Instead of using one of the airports in the United Arab Emirates as a mere stop-over point, Mark Samuel spends a few busy days in Abu Dhabi, discovering its wealth of cultural, historic and adrenalin-inducing activities
I think our Land Cruiser goes airborne for a moment as we crest the dune at full throttle. ‘This guy’s probably done this a few times before’, I think to myself as I glance across at the driver. He looks totally at ease – in fact, his relaxed facial expression leaves me imagining him sipping on a takeaway cappuccino while careering through the desert with one hand on the wheel. I’m glad he’s using two, though, and he seems more than in control. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself, but I reckon my white knuckles on the dashboard tell a very different story. Soft sand kicks up from the four oversized tyres as our hefty 4×4 cuts through the soft, golden surface. The passenger in the seat behind me lets out a muffled shriek, demanding an immediate emergency stop. Severe motion sickness has her in its grip and it’s not letting go … quietly, I’m just relieved I’m managing to keep those same sensations at bay, with my facade almost that of an experienced off-roader.
A little later, I find myself high on the hump of a camel. Metres below, dinner-plate-sized feet splay as they touch down with each step; these guys are perfectly evolved for desert travel. But atop a camel is somewhere I never imagined myself, and I shudder to think of a life spent wobbling about up here, crossing endless kilometres of barren lands. My short, 15 minute journey is fun, but it takes a lot of arm strength to hold on tight – and I suspect I’m doing it wrong.
Our adventure in the dunes concludes with heaps of traditional Arabian fare served on knee-high tables around which we all lounge on soft cushions, chatting and reliving the day’s many experiences. As dessert is served, a belly dancer on a raised stage moves in ways we never thought possible, keeping us captivated until it’s time for the long journey back through the clear, star-covered desert to our hotel in the city.
It was a few days earlier that I found myself reclining in the comfort of an Etihad Airways jet. This trip has popped up without much warning, and before I know it, we’ve flown up along the length of Africa through the night from Joburg, and swooped in over the vast desert, its white sandy starkness shimmering in the morning light. As far as the eye can see there’s sand, and more sand … and then suddenly there’s Abu Dhabi, a glowing oasis tucked on the edge of the Persian Gulf, its sequence of islands spilling out into the ocean.
The Abu Dhabi emirate is the largest of the seven member emirates that make up the UAE, and Abu Dhabi city is the country’s capital. It is also home to the current president. Many travellers land here on layovers to far-flung destinations, but too few choose to spend sometime experiencing all the city and its surrounds have to offer. And there’s a lot; I’d know! I’ve scrutinised our itinerary closely and we are in for an adventurous few days, all the while based at the uber-comfy Shangri-La Hotel.
After touring the Manarat Al Saadiyat, a 15 400m² exhibition centre that hosts arts and cultural displays, often with international collections, we continue on to the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort for a culinary experience that offers up a delightful assault on our tastebuds. We quickly learn that much of our time is going to be spent eating, and eating well. There’s no objection from me.
By mid-morning of the next day, the temperature is easily in the mid-30s. We’re dressed in the appropriate attire– that means no flip-flops, shorts or vests, but instead long pants and sleeves for all, and headscarves for the women in our group. The majestic Sheikh Zayad Grand Mosque surrounds us, dwarfing us in its opulence. Having taken 11 years to build, it was completed in 2007 and is able to house more than 40 000 worshippers, many of whom will kneel on the hand-knotted carpet that’s around 5 600m²; the biggest of its kind in the world. It’s clear that when Emiratis decide to do something of significance, there’s no holding back – it seems that money really is no object.
This place is immensely impressive, with gleaming white marble walkways and towering domes almost as far as the eye can see. The interior of the main worship area is cool and quiet, and a sense of calm is evident everywhere, in spite of the large numbers of visitors.
Later, taking a more ‘in the footsteps of the rich and famous’ excursion, lunch is served for us at the Emirates Palace, which is possibly the most luxurious hotel in town, and one that has an entire floor devoted to visiting heads of state, or kings … not the folk I generally hang out with over weekends. And there’s gold everywhere, including in a foyer vending machine that sells actual gold nuggets – and everyone is so casual about it, so I pretend to be too, but I suspect my wide-eyed expression is a give-away.
