By Samreen Tungekar
Move over, Dubai. Whether you seek the sun, some sand, or an adventure on roller coasters, Abu Dhabi has it all, and more. Want to explore Middle Eastern food, history, and culture? Here’s a detailed itinerary to simplify your holiday
I’m tired of talking about how much the pandemic hampered my travel plans in life, and now, given the abhorring process that securing visas has become, the last thing anyone wants to do is deal with anxiety, which is also why kicking off my ‘revenge travel’ plans with a destination that’s full of life and easy to get to seemed like a smart decision. Abu Dhabi Do, Miranda Hobbes said in SATC 2. She was right, there’s a lot to do.
UAE has, for far too long, been defined by Dubai for the travel lovers. But its capital, Abu Dhabi, has been changing that thought process for a while now. As a total comeback from the pandemic, the IIFA awards this year were held in Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, which holds the Yas Marina Circuit that has hosted the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since 2009. From culinary hotspots to Emirati marvels, not to mention absolutely grand historic attractions, here’s how you can go about exploring the capital.
I start my trip with a morning visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Full disclosure: I’m not art savvy, and as a lay person, I could understand, like, admire, and enjoy the wonders of this museum that has elevated Abu Dhabi’s art scene. There are white buildings inspired by the medina, a silver dome in a woven structure that’s said to be about the same height as the Eiffel Tower, perfectly complimenting the quietude and sophistication of the museum, and galleries that have artwork and installations of cultural and historical significance loaned from notable French museums such as Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Centre Pompidou. Louvre is genuinely an unmissable experience just for all that it stands with, which includes taking a kayaking tour around the museum — another interesting way to explore it.
The best lunch spots are those facing the beach, and Beirut Sur Mer on Saadiyat Island is the first authentic Middle Eastern meal of the trip. Floral patterns, greenery, a soothing day colour palette of pastels — it’s all so Instagrammable. Order hummus and pita for the table (duh), and a side of labneh duet, essentially it’s thyme-herbed labneh with olive oil and goes well with falafel. Up next is Kibbeh nayyeh, a lamb tartare and onion with walnut spread, creamy and meaty, very soul satisfying. Pick a mix grill as a main, it’s a platter of grilled meat that comes with pita and spicy harissa paste and different kinds of grilled meat underneath. The obvious choice, knafeh, makes for a good dessert to end the meal with, but the Turkish coffee at the end of every meal in the Middle East is what I live for. Petition to make it a given back home too.
The good part about Middle Eastern food is it doesn’t feel heavy, probably because you can’t be sluggish as you head to explore their attractions and malls. Yas Mall is, for the lack of a better word, ginormous. UAE’s second-largest shopping centre is a three-level mall that has all your luxury brands, international eateries, and a 20-screen cinema. Keep at least three hours to explore the mall, and maybe make a coffee stop at Illy or Godiva to fuel up.
The evening dawns upon us — it’s time to indulge in some Emirati beauty, and the Emirates Palace is just the place to be. This is an award-winning lavish property with a 1.3km private beach, landscaped pools, a private marina overlooking a natural bay. Walk in to see the enchanting central dome (there are totally 114 domes in this palace), grand with gold, mother of pearl, and crystals. Dinner this night is at Mezlai, the palace’s fine-dining restaurant that serves Emirati cuisine. Traditional décor, a beautiful woman playing the piano welcomes you to the space. Start the meal with some zaatar and Rocca leaves salad, follow it up with another meaty delight, fried ‘kibbeh’, which is fried minced beef with crushed wheat and pine seeds. From the chef’s signatures, pick the Chicken Mustakhan: Palestinian roasted chicken with sumac, spices, and saffron rice. I’m team knafeh, but the warm mixed baklawa at Mezlai is worth a try, even if you’re not a fan of the sweet.
