It's not often that you get lucky enough to make the most of an opportunity to mix business with pleasure, yet that's exactly what I got to do during my last fam trip to Abu Dhabi. While technically I was there (joined by a group of other The Holiday Place travel experts) to get to know up-close and test some of the Abu Dhabi hotels we sell, we got to do a whole lot more; also putting to the test some of the best attractions and experiences this little yet rich emirate has to offer.
Getting there with Etihad Airways' newest fleet
We flew with Abu Dhabi's flagship airline, the award-winning Etihad Airways, and we got a taste of its brand new A380 aircraft which featured exclusive new technology such as face-timing and texting on the inflight interactive screen. On top of that you could also watch live TV channels including Sky News and Sports 24, plus a variety of great programmes, documentaries, shows and films. The large, plush, spanking new Economy Smart Seats weren't too bad either.
Etihad's Economy class is nothing short of outstanding with a truly generous legroom and seats that recline a full six inches! To enhance the experience, you also get full-size blankets and ergonomic pillows that convert into neck pillows – now that's what I'm talking about! It's bad enough you have to sit for the best part of an eight-hour journey, but doing it in comfort and style it's another story altogether. Etihad Airways has perfected Economy flying down to a T.
Great hotels paired with great sights
For the majority of our trip we were based at the Yas Island Rotana, a beautiful and elegant property with a lot of unique perks, namely it being adjacent to the Yas Island Marina Circuit whilst also positioned less than a short five minutes' ride to Ferrari World and with Yas Waterworld standing only two minutes further. Even better, it's only 10 to 15 minutes from the airport so you can sink into its comforts and freshen up minutes after landing. Ideal for those who want to be close to all the action, this hotel offers spacious rooms and also has a fantastic bar that we all loved – the Y Bar, which had a great Happy Hour from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. on most nights.
Yas Island and Ferrari World
In close proximity to the Yas Island Rotana (in fact right next to it) also stands the Radisson Blu, one of the three hotels in the Yas Plaza area, along with the Crowne Plaza and the Yas Island Rotana where we stayed. The last two both sit on the opposite side of the race track. As part of our Abu Dhabi hotel inspection we also stopped by the Radisson Blu and loved the views it offers over the nearby golf course, the amazing Italian restaurant and its great Belgian Bar. Some of the hotels in Yas Island offer a free shuttle to the Yas Beach Club with towels and sunbeds also provided, but our busy schedule didn't allow us time for beach-basking so that's something to add to my bucket list next time I visit Abu Dhabi, and I plan to do it soon on a personal holiday that's all about the leisure and none about the business.
Still, we got to fully experience the amazing Ferrari World for a day. Access to the Formula 1 circuit is easy while getting to the theme park part is equally as easy with added thrills. The park has two record-holding attractions – the world's fastest rollercoaster and the tallest loop on a rollercoaster: "Formula Rossa" and "Flying Angels". These two attractions perfectly embody what this place is all about: Formula 1 speeds to spin your head around. There is one other rollercoaster with two more world-record-beating rollercoasters currently in construction – they promise even more out-of-this-world thrills and spills. If you're a thrill-seeker in search of new challenges, whatever you do if you make it to Abu Dhabi don't skip a visit to Ferrari World. It's pure adrenaline-fuelled excitement.
The Etihad Innovation Center
Stepping off Yas Island and going into mainland, the Etihad Innovation Center was our next sightseeing destination, perfectly located close to two other fantastic hotels we got to sample – the Ritz-Carlton and the Shangri-La.
The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal is certainly grandiose. There, after touring the facilities we got to enjoy an evening gala dinner with a succulent meal in the most inspiring ambience. We can highly recommend this fantastic hotel to discerning families as it boasts a fun kids club, a snack bar with a rainbow variety of ice cream flavours and, for parents, some truly exquisite restaurants you would go to even if you were not staying at the hotel. Even more appealing and unique, the hotel also has its own ‘Little Venice" complete with a canal.
But it was the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat al Beri that stole my heart. Sitting on the other side of the canal, this ultra-luxurious property boasts the most amazing views over the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and features a stunning infinity pool leading up to the side of the canal – a truly breathtaking sight to behold. The hotel's interiors keep the Arabic theme flowing throughout, making you fully immerse in the culture and local traditions. The cherry on the icing is the sprawling championship golf course near the property, which the hotel offers free transfers to and from for guests.
Now, about the Etihad Innovation Centre: this is not a place that most tourists would stop or even would contemplate visiting by but it was interesting and informative for us as creators of quality holiday experiences. This is the place where Etihad Airways trains the majority of its staff and where all their innovative creations and new ideas come to life. If you're flying with Etihad on Economy like we did you most likely won't be able to get a glimpse of the other classes but you will get to experience them here. This is where we got a taste of the First Class experience, we toured its spacious area before sampling the out-of-this-world ‘Residence', Etihad's newest class which is basically, a grand house in the sky. That's certainly flying in style with homely comforts!
