You can pretend to fly and climb seriously high
Not only is master developer Miral bringing the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall to Abu Dhabi very soon (CLYMB will reach a knee-trembling 43m), but the developer has also created the widest-ever flight chamber – 9.75m. That means mimicking the experience of skydiving, thanks to a very fast-moving upcurrent of air, with plenty of elbow room. Wannabe fighter pilots and screw-loose spacemen, sign up here.
There’s a hotel built on a F1 track
The striking Yas Marina Circuit is made all the more spectacular by the sci-fi swoosh of glass and steel wrapped around the track between turns 18 and 19. This isn’t just a cool design touch, it’s the W Abu Dhabi, the only hotel in the world built over an F1 circuit.
It’s ground zero for millennial cruisers
In recent years, much of the talk in Abu Dhabi has been about Saadiyat Island and the impact this project will have on the growth of visitors to the region, but if you’re looking for more immediate examples of world-beating tourism projects, then you simply need to cast your gaze out to sea.
Demand for voyages from luxury lines Celebrity Cruises and MSC Cruises has led to back-to-back record-breaking seasons for the Abu Dhabi industry. A case in point: Celebrity Constellation carried more than 13,000 guests in 975 staterooms on its six 12- to 15-night voyages departing from Abu Dhabi – a 95 per cent load factor only hinting at its future potential. Part of the appeal, perhaps, is Sir Bani Yas Cruise Beach – the Gulf’s only desert-island cruise.
It has the Gulf’s best golf
Yas Links, with fairways and greens eco-engineered in the desert by master designer Kyle Phillips, is one of the most exciting courses imaginable and hosts some of the best golf tournaments in the Middle East.
Abu Dhabi’s Big Five
The great gift of Sir Bani Yas, the island established as a Royal Nature Reserve in 1971, is colour. At dawn, the rich tones and hues illuminate the reserve’s 30 different species and 15,000-odd animals, including golden jackal, Arabian cheetah, reticulated giraffe, Somalian ostrich and Arabian oryx. “It’s not just the animals that impress,” says Mark Penfield, senior activity guide at Anantara’s Sir Bani Yas Island resort. “It’s Arabia’s largest wildlife reserve, but it’s also dotted with thousands of native trees and shrubs, including the national ghaf tree, Yemeni sidr, luban from Oman, toothbrush stick trees and the African throned umbrella tree.” Still, the ultimate sighting for safari-goers is seeing cheetahs hunt. “From stalking the prey, chasing and to finally making the kill, the whole scene from beginning to end is unbeatable,” says resort guide Yusuf Bhyat. “On rare occasions you can even see an Arabian oryx fend off a cheetah.”
Its sand dunes are celebrities
The 300m-high Moreeb Dune is no ordinary sweep of sand. Located near Liwa Oasis, it hosts an annual dune-climbing drag race, but is even more famous for its role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Doubling as the planet Jakku, the dune and its environs have become a pilgrimage site for fans. Meanwhile, the cast and crew stayed at the five-star Qasr Al Sarab desert palace.
It’s outdoing Pisa
In a city full of extreme architectural feats (see the world’s only circular skyscraper), the 160m-tall Capital Gate tower manages to stand out. How? Because it leans a striking 18º to the west – that’s 14 more than Pisa’s celebrated tower. It’s an architectural riddle best appreciated from 18 Degrees, the sinuous rooftop restaurant at Hyatt Capital Gate, the tower’s anchor tenant.
You can thank it for a renewable energy first
Wind farms are a great idea, but it’s only far out at sea that the gusts are great enough to really churn out the juice. And building wind farms in deep water is problematic to say the least. However, the clever bods at Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s Future Energy Company, may well have struck upon a game-changing solution. Partnering with Norway’s Statoil, they’ve launched Hywind, the world’s first floating wind farm. The approach allows turbines to be installed in much deeper waters than conventional offshore farms, where winds are higher. In this case, that’s five gigantic 172m turbines, located 25km off Scotland’s north-east coast and capable of generating electricity for 20,000 homes. Is this project, 15 years in the making, a game-changer for green energy? “We expect to see exponential growth in floating offshore wind worldwide,” says Statoil.
