Stylist’s art editor Rob Timm tries something other than shopping and getting a tan in the UAE
“The Rub’ al Khali is the largest expanse of sand in the world, made famous by British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who crossed it twice in the Forties and Fifties,” my guide politely informs me.
“ARRRGGGGHH,” I say in reply. I’m finding it a little hard to respond because he’s just thrown his V8 4X4 Toyota Land Cruiser into first gear, lashed it up the nearest sand dune and dropped it off the top. I’m going to die, I think, while ironically grinning from ear to ear. It’s like the best roller coaster I’ve ever been on but much, much better.
“Have you ever flipped one of these beasts?” I yell. “Of course, all the time,” he responds, and I immediately regret asking.
Sitting on the Arabian Gulf and bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, most holidaymakers come to the UAE for the double ‘S’: sun and shopping. But I’m here to see a different side; the adventurous and cultural one that, deep in the desert, has started with a bang as my guide races us to the top of another dune to rescue one of his forlorn colleagues, who’s thankfully not upside down.
After the dune bashing (you can also try sandboarding and quad biking), we’re transferred to another more temperamental vehicle – this one has a hump and seems to spit a lot – at a makeshift Bedouin camp that tour company Arabian Adventures (arabian-adventures.com) has set up in the sand. Four wheels now swapped for a more sedate four feet, we plod along, sun setting in the distance and the aroma of a traditional Arabic barbecue wafting past our noses. Hours later, hookahs (aromatic shisha pipes) in full swing, all lights are turned off and I experience a truly poetic moment looking at the stars. Now I see why Thesiger spent so long out here.
You can opt to sleep out in the desert overnight but while in town, I’m staying at the rather grand Shangri-La hotel – a 10-minute drive from the airport and positioned on a 1km-stretch of private beach (the desert is an hour away by car if you are planning a trip).
Staying here lets you sample a bit of both worlds. I’m welcomed with traditional Chinese tea in the room and Arabic coffee in the lobby, and my room’s a kind of cross between a kung fu dojo and a Bedouin camp. The hotel’s Chinese roots are also on show at dinner in their restaurant Shang Palace, where I’m welcomed by a tea sommelier and indulge in some crazily good bottomless dim sum.
All bedrooms at the Shangri-La have a view of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – a kind of Taj Mahal-but-grander copycat that was completed in 2007. Featuring 82 domes, over 1,000 columns, 24-carat gold-plated chandeliers and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet (it took 1,200 craftspeople two years to make), it’s one of the world’s largest mosques – the biggest being the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. With trained Emirati guides sharing insights into both the foundations of their faith and passion for their nation, female visitors should note they have to wear an abaya to enter.
There is, of course, a lot of sand here (a lot) but there’s also water, so the next day we head to the city’s Eastern Mangroves to kayak along the river. The heat is daunting – it was 35°C when I visited in May but it can shoot up to 45°C – but once on the open water with the city skyline in front of you, the cool of the Mangroves is nothing but refreshing. When swimming, the salt content is so high you’re able to float like in the Dead Sea, plus, you can turtle spot.
My last and most wonderfully random stop is the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (falconhospital.com), the largest and most advanced of its kind in the world, where 80-90 birds are treated daily, from getting their nails done to full-blown surgery. Hunting with falcons is prohibited in the UAE – falconry is practised purely for sport and to honour the traditions of the past – and the birds are so revered here that they get their own passport and seats on planes when travelling. At feeding time, I get up close and personal with a female; bone-crunchingly brilliant as she chewed a piece of chicken from my hand, while I tried not to think about the fact she can take down moving prey like baby deer.
Abu Dhabi has more to offer than you might think. Yes, the plasticity of a manufactured world is still here in parts but there is heritage and wildlife among it. And the best sand roller coaster I’ve been on yet.
British Airways Holidays offers three nights at the 5* Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi, from £559 per person. For reservations, call 03444930123 or visit ba.com/abudhabi