Surprises in the sand

PAMELA WADE
Last updated 05:00 10/09/2012
 The 29-storey Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

LANDMARK: The 29-storey Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a hot new destination of the Middle East. PAMELA WADE tries a desert safari just an hour from her hotel. Mohammed shakes his head, clearly mystified. "It's strange," he says. "Happens every time.”

We stand with our backs tactfully turned on the German lady busy with her sick bag and look over the dunes.

Wind-sculpted and rippled, the dunes are starkly beautiful in the low sun, and the gazelle that bounds gracefully to the top of one to pose against the skyline is almost a cliche too far.

It's a timeless view that feels very far from Abu Dhabi's outrageously modern architecture, but we are only an hour from our hotel, where Mohammed had picked us up for our sunset Desert Safari.

“You're in the best seat,” he promises us in the back. “It's going to be fun!”

When the dune-busting begins, however, bucketing up and down with the windscreen alternately all sky or all sand, the car sliding sideways and swinging around corners, we are more concerned about hanging on than having fun. It is, frankly, a relief to stop for the German lady; and Mohammed's more restrained driving afterwards is entirely welcome - although clearly a disappointment to him.

Although it's known as the ship of the desert, the lurching of the camel we ride next is far kinder to our stomachs, so that when we sit on cushions at low tables in the desert camp, we were able to do proper justice to the barbecued dinner served under the stars.

The problem, we decided, had been Ferrari World earlier that afternoon. Under a spectacular red roof shaped like the marque's famous logo, this mostly indoor theme park and museum celebrates near the F1 racetrack the world of motor-racing and Ferraris in particular, with more eye-wateringly expensive shiny red and yellow sports cars on display than you could wave a chequered flag at.

Foolishly, we scoffed at the toddlers' race-track and headed straight for the world's fastest roller coaster where, clamped into our seats and equipped with goggles, we were propelled from stationary to 240kmh in a shocking five seconds.

The G-force teeth-baring grin on our faces captured by the automatic camera was, at that point, genuine - it was the sudden descent from 62 metres that came next, and the subsequent two minutes of twists and turns that left us pale and weak, and feeling that perhaps it wasn't the best preparation for hooning through the desert.

Fortunately, there are many less bouncy attractions in Abu Dhabi, a sophisticated city fully focused on the future: necessarily so because it hasn't a great deal of past. The local human history is Bedouin, a people whose nomadic way of life has left little more to see than a heritage village of reproduction simple palm-thatched houses with canvas wind-tunnels and an ox-powered irrigation system.

Photos of Abu Dhabi even in 1960 show just a scattering of houses beside the sea of the Arabian Gulf; but today there is a city of neat, wide avenues lined with date palms, walled palaces, smart villas and glittering glass skyscrapers.

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In the 40 years since the United Arab Emirates were founded, architects have been indulged in their every flight of fancy, until it seems that any designer proposing a simple straight-sided rectangle would be laughed out of town. There's a huge disc, a wavy tower leaning four times further than the one in Pisa, a soaring tripod with a bridge across the top, sail shapes, curves in all directions - and more to come on the island of Saadiyat, where a handful of galleries and museums are planned that are fully as artistic as the works they will contain. Even the Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum, inspired by a falcon's wing, won't be as impressive, however, as the breathtaking Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on the mainland.

Covering an area of five football fields and accommodating 40,000 worshippers, it has 82 white marble domes and four high minarets with 24-carat gold leaf towers: it looks a little like the Taj Mahal on steroids.

Inside, it's even more astonishing: the world's largest chandelier, nine tonnes of crystal, glass and gold, hangs above the world's largest hand-knotted carpet, the walls variously decorated with graceful Arabic script carved in relief, intricate mosaics and inlaid flower motifs of semi-precious stones including lapis lazuli, garnets - and paua from New Zealand. Outside, a sweep of marble courtyard is ringed with a thousand decorated pillars.

Both opulent and elegant, it's a beautiful building, the pride of a city that has much else to enjoy, from shopping in the souks for gold, dates and perfumes, or the malls for luxury goods, to lazing on a white sand beach before dinner on a terrace by the sea. Just keep clear of Mohammed.

Pamela Wade flew to Abu Dhabi courtesy of Etihad airways and Creative Holidays.

GETTING THERE
Etihad Airways codeshares with both Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia on flights across the Tasman to connect with its own regular services from Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney to Abu Dhabi and beyond. Etihad, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, serves 18 European destinations including Dublin, London, Milan and Paris. Visit Etihad.com/nz or ask your travel agent.

Where to stay: The five-star Crowne Plaza Yas Island is close to the airport, golf course, Ferrari World and the Grand Prix circuit; crowneplaza.com/AbuDhabi

What to do: Creative Holidays offers a range of tours, from souks and shopping, mosques and museums, to the desert safari for those with strong stomachs: ask your travel agent or call 0800 652 441. Ferrari World is much more than roller-coasters and cars; ferrariworldabudhabi.com

- The Press

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