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Abu Dhabi Overview
The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest of the nation's seven emirates. Covering 80 percent of the land mass of the U.A.E., the emirate of Abu Dhabi is divided into three parts: the city of Abu Dhabi, the historic Al Ain region centered on a large oasis on an old camel caravan route, and Al Gharbia, part of the world's largest uninterrupted sand desert with towering dunes spreading across the Arabian peninsula.
The cruise port lies in the central city of Abu Dhabi, a rapidly growing cosmopolitan metropolis where glittering skyscrapers pierce the sky and five-star resorts spread across natural islands where you'll find golf courses, beaches, marinas, upscale malls, a Formula 1 race car track, amusement areas and cultural institutions.
Compared with Dubai, the nation's playground and largest city 90 minutes to the north, Abu Dhabi is more family oriented and, with a population consisting of a higher number of native Emiratis, more traditional in its values. The head of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi is also president of the U.A.E., and the city is the seat of the national government and a financial center.
Abu Dhabi's extreme wealth stems from oil, discovered in 1958. The U.A.E. was formed in 1971 when the head of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, persuaded his fellow emirs to form the union and became its first president. Transformation has been swift. Abu Dhabi put its oil money into the development of a modern infrastructure, health care, education, arts and culture. Abu Dhabi grew into a modern, Westernized civilization in a little more than a generation, evolving from a society of fishing villages along the coast and Bedouins living a nomadic life in the desert. Still, you'll find it preserves its Arabian traditions and Bedouin hospitality. It is diversifying its stake in oil by developing other industries, including tourism, and is warm and welcoming to visitors.
Abu Dhabi's culture is rooted in Islam, but all faiths are respected and protected by the constitution. The dress code is liberal, and Western wear is common, though native Emiratis often choose to wear their national dress.
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Other Middle East Cruise Ports:
Abu Dhabi • Aqaba • Dubai • Haifa • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Muscat • Salalah
You'll find an abundance of gold jewelry, priced daily at the international rate, from 18 to 24 carats. Styles range from modern Western designs to ornate Arabian jewelry -- traditional for weddings. Dates make a delicious edible souvenir and are sold in beautifully wrapped boxes. The sweet fruits come plain or in an array of varieties, including those dipped in chocolate or stuffed with almonds.
Arabic is the official language, but English is widely spoken. Most road signs are in both languages and, especially in the city, restaurant menus and shop signs will appear in English and Arabic.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Abu Dhabi uses the U.A.E. monetary unit, the dirham. Visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for current rates. Cash is the preferred method of payment, especially in souks, but credit and debit cards are often accepted. Ask before you buy or order in a restaurant. An ATM and a currency exchange are located in the cruise terminal and both are also found in shopping malls and major visitor attractions. Many hotels also exchange money, though you'll need to show your passport. Banks and currency exchanges are usually closed on Friday, the Islamic holy day.
Where You're Docked
Cruises passengers arrive at a tented cruise terminal erected in 2011 at Mina Zayed, the major cargo port in Abu Dhabi city. From the port entrance gate, it's about a 15-minute walk to the Corniche, the waterfront promenade and beach along the city center, but the route is not walker-friendly; a five-minute taxi ride is a better bet.
Though the port's tented cruise terminal is a temporary facility until long-range plans for a permanent cruise terminal are realized, it features a visitor information desk, ATM and currency exchange, minimart, souvenir shops and free Wi-Fi.
The carpet souk is about a 5- to 10-minute walk from the port entrance. Unlike most of modern Abu Dhabi, this souk has old-fashioned, white, low-rise buildings where salesmen in Arab dress stand outside beckoning shoppers. Wares are mainly machine-made carpets and majlis, Arabian cushions.
Also in the port area, the Fish Souk is a sight to behold in the early morning when fishermen unload their catch and haggle with buyers. Later in the day, the Emirati restaurant Al Arish, in the Al Meena district on the banks of the port, serves some of the fresh catch. Al Dhafra, a floating restaurant by the port, serves an Emirati buffet.
Abu Dhabi is not a walkable city; streets are designed for vehicles, not for casual strolling. The city also is spread out with the city center connected by long bridges and causeways between islands and the mainland.
Public buses are inexpensive but uncomfortable in hot weather, which is often the case in Abu Dhabi, and the network of bus lines is confusing. There are no public buses at the port.
Taxis, on the other hand, are cheap, plentiful, clean and often use late-model cars. Hail one on the street, go to a cab stand or order one by phone. All are metered, and tipping is not expected. Taxis are identified by a yellow light on the roof, though you might see a few pink taxis designated for women only. Many drivers speak English.
