A true rags to riches story. Abu Dhabi has emerged as a tourist hotspot. Take theme parks, race tracks and action packed deserts. Add a devout Muslim culture and pioneering Sheikh rulers. Blend in modern cuisine, exquisite hotels, palaces and mosques that have to be seen to be believed. With Dubai the more well known city in the Emirates, Abu Dhabi certainly punches above its weight.
Erin and I had landed in Abu Dhabi for a 5 day jaunt from Australia. I had actually transited through Abu Dhabi some 19 years before. Yet I still remember it vividly. It was 2am and a one-hour stopover had me waiting attentively in the transit lounge not wanting to miss my refuelling aircraft. A mosaic of blue tiles decorated the interior of a massive domed ceiling and calligraphy was all over the walls. There were men, only men, gliding past in flowing white robes, each holding hands with another similarly dressed man. As a naive 21 year old from the west of Sydney I had my first dose of culture shock!
Today, many travellers still only transit through Abu Dhabi aboard the local Etihad airline routes to and from Europe. A few take a day to stretch the legs, a lot fewer spending any more than that. We were keen to spend a bit more time to savour as much as Abu Dhabi had to offer. The following is what we managed to pack in to 5 days with some tips and tricks to assist those wanting to go a bit further than the airport while passing through the Arabian Peninsula.
When to go
We travelled in May. Average day time temperatures were about 37 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). And this is considered mild. June and July should probably be avoided unless you intend to spend most of the daylight hours indoors beside an air-conditioner. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, occurs in late May which is also best avoided as many services will be limited. However early May, when we travelled, was hot but bearable and there were hardly any crowds at the major tourist draw cards.
If you have ambitions of becoming a formula one race car driver, please ensure you take a ride on the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World before you begin your training. It will allow you to experience the acceleration effects of going from 0-240kph in under five seconds. Not much can prepare you for the shock of this. The added twists and turns of this feat of engineering bring some serious G-forces. The following picture I think speaks volumes for the experience!
The rest of Ferrari World is done well, a few more decent rollercoasters including a very well themed Flying Aces roller coaster. There are go-carts, driving simulators, stage shows and you can race the clock when changing a wheel on an F1 racing car. There is also a lot of history of the Ferrari Company for the Italian car enthusiast.
Across the road from Ferrari World is Yas Waterworld. A combo ticket can see you tick off both parks in one or two days. With depleted crowds we accomplished both easily in one day.
Waterworld has a pretty good selection of gravity powered slides to get the heart racing. The Liwa Loop gets the adrenal gland working overtime. As I as stood on a plastic divider the attendant counted down to zero before whisking the divider from under my feet. All went dark and I was spat out mere seconds later into a pool of white-water. The closest thing I’d imagine to being flushed down a toilet.
The stationary waves allowed me to try my hand at surfing. I needed to graduate from the baby wave machine to be able to have a go on the larger wave below. Not as easy as it looks!
Still on the action packed Yas Island. Yas Island is not far from the airport but 20km outside the main city. Yas Marina Circuit is home to the Abu Dhabi Formula One event held in November.
Time to summon the inner rev head. Many cars are available to drive or instead, complete a hot lap as a passenger. I chose the passenger option and was paired with a young, but I’m told qualified, racing driver. We were driving in a Supersport SST, the closest thing to a Formula One car on offer. Our warm up lap involved one spin out on, what I was assured, were cold tyres. We sped up considerably on lap two and squeezed a little more out on lap three before coming back into the pits. Apart from a new pair of underpants, I got an appreciation for the physical nature of professional race car drivers. I take my hat off to them!
Angar Indian Restaurant
Located in the Yas Viceroy Hotel on the ground floor, Angar has a reputation as one of Abu Dhabi’s finest Indian restaurants. We experienced a great selection of dishes from their tandoor oven. We were recommended a great chardonnay by Marco, the Sommelier. The food and the rest of the service was exemplary. Can recommend the Haryali Jhinga (tandoori prawns), Chicken Tikka Masala and Baghare Baigan (Eggplant & caramelised onions).
