! What are we supposed to do with all that time?”

“At least it’s during the day, maybe we can do a tour of the city or something!” she replied.

With such a great deal, I wrote off our layover as a minor inconvenience we could deal with for the price and went back to opening gifts with my nephew. Little did I know, our layover in Abu Dhabi would be one of the most awesome days of my entire life! From tears of gratitude at the mosque to tears of sheer joy on safari, the day was a roller coaster of emotion filled with surprises that reminded me of how much life can be lived in a single day. Here’s the play by play on how it all went down:

9:00 AM: TOUCHDOWN IN ABU DHABI

We made it! This is so cool! It looks so different from any airport I’ve been to! But these signs are so confusing. What terminal are we in? Wait, where’s Mel? Oh no… she’s lost! No, I’m lost! People are everywhere speaking all kinds of non-English languages and this place is chaos. Help I’m lost in Abu Dhabi, Jesus why?

“Hey, I lost you for a second. You ready? ” Melody said, walking up to me unaware of my meltdown.

Relieved to see her, I played it off like nothing happened and we set out together find the airport showers where we could freshen up for the day. The only problem was, understanding the airport signs requires a compass, an Arabic translator, and a mind reader, none of which we had in our carry-ons.

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Hm… red moon… paper towel machine… none of these direction say shower. Let’s keep looking.

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Let’s see here… divorce counseling? No, prayer! Yes! Maybe we should pray that one of these fine caramel fantasies I see walking around invites us to his mansion at the top of a sand dune where two servants can bathe us in water from the river Jordan and then…

“Tracey! Wake up! Look it’s the shower sign! We found them! Finally!” said Melody.

And just like that our Pac Man adventure through the airport was over and we were off for the first leg of our destination.

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11:00 AM THE GRAND MOSQUE

Upon our arrival at the Grand Mosque, we noticed a sign that outlined the attire appropriate for entry but didn’t sweat it since we had planned our outfits carefully—or so we thought.

“You. No. You cannot go,” the security guard said to me.

Whatchu mean I can’t go? Bruh. Do you know how many hours I flew to get up in this joint? You can’t be serious. My knees and elbows are covered. Is it the sexy wrist action I’ve got going on? I said in my head.

In real life I looked down at my skirt and politely replied, “I don’t understand? What’s wrong?”

“I can see through your skirt,” he said.

Oh. All that semi-sheer fashion foolishness wasn’t going down on his watch, so we were instructed to go downstairs to change into long black robes. With all that heavy fabric we looked like we had joined the choir in some Tyler Perry movie, but luckily once we got inside, our attire was the last thing on our minds.

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The Grand Mosque is indescribably beautiful. It looks like God himself constructed it by hand and retouches it daily in Photoshop. It is impeccable, regal and somehow remains serene despite the hundreds of tourists walking through its corridors. Mel was capturing video and it wasn’t until she watched it later that we realized the melodic chanting of prayer sessions were captured in the background.

It was the most impeccable architecture I’ve ever seen, and the two hours we spent there was just enough time to foster a deeper appreciation for a culture I had previously known nothing about.

1:00 PM EMIRATES PALACE

A short cab ride from the Mosque led us to Emirates Palace, a 5 star hotel that makes the Bellagio look like a motel. The place was virtually covered in gold, adorned with crystal and probably wiped down daily with money, making their residences extremely attractive for wealthy travelers.

After sneaking into a fancy restaurant we couldn’t afford just to take photos by the water and getting kicked off the waterfront patio where a private reception was being held, we realized we were slightly out of our league. Around the same time we realized that neither of us had slept the night before so we decided to just sit down on some chairs in a hallway and rest.

“They probably think we’re homeless. We’re the only Black people in here. I should put out a collection plate.”

“What exactly is a night safari? How are we supposed to see the animals? I didn’t even read the website.”

Our random musings confirmed the fact that jet lag was getting the best of us, so we stopped talking and just rested until it was time for our safari driver to arrive.

3:00 PM SAFARI PICK UP

A tall glass of caramel heaven walked over to me and politely asked “Are you Tracey?”

Yes honey and I’d make good wife for you, I replied in my head. Unable to stop staring and form intelligent sentences I just nodded and followed him over to our jeep for the journey into the desert. We were joined by an older couple and their daughter, who we chatted with as we rode into the countryside.