The police drive supercars
Everyday estates and saloons don’t fit the Abu Dhabi style. Instead, the police have an action movie-worthy portfolio of wheels, including a Lamborghini, Nissan GT-R, Chevrolet Camaro and the ultra-rare Lykan HyperSport (only seven were made). High-spec bikes, boats and helicopters complete the Fast and Furious look.
It holds the first (and only) F1 day-night race
Since its arrival in 2009 many things have been written about the Yas Marina Circuit. There’s the pit lane that crosses over and under the race track, plus 70 pit garages. Then there’s the thrilling 1,173m acceleration straight, the longest of any F1 track. Plenty of cities can do Grand Prix. Only one starts at full-throttle in daylight to race the sunset.
It hosts a spa arms race
Abu Dhabi’s spas introduced the detoxifying Arabic coffee scrub at Chi, The Spa at Shangri-La Hotel Qaryat Al Beri. Next came hydrating seaweed baths and mango and jojoba scrubs. Now there’s a caviar-infused facial, enhanced with pearl extracts, at The Heavenly Spa at The Westin Abu Dhabi or at the Zayna Spa at The Grand Millennium Al Wahda Hotel.
Hotels are an art form
The palatial Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri has the most bewitching view of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in town and a private villa for the use of the royal family, all of it connected by a winding canal used by traditional abra motorboats. It will soon be joined another show-stopper, the Hilton Abu Dhabi Yas Island, which promises to bring Miami Beach to the Gulf in 2019. Apart from the usual trimmings (641 rooms, seven restaurants, a conference centre), it’s amping-up the glam with an innovative urban beach concept and a neck-craning infinity pool ludicrously suspended high above the Gulf.
Even its swamps are worth discovering
For those who jet in to enjoy the high-end hotels, shopping and dining, the natural ecosystem right in the heart of Abu Dhabi is mind-blowing. Mangrove National Park is home to around 60 bird species, including the western reef heron, greater flamingo, spotted eagle and ultra-rare collared kingfisher and it really is a fantastic way to escape the bustle of city life. Take an early morning kayak tour with an operator such as Sea Hawk where you’ll observe blue swimmer crabs lurking in the shallows, while deeper tropical waters hold dolphins and whales.
Architects call it Xanadu
Abu Dhabi specialises in fabulous properties, but the Fairmont Abu Dhabi Marina Residences goes a step beyond. Located in two skyscrapers, connected by a magnificent floating arch, the gold and sapphire apartment block will give Abu Dhabi an icon for the next century.
You can take the ultimate road trip
It’s the UAE’s very own Route 66. Beginning on the Saudi Arabian border, the 568km drive along the E11 from the burned-ochre desert through the capital’s cityscape to Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah is a unique way to see the region. Next up? A link to the UAE’s first nuclear plant, adding 15 flyovers at a cost of some $1.5 billion.
It invented the circular skyscraper
Also known as “the stacked dinner plate” the HQ of real estate firm Aldar is an architectural head-spinner. The brainchild of MZ Architects, it overlooks Al Raha Beach and cost $1.4 billion. No matter how many times you see it, it still comes from the future.
First came the mega-mall, now the giga-mall
Trying to explain the UAE’s stunning malls to someone who’s never seen them is a difficult task, made all the harder these days by the arrival of two billion-dirham giga-mall projects. But with the capital’s annual retail spend predicted to tip $12 billion, it’s hardly surprising the competition has gone stratospheric. First up is Reem Mall, a 260,000m2 retail and entertainment zone hinged on the world’s largest indoor snow-play park for sledging, zorbing and luging. But arguably more interesting is Al Maryah Central in the neighbouring financial district. Due for completion next year, the mall has the first international Macy’s, plus Abu Dhabi’s first Bloomingdale’s as well as 400 shops and 100 restaurants (including Zuma, La Petite Maison and Coya at the interconnected Galleria, the city’s foodie mega mall). It’s bigger than 11 Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosques. “Abu Dhabi’s evolution means the city’s needs are changing – away from isolated shopping malls towards integrated downtown destinations,” says Kevin Ryan, MD of mall developer Gulf Related. “We’ve gone beyond what you think of as a mall – we’re a community, in a bright and airy development, which blends nature and luxurious organic materials with innovative design.”