Before dining, ensure you download the Yas Viceroy App. This gives you up to 50% off restaurants in the Hotel. We found the use of discount coupons is very common across the UAE so don’t feel embarrassed showing your voucher on your phone as you ask for the bill, no matter how high end the place may seem!
COYA Peruvian RESTAURANT
Our other stop in the Abu Dhabi degustation adventure was Coya. A Peruvian inspired restaurant with a great vibe and good service. It felt more like a locals place even if it was housed within the Four Seasons hotel.
Tip, there is a dress code. No shorts or thongs! A quick wardrobe change was required for yours truly. To be honest 5 days in the heat had left me looking a little ragged. This place was very tastefully done so its fair enough that it’s guest are as well!
Arabian Nights Village
Just over an hour outside of Abu Dhabi towards Razeen is the Arabian Nights Village. Turning off the main road there is 20km of dirt trail through the ever-present sand dunes before reaching the village. Camels wander freely in groups from nearby farms and the ochre undulating sand dunes stretch to the horizon like a vast sandy sea. With few landmarks it’s the sort of place I felt I could get easily lost in easily, quickly perish in the heat and be swiftly swallowed up forever by the ever-shifting sands.
The Arabian Nights Village is luckily quite well equipped. I mean it has a pool! Room options are from self-contained huts to traditional Bedouin tents. Our stay included a 4WD sand safari. We jumped inside a shiny new Toyota Landcruiser and we were off! Our driver didn’t hold back and took the most vertical routes over the largest dunes, nearly coming to grief a few times. A side-trip to a local camel farm had us face to face with some very cute newborn foals.
Dinner was an alfresco buffet with guests seated on cushions at low tables surrounding a stage with an oud player as background music. The sweet scent of a shisha pipe wafted over from a table of young men. Who, incidentally become more animated when the resident belly dancer appeared as the second act on stage.
Sunrise was spent atop the largest nearby dune which was very peaceful. Having carried up a pair of boards we preceded to sand board back down the silky sand to the pool. After breakfast, it was time for dune buggies. The staff were pretty lackadaisical about the whole affair leaving us to our own devices. I was a little over eager, tipping over just the once with a solid thud into the hot sand.
All up Arabian nights was worth the overnight trip. It does see its fair share of tourists. So it’s not the most authentic experience in the desert, but certainly the best catered. More than one night would be a stretch as we exhausted most activities during the one night stay.
Yas Viceroy Hotel
Straddling the Yas Marina Circuit the hotel is perfectly geared for the rev heads who arrive in November for the Formula One Grand Prix. The Yas Viceroy Hotel is a very tastefully done very modern 4-star hotel with two rooftop pools, ground floor restaurants and a great buffet breakfast. The staff are excellent and if you have a room in the second tower (room numbers beginning with ‘2’) just ask to be on the other side of the floor from the nightclub located across the marina!
Southern Sun Hotel
Our second Hotel stay was at the Southern Sun Hotel. Located more towards the centre of town it was two blocks from the Corniche, a pleasant seaside esplanade. The Southern Sun was less opulent but pretty comparable to the Yas Viceroy at nearly half the price.
An early morning run along the Cornice allowed a good view of the city skyline. As soon as the sun came up it was back to the pool to cool off!
On the outskirts of the Abu Dhabi sprawl you have Masdar City. A project focused on renewable energy and technology. Clear recognition that Abu Dhabi will need to develop in this area when the when fossil fuels which the UAE rely so heavily on are exhausted. To visit Masdar City is best described as an apocalyptic university campus. It was a bit soulless. A few people walked about with the few shops closed. It took some time to even find some information of what Masdar City was all about.
That said, once we located the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system all that changed. Six small pod like cars were lined up in an otherwise empty garage and we hopped in car #4 and selected our destination. Mind you we had not seen any people to this point. The car confirmed where we were going in a clear English voice. The doors closed and we sped at 40kph through a tight underground maze. No driver, no rails, no overhead wires. We passed similar vehicles going in the opposite direction and the cars held true to course.
Pretty cool! We discovered the cars ran to magnets so not your true driverless cars of Google and Tesla fame but a very realistic peek into the future of urban transport. I just hope the future has a little more life to it!
