33 things you simply must do before you leave the capital
Abu Dhabi is what you make of it, and here at TOAD we’re big believers in making the most of it. So ditch those box sets and forgo those brunches for a week and try these experiences, which we bet you’ll remember long after you’ve left.
1 Go skydiving Bucket lists are all about facing your fears, and top of many people’s list is skydiving. Try it at Spacewalk at Abu Dhabi Country Club, the city’s only indoor skydiving facility, and you’ll experience freefalling without jumping from an aeroplane. You start the experience standing at the bottom of a flight chamber, a tunnel with a trampoline-like floor made from aircraft cable. Along with an instructor, you’ll lean forward as the wind is turned on and by the time the 875bhp fan system is cranked to 160km/h you’ll be hovering vertically 16ft in the air – without a parachute. The experience is suitable for adults who weigh up to 85kg. Dhs180 for two minutes, Dhs290 for four. Al Saada Street, Al Mushrif, www.adcountryclub.com (02 657 7601).
2 Sleep at Qasr Al Sarab Quite possibly the country’s most romantic destination, this Bedouin-style resort is nestled deep within the Empty Quarter. Visit on your own or with a partner to relax in the pool and use its spa, followed by dinner at its rooftop grill, Suhail, which is named after the star Bedouins used to navigate through the desert – on our visit, we actually saw a shooting star. You can also eat at Ghadeer on an island accessible via bridges illuminated by flame torches. Despite the low-key atmosphere, there’s still plenty to do in the surrounding dunes, including camel trekking, archery, sunset yoga and horse riding, as well as full moon desert hikes, dune bashing and cycling on fat bikes, which have tyres wide enough to cycle on sand. Camel trek Dhs195, at sunset Dhs295, archery Dhs140, sunset yoga Dhs150, horse riding Dhs395, desert hike Dhs125, dune bashing Dhs295, fat bikes Dhs175. Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, www.qasralsarab.ae (02 886 2088).
3 Buy kandora and abaya salt and pepper shakers No self-respecting UAE household is without these chintzy knick knacks, which resemble a man and woman dressed in traditional Emirati dress. Buy them on the ground floor of the souk of World Trade Center Mall. Hamdan Street, www.wtcad.ae (02 810 7814).
4 Go on safari Even though Sir Bani Yas Island is a short flight south of Abu Dhabi, it feels more like Africa as a 4,100-hectare wildlife park covers half of it. The park is home to 15,000 free-roaming giraffes and ostriches, cheetahs and striped hyenas, as well as hundreds of endangered Arabian oryx, gazelles and peacocks. The best way to experience it is on a 1.5 hour nature drive in a 4 x 4. You can explore the rest of the island by bike, foot or horse, go kayaking or inspect reefs while snorkelling or scuba diving. You can also try archery. A beach to rival Saadiyat loops around it and chances are you’ll have it to yourself. There are three places to stay, the newest of which is Al Sehel Villa Resort. It costs Dhs840 per night from now until September 30, and there’s a minimum five-night stay policy. Email email@example.com Anantara Al Sahel Villa Resort, www.anantara.com (02 656 1399).
5 Fly in a seaplane If a hot air balloon isn’t exciting enough for you, try taking off in a Cessna 208 Amphibian Caravan, a seaplane designed for nine passengers. Choose from two 30-minute tours. The first departs from Emirates Palace beach and flies over the Corniche to Khalifa Port, past the mangroves and over Sheikh Zayed Bridge. You’ll continue on to Yas Island, see the Formula 1 track and Ferrari World then arrive back at Emirates Palace. The second tour leaves from Yas Marina, taking in all the major sights including the Grand Mosque on its way to Emirates Palace before arriving back at the marina. Think this is just for tourists? Think again – there’s no better buzz than flying over your apartment. Dhs995 per person, Dhs8,000 charter within Abu Dhabi, Dhs12,100 charter from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, www.seawings.ae (02 564 6303).
6 Explore a fort Otherwise known as Al Hosn Palace or White Fort, you might be forgiven for thinking Qasr Al Hosn is called Fort Knox as it’s been boarded up for years while undergoing renovations. Built in the 1700s, it was originally a solitary watchtower built to protect fresh water sources discovered by the Bani Yas tribes of Liwa Oasis. A settlement grew around it, and around 1795 Sheikh Shakhboot bin Diyab added three towers and walls, expanding it into a fort. Cannons were added during the 19th century. When oil was discovered in 1958, the fort transformed it into a palace; it has since been used for government, as police headquarters and as a research centre. In 2007 Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage closed it and began an extensive renovation project, but in 2013 the tourist board launched Qasr Al Hosn, an annual festival held in the grounds. This year’s 10-day festival saw visitors taking part in embroidery workshops, climbing palm trees, shopping for artisanal crafts, perfume and honey, and learning how to make camel saddles. Check the website for 2015 dates. Hamdan Street, www.qasralhosnfestival.ae (02 666 4442).
