Monday, 18 November 2019

Abu Dhabi: A Guide for Travellers

There’s something happening in the desert. Something big. Skyscrapers are rising from the sand, theme parks are popping up left and right and palaces are opening their doors for visitors all heralding a new era. It began in 1958 with the discovery of oil and it continues now at a seemingly break neck speed. A race to build a new industry before the oil runs out. That industry is tourism and that place is Abu Dhabi.

As the capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi in the minds of many travellers comes second to Dubai but as I discovered on a recent trip here Abu Dhabi is quickly moving from second fiddle and into the limelight.

It is always hard to paint a true visual picture of a place but for Abu Dhabi there is one word that for me sums it up and that is Aladdin. Sweeping sand dunes meet white domed palaces. Local Emirati men proudly wear the traditional white Kandura, a flowing white ankle length robe and during the day the women hide brightly coloured garments under long black abayas, an outfit westerners associate with Islam but here they are cultural garments worn my choice.

A cultural performance in practice for coming dignitaries, out the front of Qasr Al Watan

As a destination for travellers Abu Dhabi is extremely safe, there is little to no crime, the people are friendly and the culture feels very service orientated. It is a comfortable way to experience a culture far removed for your own, where opulence meets tourism in the most visually exciting way. It is also a destination with great appeal for many types of travellers- families, couples, singles and adventurers. Here are my top ways to experience Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi for Families

Whether into beaches, theme parks or cultural experiences families will love Abu Dhabi. I would recommend a minimum of a 4 night stay and consider splitting your time between Yas Island to be in the centre of the theme parks and Saadiyat Island where family friendly beach resorts will cater to all of your needs.  2 -3 nights in each location would be ideal or if you don’t want to move between hotels just choose one island as most hotels have free shuttle services to get you around the city.
On Yas Island base yourself at a family friendly hotel like the Yas Island Rotana where after a long day you have the comforts of a home away from home. Onsite dining is very important in Abu Dhabi as there is little public transport and the Rotana has you covered with 6 food and drink venues plus a swim up bar for the adults. There are also two free shuttle services with routes to get you to the theme parks as well as to the Corniche, the many malls around Abu Dhabi and Yas beach.
Theme Parks is the name of the game on Yas Island and you have access to 3 major parks. Ferrari World for the lover of high speed thrills including the fastest roller coaster in the world. There is also Warner Brothers Movie World, one of the largest indoor theme parks in the world which is the perfect haven from the extreme heat and has some seriously fun rides for kids and adults alike. And finally you have Yas Waterworld, a sprawling waterpark with a lazy river for those looking for a sedate afternoon or thrilling slides that will get your heart pumping.
Once the theme parks are covered head over to Saadiyat Island where you can put your feet in the pristine white sands in front of the azure blue waters of the Arabian Gulf. The Saadiyat Rotana Resort has a large lagoon style pool for the kids and a kids club with a private pool and waterfall if you want to take some adults only time out. If you can line up your stay with a Friday drop the kids off at the club for the afternoon so you can attend the must-do event “Friday brunch”. Friday brunches are held all over Abu Dhabi but the one at the Saadiyat Rotana has been voted the best. Expats and holiday makers gather for one of the biggest buffets you have ever seen which includes stations to grab your Gin Fizz, a branded Aperol Spritz Pit Stop and endless counters of high end seafood, desserts for days and a DJ mixing in chill vibes. All you can eat doesn’t even cover it here, it is all you can eat and more. There is no explanation as to why brunch is taking place at lunch and into the afternoon but it’s a thing here so you know what they say...when in Rome.
For an experience you can only have in Abu Dhabi take the kids to the Falcon Hospital. Fully guided tours here will explain the tradition of Falconry and you will get an insider's glimpse into the workings of this one of a kind facility. Ever seen a Falcon getting a manicure? Now’s your chance.

