Emirates - encounter Abu Dhabi’s infinite deserts and glittering palaces

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where pools of water outside reflect illluminated columns after nightfall. Picture: Patrick McPartlin
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, where pools of water outside reflect illluminated columns after nightfall. Picture: Patrick McPartlin
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Scotland on Sunday travel

Most of the time, when I’ve stepped off a plane in a country I’ve never visited before, there has still been a hint of déjà vu. Portugal, for example, was redolent of Spain; Sweden reminded me a bit of Finland; Taiwan wasn’t too dissimilar to parts of Malaysia. But for me the United Arab Emirates, and the Middle East, is uncharted territory.

Courtyard palms and fountains at Abu Dhabi's Rixos Saadiyat Island. Picture: Contributed

Courtyard palms and fountains at Abu Dhabi's Rixos Saadiyat Island. Picture: Contributed

I’ve seen pictures of Dubai, heard stories from friends who have moved there and, judging by social media during the off-season, it’s the preferred choice of many of the world’s footballers.

But I don’t really know what to expect, when we land at 7am on a Monday morning in Abu Dhabi.

Despite the relatively early hour, it’s already stifling outside, and as we’re whisked away from the airport, I get my first real glimpse of the Emirates. There’s a haze lingering but it’s still clear enough to see plenty out of the windows. I have to keep reminding myself that the country is less than 50 years old.

We drive past Yas Marina and the motor-racing circuit. I crane my neck hoping for a glimpse of several huge trucks, or any sign of the previous few days’ entertainment, but the Formula One roadshow has left town.

A desert trek is a chance to explore the mountainous dunes and see camels roaming and grazing in the heat. Picture: Patrick McPartlin

A desert trek is a chance to explore the mountainous dunes and see camels roaming and grazing in the heat. Picture: Patrick McPartlin

The glitz and glamour, however, hasn’t.

We pull into a grand driveway, stopping in front of an ornate fountain in the middle of a forecourt. The Rixos Saadiyat Island resort is one of many hotels situated on the ongoing island development which aims to become Abu Dhabi’s cultural centre.

The island is less than 11 square miles, yet on completion it will have as many as eight museums, several theatres, schools and residential properties.

Walking through the front door, we enter a cavernous lobby with lotus flower-filled fountains, ornate chairs and glistering chandeliers. I suddenly feel extremely self-conscious of my “I’ve-been-travelling-overnight-for-seven-hours” look.

Abu Dhabi's Rixos Saadiyat Island resort, which has its own beach on the Persian Gulf. Picture: Contributed

Abu Dhabi's Rixos Saadiyat Island resort, which has its own beach on the Persian Gulf. Picture: Contributed

The surroundings are breathtaking, but all I really want is a shower and a couple more hours of sleep. Thankfully, we’re shown to our rooms with a view to meeting for lunch in around five hours. I’m asleep in minutes; the shower can wait.

After a relaxed lunch in the resort’s Turquoise restaurant, we get the grand tour. There are six on-site restaurants including Japanese, Turkish and seafood, a dedicated children’s club and several sports facilities including tennis courts, swimming pools and a gym.

The resort also has its own beach on the Persian Gulf, a generously-sized ballroom and a spa. The hotel bills itself as “the first all-inclusive, all-exclusive luxury resort in Abu Dhabi”. It’s an accurate slogan.

The following morning starts bright and early with a trip to the desert. We have around a 90-minute drive to reach our destination, and a chance to see more of Abu Dhabi on the way. We eventually turn off the main road and are in the midst of the desert. Huge dunes rise up on either side of a rough track with nothing but sand on the horizon. We disturb a camel lazing nearby, and after a haughty look at our jeep, it trots off ahead of the car. In the distance, more of the animals cast cursory glances at us as we continue our journey to the Arabian Nights Village.

We have a hearty breakfast before climbing a nearby dune, because it’s not every day you’re in the middle of the desert. It’s a heck of a workout wading through the sand but worth it for the view at the top. Apart from a handful of fellow breakfasters at the Village and the odd reservoir or tree, the landscape is barren. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced and I’m reminded of pictures of the Mars landscape.

We make our way back down and get back into the jeep for our next experience – dune bashing. I’ve seen videos of this, and I’m looking forward to it. We set off as normal, before veering off-road.

Our driver guns the engine and launches the 4x4 sharply upwards. Sand flies past the window as the car scrambles its way to the top of a lofty dune and we crest the top and glide down the other side to the bottom. We repeat this several times, seemingly defying gravity as the jeep leans almost sideways to scale some of the more mountainous dunes. At the top of one long, flat dune, we get out to take in a view across the desert. The Village has vanished behind another dune, and all we can see are pockets of camels dotted about here and there. It’s a sight like no other, and plenty of pictures are snapped in the searing heat.

On our way back to the camp, we encounter a small farm of sorts with numerous camels roaming nearby. We go and make a fuss of a cute calf before it’s time to head back to Abu Dhabi and try out the restaurant’s Japanese restaurant, Aja. The two chefs treat us to a teppanyaki display, with vegetables, fish, meat, rice and more all prepared in front of us on an open grill.

The following day, we visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a vast building measuring 260,000 sq ft and representing an agreement between the French and Emirati governments. Containing a mix of Middle Eastern art and works from numerous French museums – including the Louvre itself, the Musée d’Orsay and the Palace of Versailles – the museum was inaugurated less than two years ago. Situated in Abu Dhabi’s cultural district, it will soon be joined by the Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, slated to be the largest Guggenheim in the world. A number of arts pavilions, a maritime museum and a performing arts centre have also been planned for the area.

Wandering through the Louvre we come across works by Ai Weiwei, Manet, Whistler and Mondrian, among others. Equally impressive is the building’s metallic ceiling, structured in a style reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower and allowing the sun to reflect light into the museum. It’s a stunning space, but with a trip to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque next on the itinerary, we can’t afford to linger.

We stop outside the mosque as dusk approaches, and already people are beginning to arrive for Salat al-maghrib – Muslim prayers just after sunset.

We’re given a short tour and background information on the mosque before having a chance to experience the adhan, or call to prayer. For someone from a different religious background like myself, it’s fascinating to experience.

The mosque itself is a stunning structure, with pools of water along the outside which reflect the illuminated columns after nightfall – designed to emulate the phases of the moon.

Our group takes several pictures as we attempt to capture the mosque in all its glory, with the early evening darkness complementing the white marble. It really is a stunning setting, and a fine way to round off our trip.

There’s been a lot to take in over three short days – more than I can recall for any other destination. It’s been very different to a week in the south of France, a few days in Germany or a transatlantic trip to the United States.

I’ve learnt a lot and there have been several new experiences, but as we fly out of Abu Dhabi and over the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what the Middle East has to offer.

FACTFILE

Flights from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways start at £273. Rooms at the Rixos Saadiyat Island resort, based on one couple sharing, start at 952 AED (around £199) which includes food and drink.