Exploring Abu Dhabi
he UAE capital exudes a casual persona, yet maintaining its opulence. This is evident on an afternoon drive in Corniche, along the promenade that leads up to the UAE’s T Presidential Palace. The roads are almost empty, unlike a typical bustling metropolis. And maybe this is why it is easier to admire the beauty of the drive — you have an unrestricted view of the sea on one side and glass skyscrapers on the other. Some of these are an architect’s delight.
Capital Gate is one such example. It is on Khaleej Al Arabi Street, parallel to the seaside promenade, and has been purposely erected at an angle by Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company. It caught the attention of Guinness World Records who recognises it as the World’s Furthest Leaning Man Made Tower. About a 12-minute drive from here is The Aldar Headquarters. This one is a 23-storey, 110-metre high, 2D circular building. Inspired by a clam shell, the building has two convex discs put together — a circular elevation on the front and rear — and curved in all other directions. Needless to say, both these buildings are coveted addresses in Abu Dhabi.
In fact, if you have an office or home in any of the multi-storey buildings around this area, consider yourself lucky. After all, your neighbour is the president of the UAE, with his palace being just a few minutes’drive down the road.
The other affluent area of the emirate is Saadiyat, a recently developed island, about a 30-minute drive northward from Khaleej Al Arabi Street. What makes it even more special, apart from the expensive beachfront villas, is that turtles visit to lay eggs here around May and June. Tourists from all over visit to watch the animals waddle on the sand. There is also the Saadiyat Beach Club where you can buy a pass (weekday AED 220/`3,852, weekend AED 420/`7,355) for access to the private beach, pool, cabanas and restaurants.
Of course, not all of Abu Dhabi is as glamorous. If you drive down Eastern Road towards Gold Souk, the area appears tired, despite the number of high-end car brands that continue to roam here. Glazed, glass towers are replaced with stout brick buildings. There are humble homes, utility shops and a few hotels, most fall under the mid-to-budget category. This part of the emirate is more traditional and has lesser tourists, probably because the attractions are spread across the other islands of Abu Dhabi.
Al Maryah, Reem or Yas islands to name a few, are the ones you’re most likely to visit. They are heavily populated with malls, hotels and recreational facilities, and most offices and mixed-use buildings are found in the surrounding areas. Amongst them, you will also find businesses and parks that punctuate Abu Dhabi with cultural experiences.
The following is a list of spots you can visit post office hours and over the weekend (Friday and Saturday as per the UAE calendar).
ABU DHABI FALCON HOSPITAL
Apart from being a full-fledged hospital dedicated to the well-being of this predatory bird, it serves as a busy tourist spot too. The Falcon World Tour here talks about falcons, history of falconry and its significance from old to modern times.
The number of patients undergoing treatment here reveal how intrinsic falconry is to Gulf culture even today. In the historic days, this bird was used to hunt food for desert tribes. Today, it still hunts, but as a sport for humans. It takes a gruelling three weeks at least to train this ferocious predator, and the skill of the falconer is highly respected. A leather hood covers the bird’s eyes at all times to make it easier to control it.
The hospital also has a falcon museum and a freeflight aviary where the birds roam unrestrained. At one point during the tour, you may find it amusing to watch the bird get a pedicure. The highlight, however, is posing with the falcon on your arm, an experience unique to this part of the world.
Open 10am-2:30pm (tours must be booked in advance); tour price AED 170/`2,979 for two hours; falconhospital.com
UAE HERITAGE VILLAGE
A couple of swans ran past us as we entered the heritage village, a reconstruction of a traditional oasis village on the waterfront. We followed their footprints in the desert sand to shops selling items of tourist interest such as postcards, magnets, hats, T-shirts,
spices and old-style water pouches to name a few. Amongst them are also workshops where you can watch demonstrations involving traditional skills for tannery, glass-blowing, metal work, pottery, weaving and spinning.
