The Middle East is fast becoming the go-to family holiday destination. Jane Knight and her six-year-old head to Abu Dhabi for fun among the dunes.
Abu Dhabi is the rising star of tourism in the Emirates. It has some unique offerings for families, with more to come when the Louvre and the Guggenheim open outposts there in the next few years. During a week’s stay, as well as the desert, my son Christian and I took in an island outpost populated with safari animals, and of course the city, home to the world’s biggest falcon hospital as well as its fastest roller coaster, at Ferrari World.
Who knew the desert could be so much fun? But then Abu Dhabi as a whole is a surprise paradise for adventure-seeking families who want a little more than the normal fly-and-flop holidays in the sun.
Abu Dhabi is essentially the world’s biggest sandpit. Around us, dunes rise like never-ending mountain ranges. Here is no one else in sight – it’s just Christian and me, with our guide in Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter, the largest uninterrupted area of sand dunes in the world. What do we do in all this sandy solitude? We play. There are sand angels to make, slopes to slide down, lizard tracks to follow and tales of a spider the size of a dinner plate to hear.
Then, at the top of an impossibly high slope, our guide tells us it’s time to hear the sand sing. Slowly we start our rhythmic descent, our feet causing whole rivers of sand to flow down before us. Sure enough, as our steps displace the air between the tiny grains, a thrumming, humming noise begins, gathering momentum as we do. There’s just time for a game of sand noughts and crosses as the sun dips magnificently in the sky.
The wonder doesn’t stop when you enter the luxury fortress that is Anatara’s Qasr Al Sarab. There are many activities on offer for children, from camel rides to cookery classes, as well as complimentary pilates and yoga in the dunes for parents.
At Ferrari World theme park, Christian was thrilled to gain his ‘driving licence’ on the mini Ferraris, while I brave the Formula Rossa, which accelerates to 150mph in just 4.9 seconds. I’m a bit alarmed to be handed a pair of goggles. Will I be going so fast that the 1.7 G-force means my eyeballs will be sucked out? No, I’m told. It’s to stop the desert sand getting in my eyes, as the ride goes outside.
We also pay a visit to the biggest falcon hospital in the world, which deals with 6,000 avian patients a year. These majestic birds are treated like royalty in the Middle East. They have their own passports and are even allowed to travel on their owners’ fists on Arab airlines.
Riding and diving experiences are available, as is kayaking through the mangroves – something not to be missed. As we paddle, a smudge of pink flamingos flies across the azure sky. Then a movement in the water catches our eye and we watch entranced as five gazelles swim from a white-sand bar back toland, their heads bobbing in a row.
Even better is our wadi walk, where we follow both gazelle and hyena tracks to a small body of water in a dip at the bottom. This rocky gash in the landscape is an artist’s palette of colours; the rock walls are striped sulphur yellow, iron red and green from oxidised copper.
Driving through this city of superlatives is a bit tame after the Formula Rossa roller coaster, though it’s interesting to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which holds the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet and chandelier, and the Hyatt Capital Gate hotel, which was built to lean four times as much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
We certainly clock up a lot of wildlife in Abu Dhabi, which is the surprising home to giraffe, hyenas, cheetahs and golden jackals as well as the more expected gazelles and Arabian oryx. We see them all on Yas island, 155 miles from the capital, where they were first gathered back in the 1970s, in Noah’s ark fashion, under Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates. It isn’t Africa – many of the animals are sectioned off in compounds where they have water troughs and food – but it is an easy introduction to safari, and is particularly good for young children.
On our ‘game drive’ we spot a cheetah cub on our two-hour outing, as well as a family of wide-eyed ostrich, which, my son is delighted to hear, have eyes larger than their brains. The 54sq mile scrubby island isn’t the most scenic of places, but the animal viewing is excellent.
The food at the desert fortress Qasr Al Sarab is amazing, even without considering that you’re in a desert, produced by an inventive chef who was trialling a pancake muffin mix during our visit, and who has healthy chicken escalopes masquerading as chicken nuggets on the kids’ menu.
Abu Dhabi’s restaurants offer a vibrant and varied mix of international flavours and impressive culinary standards, with plenty of great child-friendly options.
Try Dine at the Aloft Hotel. Kids will love the beanbag seating (don’t worry, you can have a chair) in this fun, colourful restaurant. The fast food menu also includes some healthier kid-friendly options.
Noodle House at Souk Qaryat Al Beri serves reasonably-priced Asian food and children’s meals are served with cute mini chopsticks.
Anantara has a range of family-friendly properties, and rooms can generally take two adults and one child. We chose Anantara’s Desert Islands Resort hotel, where we tuck into the evening buffet before settling down outside on bean bags to watch the evening screening – Megamind – accompanied by free popcorn. It’s one of the nice touches to a stay here, which also involves a mad pizza-making session, where the chef initiates a flour fight as the children make their own pizzas. It’s the only hotel on the island, and while not particularly luxurious, it is ideal for families, as are Anantara’s other properties in the desert and the city.
On the island of Sir Bani Yas, the hotel group has a cluster of sea villas on a much better beach than that enjoyed by the main hotel, as well as a group of desert villas inside the wildlife park for a more up-close animal experience. Much swisher than the main hotel, they are perfect for a one-night family getaway.
But neither is as special as Qasr Al Sarab, the desert fortress just a couple of hours from the city. It’s quite simply the best desert camp I’ve been to, giving you just enough of a brush with adventure to satisfy your inner Lawrence of Arabia along with great dollops of luxury. There are the elegant but ethnic rooms, with stone floors and kilim rugs, flatscreen TVs and plunge pools. Best of all, though, all the rooms have huge balconies that are perfect for watching the sun rise or set over the dunes.
Price: A week’s holiday for a family of four, staying one night in the city, three nights at Anantara Desert Islands Resortand three nights at Qasr Al Sarab, costs from £2,687 per person, including breakfast, flights and transfers, with Scott Dunn.
When to go: Don’t even think of going in summer – Abu Dhabi can be punishingly hot, particularly in the desert. It’s best to travel between November and March for temperatures below 30C, but take something warm for desert nights.