By Tim Johnson
Rising out of the vast, red sands of Arabia and spread along the waters of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a dramatic place, a land of great urbanization next to complete desert desolation, where very recent human ingenuity, innovation and invention stand alongside natural wonders that have withstood the relentless march of epochs. A federation of seven emirates (which are similar to principalities) make up the UAE, although two – Dubai and Abu Dhabi – are by far the best-known among tourists. While even these were virtually unknown among Westerners just a generation ago, a flood of visitors now come from all corners of the globe to these two Emirates every year to see the remarkable, the amazing and the unusual (as well as the poetic and beautiful). And some – they just come to shop.
Most people know at least a few things about Dubai, a place that went from an intrepid destination to one of the world’s top travel spots, seemingly overnight. Anchored by a city of some four million ethnically diverse denizens, the great towers that have made this place famous were built using the wealth generated by the Emirates’ vast reserves of oil, which was discovered here in 1966.
The most famous, arguably, is the Burj Al Arab. Located on an artificial island and shaped like a massive sail, Tiger Woods famously hit golf balls off its helipad, and the hotel’s luxury (it is often referred to as the “world’s only seven star hotel,” with rates to match) is discussed almost as frequently as its size (more than 300 metres in height). But recently, another great tower has stolen the spotlight. The Burj Khalifa, standing at an astounding height of more than 900 metres, is the tallest manmade structure in the world. Holding more than a half dozen records for height and size, the Burj Khalifa’s 163 storeys house residences, a hotel, sky lobbies, a tourist-friendly observation deck (on level 124), swimming pools, fine dining, corporate suites, six water features and even an 11-hectare park.
And Dubai has also captured the world’s imagination with a number of its remarkable, if sometimes quirky, tourist attractions. The city is famously home to Ski Dubai, the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East, home to five different ski runs (from beginner to advanced), tobogganing hills, a twin-track bobsleigh run and even a colony of Gentoo and King Penguins, who you can meet through a close-up encounter, or simply view during their daily March of Penguins. And for more over-the-top, family-friendly fun, you can splash around at Wild Wadi, a waterpark (which, remember, is in the middle of a desert) that includes a cutting-edge surf simulator that shoots out more than seven tons of water per second, plus a lazy river and a variety of slides – including the highest, fastest waterslide outside of North America.
But while Dubai’s manmade wonders seem inexhaustible (the world’s largest driverless metro system; the biggest flag on earth; the longest floating bridge you will ever find, anywhere) perhaps its most impressive, and ambitious, endeavour can be found at the Palm Islands. An artificial archipelago created to resemble a series of palm trees when viewed from above, this commercial and residential development, when complete, will add more than 500 kilometres to Dubai’s coastline, plus a variety of super-luxe hotels, including one of the most recognizable hotels in the world: Atlantis The Palm, which resembles its famous Bahamian counterpart, but with a certain Arabic flair.
And as a crossroads for Eurasia (just a few hours by air from Europe, South Asia even closer to other parts of the Middle East), many touch down and head straight to the mall – not a bad decision in a place where shoppers have their choice of dozens of malls and literally thousands of stores, including the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest shopping mall.
While Abu Dhabi is perhaps the slightly lesser-known of the two, this Emirate’s main city (which goes by the same name, and is located on an island) is in fact the capital of the UAE, and thus a hub for political dealings, economic activity and cultural attractions. And, despite the heat, it is a remarkably beautiful and fascinating place to get outside. One of the best places to get some fresh sea air, right in the heart of the city, is along the Corniche, a stunning stretch of beach (think shimmering sands and turquoise water) that comes complete with all the best beach facilities, including hundreds of umbrellas, snack bars, beach volleyball courts and safe swimming areas. There’s also green space and paved paths for those who want to walk, bike or rollerblade, and a number of luxury hotels sit nearby.
Visit Abu Dhabi
As capital of the country, Abu Dhabi also hosts a number of world-class cultural events, including concerts by regional and international talents in opera and classical music, as well as not one but two film festivals. And, opening in the next few years, Saadiyat Island will be home to handful of excellent museums – the Louvre and the Guggenheim are both in the process of building outposts here, and the Zayed National Museum will tell the story of the UAE, focusing on everything from falconry to history to faith and Islam. You can also get a look at the past at the Hili Archeological Gardens, which showcases traces of settlements dating back to the bronze age, or immerse yourself in the Abu Dhabi of the past at a place like Al Meena Souk, a traditional market – and a great place to pick up a hand-made carpet.
And top it all off with a visit to the imposing Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a giant vision in white built on a massive scale in the 1980s – it can accommodate more than 40,000 worshipers, and is open to the public.
Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, has racked up a number of awards in recent years, including 2011 Airline of the Year and Best Business Class. If you can afford it, flying in the Diamond First Class Suite is an unforgettable experience – the suite comes with personal mini-bar, wardrobe, extra-wide bed, changing room, and world-class food and wine. And even if you have to fly economy, you’ll be treated to spacious, ergonomic seats and more than 600 hours of personal entertainment.