Abu Dhabi... with a toddler in tow
Abu Dhabi... with a toddler in tow
My first glimpse of Abu Dhabi is from the air — a kaleidoscopic landscape of beige. The sandy wilderness gives way to a sparkling metropolis where sun glints off every available shard. It is completely enchanting. Positioned an hour from glitzy Dubai, Abu Dhabi forms part of a group of the UAE's seven Emirates, or principalities, presided over by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Like Dubai, it too is defined by soaring glass block towers and five-star resorts. It also shares the same unapologetic air of glamour of the Dubai set. But Abu Dhabi no longer stands in its neighbour's shadow. It has its own Grand Plan. And it is wildly ambitious.
Abu Dhabi is determined to become the cultural headquarters of the Middle East. The city's heady vision was realised quite recently as it opened the doors to the Louvre on Saadiyat island — a testament to its investment in the next generation of cultural leaders. There is an aura of the great here that is, at times, enviable. This, combined with its world-class attractions, a well-developed tourism sector and the arresting landscape, has resulted in more of us favouring this Middle Eastern destination as a holiday over the sometimes ostentatious Dubai.
It is hard to reconcile this magnificent metropolis with its humble beginnings. Meaning 'father of the gazelle, it is believed the name, Abu Dhabi came about because of the abundance of gazelles in the area. But it was diving for the coveted pink pearls in the unique sweet, salty water of the gulf that brought the initial habitants here. Their ancestors are now today's locals.
The beaches are laid back and beautiful with sand as white as the postcards suggest, but the desert haze prevents a true blue sky. Instead, it adds to the otherworldly feel of this extraordinary city on the edge of the Persian Gulf. Saadiyat Island, in particular, is a sybarite's dream. There are five star resorts as big and as elegant as you would expect for a city that places luxury at the centre of all its offerings. This «Happiness Island,” as it translates from Arabic, has been created as part of an ambitious project to mix commercial, residential and leisure projects that will result in eight separate museums, including the Guggenheim and Louvre at its heart. It is a ten-minute drive from the city centre, connected by a bridge. The galleries themselves are architecturally stunning. Many of the masterpieces on who are loaned from some of the most world-renowned French museums.
On our first humid night here we take a stroll down the Corniche — a sweeping manicured waterfront stretch that has some of the best people-watching spots. We travelled with our one-year-old daughter and received a very warm reception across the board, but especially from the locals who are beautifully robed in crisp white (for the men) and (black) for women.
The next day we spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the traditional Souq (markets) of Qaryat Al Beri. You can buy Emirati products, marvel at the displays of gold jewellery or simply enjoy the cacophony of Arabic, Turkish, Lebanese and Indian chatter all about. We took the traditional wooden 'Abra,' a type of Middle Eastern gondola across the 700 metre stretch of canal. It is well worth the trip — especially if you want a taste of the authentic.
Foodies will also find plenty of Eastern delights to thrill. We had a very memorable meal at Pearls and Caviar, a contemporary Mediterranean seafood restaurant, overlooking the private beach at the Shangri-La hotel with panoramic views of the Abu Dhabi strait. We loved the quirky the air of the flamboyant with flourishes of flamenco blended with traditional mosaic tiles, but the real show-stopper here is Sergi Arola's hybrid tapas menu. We gorged on Bomba de la Barceloneta (an explosion of mashed potato, beef ragout and aioli) and sipped sweet dessert wine while planning the next day's adventure.
Yas Island is a purpose-built paradise with a Formula One track where kids play in fountain jets while cafe bars bursting with sunny seating areas overlook the marina. The only interruptions to our pootling around the yachts were the intermittent roar of brightly coloured supercars. Everywhere you look is faff and pomp, shrouds and shards, but it is all part of this charming concoction of culture that we are here to absorb. For those looking for something a little more high-adrenaline, Ferrari World is a branded theme park close by that features the world's fastest rollercoaster as well as state-of-the-art simulators and racing memorabilia. The water parks in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi are also worth a special mention. We spent a day exploring Yas Waterworld — a water park with more than 40 rides including the unforgettable Rush Rider and the Bandit Bomber which is the longest suspended roller coaster in the Middle East. Here, everything strives to be the biggest and the best. It is what attracts many of those who travel here to live and work. It is a conscious and very confident approach by the Abu Dhabi Government.
