Amaz­ing Abu Dhabi

The UAE cap­i­tal of­fers a rich pal­ette of un­ex­pected nat­u­ral beauty, ex­pand­ing cul­tural pos­si­bil­i­ties and high-oc­tane ad­ven­ture

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Tom Ot­ley and Rose Dykins

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.

al-yamm.anan­tara.com, de­ser­tis­lands.com

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.

Visit noukhada.ae.

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

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