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I had never seen a sand dune before and was blown away at their size. About 20 minutes and 800 photos later, we gathered back at our jeep to head to our next stop. Suddenly our driver got serious.

“Everybody must fasten their seat belts, OK?” he said sternly. Unsure why it was so urgent, we complied and then headed to the top of a really large sand dune. “Are you ready?”

Yes! I think? Wait, what’s happening…

5:00 PM DUNE BASHING

We were so not ready! My God this jeep is going to roll over and we’re all gonna be on the local news. This can’t be legal! Does this fool really have a driver’s license?

So many thoughts rushed through our heads as the jeep maneuvered up and down the sand dunes at roller coaster speeds. The older woman in the back was a deer in headlights the whole ride, while her daughter hung onto the overhead handles for dear life. Mel was silently reciting 72 prayers per minute while I screamed with every adrenaline-inducing turn. It took a while to get used to the wonderfully terrifying rush of dune bashing, but by then end I didn’t want the experience to end.

6:00 PM THE CAMEL COOL-DOWN

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A little quality time with the camels was just what we needed to bring down our heart rates as the sun began to set in the afternoon sky. We snapped a few photos, then made our way over to the campground where we could actually ride the camels. I had seen plenty Instagram photos of people smiling at the camera atop some camel in a desert. But what they don’t post is that photo of when the camel gets up off the ground.

At this point I was used to being shocked into a hollering fit, but it was worth it as our short ride on the camel was yet another unforgettable moment during our whirlwind layover in Abu Dhabi.

7:00 DINNER, DANCING, HENNA & LIVE SHOW

Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, we walked into the cutest little campground where we were greeted with fresh coffee and appetizers. Our 30-something nerves needed winding down at this point so we purchased some red wine from the bar and treated ourselves to some beautiful henna artwork.

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After watching a beautiful sunset over the sand dunes, I thought to myself “this day can’t get any better!” And yet again, I was mistaken as it was now time for a huge buffet dinner, more wine and a live performance with a belly dancer! By the end of the performance we were all on stage dancing and having a blast with drivers from the day. It was the perfect end to an epic day, with memories that I’ll continue to replay in my head until Etihad stages another PR stunt and I get a chance to go back!

9:00 PM RETURN TO THE AIRPORT

When we initially booked the safari we were nervous about making it to the airport in time for our 11 PM flight to Jaipur, India. But when we actually arrived on time, I wished we could have stayed longer. Our “inconvenient layover” that was booked on a whim turned out to be one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had and a wonderful reminder of how awesome a single day can be. If time permits, consider turning your layover into an adventure of its own. It’s like booking two trips in one and you could be pleasantly surprised at how much joy you can experience in only a few hours.

– Tracey Coleman, a witty storyteller from Brooklyn with an unhealthy obsession with food and an even bigger appetite for travel.  Follow her adventures at @bktraveladdict on Instagram and Twitter, and on Facebook.

Last 5 posts by Tracey Coleman

  • Melody Thomas

    I love love LOVE your writing style! I felt like I was right there with you! And I’m Alll Kinds of Pissed Off (still) that I had no monies for that glitch fare lol!

  • Dom

    Ditto at being broke on the glitch fare. Glad you weren’t though and had such a great experience. I really want to get to Abu Dhabi some day, but your write up definitely did a great job of making me feel the excitement of being there!

  • Cori

    loved your story and writing style. It felt like I was there.

  • Jeremiah

    I’m looking to go to Australia, and have a 10 hour layover in Abu Dhabi. 1230PM – 10 PM. I love your itinerary, how did you book? Also, most importantly did you need to pay for a visa to leave the airport and explore the city? (I’m a US citizen).

  • Ashley

    I need more deets! I have a little less than 12 hour layover in Abu Dhabi this summer but I’ll be solo! I want to do literally this same tour lol. Any advice would be so appreciated!

  • Ian Tyrrell

    Did you get to do much in your 12 hours? Will be arriving there Sunday for a 15 hour layover solo! Who did you book with? Any advice would be appreciated

  • Tes

    Love the pictures you took!…very helpful!….will be there solo for 19 hrs layover….which company did you books the dessert safari?…did they drop you off at the airport? Thanks