The final stop of the night is the café at the palace, popular for its signature 23K gold-flaked Palace Cappuccino. Taste wise, it’s a regular cappuccino with edible gold, but this one is more about the experience and the photos than looking for a caffeine kick, so treat it as just that, and you’ll enjoy it.
It’s adrenaline day. A key part of Abu Dhabi’s charm is its themed parks for amusement, and admittedly, I’m here for Ferrari World more than any food or shopping experience. The world’s first Ferrari- branded theme park houses Formula Rossa, the
world’s fastest roller coaster that goes from 0 to 240km/hr in 4.9 seconds at a height of 52 metres, among other exhilarating experiences. While this ride is worth the hype, my experience says not enough credit is given to Flying Aces, the world’s highest roller coaster loop, that will put your heart in your mouth no matter how daredevilish you are as it climbs 63 metres at a 51-degree angle. Ferrari fans can try The Tyre Change Experience to see if they can match the pace of F1TM pit crews, while those who want a more relaxed experience can try Bell’Italia, a ride that lets you explore a mini-Italy in a Ferrari 250 California, circa 1958. W Abu Dhabi houses Garage, their restaurant that overlooks the Formula 1 racetrack on Yas Circuit, and it’s our choice for lunch on our second day in the capital. Designed in a modern contemporary style with a chic sushi truck and other relatable and stylish elements, what makes Garage stand out other than its view is a mix of cuisines. I mix this meal up with Nikkei rolls, a portion of dimsums, and a side of babaganoush. A slight diversion from the other meals of the trip, but a fresh change nonetheless.
After lunch and some rest, it’s time to see one of Abu Dhabi’s most unique offerings: The Sheikh Zayed mosque. As one of the world’s largest mosques and possibly the only one that has this interaction between Islam and other cultures, this mosque has an open-door policy for people from all religions, and has more to do with spirituality
and understanding the Emirate’s cultural beliefs than just religious prayers. Forget everything, just go for the architectural marvel that it is, and the fact that it holds a Guinness World Record for the largest hand-woven carpet, has reflective pools, gold-plated Swarovski chandeliers, and a courtyard with one of the largest marble mosaic artworks in the world. Enjoy a few moments of stillness in the serenity of the place against the cool marble under the evening sun, and be taken in by the grandness of this place.
A (little) done with Middle Eastern fare, the meal on our last night is at Cyan Brasserie, a French restaurant in Andaz Capital Gate, on the top floor. True to its name (in both English and French, Cyan is the colour that lies between blue and green), the restaurant has a soothing colour palette of sea blue and green. I start with some classic French butter and a piece of baguette before nibbling on a goat cheese salad, following it up with Chilean sea bass, and ending the meal with a mango pavlova and a mille- fueille. Light, relaxed, and a refreshing last meal.
I’d call this a productive vacation, for I return feeling culturally rich, with memories of coffee, dates, the scent of saffron, and thoughts of going back for more.
5 Quick Travel Tips
Etihad’s new A350-1000 airbus is a comfortable choice, and has a triple-daily schedule, which gives travellers a choice of three flights a day, leaving from Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru.
You don’t need an RT-PCR test to fly to Abu Dhabi, but you will need a negative RT-PCR report taken in the UAE to enter any public places. Do an RT-PCR at the Abu Dhabi airport and download Al Hosn on your phone, where the green status will be enabled as you test negative. Entry to most public places and attractions in Abu Dhabi is only allowed for those that have the ‘green’ status on the Al Hosn app.
Souvenirs and shopping
If you want to shop for dates or date products, don’t do it at a mall. Instead, go to the Mina markets and buy them directly from the locals.
Most tourist attractions, including Sheikh Zayed, Louvre, Ferrari World etc. require pre-bookings. Go to visitabudhabi.com and it will guide you to websites to book your visits.
While the rest of Abu Dhabi is pretty relaxed, the dress code for Sheikh Zayed mosque is strictly full clothing and no see-through outfits, and has provisions for abayas for free if you need one.
(www.szgmc.gov.ae for more details)