It took almost a decade, but a few weeks ago, for the first time, my mum finally came to visit me in the UAE.
Arriving with my two younger sisters, who were last here in 2018, it was a much-welcomed experience after an isolated, visitor-free past two years caused by Covid-19.
While coming up with an itinerary of things to do, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to come up with an exciting enough list. After all, eight years can make you feel as though you’ve seen and done it all.
But it's easy to forget that the UAE is constantly evolving and there is always something new to discover.
Just when you think you’ve done it all, there will be something happening to surprise you. Here are some new things I learnt about the country during my family’s week-long visit.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has undergone changes
The last time I visited the Grand Mosque was in 2018 when a friend had a layover from Jeddah. Naturally, I had to take him, promising it was something that couldn’t be missed while in Abu Dhabi.
This time around, I was pleasantly surprised to see there is now underground parking, but also amazed to find a completely new underground area filled with shops and restaurants, called Souq Al Jimi.
The shopping space is nice and modern, but perhaps what’s even better is how it makes the Grand Mosque feel all the more serene and distinguished.
Although it’s always been impressive, you get a new sense of how striking it is once you go upstairs and outside to see the mosque up close and in person.
The opulence of Emirates Palace
Another stop on our trip included Emirates Palace. I’ve been many times over the years, whether it’s been for a brunch or to see a show. Although there have been some changes to the five-star hotel (including being taken over by Mandarin Oriental from Kempinski in 2020), it is as opulent as ever.
My mum was excited about the famed gold cappuccino, just one of the food items with gold flakes on offer from the lobby cafe. Although it was a similar experience to when I first brought my sister and my old university roommate who visited me in 2015, every trip feels special. You feel that you are in a space for VIPs and yet it is accessible for everyone.
Plus, the intricately designed lobby with gold hues and giant windows that overlook the water make for a great spot for a family photo.
Lebanese Roaster makes for great souvenirs
No family visit is complete without meeting my friends in the UAE — especially ones who have been my support system while I’ve been away from home.
After dinner at Mosaic, a Lebanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi, my friends Naser and Juman took my family to Lebanese Roaster, a store that I’ve driven by many times but have never once set foot in. I loved how many authentic items they have — from dates and spices to cookies and nuts — and how reasonably priced they are.
Naser and Juman handpicked food items for my family to take back with them, such as saffron, mastic, sumac and pomegranate molasses. These are things that would be more difficult to find in the US but now serve as fabulous souvenirs from the UAE.
Why not go for something a bit more authentic than a keychain or magnet?
Desert safaris never get old
Although my sisters have visited me twice before, they've never been out into the desert. I had only been once, in 2015. Since it was a fun experience, I decided to book through the same operator. I can confirm that seven years later, it's still a worthwhile journey.
Of course, the six-hour day trip comes with the usual henna, camel riding, sand activities, etc. But the best thing about the experience is being surrounded by vast, pale cream-coloured dunes of sand, away from skyscrapers and the bustle and noise of the city. Simply put, it really makes you appreciate the natural beauty of the UAE.
There are plenty of new adventures to be had in Dubai
Even though Dubai is less than an hour away from where I live in Abu Dhabi, the pandemic made it tricky to visit. Although we stayed in the emirate for only a few days, it felt difficult to narrow down what to do and where to eat because so much has changed in the past few years.
We took visits to newer attractions such as Aura Skypool (the world’s highest 360-degree infinity pool), Museum of the Future and The Green Planet. We also stopped by beach and entertainment destination La Mer and took strolls through Nakheel Mall on Palm Jumeirah.
It’s incredible to think that at a time when it felt as though the world had stopped briefly because of Covid, the country has continued to push forward, adding so much in such a short time. And for the first time in a while, I felt like a tourist again — getting ready to discover a new place and being reminded of why I fell in love with the UAE to begin with.
Scroll through the gallery below to see Dubai's top attractions