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Arabian Sights: A Guide to Abu Dhabi

by Travelbag on 24 February 2020, 16:02PM

Abu Dhabi was long considered the sedate cousin of nearby Dubai. But, as Miles Kingdom discovered on a recent visit, it more than holds its own as a holiday destination. It has thrills and spills in spades, as well as plenty of arts and culture.

Abu Dhabi

Yas Island

Just one thought crosses my mind as we approach the sharpest of corners – way beyond motorway speeds – and it’s not encouraging. Touching the brakes, hands locked on the wheel, I’m sure there’s no way this thing is going to hold. But my instructor just points to the left and we speed through the apex, all four wheels planted on the ground, and we tear into the straight. Exhilarating.

Welcome to Yas Marina Circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. W Abu Dhabi Yas Island looms large above us – a steel and glass bubble of quiet, calm luxury. But the atmosphere on the track is frenetic: the heady scent of exhaust, fuel and burning rubber cuts through the heat. This is the perfect proofing ground for aspiring Lewis Hamiltons. At the Yas Marina Racing School, they will let you loose with an instructor in an Aston Martin GT4, Jaguar F-Type or Mercedes AMG GT on the same tarmac that hosts the final race of the F1 season.

There are passenger experiences too, if you don’t fancy driving yourself. Choose from a Chevy Camaro ‘drift taxi’ that will fly sideways through those sharp corners – wheels screaming as you go – or a twin seat, open cockpit Radical, based on the 150mph machines popular in semi-pro racing. You can even cycle on the track when it’s not being used for higher octane thrills.

Along with a theme park or two, the circuit forms the hub of the Yas Island development, which kick-started Abu Dhabi’s ascent to a major visitor destination more than a decade ago. Previously a rather staid business hub, it’s now more than just an alternative to glitzy Dubai. With its plentiful bars and restaurants, the Marina complex is Abu Dhabi’s answer to the Riviera in the south of France. Mega yachts jostle between the moorings and, come dusk, locals, tourists and expats hang out and chat, or stroll in the cool of the evening. It’s the perfect way to wind down after a busy day – and if you’re here on a short break, or even for a week, all of your days will be busy.

Yas Island Marina Circuit 

Theme Parks and Wildlife

Warner Bros. World is the newest attraction, billing itself as ‘one of the largest’ indoor theme parks in the UAE. With rides based on Warner Bros’ endless back catalogue of characters – from The Flintstones and Wile E Coyote to Batman and the Justice League – that might sound as though they’re selling themselves short. But then they do have to contend with Ferrari World, which is right next door. Not only does their showy neighbour have the world’s fastest rollercoaster – Formula Rossa – it also packs in the world’s highest inverted loop on Flying Aces – a biplane-themed ride that is probably more exciting than the aircraft it’s based on.

These two are among the biggest hitters in the Emirates, and indeed the world. Formula Rossa starts inside but shoots straight out into the desert sun, hitting 150mph in just 4.9 seconds – twice as fast as an actual Ferrari. And on Flying Aces, you twist around the outside of the loop, having previously climbed almost vertically to 63 metres. That might not sound so much, but it feels a lot when you see your legs dangling beneath, then above you.

After this, Yas Waterworld is almost a relief. The outdoor slides and lazy river rides will keep the kids happy while you chill out in the sun – a guarantee at any time of the year. For more sedate but still active fun, kayaking is a wonderful way to explore the Emirate’s natural side. Tours are easily arranged through the mangroves that wend their way around the islands dotting the shore, the city skyline vying for your attention against the wildlife.

Or, for more natural fare, book a visit to Sir Bani Yas Island. A wilderness experience like no other, this is the largest natural island in the UAE and home to a striking number of indigenous species, including the Arabian oryx and the mountain gazelle, plus others introduced by Sheikh Zayed – the father of the UAE – who wanted to create a wilderness reserve for his fledgling nation. Improbably, it’s also home to an early Christian monastery, dating to around 600AD, which was only rediscovered in 1992. It’s just another of the surprises in store in this ever-evolving Emirate.

Sir Bani Yas Island 

Heritage and Tradition

Given the striking modernity of the city skyline, a traditional Arabian adventure might be the last thing you expect of Abu Dhabi. But a large slab of the city is given over to the Empty Quarter – a vast desert made famous by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the Forties. The Rub Al Khali, to give it its local name, also stretches into Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and is known for its towering dunes of reddish-brown sand which take on a spectacular colour at dawn and dusk. Movie fans will have seen them in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and adventure seekers can book onto one of the many four-wheel drive or dune buggy tours which bash over the perilous inclines, seemingly with ease. Or for a quieter experience, join a camel train and ride to an oasis for dinner, a falconry display, or just to enjoy the sheer tranquillity of the desert. 

For peace and contemplation of a more spiritual kind, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, back in the city, is an essential stop. The timed entry system to this gigantic place of worship is strict – and some parts are off limits to non-Muslims – but you won’t regret a guided tour around this beautiful building. Like much of the city, it’s strikingly new – its sheer white walls shimmering in the heat – but it’s traditional in style, with elegant minarets and a tranquil open courtyard. The carpeted prayer hall feels practically stadium-sized and everywhere you look there’s exquisite craftsmanship. Look out for the detailed floral ceramics and the hand-carved woodwork all around. Materials came from far and wide – from American cedar for the doors to a digitally precise clock from the UK, showing the prayer times around the world. The feeling is of an outward, forward-looking nation.

Just as international in spirit is the new Louvre gallery, which finally came to fruition in 2017 after a few false starts. It was worth the wait. Architect Jean Nouvel’s domed steel lattice is a final slice of unreality – as much an attraction as the art inside. The permanent collection is a rewarding trawl through 3,000 years of human craft, which melds European and Renaissance works with Islamic treasures and some modern pieces too. The standout attraction is Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a woman called La Belle Ferronière. She’s no Mona Lisa, but most likely you can have her all to yourself – if only for a moment – with no competing hum of attention like her cousin in Paris.

A bust of Voltaire is another delight – his smile seems to suggest something we don’t know. He once said it was difficult to free fools from the chains they revere. I wonder what he would have made of the Formula Rossa? Regardless, I doubt he would have objected to the Emirates Palace, which is an unforgettable way to round off a visit to Abu Dhabi. Even if you only stay one night, you’ll thank yourself for booking a final treat. The luxurious Emirates Palace, with its staggering 114 mosaic-clad domes, pokes out of the desert like a modern oasis. Once inside, there’s only one colour that seems to shine: gold. Book for dinner, even if you’re not staying – it’ll be an Arabian night to remember.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque 

Keen to discover the Middle East? Give our experts a call on 020 3468 7316 to plan your perfect holiday.

Or if you’re looking for inspiration, check out our latest Escape magazine.


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