The Etihad Innovation Centre sits across the canal from the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal, and is a short five minutes' ride from the Shangri-La Hotel.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The two hotels I described above also happen to be two of the closest to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with the Shangri-La offering the most spectacular views over it despite being, out of the two properties, the one located furthest away from it. While the Ritz-Carlton is a quick six-minutes ride away, the Shangri-La is an also convenient nine-minute hop by car.
The definite must-see attraction on any holiday to Abu Dhabi, this impressive mosque leaves no one indifferent. Its pure whiteness on the exterior and the grand bright interiors with dramatic arches, sumptuous columns, ornate ceilings and exquisite motifs throughout are nothing short of palatial and the stunning architecture is certainly to be admired inside-out. The late Sheikh Zayed is buried here and worshipped a full 24-hours a day. During a visit here it's important for foreign visitors to respect the religious nature of this building and dress in appropriate attire. Women must cover shoulders and legs and wear headscarves.
Emirates Palace Corniche – where royalty stays at
On the other side of Abu Dhabi, namely the beautiful Corniche area with its long seawalk promenade and its sandy beaches, sits one sumptuous hotel that's a notch or two above any other else. The awe-inspiring Emirates Palace is so exclusive that only the highest strata of society frequent it. In fact, while we toured around its facilities, it just so happened that the King of Jordan was staying there. Exuberantly elegant with gold, silk and silver etched all over the place, one of the place's unique selling points is its tight security, so you don't have to wonder why high-ranking figures choose it.
To stay along the beautiful Corniche area in Abu Dhabi you don't have to be a millionaire or a celebrity. Conveniently placed facing pristine beach stretches are the Beach Rotana and the Park Hyatt, two more outstanding properties we got to check out.
While the Beach Rotana was very similar to the Yas Rotana we first stayed at, it offers a larger swimming area with a good variety of water sports. The rooms at Beach Rotana all feature balconies which is what probably makes it a five-star property – the Yas has four stars - but aside from that extra the rooms are exactly the same as the Yas Rotana.
Park Hyatt is a luxurious property, one of the first to be built in the area and boasting an amazing stretch of beach. One of its best features is in fact the Beach House, as well as the massive ground and gardens that surround the hotel. This is a place to escape the world and enjoy real peace and tranquility. The Bar and Grill is a great place to unwind as you watch your food being freshly prepared and cooked in front of your eyes.
Desert safari adventure – my favourite part of the trip!
Proof that's there's plenty of thrills to be had in Abu Dhabi, the dune bashing in the desert was certainly my highlight of the trip. It was a pleasant 30 to 45 minutes' drive from the hotel and the first stop is at the Camel Farm, where you meet these gentle creatures before proceeding onto the main complex with camel riding and sand boarding available. You can also opt for quad biking for an extra cost (around £10 for 15 minutes) and I definitely recommend it, I did it and it was a fantastic add-on to the overall experience. The sand-bashing is amazing, and just in case anyone gets a little queasy from all the action, there's a safety car following you all the way. After all the activity you get to rest up inside the main area, where there are shisha pipes and you are served a delicious buffet. If you want to you can also make the most of the opportunity and try on traditional Arabic attire.
Last thoughts before departure - How to sum up Abu Dhabi?
Abu Dhabi wasn't what I expected at all. I thought I'd be finding a quiet and relatively boring city with not much to do beyond the hotels and, boy, was I proved wrong! Yes, Abu Dhabi might be quieter than Dubai overall but that is in fact a great part of its appeal and it doesn't mean that it's boringly quiet either. It's simply a demurer destination that still packs powerful entertainment with big attractions to go and see. Less crowds, less noise, contemporary elegance that blends with centuries-old traditions...what's not to like? Especially for families seeking the perfect blend of cosy tranquility and elegance with added splashing fun and couples thirsty for relaxation, pampering and discovery, Abu Dhabi is a serious contender...Dubai better watch out!
What about the food and alcohol drinks?
A question on many traveller's minds is whether or not alcohol is widely available and served at the more conservative and strict Abu Dhabi. The answer is: yes, it is! Unlike many reports wrongly point out, all hotel bars in Abu Dhabi serve alcohol drinks freely. Unless you're visiting during the holy dates of Ramadan or you happen to be there during selected festivals where they have dry days, alcohol will be flowing, and even during these special times many hotel bars still open to offer mocktails and shisha. If you're serious about your tipple you're mostly covered here, but you better check the dates of when you're travelling to avoid dry spells!
Foodwise, Abu Dhabi is nothing short of excellent with the standard meal mostly consisting of typical Arabian BBQ, with the finest selection of succulent and flavoursome meats accompanied by bread and dips (usually hummus) with baklava being the most popular dessert. On Fridays all hotels have a massive brunch which is one of the quintessential things to experience here.
Not so quiet Abu Dhabi, a destination to shout about
What's coming up in deceptively quiet Abu Dhabi, you ask? Well, not as much as in Dubai, and thankfully so as I was expecting to find lots of construction works but saw none. This emirate may look all done and ready yet still has some surprises in store. One of bigger things to come is the development of Saadiyat Island, which is dubbed to become the leading tourist destination, not just in the Middle East but in the whole world, with an amazing white sand beach and many of the world's leading hotels building magnificent properties here. I can't wait!