Abu Dhabi NOT Dubai

Standing in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, I looked down and got a shock.  Placed in the glittering white floor of the first exhibition hall set in silver were the names of places throughout the world in all different forms of writing.  The shock for me was to see that the obscure fjord Hardanger in Norway where my ancestors lived for literally a thousand years, was placed directly next to the characters for Beijing where I lived and studied for a year.  Okay, it was weird, but it brought home to me, like a lightning bolt the very mission statement of this incredible museum.

Abu Dhabi is an island city set just below the strategic Straits of Hormuz, has been for two millennium at the crossroads of the world.  The Louvre Abu Dhabi, far from being a slavish reproduction of its Paris sister, is actually a fascinating paean to the intertwined nature of our world society.  This museum’s spectacular architecture is just the outside wrapping of what is delivered to you as a tour de force journey from Neolithic times to modern, shining a beacon on how our cultures have continually influenced, changed and interacted with each other.  One feels as if one is walking through a brilliantly told story of world history through art. And it is is a story that begins with a floor that made it feel deeply personal to me.

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And that’s just the beginning of what makes Abu Dhabi a fascinating place to visit.  First off, let’s get one thing clear: many of us in the West are a bit confused about Dubai vis a vis Abu Dhabi.  They are NOT the same place, although they are each one of the seven members of the United Arab Emerites (U.A.E.) and Dubai, though the richest emirate (and that’s really saying something), is not the capital of this federation, Abu Dhabi is.  Abu Dhabi is NOT “the one with the palm tree island and the world’s largest indoor skiing hall, though it does have its share of monumental environmental debacles and fabulously garish building projects! It’s Emir, an absolute monarch, as are all the leaders of the UAE, is traditionally the leader of this hugely rich federation.

Now that we’ve gotten the facts down we can focus on what makes this an amazing place to visit.   Well, first off, any visitor will realize where our gas money has gone for the last sixty years and it’s not in a small part to these tiny countries!  Abu Dhabi is a city of glitz and glamour, elegant avenues and sleek skyscrapers. Visiting this city is a bit like going to that fabulous French restaurant and really throwing caution to the wind, ordering everything from foie gras to the Gran Mariner soufflé….did I forget the cheese course?

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Start with the Louvre.  As I’ve already waxed eloquently on this subject, I’ll just say if you see nothing else in this place see this museum; enough said.  Afterwords, jump into a cab. They are plentiful, cheap and blissfully air conditioned. The driver, who will most likely be a guest worker from India or Pakistan, will be a introduction to the dynamics of this opulent society.  Natives here certainly don’t drive cabs or for that matter do any menial work, foreigners do. A drive along the Corniche is in itself is a “site to visit” in this town. As one glides along this elegant boulevard which is lined with parks and flowers it is hard the square it with photos of the area a few decades ago, which show a desolate hardscrabble town set in a bleak dessert.  The beaches along the boulevard are immaculate and segregated into families, male and female and general. I guess it’s “take your pick”!

A visit to the Emerates Palace, a spectacularly over the top hotel along the Corniche, is another must here.  Just driving up to the Arabia meets Baroque meets Hollywood meets Las Vegas porte cochere is a kick. Here you will find a cavalcade of young local guys dashing about and alighting from there Lambos, Bentley’s and assorted other cars that cost more that most Americans homes.  And yes, they they are wearing Abaya and yes there is something about Arab guys that’s pretty romantic. A walk inside introces one to more gilt and marble than a Roman Emperor ever dreamed of. After passing through what seems like acres and acres of grand halls, that would make Cecil B. Demill a happy camper, we finally emerged at the back gardens where  we found the lovely Mezlai restaurant. This place is an oasis of old fashioned Arab style comfort and Emirati cuisine. A great selection of meze and delicious fruit drinks (yes there is no alcohol served here) was followed by perfectly prepared sautéed local fish. For desert though, we returned to the grand cafe of the hotel where one can have one of the”must do” Abu Dhabi things, which is of course a gold encrusted cappuccino for $25.00 dollars: with all this gold about why not drink it too!

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After treating oneself to one Emirati destination, cross the street to another, The Etihad Towers and take the elevator to the 74th floor observation deck 300. From here one has the most magnificent view of the entire metropolis.  Spread out below you is a amazing city created with the wealth a petroleum the engenuity of the few and the backs of guest workers! If one feels up to it descend to the street and take another cab to the dazzling Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  It is an amazing place of glittering white marble that was built to rival all the other glittering grand mosques in the region. For one, it can be a good place to contemplate the role of religion and money in the region.

