Sarah Brown hops over to the UAE capital – Abu Dhabi – for an easy weekend getaway amid a vibrant dose of culture.
While glitzy Dubai has long been on the bucket list for many travellers to the UAE, the country’s capital Abu Dhabi is often overlooked.
A relatively short drive from Muscat via the Buraimi-Al Ain border, there’s never been a better time to visit, with the government recently announcing that children (under 18s) visiting the UAE with their parents will be given free visit visas every year from July 15 to September 15.
Over the past 10 years, Abu Dhabi has undergone a huge transformation, thanks to the Abu Dhabi emirate’s commitment to veer away from its reliance on oil and gas income. Development has come to the islands of Yas, Saadiyat and Reem while attractions such as the highly-touted Louvre Abu Dhabi should play a leading role in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District.
While it might be a little too hot at the moment to swim in the turquoise waters alongside the Corniche (the esplanade that stretches along the city’s north-western shore) there’s still plenty to do to keep the whole family happy; from riding the world’s fastest rollercoaster ride at Ferrari World (on Yas Island) to letting the kids cool off on the tornado waterslide at Yas Waterworld.
You can visit the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque or delve into the city’s pearl heritage with a cruise on a traditional Jalboot boat. How about indulging your shopping addiction at one of five fabulous malls in the city? Why not top it off by taking afternoon tea in the majestic Emirates Palace?
Abu Dhabi is a much more compact city than Dubai and therefore getting around is straightforward. Taxis are relatively cheap compared to those in Dubai, and can be flagged down fairly easily. There’s also an excellent (and cheap) bus service.
Head to the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island and marvel at the museum’s floating, light-filled dome. Already an iconic site on the city’s skyline, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has a children’s museum as well as a range of interactive activities and artworks that cater to both young and old.
Another great way to stay cool is to head into the peaceful waters of the Eastern Mangroves, and explore the flora and fauna from a kayak. There are now a few companies that offer kayaking tours of the mangroves, where you’ll get the opportunity to get up close and personal with a variety of wildlife, including crabs, colourful fish, herons and flamingoes.
Back on terra firma, if it’s a bird’s-eye view of the city and its surrounding islands you are seeking, then head to Etihad Towers, where you’ll find Observation Deck at 300. The 300 stands for 300 metres high; Abu Dhabi’s highest vantage point and a thrilling place to round out your visit.
My favourite place- It would have to be the kayaking tour of the Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park. As you wind your way deeper into the mangroves, the sounds of the city recede and you can literally feel the stress melting away. The best time to book is late afternoon as it’s so it’s much cooler.
Highlights- Perhaps the biggest news this summer is this week’s opening of Warner Bros. World, a massive indoor theme park on Yas Island. It will boast six immersive “lands” and a host of wacky cartoon characters (think Batman, Bugs Bunny, The Flintstones and Superman, to name but a few).
Lowlights- Because Abu Dhabi is an island, the humidity during the summer can be quite high – more so than in Muscat. But that said, the city is well-prepared for the summer and offers a huge amount of indoor activities to help you stay cool.
Souvenirs- From gold to more traditional-style souvenirs, such as hand-woven textiles and pottery, either head to the Gold Centre at Madinat Zayed Shopping Centre or to Heritage Village on the Corniche Breakwater near Marina Mall.
Getting there- If you are driving, the journey should take just under five hours from Muscat via Buraimi-Al Ain. Otherwise, both Oman Air and Etihad Airways offer daily direct flights to Abu Dhabi.
Where to stay- There’s a range of hotels and hotel apartments to suit all budgets, from mainstays such as Le Meridian or the Beach Rotana, which are both close to the centre of the city. However, there are some great hotels on Yas Island or in the Two Bridges area, such as the Shangri-La Hotel.
Top 5 things to do
1. Indulge in a day of fun at the amusement parks on Yas Island
2. Take an afternoon to explore the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi
3. Cool down and explore Eastern Mangrove Lagoon National Park
4. Sample the stunning architecture of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
5. Get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Observation Deck at 300