I was most intrigued by the living conditions of oasis villagers that is recreated here. The nomads lived in animal hyde tents during winter to keep warm, and during the other seasons in huts made from palm fronds: triangular with a natural funnel to capture the breeze or rectangular ones with a wind tower, also built from palm frond.
Completing the village scene is the villagers’ primary mode of transport — the camel is a popular attraction that gathers a long queue for a ride of a few minutes. This one is definitely worth the experience — your balancing skills are put to test when the animal attempts to sit and stand.
For more insight into the life of such villages, visit the museum in the old fort for a glimpse from a past era such as jewellery, attire, lifestyle products and ancient pearl diving equipment.
Open Saturday-Thursday 9am-4pm, and Friday 3.30pm-9pm; free entry; torath.ae
ABU DHABI PEARL JOURNEY
It is a cultural as well as an educational tour that gives its visitors a first-hand experience of Abu Dhabi’s once thriving pearl industry. The 90-minute sail on the traditional jalboot or dhow welcomes you on-board with Arabic coffee and dates. During the journey that takes you along the emirate’s eastern mangroves — home to herons, egrets, flamingos and other seabirds — the guide tells you the story of pearl diving in this region. It’s not all talk though. The tour gets more interesting when the guide demonstrates how diving used to be conducted then, as well as engages you in opening the oyster shell with a special knife, so you don’t harm the pearl inside.
Open daily 9am-7pm (tours must be booked in advance); AED 500/`8,762 for two hours; adpearljourney.com
This promenade is best enjoyed by cycling on the 8km bicycle pathway on the Corniche. Renting stations are available in plenty along this stretch. There is a long sandy beach, restaurants, hookah cafes, and water activity huts here. Walking pathways weave through fountains and landscaped gardens that are impressively lush, given the arid weather here.
Corniche beach has been awarded the Blue Flag status — internationally recognised ecolabel confirming clean and safe water at beaches
and marinas. For the safety of its visitors, the management has placed fences in the water that allow you to swim only up to 40 metres from the shoreline. On weekends, this sandy attraction is most crowded, especially in the evenings and non-summer months. Beach beds go fast, so it is advisable to carry your own blanket as a backup.
Shoppers looking for high-end brands will find Galleria Mall a good visit. Labels such as Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Cartier, Longines, Prada and Ralph Lauren to name a few, occupy one level of the mall. The other floor has mid-level brands such as La Senza, Tory Burch and Tommy Hilfiger. The food court here too is unlike regular ones because they serve you in glass crockery and steel cutlery.
The ground level has a higher number of restaurants and bars such as Bentley Bistro and Bar serving a fusion of European cuisines, Carluccio’s authentic Italian cafe, Nusr-Et Steakhouse and Zuma that originated in London for creative western dishes.
Retail stores are open Saturday-Wednesday 10am-10pm, Thursday until midnight and Friday 12pm-12am. Restaurants are open Sunday-Thursday 10am-10pm and Friday-Saturday until midnight.
SHEIKH ZAYED GRAND MOSQUE
After you walk through security at the mosque’s entrance, and get the guards’ nod on your attire (women must dress in a hijab and men must cover their shoulders and ankles), you enter a spiritual world built from pure, white marble. I, for one, was taken aback by the beauty of this snowy edifice with four minarets (type of balcony commonly found in mosques from where the call to pray is made) and 82 domes, all of which are visible from the bridges joining Abu Dhabi island to the mainland.
The largest of the domes — 85 metres tall and 32.8 metres in diameter — sits above the main prayer hall. The world’s largest hand-knotted carpet is also found here. Of course, all 5,700 sqm of the floor covering was not shipped from Iran to Abu Dhabi as one large piece. If you walk on the carpet, under your toes you will feel the parts that have been sewn together here. Other awe-inspiring features of the prayer hall include marble columns inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a rare craftsmanship, as well as a 12-tonne chandelier, one of the largest in the world, sparkling with Swarovski crystals and 24-karat gold.
Look upwards, at the inside of the domes in the mosque, and you will see Moroccan artwork created from reinforced plaster (GRG) complementing the