The evidence presented may suggest otherwise, but I can assure you our whole stay wasn’t entirely about eating. However, a large part of any visit to Abu Dhabi is probably going to be about food, and experiencing the cosmopolitan mix of cultures that can only truly be enjoyed through dining. Later, in keeping with this theme, dinner is served at Pearls by Michael Caines. Now, I’m a pretty simple guy who’s more accustomed to traipsing through the Cederberg with a backpack, or 4×4ing through the remote routes of Mozambique, so this puts me out of my comfort zone somewhat. But few things make me more at ease than a delicious meal and great company, and those two ingredients are present in abundance. The view from Pearls is surreal, with the lapping ocean all lit up at night by bright purple lights and the cityscape glistening in the distance.
The next day dawns clear and hot, and activities more in line with what I’m used to are on the cards.
Yas Beach is a strip of sand that’s gently lapped at by calm Gulf waters. The ocean temperature is warm, and ideal for the variety of water sports on offer. An easy sea kayaking trip along the shoreline reveals a rather different perspective. Sure, South Africans are no strangers to beaches, but this is different, and novel. You can enjoy tubing, yachting, waterskiing and more here.
You may also not believe me, but I’m convinced you can see Ferrari World from space. It’s an enormous indoor theme park, but there are no free tickets for guessing the theme correctly. There are wall displays about Ferrari’s history, with buttons you can push that pulse out goosebump-inducing V12 engine notes. There are actual Ferrari cars on display, from classic to contemporary, and every piece of Ferrari apparel and paraphernalia on sale you can imagine. And then … there are the rides. Few measure up to the Formula Rossa, currently the fastest coaster in the world. The initial acceleration, from stationary at the start to a top speed of 240 km/h down the first straight, takes all of 4.9 seconds, and I feel like my cheeks have been left far behind. A fusion of twists and turns spanning 2.07 km has my head spinning, but I’m elated; I know that even if I wasn’t allowed to tackle one other ride, I’d be content. It’s over in mere seconds, but then it’s on to the other rides, and with a premium-pass bracelet on my wrist, I feel like a kid let loose in a sweet shop, hopping on any ride I wish.
Next is Yas Waterworld, just the place to cool off when it’s almost 40 degrees outside. Best you set aside the bulk of a day for your visit, because you’ll want to splash down all of the rides, and then do them all again. As I find myself in an inflatable tube, siphoning down what appears to be a giant funnel the size of a small block of flats, it occurs to me that it doesn’t matter if you’re seven or seventy, this place is going to get the adrenalin pumping and the smiles fully beaming.
As the air cools and the sun starts to set, I’m almost physically spent by the time we’re suited and helmeted up. We’re ready to attack Yas KartZone, tucked in next to the imposing Yas Marina Circuit. But there’s no way I’m going to give an inch to my race competitors… If you’ve ever gone go-carting before, all of those races combined will pale in comparison to this. I’m soon throttling up, braking and cornering like there’s no tomorrow, and laying down significant tarmac for racer number two to catch up on (okay, perhaps I just managed to pip him by a few metres for the chequered flag, but I’ll retain free licence on my memory of the win). My post-race stats probably won’t have Lewis Hamilton concerned about my abilities, but I feel completely exhilarated, if not exhausted.
Abu Dhabi has left me intrigued with the UAE, wanting to see and do more. Its airlines are renowned for their great deals, but judging by my visit, there are many more excuses to visit for a week or so.
GOOD TO KNOW
South Africans require a visa to travel to Abu Dhabi, but the application process is uncomplicated and all done online. Simply log on to www.ttsuaevisas.com, fill in your details, and upload a copy of your passport, an ID photo and your air ticket with Etihad Airways. You make the payment online and will receive an electronic copy of your visa within a few days.
Etihad Airways flies daily between Johannesburg and Abu Dhabi.
When to go
Although you can visit all year round, the northern hemisphere winter is a little cooler, and a more pleasant time to travel to the UAE. Then again, most places you visit are air conditioned (except for the camel rides).
What to take
The climate is hot all year round. So take light, cool clothing, and be sure to plan for attractions that have specific dress codes, such as the Sheikh Zayad Grand Mosque. You’ll need decent walking shoes too, and a good sunhat and sunglasses.
Major credit cards are widely accepted, and you can draw cash in most business centres, shopping malls and also near more prominent tourist attractions.
Where to stay
Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, is centrally located, with breathtaking views of the Grand Mosque as the sun sets.
Pearls by Michael Caines
P&C by Sergi Arola
Emirates Palace Le Vendôme
Sontaya at St Regis Saadiyat Resort
Visit Abu Dhabi is well prepared to help you with any queries. The contact details for all the activities covered can be found on its website.www.visitabudhabi.ae
Photography Mark Samuel, istockphoto, courtesy images
(This article was first published in the autumn 2016 issue of AA traveller magazine)