Abu Dhabi: beautiful cultural oasis rising out of the desert

IMG_0362GRAND Prix time and Abu Dhabi has laid on a glamorous, opulent party. No expense spared. During the daytime the Yas Marina Circuit, which curves right through the middle of the Yas Viceroy Hotel vibrates to the deafening roar of the elite of the motor-racing world. At night, the du Arena is vibrating as rapper Jay Z, flown in for the event, blasts the crowd with such ferocity he literally blows up the generator. In between, there are glittering gatherings on massive multimillion-dollar yachts berthed in the marina. Celebrities mingle with the rich and the royal and the rest of us.

The Grand Prix is just one of a series of international events from golf and powerboat racing, Formula One motorbikes to arts, that Abu Dhabi is staging to attract international tourists. But these headline events are only half the story.Less than 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi was literally empty desert, inhabited by nomadic Bedouins, and a large grouping of disconnected islands. But as the oil dollars began rolling in, Sheik Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates, devised an ambitious but carefully considered plan to develop his country.

Even just a few years ago, Abu Dhabi was for most travellers a brief stop on the journey from somewhere to somewhere else, a couple of hours of sumptuous duty-free shopping while the plane refuelled. Today, it’s an exciting fusion of glittering modernity and the culture that has been at its heart stretching back through time: a destination in its own right with attractions for all the family. It’s a story being told in many parts, each equally important to the country.

IMG_0388The city of Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the country Abu Dhabi has the largest land mass of the UAE’s seven member states and a population of about 1.6million. Although architecturally striking high-rise buildings are beginning to appear on the horizon, Abu Dhabi is deliberately aiming for a more subtle national persona than its close neighbour, Dubai. It is combining its natural assets – its ancient culture, pristine beaches and network of islands, its shifting sand dunes and environmentally rich mangroves, coastline, its native wildlife – with innovative man-made attractions such as a world-class whitewater kayaking and rafting course and Ferrari World, to develop a country that will offer something to for everyone. All without changing its basic nature.

You’ll see plenty of vehicular bling on the beautiful Corniche but you’ll also see familiesIMG_0325 out picnicking or just strolling during the balmy evenings. While multimillion-dollar powerboats do battle in the harbour, as the day fades you can step back in time and enjoy the sunset from an ancient dhow. There is some of the best fine dining in the world, particularly at the growing offering of 5-star plus hotels like the glittering Emirates Palace, which is more than 1km from end to end, and the newly opened Ritz Carlton with its views out over its own private palazzo. But there is also a growing range of “local” restaurants that represent not only the local cuisine but the many nationalities that now call Abu Dhabi home.

Traditional and modern culture lie at the heart of the country’s development. By day, or IMG_0297at night when it is illuminated by hundreds of floodlights, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is spectacular. As well as being the central place of prayer it also houses an eye-popping chandelier, made of Italian Murano glass and the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world.

On Saadiyat Island, 500m off the main coastline, an ambitious cultural precinct with a quartet of world-class museums that are as much works of art to look at as the treasurers they will hold is being developed. For the first time, the prestigious French Louvre Museum has entered into partnership with another country, and the floating dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi, with its series of micro-galleries, is scheduled for completion next year.

Close by is the typically eye-catching Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum due for completion in 2016. The jewel of the precinct is the Zayed National Museum, named afterIMG_0369 the founder of Abu Dhabi, which was designed by renowned British artist Sir Norman Foster. The striking modern structure with its towering shards draws heavily on the concept of Arabic design and will provide the venue for live art performances such as ballet and theatre and a permanent historical exhibition. For those in search of culture of a different variety Saadiyat Island also has a testing links golf course, one of three championship level courses in the country, with many beach-side holes having glorious views over the water.

About a two-hour drive away is Al Ain, the second largest city in Abu Dhabi and the heart of the country’s culture. It has been listed by UNESCO for its architectural richness including 500 ancient burial tombs and also boasts the picturesque restored Al Jahili Fort. In its past the fort has been both a military outpost and royal summer palace. It IMG_0305now houses a permanent exhibition to the famed explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger and is also the atmospheric setting for outdoor night-time concerts.

On our return journey from Al Ain we drove part of the way up Jebel Hafeet, the craggy limestone outcrop that dominates the skyline. From there, we can see in the distance a lone bird of prey effortlessly riding the thermals. Below, there is a brilliant green slash, the Green Mubazzarah oasis where families come to relax, paddle in the hot springs and have lunch and relax in the shade. And beyond that, desert disappearing into infinity and the neighbouring Sultanate of Oman.

Nearby is Wadi World, a man-made complex that provides a new, modern oasis below the sweeping jagged mountain range, with two huge lakes and three levels of whitewaterIMG_0279 rapids for kayaking and rafting. While the courses are suitable for beginners and novices, several international teams are basing themselves in Abu Dhabi to use the most challenging and technical course to prepare for the next Olympics. There’s also a man-made wave pool for surfers which can be controlled to suit all skill levels.

Getting around Abu Dhabi is easy. There is a large, carefully regulated and reasonably priced taxi service. Or, for those who prefer self-drive, the road system is new and well laid out with the high-profile landmarks useful for directions. Check the opening times of attractions if visiting on a Friday. And an increasing number of tour companies offers short experiences, such as an overnight desert camping, camel and horse riding, dune skiing and visits to the Arabian Wildlife Park.


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