It’s the world’s jiu-jitsu capital
You heard that right, Abu Dhabi is the world’s foremost jiu-jitsu black belt. Every year more than 7,000 competitors from 100 countries descend on the emirate to fight it out for world titles in the Japanese martial art. And it’s all thanks to the sport’s chief patron, HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who’s been instrumental in the growth. Its latest world-first? A new para-jiu-jitsu division, introduced for players with disabilities and special needs. “Since its inception, the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship has gone from strength to strength and is gaining prestige on the world stage,” says UAE Jiu-Jitsu Federation chairman HE Abdulmunem Al Sayed Mohammed Al Hashmi. “Since 2013 the number of athlete’s competing in the Championship has grown on average 32 per cent year-on-year with a fantastic overall growth of 596 per cent.”
It’s hosting 2019’s largest sporting event
That’s the Special Olympic Games, being held in the MENA region for the first time, which will see 170 nations compete in 24 sports across 7,000 hours of competitions from 14–21 March.
It has the UAE’s only UNESCO Site
Abu Dhabi may be shaping the future, but its past is equally compelling – as can be discovered at Al Ain Oasis. This historic town about an hour from the city centre includes six oases and the archaeological sites of Bidaa bint Saud, Hafeet and Hili, all testament to human occupation of the region since Neolithic times. While other Gulf cities busy themselves with trade and tourism, Al Ain has focused on preserving its UNESCO heritage. Drive through the oasis, crowded with 150,000-odd date palms and working farms, and gawp at the intricate aflaj network, the UAE’s 1,500-year-old irrigation system. Now that’s depth of culture.
Travelling at 240kmph is legal
The chief attraction of Ferrari World, Yas Island’s awe-triggering theme park, is Formula Rossa, a cortex-wobbling roller coaster taking riders to ludicrous speeds in five seconds. That’s 4.8 g-force of thrill, right there.
It has an IMAX-sized theme park
Gotham City, Metropolis as well as The Flintstones’ Bedrock, Hanna-Barbera’s Cartoon Junction and Looney Tunes’ Dynamite Gulch have landed in Abu Dhabi. It’s all part of the mind-boggling $1 billion indoor Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi theme park. Like a VIP Disneyland with Arctic air-con, it’s a titanic jungle of 29 roller coasters, immersive simulators and family-friendly attractions.
It invented the first pop-up charity city
Helping out is the raison d’être of the Zayed Giving Initiative, which last year created the first mobile city for humanitarian work. Launched to coincide with 2017’s Year of Giving, the pop-up is equipped with facilities, including clinics, a field hospital, school, restaurants and camp that can accommodate 1,000 families in an emergency. Sound too far-fetched? The first unit has already been deployed in Somalia, wise guy.
Robots race camels
For millions Some sports whisper. Others shout. Abu Dhabi’s annual Liwa Sports Festival is the paragon of noisy excellence thanks to the nine-day festival’s headliners: ultra-powerful four-wheel drive jeeps, UTVs, revving drift bikes – and grunting camels controlled by robot jockeys. By turns baffling and thrilling, robot camel racing was invented here in the UAE. The robots compete for serious prize money, with the most prestigious events offering a $2.7m purse.
You can eat a 24k gold ice cream
It’s fair to say that the Emirates Palace has a thing for gold. The UAE’s flagship hotel first introduced a gold-dispensing ATM, then gold-leaf cappuccino and now it’s serving up a gold-crowned soft-serve ice cream cone (AED50, or $13.60). “We are the leaders in offering unparalleled experiences,” says hotel spokesperson Mohammed Alaoui. “What says luxury more than 24k gold bling?”