Forgive me for making a sweeping statement, but for guaranteed winter sun with a less than 8 hour direct flight from Manchester, don’t most people just press the Dubai default button? Of course, Dubai is great if you want a city that shouts at you 24 hours a day and has a sort of “look at me” feel about it. And of course it does have rather a lot of good hotel options. But that’s the thing about Dubai, there’s just a lot of everything - hotels, skyscrapers, people, bling. For something a lot calmer and with less crowds my preference is Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s less brash neighbour.
Here are some of the reasons why I think it’s time to consider ditching Dubai as the default for winter sun and maybe give Abu Dhabi a whirl instead:
The lay of the land
Abu Dhabi is blessed with a far more interesting natural landscape than its neighbour. Whereas Dubai has had to build islands, Abu Dhabi has over 200 natural ones (nothing manmade here), as well 400km of pristine coastline bordering the Persian Gulf and swathes of protected mangroves. With so much water around, the city has a spacious feel about it. Yes it’s still an Arab city in development with sky scrapers and cranes, but the ruling Royal Family has a more considered and cohesive vision for the city, unlike Dubai, where things seem to sporadically pop up with no thought for what and where other things have been built. Abu Dhabi is very attractive indeed for a desert city and for me has a feel of Singapore about it - it’s well laid out, with lots of green spaces, and everything you would want to see and do all with 20 minutes’ drive from each other.
I’m afraid for me, none of the beaches in Dubai measure up to the 9km stretch on Saadiyat Island. Blissfully uncompromised by jet skis and other motorised paraphernalia, the whole area is protected and you are likely to see dolphins frolicking in the ocean, baby rays swimming close to the shoreline and (in season) Hawksbill turtles nesting. There are currently two hotels on Saadiyat, the St Regis and the Park Hyatt (another hotel is in construction), which are both great for families and couples. They share the long expanse of white sand beach on one side and are bordered by the Saadiyat Golf Course on the other.
This pretty tree lined promenade in the heart of the city is about four miles long and is flanked by white sand beaches on one side and some of the city’s landmarks on the other. It’s a great place to get a feel for Abu Dhabi: Start at the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel (I decided to forgo a frothy camel’s milk cappuccino for one with gold leaf); stop at The Observation Deck at 300 at the Etihad Towers for stunning views over the city’s skyline; then turn in after a few blocks to visit Qasr al Hosn Fort, the oldest building in the city; and end the day with a sunset dhow cruise. You can stroll the entire length in an afternoon, or to speed things up, hire bikes instead - there are separate pedestrianised and cycle tracks.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
It’s hard not to be wowed as you stand on what is said to be the world's largest hand-woven Persian carpet gazing up at huge, glittering multi-coloured chandeliers of Swarovski crystals in the main prayer hall of this enormous mosque, one of the world’s largest. Astonishingly, the place has a capacity for 41,000 worshippers and features 82 domes and 1,000 columns. This is definitely a must see and is open to non-Muslims outside of prayer times, just dress appropriately.
A cultural extravaganza
One aspect of the Royal Family’s grand plan for Abu Dhabi is to place a big emphasis on culture. Back on Saadiyat Island, this will be home to the city’s new cultural district. The first exciting opening is the Louvre Abu Dhabi at the end of 2016. Here, a myriad of gallery spaces will sit clustered under a stunning shallow domed canopy (the dome being an emblematic feature of Arabian architecture) and will be filled with Monets, Manets and other masterpieces. Close on its heels will be an outpost of the Guggenheim. Where else in the Middle East will you be able to get some serious culture when life on the sun lounger gets a bit boring?
Yas is definitely the place for entertainment and thrill seekers. Here you’ll find Waterworld, said to be the world's biggest water park, with a dizzying choice of raft rides, slides, terrifying ravines and the largest sheet surfing wave, which can all be experienced without the hideous queues found at Dubai’s water parks. Then there’s Ferrari World where you can ride the world’s fastest roller coaster, the Formula Rossa, which boasts acceleration of 240kms per hour in under 5 seconds. Abu Dhabi's Formula 1 track is also on the island - book to drive round it or join the locals on a Tuesday (running, walking or cycling) when it’s open free to the public. For some retail therapy, Yas Mall is a rather smart place with all the brands you want and lots of dining options.
Whilst convoys of 4 x 4 head out into the deserts around Dubai for dune-bashing, nothing really compares to Abu Dhabi’s fabled Liwa Desert in the Empty Quarter, the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. It's a pretty spectacular place where sand dunes rise majestically reaching heights of over 200m and, even better, it’s authentic and perfectly devoid of crowds. A stay at Qasr Al Sarab, which is around 1½ hours’ drive from Abu Dhabi city, makes for a great two centre trip.
A 3 hour drive, or 25-minute seaplane flight, from the city, Sir Bani Yas was quite literally a desert island when the last Sheikh of Abu Dhabi decided it would be the test case for his ‘greening the desert’ program. The island is now covered by more than 2.5 million trees and a wildlife reserve that’s home to free roaming cheetahs, hyenas, a herd of giraffe, gazelle, Arabian Oryx and flamingos. Here you can stay in safari-style villas with decks that offer the perfect vantage point to watch the wildlife wander by, or beach villas with private plunge pools set on the shimmering shoreline.
All in all Abu Dhabi has the lot - beautiful white sandy beaches, a lovely set of hotels, adrenaline filled activities and culture - but without the crowds that descend on Dubai. It makes a perfect winter sun destination for both families and couples and if you’d like to find out more please do get in touch.