Africa

Abu Dhabi: Larger than your imagination

Abu Dabhi at night

Tourism is proactively encouraged.

You’ve read about. You’ve heard about it. But you still can’t imagine the sights and sounds until you land at Abu Dhabi International.

Only three decades ago, Abu Dhabi (Arabic أبو ظبي‎ Abū Ẓabī) was a small coastal village. But today, Abu Dhabi’s remarkable transition from a lifeless coastal town to one of the most modern cities in the world is nothing less than fascinating. This city by the Gulf coast is not only visually astounding but a miscellany of shopping and more awe-inspiring mega projects.

As with most cities in the UAE, Abu Dhabi´s story began decades ago. The city was, indeed, a coastal village that thrived on fishing and trade. The leader of the Abu Dhabi emirate, Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, had united other leaders in the nearby territories and laid the foundation for the United Arab Emirates (The UAE is divided into seven territories referred to as emirates) and its capital was to be Abu Dhabi (which in Arabic means “father of the gazelle”).

As a result of the vast riches generated by the regions oil production revenues, and like other cities, emirates and countries in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi has grown to be a cosmopolitan metropolis.

Today the city is the regions centre of political activities, and an influential cultural centre due to its position as the capital. In fact, Fortune Magazine and CNN have stated that Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world. So, when you visit here you will, no doubt, be in exceptional company where ever in the emirate you travel.

Business opportunities abound in this city, but tourism is set to make it even livelier, and Abu Dhabi may soon give nearby Dubai a run for its money. And yes, tourism is proactively being encouraged.

Abu Dhabi recently launched a global advertising campaign to substantially increase tourism during the next ten months, as the emirate looks to attract two million visitors during 2011 and 2.3 million the following year. The campaign is the second phase of Abu Dhabi’s efforts to raise its global profile as a major holiday destination, building on the first phase’s efforts to raise awareness of the emirate within the travel industry.

Abu Dhabi offers visitors – from the sophisticated to the great adventurer – an opportunity of a lifetime. And the advertising campaign is working.

Abu Dhabi proudly bills itself as a “Destination of Distinction”, and rightly so.

Culture at its Core

The regions age-old heritage reflects the very essence of the national identity while the cultural programmes enhance Abu Dhabi’s standing as the region’s emerging cultural hub. Abu Dhabi boasts several ancient archaeological sites, some dating back thousands of years and which provide rich insight into the country and its culture. A major cultural development is underway with Saadiyat Island due to host the world’s single largest concentration of premier international cultural institutions.

Entertainment beyond one’s imagination

Abu Dhabi is emerging as an entertainment hub with a wide variety of entertainment options, for individuals and families alike and for all ages. Yas Island, which features Ferrari Park – the world’s largest indoor theme park – is the destination’s entertainment centre.

From Souk to Shopping Mall

As you can imagine, shopping is a popular pastime in Abu Dhabi, perhaps because it’s so diverse – everything from small, souk-like outlets where you can buy traditional perfumes, handicrafts, spices and carpets to ultra-modern malls

Sports Tourism – An Adventurers’ Delight

Imagine having the opportunity to view the crystal blue waters and the city from a hot air balloon, or travel further and faster aboard a seaplane … or, if feet on the ground (really sand) is more your affair, you can take a 4×4 desert safari or sand board the dunes … Additionally, one can attend camel and horse racing, or view the majesty of soaring falcons.

As well, Abu Dhabi has developed into a recognized international sporting events destination. Each year it hosts competitive events with a global following across golf, motorsport, water sports, adventure racing and athletics. Worldwide media coverage results and the local population find new outlets for their sporting endeavours.

Ecotourism

The UAE capital enjoys an affluently rich natural environment, where the desert meets the sea shores, with both enfolding widely diverse forms of wildlife and marine life. Ecotourism is an integral part of the economic plans enacted by the local government mainly aiming at attaining strong sustainable development. Abu Dhabi offers visitors numerous scouting, adventurous and educational opportunities in its natural reserves, wildlife parks and other naturally wonderous sites.

Events and Festivals

Abu Dhabi is constantly bustling and hustling with events and festivals. As soon as the emirate farewells one, another quickly begins, with a brand new look featuring a novel and often innovative theme.

The lap of luxury and luxuries …

The UAE capital has now come to be known, and it seems purposely so, to be known as a destination for luxury and often opulence. World-class hotels and luxurious )Hardly descriptive) resorts, and stylish exhibitions that collectively offer an unrivalled experience showcases Abu Dhabi at its imaginative best.

In Abu Dhabi, you will find a cosmopolitan city, a world-class infrastructure, the mystique and history of the Emirates, distinctive Arabian hospitality and attractions beyond one’s imagination …

Whatever you choose to do, you will meet with a welcome which has been extended to travellers throughout the ages.

But Abu Dhabi’s existing charm is no less exciting as it also offers some spectacular adventure activities.

Dune Bashing

As with any trip to the Middle East, the sight of vast desert is a norm and Abu Dhabi has Rub al Khali, a popular spot for the dune bashing sport.

Tourists ride on four-wheel drive vehicles that move up and down the dunes in extreme sport fashion. The faint of heart and elderly may want to avoid it, but a roller-coaster ride it is not.

It is a fun way to experience the rugged desert. There are dunes as high as three-storey buildings. One may be driving downwards, sideways even, at angles of up to 45 degrees.

