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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Itineraries: a case study in how not to create them, OR how to have a bad time in 24 hours

There is an art to creating itineraries that are inspirational (the kind travellers want to rip out of magazines and print off the web to save for a trip) and useful (one travellers can follow and have a great time or pick and choose from and still have fun). It's not rocket science. So I'm always astonished when travel writers get them so wrong. Take this recently published 24 hours in Abu Dhabi itinerary:

"Kendall Hill rises early for a taste of coffee and figs, palaces and souks, all set in a desert of gold".
First off, few people rise early in Abu Dhabi. Barely anything opens before 10am. It's sweltering most of the year, so people stay in unless they've got a job or can hit a swimming pool. They head outdoors around sunset to enjoy the cooler temperatures and balmy breezes. Like most Middle Eastern cities, Abu Dhabi is a late night destination; the city is at its buzziest in the evenings. To see it at its best, take it easy during the day, see a sight or two, but you're best sleeping in, relaxing by the pool and conserving your energy for the long, lively, late nights.

7am The first activity is an expensive 'breakfast' of coffee "served on a silver tray with a plump date and a gold-flecked chocolate".
Is that really going to get you through the long day ahead Kendall's scheduled for you? And if you're not staying at Emirates Palace (only 39% of SMH readers probably are; the April rate is AED 2150/Aus$800 for a Coral room, excluding breakfast, and in this economic climate, even affluent travellers will probably opt for a more affordable option), are you really going to get out of bed at 6am to cab it to Emirates Palace for coffee, a date and a chocolate when you could be lingering over the free, lavish breakfast buffet that most Abu Dhabi hotels include with the room?
You're on holidays!

You're off to "the port area of Al Meena" (um, Al Meena means 'the port') to "lose yourself in the souks selling carpets, dates... the cleanest fish you'll ever see and fine fruit and vegetables from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Nearby is the Iranian souk, which houses traders who have crossed the Gulf by dhow to sell household goods and homewares, spices, rugs and fabrics. Prices are tax-free..."
Where do I start? This is full of factual mistakes and bad advice. In the UAE everything is tax-free, even in malls and supermarkets. While it's a good time for the fish and fruit&veg souq, the Iranian Souq and Carpet Souq are best from 5-6pm onwards. The Iranian Souq doesn't 'house' anyone; you'll be lucky to find a soul around before dusk. The atmosphere is best post-sunset when the locals go shopping. The writer is also setting you up for disappointment: he should be warning you these are very modest souqs (far from the sprawling bustling markets in Dubai and nothing like those in Damascus or Cairo), so you're most certainly not going to get lost and there's very little to buy. And you should
not be buying anything at the Carpet Souq, which only sells synthetic rugs of the kind you'd find in K-Mart. Authentic carpets are best bought from reputable carpet shops; expats and locals go to the Carpet Souq for the traditional Bedouin cushioned floor seating that's unique to the Gulf.

"For a falcon's-eye view of the city, take a lift to the top of the Le Royal Meridien hotel... Here, on the 25th floor, there's a rooftop revolving restaurant that non-diners are welcome to visit for a peek at the spectacular panorama."
A standard on my itineraries, this is where I take guests on their last night in Abu Dhabi - for pre-dinner cocktails around 6pm to enjoy the sunset! Why on earth you'd send people here at midday when it's empty for "a peek" when you could send them here later for drinks is beyond me!
... it's because at 1pm you're tucking into "a Levantine lunch at the Lebanese Flower restaurant in downtown Khalidia" at a simple, casual Lebanese eatery that is likely to be empty once again. Great eatery but it's busiest in the evenings, when you'll have the bonus of people-watching. And why you'd want to fill up on a multi-course Arabic meal in the middle of the day is baffling. Most of SMH's Aussie readers would also want a glass of wine or cold beer with their lunch when they're on holidays. I'd be sending readers to a seafood restaurant or alfresco cafe at a hotel by the beach, so they have that option (like all restaurants outside of hotels, the Lebanese Flower doesn't have a liquor license). Nothing beats a glass of crisp white and Omani lobster or oysters sitting in the sunshine overlooking the gorgeous aquamarine Arabian sea.

2pm "Drop by the Cultural Foundation for an insight into the character of the Abu Dhabi people... the foundation hosts regular exhibitions, events and lectures and houses the national library and a cinema screening Western and Arabic films."
Um, not at 2pm it doesn't. The Cultural Foundation shuts its doors to the public at 2pm, re-opening at 5pm. In the morning the place is dead except for school groups and staff; evenings are when it comes alive with nightly performances, screenings and festivals.

5pm For once, the writer has you doing something at the right time, going on a desert safari, although normally they leave town earlier to try to get you to the desert at this time for some dune bashing, sand-boarding,
sunset camel ride, BBQ and belly dancing.

