The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, is richer but more understated than it’s more well known neighbour, Dubai. The city itself is principally built on a number of islands just a couple of hundred metres from the mainland while the emirate of the same name is the largest in the UAE with plenty to offer all the family. Now growing in popularity with tourists, the emirate is a very safe, welcoming and fascinating destination.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
Few buildings in the world have the ability to take your breath away and sear themselves into your memory forever. The UAE’s biggest mosque is one such building. You can marvel at the scale of the marble-clad mosque – with the third largest chandelier in the world, largest handmade carpet, four 100m tall minarets, 82 brilliant white domes, and space for 40,000 worshipers – but at the end of the day it’s the beauty of the building that will stay with you.
Completed in 2007, the mosque honours the founder of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed. Artisans and materials from 13 countries were brought together to construct the mosque and its design borrows from Persian, Moorish and Mughal architecture.
There are guided tours throughout the day (restricted opening hours on Fridays and during Ramadan) or you can just turn up and explore on your own. The mosque is worth a visit in the daytime and again at night when the unique lighting system, designed to change with the phases of the moon, projects soft bluish clouds onto its façade and domes.
Observation Deck at 300
Sitting at a lofty 300m above the city of Abu Dhabi, a visit to the observation deck is one of the highlights of a sojourn in the capital. After making their way to the eastern end of the city’s corniche, visitors ascend to the 74th floor of a skyscraper in the striking Etihad Towers development for sublime views.
The entrance fee for the observation deck includes credit for use in the adjacent café (book in advance if you want to to eat there) which is well known for serving the highest high tea in the emirate. Staff are attentive and discrete and the pastries are delicious. Sip luxury teas and take in the 360 degree panorama of the ever-changing Abu Dhabi skyline.
With views over the city including the world famous Emirates Palace hotel complex, the white domes of the Presidential Palace, and the sparking, warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, this observation deck and chic café in the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers hotel is not to be missed.
There are several companies offering desert safaris from Abu Dhabi city but for the most authentic and upmarket desert experience available it’s recommended to go with the Dubai-based company, Platinum Heritage. The multi-award winning company will pick you up from a hotel in the capital for a hefty fee but it’s simple and easy to hop on a bus or taxi and get picked up in the adjacent emirate of Dubai itself.
The journey out of the city is undertaken in a air-conditioned 4×4 vehicle but once out in the desert the real adventure begins. You will transfer to a vintage 1950s Landrover, don a traditional keffiyeh to protect you from the sand and sun, and venture across the rolling dunes of a private reserve owned by a member of the Dubai royal family. On the sheikh’s land you’ll see the majestic, and very rare, Arabian oryx as well as both mountain and sand gazelles.
As the sun begins to dip below the horizon, you can marvel at the speed and grace of a peregrine falcon in flight during a fascinating falconry display before heading to a private Bedouin desert camp where a sumptuous feast of traditional Emirati food is served by the light of traditional lamps.
Henna tattoos, traditional Khalijee dancing, camel rides, shisha and coffee follow. There is no dune bashing or belly dancing on Platinum Heritage excursions as the is aim to provide an authentic experience which celebrates Emirati culture, tradition and heritage.
This is the most high end desert safari available in the UAE and the only one in the world where you can ride in museum quality Landrovers of the kind that first traversed the deserts of Arabia.
If high velocity thrills and multiple g-force rides are your idea of heaven then Ferrari World will tick all boxes!
The world’s largest indoor theme park keeps temperatures at a comfortable 24C all year round so it’s the ideal place to escape the soaring temperatures during a summer visit to Abu Dhabi. Over 20 diverse rides provide thrills galore for all the family. Stifle screams during a spin on the world’s fastest rollercoaster, the Formula Rossa, or on the highest rollercoaster loop on the Flying Aces.
The theme park is designed to appeal to all the family and also includes soft play areas for younger children and junior go-karting. Lucky kids also get to drive scaled down versions of Ferrari cars while mum and dad can have a driving experience in a full size Ferrari California.
Round it all off with a surprisingly good Italian meal at Ristorante Cavallino and any thrill-seeking family is guaranteed to leave happy.
Overnight camping in Liwa Oasis
Arguably the most beautiful part of the entire country, the Liwa desert reveals endless vistas of rolling sand dunes scattered with date tree plantations and more than a few wandering camels. The Rub al Khali, or Empty Quarter, is the fabled stomping ground of adventurers like Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger and still lures intrepid souls seeking to escape the frenzy of 21st century life for the beauty and serenity of the largest sand desert in the world.
Visit during the Al Dhafra camel festival in the nearby town of Madinat Zayed to see up to 30,000 camels from all over the Gulf compete in various contests, including the famed camel beauty contest. The festival is a great stop on the way to your camping spot and a rare opportunity to enjoy Emirati culture and heritage alongside local families in celebratory mood.
Once at Liwa Oasis you can check out the huge Tal Moreeb sand dune. Reportedly 300m tall and angled at 50 degrees it’s an imposing sight and popular with extreme driving enthusiasts.
Destination Insight is a company specialising in desert excursions, including overnight camping trips. They will collect you from your Abu Dhabi hotel with all the necessary equipment and whisk you out to Liwa, stopping along the way for some camel milk and lunch and maybe on the way back for afternoon tea at the stunning Qasr al Sarab desert resort. You can also try your hand at desert driving under the tutelage of their expert guides.
Once camp is set up you’ll find sunset in the dunes is a magical time as the sands change colour and the daylight is replaced by the twinkling of a million stars. Sleep outdoors without a tent and you can drift off to sleep watching shooting stars and dreaming of yourself as a true desert explorer.
Afternoon tea at Emirates Palace Hotel
Not many visitors to Abu Dhabi are lucky enough to stay at the ultra luxury, opulent and grand Emirates Palace. Those who may have to think twice about dropping $14,000 per night for the hotel’s most expensive accommodation, the 680m2 Palace Suite, will be happy to see there are more wallet-friendly ways to experience one of the world’s great hotels.
Afternoon Tea at Le Café is as sumptuous an affair as you would expect from a hotel designed to showcase the best of Arabian hospitality. Sip on a signature Emirates Palace cappuccino, a delicious mix of aromatic expresso topped with cappuccino cream and adorned with 24 carat gold flakes. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, opt for the Camelccino, made from fresh camel’s milk from local suppliers and served with a date and some camel’s milk chocolate in the shape of, you’ve guessed it, a camel!
Light as air scones are accompanied by delectable spreads of Devonshire clotted cream, blue berry compote, orange marmalade and wild raspberry and rose petal jam. A selection of savoury sandwiches including smoked salmon and Angus beef with horse radish sauce are followed by sweet treats including crème brulée and strawberry vanilla tarts.
A fascinating tour of Abu Dhabi’s falcon hospital will give you an insight into why falcons are so highly prized and much loved by the peoples of the Arabian Gulf. The hospital treats over 11,000 of these raptors every year and during a tour the guide will tell you about the birds themselves and how they are an integral part of the history of the UAE and the region.
The hospital is a world-leading centre into falcon medicine research and runs a falcon release program where peregrine and sakar falcons are reintroduced to the wild in places like Iran, Pakistan and Kazakhstan to boost wild populations. Guests will learn about these initiatives and also visit the feathery patients waiting quietly for treatment in their burqas (hood) and see procedures performed on others. There is also the chance to hold one of the magnificent birds for a photo op or to give them a little snack.
If you find yourself next to an avian seat mate while flying around the region you can be sure that if the bird is from the UAE it got its special falcon passport from the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital!
Candice Bain is Founder at Desert to Jungle.
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