Abu Dhabi is hoping to rival Dubai when it comes to tourism. Julie Marshall discovers there’s much to love about this new kid on the block.
Walking around one of Abu Dhabi’s opulent shopping malls is a disconcerting experience. Prestigious shops from some of the world’s top designers are housed in air-conditioned splendour – a welcome relief from the searing heat outside.
But what is a little perplexing is the lack of shoppers. Empty walkways and even emptier shops give the whole place an unlived in and unloved look. Women in all-black abayas and hijab and and men in all-white ankle length dishdash and keffiyeh, just a hint of the designer clothes they wear underneath peeking through.
And notwithstanding the heat, the streets are relatively empty of pedestrians during the day with only a few joggers and walkers venturing out at night once the sun has gone down.
But all that is set to change as Abu Dhabi gears up for an influx of tourists in the wake of grand plans to bring culture to the region. Tourism they feel is the way forward and already there are signs that the strategy is working. In 2015 there was an increase of 18 per cent in hotel guests compared to the previous year and the new state-of-the-art cruise terminal is expecting 22,000 passengers this year.
Despite being the capital and the second-highest populated city in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is some years behind Dubai with regards to tourism but it is going all out to catch up.
Abu Dhabi is actually an archipelago, made up of a number of small islands, some linked by elaborate road bridges, each island with its own distinct identity.
Saadiyat island to the north is all set to take centre stage as the cultural hub of the Middle East once the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum open by 2017.
Yas Island, dubbed the entertainment island, is the home of Yas Links, a par 72 championship golf course and the Yas Marina circuit where the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held. It’s also the site of the world’s largest indoor theme park, Ferrari World, which houses the fastest rollercoaster in the world in Formula Rossi, and Flying Aces, the tallest loop in the world – neither of which I deigned to try out.
A cycle ride around the Grand Prix track however is great fun and much more to my liking. Each Tuesday evening hundreds of walkers and cyclists descend on the circuit.
By the end of 2016, three new landmark hotels will have opened; the first of these, the Four Seasons on Al Maryah island welcomed its first guests only a few days before our visit in May; The Grand Hyatt and Fairmont Marina will follow this year.
Attracting the five-star Four Seasons hotel is a real coup for Abu Dhabi, the 34-storey, 200-room hotel is just 30 minutes from the airport and has its own air-conditioned passage to The Galleria luxury mall next door.
Although tourism is still in its relative infancy, visitors to Abu Dhabi will find plenty to entertain and amuse – not least on the beautiful unspoiled beaches.
Yellow Boats offer a speedboat trip and, if you’re lucky, a dolphin may pop its nose up as you pass by.
An unmissable experience is a visit to the the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. With room for up to 40,000 worshippers, it has 82 domes, more than 1,000 columns and a carpet weighing 35 tonnes which took 1,200 women two years to make. There’s a strict dress code for visitors and women are asked to wear an abaya and keep their hair covered with a hijab – available to hire free of charge.
Also worth a visit is the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital where the emiratis take their treasured birds – you can watch while they are sedated and have their nails clipped and wings repaired.
The Rub Al Khali desert is a few miles out of the city and – another record coming up – is the largest expanse of sand in the world.
Various desert experience packages can be booked which include visits to a camel fair, dune bashing, camel rides and an Arabic-style buffet eaten while sitting cross-legged beneath the stars.
Foodies will be in their element in Abu Dhabi, seafood is a particular speciality and award-winning chefs can be found in abundance in the hotels. The Yas Viceroy – which straddles the Formula One track – offers an Arabic cooking masterclass.
Getting there from the north of England is easy, Etihad Airways, flies twice daily from Manchester and the flight time is around seven hours.
Best time to visit is probably November to April when temperatures are around 24C during the day: in the height of summer they can reach 42C.
A return fare from Manchester – Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways starts from £377 in economy class and £1,886 in business class inclusive of all taxes and subject to availability.
For reservations and further details visit etihad.com or call 0345 608 1225.
For more details about Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination see visitabudhabi.ae.
Rooms at the Four Seasons start from AED 990 plus taxes fourseasons.com/abudhabi/