Arabian Height - Abu Dhabi

It’s barely more than 50 years since the first barrel of crude oil came out of the one-road fishing village that was Abu Dhabi, but things couldn’t be more different today.

The collection of coastal islands once subsisted on fishing and pearl diving, but Abu Dhabi is now a prosperous city and the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — the union of Gulf States that was brought together in 1971 by Sheikh Al Zayed bin Sultan Nahyan. Abu Dhabi makes up more than 80 per cent of the UAE’s landmass and holds most of its oil reserves. And while the city itself holds plenty of attractions, you won’t want to miss the otherworldly lure of the desert along with the islands to the south.

Must see-spots

Abu Dhabi will soon come into its cultural stride with the opening of a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum, plus the first international outpost of the Louvre and the Zayed National Museum.

In the meantime, it’s full speed ahead at Ferrari World, home to the world’s fastest roller-coaster and the track for the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix held in November. If you’re looking for somewhere to cool down, you’ll love Yas Waterworld with its 43 rides, including a three-metre surfable wave.

If shopping is more your thing, visit one of the city’s souks. For fresh food, head to the port where you’ll find the fish souk and the Al Mina Fruit and Vegetable Souk; the carpet souk is also nearby and haggling is the way to go. A modern take on the traditional souk can be found at Souk Al Zafarana, offering clothing and crafts as well as a variety of dates. There are also plenty of Western stores — visit Al Wahda Mall (Hazza Bin Zayed St) or indulge your designer desires in the mall at the base of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers.

If you’re visiting in December, head to the Volvo Ocean Race Destination Village to see the boats competing in this 71,745-kilometre yacht race.

Where to eat

There’s no shortage of places to eat in Abu Dhabi. Li Beirut is a fine-dining Lebanese restaurant where chef Jouni Ibrahim fuses French flavours from his classical training with dishes of his childhood. The result is delicious — think kibbeh with foie gras.

A more traditional high-end Lebanese offering can be found poolside at Mijana. Local seafood and meats are grilled to perfection and they serve some of the best falafel and hommus around. International restaurants abound, with French and Italian being especially popular, or visit the Abu Dhabi outpost of the renowned Chinese restaurant Hakkasan , located in the jaw-droppingly opulent Emirates Palace.

If it’s a cocktail with a view you’re after, head to Ray’s Bar, atop the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. Award-winning bartender Aliksandr has an encyclopaedic list on offer. While you’re waiting, enjoy the view of the vast neighbouring Presidential Palace from 62 floors up — it makes the Emirates Palace look modest.

Hidden gem

There are not a lot of Emirati restaurants in Abu Dhabi, perhaps because the majority of the population are expats, but one that’s worth checking out is Al-Fanar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Although newly built, it’s fashioned after a 1960s Emirati house, complete with a dusty Land Rover out the front and secluded rooms where families can eat in private.

The food is traditional Emirati fare — dates with tahini to start, grilled local seafood and an Indian-inspired chicken biryani for main. Make sure you order a bottle of Namlait — a soda that was popular in the 1960s and is now manufactured exclusively in Japan for Al Fanar. It tastes like creaming soda. Leave room for khanfaroush (doughnuts) for dessert. You won’t be sorry.

Spotlight

A 2.5-hour drive or a 25-minute flight from the city, Sir Bani Yas was quite literally a desert island when Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan decided it would be the test case for his ‘greening the desert’ program in 1971.

The island is now covered by more than 2.5 million trees, with irrigation pipes supplying fresh water generated by the desalination plant. In addition to the three hotels on the island, there is a wildlife reserve that is home to animals including cheetahs and hyenas, many loud peacocks, a herd of giraffe, a variety of gazelle, Arabian oryx and fleet-footed ostrich. Some of these animals are native to the region, while others have been gifts to the nation from various heads of state.

The animals essentially run wild over the island, although the cheetahs are kept clear of the accommodation. Guided safaris are available, but if animals aren’t your thing, there is also mountain biking, sea kayaking and archery available. There are even ruins of an ancient Christian monastery, dating from the 6th century — the only early Christian site in the UAE — to explore. Accommodation ranges from opulent hotel rooms to luxury safari-style villas with private plunge pools and decks that offer the perfect vantage point from which to watch the wildlife wander.

Where to stay

Luxe Laze by The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi’s enormous pool or private beach for long enough and one of the attentive staff will offer to clean your sunglasses, if you’re not already enjoying a complimentary massage.

Out of town The silence of the desert at Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara  is mesmerising, while dune-bashing (with a trained driver, of course) is just scream-out-loud fun.

Beach side Award-winning modern luxury is on offer at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, which is just moments from the Corniche that runs the length of the city’s main beach. Don’t miss the extensive breakfast spread — it’s considered one of the best in town.

Boutique It’s worth making the two-hour drive and short boat trip to the Sir Bani Yas Island for a stay at the Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort where sand gazelles and peacocks graze on the doorstep of your private villa and guided safaris reveal cheetahs, giraffes and more.

Don't leave without...

Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It’s a blindingly white marble structure and one of the biggest mosques in the world. Dressing respectfully is always appreciated in Abu Dhabi but is strictly enforced here, where up to 7000 worshippers gather in the main prayer hall on the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, under eye-wateringly huge chandeliers. At night, the mosque is lit according to the phases of the moon.

Living like a local

Australian Heath Gordon works as a chef de cuisine for a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, where he has lived for the past two years.

What do you like to do in Abu Dhabi that a visitor might not know about? Not many visitors realise that Abu Dhabi sits on nearly 200 islands, most of them uninhabited, and you can explore those pristine beaches as well as kilometres of mangroves with a stand-up paddleboard, kayak or boat.

What’s the best thing about living and working in Abu Dhabi? It has great people and a great lifestyle, proximity to so many different countries where you can escape for a weekend, amazing career options and it’s very safe.

Where do you go for the best Middle Eastern food? Al Saada Bakery and Lebanese Flower Bakery  serve amazing manakish (pizza) that cost about $1 a piece.

Where do you go to escape the city? Al Ain, about two hours’ drive from the city centre, straight through the desert. For me, the main attraction is the Wadi Adventure water park, which has a wave pool that you can book out privately. If water is not your thing then it’s well worth the drive up Jebel Hafeet for the lookout over the UAE and Oman. The winding road up the mountain is rated as one of the best roads to drive in the world.

You’re a Queenslander originally — how do the beaches compare? The beaches here are still very nice, with warm blue water and lots of water sport. We also get small fun waves through the winter months when the trade winds blow from the top of the Arabian Gulf. There is a healthy surf community here with all the expats from Australia.

Words by Alix Davis - Published in Voyeur December 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 860,000
Time Zone UTC +4
Languages Arabic (official), English
Currency United Arab Emirates Dirham (AED)
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