For the past few years, Abu Dhabi has been nothing more to me than the place where I rush through the airport to catch a connecting flight. So, I decided that this year when heading back to Glasgow, I would take the time to see what this sandy city has to offer.
As my flight lands pretty early in the morning, the first impression I have of the United Arab Emirates’ capital is a little blurry and it’s nothing to do with the sleep in my eyes. When day breaks in Abu Dhabi, it’s difficult to tell where the sand ends and the sun starts. However, what soon becomes apparent is that it’s not the high-rise mecca that I believed it to be. Sure, there are some monumental glass towers, but not as many as I expected.
My home for the next three days is the newly opened Bab Al Qasr, a cool Moroccan-inspired oasis, just across from the Presidential Palace. Its distinctive bronze exterior is in stark contrast to its calming white interior and I’m sure I’ll be very happy to use this as my base to explore all Abu Dhabi has to offer.
Planning to hit the ground running, my first stop after my bags have been dumped and I’ve freshened up is the Artisan Kitchen for breakfast. Served in buffet style, there really is everything you could possibly want for brekkie and I opt for some delicious Middle-Eastern salads and dips … when in Rome as they say. So tasty is the food that I unashamedly head back for second servings – that’s the beauty of a buffet. Fully sated, it’s time to explore.
With a few things planned for days two and three, I decide that today will be spent on foot, walking around the Corniche area is surprisingly easy. I wander down to the marina and, as you would imagine, some of the yachts on view are pretty magnificent. As it starts to warm up, I head over to Etihad Towers for a bit of retail therapy, window shopping-style.
If you really want to see how the other half live, this is the place to go. Don’t expect to pick up a holiday souvenir here, but it’s worth imagining your own Pretty Woman moment.
It’s early afternoon and travel tiredness is starting to hit so I head back to the hotel for some R&R by the beach. Yes, the hotel has its very own beach so I bag a bed and a parasol and let the tiredness take over.
After dinner in the hotel and an early night, I’m up early to head to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This is a must for any visitor to Abu Dhabi, regardless of religious persuasion. The sheer scale and detail that has gone into making Sheikh Zayed’s dream become a reality is truly breathtaking.
Tours of the Grand Mosque run frequently and are free – however, you must adhere to dress and behaviour codes. Men and women must be dressed modestly. Don’t worry if you only have holiday clothes with you, you can hire an abaya – the long dress like garment worn by many locals – at the entrance to the mosque grounds.
The group that I join has Faaris as our guide – a delightful young man who is only too happy to share what the mosque means to him. From the reflective water pools and opulent chandeliers, to the Minbar (pulpit) and the decorative marble that adorns the building, so much care and attention has gone into every facet.
One bonus for Aussie travellers is the presence of a well-known coffee chain just a you leave the mosque – perfect for those who find the local brew a little too strong.
With breakfast feeling like a long time ago, I’m heading to the Emirates Palace for lunch and possibly one of the world’s most expensive coffees. The Emirates Palace has long been THE hotel to stay at when in Abu Dhabi and it’s easy to see why. More like a small village than a hotel, you really wouldn’t have to leave the grounds if you didn’t want to.
For me, it’s straight to a little cabana at the Mezlai Emirati Restaurant, where I decide to order a local delicacy and something so far from my comfort zone. When my dish of chicken hearts cooked in a rich fruit sauce arrives, I almost ‘chicken’ out but I’m glad I don’t – it is delicious. Sitting in my covered cabana I’m tempted to remain here all afternoon, but coffee and scones are waiting for me.
With live entertainment in the form of a piano player and singer, it’s not difficult to see why so many people seem to sit in Le Café for so long. I order my 24K gold-plated Palace cappuccino and scones and sit back and wait. When my coffee is delivered, it’s difficult not to let out a little giggle of glee. But when the scones arrive, my heart sinks – there are enough to feed a family of four! I can’t help but feel that everyone’s eyes are on me as I try to delicately eat my way through as many of the scones and accompaniments as I can. After two I’m beat and even when I’m offered them to take away, I decline. This is probably the most decadent thing I will do in Abu Dhabi – the coffee and scones has cost me about $60 – but it was worth it – and honestly, I won’t need dinner tonight.
A short walk across the road back to Bab Al Qasr and I decide a soak in the bath and an early night is needed.
My last day in Abu Dhabi before catching my onward flight to the UK and I’m heading to the Falcon Hospital, which treats 11,200 falcons each year. The two-hour tour costs about $60 and is worth every cent. Not only do you get to find out about these fascinating birds and the place that they hold within families across the Emirates, you also get access to the actual treatment rooms filled with rows of birds waiting for their pedicures and the likes!
Today there are about 40 birds waiting to have a range of treatments from pedicures to feather repairs and replacement. Not only do I get to see these treatments taking place, I also get to feed one of the magnificent birds of prey. The strength of their beaks is, as you would imagine, incredible. And thankfully, when they have their hoods on, they are incredibly calm. All the same, I’m a little relieved when I get to hand it back.
Of all the experiences I’ve had in Abu Dhabi, it’s my feathered interaction that I’m most enamored with and one that I will remember for a long time to come.
As I head for my flight, I reflect about my three days and what has surprised me most of all is that they haven’t quite been enough. I’ve only scratched the surface of what Abu Dhabi has to offer but the good news is, I now have another reason to stop over on my next trip home!