As a lifestyle journalist and travel enthusiast, I’ve had the privilege of exploring numerous destinations, each with its unique charm and allure. However, my recent sojourn to Abu Dhabi, courtesy of The Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi, was nothing short of extraordinary. From the ancient heritage city to the modern cosmopolitan capital, Abu Dhabi seamlessly blends tradition with innovation, offering a diverse range of experiences that cater to every passion point imaginable.
The adventure began at the Conrad Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers, a towering epitome of luxury that redefines the hospitality experience. With breathtaking views of the Arabian Gulf, three pristine swimming pools and direct access to a private beach, this hotel is a destination in itself. The Conrad Spa by Amra ensured that relaxation was not just an option but a necessity, setting the tone for an indulgent escape.
Abu Dhabi’s winter campaign, ‘Can’t Wait To Winter’ lived up to its promise, presenting a curated lineup of experiences that catered to the thrill-seeker, culture enthusiast, food connoisseur and everyone in between.
For those seeking excitement, Yas Island emerged as the ultimate playground. Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi showcased the Emirate’s commitment to providing unparalleled thrills. The National Aquarium offered a chance to swim with tiger sharks, while the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall and skydiving flight chamber tested the limits of adventure seekers.
The annual calendar of events, from the NBA Abu Dhabi Games to the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, ensures there is never a dull moment. Abu Dhabi Showdown Week, a true championship experience that brought athlete meet and greets, fitness challenges, culinary deals and UFC mania, added an adrenaline-fueled dimension to my winter escapade.
Abu Dhabi’s ability to inspire was evident in its rich heritage and culture. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, a masterpiece in itself, transported me through the ages with its diverse collection of historical and contemporary artefacts. The Qasr Al-Watan Presidential Palace, the residence of the Sheikh, showcased the incredible history and traditions that have shaped the UAE’s journey.
To restore the soul, Abu Dhabi’s serene landscapes and wellness offerings proved to be the perfect antidote. From the peaceful yoga sessions at the Louvre to the secluded retreat at Nurai, every moment was a chance to reconnect with oneself amidst the Emirate’s natural beauty.
The heart of my journey, however, lay in the unique experiences meticulously crafted by The Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi. For instance, Manar Abu Dhabi, a mesmerising exhibition of light sculptures and immersive artworks, illuminated the city’s archipelagos and mangroves, creating a sensory feast for residents and visitors alike.
Exploring the Eastern Mangroves by boat, witnessing the breathtaking light and nature sculptures and experiencing the enchanting show at Qasr Al Watan were just a few highlights of a trip that left me awe-inspired and enriched.
Snow Abu Dhabi, the Emirate’s ‘coolest’ destination, added a playful twist to the winter experience. With icy entertainment, exhilarating rides and powdery snow in the heart of the desert, it was a surreal adventure that defied expectations.
Beyond the Luxe: Exploring the Soulful Essence of Abu Dhabi
Every corner of Abu Dhabi revealed a different facet of its architecture and culture. From the historic Al Ain Palace Museum, where traditional elements seamlessly blend with modern design, to the lush greenery of Al Ain Oasis, where the ancient falaj system whispered tales of sustainable architecture, each stop on my journey was a testament to the city’s commitment to preserving its past while embracing the future.
Heritage Village: A Glimpse Into Timeless Traditions
Nestled amidst the modern skyline, the Heritage Village emerged as a portal to a bygone era. As I strolled through its winding alleys, the scent of frankincense lingered in the air and traditional music resonated through the wind. Craftsmen demonstrated age-old skills, weaving a narrative that celebrated the Emirates‘ cultural richness. The juxtaposition of the village against the backdrop of skyscrapers encapsulated Abu Dhabi’s commitment to preserving its roots amid rapid urbanisation.
But this wasn’t just a stroll through history; it was an immersion into the quirky and age-old traditions of Arab culture, expertly explained by our tour guide Natalie as we explored the traditional coffee-serving rituals.
In the intricate dance of hospitality, every movement bore a symbolic weight. Arabic coffee, or ‘Qahwa Arabiyyah’, wasn’t just a beverage; it was a language of its own, expressing joy, sorrow, and unspoken words. The Dallah, or the iconic coffee pot, took centre stage, symbolising generosity and camaraderie. It’s even used as a cultural symbol on important occasions ranging from weddings to funerals.
Arabic coffee holds a special significance in Arab weddings and marriage proposals, often serving as a mediator for important discussions. Here’s a unique tradition: if a guest leaves their coffee untouched, it signals they have a specific request. The host, noticing this, inquires about the request. If the host intends to grant it, they’ll ask the guest to drink the coffee, signifying approval.
There’s also a custom called ‘Sabbat Al-Heshma,’ where the coffee should fill no more than one-third to half of the cup. If it exceeds this limit, it subtly signals to the guest that they may not be welcome, prompting them to finish their coffee and politely leave.
In this journey through Heritage Village, history wasn’t confined to stone walls; it lived in the animated tales brewed in every cup of Arabic coffee, every hand-woven zari and hand-carved weapon. The age-old traditions intertwined with contemporary conversations, proving that in Abu Dhabi, the past and present don’t merely coexist; they share a cup of rich, flavourful history.
Manar Abu Dhabi: Illuminating The City’s Soul
Manar Abu Dhabi, a symphony of light and nature, turned the city into an open-air gallery. Saadiyat Island, Lulu Island and the Eastern Mangroves became canvases for breathtaking light sculptures. As I boarded a boat to explore the Eastern Mangroves, the sculptures came to life, casting an ethereal glow on the waters. It was as if Abu Dhabi itself was narrating stories through the play of light, a testament to the city’s dedication to merging art with its natural surroundings.
