Back to blog listing

City slickers

Abu Dhabi: Not just a Dubai wannabe

Zoe Betchley April 3, 2014

Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi

“Are you able to go to Abu Dhabi for 4 nights in September?” I was asked. After careful thought and consideration my immediate yelp was “ABSOLUTELY!

My knowledge of Abu Dhabi prior to the trip was minimal and my perception was that it’s a “wannabe Dubai” but how wrong could I have been...

Only one hour down the road, Abu Dhabi is a complete contrast to Dubai despite being in the same country . Dubai is there to dazzle; it has the need to be bigger, better and faster than anywhere in the world, whereas Abu Dhabi has a more relaxed, sedate feel, focusing on its unique culture and natural beauty to provide a stunning showcase for international tourists. It is the Middle East though, so there are a few of those glass-walled high rises scattering the landscape.

Abu Dhabi, meaning “Father of the Gazelle”, is rich in history. In the late 1700s, a Bedouin tribe settled on the island of Abu Dhabi after discovering water. The next century saw the destination expand rapidly due to success in the pearl trade and in 1958 oil was discovered. Modern Abu Dhabi was born. After a political coup, Sheikh Zayed became the United Arab Emirates first President in 1966 until his death in 2004 where his son Sheikh Khalifa continued the family rule. Anyway, enough history for this post...

Having landed and on my way to the hotel, I was astounded by how green the landscape was. Manicured lawns and trees lining the roads, colourful flowers draped themselves over each home. This was completely unexpected in 40 degree heat in the middle of a previous desert. The first thing I felt was how opulent and calm the city felt in comparison to Dubai. I wasn’t instantly stuck in a traffic jam, in the shadows of a high rise skyline, Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Range Rovers and BMWs casually rolling down the roads, with large detached houses bordering. It felt like an authentic place, a local place, not just a tourist attraction.

There are many hotels to choose from, Shangri-La to Hilton, Rotana to St Regis, all of which have great locations but remain half the price of Dubai, with the opulence and grandeur you now expect in the UAE.  I was staying at the Shangri-La and went straight on my balcony to discover a perfect view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

This is the eighth largest mosque in the world, which can hold up to 40,000 people and holds the largest chandelier in the world. I just had to visit. Arms, legs and hair should always be covered but they do provide freshly laundered robes if they feel that there is still too much on show.

After a peaceful walk around, I was off on a different experience. As you may have understood, Abu Dhabi is made up of islands. Just a 15 minute drive and I was on Yas Island. This is home to the Formula 1 track, Ferrari World theme park and Yas Waterworld. I am not a massive F1 fan, so having seen the track I moved on – but you can easily organise track runs on non-race days. The Yas Viceroy has rooms that overlook the track, the perfect view point!

I travelled on to Ferrari World. here, there are 4D rides, driving tracks (child versions) and the fastest rollercoaster in the world – Formula Rossa. Nails bitten and it’s my turn next. I climbed in the makeshift F1 car. Strapped in and before I could take my next breath, I was launched 52 metres in the sky, flying through chicanes, all inspired by the world’s most famous race tracks. We crossed the finish line and I think it took me 10 minutes to get my breath back but certainly not my voice for all the screaming!  Next door is Yas Waterworld, an adrenaline-junky’s haven, with exhilarating slides, lazy rivers and activities.

In contrast, Saadiyat Island is lined with heavenly beaches and I was fortunate enough to see St Regis Saadiyat Island - I wish I could have moved in. The location – perfect, on a white, sandy spacious beach, pools, adult-only and family, a wide range of restaurants, kids clubs, views for miles and I was still only 15 minutes from the centre of Abu Dhabi.

This may all seem like razzle dazzle still and, I suppose, there is an element that is. But where else in the world can you stay in a royal palace whilst sipping a Cappuccino (with real gold flakes) at Emirates Palace, then venture across the road to the Heritage site and discover how the Bedouins set up their camp and learnt how to survive in this once arid landscape.

The point I am making is that four nights just isn’t enough. I could have easily spent a two week holiday and come back time and time again for years to come. There will always be something new.  Time it right and you could be at one of the many annual events; golf championship, horse racing, sailing, Formula 1, UAE day... there will continue to be something new every year.
Maybe it’s just true that wherever you go in the UAE, they do it bigger and better than anywhere else but you could never say they don’t do it well.