In the 1930s, Abu Dhabi was a quiet, barren place, home to pearl divers living in simple houses made of reeds, who eked out a living from the surrounding seas, while the Empty Quarter – the vast desert interior – was roamed by Bedouin.
Then came the oil.
Today, the ever-expanding emirate is home to 2.4 million people, witnesses to one of the world’s biggest ever construction projects.
The best way to see just how fast Abu Dhabi is changing is by riding up top on a Big Bus Tour. Part of a global network of bus tours, these hop-on, hop-off rides allow visitors to easily visit and view all of the city’s major attractions over a 24-hour period. Tickets are priced from US$49.50 per adult.
With 11 stops, the route takes in all of the city’s major sites, beginning with Saadiyat Island. Featuring buildings by famous architects ZahaHadid, Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, this art hub will house branches of the Louvre and the Guggenheim.
From this stop, you have the option of switching to a shuttle bus to Yas Island, which hosts an F1 race at the futuristic Yas Marina Circuit every November, as well as being home to the world’s only Ferrari theme park.
Here you can ride Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, or if that’s not your speed, perhaps instead take a stroll through the Galleria Ferrari, where you can get up close to some of the greatest cars ever made.
The next stop after Saadiyat is Central Market. Razed by a fire almost a decade ago, it has recently emerged from the ashes as a chic, Norman Foster-designed mall. For 40 years from the 1960s, this was the city’s hub of commercial activity, full of the sound of merchants from around Asia.
The modern souk couldn’t be more different; a chic 250-shop space with full air-con and modcons. As well as picking up a souvenir camel statue, T-shirt or keyring, shops to watch out for here include the honey-obsessed Laverne, and a branch of Shakespeare & Co., a rather odd Alice in Wonderland-themed tea-house.
As the new souk shows, Emiratis love their air-conditioned malls, and none more so than the Marina Mall, just a few stops further along on the Big Bus Tour. The first thing you’ll notice is the soaring Sky Tower. Standing some 100 metres tall, it rises up from the centre of the mall and offers great views.
Back down on earth, you’ll find more than 250 stores that cater to everything from Louis Vuitton to the Manchester City FC store, where you can buy replica shirts of the Abu Dhabi-owned English football champions. The kids should also be happy with the entertainment, including tenpin bowling, ice skating, a cinema, and a “Fun City”, which features arcade games, bumper cars and even a roller coaster.
When you’ve had your fill – there’s also a decent food court serving fast food from around the world – board the bus for the short hop to the Emirates Palace Hotel. Determined to outdo Dubai’s US$1 billion sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi spent a staggering US$3 billion on this huge Arabian Nights-themed building.
If you’d like to stay a while inside without paying for a room for the night, book a table at the hotel’s Mezlai restaurant, which serves traditional Emirati cuisine in sumptuous surrounds. (However, homesick Canadians might want to make a pilgrimage to bagel and coffee institution Tim Hortons at the Mushrif Mall. Mmmm, Tim Hortons’ French vanilla cappuccino…
The Big Bus tour saves the best for last: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Considered to be one of the modern treasures of Abu Dhabi, construction of this majestic place of worship was initiated by the late President of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Able to hold up to 41,000 people, the mosque is open daily to tourists, except Friday mornings, when weekly prayers take place.
Reflective pools are lined with dark tiles, while coloured floral marble and intricate mosaics pave the 17,000-square-metre courtyard. The best time of day to visit is at 5pm, when you can watch the sun go down as people rush to evening prayer. It has obviously been built to be a landmark, Abu Dhabi’s version of the TajMahal.
In the end, as your day-long tour on the red Big Bus makes readily apparent, Abu Dhabi is a city in a rush to meet its future – you’d best get there before it arrives.
Etihad flies daily from Singapore to Abu Dhabi direct for around S$1,800 return (flight time 7 hours 45 minutes), departing Changi at 7.45pm and arriving at 11.30pm.
Where to Stay
Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara
The Eastern Mangroves Hotel, located on the city’s inland coast, offers views of the region’s precious mangroves and showcases fine Arabian design. A sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, choose from over 200 rooms, all decorated in a comfortable yet chic style and boasting a number of fun cultural touches. Enjoy authentic Thai cuisine at Paychaylen, relax with a drink at Impressions, or sign up for an invigorating hamman spa.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara
In the Liwa Desert, one of the largest uninterrupted sand deserts in the world, lies Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara. Just two hours’ drive from Abu Dhabi city, this incredible palace in the sand appears out of the desert like some kind of mirage. While it’s easy enough to spend your time here lazing around the resort-style lagoon pool, while you gaze out at the sea of dunes (the ocean comparisons don’t stop there – at times you’ll swear that the sand is moving), there are a bunch of activities worth signing up for, including desert-walking, camel-trekking, dune-bashing, and even falconry.
What to Do
Detoxify at a Hammam
Since the UAE doesn’t have a spa culture of its own – there was little time for such indulgence in the pre-oil days – try the next best thing, the imported Turkish hammam, the biggest of which can be found at the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara. Hammans date back to the days of the Ottoman Turks. To begin with, you are asked to strip down and then sit in a scorching sauna. As you start to sweat in the heat, you’re then told to spread-eagle yourself on an immense stone slab in the centre of a dome-capped room. Next, you’re shaken awake by buckets of water being dumped across your body, rubbed with scented black olive soap and then given a rather vigorous exfoliation. Finally, you’re lathered in soapy bubbles and then given another thorough drenching before being sent on your way, back out to face the world.
Kayak with Noukhada
Abu Dhabi is not the kind of place where you expect to find lush, verdant forest – and especially not right in the centre of the city. It’s this surprise factor that adventure travel company Noukhada is counting on. At the heart of Abu Dhabi lies a massive, protected mangrove forest that is home to a wide range of birds, crabs and fish. Your tour starts from the jetty at the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara; an early morning booking is recommended as later the temperature can become too hot. Over a 1.5-hour tour, you’re led by a guide under the mangrove canopy, entering hidden lagoons and passing through narrow channels. For most of the time, you’ll forget about the growing mega-city all around you, instead content to gently paddle through this wonderful wilderness.
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