United Arab Emirates
- Abu Dhabi
- 9.4 million
- UAE dirham
The United Arab Emirates is flourishing on the back of its hefty oil reserves, but few travellers bother to branch out past either of its two major stopover hubs, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. For what it’s worth, either of these cities provides quite the contrast to the normal Asian layovers encountered on a flight from anywhere in Australia or New Zealand to Europe, so those who find themselves on long-haul flights a lot should give their air travel a new route.
Dubai is a glittering mirage of skyscrapers, shopping malls and ‘they did what?’ attractions. After all, why not build a series of islands in the shape of the world (many still undeveloped) or an indoor ski resort in the middle of the desert? But there’s plenty to see here, even if you’re not into gross displays of ostentation. Head to Al Dhiyafah Road, where you can eat with the locals (who are mostly from other parts of the world) at cheap and cheerful Lebanese, Iranian and Indian restaurants. Grab a curry or a grill, plant yourself at a footpath table and do some people watching. Be dazzled and test your bartering skills at the Gold Souk, or head to the Bastakia Quarter, one of the few parts of the city that hasn’t been bulldozed on the road to modernity. There’s a textile souk here, as well as galleries and cafes in traditional buildings.
If your tastes run to camel rides on the beach or dune bashing in the desert, you can get in on some of that action, too.
In Abu Dhabi, make the Corniche your first stop. This eight-kilometre stretch of beachfront real estate goes from Emirates Palace to Mina Port, and is a microcosm of life here. People cycle or promenade along its length before taking well-earned breaks at one of the many cafes on the way.
The city has many of the same characteristics of Dubai, 150 kilometres to the northeast, but is perhaps not as overwhelming. You can take in a 360-degree view – complete with high tea – from 300 metres up at at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers’ observation deck, visit a falcon hospital, check in to a room that resembles a space pod at Yas Hotel, check out some uber horsepower at Ferrari World, marvel at the sheer beauty of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, or gawp at the futuristic architecture and amazing artwork at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Get away from the city with a trip to Ras Al-Khaimah. Located on the ocean but boasting the rugged Hajar Mountains as a backdrop, you can get a full dose of outdoor adventure here, including mountain biking, hiking, sailing, horse riding and fishing. It’s also the stepping-off point for those wanting to head to Oman’s remote Musandam Peninsula.