Abu Dhabi might have grown up in the shadow of glitzy Dubai, but things are changing. A raft of attractions all built or started in the past decade is helping the city carve out a niche as the cultured, grown-up alternative. Take in any of the following sights and you'll understand why Abu Dhabi is staking a claim as the true jewel of the Middle East.
A trump card in the rush to build the most extravagant hotel possible, the Emirates Palace makes Dubai's Burj al-Arab
look like a social housing project. The cost of construction for this gold-leafed homage to wealth is estimated at US$3 billion ($3.2 billion). Take a walk along its cavernous corridors or peek into an ultra-luxury suite and you'll understand why.
Sprawled across a 1 million-square-metre plot of beachfront land, the complex includes its own water park (with lazy river and slides), a 1200-seat theatre and a golf-leaf dome larger than London's St Paul's Cathedral. There are 104 lifts and more than 12,000 pieces of signage, and chauffeured golf buggies to take visitors from one end of the hotel to the other a journey of more than a kilometre.
Dubai can keep its artificial ski slopes. One of the largest islands in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island
is home to thousands of rare animals as well as millions of plants and trees.
Formerly the private nature reserve of late ruler and UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, this 87 square-kilometre park boasts the world's largest herd of Arabian Oryx (extinct in the wild) and cheetahs. Yes, cheetahs! An ongoing conservation project of the Emirati rulers, the island is also a bird sanctuary, and can be explored on a jeep safari, by kayak or on a mountain bike.
World's first Ferrari theme park
Petrolheads have a better reason than many to visit Abu Dhabi, as the city is building a theme park dedicated to the Italian racing giant. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi
is due to open in 2010, and promises to boast more firsts than an F1 champion.
Among the 20 rides will be the world's fastest roller-coaster (to be called the F1 Coaster) and a journey through a Ferrari engine. The entire complex will be housed under a bright red roof in the shape of a classic Ferrari GT racer one that's big enough to make it the world's largest indoor theme park.
Golf in the Gulf
It might seem more like the world's biggest bunker, but Abu Dhabi is not letting ecology get in the way of its golfing ambitions. Abu Dhabi's Yas Island
is the location for the Middle East's first links course, which has been designed by Californian Kyle Phillips the architect behind St Andrews' Kingsbarns Course
The 6.8km effort, due for completion in early 2010, follows the mangrove-filled coastline, with the shoreline coming into play on eight of the holes. Also coming into play in 2010 is the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach Golf Course, which has freshwater and saltwater lakes, all designed in a figure-of-eight formation. It promises to be the Middle East's first pay-and-play course perfect for those visiting for just a few days.
Fancy getting a glimpse of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa
without having to go all the way to Paris
? That might soon be possible, as the first outpost of the Louvre
is being built as part of a 270-hectare "cultural district" on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island. The district has been designed by some of the world's top architects.
Also being built is another Guggenheim Museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, who masterminded the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Set for completion by 2012, plans are on exhibition in a corner of the Emirates Palace, open to public viewing.
While convoys of four-wheel-drives head to the desert outside Dubai for a bit of bush-bashing Middle Eastern-style, the same experience can be had outside Abu Dhabi without the crowds.
runs sundowner tours which take visitors desert driving over dunes near Sweihan, followed by camel riding and dinner under the stars. Sightings of snakes and scorpions are common, while Arabian gazelle inhabit the area. Abu Dhabi is the gateway to the ancient fort town of Al Ain
, an inland oasis giving an insight into traditional Arabian life.
One of the strongest symbols of Abu Dhabi's difference to Dubai, the white domes and towering minarets of one of the world's largest mosques are a must-see. With a design that is part-Moroccan and part-Turkish, the mosque has 80 domes decorated with white marble, and is filled with treasures.
Among them are the world's largest hand-woven Persian carpet, and a prayer hall covered with 20,000 handmade tiles embedded with semi-precious stones. It is stunning and traditional which is Abu Dhabi down to a tee.
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