With the Persian Gulf to one side and the desert on the other, the United Arab Emirates capital is one of the world’s best destinations for adventure travelers.
With soaring glass spires and opulent hotels, Abu Dhabi has earned its reputation as one of the world’s up-and-coming cities. And because of the vast urban landscape, it’s easy to forget that the world’s largest uninterrupted desert—the Empty Quarter—is located just outside the city limits. In Abu Dhabi, you can drive a Ferrari, ride the world’s tallest roller coaster loop, go “dune bashing,” wakeboarding, or quad biking … it’s all or everything in this record-smashing city.
Ride the World’s Highest Roller Coaster
There aren’t many places on earth where you can zoom 150 miles per hour in a Ferrari, and experience the world’s highest non-inverted loop roller coaster all in one afternoon. Then again, Ferrari World isn’t your usual theme park. The high-voltage complex is home to the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, reaching 149 miles per hour in less than 5 seconds. It emulates the g-force sensation of an F1 racer, blasting off from the starting block, then twists and turns at high speeds as if following the curves of a race track. The park recently opened its latest thrill: Turbo Track, which lets riders experience a Ferrari Test Driver sensation as they endure a hair-raising “zero gravity fall.”
INSIDER TIPIn case you’re traveling with little ones, there’s a Junior Grand Prix for kids that includes a demonstration with a trained expert, followed by a tot-sized Ferrari F1 racecar and a few loops around a mini track, in addition to many family-friendly simulation-based rides.
Drive a Racecar
Keen to zip around a real F1 track? Book an afternoon on the Yas Marina Circuit, where the Formula One races provide the opportunity to experience life in the driver’s seat. The adventure begins with a test drive, a trip to the pit, and a tutorial, followed by a few laps in your choice of race car, from Formula YAS 3000 to an Aston Martin GT4, Ferrari 458 GT and a Jaguar F-Type S Coupe.
INSIDER TIPYas Viceroy Abu Dhabi is the go-to if you’re hoping to stay close to the action. The hotel is built alongside the race track, and offers F1 packages that include access to the weekend’s lineup, including concerts and event passes from November 24-26, 2017.
Explore the World’s Largest Uninterrupted Desert
Just an hour outside of Abu Dhabi, the Al Khatim Desert sprawls in all directions. It’s a quiet escape from the city, with beautiful dunes that seem to roll like waves toward the horizon. Trips with Nuzhath Ideas Abu Dhabi Desert Safari take travelers into the vast sandy expanse for safaris and “dune bashing.” Beginning with a drive through the desert, a Toyota Land cruiser will take you crashing into the top of the desert’s highest dunes. Moving on, travelers can strap up to try sand boarding, which entails riding a snowboard or a sled down the steep, sandy mounds. The afternoon also includes a camel ride, a visit to a traditional Bedouin Camp, belly dancing, shisha, henna, and an Arabic barbecue.
INSIDER TIPThe experience is best enjoyed from October to February when the weather is mild and fewer sandstorms occur.
Get Up Close and Personal With a Bird of Prey
Practiced for centuries in Abu Dhabi, falconry played an important role in the country’s desert past and remains a symbol of courage and strength. Historically, the powerful predators were used to help hunters track small animals, adding protein to their diets. At the Anantara Sir Bani Yas Island Resort, you can learn the ins and outs of training this fierce animal with the help of a professional handler, who practices traditional telwah techniques. During the demonstration, the falcon swoops into the air at a speed of up to 223 miles per hour, only to return to its trainer’s arm with a soft landing. After the demonstration, guests can try their hand at holding and feeding the falcons.
There’s also the dedicated Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, where visitors can learn about the rescue and rehabilitation of these majestic birds. The hospital is one of the largest avian institutions in the world, and cares for as many as 6,000 falcons a year, checking everything from health issues to missing flight feathers.
See Hyenas on Safari
Abu Dhabi might not be the first place you’d think of when planning a safari experience, but the territory’s wildlife game is surprisingly ferocious. On Sir Bani Yas Island, the Arabian Wildlife Park offers up-close and personal encounters with more than 10,000 free-roaming animals. From viewing platforms scattered around the park, guests can look majestic giraffes straight in the eye, and survey the landscape for gazelles, hyenas, cheetahs, and the Arabian Oryx—the national animal of the UAE, which resembles an antelope.
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Go on a Midnight ATV Ride
There’s quad biking … and then there’s midnight daredevil dune drives on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). If you’re after a real thrill, book an overnight safari with Quad Bike Abu Dhabi. The nocturnal tour is a star-lit joyride across rolling dunes in powerful four-wheelers boasting 250cc to 800cc engines. Never driven an ATV before? Not to worry. Drivers are equipped with safety gear and a thorough briefing before testing their mettle.
Work Up a Sweat While Dune Biking
It might look like a sophisticated, sun-soaked Arabian palace, but the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort By Anantara knows how to turn up the energy. The desert hotel, tucked away in Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter, offers “fat biking”—two-wheel bicycles with extra wide, heavy tires to ensure a smooth drive up and down the dunes. The experience takes place amidst the golden sands of the Liwa Desert, which doubles as one giant BMX park, albeit with the occasional camel and gazelle sighting.
INSIDER TIPThanks to its location inside the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali)—the world’s largest uninterrupted desert—the Anantara has no shortage of outdoorsy excursions, from camel rides to dune bashing, archery and more.
Go Wakeboarding in the Desert
Between the city and the airport, the Al Forsan International Sport Resort is the go-to center for urban adventures. The enormous complex has everything: paintball, wakeboarding, shooting ranges, horseback riding, and go-karts that reach up to 68 miles per hour. Not only are the facilities well maintained and modern, but there are coaches and trainers on hand for those hoping to pick up some new skills. The freshwater lakes are perhaps the most impressive, purposely built to allow visitors to practice kneeboarding, waterskiing, and wakeboarding simultaneously, using a smart system of overhead cables.
The sports center offers day passes, though travelers who want to stay close to the action can check into Marriott Hotel Al Forsan, Abu Dhabi next door for discounts and tailored packages. The hotel itself has a few of its own sporty perks, including an Olympic-sized pool and an epic kids’ play gym.
Surf the World’s Largest Manmade Wave
Home to Ferrari World and the Yas Circuit, Yas Island is the city’s epicenter of entertainment. For family-friendly fun, spend a day at Yas Waterworld, where more than 43 rides and attractions await. There’s Slither’s Slides for a downhill splash, the Bandit Bomber roller coaster, and Jebel Drop speed slide. But serious daredevils will want to queue up for the Liwa Loop—a chute-like ride where the floor opens from underfoot.
INSIDER TIPIf you have an aspiring surfer in the family, stop into Bubbles’ Barrel, the world’s largest manmade wave. It’s quite the sight, with 7,000 liters of water pumped per second and waves that reach 10 feet tall.
Go Island-Hopping on a Jet Ski
Most travelers are surprised to find that Abu Dhabi is made up interconnected islands—both natural and manmade. There are more than 200 islands, some close and others far off the coastline. Exploring the clear turquoise water reveals another side of the city, and how better to see it all than on the back of a jet ski? To make the most of the sparkling scenery, Al Raya Adventure offers guided sea safaris, where guides take travelers to unspoiled beaches for picnics and snorkeling. Traveling with a group or visiting friends? Consider a sunset catamaran cruise to see the gulf in style.