Louvre Abu Dhabi: Where Art And Architecture Converge
Jean Nouvel’s architectural masterpiece, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, transcended conventional museum experiences. The intricately designed dome, a constellation of interwoven patterns, provided shelter while allowing sunlight to create a captivating ‘rain of light.’ Inside, the art collection, a curated journey through civilisations beckoned exploration.
The juxtaposition of classical and contemporary pieces added layers to the narrative, creating a cultural dialogue that spoke volumes about Abu Dhabi’s commitment to global artistic dialogue.
Qasr Al Watan: A Palatial Journey Through History
Constructed in just 7 years, the massive Qasr Al Watan, a working palace, opened its grand doors to reveal a treasure trove of Arabian opulence. The architecture, a blend of Arabic craftsmanship and modern design, echoed the nation’s journey.
The ‘Palace in Motion’ show, a dance of lights and sounds, vividly recounted UAE’s evolution. Standing in the grand hall, surrounded by intricate calligraphy and towering arches and domes, I felt a profound connection with the rich heritage that shaped the country.
Eastern Mangroves Marina: Nature’s Tranquil Embrace
Amidst the urban bustle, the Eastern Mangroves Marina offered a sanctuary of serenity. As I explored the labyrinthine waterways by kayak, the mangroves unveiled a delicate ecosystem. The juxtaposition of cityscape and mangrove roots was a poetic reminder of Abu Dhabi’s dedication to preserving its natural wonders. The marina wasn’t just a place; it showed us the city’s harmonious coexistence with nature.
Al Ain Palace Museum: A Glimpse Into Royal Grandeur
The Al Ain Palace Museum transported me to an era of royal splendour. The meticulously preserved palace, once home to UAE’s founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, narrated tales of leadership and vision. The geometric designs of the palace echoed the region’s architectural heritage, providing a regal backdrop to the stories of the UAE’s formation.
Al Ain Oasis: Amidst The Verdant Abundance
Wandering through the palm-lined pathways of Al Ain Oasis felt like stepping into an oasis of tranquillity. The ancient falaj irrigation system, meticulously preserved, painted a picture of sustainable agricultural practices. As I walked beneath the shade of date palms, the rustle of fronds became a soothing soundtrack and it was proof of Abu Dhabi’s commitment to preserving its green heritage.
Mamsha Al Saadiyat: Where Art Meets Seaside Sophistication
Mamsha Al Saadiyat, the vibrant promenade along the Saadiyat Island shore, blended art, leisure and luxury. As I strolled along the waterfront, surrounded by art installations and boutique stores, the ambience exuded a refined coastal charm. The artistic vibe, coupled with panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf, made it a cultural haven where every corner told a story of innovation and sophistication.
The Fine Dining Experience
Discovering Antonia at Mamsha Al Saadiyat
Located on the vibrant promenade of Mamsha Al Saadiyat, Antonia is a gourmet pizza joint with a heritage as rich as its flavours. Chef Simone’s commitment to his grandmother’s 50-year-old sourdough recipe was evident in every bite of the traditional Roman Pizza Al Taglio. But Antonia isn’t just about pizza; it’s a celebration of Italian cuisine, from pasta to salads and fine wines, all enjoyed against the backdrop of the Arabian Gulf.
Al Fanar Restaurant & Café: A Nostalgic Journey
For an authentic Emirati experience, Al Fanar Restaurant & Café beckoned. The nostalgic space unfolded with distinctive Emirati flavours, from fresh salads to classic dishes like laham nashef and machboos samak. It wasn’t just a meal; it was a step back into the UAE’s rich past, a culinary journey that left me savouring the essence of Emirati culture.
Oii: Where the Mediterranean Comes Alive
At Al Qana’s waterfront, Oii transported me to the Mediterranean. The all-day dining menu, inspired by Southern European traditions, was a feast for the senses. As I enjoyed signature creations in the Santorini-themed space, Oii proved to be more than a restaurant—it was a Mediterranean escape within the heart of Abu Dhabi.
Erth: A Michelin-Starred Emirati Culinary Gem
In the shadow of the Qasr Al Hosn cultural site, Erth beckoned with its dramatic location and bold architecture. Recently awarded a MICHELIN Star, Erth’s modern take on Emirati traditions was a culinary spectacle. From ravioli Margooga to unforgettable luqaimat, each dish carried the legacy of Emirati flavours, a testament to the rich culinary heritage of the UAE.
Tashas: Where Food and Conversation Converge
My fine dining journey concluded at Tashas, a space where food and conversation seamlessly intertwined. With a warm welcome and an elegant atmosphere, Tashas served us uncomplicated comfort food sourced from the best artisans—not to mention their generous portions of fresh salad bowls that had our group in a chokehold. As a family of 21 restaurants across South Africa and the UAE, Tashas provided the perfect closing note to an epicurean adventure.
A Winter Wonderland Unveiled
The ‘Can’t Wait To Winter’ campaign lived up to its promise, introducing me to Manar Abu Dhabi’s enchanting light sculptures, the iconic Louvre Abu Dhabi and the historic Qasr Al Watan. Each experience, meticulously curated by the Abu Dhabi Culture & Tourism Department, unfolded as a chapter in a story of warmth, wonder and genuine hospitality.
As I bid farewell to Abu Dhabi, I couldn’t help but reflect on the unique character that sets it apart from its glitzy neighbour, Dubai. Abu Dhabi is more than a glamorous counterpart; it’s a treasure trove of culture, history and culinary delights waiting to be discovered. Winter in Abu Dhabi is not just a season; it’s an invitation to uncover the heart and soul of the UAE, leaving you with a ‘can’t wait to return’ sentiment that lingers long after your journey ends. Until our paths cross again, Abu Dhabi, the echoes of your stories will resonate in my heart.