Travel Guide to Dubai and Abu Dhabi
Liz Gill visits two ancient cities and finds an ultra modern world. She shares her best tips what to see and do in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
By Liz Gill on 19 October 2012 in Travel Articles
There's a water ride in the Atlantis Resort in Dubai called The Leap of Faith and I think I know why it got that name. Because although you can view it from below, by the time you appreciate what it's actually going to entail it's too late to turn back. But I'm going to do it. There's no queue so I don't have time to dither. I sit down, lean back, cross my arms and ease myself over the edge into a near vertical 90 ft drop.
The whole thing is over in a few seconds rush of adrenalin, terror and a fleeting concern that it might end in a heart attack. At the bottom of the slide I hit the water with such force that I am shot along a tube that passes through the shark tank and with mouth open and eyes shut – the wrong combination of course – flung out into the landing pool. I clamber out, disproportionately proud of myself. When I hear later that two strapping young men have chickened out I allow a small smile to play around my lips.
Always nervous of roller coasters I didn't think the world's fastest would be a good way to overcome those fears. Braver companions clambered off, gasping for words to express the thrill of accelerating 170 ft into the sky at 150 mph in less than five seconds. For me though the evening's gentle cruise along the coast in an old style wooden dhow was excitement enough.
There are traditional sights in both cities as well as museums and galleries explaining their history and ancient ways. Abu Dhabi, for example, has the Heritage Village, a recreation of an oasis settlement with campfires and goat's hair tents and workshops where you can have a go at hand loom weaving or turning a potter's wheel.
Dubai has an old fort and the Bastakiya district alongside the Creek where there's The Centre for Cultural Understanding and old style houses with their internal courtyards and wind towers. It also has a souk with alleyways crammed with little shops offering pashminas, leather goods, embroidered shoes and gold jewellery.
All this is pretty small scale though compared to most other countries in the Middle East. The real fascination here is the interface between the ancient and the ultra modern.
A brilliant example is the Falcon Hospital in Abu Dhabi which harnesses state-of-the-art surgery and other procedures to an activity which dates back hundreds of years.
Where Europeans hunted for sport, the nomads of the Arabian peninsula hunted for survival, their falcons bringing down rabbits, birds three times their size, even gazelles. In the old days they would catch and train one each autumn and release it in spring before the heat of summer.
The capture of wild falcons is forbidden in the United Arab Emirates these days as is hunting itself but falconry remains a passion. Birds are bred in captivity and travel on special hunting expeditions to places like Uzbekistan. Each has its own passport and can even travel on the wrist of its owner inside the cabin of an Etihad plane.
I've learned all this – and much else besides – on a fascinating tour of the hospital. It sees 6,500 birds a year for illness or injury or for preventive measures like health checks and claw clipping. We've watched them be anaesthetised and while they're asleep been shown their wing span, inside their beaks, even peeked at their normally hidden ears. We've seen a live video of an exploration of a bird's lung and looked closely at the selection of the little hoods they wear to keep them calm, each one an exquisitely crafted avian fashion statement. Mostly magically we've been able to hold and touch them.
Another combination of old and new was our evening trip out into the desert from Dubai. Sitting cross-legged on cushions and carpets we watched a belly dancer and then a performance by a man who whirled and spun, dervish like, twirling layer after layer of skirts and scarves in an astonishing virtuoso display.
There was star gazing and camel rides, sheesha pipes and henna hand-painting, all making us feel a long way from the 21st century. We'd got there, however, courtesy of a massive Toyota Landcruiser which took us on a thrilling ride up and down and along the edge of some serious Lawrence of Arabia style red sand dunes.
It was, of course, the discovery of oil beneath all that sand that transformed Abu Dhabi and Dubai from sleepy settlements into global cities with the space and cash to build and buy whatever they fancied.
On a secular level it already has the Yas Marina Circuit which will host a Formula 1 race in November and which offers various high speed experiences either as a driver or a passenger all year round and Ferrari World, another record breaker in terms of size. At over 2million sq. ft. it's the largest indoor amusement park in the world.
I might have bottled the white knuckle experiences but I managed – and enjoyed - three virtual ones: Driving With The Champion where you feel to be in the car; Speed of Magic where you whiz through a fantasy world and Viaggio in Italia where you're hoisted into the air to look down on a screen and feel the sensation of flying over the famous Mille Miglia route.
Less than an hour away in Dubai there are thrills of a different kind but all linked by the theme of water. We're staying at Atlantis, The Palm, at the apex of the famous man-made island, which is not only surrounded by the Arabian Sea but which has its own lagoons, aquarium and Aquaventure waterpark where earlier I've done my Leap of Faith.
Now I'm about to have a shark encounter courtesy of a new device which allows non-divers to walk under water. It's rather like having a goldfish bowl on your head. Air is pumped in from the canister on your back, you breathe normally, look out the front and make sure you stay upright.
There's an instructor on hand for the full 20 minutes and it's all rather wonderful. The black tipped reef sharks aren't doing much – they appear to be snoozing in a corner – but there are plenty of other fish to enchant.
After that I go into another pool to feed rays who certainly aren't snoozing but thrashing around up close and personal in a feeding frenzy the moment I hesitantly offer them a shrimp.
On another afternoon I have a close encounter with a dolphin which I'm able to touch, hold, hug and even kiss. It's fun, informative and exhilarating and the dolphin certainly seems to be having a good time as she rolls and pirouettes and leaps from the water in what genuinely seems to be sheer exuberance.
Back in the hotel we dine in a restaurant which has the aquarium as its fourth wall, watching mesmerised some of the 65,000 marine creatures make their way past our table where, needless to say, we haven't gone for the fish option.
How to get there and where to stay
Hotels in United Arab Emirates, and in particular Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are famous for being of high quality and exceptional service levels. Most people visiting the region treat themselves to a few nights of luxury. Nevertheless, there are numerous budget alternatives too.
You can fly to either Dubai or Abu Dhabi direct from many worldwide airports. Another two alternative international airports are Sharjah (less than an hour from Dubai) and Al Ain (about two hours from either Dubai or Abu Dhabi). Use the following search tool to find flights to United Arab Emirates from your local airport:
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