Build it and they will come
Here, there are no apologies about the extraordinary vision Emirati's have for their city. Posters and billboards inspire and brag 'We are the greatest city in the world'. 'Our ambition is limitless' and they are right. In fact, The Abu Dhabi Government strategic development plan for 2030 has been named in a list of the top 100 infrastructure projects worldwide including a new airport terminal, another superhighway, state-of-the-art hospitals and a vision to attract almost 8 million tourists a year by 2030 (up from 4.4 million in 2016). It shares Dubai's long-term strategy to diversify the UAE economy away from oil revenues and into higher value services industries such as tourism. Everywhere you look they are building, planning and constructing. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all.
But I was curious to see if my preconceptions over the unbalanced gender equality would surface. If anything, it gave me a fascinating insight to a culture I knew very little about. It was on a visit to the iconic Blue Mosque, which stands eloquently at the centre of the city, that really gave me a flavour of Middle Eastern life. Sheikh Zayed Mosque is one of the most important architectural treasures of contemporary UAE society—and one of the most opulent in the world. It was initiated by the late president of the United Arab Emirates, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and took more than three thousand people to construct. Its central theme is around uniting the world — with designers using artisans and materials from Italy, Germany, Morocco, India, China, the UK, New Zealand and Greece.
It makes for a breathtaking view, as we discovered on our first morning from our hotel balcony. Standing proud on the city's skyline, the early sun casts a glow over its splendid curves. We woke at dawn, serenaded by the guttural melody of the traditional Adhan or call to prayer which lured us up and out to explore further.
Up close, the mosque is even more intimidatingly beautiful. Admission is free and it is usually open Saturday to Thursday from 9am until 10pm. Visitors are shown to large dressing rooms (men into one and women into another) where, as a matter of respect, you are given robes similar to the garments worn by local Emiratis. Yes, it was stifling for my pathetic Irish constitution, but my overriding feeling was one of surprising liberation. We instantly blended into the swathes of crowds, but it also gave us the best way to observe the world around me discreetly, free from judgement, and with a feeling of anonymity that was quite intoxicating. I learnt through speaking with locals and friends who lived in Abu Dhabi that as one of the more progressive of the seven Emirates, many of the women here choose to wear the traditional Abayas. Indeed, there was a touch of superiority from the Emirati women in the malls with their beautiful handbags and heavily kohled eye make-up. They glided past us confidently, with an air of the mysterious.
Ultimately, it is this urge to always discover a little more that is part of the lure of Abu-Dhabi — a wonderfully interesting sun destination. And while many of Abu Dhabi's achievements are nothing short of astounding, prepare to fall in love with its brazen self-believe as well as its enchanting culture.
WHERE TO STAY
I stayed at the 5-star Shangri-La hotel (www.shangri-la.com/abudhabi) which overlooks the Blue Mosque. Its lush garden landscapes make for a serene, faraway world and it is also handy for the airport (30 minutes drive) but there is plenty of choice when it comes to somewhere to rest your head.
WHEN TO GO
We travelled in early January and found the weather to be ideal (24 degrees). The best time to visit this part of the Middle East is from October to April when it is cool enough to make the best of the outdoors. Temperatures are usually from 10 to 25 degrees centigrade. Temperatures get as high as 48 degrees in July and August and the humidity can be quite uncomfortable.
WHAT TO BRING
I wore my usual summer attire — sundresses, shorts and tee-shirts but made sure I brought a shawl/pashmina with me to cover my shoulders as we visited some of the more religious areas. Beachwear is acceptable at public beaches and at hotels and resorts. Keep in mind that it can also be chilly with the air-conditioning in restaurants and bars. Alcohol is very expensive here so it might be an idea to visit duty-free on the way if you enjoy your glass of wine on the balcony in the evenings.
Taxis are a very common and affordable form of transport here in Abu Dhabi. You can flag one down almost everywhere and many of the shopping centres and malls have their own dedicated taxi ranks. I was fascinated to see pink taxis which are exclusively for female passengers and little boys aged 10 and under. They are driven exclusively by women and have the same fares as other (silver) taxis.
The journey into town from the airport costs about AED 70 — 80 (€17) and takes half an hour. You can also take the A1 bus into Abu Dhabi City. It runs every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day.
Most of the larger hotels have staff who speak English.
10 Emirati Dirham (AED) is about €2.20
Tipping for good service is common practice (10%)
Check when Ramadan starts and ends. It lasts 30 days. It is a holy month where Muslims fast from dawn until dusk. The city gets much quieter and working hours are reduced. In respect to those fasting, eating and drinking is prohibited in public.
The weekends here are Friday and Saturday so Sunday is the first working day of the week.
I'm a writer and mum to three adventure-loving cuties. I enjoy trying to show my family as much of the world as possible in-between the school runs and writing about our latest adventure.