How to make the most of a stopover in Abu Dhabi

 

 

How to make the most of a stopover in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is an increasingly popular transit hub, especially with those flying further afield with Etihad or connecting to a Virgin Australia flight. While neighbour Dubai is often seen as a destination in its own right, Abu Dhabi is generally more of a blank slate. This is changing – it has opened a series of eye-catching attractions, such as the Ferrari World theme park, and more are on their way. Branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim should open in the next couple of years.

But whether it’s worth stopping in for a few days or not depends on what you’re wanting, and the following should be borne in mind.

There is no real centre

Abu Dhabi is a series of fairly disjointed clusters. Yas Island has a lot of the fun stuff – the Grand Prix circuit (which can be cycled around on Tuesday nights), Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld. But it is a fair old distance from the nominal downtown area. Saadiyat Island is the up-and-comer, where the big museums are going to go, but at the moment it’s a slightly lifeless work in progress.

The main area, on the main island, is sprawling. And although much of it is walkable, few people do walk around, meaning there’s a notable lack of street life. The city’s energy tends to be confined to hubs – mainly the hotels and malls, rather than spilling out all over the place. You kinda have to know where you want to do – serendipitous finds while ambling around are rare.

 

 

The hotel bargains are in the mid-range options

Abu Dhabi can be a phenomenally expensive place to stay at the top end, and a thoroughly depressing one at the budget end. There is, however, some excellent bang for buck in the middle of the range. £70 to £120-ish a night can get you a big resort, usually with an excellent beach club, several restaurants and a couple of sizable pools. The likes of the Hilton, Beach Rotana and Le Meridien fall into this category – they’re older than most, and the rooms aren’t flashy, but they’re good value for money. If all you’re wanting is a couple of days’ relaxation, Abu Dhabi can work fabulously well as a flop destination.

Leave the hotel, and it gets cheaper

Eating in the hotels can get very expensive – many of them treat guests as a milkable captive audience, with basic mains creeping around the £15 to £20 bracket. That tends to apply at lunch as well as dinner. For cheap eats, you need to venture further afield – either to the malls or the drab-looking Lebanese/ Indian/ Pakistani restaurants that can be found all over the place. Mercifully, taxis are so cheap they’re near-as-damn-it free.

Drink is very expensive

You can get alcoholic drinks very easily (although only in hotels), but expect to pay through the nose for them. We’re talking £9 a glass of wine, and £7 or £8 for a beer, and that’s at the bare minimum. This is why most expats have an encyclopaedic knowledge of when the happy hours are. It’s a good idea to take advantage of said happy hours.

Alternatively, just stock up in duty free on the way over. There’s a remarkably generous four litres per person limit.

You probably need to book ahead

There is a lot to do in Abu Dhabi, but a lot of it needs pre-booking. You can easily fill up days doing mangrove kayaking, dune buggying tours, water parks and daytrips to oasis towns (amongst others) but opportunities for spontaneous walk-in fun are relatively thin on the ground. Either go purely to relax, or plot ahead to explore properly.  


 

Camels

 
David Whitley heads to Dubai’s camel racetrack, and discovers the Emirati bond with the dromedary darlings is hard to shake

Dawn breaks over Al Lisaili and two distinctive shapes appear on the horizon, trotting with a comic lack of grace. Camels don’t do elegant well. Watch one chewing hay and it looks like a gurning simpleton, its jaw of gunk-coated teeth shuttling back and forward like a weaver’s loom.

They may be comic creations, but don’t tell the cashed-up citizens of Dubai that. There’s a curious bond to the camel in the UAE. It’s not just a relationship between man and beast in the same way that you might find with a dog or a horse – it’s a relationship between modern Dubai man and his heritage.

For all the bling and globe-driving ambition of 21st century Dubai, Emiratis seem very keen on grabbing at their Bedouin roots whenever practical. That often takes the form of bombing around the desert dunes in buggies, but it’s most clearly seen at the camel race track.

The Al Lisaili track is a giant, modern affair where the lights are kept on all night, and the circuit stretches for indeterminable kilometres in the distance. Nothing but the best for those who race on it.

Qaser, who has driven me here before daybreak, says he doesn’t come to watch the races any more. Not since they moved the track from near the city to out on the Al Ain Road. It’s too far away now. You can’t just drop by.

It’s an indication that camel racing is no longer a sport of the masses. But the prizes are substantial for those rich enough to own camels and pay people to train them every day.

From the trackside grass, the camels come past sporadically. Some are tied together and jogging under the guidance of a cameleer who has the herd under control while riding just one. Others are being ridden at a faster pace with adult jockeys.

The real speed comes from the ones that aren’t being ridden at all, however. Well, not by humans anyway. Amid international outcry in the last decade, Dubai phased out the child jockeys that can still be seen racing camels in other parts of the Middle East. Kids from India and Africa, not yet in their teens, were once brought in to ride the camels. They’d often suffer terrible injuries after falls, then be sent back to their home country crippled with no future prospects.

Now the jockeys are even smaller – they’re robots. This leads to the bizarre sight of the camels being followed around the track by Toyota Landcruisers, the owners or trainers inside them brandishing remote controls.

The robots are fairly basic, but they have little plastic sticks – think a larger version of the one you might find in a hedge-strimmer – that can be used as a miniature whip. A flick on the remote control gives the camel a little gee-up.

