Cultural Abu Dhabi
By David Whitley | March 2017 | 5 minute read
Once just a sun-drenched stopover, Abu Dhabi is now a cultural hub that’s rich with an ever-growing line-up of attractions. Fly and flop if you wish, but don’t miss out on cutting edge museums and art galleries, historic forts and one of the world’s most breathtaking mosques.
“Many of Abu Dhabi’s day tours and excursions are designed to incorporate an educational or cultural element, whether that is the customary sharing of tea and dates or watching camel races”
DAVID WHITLEY, TRAVEL WRITER
Past blast: The Abu Dhabi Heritage Village clusters together craft studio-shops, while traditional Bedouin homes are reconstructed and photos of pre-development Abu Dhabi are on display
Sneak preview: The Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition centre has scale models of the big new museums to come, plus large temporary art exhibits and a restaurant selling camel dishes
Mega-mosque: Open to visitors of all faiths, the 82-domed Sheikh Zayed Mosque features approximately 1,000 columns, 24-carat-gold-plated chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet
Movie magic: : The dramatic Abu Dhabi desert provided the backdrop for large chunks of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The mirage-like fantasy resort Qasr Al Sarab is nearby and carries off the same vibe
Market mooching: The Al Mina markets offer a taste of time-warp traditionalism, with a fabulous sense of retro chaos amongst the fruit, vegetables, fish and carpets
Desert detour: Hala – Etihad Holidays’ ground tour wing – runs evening tours into the desert that include Arabic coffee, dates, a barbecue and belly dancing from £64
Catamaran cruise: Hala also sells catamaran cruises that offer the opportunity to take in the city skyline and admire the architecture (from £55)
Oasis option: Day tours to Al Ain take in the oasis, traditional irrigation systems, Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, hot springs and a drive up Jebel Hafeet, the UAE’s highest mountain
Mangrove meanderings: A precious mangrove system lies just east of the city. Sea Hawk is one of several operators that head out there in kayaks, with a guide explaining the eco-system as you paddle
Cycle the circuit: BThe Formula One Grand Prix track at Yas Island opens up en masse to cyclists on Tuesday nights. Bikes can be hired on-site
The Falcon Hospital
The doctor picks up his patient, puts a conical chamber over its head and releases the gas until it goes to sleep. Better this way than dealing with the flapping and squawking that would ensue with the talon-clipping and filing otherwise.
This happens every day at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (falconhospital.com), a delightfully bizarre place that gives an insight into the Emirati love of falconry. In the United Arab Emirates, falcons are treated as family members rather than pets – they have their own passports and are often flown in their own first-class plane seats. But the hospital is where they all come for their annual check up.
The waiting rooms is full of men in traditional dress stroking the wings of their loved ones and scooping up droppings that will be analysed as part of the examination. And inside the operating theatre, dozens of the birds are perched on little green benches with hoods over their eyes to keep them calm.
The doctor runs us through some of the procedures. Fixing a broken wing is usually a case of taking a wooden stick bought from a supermarket and gluing replacement feathers to it.
But for most, it’s a case of a quick once over and a trim of the sharp bits. Post-snip, the groggy falcon wakes up and begins to stomp around with possibly justifiable grumpiness.
But she’s passed the check and can again go off hunting with her doting owner.
What the experts say
“Forging strong relationships with the trade is one of our top priorities, especially here in the UK, which remains our second-largest overseas market and the biggest in Europe.
“Over the last 12 months or so we’ve run roadshows in Edinburgh, Manchester and Dublin – these are the cities outside of London that offer flights to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways.
“We’ve also helped over 1,000 frontline staff with destination training, worked with 20 different tour operators on joint marketing campaigns, proudly hosted ABTA’s annual Travel Convention – the first time the event was held in the Middle East – and taken 105 agents to Abu Dhabi on fam trips ”
NABEEL AL ZAROUNI, UK COUNTRY MANAGER, ABU DHABI TOURISM & CULTURE AUTHORITY (TCA ABU DHABI)
Attractions: At Al Ain, the World Heritage-listed oasis has been packaged up as a visitor experience. Visitors can now start at the purpose-built Eco-Centre, then head through a series of exhibits demonstrating how the oasis has traditionally been farmed, irrigated and maintained. But it’s not just dry information; the shady pathways are as they’ve always been, and the date farmers are still shimmying up palm trees to collect their produce.
Since November, the Qasr Al Muwaiji – a historic fort that was the birthplace of the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Khalifa, has been turned into a museum. It mainly tells the stories of the sheikh and the nation, but there are also raised walkways providing views of the fort’s remains, towers and ramparts.
Cruises: Abu Dhabi has seen a boom in cruise tourism: cruise passenger numbers increased by six per cent from October 2015 to June 2016, with the emirate receiving 100 ship calls for the first time.
The Gulf region’s only dedicated desert island cruise beach opened in late 2016 at Sir Bani Yas. The island, around 170km along the coast from the city, has set aside a 1.3km stretch of beach with more than 2,000 sunbeds, a spa, sports facilities and beachside barbecues. The MSC Fantasia was the first ship to dock there.
Cruises: As always, there has been a sprinkling of new hotels, with the big five-star options being complemented by the new Four Seasons Abu Dhabi next to the Galleria shopping mall. With rooftop pool, a 300-square-metre garden and several innovative restaurants, it has 190 rooms and 54 serviced apartments.
The other big new arrival is the 677-room Bab Al Qasr Hotel on the Corniche, which has its own private beach, large standard rooms and an Arabic spa spread over two floors.
Where to book it
Etihad Holidays offers a week’s stay at the three-star Park Inn by Radisson in Yas Island, flying economy from Manchester with Etihad, from £541pp. Add on Hala’s Oasis Story, a full day tour of Al Ain including lunch, for £83pp. This includes stops at the Al Ain National Museum and the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, visits to the camel race track, livestock market and a date palm grove and a photo stop at Jebel Hafeet, a mountain overlooking the city.
Lusso Travel’s high season trip, staying at the iconic five-star Emirates Palace for a week and including return British Airways flights from Heathrow, costs from £2,065pp.