7 Free fall at 64km/h Fans of adrenaline rushes should try Liwa Loop at Yas Waterworld, the first looping waterslide in the Middle East. Once you’ve climbed inside the capsule, you’ll hear a countdown before the trapdoor beneath your feet opens. You’ll drop 16.5m – higher than a double decker bus – at 64km/h. Terrifying! The momentum carries you upside down and along the 260ft slide. Yas Waterworld entry Dhs240 adults, Dhs195 if under 1.1m. Yas Island, www.yaswaterworld.com (02 414 2000).
8 Drive the Formula 1 track Splash out on an experience at the Formula 1 Grand Prix track, Yas Marina Circuit, in a Yas Radical SST sports car that was built especially for the track. With a 210bhp braking system and the ability to reach 100km/h in less than 3.8 seconds, when you’re racing around the track you’ll soon forget you don’t own it. Dhs1,200 for a 25-minute drive (Dhs440 as a passenger). Yas Island, www.yasmarinacircuit.com (02 659 9800).
9 Shoot a gun, Bedouin style Back in the day, Bedouins lay on sand to shoot, sniper-style. Practise the technique at Al Ain Equestrian, Shooting & Golf Club on a range designed for 40 people – you shoot a rifle out of a window at a target 50m away. If you’re lucky, you’ll get tips from Atef Saoudy, who took part in the 1984 Olympics; he’s so well-trained he can hit bull’s eye five times in a row with his eyes closed. Dhs90 for 50 bullets. Al Maqam, near Tawam Hospital, Al Ain, www.aesgc.ae (03 768 4888).
10 Swim with sharks If your idea of a fun day out is free falling down a slide nine storeys high in a second, before floating through a tube surrounded by sharks, then hot foot it to Tower of Neptune at Aquaventure Waterpark on The Palm in Dubai. Too tame? Then visit Dubai Aquarium, where you can swim with sharks with Dive Mahara. You’ll mingle with sand tigers, white tip reef and zebra sharks but don’t worry, they’re fed regularly so they’re not peckish and besides, the instructor has a poking pole to prevent them coming too close. That’s okay, then. Aquaventure Waterpark, from Dhs250 adult (Dhs165 with Emirates ID), Dhs205 kids under 1.2m (Dhs140 with ID), www.atlantisthepalm.com (04 426 0000). Dive Mahara, Dhs675 certified divers, Dhs875 non certified, aquarium entry included, www.divemahara.com (02 643 7377).
11 Eat gold Make like Midas and pretend everything you touch turns to gold. Try a cappuccino in Le Café in Emirates Palace, which comes flecked with shavings of real gold leaf. Dhs50. Corniche West, www.kempinski.com (02 690 7999).
12 Drink free bubbly Tourists, ladies’ nights may sound mythical but residents are not pulling your leg. Women really can drink bubbly for free, all night long. Drink it at The Yacht Club in InterContinental on Wednesdays 7pm-midnight or in Cristal in Millennium Hotel on Mondays 7-9pm. Alternatively, head to Yas Marina on Wednesday nights to make the most of various ladies’ nights. The Yacht Club, King Street, Al Bateen, www.dining-intercontinental-ad.ae (02 666 6888). Cristal, Khalifa Street, www.millenniumhotels.ae (02 614 6000).
13 Ride the world’s fastest rollercoaster Brave the impressive Formula Rossa, which shoots from zero to 100km/h in less than three seconds, reaching speeds of 240km/h. The 2.07km track peaks at 52m before plummeting to 1.5m and turning a corner at an eye-popping 70°. A ride lasts 90 seconds – but it feels an awful lot longer when you’re on it. While you’re at Ferrari World, check out G-Force, which launches you 62m in the air. Dhs240 adult, Dhs195 child, under threes free. Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com (02 496 8001).
14 Go up Burj Khalifa At 828m, Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world’s tallest tower, with 163 floors. You can visit the observation deck on level 124 – which, at 442m high, is the highest outdoor observation deck in the world. A visit costs a whopping Dhs400 on the door (Dhs125 in advance), but why get crushed in a mob with the masses when you can sip drinks at sunset from the tower’s glitzy bar, At.Mosphere on level 122? Just bear in mind there’s a minimum spend of Dhs150, and most mixed drinks start at Dhs90 so you have to buy two. www.burjkhalifa.ae (04 888 8124), www.atmosphereburjkhalifa.com (04 888 3444).
