Amazing Abu Dhabi
The UAE capital offers a rich palette of unexpected natural beauty, expanding cultural possibilities and high-octane adventure
Unexpected natural beauty, cultural possibilities and high-octane adventure await in the UAE capital
Sir Bani Yas Island
Sir BaniYas Island is only 6 miles from the mainland of Abu Dhabi, but whether you get there by air via the shuttle service of Rotana Jet or drive two hours south from the city center and then take the boat, when you arrive you will feel you’ve come to a true desert hideaway.
There is little development here – just three luxury hotels run by Anantara, all designed to blend into the surroundings of the 34-square-mile island.
What makes Sir BaniYas special is that most of it – some 10,000 acres – is a nature reserve, the Arabian Wildlife Park. The last human inhabitants left in the 1930s when the water from natural springs ran out and pearl fishing hit hard times, and it was deserted for decades until it became a favorite place of the then Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan in the early 1970s.
He reintroduced desalinated water via a pipe from the mainland, started planting trees – olive, acacia, tamarind, cedar and ghaf (the national tree of the UAE) – and then gradually added species of wildlife threatened by extinction elsewhere in the world, including African and Arabian oryx, Indian black-back gazelle, cheetahs, red deer, mountain sheep and even six giraffes from the Sudan.
This“greening of the island,”as it is referred to by the 300plus workers in the park (another 250 are employed in the three resorts), means that some of the animals can be reintroduced to the mainland once numbers are sufficient.
For those visiting the UAE, particularly Abu Dhabi or Dubai, the island makes an ideal two- or three-day add-on trip, and will convince you there is something else to the emirates apart from conspicuous consumption.
It’s a very tranquil location; all three Anantara resorts are small, yet different in what they offer. The Desert Islands Resort and Spa is the largest, with 64 rooms and suites – it has a watersports center, tennis courts, several restaurants and a conference center.
A five minute drive away is the more intimate Anantara AlYamm villa resort (no children under 12) – just 30 villas on a sweep of beach and a single restaurant. The third property, the Anantara Al Sahel villa resort, is located in the Arabian Wildlife Park. The 30 one- and two-bedroom villas have a traditional thatch-roofed design and the onsite restaurant offers African-inspired cuisine.
The properties are all five-star, and it’s a rare hour when someone isn’t offering you Arabian coffee, dates or bottles of water. They also offer an activities program focused on the main draw of the island – the flora and fauna.
Options include drives in 4x4 vehicles to see the giraffes, gazelles, hyenas, oryx and cheetahs in their natural environment, wildlife walks, mountain biking, horse riding, archery, deep-sea fishing, kayaking and diving (apparently there are sunken cars to explore).
There’s also the option to visit an archaeological excavation site close to the resort, where the remains of a sixth-century Christian Nestorian monastery were found in the 1990s.
What stays with you after a visit, however, is the sense of peace. The island as it is today is an artificial creation, it is true. Without constant irrigation of every tree, the whole reserve would soon return to a true desert island, but in other ways the hand of man is a light touch.
Whether stopping during your hike to look out over the red dunes towards the Arabian Gulf, or turning your back on the island and strolling along the white coral sand of the beaches, it’s the sound of silence that really resonates with you.
Noukhada Mangrove Kayaking
Abu Dhabi’s natural beauty isn’t immediately obvious, but it is there, away from the skyscrapers and shopping malls. Paddling serenely with a kayak through its Eastern Mangrove lagoon, the alien roots of its avicennia marina mangrove trees gently dip into the saltwater either side of you, and if you are fortunate, you may spot wildlife you may not have expected to see during your time in the Middle Eastern metropolis.
Noukhada Adventure Company gives kayak tours that last for up to two hours (AED 150/$40) per person – guides teach you how to paddle correctly, provide you with a life jacket and point out all the sights and science behind the mangrove ecosystem as you go. I was assigned the company’s British owner and managing partner, Mark Freeman, and his obedient dog Spencer, who sat on the helm of his master’s kayak throughout the tour, jumping off occasionally to chase shoals of tiny fish that wriggled below the water’s surface.
