Tried & Tested: Abu Dhabi18.08.17 | Nathan Collins
With so many destinations around the world to choose from, it’s always tough to decide where to spend that all important, quality family holiday. With my son Harry, nearly 4, there are even more factors to consider. As a young family, we need somewhere safe and secure, with good facilities, a warm climate to help us relax and plenty to keep us all entertained, mainly, of course, Harry! And if we could find somewhere with a little education and culture thrown in for good measure then even better.
Since my first visit to the Middle East over 12 years ago, I have always been fascinated with the mystical culture that surrounds the region. I’d wanted to return for a while and now seemed the right time with Harry soaking in all the sights and sounds of daily life as he bounces from one topic to the next. We decided on the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi, and my visit in November was filled with many different experiences that singles, couples and families alike can enjoy.
The United Arab Emirates is a country that was formed just over 45 years ago in December 1971 and is made up of seven Emirates ; Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah and the lesser known Umm al-Quwain. Bordered by Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the west, the UAE sits perfectly in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and is reached by a mid-haul flight of around 7 hours from the UK, perfectly manageable for a young family like ours. Most of us in the UK will be aware of the rise of Abu Dhabi’s big brother Dubai, and after 3 previous visits there myself, I was keen to see and feel the differences one of the other Emirates could offer.
There are numerous flight options to reach Abu Dhabi, but for this trip I decided on a direct service from London with British Airways. You can also reach Abu Dhabi direct from Manchester or indirect from regional airports such as Birmingham.
Abu Dhabi makes for a great alternative winter sun destination to the likes of the Canary Islands, Caribbean, Cape Verde & The Gambia and offers a beautiful climate between October and April with temperatures of around 25-30 degrees Celsius. Their summer months between May and September do get extremely hot, but this is when hotels provide enticing offers which make the destination extremely good value for money.
One of the first things that struck me soon after my arrival was how relaxed and slow paced Abu Dhabi is compared to Dubai, which was very welcoming. Even though Abu Dhabi is a cosmopolitan city I was most impressed with the amount of lush green parks and open outdoor space for visitors to enjoy. You can see why it’s been named ‘The Garden City of the Gulf’.
I decided to stay in two different areas of the city, which is quite spread out. The first took me to the Ritz Carlton, located in the Al Maqta district on the banks of the grand canal. This is a large property comprising of 447 rooms and suites, built in a Venetian style with lovely facilities. It also boasts a 1600 square metre swimming pool, the largest in UAE. On our first evening, we enjoyed a beautiful al fresco BBQ dinner in the hotel gardens and had some delicious meat cooked to our liking by the team of chefs. With the addition of some low-key music and entertainment, this really made a wonderful start to our trip.
Staying in this part of the city gave a very different feel to a normal high rise city experience, as you can benefit from a nice stretch of private beach in front of the property, which still gave a lovely leisurely feel to the hotel. One of the other benefits of this area was being able to take an Abra ride across the Grand Canal to neighbouring resorts and a little shopping souk, and we also enjoyed a wander through the resorts adjoining Venetian Village which contained a number of alternative bars and restaurant options.
Another highlight of this area was being able to see and admire the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which visitors can view directly from the Ritz Carlton and be in striking distance to go and enjoy the wonderful architecture. We made use of the hotel’s complimentary shuttle service and took one of the complimentary hour-long tours to learn all about the mosque. It was great to introduce Harry to a new experience such as this and families are certainly welcomed with open arms.
The mosque was built by the late president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who wanted to build an iconic monument that would become a symbol of the UAE and unite the Islamic world. It took 11 years to build with an approximate cost of £435 million and is now considered one of the most important places of worship in the region.
My tip for unrivalled views of the Grand Mosque at sunset and later on into the evening would be to take an Abra over to the neighbouring Shangri-La hotel and have drinks in their pool bar – a truly wonderful experience! Try the Caipirinha, it will definitely add to the holiday spirit.
