As you fly into Abu Dhabi, the Emirate appears like a mirage amid the desert and the Arabian peninsula’s turquoise waters. Bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, Abu Dhabi is the capital, the largest and most profitable of the seven Emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates.
Abu Dhabi is a mecca of modern architecture dotted by timeless classics. While few travelers might visit Abu Dhabi as a stand-alone destination, if traveling to Africa or the Indian subcontinent, it makes a great three-day stopover appealing to art lovers, adrenaline junkies and foodies.
The Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal is an opulent, arc-shapped hotel facing a private beach set on 57-acres of manicured grounds. It’s framed by head-on views of the imposing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque both day and night, when it’s beautifully lit with purple lights.
Public areas of the hotel are adorned with stunning white marble and enormous chandeliers. Large guest rooms have sumptuous pillow-top bedding with 300-count sheets. Illy espresso makers provide a great day’s start and the marble bathroom’s deep soaking tubs provide a perfect end. The hotel’s sprawling pool, state-of-the-art gym and several dining options make it a terrific base to explore the Emirate. www.RitzCarlton.com
At the Four Seasons Abu Dhabi at Maryah Island, the designers of its signature Butcher & Still Restaurant have successfully channeled Al Capone and Chicago of the 1920s. The restaurant’s moniker captured Capone’s nickname and coupled it with the diminutive for a distillery. Here the finest cuts of imported beef are exquisitely prepared by Chef Marshall Roth and his team, assuring that every red-blooded carnivore will swoon with delight. I devoured a perfectly cooked, mouthwatering tomahawk ribeye steak that barely needed a knife and the warm cherry pie a la mode was utterly divine. In keeping with the theme, the bar has a free-standing custom martini shaker and there are dozens of bullets embedded in the restroom’s ceramic tiles. For a special event, there is a private speakeasy downstairs with gun barrels hanging from the crystal chandelier. Fur coats and jewelry stashed in hidden closets can be worn while dining or sipping a plethora of rare wines and spirits. www.fourseasons.com
At the expansive, eye-popping Emirates Palace Hotel with its sea of marble and domed-ceiling covered in nearly 13,000 square feet of 24-carat gold leaf, those seeking to indulge in devouring gold instead of wearing it can have a $20 cappuccino sprinkled with gold flakes. Diehard carnivores can try a camel meat burger served on a gold-dotted bun. www.emiratespalace.ae
For tasty Emirati fare enjoyed under the stars facing the canal, the Ritz Carlton’s Mijana Restaurant boasts a great selection of traditional Arab mezze plates and perfectly spiced grilled dishes. End the meal with a fine platter of pistachio-encrusted baklava. www.RitzCarlton.com
Opened in November 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, located on nearby Saadiyat island, is an architectural marvel designed by Pritzker prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel. The immense exterior dome, inspired by Arabic geometric designs, has nearly 8,000 openings and creates a marvelous sunlight show as the structure is entered. Arabian Gulf waters border the structure and the outdoor seating area provides another mirage-like sensation. The 2019 season commenced with an exhibition featuring works by Rembrandt and Vermeer. www.louvreabudhabi.ae
The coral and sea stone fort and watchtower at Qasr Al Hosn was built in the 1700s to defend the region’s freshwater source. It’s the oldest standing structure in Abu Dhabi and was the tallest one until the late 1960s. Now it’s juxtaposed against a modern city skyline. The adjoining cultural spaces contain informative galleries reflecting the Emirates’ swift shift from traditional Bedouin life and pearl economy to financial power house upon oil’s game-changing discovery. www.qasralhosn.ae
Attracting several million visitors a year, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the UAE’s largest and most ornate house of worship. Its main dome is the world’s largest and its 1,096 arcade columns are beautifully inlaid with millions of semi-precious stones. The central German-made chandelier, in the shape of inverted date palm, is the world’s largest, containing 40 million Austrian Swarovski crystals and weighing 12 tons. Worshippers kneel on the world’s largest Persian carpet measuring over 60,000 square feet and weighing 47 tons. To give a sense of scale, the Grand Mosque is the size of five football fields that can hold well over 40,000 worshippers. www.szgmc.gov.ae
Adrenalin seekers can enjoy many activities dedicated to high speed and thrills. Amateur drivers with a bit of training can try their hand on the same racetrack that hosts the Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina. www.yasisland.ae
On Yas Island’s massive Ferrari World, those preferring not to drive can instead take a spin on Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster. If you can stomach it, this coaster speeds at a dizzying 150 mph in just under five seconds. Water lovers can cool off at the enormous Yas Waterworld Water Park. www.ferrariworldabudhabi.com
The world-renowned Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is a fantastic way for visitors to learn about these magnificent birds’ long history as traditional hunting partners. At this state-of-the-art facility that includes an intensive care unit, emergency room and operating theaters, all manner of ornithological care and surgeries are performed, including stem cell transfers. These mighty falcons, many costing north of $200,000, are revered, if not royally treated. The grounds also include the finest animal shelter for domestic pets I’ve seen anywhere in the world. www.falconhospital.com
The lessons learned
Following the discovery of oil and the enormous bestowed wealth which followed, the desert sands of Abu Dhabi and the lives of the Emiratis have been forever altered. Spending a few days here en route to Africa or India will be a memorable interlude filled with fine food, fine art and fun activities for nearly every taste.
Abu Dhabi: The best way
Summer temperatures hover around 115 degrees with 90 percent humidity, so it’s best to travel in the more comfortable winter months when the mercury averages in the high 70s. Visitors, especially women, should respect the local, conservative dress code. U.S. passport holders enter visa free. From SFO, Emirates flies nonstop daily to Dubai, a one-hour drive from Abu Dhabi. www.Emirates.com
Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
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