Of course there is much more to see and do in Abu Dhabi, the AD History Museum and Aquarium, Qasr Al Hosn Fort a World Heritage Site and the Mangrove National Park to name but a few.  But, the above sites gives one a tremendous, heady insight into an important world that most of us hardly know. So even if you only have a day in this amazing city, as we did, you can have quite the experience and help yourself to big helping of new insights into this influential and fascinating part of the world.

A weekend trip to Quebec

If you live in New England or Maine, as Mark and I do, one of the best possible getaway trips available is a jaunt to the historic city of Quebec.  Within a few hours you can be out of the U.S.and in a land that though familiar in all the best ways is also romantic and a touch exotic. The style is different, the language different, the look of the buildings, the things one discovers in shops and even the look of the people is different.  All this in a road trip, without getting near the hassles of the modern airport!

Okay, you can fly to Quebec, but for many of us, why bother?  If you live in the Boston or Portland area you can easily take the plane to Montreal and transfer to for a short hop to Quebec.  But even if you live near these flight hubs, you’ll still have to get there early, go through security etc, etc. for us it was a blast to jump in the car (preferably something fun to drive) and take interstate 93 through New Hampshire and Vermont.  This great smooth highway takes you to 91 which is also a pleasant freeway and it takes one right to Quebec City. The scenery on the way is gorgeous and the traffic is reasonably light. On our return to Maine we returned via Jackman on route 202, which is equally as pretty but I wouldn’t recommend it in a sports car.  The road is so jarring for the first 20 miles over the border, that you begin to wonder if our government has completely forgotten about our country’s roads!

Now, one other word of advise, you do need to bring your passport!  The Canadian border crossing was pretty easy, but our overly officious U.S. border control guard couldn’t figure us out and really put us through the third degree.  Why had we gone to Oman? Did we work in Syria? What were we doing in Jordan? She opened our trunks and went through all our luggage. It was almost comical except it took some time!  Nothing was slipping by this guard!

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Quebec is a terrific walking City with great shopping, great historical sites at every turn and of course there is great food galore.  There are plenty of little trips outside of the city if you want to get into the car out again, but for us there is plenty to do and see in two days here that we never needed to bother the valet.

On our arrival night we strolled down Rue St. Paul which is lined with charming galleries and antique shops to a hip new restaurant called Rioux Pettigrew.  The feel of the place is Soho meets the northland and the cuisine with twists featured fun interpretations of French Canadian fare. Our waitress who turned out to be from Normandy and was touring the world over a two year period with her girlfriend, instantly switched to English and guided us through the menu and wine list.  First night, and already we were on a roll.

We’ve visited Quebec a number times and by far our favorite place to stay is the Auberge St. Antoine.  Nestled along the waterfront in the lower city, this Relais au Chateau property is pretty close to perfect.  Although set in the oldest part of the city (and that’s pretty old!), its rooms are warm and modern complete with sumptuous bathrooms, private terraces and small fireplaces.  Ask for a room on a high floor with views of the Chateau Frontenac. There is a small well equipped gym (which is a bit dark and gloomy unfortunately and comes complete with a set of totally unnecessary birch trees, leaving one wondering why hotel designers are always trying to make their fitness centers look like nightclubs).  This aside however, the rest of the common areas are great. There is a pleasant and well stocked bar which is a nice place to start your night with some champagne and oysters and the dining room is quite pleasant as well. But what really makes this an amazing experience is the expert concierge staff that will go above and beyond to make your stay a really fun adventure.

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On our first day. We retraced our steps down Rue St. Paul, stopping at the farmer’s Market on the way to the trendy shopping street of St. Joseph est.  the great thing about the shopping on this street is you won’t encounter the usual retail stores that you find in the U.S. Most of the stores here are unique to the city with a few exceptions such as the Vancouver shoe designer Fluevog.  A real special treat on this avenue is Lucie Cote Cuisine which is a first rate kitchen store featuring handmade Japanese knives beautiful china and pottery and an array of other dining room and kitchen stuff that has a contemporary European style not often seen south of the border.  I won’t go into details as we got a bit of a bum steer with a recommendation for a new place that had all the problems of most new places. The one saving grace at lunch was the super friendly staff. In fact we only encountered the most friendly of people throughout our visit. The Québécois could definitely give some of our countrymen classes in manners.