During my tour, I witnessed a flamingo family take flight, as well as hundreds of thousands of dark purple climber crabs. The crabs burrow into the ground to escape the heat, which allows water and oxygen to enter the soil, providing nourishment for the mangroves.
The trees are quite tough – able to survive on saltwater and in temperatures of up to 48°C – but there are threats to both the balance of their ecosystem and their numbers owing to land development and dredging. Noukhada plays a big part in raising awareness of these issues by giving visitors a snapshot of the abundant wildlife that the mangrove lagoons are home to, and also by working on a project with Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute, which is exploring the value of such coastal wetland plants and how they are a national asset. The company also offers“eco tours”(AED 220/$60) in which guides go into much greater detail about the science behind the mangroves.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi wants to attract cultured travelers and is pulling out all the stops to ensure there are worldclass venues and exhibits for them to visit.
A cluster of museums is sprouting up in the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island. The Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum is intended to showcase the history and culture of the region, framed in the story of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the unification of the UAE. A Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry, will be 12 times the size of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original in NewYork.
Perhaps Abu Dhabi’s highest-profile cultural import is from Paris. The Louvre Abu Dhabi was originally scheduled to open in 2012. However in June, Jean-Luc Martinez, the president of Louvre, disappointingly announced the opening had been delayed until the end of 2016, almost 10 years after the project was started.
Designed by Jean Nouvel, the building will certainly be a match for any flagship museum worldwide. The white dome is almost 600 feet in diameter, and has geometric openings inspired by the interlaced palm leaves used as roofing in traditional houses, the gaps controlling the light and temperature inside. The interior will be illuminated by scattered beams of light mimicking the environment created by traditional mashrabiya latticework.
Underneath the dome, Nouvel is recreating an Arabic cityscape, with a promenade passing through groups of low-rise buildings with diverse façades,“creating a shifting, varied, poetic experience for visitors and a contrast to the strict geometry and high ceilings of the galleries inside,”the museum says.
The Louvre is taking more than just the name of its Parisian counterpart. An extensive training program for the staff has been ongoing, and many of the items on display will be on loan from French cultural institutions such as the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de Quai Branly, as well as the Louvre.
Visitors will walk through four major periods chronologically: archaeology and the birth of civilization; Medieval days and the birth of Islam; the Classical period from Humanism to Enlightenment; and modern and contemporary art.
As they do, they will take in everything from ancient Roman, Egyptian and Chinese sculptures to works by da Vinci, Titian, Monet, Rodin,Van Gogh and Warhol.
Yas Marina Circuit
Abu Dhabi’s Formula One track epitomizes the city’s go-getting, glamorous side – the venue for the Etihad Airways Grand Prix (which takes place Nov. 27-29 this year) is flanked by a speedboatlined harbor and the curvy glass-fronted Viceroy hotel. The pistolshaped circuit was opened in 2009 and is located onYas Island, a 25-minute drive from the city center.
It’s not just about being a spectator, though, as there are myriad driving experiences for motor-heads to choose from. For example, speed freaks can get behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Camaro and gun it down a quarter-mile, palm-lined strip for an adrenalinpumping ride (remember to bring your driver’s license for this).
Less confident drivers may prefer to opt for the go-karting track or, for those who’d rather take a back seat, there’s the option of being a passenger in a Supersport SST, an Aston Martin GT4 or a three-seat dragster (zero to 60 in less than two seconds) as a professional driver zooms around the track for hair-raising“hot laps”that get your heart battering against your chest.
Opening hours vary. Driver experiences cost AED300-AED1,750 ($82-$475); passenger experiences AED100-AED825 ($27-$225). Go-karting (Tues-Sun 2:00 PM – 10:00 PM) costs AED110 ($30). On Tuesdays, from 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM, the circuit is open to the public for jogging, cycling and strolling, which is a great way to take in the track at a slower pace. Every Wednesday evening there are women-only yoga, zumba, boot camp and box fit classes that take place on the North Circuit.Yas can also be reserved for car launches, corporate functions, incentives and team-building activities.
Visit yasmarinacircuit.com. BT
This image: The Louvre Abu Dhabi
Below: Yas Marina Circuit