Abu Dhabi is positioning itself to be the new-and-improved Dubai. For years, Abu Dhabi, the largest of the United Arab Emirates, languished in the shadow of Dubai’s lavish growth spurt. But now the tables may be turning. While Dubai’s oil (and cash) supply is running out, Abu Dhabi, located about 90 minutes southwest of Dubai, is sitting on rich oil fields and finding new ways to capitalize on them. Everywhere you turn, construction crews are feverishly working on new hotels, elaborate skyscrapers, infrastructure and cultural institutions designed to attract tourists long after the oil has dried up. Much of the credit for the rapid growth goes to the late Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan. Considered the architect of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed’s image is displayed nearly everywhere—on the sides of buildings, in the windows of shops and even on T-shirts and scarves. Six years after his death, Sheikh Zayed’s dream continues to unfold. Some of the most exciting projects will open in the months and years ahead, but those planning a trip now will still find plenty to visit.
What to see
A trip to or anywhere near Abu Dhabi simply must include a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. One of the largest mosques in the world, the sprawling structure is 100 percent covered in white marble and features 82 domes covered in 24-karat gold. It also boasts the world’s largest hand-made carpet—a single piece weighing in at 35 tons—in the main prayer hall. Five times a day, a live prayer call is sent out from the Grand Mosque to 2,300 other mosques in Abu Dhabi. Free tours are given at 10am every day except Friday and Saturday. Though dress is fairly relaxed in much of the UAE and certainly in hotels, conservative attire is required in the mosque, and women are provided with an abaya to wear during tours.
If the mosque is where locals go to pray, Yas Island is where they go to play. For now, the focal point of the island is the Yas Hotel, a modern architectural stunner with a futuristic interior that feels as if it’s been lifted from the set of Star Trek. A state-of-the-art racetrack runs underneath a portion of the hotel, serving as a huge tourist attraction for events such as the annual Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The island’s other big tourist draw, the Ferrari World theme park, is set to open by the end of the year. Don’t look for a mouse or a little mermaid at this theme park. In this part of the world, expensive cars are where it’s at, and Ferrari is looking to give gearheads the ultimate thrill at the world’s largest (of course!) indoor theme park. The theme park will feature 20 attractions, including a roller coaster that goes from zero to 150 mph in four seconds and a Formula 1 racing simulator. And if the flume ride that takes riders into the heart of a Ferrari engine isn’t enough of a product placement, the entire park is built under a 2,152,800-square-foot red Ferrari logo. And—as if there was any doubt—it is, indeed, the largest Ferrari logo ever created.
The crown jewel in Abu Dhabi’s cultural plans is the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island. Once it’s finished, over much of the next decade, it will boast the world’s largest concentration of premier cultural institutions. Planners are aiming high here, and if the models I saw during my visit are any indication of the ultimate outcome, “impressive” will be the world’s largest understatement. Plans include: the world’s largest Guggenheim gallery, designed by Frank Gehry; a Jean Nouvel–designed Louvre Abu Dhabi; a Maritime Museum, designed by Japan’s Tadao Ando, that will be partly underwater; and the Zayed National Museum.
Where to stay
Hotel stays in the UAE can get pricey, but the recently opened Traders Hotel in Abu Dhabi offers contemporary comfort (and a few luxurious perks) starting at $150 per night. The business-travel arm of the Shangri-La Hotel chain, Traders offers its guests sign-in privileges at the neighboring Shangri-La—a drop-dead gorgeous hotel (where rooms start at $290 per night) featuring an infinity pool overlooking the mosque, a luxury souk for shopping, the CHI spa and fitness center and a Venice-style canal, complete with gondolas that shuttle guests throughout the property.
When to visit
I visited the UAE in early February, when temperatures hovered in the mid- to upper-70s during the day and dropped into the 50s and 60s at night. With the exception of a wicked sandstorm that covered the area in a hazy fog and covered my teeth with a gritty coat of ick, the weather was just about perfect. Judging by just about every conversation I had with locals, the weather is not quite so perfect in the summer months. Steer clear from April to September, when temperatures can reach a scorching 118-degrees Fahrenheit. No wonder locals choose to stay inside and even bus shelters are air conditioned.
How to get there
There’s no fast way to get to Abu Dhabi from Chicago, but Etihad Airways’ recently launched direct service will at least get there without a lengthy layover. Our trip took about 13.5 hours on the way there and a little more than 14 on the way home. Fares start at $1,342.
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