Abu Dhabi is a destination on the move in more ways than one, as Karl Cushing discovered on a trip to the emirate this month
The lack of a driving licence isn’t the only difference between me and Michael Schumacher, yet as I raced around the go-karting track at Yas Marina Circuit I started to think we were one and the same. Even the fact I was lapped more times than a dog bowl on a hot summer’s day failed to lessen my conviction.
Although the main purpose of my trip was to check out the new Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort & Spa, the karting experience on Yas Island was a definite highlight.
Petrol heads will be in seventh heaven as the karting track adjoins the stunning Yas Marina Circuit, home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which you can whizz around in everything from Aston Martins to a two-seater version of an F1 car.
Local ground handler Hala can arrange tailored track day packages, and you can even stay in the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, which overlooks the track.
The circuit is also next door to indoor theme park Ferrari World, home to Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest rollercoaster, and some fun F1 simulators (the fact I managed to break mine through some overbearing steering was another clue to my lack of race day credentials).
Meanwhile, nearby Yas Waterworld will become the United Arab Emirates’ largest water park when it opens by year-end, and next year will see the delayed opening of the humungous Yas Mall, including another clutch of new hotels.
What to do
While a lot of attractions are still in the planning stages or under construction, there’s no shortage of things to do in Abu Dhabi, from jeep safaris in the Liwa desert and wildlife watching in the reserve on Sir Bani Yas to gaining insights into the local culture on tours of attractions such as the Falcon Hospital, Heritage Village and Madinat Zayed gold souk.
My itinerary took in the striking Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, with its rather blingy interior and capacity for 40,000 worshippers, and the city of Al Ain. A 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi city, historic Al Ain, near the border with Oman, is home to some interesting forts and museums and visitors can also check out the oasis and nearby sand dunes.
We took in the local camel market, the zoo, whose main draw is its two white tigers, and the sweeping views from nearby Jebel Hafeet Mountain.
The scale of development outlined in the emirate’s Vision 2030 strategy is staggering. Much of it is slated for Saadiyat, another of Abu Dhabi’s 200 or so islands.
To get a handle on the mammoth scale of the plans, I made for the interactive exhibit at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Some of the tourism elements are already open, including the Monte Carlo Beach Club, a golf course designed by Gary Player, and resorts by St Regis and Park Hyatt.
However, come 2020 Saadiyat will be home to everything from Guggenheim (below) and Louvre galleries to a national museum and a new opera house.
The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority hopes such large-scale developments will not just attract more visitors, but encourage them to stay longer. Notably, while the emirate’s hotels attracted 594,918 visitors in the first quarter of 2012 – a 17% increase year on year, including 37,095 Brits – the average stay remains short, dipping slightly to 2.9 days over the first quarter.
The best and busiest time to visit is December to February. May to September can be extremely hot, with temperatures often above 40C. In the meantime, new luxury hotels and resorts are popping up like daisies. In addition to the Park Hyatt and St Regis on Saadiyat, the last two months of 2011 saw openings by Rocco Forte, Jumeirah, Hyatt and Westin.
A Sofitel and a Ritz-Carlton will be opening any day now and a second St Regis is set to open this autumn. Other notable properties due to open by year-end include the Dusit Thani Abu Dhabi, which will have 402 rooms and suites over 37 floors – not to mention the highest atrium in the UAE.
Indeed, if neighbouring Dubai is wondering where all its cranes have gone I can helpfully inform them that they’re just down the road. While eyeballing endless cranes and mounds of building material didn’t make for the most scenic of sunset cruises, the experience left me in no doubt this is a destination on the move, with a driving force somewhat more impressive than my own.