Grand castles in the sand

LEISA TYLER
Last updated 05:10 26/11/2013
Abu Dhabi Landscape
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HUGE AND GAUDY: The Emirates Palace Hotel

Emirates Palace Std
Leisa Taylor
OPULENCE: Inside Emirates Palace.
Abu Dhabi Std
Leisa Taylor
EXQUISITE VIEW: Pearls Bar in the Shangri-La Hotel.

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When Abu Dhabi opened its first major airport in the 1960s, the city was little more than a patchwork of low-rise concrete buildings and thatched huts flanking snow white sands and an azure blue bay.

Thanks to the oil revenues that have been swelling state coffers ever since, the capital of the United Arab Emirates ranks among the richest places per capita on the planet, with an ever burgeoning skyline to match.

Don't go expecting another Dubai: for all its incredible wealth, Abu Dhabi remains a quiet, conservative and somewhat constrained contrast to its glitzy neighbour but there are plenty of rich pickings to warrant a 24-hour sojourn.

EARLY MORNING

Unless travelling in the heart of summer - from June to September, when daytime temperatures hover around 45-50 degrees - take the opportunity to enjoy Abu Dhabi's gorgeous climate.

Don some good walking shoes and take a hike along the Corniche, a picturesque seaside walkway that skirts the front of the 1970s' built "old city", now undergoing a major facelift as the block-style office buildings are replaced with gleaming futuristic towers.

Alternatively, join a local guide for a kayaking expedition with the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Hotel (see anantara.com).

The tours paddle through the labyrinth of small waterways and sandbanks making up the Eastern Mangroves Lagoon National Park, the UAE's first national park and provider of habitat for more than 200 fish and 50 bird species; the latter best seen as they dive for fish in the early morning.

MID-MORNING

The stunning red Ferrari World, a theme park which hovers over the flat white sands of Yas Island like a giant stingray, is sure to amuse kids and rev heads in equal measure.

Spread over 20 hectares, Ferrari World offers 19 attractions of varying speeds and character, including the world's fastest roller-coaster, the Thrill of Rosso, which accelerates from 0 to 240km/h in five seconds.

There are Ferrari race-car simulators and slow animated "flights" over the Italian countryside. Pick of the rides is Speed of Magic, a several minute ride which follows Nello, a cheeky cartoon, through a series of fantastical 3D landscapes at seeming breakneck speeds.

Tickets are from AED240 ($79.90); ferrariworldabudhabi.com

If that's not enough roaring for one day, pop next door to the Yas Marina Circuit for a few laps with a professionally trained driver in an Aston Martin GT4 or a Formula Yas 3000cc, or participate in a drag race in a 400-horsepower V8 Chevy Camaro. In each case, guests are given a few test laps with an instructor before being suited, helmeted and put behind the wheel.

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Drag races are from AED650 ($216), test drives from AED1500 ($499); see yasmarinacircuit.com

The Flintstones-style Yas Water World, also on Yas Island, is the newest fun park to open in Abu Dhabi. Spread over 43 hectares, the park has a fake beach, simulated surfing waves and a few dozen watery rides, from adrenaline junkie Dawwama, a giant funnel that feigns a tornado while participants clutch to a plastic raft, to moving and grooving tyre tube rides along gently meandering streams. Tickets are from AED235 ($78.23), see yaswaterworld.com.

LUNCH

Traditionally, Bedouins who tended camels survived on flat bread cooked over earthen fires, camel's milk and fish; Gulf Arab cooking has never made it outside of the family kitchen. Instead, the default "local" cuisine is Lebanese. For the best of that, head to no-fuss diner Lebanese Flower, where you can gorge on staples such as mezze, perfectly crispy sambousik (stuffed pastry parcels), makanek (sausage with pine nuts), falafel, salads and grilled meats in simple surrounds without denting your wallet. Defence Street; see lebaneseflowerrestaurant.net.

AFTERNOON

Get lost between the dazzling marble columns of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque which opened in 2007. It's a mix of Moorish, Ottoman and Mughal styles. Among its treasures are exquisite hand-painted tiles, 82 domes, 1000 columns and, at 40 tonnes, one of the world's heaviest chandeliers.

It also holds the world's largest hand-knotted Persian carpet. At 5700 square metres, it took 1200 artisans two years to make. The mosque is open to the public from Saturday to Thursday from 9am to 10pm and on Fridays after 4.30pm. There are free daily tours. See szgmc.ae.

ON DUSK

Kick off your shoes and sink your feet into the sand to watch the sun drop over the Arabian Gulf on Saadiyat Island. The newly opened St Regis Saadiyat Island's Turquoiz Bar is a rustic-style thatch and wood shack overlooking a gargantuan strip of sand and the ocean rumbling in from Iran.

Order the in-house take on a martini or Long Island iced tea and team it with a selection of healthy bar snacks such as quinoa salad and baked octopus with fava beans. See turquoizabudhabi.com.

Closer to the city, the Shangri-La Hotel's Pearls Bar is a breezy rooftop affair that pairs champagne cocktails with a bird's-eye view over the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Qaryat Al Beri; see shangri-la.com.

DINNER

Stroll through the huge and gaudily furnished Emirates Palace Hotel, a 362-room monstrosity that is said to have cost US$3 billion ($3.67 billion) to build. Pass the roster of yellow Ferraris at the lobby and an ATM dispensing bars of gold to check out the mosaic ceiling and gilded columns on your way down to Sayad, the hotel's seafood restaurant. Pull up a chair outside to catch the sea breeze and order hearty platters of ceviche and tuna carpaccio.

The cooked fish dishes could do with a little less time in the pan and the wine is expensive (more than US$65 ($79.5) for a bottle of Yalumba's basic Oxford's Landing), but the bread is extraordinary and the setting spot-on. Corniche Road; see kempinski.com.

Like many capital cities, Abu Dhabi has had its fair share of celebrity chefs opening satellite kitchens lately. Pick of the bunch is newly minted Rhodes 44, a slinky space on the ground floor of the St Regis Abu Dhabi, by British chef Gary Rhodes.

The menu has home-style comfort food with a scattering of dishes tweaked with local ingredients, like the well-textured Arabic goat's cheese salad with dates, fresh figs, toasted almonds, local honey and pomegranate. Team it with the macaroni cheese. Nation Towers; rhodes44.com.

AFTER DARK

Suitably glitzy for big spenders, the Emirates Palace Havana Club, a gentlemen's lounge with marble floors and leather armchairs, has the most expensive cognac in the world: Hardy Perfection, for a whopping AED9480 a shot. Corniche Road; see kempinski.com.

More restrained, and affordable, is the Anantara Eastern Mangroves rooftop bar, Impressions. Kick back with a patio chair and views over the city. There is live music, a healthy menu of single malt whiskys and a constant procession of complimentary snacks. Sheikh Zayed Street; see anantara.com.

GETTING THERE

Etihad has a fare to Abu Dhabi; see etihad.com.

STAYING THERE

Overlooking the Eastern Mangroves Lagoon National Park, the newly opened Anantara Eastern Mangroves offers the best of both worlds with its natural setting but easy city access. The sprawling complex finished in wood and marble has 222 spacious guest rooms (request a mangrove facing room), a Turkish hamam and an enormous breakfast spread of Levantine delights. Double rooms are from AED 510 ($169.8) a night. Sheikh Zayed Street; see anantara.com.

MORE INFORMATION visitabudhabi.ae

- FFX Aus

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