Many visitors (and even some residents) don’t realise it, but Abu Dhabi has hundreds of islands, many of them accessible by boat, road or air and each with a different flavour. Take a day trip to one of these offshore hideaways to discover a different side to the city.
The phrase ‘much anticipated’ is overused, but it surely applied to the Louvre Abu Dhabi before it finally opened in late 2017, under architect Jean Nouvel’s distinctive half-shell domed roof. The bold franchising of the Louvre’s name is backed up by the muscle of a world-class art collection that includes big-hitters such as da Vinci, Matisse and Van Gogh. (And the most expensive painting ever sold, da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, is set to be displayed here – where else?) You’ll find the Louvre on Saadiyat Island, the flagship arts destination that’s less than 10 minutes’ drive from downtown Abu Dhabi, so don’t even think of leaving without seeing it. Saadiyat is at the vanguard of an impressive transplantation of major cultural works to the region, and future additions will include the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. As well as being home to internationally renowned art, Saadiyat also has possibly the best beach in the UAE, at the Saadiyat Beach Club, complete with nesting hawksbill turtles.
Up your adrenaline levels on this fast-paced island – easily accessed by a 30-minute drive from the capital – where the twisting Yas Marina Circuit hosts the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Your day trip options include the world’s only Ferrari-based theme park (Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, home to the fastest rollercoaster on the planet), and Yas Waterworld, a waterpark so over the top, it puts others to shame. Meanwhile, golf starchitect Kyle Phillips has created the Yas Links Abu Dhabi course, and super-yachts and fine-dining restaurants cluster at the glamorous Yas Marina. It’s the place to people-watch and get your bearings on the island at any time of day or night, and refreshment options range from a smoothie at the relaxed Boroughs (open from 5am, no less, Sunday to Thursday) to dinner at Abu Dhabi’s outpost of Cipriani.
The desert islands of the UAE might not be the first place you associate with nature tourism, and yet more than half of Sir Bani Yas comprises a unique, ethically sound and sustainable wildlife park. It’s a haven to more than 13,000 animals, with both indigenous and non-native species, including cheetahs, giraffes and one of the largest herds of the endangered Arabian oryx in the world. The 4×4 tours are safe for everyone from toddlers up. Other visitors’ day trips on the island include kayaking, paddle boarding, archery, falconry and horse riding. If you’ve a head for heights, travel there on the island’s seaplane, which takes just 55 minutes from Yas Island.
One of Abu Dhabi’s oldest settlements is the pearl-diving hub of Dalma Island, which has been inhabited for more than 7,000 years and boasts a palpable sense of the past. The island is served by ferries from Jebel Dhanna, but it’s the pretty sight of its traditional dhow boats that you’ll want to snap for your Instagram feed. Not just a picturesque tourist destination, Dalma is surprisingly verdant thanks to its freshwater supply and so is home to many farmers.
You’ll need to find the right window of opportunity to take in the petite Belevari Island, as it only appears for five hours a day due to the tides. It’s best accessed by catamaran as dolphins dive alongside the boat, and once you’re there, set up camp at one of the many picnic spots. Don’t forget your flippers – there are some colourful snorkelling opportunities. Cruises leave from the InterContinental Abu Dhabi Marina.