After some culture exploring the mosque, we opted for an action packed family day out and took a taxi for the 25-minute journey to Yas Island, home to the city’s F1 Grand Prix circuit. This man made island on the edge of the city was developed 10 years ago to add a multi-purpose leisure, shopping and entertainment area to the city. Here we enjoyed the morning at Yas Waterworld which contains a myriad of rides and pools for families of all ages to enjoy. My little boy particularly enjoyed the lazy river and the bandit bomber, which is a suspended water rollercoaster that takes you through the park and enables you to spray the visitors below! In the afternoon we moved next door to Ferrari World which won the Middle East’s leading tourist attraction at the 2015 world travel awards. Car enthusiasts would enjoy the vast collection of Ferrari’s, along with a number of fantastic rides and here the big kid came out in me when I experienced the world’s fastest rollercoaster – Formula Rosso, which reaches a speed of 149MPH in just a mere 5 seconds! Depending on how busy the parks are, you could spend a day exploring both or one in each. There are big plans ahead for Yas Island with a Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi due to open in 2018.
Following our stay at the Ritz Carlton we moved towards the city’s famous Corniche Road and to what was going to be the highlight of our visit – a wonderful 3 night stay at the famous Emirates Palace Hotel. From the moment we drove through the grand hotel gates, past the dancing water fountains, I knew we going to be in for a treat!
Built at a staggering cost of £1.9billion in 2005, it is the second most expensive hotel ever built in the world, with higher construction costs than Dubai’s iconic and opulent Burj Al Arab. The aim was to showcase Arabian culture and the main dome is home to six Rulers’ Suites, reserved for dignitaries and visiting Royalty.
I was immediately struck with the opulence and grandeur and felt like I was being transported to our own real Arabian palace. The service was exquisite; my wife was greeted with flowers at check-in and the smells of frankincense that adjusted as you moved through the different areas of the hotel were sublime. We felt very special and extremely privileged to be arriving here.
We were shown to our room and introduced to our personal butler who took care of the unpacking of our cases, so we could get straight out and explore the 85 hectares of grounds and gardens. The hotel is separated by the west and east wings – the west wing is aimed at families and the east for singles and couples. The west wing pool had some fantastic water slides and a lazy river wrapping around the pool and I saw my little boy’s eyes light up with delight when we reached this area.
After an afternoon exploring and enjoying the facilities we came across the beautiful beach bar set right on the hotel’s 1.3kms of private beach, so after another tough day of Middle East sunshine, we enjoyed some cocktails watching the sunset in perfect surroundings. This evening we enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s award winning Mezzaluna Restaurant which is one of 11 dining options within the hotel, as you can imagine it was a wonderful culinary experience!
There were numerous things to experience within the Palace, so the following morning I took my little boy to the water sports centre to see what we could enjoy. Non motorised water activities are all included in the rates, so I decided to take Harry on his first kayaking experience. In the afternoon we visited the hotel’s resident Bedouin camp and learnt about the local cultures and of course no visit to the Middle East is complete without a ride on a camel!
Taxis are readily available and are very reasonably priced, and getting around the city is very easy, so this evening we headed back to Yas Island and to the Yas Marina area which is home to the F1 Grand Prix circuit. We enjoyed a walk around the marina and then headed to the Yas Viceroy hotel (where the circuit runs underneath) for dinner, overlooking the track – a great experience for motorsport lovers.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, but before heading home later this evening we hired some bikes and cycled down the famous Corniche beach road, which was a great way to get a different perspective of the city. Before heading back to the airport we had a little bit of time to kill, so headed on the short 5-minute journey to do some retail therapy at one of the city’s impressive malls. We decided on visiting Marina Mall due to the close proximity from the hotel and were very impressed with the size and array of shopping experiences on offer.
Abu Dhabi was all I expected and more. A more subdued experience than Dubai, yet a more cosmopolitan feel than Oman, it suited us perfectly for a late autumn / early winter break away from the miserable cold British weather. We received a warm and friendly welcome, received an enriching cultural experience, which was great to introduce Harry to and were truly spoilt at some of the most luxurious and comfortable hotels I have ever had the privilege to sample.
Flight time: around 7 hours.
Where can you fly from? Direct from London and Manchester, via Dubai and Doha from Birmingham.
Accommodation: World-class range of luxury resorts and city style hotels, various locations including beachfront.
When to go: All year round, however summers can get very hot. It is a perfect winter-sun destination from October through to April.
What not to miss: The warm sea waters, Ferrari World and the obligatory camel ride!
Example package: 5 nights with flights from Birmingham, private transfers and accommodation at Ritz Carlton with breakfast from £849 per person. 5 nights staying at the Emirates Palace with the added bonus of half board from £1,345pp. Based on 2 people sharing, conditions apply.