You know you're in Abu Dhabi when the heavy, horn-tooting traffic gives way to wide, tree-lined roads with views of the sea, and sharp-looking high-rises don't grudge cushy villas their space in the sun.
Those blinded by the blingy charms of Dubai (and frankly a little fed up of their unceasing self obsession, will find comfort in the UAE capital only a 50-minute ride away. Abu Dhabi is the city for every kind of holidaymaker - beach bum, art enthusiast, history buff, adventure freak, music lover, even shopaholics (especially those who don't like traffic jams in their trial room and cash counter queues to extend for miles).
Abu Dhabi, despite its largish expatriate population, gives a truer sense of UAE culture. Its charms are less commercial, its sights more authentic and its people famously helpful and hospitable.
The jewel in the capital's crown, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (yes, the same one where Rihanna got pulled-up, and justifiably so, for bad behaviour) is an architectural marvel - it's one of the largest in the world but a thing of such beauty, poise and positivity that it's worth multiple visits, by both day and night.
There's a Heritage Village to showcase the traditional way for life. But the art scene, too, is flourishing. The drive to give local and expat artists a platform has resulted in a mushrooming of galleries, museums and street-art spaces at a speed only the UAE is capable of. Installation artists are regularly commissioned to do public works so there's a chance to see Japanese artist Tadashi Kawamata's dome-like stacked chairs and South Korea's Jukhee Kwon's piece, in which pages flow down like a fountain. The UAE's first artist community, Art Hub started in the Musaffah area, and The Louvre is slated to open next year.
THE RIGHT SOUNDS
Calvin Harris, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Muse, Tom Jones, Metallica, Yo Yo Honey Singh, Guns N' Roses, Depeche Mode… just a few of the performers who visited Abu Dhabi's du Arena in 2013.
The Rolling Stones, Justin Timberlake, Black Sabbath, Bill Fontana, Renée Fleming and Atif Aslam are confirmed for 2014. Need more proof that Abu Dhabi loves music? Try an arena that seats 50,000 with state-of-the-art sound and light and superlative security. And no Dhoble-dictated deadlines!
BY THE SEA
has some of the best beaches in the country, and unlike the very few, very public ones in Dubai, the capital's layout means that the shore is never more than a few minutes' drive away. Perhaps what's best about the beach experience here is that there's something to suit every taste and budget. Fancy a pristine shore with views of nesting hawksbill turtles? Head to the new beach on Saadiyat Island. Dolphin fan? Spot them at Al Bateen beach. Hate how water sports ruin your view of the horizon? Visit the non-motorised Yas beach. Private beach party? There's no official dress code, but keep your beachwear for the beach, or you'll offend the locals.
Abu Dhabi is where you can plan day trips to Ferrari World (the world's largest indoor amusement park) and Yas Water World on Yas Island, a 20-minute drive from the city centre. It's where you can drive a real Ferrari on a Grand Prix circuit, enjoy adrenaline-pumping rides even while any children you may bring along are being entertained in monitored zones. Animal lovers can spend a whole day, even two, at the Al Ain Zoo, two hours from the main city. The 400-hectare space has almost 200 animal and bird species and is considered one of the most well-maintained zoos in the world.
Abu Dhabi is less like the Blade Runner set and more like a real Middle Eastern city. There's none of that keeping-up-with-the-Jonses nonsense of Dubai. Don't just stop over, stay!
From HT Brunch, March 23
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