Saturday, June 13, 2009

Desert Notes: On Tour in Abu Dhabi

Everyone has heard of Dubai. Everyone knows it’s an excellent place to shop, and that there is plenty to see. The only thing many people know about Abu Dhabi however is that Garfield used to threaten to mail Nermal there on a regular basis.

Even once you’ve explained where Abu Dhabi is, people still wonder whether it is worth a visit. It is. I’ve just spent a month playing tour guide to parents, and have discovered there is plenty to see and do.

First up simply has to be the shopping. There are lovely big malls with brand name shops that we South Africans have only ever heard about. There are the mini-malls squashed in between other buildings that offer all sorts of little treasures. Like the souvenir shops in the centre opposite Abu Dhabi Mall. Not really that amazing looking from the street, but literally has an Aladdin’s cave of goodies for the tourist!

And talking of treasures, you simply have to visit the Madinat Zayed Gold Market. It is literally a mall filled with jewellery stores of every size and description. “Just looking” is really hard…..

Apart from the malls there are also the traditional markets. The Iranian souk, the Fish Market, the Central Market, the Carpet souk are just some examples. My parents had a fantastic time bargaining with the carpet sellers, and came away very pleased with their purchase.

Unfortunately the souk in the city centre is undergoing reconstruction at the moment, and my parents missed their opportunity to bargain for everything from fake Rolex watches to beautiful fabrics from India.

Once you’ve had enough of the shopping options, you can take time out to get cultural. There are two heritage villages to visit in Abu Dhabi. The one at the Breakwater is really lovely, and the craftspeople are keen to take the time to demonstrate traditional skills. There is also a restaurant in the village where you can sit and relax and try out some regional specialities. I have no idea what I ate, but it was extremely delicious!

The Cultural Foundation has a lot to offer, with regular workshops, teaching everything from crafts to language skills. They have a regular programme of exhibitions from local and international artists and musicians, and the range is varied. Events are advertised in The Gulf News on a daily basis.

Just next door to the Cultural Foundation is the Old Fort (also known as the Al Husn Fort). This imposing whitewashed building is one of the oldest buildings in Abu Dhabi, and has a small museum.

Also of interest is the Women’s Handicraft Centre which forms part of the Abu Dhabi Women’s Association. It houses a small but well layed-out museum, and a souvenir shop where you can buy items made in the handicrafts centre. The little shop also offers you the opportunity to dress in traditional clothes and have your picture taken!

The handicrafts section is interesting, and demonstrates some of the traditional handiwork of Emirati women. If you are keen on having a henna tattoo done, this is an excellent place to give it a try.

Don’t forget to visit the Emirates Palace Hotel. Tours of the Palace are run four times every day, and advance booking is essential. Unless, of course, you can afford to stay as a guest!

For boating enthusiasts you can visit the dhow building works where you can see a traditional dhow being made.

If you are looking for some adventure, you could try a dhow cruise along the Corniche waterways. For those looking for a bit more of an adrenalin rush, you can go on a sunset desert trip, which includes some stomach turning dune riding in a 4x4, a visit to a camel farm, and a traditional meal at a Bedouin style camp. Overnight trips are also possible.

If you are just in the mood to relax, there are plenty of beaches, though it can get pretty hot. Spring and early summer is the best time. There private beaches run by the hotels, as well as public beaches, and a ladies-only beach.

There are also a number of beautiful parks and gardens which offer fantastic opportunities to picnic and play. Great for those with kids!

And if you are keen to travel a little further out (say an hour and a half out of Abu Dhabi), an excellent place to visit is Al Ain. Apart from being the birth place of Sheikh Zayed it has a beautiful oasis. There is a quiet little restaurant in the middle of the oasis, and although the service was slow, the food was excellent!

Al Ain also offers the fairly recently discovered Hot Springs, which is being developed into a fine holiday spot. The Hot Springs are nestled at the bottom of one of the Emirates highest mountains – Jebel Hafeet. If you are a cycling buff, it’s apparently a two to three hour uphill cycle, but a 45 min down ride! If you are less energetic, the road is excellent, and offers plenty of viewing sites where you can overlook everything from date palm plantations to wadis to dunes. Near the peak is the Jebel Hafeet hotel which offers a lovely view from their dining room. At the peak is a small shop and a spectacular view.

The Al Ain museum and fort are very interesting, and if you are an archeology buff, it has plenty of information on the various archeological sites in the UAE, as well as some history on the region itself.

One of the archeological sites mentioned at the museum is in Al Ain, and the Hili Archeological Gardens are nearby.

There is also a museum at the home of the late Sheik Zayed, which details his legacy and the development of the UAE.

If you are still keen to do some more exploring, and fancy seeing the Empty Quarter, Liwa Oasis is a five hour drive away. Excellent for campers and 4x4 enthusiasts.

If you’ve had enough of the Abu Dhabi emirate, you can always visit one of the other six. Plenty to do in all of them!

We’ve had fun being tour guides, and as I did, I ended up learning a great deal about our adopted home.

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