15 Toboggan in the desert While skiing draws 1,500 daily visitors to Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s only indoor snow resort, it has more to offer than just that. The centre, which is covered with real snow all year round, covers 22,500sqm – the size of three football fields – and is 25 storeys high. With its alpine-style restaurants and temperatures hovering at -1°C, you could almost kid yourself you’re in the Alps. Snow Park is a 3,000sqm cavern with two toboggan tracks and a hill which you can shoot down in a zorb ball before jumping a 10ft ramp. The centre’s five ski runs cater for all levels. Beginners can take lessons, while experienced skiers and snowboarders can practise their moves on the centre’s longest run, which stretches 400m and falls over 60m – or why not show off on jumps in the freestyle zone? You can attempt the world’s first indoor black run, too. If that sounds too tame, ride the snow bullet, the world’s first indoor sub-zero zip line. Your heart is bound to pound as you whizz along the 150m line, 16m above the slopes. All skiing and snowboarding equipment except for hats and gloves is included in the ticket price. Skiing and snowboarding lesson Dhs170 kids, Dhs200 adults; power pass Dhs300 includes zipline, zorbing, chair lift and big slides; tobogganing extra. Mall of Emirates, Dubai, www.theplaymania.com (04 409 4090).
16 Stay at Emirates Palace The most expensive hotel ever built, when Emirates Palace opened in November 2005, it certainly caused a stir. Nine years later, its gold-bar vending machine and Rolex clock still draw tourists. The interior floor space covers 85 hectares, the same as its gardens. But only a fraction is open to the public – you’ll have to stay to experience its gold and marble suites and 500m corridors, which are so long you might want to consider leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so you can find your way back to your room. Dhs2,250 for a coral room with a garden view.
17 Kayak under a full moon Love nature? Then there are few better activities than kayaking at night. Peaceful and calm, if you’ve had a stressful day you’ll appreciate the inky black waters, chirping crickets and occasional crane flapping overhead. The adventure company Noukhada hosts monthly full moon trips in the mangroves, departing from Yas Beach and E48 next to Eastern Mangroves by Anantara. Dates vary according to the lunar calendar; the next ones are planned for September 9, October 8, November 6 and December 6. It also hosts regular mystery night paddles. Dhs200. www.noukhada.ae (02 558 1889).
18 See the sunrise on Saadiyat Beach Get up at the crack of dawn and walk this 9km beach; you’ll see the sky turn navy to grey, then pink, orange and blue. It’s worth getting up early for, as you’ll have the place to yourself.
19 Do a desert safari Yes they’re touristy, but they’re also fun. A typical desert safari includes a camel ride, a visit to a camel farm, sand boarding and the chance to dress up in Arabic costumes. You can also get a henna tattoo and experience dune bashing – where you’re thrown about the dunes in a 4 x 4. As night falls you’ll enjoy a barbecue and shisha while watching a belly dancer. Dhs250. www.abudhabi-desert-safari.com (055 484 2001).
20 Visit Al Jahili Fort You know the image on an Al Ain water bottle? That’s Al Jahili Fort. A traditional 19th-century Arabic fort in Al Ain, it is now a museum with a permanent exhibition dedicated to the British travel writer and photographer, Wilfred Thesiger. It’s fascinating seeing black and white photos of the UAE in a bygone era – especially when you glimpse a landmark you recognise. Free. www.visitabudhabi.ae
21 Go glamping If you’re not prepared for scorpions in your shoes or stepping in camel dung, then desert camping isn’t for you – unless you try glamping, or glamorous camping, that is. Banyan Tree resort is made up of 31 tents with canopies for a ceiling and real walls – so it has all the luxuries of a hotel room, including air con, with the feel of a tent. Set in a peaceful nature reserve, you can spot gazelles, camels and oryx from your private pool deck. Dhs2,607 weekdays, Dhs2,882 weekends, includes breakfast for two adults and two under 12s. Ras al Khaimah, www.banyantree.com (07 206 7777).
22 Party on a desert island Al Maya Island & Resorts hosts day time parties, including occasional foam parties, for over 21s every Friday on Al Maya Island, 9km south west Khalidiyah Palace. A DJ provides entertainment as revellers frolic on the beach or in the pool, which has two swim-up bars. You can only access the island by boat, which takes 20-30 minutes. Boat trips run every hour or half hour from the jetty next to Khalidiyah Palace Rayhaan by Rotana at the western end of the Corniche. Get there early and secure a good spot near the pool. Dhs100 boat and entry. Noon-9pm. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com (050 731 7802).
23 Explore Al Ain oasis Al Ain oasis is a 1,200-hectare date palm plantation, much of which is still a working farm. You can spend a few hours exploring the cool, shady walkways that wind underneath the date palms – chances are you’ll have the place to yourself. Free. Near Al Ain Palace Museum, www.visitabudhabi.ae (03 712 8429; 03 712 8523).
