By the final day of a dazzling and action-packed break in the United Arab Emirates’ capital city, I thought I had seen it all.
But as the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque came into view, the best had undoubtedly been saved until last.
Photographs simply don’t do justice to the jaw-dropping beauty of one of the world’s largest mosques, right in the heart of Abu Dhabi.
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The architectural masterpiece of white marble glistened in the scorching sunshine, its striking domes and minarets standing out against the vivid blue skies.
Completed in 2007, the mosque, named after Abu Dhabi’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, was built as a key part of his vision for the country to be a cultural haven, welcoming visitors from all over the world.
The attention to detail is remarkable. The courtyard’s water pools mirror hand-painted white columns adorned with a gold design mimicking the date palm trees.
Palms also provided the inspiration for the sparkling Swarovski crystal chandeliers suspended above the world’s largest hand-woven carpet. Inside there’s an overwhelming sense of calm and peace in the prayer room, which can hold more than 7,000 worshippers (szgmc.gov.ae/en).
Lying 14 miles west of the Mosque, the grand Qasr Al Watan, our first port of call, was also breathtaking (qasralwatan.ae).
Shimmering in the heat, the exquisite white granite and limestone architecture of this working presidential palace vies with the mosque for the title of the city’s most beautiful building.
Only completed in 2017, Qasr Al Watan’s main role is to play host to the world’s state leaders but in 2019 it was decided to open its gates to the public in celebration of the heritage of the UAE.
A quote from the late Sheikh Zayed, displayed as a lavish work of art within the opulent interior resonated: “Wealth is not money and oil. Wealth lies in people, and it is worthless if not dedicated to serve the people.”
Next to Qasr Al Watan, Emirates Palace hotel – set on a private beach and overlooking the iconic Corniche, a five-mile long manicured waterfront – more than holds its own with its magnificent neighbour in the splendour stakes.
The five-star luxury hotel is home to award-winning restaurant Mezlai. Decked out in the style of an airy Bedouin tent, we lunched on a tantalising array of Middle Eastern dishes. I tucked into stuffed vine leaves, a choice of refreshing salads and a meat platter.
In its rapid evolution over the last 40-odd years, Abu Dhabi strives to uphold the traditions of Arabian hospitality while driving forward with modernity.
And the city’s clear desire to build its culture and identity is evidenced by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, considered one of the modern urban wonders of the world. Located on Saadiyat Island, the Middle Eastern outpost of the Paris art museum, encompasses more than 99,000 sq.ft of galleries displaying works from ancient times to the contemporary era (louvreabudhabi.ae).
Meanwhile, nearby Zayed National Museum is under construction.
When it opens in 2025 it will provide the centrepiece of the Saadiyat Cultural District.
To get a flavour of the traditional ways of desert life we travelled a hundred miles east of Abu Dhabi to the Al Ain Oasis.
The UAE’s first UNESCO world heritage site, filled with date plantations, is still watered using the falaj, a 3,000-year-old irrigation channel system (visitabudhabi.ae/en).
Locals there shared some chapati bread freshly made over an open fire before we watched in silent admiration as one of them nimbly climbed up one of the towering palm trees using just a belt, to demonstrate how dates are harvested.
On our way back to Abu Dhabi, we dropped by boutique five-star Telal Resort on the outskirts of Al Ain city, overlooking the vast landscape of Remah Desert. After taking in the mesmerising dunes, catching a glimpse of gazelles roaming free, it was time to try one of the resort’s many activities on offer.
Opting for the zipline, I clipped myself on to the 'Magic Flying Carpet' for a bird’s eye view of the desert that took my breath away (telalresort.ae).
In its aim to attract sporting events to the region, the city was hosting the National Basketball Association’s first games in the UAE and the Persian Gulf.
That night in a packed Etihad Arena I spotted basketball legend and four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal watching the first of two games between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks. Judging from the fantastic reception, the American sport was a big hit with the Emirati crowd (etihadarena.ae).
The following day we visited Yas Marina Circuit which showcased how Abu Dhabi has created some of the best sporting facilities in the world, by playing host to the F1 season finale in 2021. While it was not a happy hunting ground for Lewis Hamilton, I like to think I restored some pride by topping the time sheets when we enjoyed life in the fast lane by go-karting at the track (yasmarinacircuit.com).
Returning to Yas Island for an adrenaline-fuelled final day, first on the agenda was the world’s largest indoor skydiving chamber, Clymb. The sight of our instructor in full flight was enough to make me hold back.
But spurred on by the sight of kids no older than ten, leaping in without any fear, I donned suit, helmet and ear plugs prepared to fall into the deafening noise. Barely getting off the ground, I admit I panicked as I struggled to get into the correct body position. But eventually the instructor took me on a “high ride” up to the top of the chamber.
Overcoming the initial wave of terror that I was flying into the ceiling, I managed to enjoy the experience (clymbabudhabi.com).
Back on terra firma, we strolled across the street into Ferrari World, where Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest rollercoaster (an insane 0-150mph in 4.9secs) had me fearing I’d hurtle off the tracks and into the desert (ferrariworldabudhabi.com).
Thankfully, I survived to see the final NBA game that evening and get my flight home the next day. In the comfort of Etihad’s Business Class service I had time to reflect that I’d only scratched the surface of what the UAE’s fascinating capital has to offer.
Book the holiday
Get there: Etihad Airways flies from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi, with flights starting from £720 return. Find out more at etihad.com.
Stay there: Rooms at the Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche start at £152 per night, room only. Find out more at sofitelabudhabicorniche.com.
More information: Head to visitabudhabi.ae/en.
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