Warner Bros Movie World

Yas Waterworld

Saadiyat Beach
Falcon Hospital

Abu Dhabi for Adults

Whilst Abu Dhabi has it all for families it is also an exciting place for singles and couples. Base yourself at The Edition, a new hotel which is in the waterfront location of Al Bateen Marina. Whilst the property has three dining venues onsite you are also well located to walk out and grab a coffee and a nearby coffee shop or catch a meal with the locals at the new trendy cafes that are popping up in this area. At The Edition you will also have access to two 24 hour fitness facilities, two pools and a full service spa and trust me, Abu Dhabi knows how to do spa’s...very luxe.
The Louvre Museum is a 15 minute taxi ride away and well worth a few hours to half a day. The exhibits here are wide ranging, both the in house collection as well as the on loan exhibits such as the current exhibition- Rendezvous in Paris- Picasso, Chagall, Modigliani & Co are well worth the time. Whilst the exhibits are world class so is the architecture of this museum, you will be wowed before you even walk in the door.
Also within a short taxi ride of the Edition (or a 3km walk which is an unlikely mode of transport in the weather here) for a mere $30 you can have yourself a gold leafed cappuccino or gold leafed camels milk ice cream at the Emirates Palace. Gold leafed  food may seem opulent but the surrounds will floor you once you realise that this hotel cost 30 billion dollars to build. If you like what you see you can check in for the night, whilst a suite will set you back around $10 000 for the night you can get a standard hotel room within a reasonable price range for a 5 star hotel.
When you are full of gold and ice cream head next door to Qasr Al Watan, a working presidential palace which only opened its doors to tourists this year. This is where world leaders meet with Sheikh Khalifa when they are in the UAE and where you can get up close with the stunning white marble building with its colourful inlaid detail, gorgeous domed ceilings and the biggest chandeliers you have ever seen. Stick around for the nightly sound and light show that takes place on the front of the palace at 7:30pm, it is quite the spectacle and far from the naff tourist attraction the name implies.

The Louvre Museum

You can see the sexiest rendering of Napoleon  the Louvre

Incredible Nigerian bone carving that is a salt cellar from approx 1600 at the Louvre

Friday brunch at the Saadiyat Rotana

Friday brunch at the Saadiyat Rotana

Friday brunch at the Saadiyat Rotana

Friday brunch at the Saadiyat Rotana

Gold Leafed Camels Milk Ice Cream at Emirates Palace

Gold Leafed Cappuccino at Emirates Palace 

Qasr Al Watan at night

The sound and light show at Qasr Al Watan

Abu Dhabi for Adventurers

Most travellers are adventurers at heart and Abu Dhabi will excite. For a cultural connection a few hours at the Grand Mosque is a must. Head there shortly before sunset to catch the desert sun setting behind this stunning building and wander the white marble corridors to see artistic commissions from around the world such as the 8 million dollar hand woven rug weighing 12 tonnes that adorns the main prayer room. There is a dress code for this site including wrists, ankles and hair covered for women and long pants for men. If you don’t have your own you can borrow appropriate clothes at the entrance. And take some advice from Selena Gomez, unless you want a life long ban don’t take any provocative images within the mosque...seems like common sense, right?
Before heading into the desert as per my next recommendation I recommend getting a grasp on the history of Abu Dhabi and the UAE at Qasr Al Hosn. This historic fort from the 1790’s is now a museum that will step you through the history of the region and it’s people from their origins as nomadic tribes to now some of the wealthiest people on the planet. The museum is very well designed with interactive exhibits, evocative photography and a peaceful setting that belies its location in the centre of the city.
A trip to Abu Dhabi won’t be complete unless you head into the desert. This is the type of desert where windswept sand dunes tower like skyscrapers in every direction and the sun sets as a flaming red ball into the horizon. Your travel agent can pre-book you on a 4WD Dune Bashing Adventure that takes you roaring up and over these sand dunes as you head out to a desert camp where you will have a feast,  ride a camel, get henna tattoos and be entertained by belly dancers (not a local tradition but fun all the same). You will be delivered back to your hotel late in the evening full of good food and even better memories.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

4WD Desert Safari

Meet the camels in the desert

Top Tips for Abu Dhabi

*Travel between November and March. I would strongly warn against mid-year travel where temperatures can hit 50 with humidity, not what you may expect in the desert.

*Book a hotel rate with breakfast included. There are very few locations where you can walk to restaurants from your hotel and to buy breakfast as an add on once at the hotel they can hit you up for $100 per person per day.

* Book on some day trips. To really understand the city, its people and the culture booking on a few days trips is recommended. Not only will your transport to the various attractions then be covered but you will get commentary about the city on the way. It is an easy way to get more out of the destination.

*Do your research. There are new attractions popping up in Abu Dhabi every week and by no means have I covered all the current things to do in this article. Read up. Make a list of what interests you, you will be surprised by how much this city has to offer,  go and enjoy!

Abu Dhabi of many spectacular skylines
This article was originally published on Her Canberra.

Originally posted on Monday, 18 November 2019 by