24 Go to a pool party Maï Café’s liquid rain parties are legendary. Dance under pouring rain then jump in the pool for a splash fest. Staying cool doesn’t get much more fun than this. DJs including the legendary Natalie Brogan keep the party going till late. The next ones are on August 29 and September 5. Dhs100 men, women free. Aloft, next to Adnec, www.aloftabudhabi.com (02 654 5000).
25 Stay on Nurai Island Just 1km north of Saadiyat Island, Nurai Island is home to an exclusive residential resort made up of 28 beachfront estates which cost a whopping Dhs48million each – as well as 12 water villas which can be rented long-term. Out of your budget? Then from November you can stay a night in the island’s boutique hotel, which is made up of 40 beach bungalows. You’ll arrive by helicopter or boat, which docks at a floating marina, and have access to a beach, pool, spa and gym, cigar lounge, library and three restaurants – one of which, a Mediterranean all-day dining restaurant, is already open. www.nuraiislandvillas.com (04 887 8750; 050 450 3615).
26 Play golf on sand If you’ve ever got stuck in a bunker then you’ll know how tricky it is to play golf on sand – so why not challenge yourself to an entire round on a sand course? Al Ghazal Golf Club has the only one in Abu Dhabi. Non members Dhs80 on weekends, Dhs49 weekdays for nine holes, or Dhs120 weekends, Dhs100 weekdays for 18 holes. Alternatively, play a round on one of Abu Dhabi’s fantastic courses dotted around the city - you won’t avoid the sand there either! Near Abu Dhabi International Airport, www.alghazalgolf.ae (02 575 8040).
27 Experience Gourmet Abu Dhabi What’s that, you’ve not heard of Gourmet Abu Dhabi? But it’s only the capital’s biggest culinary extravaganza. The tourist board launched the fine dining festival in 2009 to promote the emirate as a global culinary destination, and it’s since caused quite a stir. 2014’s edition saw 25 culinary experts – many of whom were Michelin-starred chefs – and 20 restaurants participate. Highlights included an opera dinner, vintage grape and signature dishes created by celebrity chefs. The next one is February 3-18, 2015. Foodies, you’ve got to attend. Various hotels, www.gourmetabudhabi.ae (02 418 1401).
28 Tour the Grand Mosque Even if you’ve already visited Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, it’s worth taking a tour – especially as they’re free. Your guide encourages you to ask burning questions about Emirati culture while imparting fascinating facts. Did you know, for example, that the carpet inside is the world’s biggest, weighs 47 tonnes and took two years to make? Or that the mosque took 11 years to build, its pillars are decorated with semi precious stones and the floor is made from white marble because it doesn’t absorb heat? You don’t need to book; just turn up in time for a tour at 10am, 11am and 5pm Sunday to Thursday, 5pm or 7pm on Friday or 10am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 7pm on Saturday. Instagram fans, go at 5pm to catch the sun set. www.szgmc.ae (02 419 1919).
29 Surf in the desert If you want to try surfing but don’t have a board, visit Wadi Adventure in Al Ain where you can practice in the waterpark’s 150m long pool. Its waves are over 3m. Dhs100 for one-hour (no lesson) or Dhs150 for a 55-minute lesson, plus Dhs50 adult entrance, Dhs25 kids’ entrance. Directions on www.wadiadventure.ae (03 781 8422).
30 Learn Arabic Learning the local language helps you connect with your Emirati neighbours and colleagues – and sail through Government red tape. Sign up for classes at The Mother Tongue, which has courses from Dhs1,900 for 30 hours of lessons. Corniche, Al Khalidiyah, www.mothertongue.ae (02 639 3838).
31 Sail in a dhow Abu Dhabi Dhow Cruise runs nightly cruises on a dhow, a two-tier wooden boat traditionally used by traders. You’ll set sail at 7.30pm from Mina Port and cruise the Corniche to Marina Mall and back while tucking into Arabic seafood. Dhs200. www.abudhabidhowcruise.com (055 484 2001).
32 Eat camel You can’t live in the UAE without trying camel. Have it in burger form at Fanr, a restaurant inside the contemporary art gallery, Manarat Al Saadiyat. It comes with salad and fries. Dhs75. Saadiyat Island, www.fanrrestaurant.ae (02 657 5888).
33 Hike up Jebel Hafeet This 1,240m peak rises from the desert in Al Ain, and is one of the country’s tallest mountains. If you drive, go at sunset to catch the sun’s rays turning the rock orange, then stay to count the stars. But if you want a sense of achievement, hike up it instead. On our last visit, we saw a man attach a tyre to his backpack and drag it behind him as he trekked up it in 40° heat. The tyre’s optional, but if you do decide to hike you’ll have to share the road with cars so practise caution – it’s no use getting knocked over and kicking the bucket while completing your bucket list, is it?