As the sun comes up even further, more and more camels arrive at the track. We start asking whether there are going to be any races today, but the men leading their beasts are remarkably reticent to reveal any information.

Qaser thinks he knows why. “They’re scared of the media,” he says. “They could get in trouble if they give anything away.” We only want to know what the best day to catch a race is – Friday is the eventual, reluctant answer – but the fear of spies and unwanted revelations about a particular camel’s form seems intense.

For us, the scores of humped lumberers chased by 4WD vehicles is funny. For those who have invested in them, it’s deadly serious.


Oman driving

 

David Whitley encounters economical road signs and jaw-dropping landscapes – but not the restaurant he was seeking.

 

A telling insight into how a car rental adventure is going to progress can usually be gauged from the first uttering of the time-honoured phrase: “This is bloody ridiculous.”

 

In our case, it was within about seven minutes of leaving the airport. After a series of bewildering junctions, we were on a near-deserted dual carriageway, not entirely sure which direction we were headed in and steadily coming to the conclusion that the next exit was a long, long way away.

 

“This is bloody ridiculous,” came the cry from the exasperated driver. It was not destined to be a one-off, although the adjectives did get somewhat stronger. Driving in Oman is simultaneously necessary, awe-inspiring and thoroughly frustrating. It’s one of the least pedestrian-friendly countries in the world, and tours tend to be tailor made for individuals and couples rather than operated at a set price per person. In other words, they’re prohibitively expensive.

 

Car rental, meanwhile, is surprisingly cheap and petrol is virtually free by British standards. Hiring a car is the only sane way to get around, and it is often hugely rewarding. Our first day’s adventure was a day trip to Nizwa to have a look at a big fort and maybe cram in a side trip to a mountain village or two. The road up there is just incredible. The mountains almost back on to the coast, and as you head inland, you start to climb round the back of them. These are no namby-pamby, prettified mountains either – they’re big, ugly, forbidding beasts that make you want to shrink into a ball and apologise for disturbing them. They jag, they crag and any vegetation attempting to grow on the side of them generally isn’t going to be around too long. It’s a harsh, dazzling, alien landscape that’s worth travelling through even if you don’t get out of the car and see anything.

 

Unfortunately, sign-posting is somewhat, erm, economical. It’s as though every place is allowed just one signpost and they have to make a choice where to put it. And that somewhere is either right on top of the hitherto unannounced turn-off or at least three junctions beforehand, from whereon the trail ends. The road maps aren’t exactly brimming with detail and illumination either, while the anglicised spelling of place names is about as consistent as the end product of severe dysentery.

 

But driving 20km in the wrong direction in the mistaken belief you’re heading towards a pretty village is a doddle compared to driving in the Omani capital, Muscat. Muscat itself is little more than the royal palace and a few official buildings surrounding it. But Greater Muscat stretches for 50km along the coast, essentially a collection of small towns bound together with the same loose knot. Connecting them is, theoretically, one giant thoroughfare – Sultan Qaboos Street. This is a modernistic engineering marvel – the multiple lanes contort around the mountains, fly over roundabouts, and peel off like soft branches onto other trunk roads and octopus-like roundabouts. In a bid to keep traffic moving, there are hardly any lights, and dual carriageways leaf off effortlessly onto other dual carriageways.

 

It sounds like a dream. But woe betide anyone who doesn’t know exactly where they’re going. A new dual carriageway is built seemingly every fifteen minutes in Muscat, and they all look more or less identical. Find yourself in the wrong lane, and before you know it, you’re off the road you wanted to be on, onto another you can’t get off for three kilometres and completely bewildered. It’s an amazing system for traffic flow, but the problem comes when you don’t want to be a part of said flow any more. You’re on a system of automated conveyor belts that you just can’t get off.

 

After around six hours plus on the road to Nizwa and surrounds, we felt like having something nice for tea. Mumtaz Mahal had been recommended by numerous sources as the best Indian restaurant in Muscat and, looking at the map, it should be fairly easy to find. It’s on a prominent hill, in a park, flanked by Sultan Qaboos Street, about 15 minutes away from our hotel.

 

And indeed it was easy to find. We drove past it four or five times in the hour-and-a-half we spent trying to reach it. It turns out that the areas of Greater Muscat aren’t really connected by anything other than these major roads, and you have to know the exact exit you want to be able to get to anywhere specific. Then you have to find your way to the one side road that leads out of the dual carriageway matrix, detour around random police blockades and navigate through a series of dead end streets that have no names.

 

The whole experience is, I imagine, akin to being strapped to a sledge and fired around the Large Hadron Collider. You just want to stop, pull over and try and get your bearings, but you can’t because everything’s moving too fast and if you slow down you’ll probably die in a horrible accident.

 

Eventually, as hunger pangs became mighty booms, we gave up on Mumtaz Mahal (as we did on the second night after going through much the same rigmarole). We dived into a shopping mall, given that we could actually find the exit for it, and ate at a nice but soulless Lebanese restaurant.

On the way back to the hotel, we made a key discovery. Said Lebanese restaurant is part of a chain. Another branch is just two blocks away from our hotel. This, naturally, is bloody ridiculous.


On the way back to the hotel, we made a key discovery. Said Lebanese restaurant is part of a chain. Another branch is just two blocks away from our hotel. This, naturally, is bloody ridiculous.

 

 

 

 

By David Whitley

 

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