In a sun-drenched land of superlatives and world records, there’s no shortage of unforgettable travel experiences on offer, finds Jamie Lafferty
Try pearl diving
Long before the oil boom, the Gulf’s main industry was pearling. For several hundred years, free-divers would risk everything to sink to the ocean floor to harvest oysters. The local pearls were of such quality that the likes of Jacques Cartier would make the long journey from Europe to inspect them. There’s not much of that industry left now, but visitors can have a go at the old technique themselves. Dive Mahara takes boats out from Abu Dhabi and, best of all, divers can keep whatever they find.
Visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
In a country full of extraordinary architecture, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is perhaps the most striking of all. Taking its inspiration from the Taj Mahal, the gleaming white structure was built in honour of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed, almost 10 years ago. Tourists and worshippers arrive in their thousands every day, access is free and, unlike other super mosques, it’s open to non-Muslims. Like many buildings in the Emirati capital, it sets a number of world records — largest chandelier, largest carpet. It may never recoup the rumoured $600 million build cost, but this spectacular, serene complex really doesn’t need to — it’ll last for centuries.
Museum hop on Saadiyat Island
On its completion, Saadiyat Island will represent one of the world’s great arts and culture districts. That’s still several years away, but before the end of 2017 the first project, the spectacular Louvre Abu Dhabi, will have opened its doors.
Visit now, however, and it’s worth popping into the Manarat Al Saadiyat. As well as scale models outlining the Saadiyat grand plan, it hosts various cultural teaser shows and exhibitions ahead of the larger museums arriving. saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae
Explore the Empty Quarter
Abu Dhabi is both the name of the city and the wider emirate, which is by far the largest of the seven that make up the UAE. The majority to the south is desert — the fabled Empty Quarter made famous by Wilfred Thesiger in his seminal book Arabian Sands. Today, little of that world remains, but a number of ‘safari’ companies, including Nuzhath Ideas, offer dune-bashing experiences, where expert drivers will rock and roll guests in 4x4s among the ocherous red dunes on the edge of the great desert void. desertsafariinabudhabi.ae
Stroll the Corniche
Ask any resident of Abu Dhabi where the city centre is and they may well suggest the Corniche. More of a grand promenade than a centre, it has been the city’s frontier since before the oil boom. Today, the sandy shores are still lined with traditional dhows, the wooden boats particular to the region. There’s no doubting how pleasant a stroll along here can be, especially in the winter months — and doubly so with an ice-cream in hand. Stretching for over five miles, the Corniche has dozens of hotels backing onto its sprawling beach, as well as various sports clubs and communal facilities, cafes and restaurants. It’s also the site of events and gatherings throughout the year — none more spectacular than UAE National Day in December. visitabudhabi.ae
Shop ’til you drop
The blazing heat of summer in the Middle East has been a major driving factor in the construction of larger-than-life shopping malls around the country. Shiniest and newest of all is the Yas Mall, directly linked to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which has over 370 shops, a 4DX cinema and 60 food and drink outlets. If you’re closer to the city centre, then the Marina Mall has everything you’re looking for — and lots you’ve never even thought of. yasmall.ae marinamall.ae
See architectural icons
Architectural world records abound in Abu Dhabi and there are plenty of strange buildings that warrant a look. The Emirates Palace was said to be the world’s most expensive hotel when it opened a decade ago; the Capital Gate building is the world’s most inclined structure; and the Aldar HQ looks like a vast coin rolling along on its side. Then there’s the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, designed by the late, great Zaha Hadid, and the spectacular Etihad Towers, which featured in the last instalment of the Fast and Furious movie franchise.
Back to nature
Kayak the Mangroves
In a desert environment, keeping green things alive requires a monumental amount of effort — not so in the sprawling mangrove forests. As this ecosystem has grown, so too has the amount
of wildlife: fish, birds, even humpback dolphins. Several companies offer the chance to rent a kayak and go exploring in this remarkable milieu. With little in the way of tides and current, it’s an idyllic way to spend an afternoon. Guides from Sea Hawk Water Sports take care to point out the birdlife that calls the mangroves home.
Hunt out the Falcon Hospital
The falcon may be the national symbol of the UAE, but it’s not a native. You can learn the story of how these magnificent birds were captured and domesticated by the Bedouin at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, one of the strangest places in the capital. Though the popularity of falconry isn’t what it once was, there are still thousands of birds in the country, most of which will have to come here for check-ups and feather replacements at one time or another. Tours and lunches are available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the biggest falcon hospital in the world.
Safari on Sir Bani Yas
One of the most remarkable conservation projects anywhere in the Middle East, Sir Bani Yas Island has a Jurassic Park vibe. Several species, including the scimitar-horned antelope, are practically extinct in the wild, but live on the island in their hundreds. They’re joined by giraffe, cheetah and thousands of deer and gazelles. The island is best reached by a short flight from the capital.
Thrills and spills
Make a splash at Yas Waterworld
With temperatures in the UAE ranging from hot to scorching, heading to a waterpark is a good idea any time of year — and Yas Island’s offering is regarded by many as the best in the region.
Opened four years ago, it boasts 45 different rides, at least five of which are unique to the park. While there are plenty of gentle options and safe pools for the kids, there are also four different thrill levels for adults. Perhaps most terrifying of all is Jebel Drop, which sends its riders rushing down a near-vertical slide, squealing all the while.
Six pay-and-play courses — all with certified PGA professionals on the books — ensure truly memorable play, and some of the finest luxury club house hospitality. Whether it’s championship-ready parkland or the sheer uniqueness of a world-class ‘sand’ course, the emirate isn’t short of compelling choices. Best known is the Abu Dhabi Golf Cub, with its iconic falcon-shaped clubhouse, which stages the annual HSBC Golf Championship.
Ride the world’s fastest rollercoaster
For a time, Ferrari World Abu Dhabi appealed only to the most dedicated fans of that famous Italian marque. Now as it enters its second incarnation, the world’s fastest rollercoaster, the Formula Rossa, has been joined by the even more intense Flying Aces. Boasting the world’s fastest, steepest incline, it also has the world’s highest loop-the-loop. Elsewhere inside, visitors can have a go at changing a Formula One car tyre, as well as learning everything about the iconic brand — that’s assuming they can tear themselves away from the rides.