Stuart Forster looks at tourism attractions in Abu Dhabi for families.
Abu Dhabi as a destination for family and activities vacations? The emirate was, until recently, widely regarded primarily as an oil-related business destination but diversification and leisure developments are changing that perception. Increasingly, Abu Dhabi is evolving into a viable family destination with much to offer beyond the state-of-the-art shopping malls and striking high-rise architecture that draw murmurs of awe and appreciation from visitors to the city centre.
Yas Island, a 30-minute drive from the city centre and fifteen minutes by road from the airport, has become one of the emirate’s premier entertainment and leisure destinations. Every year, the island is now seen around the globe during the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the twilight Formula One race held at the Yas Marina Circuit.
Running on a Formula One circuit
Yet you don’t need to visit on a race weekend to catch a glimpse of the 5.5km long track. Throughout the year you can dine overlooking the circuit at Kazu, the chic, modern Japanese restaurant with live teppanyaki cooking within the Yas Viceroy Hotel, which straddles the track. If you’d prefer to actively experience the tarmac you can do so on Tuesday evenings by participating in one of the weekly Yas Training Nights. The events are free and give you the opportunity to get out and walk, run or cycle, at your own pace, on the circuit that Formula One cars roar around in under two minutes.
If you’re a motor racing fan you’ll recognise the famous 65-metre prancing stallion logo on the roof of Ferrari World, the indoor theme park which you can see while landing or taking off at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Inside you’ll find family-orientated attractions and driving simulators as well as a collection of vintage Ferraris. You can learn about the story of the famous Italian racing team and enter a wind tunnel to learn more about testing aerodynamic designs.
The fastest roller coaster in the world
On the Formula Rossa roller coaster – the world’s fastest – you experience the same acceleration as a Formula One car; you’re thrust back in your seat by the gravitational force of 4.8Gs as the ride takes you from zero to 240km/h in less than five seconds. Yet you don’t necessarily need to be an avid speed lover to enjoy a visit to Ferrari World; Viaggio in Italia is a 4D cinema experience that provides you with the sensation that you’re flying over Italy’s countryside.
From Ferrari World it’s just a short hop to Yas Waterworld, the vast, family-friendly water park which has 43 rides, slides and attractions beyond its turreted, Arabian-style fortress gates. The 15-hectare park has poolside cabanas, for relaxation by the pool, plus four kids’ play areas, but many visitors are drawn here by the high-speed thrill rides. These include Dawwama, the world’s first hydromagnetic-power waterslide, which propels you along a 238m run before plunging into a 20-metre high funnel, and Bandit Bomber, which at 550 metres in length is the region’s longest suspended rollercoaster and reaches heights of 35 metres.
Diving for cultured pearls
Kids can follow Pearlmasters, an interactive treasure hunt adventure game featuring 11 of the characters you’ll see within the park. The story echoes an important aspect of the region’s heritage as, before oil was discovered, pearl diving in the Persian Gulf provided people here with an important source of wealth. Anyone aged eight or over can experience pearl diving, following training, in a tank holding oysters with cultured pearls. The story of diving for pearls is also depicted in the Spirit of the Pearl, a show featuring synchronised swimming and held six times a day.
You can see both Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World from the clubhouse of Yas Links Golf Club, the location of one of the six pay-and-play golf courses in Abu Dhabi. The lush, par 72 championship course was designed by Kyle Phillips, one of the world’s leading golf course architects, and its fairways provide views of the city skyline and shoreline mangroves. The club has an academy course, with par three holes, plus a training area where total beginners can participate in introductory courses with the club’s professionals. Intermediate and experienced golfers can take lessons to hone aspects of their game. Additionally, you can hit balls out onto the floodlit driving range until well into the night, making this a good spot to unwind after a day of sightseeing.
Dune bashing in the desert
A very different type of driving experience is available out in the desert of the mainland, close to Al Wathba, approximately 90 minutes from the city. With a professional driver behind the steering wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle, you can head out onto the soft sand, range up and down wind-rippled dunes and burst over their crests, spraying sand along the way. The jolting, adrenalin-inducing experience is akin to roller coaster riding in the passenger seat of a car.
The tours set off in the afternoon, so that after a session of dune bashing you see the sunset over the arid landscape and feel the air temperature drop rapidly in the moments after it disappears below the horizon. The drive also provides insights into regional heritage. Pausing at a camel farm gives you a chance to shoot photos with dromedaries, the creatures that allowed man to penetrate the desert prior to the invention of the combustion engine. You can also choose to spend an evening in a Bedouin camp, eating traditional cuisine and experiencing dancing and music by the campfire.
The attractions illustrate that this is a region proud of its heritage yet also successful in embracing change. It’s not just the skyscrapers that are now wowing visitors to Abu Dhabi.
To learn more about the emirate, including where to play golf, see the Visit Abu Dhabi website.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography. Call 07947 587136 to commission a shoot.
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