Capital of the United Arab Emirates, the city sits on a T-shaped island jutting into the Arabian Gulf so offers seaside relaxation as well as desert charm
When Emirati men get together, they don’t take their dogs to a pub, instead they meet up under the setting sun with their falcons.
Falconry is an important part of Bedouin culture and keeping these prized members of the family in tip top condition is a priority.
That’s why at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital there are perches full of stunning birds with speckled chests and dappled wings. Few are injured, most attend for a check-up. Microchipped and ringed, they wait patiently in the leather hoods that keep them calm.
On a two-hour tour (www.falconhospital.com, £34), you get to watch closely as the vets trim beaks, clip talons and repair broken feathers with superglue. Look away as a peregrine or huge gyrfalcon munches on a frozen quail if you’re squeamish.
With their falcon passports, these birds of prey (mostly larger females) are so revered they don’t travel on Middle Eastern airlines in cages, they get their own seat!
Abu Dhabi once thrived on pearl diving but since 1958 its oil and gas reserves have created immense wealth. Dubbed the ‘Pirate Coast’ in the 19th century, the area became a British protectorate to prevent disruption of the trade route to India.
Today ruled by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, English is widely spoken and – incredibly – the three-pinned UK electrical plug is still used so no need for travel adaptors. Enjoy pristine beaches, stylish hotels, good food and blazing all-year sun.
A cool and tranquil oasis in the heat is the majestic marble Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (www.szgmc.ae). Here there’s room for 40,000 worshippers and it’s exquisitely decorated with floral inlaid designs and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet.
Book a free guided tour, take a large head scarf and dress in dark loose-fitting clothes. You’ll be loaned an abaya (long robe) to wear if you haven’t quite got it right.
The best view of Abu Dhabi, which means ‘Father of the gazelle’, is from the Observation Deck At 300 on the 74th floor of the Jumeirah At Etihad Towers hotel (www.jumeirah.com, £17).
The city is growing fast and the skyline rapidly changing with new curved and angle-tipped towers shooting up like a quirky Manhattan.
Enjoy High Tea as you take in the 360-degree panorama or head back down for the luxury buffet, £41, at the beachside Rosewater restaurant and select whatever your heart desires. I sipped a refreshing lemon and mint drink with my king prawn platter. Tourism by-law allows hotels to serve alcohol but being drunk in public is illegal.
A must-see for total opulence is the cavernous Emirates Palace hotel, where the penthouse floor is reserved exclusively for royalty. The gold décor is set off with a thousand Swarovski crystal chandeliers.
I dined at Mezlai where the menu features Arabian favourites such as camel meat burger but opted for the local Harmour fish, £31, and rocket salad dressed with honey and pomegranate vinegar.
For a coastal view of Abu Dhabi, don a life jacket at the Emirates Palace Marina and take a speedboat tour with The Yellow Boats, from £41 (www.theyellowboats.com/abu-dhabi). The UAE is home to over 200 nationalities so you’ll bump into many expats: my skipper was Daniel from the Seychelles.
We passed a floating Asian fishing village, the anchored flotilla loaded with huge clusters of mesh nets, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see hump-backed dolphins and sea turtles.
Back on dry land, Abu Dhabi residents love their Lamborghini and Ferrari cars but local men also pedal around on bicycles in traditional dishdasha long tunic and red checked ghutra headdress.
Public transport is efficient (visitabudhabi.ae/en/travel/around.the.emirate/buses.aspx) and the shuttle bus to the airport is AED 4 (82p).
Don’t leave without experiencing a Desert Safari with Arabian Adventures, from £65 (www.arabian-adventures.com). At a Bedouin-style camp in the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter), ride a camel, get a henna tattoo and eat under the dazzling night sky. En route your driver takes you ‘dune bashing’ in a 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser. It’s okay to scream as you slither up and down the massive dunes – everyone does, even the guys.
How to go and where to stay
Pegasus Airlines (www.flypgs.com/en) flies to Abu Dhabi from London Stansted via Istanbul three times a week, from £118 one way.
The Southern Sun Abu Dhabi hotel, costs from £60 a night (www.tsogosun.com/southern-sun-abu-dhabi) and for amazing sushi, steak and cocktails, is home to the Blu Sky Lounge & Grill and the Balcon night-time terrace bar.
Great for food lovers
Lunch at an Al Fanar Restaurant & Café to experience ‘Abu Dhabi in the 1960s’ and sample the Luquaimat dessert of crunchy fried dumplings with date syrup (www.alfanarrestaurant.com).
Great for fun loving families
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi on Yas Island (ferrariworldabudhabi.com) is a theme park with the world’s fastest rollercoaster – the Formula Rossa, which hits 240kmph in 4.9 seconds. The Flying Aces also has the tallest loop. Eeek!
Great for spirited adventurers
Try kayaking with Sea Hawk Water Sports (www.sea-hawk.ae). An experienced guide takes you paddling through protected mangroves, where shrimps and seabirds breed, and there’s a beach swimming stop.