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Winter sun holidays: Discovering Abu Dhabi's desert safaris and gigantic aquaparks on a family break

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The oompah band has lost its oomph. All of a sudden, large swathes of Europe seem destined to be off the menu (or severely restricted) this Christmas and into the new year, just as millions of us have started to give serious thought to taking a winter break.

Fortunately, options for much-needed sun farther afield remain open — and given all the doom and gloom of last Christmas, has the idea ever seemed quite so appealing?

For hundreds of thousands of British holidaymakers, it will instantly conjure thoughts of that tried-and-tested winter pleaser, the United Arab Emirates.

Glowing: Desert sands in Abu Dhabi, UAE, which Robert says is a 'tried-and-tested winter pleaser'

Glowing: Desert sands in Abu Dhabi, UAE, which Robert says is a ‘tried-and-tested winter pleaser’ 

The Hardmans (pictured) stayed at the Saadiyat Rotana Resort in Abu Dhabi

The Hardmans (pictured) stayed at the Saadiyat Rotana Resort in Abu Dhabi 

There are few destinations with more flights, shorter flying times and a better chance of decent weather at the other end. 

And while many people will automatically gravitate to Dubai, an increasing number of Britons are starting to look for family fun in the larger, more powerful member of the UAE confederation — Abu Dhabi.

Having done so myself shortly before the pandemic, I can see why.

For here is a place with all the facilities and the good stuff you expect of Dubai but with one added attraction: space. Masses of it.

It’s the first thing that hits you when you sit up from your sunbed on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s main holiday coastal strip. 

Instead of cranes and high-rise blocks, you see nothing at all except sand and sea. 

And that is how Abu Dhabi is planning to keep it. 

We stayed at the Saadiyat Rotana Resort, built in the style of an Emirati home, low-lying with a wide, airy atrium leading out to a huge palm-lined pool.

Blue horizon: The view from a hotel on Saadiyat island, where - according to Robert - 'you see nothing at all except sand and sea'

Blue horizon: The view from a hotel on Saadiyat island, where – according to Robert – ‘you see nothing at all except sand and sea’

ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW 

  • All visitors must register their vaccination status via the ICA Smart App (smartservices.ica.gov.ae) prior to travel and take a PCR test no more than 48 hours before departure (children under 16 exempt).
  • Travellers must then take a PCR test on arrival at the airport (free of charge). They do not need to quarantine before getting their results. Children under 12 are exempt.
  • All travellers aged 16 and above must download the Al Hosn mobile phone app (alhosnapp.ae) and upload proof of vaccination status. The result of the PCR test taken at the airport will be automatically updated on the app. If it is negative, the app will show ‘green’, which enables tourists to have full access to sites, bars and restaurants.
  • Unvaccinated tourists must take a PCR test on arrival, without the need to quarantine, and further PCR tests on days six and nine.
  • More information: visitabudhabi.ae.

 

You don’t sense that there are actually 327 rooms (and 11 villas), as the hotel building meanders through lawns and gardens alongside a third of a mile of near-empty beach. It only opened in 2018 but already has a keen international following, many of them British.

The attention to detail is impressive. A family room is more like a presidential suite, with two big rooms (both ensuite) connected by a common hallway rather than a connecting door through the wall. With lots of separate air-conditioning zones (I like things Arctic, the children prefer a fug), enormous beds and impenetrable blinds, we all slept like babies.

Across the pool area there are more than enough sunbeds to go round. Stroll along the boardwalk over the baking sand and there are loungers galore on the beach, too. Although the place was apparently full during our stay, we always felt as if the main party had yet to turn up.

It might be just half an hour from the international airport but, from March to midsummer, this is a hatchery for Abu Dhabi’s endangered hawksbill turtle. The Rotana is proud of its turtles, hence its Turtle Bay restaurant.

Half-board guests can pick and choose from several restaurants but our three (then aged 12, ten and eight) quickly singled out the poolside brasserie for its fish, steaks and creme brulee. I noted down the tuna ceviche and the cauliflower popcorn and would order it again tomorrow. Now and then, we would follow the waft of home-made dough to the hotel’s excellent Italian restaurant, Si.

For those who cannot bear to miss the sporting action at home (or anywhere else), Hamilton’s gastropub has all the usual sports bar options on offer, beneath jumbo screens beaming in every major fixture on the planet.

Perhaps the most impressive production of the lot was the weekly Market Brunch at the Sim-Sim restaurant, much admired by local expats. It is the only time in my life when anyone has ever said to me: ‘How many lobsters would you like, Sir?’

There is a well-staffed children’s club operation — both indoor and out — but after a couple of days we wanted to explore. If Dubai prides itself on skyscrapers and sporting events, Abu Dhabi’s forte is culture and theme parks, with plenty of both within a 20-minute cab ride.

Yas Waterworld, one of the biggest aquaparks in the Middle East, not only has more tubes and chutes than anything back home but also has a rollercoaster which whizzes you around the 30-acre site in your bathers.

Near by is the vast Warner Bros World, a billion-dollar investment which does for Scooby-Doo and Batman what Disneyland does for Mickey Mouse. Unlike Disney, however, the makers have put it all inside an air-conditioned complex the size of an airport, with eye-popping special effects.

We arrived in the morning and had to drag the children away at 7pm. Now fully reopened and Covid-compliant, it costs £60 a head and the add-ons are reasonably priced — e.g. £8 for a pizza.

Describing Abu Dhabi, pictured, Robert says: 'Here is a place with all the facilities and the good stuff you expect of Dubai but with one added attraction: space'

Describing Abu Dhabi, pictured, Robert says: ‘Here is a place with all the facilities and the good stuff you expect of Dubai but with one added attraction: space’

Robert paid a visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, pictured, which was built in partnership with its Parisian namesake

Robert paid a visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, pictured, which was built in partnership with its Parisian namesake

TRAVEL FACTS

Doubles B&B at Saadiyat Rotana Resort from £229 per night (rotana.com). 

London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi returns with Etihad from £376 (Etihad.com)

Arabian Nights Village desert experiences from £21.50 (arabiannightsvillage.com).

For a complete change of scene, we paid a visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, built by the founding father of the UAE who is buried there. The scale of it is breathtaking, with acres of geometric pools, soothing fountains and mighty minarets. The main prayer hall is covered by the largest carpet in the world, hand-made by 1,200 Iranian weavers, which lies beneath what was (until recently) the world’s largest chandelier.

Equally restful is a trip to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, built in partnership with its Parisian namesake. A Picasso/Chagall exhibition was on during our visit.

Equally impressive was the building itself, built like a floating dome, rising from sea with dappled sunlight coming through a latticework roof inspired by a palm frond.

You can’t come all this way without a trip to the desert. We had a spectacular Arabian Nights Desert Safari, driven from our door to the middle of nowhere for camel rides and a fabulous dune tour, pausing at the top of the sand mountains to see the landscape change colour in the setting sun.

Finally, we adjourned to a carpeted oasis for plates of flame-grilled lamb and chicken in front of a belly-dancer who soon had our three up on stage and joining in.

At the time, it all felt like a long-lost vision of another world. How thrilling that it could be a genuine possibility this winter.

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