9pm "Toast the day with a cleansing ale in the lush oasis of Le Meridien... home to a lively "culinary village" - Turkish, Thai, French, Tex-Mex and more - and has tap beers in the Captain's Arms pub."
The writer neglects to tell you your desert safari won't get you back to town until 9pm at the earliest, but generally 10pm, and you'll have to change before heading out. Rather than send you for a beer at a smoky British Pub where the bar's propped up by expats at the "culinary village" (restaurants set around gardens), I'd be sending you out for a local experience to one of the city's many sheesha cafes opposite The Corniche (waterside drive) to try aromatic sheesha (hubbly bubbly/narghile/water-pipe) with the Emiratis and Arab expats. Or if you don't inhale, to simply take in the atmosphere over tea. If you prefer something stronger, I'd be suggesting an alfresco lounge bar for a nightcap as you listen to Arabian chill-out music, and if you're up for more, a club to listen (like the one pictured) to live music or have a boogie. One of my favorites hosts a weekly Lebanese night, popular with Arab expats who dress up and dance to improvisational folk-jazz performed by a live band with a DJ spinning. It's a unique experience.
But instead...

11pm "Spend the night at the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, a striking canal-front complex of hotel, villas, spa, souk..." Lovely hotel. Although not on a 'canal'; Abu Dhabi is an island and the Shangri-La is on the mainland looking across to the island. But when did you check in here? Because you've been flat out since your 7am 'breakfast' at Emirates Palace (30 minute's drive from here), you didn't even have time to return to the hotel to change your clothes for the desert or change for drinks at the Captain's Arms, and there's no way they'd allow you in wearing casual gear. But now you're checking into a hotel at 11pm when you should be out enjoying a sheesha or drink? Nobody should be in their hotel room in Abu Dhabi at 11pm. The restaurants are still busy and the bars are just getting started. If you're not into drinking and dancing then you should simply be doing as the locals do and strolling the waterfront promenade savouring the balmy evening sea breezes. The last place you should be is tucked into bed!

Pictured? The dome at Emirates Palace, a must-visit if you're not staying here, but head here in the evening (not at 7am!) for a meal, cocktails or a coffee, when, like everywhere in Abu Dhabi, the place just buzzes with activity and the people-watching is unbeatable.


Eileen said...

Taking a critical look at where a writer can go wrong is instructive, and I've seldom been so pleased to not have written a piece. You always give good advice. This one was like a free writing course in five minutes.

Thanks! And should I ever find myself here, I'll be sure to follow your advice.

Travel Muse said...

Loved your deconstruction of their itinerary. Nothing is worse than arriving somewhere with article in hand and finding out the author did these things over 3-4 days and you expect to fit them in to 24 hours in the same city.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Eileen - thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you found it useful. These kinds of things really irk me - in case you haven't guessed! - if you really think about your writing, and who you're writing for, and do your research, it's not hard to get it right.

Hi Travel Muse - thanks! I totally agree with what you're saying, but you know, in this case, I think he probably did do it in a 24 hour period (cause I've seen the other stories churned out from the same junket and I'm sure they didn't host him for a whole week), but I have a feeling he was whisked around in a car with a PR person - which is why he's having his 'breakfast' so early! And I have a feeling he probably didn't get out of that air-conditioned vehicle and have a proper look around at too many places - like the carpet souq and Iranian souq!

Heather on her travels said...

Yes but if you really did have only 24 hrs surely you'd want to use every minute of it to the full, and at least it gives you an idea of some of the places to visit on a longer stay.

I guess the answer is to cover all these things over a week and start in a more leisurely way as you suggest.

Is there anywhere you'd take visitors to early in the day?

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Heather - definitely agree with you that if you only have 24 hours you want to cram it completely - get a great taste of a place so you know whether to return or not.

However, it still needs to be manageable and well-paced. You don't want people arriving at one place and then immediately having to rush to the next if they're going to get through everything. You want them to actually *enjoy* it.

Where would I take visitors early in the day? In Abu Dhabi? Definitely for an early morning swim on the beach - that's when the conditions are sublime. During the cooler months, for a walk along the Corniche (the waterside promenade) because there are a lot of locals out then getting exercise, walking their dogs, etc, and it's a great insight into everyday life - a stark contrast to the mythical life we keep reading about in the newspapers. On weekends a leisurely brunch is in order.

Thanks for commenting!

Unknown said...

I just finished participating in a planned itinerary and what you said. It's not like it was a terrible tragedy, but sending us over a mountain pass that isn't usually open until late June, uh. Yeah, um. Also noteworthy, the two gourmet chocolate places, one which really was smashing, the other, totally mediocre and looking worse than that because we'd been to the smashing one FIRST. Oops.

Live and learn. And validate with locals at every single checkpoint.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Pam

Gosh, sorry I missed this comment of yours.

Oh, that's terrible isn't it? Well, the book we've just updated on Australia has had similar problems. The last author often neglected to mention that many of the roads in the book are closed for months at a time during the Wet season. Not only is something like that a major inconvenience but it can put people in danger also.

Double-checking with locals is fantastic advice.

Nice to 'see' you again!