Thursday, November 18

Abu Dhabi for a day


Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a rather low-key, conservative city when compared with its larger, brasher neighbour. While Dubai has focused on lavish, fun-filled construction projects, Abu Dhabi has quietly invested in a series of more refined, cultural pursuits. For example, it’s built a spectacular Formula One circuit and will soon unveil a stylish Guggenheim Museum. The constrast between these two cities is evident the moment you step off an airplane. I certainly noticed it when I stopped in Abu Dhabi for day while enroute to Malaysia for work.


My flight arrived shortly after dawn at Abu Dhabi’s recently expanded international airport. It's a modest but modern affair, but nothing like the extravagant architectural icon Dubai has built. Likewise, the skyline was dotted with more modest structures, fewer glitzy malls and relatively plain public spaces.

Joining me for a day in Abu Dhabi was Angela, a colleague from London. Yas Island, ten minutes from the airport, was our first stop. We’d booked a room at the recently opened Yas Hotel to give ourselves a comfortable base. This is an incredible venue. Several months ago I watched a National Geographic documentary heaping praise on its innovative design and construction.


The hotel literally straddles Abu Dhabi’s Formula One circuit on the southern shores of Yas Island. On race day you sit at the hotel’s rooftop bar and watch the race pass underneath. The entire building is covered by a spectacular lattice frame which acts as a giant sunshade, protecting its interior from the searing desert heat. Our hotel room sat at the base of the lattice, overlooking the race track and the island’s luxury marine that flanks it.


After a brief nap we ventured downstairs for breakfast and soon found ourselves soaking up the morning sun at table that overlooked the Formula One circuit. The hotel really does offer the best view of the city’s Grand Prix. Sadly, we were early as the race was scheduled to start a week later. We then retired to the rooftop bar for a cold drink and another unrivaled view of the race track.


Shortly before midday we made our way to Abu Dhabi’s newest attraction; Ferrari World. It’s the world’s largest indoor amusement park and had opened only seven days earlier. Try to imagine, if you can, Sydney’s Luna Park inside a large, spacious building. Impressive stuff. The theme park’s interior measures 86,000 square metres (930,000 sq ft), covered by a soaring, 50 metres (160 ft) high roof.

Angela and her husband race second-hand Ferraris for a hobby so this was one venue we couldn’t pass up. Unfortunately, many of the attractions were rather lame and lacking imagination – with one exception. The theme park is home to Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster. In 4.9 seconds this ride accelerates to 240 kilometres per hour (150 mph). Believe me – it’s fast!


Passengers in the front seats have to wear goggles to protect their eyes. I sat in the second row but still had to close my eyes at times as the wind pressure became too intense. We rode Formula Rossa twice and I’m still unsure which ride was more terrifying. This video gives you a good sense of what it’s like.


The remainder of our day was spent driving through Abu Dhabi’s commercial heart, stopping breifly at it traditional shipyards and then making our way to the Emirates Palace Hotel. This enormous five-star hotel sits boldly on the city’s beachfront. It was the backdrop for second Sex in the City movie and it every bit as spectacular as Hollywood suggests. I swear we saw more Rolls Royces driving up the entrance over half an hour than I'd seen in my entire life to date. This is where Abu Dhabi's oil money hangs out.


We dined outdoors at the hotel’s beach BBQ restaurant. The food was exceptional – as was the final bill. This isn’t a discount venue by any stretch of the imagination. We then finished off our brief stopover with another nap at the Yas Hotel and headed back to the airport to catch a 2.45am flight.

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