The heart of The United Arab Emirates capital beats strong in its voluptuous dunes, turquoise lagoons and bird-filled wetlands. But your pulse is best taken after trying out the most adrenaline-inducing things to do in Abu Dhabi.
There’s a shriek as our white Landcruiser starts skidding sideways down a steep slope. From the passenger’s seat, I had been filming the four-wheel drive ahead of us as it kicked up an impressive cloud of sand and dipped behind a dune. But I had to hit pause on the recording to grip the dashboard. It’s a thrilling way to start my discovery of the most exhilarating things to do in Abu Dhabi.
It felt like our driver had lost control, but he hadn’t. Nor had any of the other drivers who were seemingly hitting the accelerator like hotheads in the distance. In fact, they’re skilled ‘dune bashers’. Each is trained to push vehicles to their limits on a thrilling trajectory across the Al Khatim desert’s steep dunes.
Desert Days: Abu Dhabi’s giant, adventure-packed playground
Despite the ever-shifting terrain, our drivers effortlessly weave their way back to our starting point. We arrive to discover red rugs and tables laid with crisp white tablecloths on the sand. It’s been beautifully arranged for us to enjoy a cold beer and barbecue under the stars.
The expansive and undulant desert is one of those unmissable things to see in Abu Dhabi. And dune bashing is the most thrilling way to feel the freedom that comes from being immersed in nature. Not to mention, you’ll get to witness those fiery orange sunsets.
But Abu Dhabi isn’t just about the sand. And contrary to popular belief, it’s so much more than just a halfway point on a long-haul flight. There are endless things to do in Abu Dhabi for all ages, no matter how adventurous you want to get.
The best things to do in Abu Dhabi: Fast and Furious
Things move fast in Abu Dhabi – and that includes the development of the city itself. It sprung out of a sleepy desert landscape in a matter of decades, following the discovery of oil in 1958. It’s probably best known for its oversized shopping centres and highrises stacked along the largest of its 200 islands. But Abu Dhabi is also home to the Yas Marina Circuit. You may recognise this location from TV screens around the world when the Formula One Grand Prix is on.
When we drive onto Yas island, it’s clear that it’s the city’s adventure hub. We pass the racy red rollercoaster of Ferrari World and Etihad Arena. We see signs pointing to CLYMB – the world’s tallest indoor skydiving flight chamber. But we’re not stopping here. Instead, it’s on to Pier 71 for a waterfront lunch at Lighthouse, before we hit the F1 track.
Sliding doors that read ‘drivers only’ open as we step inside a cavernous building. Rows of polished Ferraris, Porsches and Aston Martins are parked before us. Though these speed machines are available for hire (with or without a driver) to zip around the F1 track, that’s not what we’re here for.
Instead, my travelling companions and I head upstairs to don a black jumpsuit, gloves, shoes and a shiny white helmet. Visors down, we rev our go-kart engines and inch forward to our starting positions on the grid. We hoon around the track, trying to outdo each other’s lap times. Though we’re far from becoming stunt drivers for The Fast and the Furious, we leave pumped with adrenaline. On that note, filming for Furious 7 did actually take place in Abu Dhabi, including scenes shot outside the opulent Emirates Palace.
Thrills and chills at Warner Bros World
A 10-minute drive from the F1 track is the world’s largest indoor theme park, Warner Bros World. Pushing through the turnstiles, I look in awe at the central plaza’s high domed roof. Painted with wispy clouds, they gradually change colour to mirror the intensity of the midday sun, before shifting to a soft pink at sunset.
The air is cool and there’s a city-like buzz as we walk through rows of buildings lit with neon lights. I line up for the Green Lantern simulator – an immersive 4D-theatre experience that feels like falling into another universe. I do, however, chicken out at the Scarecrow Scare Raid in Gotham City (where screams can’t be heard, apparently). If you have the energy to try out the 29 rides and five themed ‘lands’, you can easily spend a day here.
A hit of Abu Dhabi’s natural adrenaline
Though the city plays on its glittering image and proudly flaunts its desert location, there are more than a few nature-based things to do in Abu Dhabi.
Firstly, the city’s abundant white sand and turquoise water beaches rival those of the best beach resorts around the world. Secondly, it has an intricate mangrove system that serves as an avian and marine sanctuary on Jubail Island.
We opt for a one-kilometre walk around Jubail Mangrove Park. Our guide Fawaz explains the significance of the ‘coastal guardians’ and points out the scuttling red-claw crabs that help provide oxygen to the tidal shrubs.
As we make our way back to the cafe and reception area along a raised boardwalk, I spy rainbow-hued canoes pulled up on the sand and make a mental note to join a kayak tour on my next visit. Fawaz explains that if you paddle to the end of the island, you can sometimes spot flamingos in the distance. Pink flamingos against turquoise water? Where do I sign up?
This article was created in partnership with Abu Dhabi Tourism.
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