By James Day www.metro.co.uk
With its camel treks, sunset walks, extravagant hotels and Ferrari World – the world’s largest indoor theme park – Abu Dhabi, the opulent capital of the United Arab Emirates, might just be the best stopover destination in the world.
For a country only in existence since 1971, the United Arab Emirates’ rise to fame and fortune is nothing short of meteoric. Billions have been spent on audacious skyscrapers and extravagant hotels, as well as infrastructure and education, in a state where the average adult is three times wealthier than a decade ago.
The UAE is a tale of two cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Others exist but wield little power and the remaining landscape makes up part of the largest sand desert in the world – the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter. While Dubai has stolen most of the headlines and, it seems, money, I’m in capital Abu Dhabi, which recently bailed out its troubled neighbour with a US$10billion loan.
Abu Dhabi has been a little more calculated in its development. The imposing skyline and multi-billion-dollar construction projects exist, they’ve just thought carefully about where to put everything – like the US$36billion Yas Island development, a blossoming hub en route to Australasia.
I check into the five-star Yas Hotel. Lit up by a grid shell of 5,000 LEDs, it’s already familiar as the backdrop to the Yas Marina Circuit, which staged the 2010 Formula One season finale. The Yas is like an upmarket Vegas casino, only without the gambling (strictly forbidden in the Islamic state; even a licence is required to purchase alcohol outside hotel walls).
I can count Abu Dhabi visitor attractions on one hand but I soon learn it’s quality rather than quantity that counts here. Petrol-heads are well catered for. Aside from track experiences at the Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World – the world’s largest indoor theme park – has just opened. It boasts the world’s fastest roller coaster, Formula Rossa, which accelerates from 0-62mph in two seconds and onwards to a top speed of 149mph.
I later meet Ali, a Bedouin farmer who still hunts with falcons, visiting from the desert village of Hameem. He tells me about the contrast between the new mega-rich UAE and its past incarnation.
‘I am proud my country is evolving,’ he says. ‘As the country grows, we grow with it. But I’m concerned people are losing their cultural heritage. The government introduced something called the Heritage Club, a summer camp for children to learn about their origins and culture, because the message is being lost.’
Swapping cars for culture I head back into Abu Dhabi for a guided tour of the jaw-dropping Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Opened in 2007, the building centres on a white marble courtyard that can accommodate 21,000 worshippers. Inside, seemingly endless prayer halls use a world record 47 tonnes of the same carpet and there are countless chandeliers, one weighing 9.5 tonnes. I recommend an early evening tour to catch the sun setting behind its myriad pillars and domes.
In need of salvation from the 40C heat, cocktails at the Emirates Palace Hotel is akin to afternoon tea at The Ritz. The hotel is owned by the Abu Dhabi government and it shows – even the road cones are painted gold here.
The second part of my journey involves a two-hour drive into the desert to the Qasr Al Sarab Resort, where escaping the city doesn’t mean compromising on comforts. It’s a luxury oasis in every sense; the fort-inspired 212-room complex sits in the middle of nowhere. It’s the perfect retreat for wannabe Lawrence of Arabias in search of desert exploits including camel treks, sunset walks and dune bashing.
I catch up with my Bedouin friend Ali for some camel-riding tips. He owns 75 of them and some even take part in beauty contests. ‘The eyes, the neck, the legs, and the bigger the lip the better, all go to make a beautiful camel,’ he says, adding: ‘Hit it on the right, it goes left; hit it on the left, it goes right. It’s very simple.’
I’m singled out to ride the biggest, grumpiest one of the lot. Embarking and disembarking is a roller-coaster ride in itself. This is the Arabian version of City Slickers and I’m lapping it up every bit of it.
James flew to Abu Dhabi with Etihad (www.etihadairways.com).
Return fares from London start at £409 including taxes. Return fares from Manchester start at £392 including taxes.
The Yas Hotel (www.theyashotel.com) has deluxe rooms from £185 per night.
The Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort (www.anantara.com) deluxe rooms start from £279 per night.