Shortly after I arrived in Abu Dhabi two years ago, a friend stayed on a 10-hour stopover in the capital. I didn't have the slightest idea of how to best spend that time, and we ended up at the cafe in Emirates Palace, which was hardly her cup of tea. She has hiked through the jungles of Peru and scaled Mt Etna in the snow, and is little impressed with star-rated extravagance. And, even though I was paying, in general she doesn't like places that require spending a lot of money.
But I just hadn't been in the UAE long enough to be aware of all it has to offer budget travellers and when she left Abu Dhabi that evening she said, to my chagrin, that she had no intention of returning. One recent Saturday afternoon, however, I found myself at home wondering, if this opportunity were to present itself again, how I could be a better guide? So I rang up a friend and asked her what she was doing for the next 10 hours or so. She accepted my appeal to spend that time seeking out the best Abu Dhabi has to offer for little or no money.
Well, I did make one investment that will likely pay dividends for months to come: I rode over to Orlando Sports (www.orlandosports.com; 02 443 7356) in Al Wadha Mall where I found a badminton set for US$50 (Dh185). You see, I am not big on swimming and suntans, but I wanted to find a way to enjoy one of the greatest assets of living on this island of Abu Dhabi: we are blessed with good, clean beaches and almost six months of temperate and nearly cloudless weather that is the envy of New York or London. There are few other places in the world where I would feel as comfortable as on the public beach behind Emirates Palace when I left my wallet and car keys in my trousers on the sand and played badminton for a few hours without thinking of them for an instant. And no one catcalled my friend. Copacabana may have a catchy name but it doesn't compete in terms of hassle-free security.
And, instead of the occasional syringes you find washed ashore in Coney Island, here I was surrounded by families sprawled out on blankets with shisha pipes nestled in the sand nearby. After we'd worked up an appetite we decided to take advantage of one of the other boons that Abu Dhabi offers - mounds of inexpensive restaurants representing the home cooking of all the ethnicities which have settled here. When I lived in New York I was a restaurant columnist and would scour the boroughs for authentic Indian food. Here in Abu Dhabi, one can not only find a dozen Indian restaurants in a single block, but each will serve the cuisine of a specific state in India. I can go for the coconut curries of Kerala followed by a Hyderabadi biryani in one outing just by walking a few shop fronts down. And there are wonderful Punjabi, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Lebanese, Indonesian, Filipino and Uzbeki restaurants too that would have New York foodies in fits.
In this case I headed to Arab Udupi (02 631 9676) on Hamdan Street behind Sun & Sand Sports where a counter window serves traditional pani puri, a snack found throughout India. The type at this humble eatery, however, hails from Bombay. Pani puri is not only delicious but fun to eat. Prepared correctly, the seller should have near him a pile of hollow, thin, golfball-sized fried shells with a hole poked in the top. Then he fills the inside with a dollop of mashed potatoes, a few stewed chick peas, a mix of chopped onions and coriander and a few drips of sweet tamarind sauce. He will then pour in pani - a spicy, tangy water infused with tamarind, mint and chillies. Then he passes the potent ball through the window to the customer in a metal dish. The pani puri must be eaten immediately because it is a ticking time bomb that will collapse into a terrible mess once the water begins to seep through the shell.
At Udupi you can stand there passing the metal dish back and forth with the food vendor, having it refilled five times for only $1 (Dh4) and the experience is among the most authentic recreations I've found outside of India. When we were finished, I was pleased that in my short stint as tour guide I had already provided sport and a tasty meal. Next, I sought to add entertainment. In addition to there being food from all over the world in Abu Dhabi thanks to its large immigrant community, there are also a variety of venues showcasing performers from the different nationalities represented in the UAE. The Emirates Plaza hotel (www.emiratesplaza.net) in the Tourist Club area caters to these communities. Every night of the week, for example, a six-piece East African band plays at the Mombasa nightclub situated on the third floor. We sat close to the stage and watched the performers sing Ethiopian pop tunes in Amharic and Tigrina and dance in a style melding western and Ethiopian moves. Occasionally, one of the patrons rose to take to the floor and shimmied shoulders while pecking his or her neck in a dance that can be seen at any club in Addis Ababa. From there we went downstairs to the second floor where a singer was crooning Bollywood oldies in Hindi besides a keyboardist and a mridanga drum player.
After two stops we were ready to call it a night, but in the same hotel there are also restaurants and nightclubs with Nepali, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Iranian, Arabic, Punjabi and South Indian music. And on most weeknights these hidden wonders charge no admission fee. While some of them seem a bit rundown, if they were transplanted to New York they would likely be taken over by hipsters seeking so-called world music. And best of all, for budget travellers, the most authentic places here also are some of the cheapest.
The next time that a friend hops off a plane on a citybreak, I'll be spoilt for choice for things to do. firstname.lastname@example.org