A family adventure in Abu Dhabi

In a city better known for its beaches and shopping malls, what’s really on offer for the family in Abu Dhabi? Well, if they like speedboat rides, themeparks and nature safaris, then quite a lot, says Nasar Niaz

I was planning a big escape for the whole family, somewhere we could explore a different culture but still have fun outdoors and tick the all-important sea and sun box. Could there be such a place we hadn’t travelled to yet? 

On paper, Abu Dhabi has it all figured out. The capital of the UAE boasts miles of golden sands, imposing skyscrapers, glitzy malls and some very innovative tourist attractions. Year-round sunshine warms the waters of the Arabian Gulf and don’t be surprised to find average highs of about 18C in January and up to perhaps 40C or higher in July and August. 

All of this about a seven-hour flight from the UK seemed too good an opportunity for us to miss. So how would it go down with our three children?

Outdoor fun
Abu Dhabi is made up of 200 islands, so it’s no surprise that the water offers one of the city’s best vistas of the crenellated skyline. The Yellow Boats are speedboat tours that whizz between landmarks such as the Corniche, Lulu Island and Emirates Palace and slow down for you to spot dolphins surfacing between the yachts. Our friendly guide Dani had great knowledge and didn’t bombard us with unwieldy facts. 

Disembark and head to the beaches – there are so many to choose from. You’ll find five miles of golden sands at the central Corniche, which has Blue Flag status, lifeguards and sunloungers, while Al Bateen Beach has a family friendly vibe, with calm waters for kayaking. At Saadiyat Beach you can tour the conservation area for endangered hawksbill sea turtles run by Arabella Willing, resident marine biologist at the Park Hyatt hotel.

Hotel guests on Yas Island get free entrance to Yas Beach, where chefs from Naples ferry pizzas out to your cabana. There’s a wide range of watersports to try, as well as an infinity pool and a shaded splash pool for little one.

No sleepy backwater, Yas Waterworld is a large, landscaped park with four thrill levels, as well as dedicated family areas that will suit parents with younger children. Mini-slides and gentle waterfalls are just what they’ll need to cool off when the weather hots up. You could spend a whole day here, thanks to the restaurants and choice of aquatic activities. Freefall slides, surf waves, six-person rapid rafts and water fight zones are an easy win for anyone wanting to splash about – and some brave teenagers may even emerge terrified from the biggest chutes.

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi themepark is the first of its kind in the world and has more than 20 rides and attractions, many of which are housed in air-conditioned bliss. For a taster, try Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest rollercoaster, reaching nearly 150mph, Flying Aces that boasts the world’s tallest loop at 52m high, and Bell’Italia that calls at the Amalfi Coast, Venice and the Colosseum in a classic 1950s Ferrari (albeit at a very sedate pace). The sheer variety means you can tackle the assault course at the junior training academy, hit the go-kart track or pootle round on a fun-sized circuit in cute mini-Ferraris. 

Right nextdoor is Yas Marina Circuit, home to the real grand prix and, as my six-year-old son put it, ‘totally epic and awesome’. Beyond the high-octane race days, there’s a brilliant local health initiative whereby anyone can come and jog or cycle on the track. Yas Start takes place on a Sunday and Tuesday evening an it’s completely free when you register, and there are 400 bikes for the public too. It was so popular when we visited that they’d run out of free bicycles but there’s an affordable rental shop too so we got our own, plus stabilisers!

A 1.5-hour drive from the city is the emirate’s second, greener city, Al Ain. Discover a delicate ecosystem amid the 147,000 palms of Al Ain Oasis, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and take a 4x4 safari drive to meet lions, rhinos and the rare Arabian oryx, at the Al Ain Zoo. Like with every new project in Abu Dhabi, there are some ambitious future plans for the park, which in this instance include experiences such as dining with the lions (don’t worry, there’s a glass screen between you otherwise you’ll be the dinner!). For now though our kids were left spellbound after feeding the giraffes and seeing some of Earth’s most incredible creatures roaming a natural outdoor playground.

Before Abu Dhabi struck oil, pearl explorers brought prosperity to the nation. Drifting on a wooden boat, seated on Arabian floor cushions and fuelled with coffee and dates, Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey is an engaging history lesson like no other. Tour guides get the children involved in the storytelling, and there may just be a surprise instore for you when you get to open a real-life oyster (though sadly, not for us). 

From the outside, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is as epic as the Taj Mahal or Sacre Coeur. It’s maybe one for the parents, but the fairytale-like structure will make a fantastic snapshot. Better still, take the family to see a real-life desert castle. Al Jahili Fort dates to the 19th century and was built to protect Al Ain. It has a permanent exhibition on the life of British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, whose friendship with Sheikh Zayed is linked to the foundation of the UAE.

Honouring the values of the late leader’s wife, the Mother of The Nation Festival is a highlight of the cultural calendar – and one that puts the family – and food – centre stage. Held in March and April it celebrates life, knowledge and progress, with entertainment, games and learning for children of all ages. Get them involved in sand art, kite making and arts and crafts, and tuck in at the scores of food stalls.

Shopping and eating
Yas Mall sits right nextdoor to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and is three floors of retail overload. Boutiques and brands from across the globe are represented here in more than 2.5 million sq ft. There’s a 20-screen cinema complex and plenty of places to eat. If you want to put your bags down for a while, stop off at the many European-style street cafés or the spacious food court. 

When we asked the locals about the best burger joint in the Marina Mall, they all told us Bareburger: organic meat, cooked to perfection with lots of modern tasty twists and superb sweet potato fries. The milkshakes are amazing and our toddler totally loved the organic milk cartons.

Nation Towers mall has a wonderful Lebanese restauraunt, Wafi Gourmet, with a cornucopia of Middle Eastern sweets, nuts, dried fruits and mouthwatering meat and fish. The kids ravished their kubedah with rice and we really enjoyed our schwarmas. The Lebanese food tasted very authentic indeed. 

If you want a taste of the tradition UAE, then head for Al Fannar. Within its cavernous interior, there’s an old-world ambience and very generous portions. The samosas were a highlight and their homemade lemonade so refreshing. There were lots of waxwork models of the old Emirati workers and their camels for a true nostalgic feel.

Find out more

English is widely spoken in Abu Dhabi, and despite enjoying a steady number of visitors, there’s not the melee of mass tourism you might expect. Instead, you’ll be surprised by how well the locals and visitors mingle together and its relaxed, cosmopolitan feel. Families are made to feel very welcome. Regular flights from UK take just over seven hours. For more information, on events, itineraries and travel tips, visit the tourist board.