Racing the clock in Abu Dhabi
bu Dhabi lives life in the fast lane. Like the Formula 1 cars that have been whizzing around the Yas Marina circuit since 2009, the city has gone from adobe and cane shacks to glass skyscrapers and 5-star hotels in light-speed time. In less than 60 years, petrodollars have magically transformed this nomadic settlement into a financial hub overrun with Rolls Royces and Maseratis.
Abu Dhabi means ‘Land of Gazelles’ when translated form Arabic. That could have something to do with the city’s fast-paced urban development. One of the most spectacular examples is Saadiyat, an island that is set to include works by the most prestigious architects in the world, all within just 27 square kilometres. The Arab branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, designed by Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel respectively, share the scene with Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum. The district’s cultural offerings will be completed with Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum and the Performing Arts Centre designed by the late Zaha Hadid. A stellar cast and a strong bet on culture that anticipates a tourist boom similar to that of neighbouring Dubai.
City life in the fast lane strikes a stunning contrast with the stillness of the Rub Al Khali desert, where time seems to stand still between the dunes. Explore it from Qasr Al Sarab, a luxury complex that resembles an Arab fortress camouflaged by the sand.
However, there’s more to the capital of the United Arab Emirates than ultramodern designs by heavy-weight architects. Black gold is also reflected in the impeccable white marble of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Opened in 2007, the mosque features more than 1,000 columns and 82 domes in a construction that combines several Islamic styles. The largest hand-woven carpet in the world and 24 carat gold gilded chandeliers decorate this sacred place for Muslims.
Ferrari World is another local highlight, and a veritable ode to speed. Covering an area of 86,000 square metres, the world’s largest indoor amusement park pays tribute to the Italian motoring giant. It took just three years to complete and the total roof area used enough aluminium to manufacture 16,750 cars. The adrenalin kick comes with Formula Rossa, the fastest roller coaster in the world, a ride that captures what Vettel and Räikkönen feel at the wheel of their Ferraris.
Travellers can also catch the speed bug. The city is a common layover for long haul flights, and the tourist board even promotes these express visits. “Short can be sweet,” as it says on the leaflets that feature itineraries catered to short visits. A special visa allows transit passengers to spend up to four days in the city, and airlines including Etihad Airways organize hotel bookings and activities to make sure everything goes smoothly.
But Abu Dhabi can also be visited without the rush. Wander along the 8 kilometres of the Corniche, the seafront promenade; climb the Etihad Towers Observatory and contemplate the city from above; or reinterpret the traditional coffee ritual at the majestic Emirates Palace hotel. Sprinkled with 24K gold flakes, the Palace Capuccino is the epitome of luxury and should be sipped slowly. You wouldn’t want to choke on a teensy weensy piece of gold now, would you?