If you are looking for a holiday spot where the sun is guaranteed to shine, skip Philly. Let’s be honest. It is sometimes sunny in Philadelphia, but it is always sunny here in Abu Dhabi. Yes, it is a city in the middle of a desert. Yes, it is smack dab in the Middle East–a stone’s throw from Iran. But don’t let that stop you! It’s a great place to visit and an even better place to live. You will not be disappointed (as long as you don’t come in late summer when it’s stinking hot or during Ramadan when you cannot publicly eat or drink. If you come then, all bets are off. You might not like it that much). I have lived here in my adopted city for only a few months, but I would love to share it with you.
If the United Arab Emirates were a family of seven and its emirates (provinces) siblings, Abu Dhabi (the nation’s capitol) would be the staid, oldest child; Dubai, the carefree youngest sibling (I don’t know about the 5 other siblings yet—haven’t been there—I suspect they are like typical middle children though). Dubai is less than an hour north of Abu Dhabi, and it is indeed a far better known city. Just about everyone has heard of it’s lavish malls and restaurants, one of a kind 7 star hotels and, let’s say, over the top everything: ski slopes in malls, gold-drizzled desserts, sky high scrapers. I’m sure you’ve seen the Travel Channel shows about it. Abu Dhabi is a little sleepier and much more serious, but there is still plenty to do.
Many months of the year are inhospitably hot here in Abu Dhabi. If you come in the summer months, plan on indoor recreation. In both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, that usually takes the form of wandering shopping centers. Abu Dhabi has world-class malls just like its neighbor Dubai. There are just not as many, but Abu Dhabi is working on that; opening a new, massive Yas Mall some time in 2014. It is going to be amazing: full of shopping, leisure, entertainment and sports as all the shopping centers are here.
Yas Mall is soon to be completed. It is on Yas Island, which is barely on the radar of Abu Dhabi city dwellers. They prefer the culture of the city and its sophisticated city beach, the Corniche. But, the main reason they are unfamiliar with it is that the island did not exist five years’ ago. Yup, they made an island where there was none just for pleasure! On Yas Island, you will find the Yas Marina Circuit if you are into Formula One racing, Ferrari World if you like thrills like the fastest roller coaster in the world and Yas Water World if you want to cool off after all that thrill-seeking—fun for the young and old.
What? Shopping and crowded places are not for you? Me either. Not to worry! There are plenty of other excursions to be had here in Abu Dhabi. There is something for everyone. Do you prefer the great outdoors to the glassy, fluorescent folly of a shopping mall? Abu Dhabi is on the Arabian Sea, so there are more water sports than you can imagine. You can snorkel, scuba dive, kayak, and waterski, paddleboard, and sail. You name it! You can do it here. You can tour the mangrove sea forests by kayak. These unique marine eco systems line the coastal of the United Arab Emirates and are one of the more prominent, indigenous flora here. Kayaking around the Eastern Mangroves is a great way to take in both the local flora and fauna. The coastal mangrove forests provide a great habitat for fish, turtles, and nesting birds.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center is truly the architectural triumph of Abu Dhabi, some might say the greatest mosque in the world. It has the capacity for an astonishing 40,000 worshippers. It features 82 domes, over 1,000 columns, 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers, large reflective pools, not to mention the world’s largest hand knotted carpet. The mosque itself is the tomb of Sheikh Zayed and a tribute to his life, the nation and to Islam. It is well worth a visit, but it is one place where you must dress reverently. There are also a few high profile museums set to open soon here, if enjoy what culture a city has to offer.
The Abu Dhabi Guggenheim and Louvre should be opening in a year or so. They will focus on Middle Eastern contributions to the art world, but should have a nice permanent collection of European and American work as well.
Finally, if you enjoy fine dining, no trip to Abu Dhabi is complete without indulging in one of the city’s fantastic Friday brunches. Friday is like Saturday here in the Middle East for the expat population. Do you feel like Japanese, Mediterranean, Arabic, Chinese, Turkish, and Caribbean? Again, you name it! It’s here; some places have all of the above done well. Some have all you can drink Champagne. Check out Time Out Abu Dhabi for all the information you need to plan a brunch date in the capitol.
Abu Dhabi is brimming with activity, so much, in fact, that I cannot list it all here. If you are looking for reliable sunshine, warm beaches, luxurious shopping, abundant watersports, awe-inspiring water parks, high-speed roller coasters, and haute cuisine, look no further than Abu Dhabi—it’s all here! It’s easy and relatively inexpensive to get here. Just trust me on not coming in the height of summer, unless you really love indoor activities or are a lizard. Shoppers, camels and reptiles are the only creatures that belong here in July & August. Abu Dhabi won’t disappoint those other months. But, as always, come with an open mind, heart and willingness to both appreciate and conform to the culture. In general, this makes for a better travel experience, but here it’s an imperative.