TRAVEL GUIDE: Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is surreal - it’s like having a nosey look into the glitz and glam world of the seriously rich.
We saw some of the most opulent buildings in the world, stayed at a seriously cool hotel that straddles the Abu Dhabi Formula One track, visited the Grand Mosque and travelled to the wildlife resort of Sir Bani Yas Island.
There are daily flights from Dublin – flight time is seven and a half hours and Abu Dhabi is 50 minutes drive from Dubai. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, or UAE. It’s built on an island in the Arabian Gulf and is part of an archipelago of over 200 islands along the coastline. It’s an easy city to travel around with signs in English and Arabic.
Taxis aren’t expensive as petrol’s only 30p a gallon. The tourism industry is booming here, with numerous hotels under construction and, with money no object, there are plans to build an outpost of the Louvre and a Guggenheim Museum in the next few years.
Rather annoyingly, Ferrari World was just being completed when we were there during the summer so we didn’t get to experience it but at over 80,000 square metres it’s the world’s largest indoor park and is expected to attract an estimated 10,000 tourists a day...not least to experience the world’s fastest rollercoaster – The Formula Rossa. This rollercoaster travels at 149mph in 4.9 seconds, recreating the G-force felt in a Formula One car. It is so fast that riders have to wear safety goggles, just like those a racing driver wears during a Grand Prix!
The Emirates are famous for their luxury hotels. We stayed at the Yas Hotel only 35 minutes from the city centre. It has an amazing location set half on land and half on water, overlooking the Yas Marina and Yacht Club and positioned on the Yas Marina Circuit which plays host to the annual Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and also has the first all-grass links golf course in the Middle East, the Yas Links just a five minute drive away.
This hotel is distinctive, inside and out – it looks a bit like a futuristic spaceship. Abu Dhabi’s best restaurants are more often than not found in hotels - here you can get everything from authentic Arabic food to Dim Sum. There are no separate pubs or bars here; they are all part of hotels, so when you’re here, your nightlife is likely to revolve around your hotel.
From the futuristic to a hotel with a more traditional feel - still mind blowingly glam though! The Emirates Palace has attracted a lot of tourist attention recently and has become an attraction in its own right. It is only the second seven-star hotel in the world, next to another located in Dubai and is the second most expensive hotel ever built.
It’s where any visiting royalty and heads of state stay when they’re in town and hold meetings with the sheikhs, or rulers, from Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. What I found amazing about it was that they had a vending machine in the foyer that sold gold bullion! Not crisps or tins of coke but gold bullion – how unbelievably bling is that?!
Arguably one of the most important architectural buildings of contemporary UAE society, The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is a must. The Grand Mosque opened in 2007 after twenty years of planning and building and is one of the few mosques open to non-Muslims in Abu Dhabi.It can house more than 40,000 worshippers, many of whom kneel to pray on the world’s largest hand-made carpet, which measures 5,627m sq.
There are 82 domes and approximately 1,000 columns decorated with semi-precious stones, including amethyst, red agate and mother-of-pearl. It is a spectacular building and the guided tours are excellent – they’re free and take place three times a day, every day except on the holy day, Friday.
Female visitors will be given long robes (abaya) and a headscarf (shayla) to wear in the mosque. Male visitors should wear long sleeves and long trousers and everybody has to go barefoot. There are guidelines to follow when you’re in the mosque. For instance, holding hands or kissing is forbidden. This strict attitude extends right across Abu Dhabi and public displays of affection, bad language and even rude gestures can incur penalties.
Another must is the desert safari. A jeep takes you through the dunes and I defy you not to feel like you’re in one of the old Turkish delight adverts. After the dune bashing we watched the sun set before being driven to a camp in the desert for a BBQ and belly dancing. A camel ride was offered but my posterior had suffered enough!