After lunch we headed up the hill through the bohemian part of town on Rue St. Claire.  Everywhere in this area are colorfully painted homes, funkily decorated doorways and cool views.  The top of this street brings one to St. Jean street which is another fun, if slightly less refined shopping area.  If there is a gay area in town this seems to be it. The Hobbit restaurant appears to be a pleasant local and mixed cafe and further down the street Le Drague, the local big gay bar has decks opening onto an ancient church, park and boneyard.  One wonders if there is some spinning in graves when the drag shows go off!

We headed back through the ancient gates of the upper city and meandered about in its winding streets.  One feels like they are in an outdoor museum, as at every turn there is another amazing edifice from seventeenth century homes to Baroque banks and even deco skyscrapers!  We also encountered increasing large groups of Canadian school children out on field trips and Chinese tourists. This area isn’t quite ground zero for tourists but it’s pretty close!  We encountered the actual ground zero as we headed down the hill to the lower town. Here Rue Du Petit Champlain is to be found,with its shops bars and cafes overwhelmed by tourists from every nation on earth!  Actually it’s kind of fun, at least for a short while, to watch these throngs, and one certainly doesn’t need to worry about speaking French properly! Escaping from the “gulch” we headed back to our hotel. After a fun day, the deep,hot tub and a little champagne were perfect to cure for sore feet.

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Okay, I looked up the place where we had dinner that night and it sounded pretty weird.  In fact I skipped over it because the name, L’ Affair est Ketchup sounded like a burger place to me….But everyone we spoke to said it was the “bee’s knees” and one of the hottest tickets in town...small and bohemian with a young ardent Chef and staff.  Really? Okay, it sounded good to us! We Ubered over, and had a great great conversation with our Algerian driver. Quebec is definitely not a backwater anymore! Well L’ Affair estKetchup is not a burger place and it is bohemian complete with an itsy bitsy dining room chipped paint and a live hip local crowd having a blast.  The menu is listed on the black board and our charming super efficient waiter carefully explained all of it. Sweetbreads cooked to perfection I’m in! Terrine of foie gras sounds good to me, octopus, why not? Pan roasted cod in a delicate sauce, followed by, slowly braised pork crisped to order was amazing and we couldn’t refuse a cheese course followed by a perfect pound cake.  Guests here are free to choose their wine from the sideboard where it is displayed or the servers are happy to recommend wines by the glass to compliment every course. This is classic French food updated perfectly and served with skill. This is the sort of rare place where one feels like they are part of the cool kid set witnessing the beginning of a talented young chefs career!

On our last day we set out to explore another cool neighborhood of the city that centers around Avenue Cartier.  This trendy strip is demarcated with what appear to be giant lamp shades that arc over the road and are decorated by various artists mainly with humorous or provocative themes.  There are great housewares stores here as well as good food shops and gasp, even a Starbucks, but the real draw is the array of cafes, bars and restaurants that line the avenue. Many of these places have outdoor decks and are obviously good places to see and be seen.  But the jewel in the crown of gastronomy in this neighborhood is Bistro B. This warmly modern restaurant with its glistening open kitchen that most chefs would give their eye teeth for (whatever eye teeth are) turns out consistently delicious and creative food. We can vouch for this as on our last visit to Quebec we had dinner here and it was excellent and so was lunch five years later.   We recommend sitting at the kitchen. It’s fun to watch and the cooks are happy to suggest and prepare for you what’s best on the menu that day.

On our slow return to the old city from Cartier street, we strolled through the vast Parc des Champs-de-Bataille.  Here one begins to really get a sense of the strategic position that Quebec commands and why the British and the French both struggled to control it.  Scattered along the perimeter of this plain now tricked out with pretty flowers and sculpture are stout forts that remind one of this struggle. Half way along this sprawl we came to the hulking cement 1970s structure that looms over the city.  At the top of this desecration of the city, posing as a hotel, sits a revolving restaurant no less! And yes believe it or not loads of people had recommended the restaurant (if a bit sheepishly). So we had to check it out and yes the restaurant called Ciel looks gorgeous and the views are amazing.

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Heading further along through the park one reaches the battlements of the citadel.  We walked along this impressive fort until we reached the Promenade des Gouveneurs which is a very fancy name for a terrific boardwalk which runs along the sheer cliffs just below the citadel.  It is hard to even imagine how the English managed to climb these frightening cliffs in their attack on the city. Nowadays it’s a beautiful walk that brings one to the famed Chateau Frontenac Hotel.  This is a great place to have a drink. The Hotel is meticulously maintained and thronged with conference goers and Chinese tourists. We enjoyed our drinks and congratulated ourselves on staying at the Auberge St. Antoine.