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The land of luxury

From the thrill of speed on the sands to a date with the region’s cultural heritage, Abu Dhabi has a lot to offer

It is  difficult to remain unmoved by the constantly changing colour palette of the Emerati desertscape. And with the sun slowly commencing its journey down the horizon, the sparkling hues of the sands look even more enticing as we zip down the Al Ain road in Abu Dhabi.

Soon after we turn into Exit 59, a short distance down an unmetalled road dotted with undulating hillocks on both sides takes us to the quaint structure of the Arabian Nights Village. “Marhaba,” greets our host as we walk towards the courtyard overlooked by two traditional-styled watchtowers that seem to ooze with the charm of old Arabia. These, we’re told, have been named Zakher and Al Manhal after the residences of the much-venerated founding father of the Nation — Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

The year 2018 was  celebrated as the Year of Zayed, in honour of the man whose vision created the modern face of Abu Dhabi while ensuring that its roots lay firmly embedded in the past. As if by coincidence, as I sit in the Village ‘lounge’, sipping some fascinating Arabic coffee, his wise words catch my eye on a pamphlet: ‘He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future.’

And sure enough, as we get into our 4WDs for an adrenaline-filled drive on the wobbly desert sands, the winds seem to whisper tales of a hoary past, of intrepid people who had made the desert their home.

“Would you like a camel ride after this? My Suhaan and Saugaan will be happy to show you around,” smiles Pehelwan, the camel whisperer hailing from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier, pointing to his prettily caparisoned humped beasts. The camels, however, seem to regard us with a bored look in their eyes. We smile, shaking our heads and are soon zipping past a camel settlement that offers “very tasty camel milk, both sweet and salty — in case you want to try”, as Nasir, our driver, informs us.

But for now, his eyes are keenly scanning the landscape to ensure that the car goes only over the firmer surfaces and not the softer sands (those must be avoided for any inconveniences like the wheels getting stuck in them). And then, Nasir suddenly presses the accelerator hard and off we go, tearing one dune after another and yes, often getting caught in a high cloud of dust left behind by another vehicle in front.

Despite being well strapped, we nevertheless hold on to our seats, often screaming with ‘delightful fear’ when the car seems to just skirt over the edges of the sandy elevations while hurtling down steep inclines.

Nasir is also keeping an eye on the golden orb in the West and just before it’s time for it to set, stops at a vantage point. As we get off and start clicking pictures, he says, “You just enjoy the view and let me do this for you.” And with his spectacles perched firmly on his nose turns into just the professional shutterbug anyone would need in a place like this — capturing not just the landscape but also our myriad moods as we revel in the feel of the soft sands on our feet.

Back at the village, it’s time for a date with the region’s cultural heritage. Seated on thick cushions covered with colourful Bedouin weaves, we have dinner as a traditionally attired musician plays music on an Arabic string instrument called the Oud and later, a belly-dancer takes to the floor. Closely associated with the Arabic region, the latter, of course, has been made famous by many of our Bollywood divas, the latest being Katrina Kaif with her rhythmic torso movements in the ‘Mashalla’ number.

From the thrills of speed on the sands, we decide to experience the ones that the tarmac offers. And are soon heading for Ferrari World that lies on one of Abu Dhabi’s 200 islands called Yas Island, that is now being developed as a major entertainment destination. Mike, a fellow visitor and “racing freak” who we met there starts raving about the Yas Marina Circuit that has been hosting the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix since 2009. “I love watching it each year but missed seeing Lewis Hamilton win last month since I was travelling,” he lets on.

Walking past some gleaming Ferraris, one of which was driven by Michael Schumacher, we head straight for the most coveted motor sport here — Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster.

Sitting firmly strapped, ‘eye goggles’ placed over our glasses (since we didn’t wish to remove them) but, no helmets that are mandatory for ‘racers’, we wait with bated breath for the thumbs-up signal… And before you know it, you are already getting an experience that can well be called the closest to an F1 racing one.

While this 59-seconds ride may not boast stomach-churning swirls or sudden drops from extreme heights, its mantra is speed — yes, lightning speed — accelerating from 0 to 240 kms in less than 5 seconds. Needless to say, the 2-km-long track did have many ‘racers’ screaming with excitement as their ‘Ferrari’ across some tricky corners while speeding past what looked like rugged boulders and tall pilons.

An experience of Viaggio in Italia is a must, we concede. After all, this flying theatre takes you for an aerial ride over many of Italy’s famous-for-racing landscapes such as Venice, Tuscany, Lago Maggiore, Rome and lets you experience the route inspired by Mille Miglia — the famous Italian Road race.

Although it’s near impossible to do all the rides at this Park, we do decide on a dekko at Galleria Ferrari, that boasts an interactive display of cars from 1947 through to the present day. And as we get talking to one of the volunteers here about Schumacher, she says that his fans could well be in for a surprise. Just like the Ferrari gallery in Maranello, this one too might have something special coming up on the occasion of the ‘Prancing Horse’ driver’s birthday on January 3.

Talking of this famous stallion, we head for a fast and furious experience with Flying Aces, the 90-seconds roller-coaster that takes its name from Ferrari’s prancing horse emblem. This, we learn, was originally the symbol of Count Francesco Baracca, a legendary hero of the Italian Air Force during World War I who had painted this horse on the side of his aircraft.

This 90-seconds roller-coaster, meanwhile, features not just the tallest inverted loop in the world but also the fastest cable lift. And not to forget extreme gravity-defying flight acrobatics complete with rapid twists and turns that have its riders screaming for more.

We certainly are thrilled with this experience of a lifetime, and as we get off — some laughing, others with their heads reeling — the colourful lights across the landscape seem to twinkle with celebration.

Wishing there was an ‘Eye’ —like the one in the Corniche’s Marina Mall — that lets you gently savour the landscape for miles around, we hope the experience awaits us on our next visit here…