Call me a traveller. I’m impatiently waiting for my tickets in Madras. A little to the front, a fellow journalist beckons me to the shores of Fiji. Tempted, I follow her, and effortlessly stride across New York, Pisa and Domagnano. Only a minute after, I take my leave, and make a right to my former lover, Bombay. All this while I never really leave the coastline of Abu Dhabi. Call me a traveller. Or you could just call me an imposter. Inside the grand vestibule of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a floor map, with the names of the places from where each object and artist originates, has several others walking on its contours too. Soon, when our tour guide returns with ticket stubs in hand, our restlessness fades away. We trace her steps under the silver dome structure like clockwork for the next hour and a half.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that my journey in Abu Dhabi starts with a museum that celebrates openness of culture. Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2017 as a collaboration between France and Abu Dhabi. Unlike in Paris, this museum does not show off Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, but it does make you smile as you see their theme—Humanity in a New Light—shine through every exhibit. Objects from different civilisations highlight how similar we all are—you, the reader flipping this page, I, the writer struggling with words, she the tour guide, he who punched the museum tickets, and they the artists.
In a sense, the same can be said about the city as well. The new Abu Dhabi is about tolerance and acceptance for the most part, with characteristics that can be hard to understand for an outsider. It’s a modern city conjured from the desert, but it’s not a mirage—nowhere close. Its allure is real enough for more than half of its population to consist of expats who have made it their home.
A country capital engaged in light-hearted banter with its too-flashy-too-young cousin, Dubai. Here, low-lying residential houses vie for attention with tall architectural wonders—the Etihad Towers (unrelated to the airline), the famous pineapple building (which is actually the Al Bahr Towers), and even the 82 domes of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Nevertheless, the sky remains uninvolved, open and generous, and stretches its bright blue wings across the 200 islands that make up the emirate.
Speaking of wings, in Abu Dhabi you should prepare to see a falcon when you least expect it. Perched on the shoulders of a sofa in a hotel lobby or sprawled on the backseat of the Mercedes you spot on the road. And some times, when you are travelling by air into the city as I am, even as a mighty co-passenger sitting next to you—one that is experienced enough at flying to offer advice in case of nerves or turbulence. I learn much about these national birds of the UAE one mild December morning when I visit the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. Besides being the first and largest of its kind in the world, the hospital has also become a tourist attraction in the city, especially for large groups of people. On the day of our tour, it is hosting close to thirty journalists—mostly from America, Africa and the UK, and, of course, from India—in a small laboratory. As we all gather around a bevy of falcons, our guide (all of five feet, two inches) who is a dressed in traditional thobes and a headscarf, looks around, claps his hands, and asks, “All good? Everyone speak Arabic, yes?” We laugh loudly, and he looks pleased. Nothing all that funny is said, but being at a talon’s distance from over 20 falcons does bring out the neurotic in you. They have hoods on, which I’m assured makes them less likely to go for your arm, but I stay cautious. And, so, while some others relish their visit, hold the former hunter birds steady on their glove-clad forearms, and even feed them, I just get by and focus more on the steady stream of information. That the birds are as important as family members, that they often have their rooms in houses, and that they are passport owners, sans-photo (as they change and shed the colour of their wings every season). Today, all the falcons in the UAE are born and bred in captivity in the confines of the hospital. Earlier, however, when falconry was the sport of kings and rulers, they would soar the skies freely below a cool winter sun, above the never-ending desert.
Sometimes, it can be hard to imagine Abu Dhabi as just a vast expanse of sand and ghaf trees. Before the fortuitous era when oil was dug out, the country was a community of Bedouins that relied on fisheries and the pearl industry to sustain life. In the 1760s, the Bani Yas tribe from Al Ain first travelled to Abu Dhabi to hunt gazelles in the desert. In their search, they discovered plenty of sources of fresh water. The tribe built a lighthouse made of seashells and coral near the ocean to guide their people and protect the sources. Around it Abu Dhabi, as we now know it, developed. The lighthouse, now merely decorative, has been restored and opened to visitors as part of Qasr Al Hosn, the newest attraction in the city. We visit it to learn more about the city’s history, walk through the ruling family’s then fort and see how they lived.
But I’ve had enough of culture for the day, from Pollock’s paintings to falcon wingspans—even Emirati history—and I now crave some entertainment. At breakfast the next morning, when I somewhat reluctantly ask my group, “What are we doing today?” a devious smile is returned. The next thing I know, I’m being strapped with a double tug on the Formula Rossa, the fastest rollercoaster in the world, inside Ferrari World at Yas Island, Abu Dhabi’s entertainment hotspot. 55 seconds later, I come back where we started, and say “never again”. That’s a lie. Another hour later, you can see me soaring through the world’s highest roller coaster loop-de-loops on the ride ‘Flying Aces’.The next stop is much safer: the newly opened Warner Bros World. Here, I run into childhood celebrities Shaggy and Scooby Doo, sort a dispute between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (one had stepped over the other’s foot), and pretend to drive in the Flintstone’s car(t). Neighbouring these two attractions are the F1 Marina Circuit, Yas Mall, a Waterworld park and an upcoming indoor skydiving experience, all inside a 25 square-kilometre area.
