Desert that rose

Desert that rose

The bustling capital of the emirate, Abu Dhabi is more than just a desert getaway. Stuart Forster explores the city’s changing landscape, high-end golf courses, water parks and more...

Abu Dhabi has the feel of a place on the up, and that’s not purely related to the rapid changes taking place to the city’s skyline. The United Arab Emirates’ capital has a confident, cosmopolitan buzz and, as I’m discovering, offers much beyond the contemporary, high-rise architecture that I’d relished seeing ahead of my arrival.


I’ve come here primarily for a few rounds of winter golf and the quality of the city’s lush championship courses has surpassed my expectations. In January, a number of the world’s leading players, including Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, took part in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Spaniard Pablo Larrazabal won the event played on the club’s 7,334 yard National Course, whose chic, falcon shaped club house hosts a swimming pool and two squash courts.

Golfers’ retreat

Over at the Gary Player designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, Abu Dhabi’s other Troon managed course, I take a lesson with PJ, one of the club’s pros, in an attempt to improve my swing. “You can come here at night, even in summer, and hit a bucket of balls on our floodlit driving range,” he explains in his lilting South African accent, “It’s pretty cool, as we play music from the clubhouse. It’s a lot of fun.” PJ tells me he teaches everybody from absolute beginners to experienced players looking to tweak their game. He then talks enthusiastically about the hawksbill turtles that congregate on the beach for a couple of months each year.

At Yas Island, there’s even a rolling, championship standard links course, the first in this region. Yas Links Golf Club was designed by Kyle Phillips and has a floodlit nine hole, par 3 academy course, which I view from the roof of the Andalusian style clubhouse. As a tourist, I can book rounds at these plus other clubs in the emirate as part of golf and accommodation packages offered by Golf in Abu Dhabi.

Of course, Abu Dhabi has attractions beyond golf. Over at the Manarat Al Saadiyat cultural and exhibition centre, I learn how locals once made their wealth from pearl diving and used falcons to hunt for food in the desert. The centre tells the story of Abu Dhabi’s rapid urban development since oil was first commercially exported, back in 1962.

Having walked along the seafront Corniche and looked up at buildings that rise beyond 300 metres high, I find it hard to imagine the area as little more than a desert village. The grand, imaginative designs of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, due to open next year, plus forthcoming Zayed National Museum (in association with the British Museum) and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are also displayed.

It’s difficult not to be impressed by Abu Dhabi’s dynamism and vision. “We are diversifying away from oil,” explains Sultan Al Dhaheri, the executive director of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority’s tourism sector, when we meet ahead of the Gourmet Abu Dhabi food festival. “We are focusing on not only delivering our accessibility and accommodation but also our product. We have Ferrari World, Yas Links, Yas Waterworld, shopping malls plus the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and up-and-coming museums...we are expanding our portfolio and seeing the length of stays increasing.” 

Rise in popularity

He tells me that Abu Dhabi is proving increasingly attractive to tourists from India, with visitor numbers rising 26 per cent in 2013. A total of 1,57,594 Indians checked into accommodation in the emirate from January to November, staying, on average, just short of four nights. From July it will prove even easier to fly the four-hour-20-minute route between Bangalore and Abu Dhabi, as Etihad Airways is adding a second daily flight to its schedule.

Before heading home, I decide to head to check out the world’s fastest roller coaster, Formula Rossa, at Ferrari World, the globe’s largest indoor theme park, where air-conditioning keeps visitors cool even during the hot summer months.

The ride, I’ve come to experience, is shaped in the style of a Formula 1 car and accelerates from zero to 240km/h in under five seconds. I’ve heard it allows people to sense the pull of 4.8Gs, the gravitational force felt by top drivers while racing. Before I know it we zip out and corkscrew around the track in a thrilling ride that really does give a sense of prodigious acceleration and provokes screams blending fear and delight.

The rides at nearby Yas Waterworld might not be quite so quick but offer plenty of surprises and excitement. On Liwa Loop, the first looping water slide in the region, there’s a gut -wrenching 20-metre vertical drop. This family water park opened in January last year and is proving popular.

I learn how premium admission allows visitors to skip the queues for rides and, in keeping with local customs, ‘ladies only’ nights are held each Thursday. During those evenings, only female staff are permitted to be on duty.

Abu Dhabi strikes me as bright and international yet there’s a perceptible sense of the emirate’s heritage in architecture and customs. There’s plenty going on here and, with change so palpable, this strikes me as the kind of place that warrants a visit in the not too distant future.

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