When I went to Abu Dhabi recently, all I knew was that this was another city in the United Arab Emirates, aka the general expanse of space around the glitter called Dubai. And, boy, I could not have been more wrong.
For starters, Abu Dhabi, which means father of deer (probably because deer dwelled there at some point), is the largest and single-most important jewel in the Emirati crown. It may not be as popular as Dubai, but that just translates into more local culture.
I flew in on the domestic airline, Etihad, and the experience was marvellous right from the pick-up from my home. The sad bit is the flight from India is too short to truly savour the experience. The one I was on was at such an unearthly hour that I was feeling jet-lagged before I even got on. (Note to self: choose another of their three flight options next time.)
I arrived and checked in at the Fairmont Hotel, which runs with the efficiency expected of a business hotel yet is warm and hospitable enough to make families comfortable.
In Abu Dhabi, everything is on a grand scale. The stress is on being the biggest, largest, fastest, everything-est. The stately roads all resemble eight-lane highways; the plush villas that lazily lounge by the roadside are all in hues that almost blend into the bleak desert background; each mall is the size of a small European city; there are restaurants that serve every cuisine imaginable. Abu Dhabi is a land of options. As long as you have adventure in your heart, you can never fall short of things to do.
Here are ten places you should visit on a trip there:
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
It is the largest mosque in the UAE and spans five football fields. The sheer scale of things is astounding: a single-piece handmade carpet over 5600 square metres in area sprawls out endlessly, the Qibla Wall (direction wall), in the main prayer hall, has the 99 names for God written in traditional Kufic calligraphy, and the crystal chandeliers shine like a giant glittery candy. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has architectural influences from at least three continents. People of all faiths are encou-raged to visit and enjoy the serene space.
Abu Dhabi hosts the world’s largest hospital for falcons. The locals love falconry, and many own falcons that are as expensive as luxury cars and have their own passports. The Falcon Hospital helps falcon owners ensure their birds are in top condition for hunts. Each feather on a falcon’s wings can be replaced here should it be broken in a hunt, which is highly probable considering falcons achieve speeds in excess of 250kmph. There is an ICU, operation theatres and an Outpatient department where birds may come in for general maintenance, such as having their talons and beaks clipped (think bird mani-pedi). This place is something of a cross between an aviary hospital and a garage for expensive sports cars. Don’t shy away from the token bird-on-the-hand picture; the hospital staff is prepared for it.
Located on Yas Island (a manmade island), Ferrari World is the world’s largest indoor theme park. The 200,000 square-metreroof is designed to look like the side profile of a Ferrari GT. Ferrari World is home to the world’s fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, which reaches 240kmph in under five seconds (0-100kmph in two seconds). That is a serious amount of g force on your body, and it feels like having your stomach jump up and try to exit through your nose. There are other rides that are more family-friendly, the kind on which everyone can sit without fear of bringing up their lunch. If you go on a weekend, opt for the VIP pass as it allows privileged access, which is official-speak for cutting lines.
Yas Marina Circuit
It is considered the most technologically advanced F1 circuit in the world. The 2014 Abu Dhabi F1 race is slated for November this year, but there is stuff to do at the Yas Marina through the year. You can drive, or sit in the passenger seat of, some of the fastest sports cars in the world, including the Aston Martin GT4, the Chevrolet Camaro and the Formula Yas 3000, a car developed specially for the circuit by Formula 1 engineer Cosworth. The circuit wraps around the stately Yas Viceroy hotel, in which practically every room has a view of some portion of the track.
Situated right next to Ferrari World, it is a great place for families to spend an entire day splashing about.
Al Fanar restaurant
The United Arab Emirates has its own cuisine, and one is forgiven for not knowing much about it. Emirati food is simple yet delicately spiced and predominantly non-vegetarian. Al Fanar, in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, is the best place to give it a try. From the ambience to the menu, this place is all about the detail. Even the locals commend it.
If you are going to Abu Dhabi next year, you should be able to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is scheduled to open on Saadiyat Island in 2015. A massive commercial, leisure and residential project is currently underway on the island, which includes plans for several big museums. After the Louvre opens next year, the Zayed National museum is scheduled to open in 2016 and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is set to open in 2017. For now, you can visit the Manarat al Saadiyat, a 15,400-square-metre visitor centre. It may not feature high on most tourists’ lists of places to visit, but when I was there, they had an exhibition called The History of the World in 100 Objects, which used items from the British Museum’s collection to provide a concise and informative take on the world around us.
Weather-permitting, this road along the sea is a great place to go walking, cycling or running. There is even a beach on one stretch. The seafront was nowhere near as magnificent a few decades ago, and the way it has turned out is something Mumbai can take a lesson from.
Located on Corniche road, Marina Mall is one of Abu Dhabi’s biggest malls. It has 122,000 square metres of retail space along with an ice rink, a bowling alley, musical fountains, a multiplex and a revolving restaurant.
I was in the UAE in the summer, so dune and wadi bashing were out, but I still braved the journey to the oasis city Al Ain, a lush green-patch 160 kilometres east of Abu Dhabi and not far from the Oman border. While there, make a visit to the Al Jahili fort, which documents the 16,000-km journey of travel writer Wilfred Thesiger (aka Mubarak bin London), who crossed the Empty Quarter (the vast arid desert between Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and made it to Al Ain. Many have tried to repeat his journey, but no one has done once what Thesiger did twice in the 1940s. The Sheikh Zayed Palace museum, which documents the era before oil was discovered, is also a good stopover.