Heritage Village & UAE Flag pole
In contrast to Masdar City, Heritage Walk gives a taste of traditional life in the United Arab Emirates before the Sheikhs struck oil in the 1960s. It has traditional craftsman from Leather maker to Blacksmith and Potter to carpet weaver. It included a small but interesting (and free) museum on the dress, weapons and way of life of early settlers.
When we arrived it was the middle of the day and edging on 40 degrees. We stepped inside a thick blanket bound Bedouin tent which was stifling hot. It is impossible to imagine how anyone could live within that!
Lastly, just outside the Heritage Village you can see what was once the tallest flagpole in the world. Abu Dhabi is that type of place where nothing is really done by halves.
In stark contrast to traditional life, our next stop was at the Emirates Palace. Built by Sheikh Sayad who is the founding father of the modern United Arab Emirates and an Abu Dhabi local. Sheikh Sayad, while having died in 2004, ruled the Emirate of Abu Dhabi for over 30 years. His quite regal and identical portrait can be found in just about every establishment in the region. Sheik Zayad was instrumental in unifying the 7 separate Emirates to form the UAE and together become stronger to maximise return on the oil reserves that have brought wealth and prosperity to what were humble fishermen, pearl divers and camel traders.
The Emirates Palace seems to be where the extent of the UAE oil riches are on display. It was an exceedingly grand and sprawling building where simply no expense has been spared. Everything oozes extravagance and gold is the dominant colour signifying the wealth invested in the construction and finishing. Many of that being actual gold itself.
Meanwhile, we were on a hunt for the fabled gold bar vending machine. After a brief search we got chatting with a security guard who informed us it had been removed only one year earlier. Apparently, it had giving a few inaccurate valuations requiring its removal for recalibration. Our security fellow, now tour guide, explained the vending machine got a fair bit of use. Popular with mainly the Chinese who would take the gold home to sell at a profit!
Sheik Zayad constructed the Emirates palace initially to have joint meetings of the 7 emirates and other world leader summits. It is still in use today for such purposes as well as a somewhat pricey hotel option and popular for the uber rich to host all manner of gatherings. We were witness to a 300 guest Indian wedding in full flight. We bid our security guard farewell, although we would have been happy to chat all day about the many interesting goings on inside the Emirates Palace that he’d seen in his 8 year tenure.
Across the road from Emirates Palace, in the opulent end of town, is Etihad Towers. Three identical soaring glass fronted skyscrapers housing flash apartments and a hotel. The Hotel Jumeriah at Etihad houses an observation deck on the 74th floor. An 80 AED ticket gets you access and a 50 AED refund on any food or drink purchased.
The views were impressive looking down directly over the Emirates Palace. More fascinating was the Presidential Palace which sprawled even further than Emirates Palace. While the Emirates Palace welcomes walk-ins to look around, the Presidential Palace is not open to the public and is heavily guarded.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque
You might say we’d saved the best to last. The Sheikh Zayad Mosque can be seen from a good many places across this sprawled out city. Only 10 years old, it was 20 years in the making. A Taj Mahal like feel, the endless gleaming white polished marble reflects the sun’s rays so strongly it would likely cause an odd form of snow blindness if it were stared at for too long.
The old Sheikh put his hand to many things in this town. You would say the Mosque which bears his name is his crowning glory. Sheikh Zayad is also entombed within the mosque. He died 3 years before its completion in 2007. The Mosque is simply a modern masterpiece. It is a collection of many architectural and artistic influences from many past and present civilisations.
Cynically you wonder if this is too much and the money could be better spent elsewhere. However I’m glad they did it. The free entry and free tours make the Mosque very accessible. The tour is highly recommended to understand both the detail and thought put in to the design and also comprehend the simple practicalities of the very often misunderstood Muslim faith.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Unfortunately, the Louvre was not quite open but the building looks amazing and will be first stop on our next visit!
That’s a wrap!
So there you have it Abu Dhabi done and dusted. A return visit will be necessary to explore the entire Arabian Peninsula. Including more of the UAE plus Oman, Qatar and maybe even the elusive Saudi Arabia.