real life

Two hours in an airport is not a stopover. THIS is a stopover.

Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

It is with great shame I admit that I was a tad concerned that Abu Dhabi and I would not be compatible.

As an outspoken feminist who loves a wine or two, I believed I would find the culture confining and confronting.

What a silly woman I was. And what a fantastic experience I would have missed should my ignorance had held me back. Because discovering the United Arab Emirates has been one of the most exciting and eye-opening experiences of my travelling life.

The culture, the food, the environment, the architecture, the wildlife, the desert, the people, the climate… modern Arabia is intoxicating and exciting. And I could not have felt more welcome.

Having explored the magnificent metropolis that is Dubai last year and loving every second of it, I was keen to get to the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven states, and so contacted Creative Holidays to work an itinerary for me as a stopover on my way back from Europe.

An ATM made out of gold

As someone who loves to travel, I have to admit I am not a good flyer – at all. I get lagged and lethargic even looking at a plane and so, on a long haul, usually lose several precious days of holiday in a dozy daze. But the beauty is that the UAE is a stopover destination for many airlines, meaning Australians can have a second holiday destination for free by simply getting off the plane and having a break between flights. What resulted was a three-day escapade doing things I never imagined possible with my limited knowledge of the region – pearl diving, fishing, kayaking, swimming, snorkelling…. And, oh yes, shopping and eating. There was a lot of that.

Basically, the UAE caters to those to whom money is no object, so the hotels are out of this world glamorous and the restaurants superlative. Like New York City, you can literally eat whatever you want in the UAE. (OK, so pork products aren’t everywhere as an entirely separate kitchen must be built to handle them – but turkey bacon is a revelation!)

During my stay I managed to veer away – finally – from the incredible stuffed dates, vine leaves, fresh dips and other incredible Arab specialties to eat Moroccan, Japanese (best ever outside of Japan), Chinese, Indian and seafood to die for. Oh, and sweets. You have never seen Willy Wonka worthy dessert spreads like you do in Abu Dhabi’s hotels (the Emirates Palace and Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri are worth checking out for the dazzling spectacle of their sweet offerings alone).

Sweets!

Then again, spectacles are commonplace in Abu Dhabi. From the natural beauty of the vast, sandy dessert (explore it with Arabian Adventures, they have the best packages) to the flocks of wading pink flamingos in the labyrinth mangroves (stay at the exceptional Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara and the vast bird life is at your front door) and sparkling, inviting coastline waters.

Then there are the manmade wonders – the incredible skyscrapers that are more like giant sculptures than buildings and the mind-blowingly spectacular Grand Mosque (I don’t know what I love more – the intricate marble inlays or the incredible carpet the size of several football fields) and let’s not forget shopping malls the size of suburbs (just the thought of Marina Mall sends my heart rate soaring).

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The main city of Abu Dhabi is an island, which is connected to numerous other islands, some of which are wildlife reserves and others, like Yas, adult playgrounds – especially for rev heads. It is here you will find Ferrari World, the largest indoor amusement park (200,000 m2) featuring Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster. Yas Marina Circuit, which has hosted the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since 2009 and Yas Waterworld’s Surf’s up! Bubbles’ Barrel slide has the largest wave surf in the world.

Grand Prix circuit

For more up-market pursuits, head to Manarat Al Sierra Sadiyat, an entire district on Sadiyat Island devoted to culture and arts. Here, the world’s greatest architects are putting the finishing touches on Louvre and Guggenheim galleries, a Maritime Museum, Performing Arts Centre and Sheik Zayed Museum – all of which will be considered amongst the world’s finest.

It is on Sadiyat that the spectacular beachfront hotel, St Regis Saadiyat Island, is found which, amongst its many attributes, pours the best Bloody Mary I have ever savoured. Called the Arabian Snapper, it’s laced with local spices and has a delicious kick to it that incited me to me order a second). It’s a great base to either flop and enjoy the talc white sand and sparking azure water, or check out the spectacular wildlife, including dolphins, gazelles and turtles aplenty, or play golf, so clubbing, shopping, eating, golfing…

View from a room at Shangri-La Quaryat Al Beri

Of course, no trip to a place like Abu Dhabi should go without a relaxing spa treatment to take the edge of the flight there (hell, any excuse). And while all the hotels have incredible spas on offer, I believe my favourite might have to be the hammam (Arabian bath ritual) experience at the Talise Spa at the incredible Jumeriah at Etihad Towers hotel. Actually, the Etihad Towers shopping precinct could replace Marina Mall if I had lots of money – every high end boutique known to man is housed there and the sight of the sheiks’ wives loaded up with bags is a sight to behold.

And as for all those concerns about covering up or simply being female – forget about it. Pay respect to the culture by not wearing anything revealing and cover your head in a mosque and it’s all good. Respect the locals and they will respect you. It’s that simple.

And as for drinking alcohol, it’s fine in hotel and restaurant environments, as it is sitting back watching the sun go down behind the Great Mosque from my sunbed at the otherworldly Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri hotel. With a chilled wine in hand and (newly purchased) cossie damp from a refreshing dip (the private beach or the pool, never easy?), I take stock that this is not what I expected of Abu Dhabi. But oh what a joy it is to be proven wrong.

Creative Holidays has a dedicated stopover programme with a range of one, two, three or four night packages in Abu Dhabi. Spend 72 hours in Abu Dhabi priced from $449 per person, including three nights’ accommodation with breakfast daily and return airport transfers. Package also includes a Sundowner Safari, Ferrari World general entry ticket and an Abu Dhabi City Tour. For more information, visit www.creativeholidays.com or call 1300 301 711.

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