ABU DHABI'S most imposing landmark is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The third largest in the world (it accommodates 41,000 worshippers), it boasts 82 domes, more than 1000 columns, 24-carat gold chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet. It is also the final resting place of the late Sheik Zayed whose express wish was that the mosque be a symbol of unity between cultures. As one of the few mosques open to non-Muslims, he hoped it would offer a source of understanding about the Islamic faith. Women tourists are required to wear the traditional abaya (a full-length loose-fitting black garment, available at the mosque) to tour the mosque.
VISIT the Emirates Palace, which is not a royal palace but a landmark hotel where kings, queens, world leaders and the wealthy choose to stay. Set in 85 hectares of landscaped gardens with its own private marina and 1.3km of beach, it took 20,000 workers three years to construct the $3 billion hotel, which is one kilometre from end to end. A designated floor houses the palace and rulers suites. The Emirates Palace Spa will design a bespoke treatment for you.
TRAVEL two hours to the oasis city of Al-Ain, one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is fed by natural springs originating in the rocky heights surrounding it. You can see working examples of the traditional irrigation system used for centuries to tap into underground wells. Al-Jahili Fort, erected in 1891 to defend the city and protect precious palm groves, houses a permanent exhibition of the work of British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the Rub Al Khali – Empty Quarter – in the 1940s. The redeveloped Al Qattara Fort is now home to an arts centre and gallery.
RELAX along the Corniche. Join the locals strolling along this famous stretch of water. Tables set on the promenade are the perfect place to sit at sunset, or you can enjoy a dip in the sea or stroll along the 8km of manicured waterfront. There are public bathing areas as well as separate beach areas for families and singles.
VISIT Masdar City. More than 2000 visitors a week come to the carless city, which combines ancient Arabic architectural techniques with modern technology. You’ll find it up to 10 degrees cooler than the rest of Abu Dhabi. Streets maximise shade all day, capturing cooling breezes and reducing the need for air-conditioning. Masdar City has an integral role in transforming the economy from oil to one with a knowledge and innovation base. It will eventually have homes, schools, mosques, parks, restaurants and cafes, all within walking distance of each other.
NIBBLE a date. The date is celebrated throughout the UAE and from its origins as a desert, Abu Dhabi has become an oasis with 16 million palms producing a quarter of a million tons of dates each year. Dates are eaten daily with coffee or juice and the delicious fruit is celebrated with an annual festival in Liwa, an oasis town in Al Gharbia region.
EAT: Emirati food is a reflection of the UAE’s trading heritage, infused with spices and ingredients from Asia and the Middle East. Cinnamon, saffron and turmeric, along with nuts, limes and dried fruit heighten the flavour of dishes. One of the best places to try authentic cuisine is at Emirates Palace's Mezlai restaurant. Try the scallops mughraibi and rocca salad and the slow-roasted lamb (lamb madfoun).
SHOP: The Galleria, on Al Maryah Island, one of the world’s most luxurious shopping centres, is a destination in itself with a fantastic range of eateries and some of the most sought-after brands. Check out Emirati brand Gossip, an all-day cafe offering a fusion of fine art, fashion and food, and look for distinctive products to bring home such as FK, The Fragrance Kitchen. Sheikh Majed has used oud, taif rose and burning agarwood – scents loved by his cherished grandmother – to create bespoke fragrances.
This really is the way to fly and arrive ready to take in the sights and sounds
WITH Etihad Airways’ Abu Dhabi stopover campaign you can have a “holiday within a holiday”. Until the end of the year, travellers bound for Europe or other onward destinations can choose one of Etihad’s stopover options, which include two-for-one deals on hotels and various activities. Economy class travellers who book a two-night stay from a choice of more than 60 hotels will receive the second night free. Business class passengers receive a complimentary night’s stay, while first class travellers receive two free nights.
The airline’s double-decker A380s feature innovations such as The Residence, the world’s most luxurious living space in the air. There are also nine first apartments, 70 business studios, a lobby lounge, and 415 economy smart seats offering ergonomic fixed-wing headrests, lumbar support and a personal, high-definition monitor screen.
The business studios on the upper deck have direct aisle access and a fully flat bed. While they are called studios, the business class seats are also perfect for leisure travellers with ample room for books and storage. If you secure a window seat, you will be perfectly cocooned in a private hideaway, ready to settle in and watch the on-demand entertainment that includes 100-plus movies, more than 250 TV shows and seven channels of live news and sport.
Business class passengers enjoy on-demand dining, which means you can ask for additional fare like a steak sandwich or a lamb and rosemary pie whenever hunger bites. The dinner menu, presented just after take-off, was tempting, with Arabic mezze along with more traditional fare such as smoked ocean trout, cauliflower soup, braised beef and pan fried barramundi. However, having taken advantage of the opportunity to eat in Emirate’s Business Lounge, which has a-la-carte dining and a generous buffet, I settled for a cheese platter before the friendly cabin crew put my bed in the sleep position and fitted a mattress on top. Given that most flights are late at night, it’s a boon to be able to eat well before you get on the plane so you can immediately settle down under a warm doona. A good night’s sleep, a generous breakfast and you’re ready to get off the plane and enjoy everything Abu Dhabi has to offer.