It’s probably clear as day now that in Abu Dhabi, things happen seamlessly. Roads are built in a day; new buildings crop up every month. Everything is modern, futuristic, convenient. Which works well… until it doesn’t. Picture this: You are going to visit a date souk or market. You hope to see the exotic stuff of books and film, shop in a bustling local market where chaos reigns supreme, and hopefully even get fleeced by a vendor or two. Instead, you are taken to a row of well-mannered air-conditioned grocery shops and told, “Most souks in Abu Dhabi are indoors now. Why sweat and shop outside when you can be cool inside?” Perhaps, the charm of some things is in its chaos and inconvenience, I think, as only Indian travellers do. But I don’t let the setback stop me from buying dates worth my body weight. After all, I don’t want to be disowned by my mother, now, do I?
In Abu Dhabi, drinking in public is not allowed. But what we can’t have in drink, we make up for in food. Our group, funnily enough, is 90 per cent vegetarian. Despite that (sometimes) constraint, we try and stick to the Emirati cuisine for most of our meals, each finding their favourite dish. I have thick, creamy hummus for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and occasionally give a chance to tabboulehs and other dips. Aditi, another writer, finds her soulmate in rgag, a type of Emirati dosa with cheese eggs and thyme, and Purnima—well, she is now in a committed relationship with mughrabia, wheat beads not unlike pasta.
What we all agree upon, undoubtedly, is that the luqaimat is worth travelling for. It can be likened to the gulab jamun, and is a golden fried dumpling served with— take a guess—sweet date syrup.
Dates, just like their palm trees, crop up everywhere in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. We see that when we visit Al Ain, the home of Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the nation. We are at a date palm oasis an hour away from the city. Our golf cart takes us around the 1,50,000 trees planted and we spend the whole afternoon under their shade. Before we know it, it is already evening—our last in this country. Our car twists and turns up the rocky mountains of Jebel Hafeet that divide Oman and UAE. The sunset from here is a hidden gem, but right now, “We may miss it,” our driver informs us. Time is ticking. Our car lurches up the last of the switchback turns, and we run out the door and towards the viewing ledge. A brilliant orange sun is setting over a city of gold—the best I’ve ever seen—and I don’t wish to look away just yet.
Both Etihad Airways and Jet Airways have many direct flights operating from major Indian cities to the Abu Dhabi International Airport every week (return fare from approx. `17,000).
WHERE TO STAY
- With ‘grand’ inserted in its name rather suitably, the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal (from approx INR 13,000; ritzcarlton.com), where I stayed during my visit, stands for ultimate luxury. It is neighbours with the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and houses a Venetian Village with over seven restaurants and cafés.
- The self-professed cultural hub, Saadiyat Island, implores you to linger for many reasons. Pick Jumeirah Saadiyat Island Resort (from approx. INR 15,000; jumeirah.com) for your stay. Three outdoor pools, stunning interiors and direct access to the beach. Are you listening?
- In Al Ain, Aloft (from approx INR 4,000; marriott.com) is a comfortable budget option with a lovely roof. It fits in with the adjacent Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, the home stadium of the Al Ain FC, quite well.
WHERE TO EAT
- The orange-infused crème brûlée at the Museum Café, Louvre Abu Dhabi (louvreabudhabi.ae) tastes like the stars, and makes a satisfying sound when you crack it. Also, try the salads here.
- The gold in Emirates Palace isn’t limited to its interiors. Try the Palace Cappuccino sprinkled with real 24-karat gold flakes at Le Café (do it for Instagram).
- For a satisfying Emirati meal, book a table at restaurant Mezlai (kempinski.com).
- At Tean (jumeirah.com) in Jumeirah Saadiyat, I loved trying a wide range of modern Middle Eastern dishes—falafel and Turkish pide included.
- But for really authentic and unpretentious food, Al Fanar (alfanarrestaurant.com) in Al Ain is where to go. The oven-baked potato dish, ali wallan, is garlicky and perfect, and the restaurant hits the sweet spot with their generous portions of luqaimat.
WHAT TO DO & SEE
- The Arabian Nights Village, about an hour from the main city, has to be the desert that inspired the folktales. Camel rides, dune-bashing, Arabic coffee, stunning sunsets—get the whole Middle Eastern shebang when you visit.
- When you stop by the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (you really must), go for an official guided tour—it’s really quite anecdotal.
- I must also mention the Corniche, because a friend who grew up near it asked me not to return to India if I didn’t pay it a visit. The waterfront stretch is perfect for un-sweating any city grime and rubbing sea salt to skin.
- Around Mina Zayed, if you smell something fishy, you’re right. The Mina Fish Souk is known for some of the best varieties of fresh catch. Buy some from the many vendors there, or if you can’t wait—have some cooked on spot.
- Besides the natural date palm oasis, learning about the city’s history at the Al Ain’s Palace Museum and the Al Jahili Fort is underrated.