But as the group´s tour 4WD driver Mohamad Sharaf says, it is normal for tourists to throw up.

The 36-year-old Egyptian was a military driver for two years before joining Arabian Adventures as a dune-bashing driver.

“Of course passengers throw up, but that is normal. Dune bashing is a hit with European tourists during summer.”

The package cost for Arabian Adventure´s desert safari ranges between RM285 and RM300 per person and includes the gravity defying dune-bashing, a visit to a camel farm, sunset view in the desert and a typical Arabian dinner with shisha in a bedouin camp.

Hospital For Feathered Kind

After the desert adventure, head on to the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital which has treated and accommodated about 35,000 animals since it was set up a decade ago.

The falcon is regarded as the national bird of UAE and the birds have their own passports for travelling in airplanes. They may be the only animals that are allowed to ride alongside their owners in the passenger cabin.

Falcon Hospital director Margit Gabriele Muller says services for boarding, grooming and medical treatment are available for these majestic birds.

She says the hospital began as a treatment facility for falcons but soon word got around about the work that was being done there.

“People started calling the hospital to ask for guided tours. Through the years, the hospital developed its own tourism programme.”

A visit includes lunch, a tour of the facility and explanation from the staff. If you are lucky, you may get a chance to be guided by Muller herself

Falcons are known to be one of the fastest-moving creatures in the animal kingdom. Certain types of falcons have been known to dive at speeds of 320km per hour.

Facilities in the hospital include operation theatre, intensive critical care unit, ophthalmology unit, in-patient rooms for accommodation, free-flight cages for moulting or shedding of feathers.

Beach In The City

After visiting the essential tourist sites, chill out the rest of trip in Abu Dhabi’s city centre. A recommended first stop is the scenic Corniche beach front area which commands a fantastic view of the city’s skyline and, more importantly, it is close to one of the hippest shopping malls in the city.

The best view is from the Cultural Village, which features permanent exhibits, fine dining restaurant and souvenir shops. But the Cultural Village´s star attraction is the white sandy beach and view of the city.

Visitors may get to see people riding on jet skis, while enjoying the warm weather. This idyllic setting may make tourists forget that they are in a country made up mostly of desert.

Shopping Therapy

After soaking up sun and sea, try the nearby Marina Shopping Mall for some serious rest and relaxation. This is a bigger version of Kuala Lumpur’s MidValley Megamall with its high-end boutiques, medium-range stores and numerous cafes and restaurants.

Shopping is quite a delight in Abu Dhabi and the summer sale season is a must for bargain hunters of quality goods.

The Marina Mall is home to Ikea, Carrefour and other household names such as Zara, Bvlgari, Gucci, Coach and Fendi. Besides shopping, it is a great place for watching the trendy Abu Dhabi folk.

Besides Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi Mall on 10th Street is a well-stocked medium- to high-end shopping centre.

Those looking for Arab perfumes or souvenirs may want to try Madinat Zayed Shopping & Gold Center. The areas around this mall have many shops selling clothes and essentials for Abu Dhabi´s working class.

Besides shopping, many tourists from Western countries like to stop at the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan with its record-breaking features.

The imposing white structure is home to the world´s largest handmade carpet, measuring 5,627sq m. Twenty-four carat gold is used in its interior and on crescents topping the domes.

Beyond The City

Besides a city tour, there are packages for the countryside outside of Abu Dhabi. An interesting option is the royal vacation town of Al Ain, which is more than an hour´s drive east of Abu Dhabi.

This picturesque town is home to Al Jahili Fort, a structure of orange bricks built in the traditional bedouin fashion. The fort was built in 1891 but was refurbished into a mini-museum two years ago.

There are interactive exhibits highlighting the history of UAE and its founding fathers. A section is devoted to a famous explorer and traveller, Wilfred Thesiger, who was known to locals as Mubarak bin London. Thesiger remained close with the UAE royal family and was revered after he crossed the Empty Quarter desert twice in the 1940s.

Another must-visit in Al Ain is the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum, which was home to the late UAE former president until it opened its doors to the public in 2001.

Visitors would not find typical museum exhibits here. Instead, they´d see an honest depiction of how a typical Emirati family lived.

Sheikh Zayed, who was known for his humble nature, had decreed the royal palace and royal residential areas should reflect his country´s culture, prior to its dramatic development during the post-oil years. The museum recreates spartan-looking bedrooms, guest rooms, school room and “majlis” (meeting room).

The best picture opportunity in Al Ain is along the road to one of the UAE´s highest peak, Jebel Hafeet. The peak rises 1,240m and the road leading up to it extends almost 12km with three lanes. The uphill road was called the greatest driving road in the world by motoring website Edmunds.com

The Mecure Grand Jebel Hafeet hotel, which sits near the mountain top, has a good lunch buffet that is worth a try. Visitors may take snapshots in a lay-by area on the way downhill.

Coming Attractions

Many existing attractions make Abu Dhabi a delight to visit and yet there´s more to come. In mid-2010, the first Ferrari World Theme Park will open its doors at Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. This mega indoor theme park has the world´s fastest roller-coaster ride, which simulates the speed of an actual F1 car at 200km per hour.

Other coming attractions are the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum (opening 2013), and UAE version of the Louvre museum. These projects are part of the cultural district in the Saadiyat Island project.

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