Abu Dhabi does not use conventional street addresses, so directions are given by district and landmarks, such as hotels, malls or attractions. Carry the phone number of your destination if it is not well known.
Several major rental-car companies operate in Abu Dhabi, though none are located in the cruise terminal. Most -- among them Avis, Hertz and Budget -- have offices close by in the central city and may be willing to arrange pickup and drop-off points in the parking area just outside the terminal. With a rental car, you can drive around the central city and adjacent Yas and Saadiyat Islands and make a day trip to Al Ain. Driving in Abu Dhabi is easy with good signage, but watch out for parking restrictions. Parking is allowed on white and black pavement, restricted on yellow and black as well as red pavement, and must be paid on blue and black pavement. Find the nearest meter to see charges. The paid parking system is monitored around the clock except on Fridays and public holidays.
Watch Out For
While Abu Dhabi has a liberal dress code, leave your tank tops and short shorts on the ship. Women should not wear short skirts, strapless or spaghetti-strap tops, or shorts in public places. Men may not wear shorts in mosques. Aside from cultural considerations, a wrap or light jacket might be more comfortable in air-conditioned spaces and outdoors on winter evenings.
Public displays of affection are frowned upon; homosexuality is illegal.
Abu Dhabi has strict laws regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol, which is prohibited outside licensed clubs and restaurants, most of which are found in hotels. There are harsh penalties for illegal drug use and even some over-the-counter medicines, such as codeine, are prohibited. If you must carry a prescription drug with you, it's best to keep it in its original container with your doctor's prescription.
It's considered impolite to photograph people without permission, especially Muslim women. Avoid photographing military and government installations.
The weekend is Friday and Saturday; most offices are closed.
Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque: The largest mosque in the U.A.E., accommodating 40,000 people, opened in 2007 and is named for the late president and founder of the U.A.E. Sheikh Zayed incorporated his vision of global unity into its design. Only the doors were made in the U.A.E.; all other materials are from locations around the world, including the world's largest hand-woven carpet made in Iran of wool from New Zealand. Weighing 47 tons, it was divided into nine pieces and flown here in two separate planes. Chandeliers are made of Swarovski crystal and Murano glass, marble columns are inlaid with semiprecious stones and mother of pearl with gold tips. The mosque's four, 328-foot minarets look down on 57 white marble domes and a courtyard inlaid with a floral mosaic design. The mosque is located between the three bridges connecting Abu Dhabi city to the mainland and is open to non-Muslims for free guided tours from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday through Thursday. You also can visit on your own without a tour at other times depending on the call to prayer schedule. Men may not enter in shorts. Women are given a robe (abaya) and a scarf (sheyla) to put on over their clothing. Shoes are removed prior to entering the prayer hall.
Emirates Palace: Often mistaken for a royal palace, this grand structure is a five-story hotel owned by the government and managed by Kempinski. When it opened in 2005 at a cost of $3 billion, it was the most expensive hotel ever built. Cruise passengers often come here for lunch or tea or just to walk around to gawk at marble from 13 countries, Persian carpets, 114 domes (including a central dome soaring more than 238 feet), 1,002 chandeliers and a private beach. Off the lobby, the Gold to Go ATM vends gold jewelry priced at the international daily rate for gold. Emirates Palace sprawls at the end of West Corniche Road in the central city.
Ferrari World Abu Dhabi: This theme park is like no other, and it's not just for kids. Everyone can enjoy the Italian restaurants, the interactive display of cars from 1947 to the present, the Ferrari store, and 20 rides and attractions. Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster, accelerates faster than a Formula One car to reach 150 mph. The G-Force ride blasts you through the roof in a clear capsule for a brief view before dropping you 200 feet. Ferrari World is located on Yas Island, 30 minutes from the city center. Standard operating hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Shopping: This national pastime for Emiratis and ex-pats also draws plenty of visitors. Choose from a traditional souk selling Arabian items or an ultramodern mall with restaurants and entertainment venues as well as upscale shops selling the latest brands. Stores may be closed or have limited hours on Fridays. Good buys include local art, wood carvings, gold jewelry, specialty foods, perfumes and carpets mostly made in the Middle East, Turkey, China and Central Asia. Among the modern malls is Abu Dhabi Mall with more than 200 shops in the Tourist Club district in the city center. At the popular Marina Mall, shops sell medium-priced goods and designer fashions and are complemented by an indoor ice rink, bowling alley and musical fountains. It's on the Breakwater in the city center. Among the souks is the modern Souk at Central Market with shops selling traditional items and regional products, such as spices, dates, carpets, scarves, sweets, perfumes, jewelry and handicrafts. You'll find it off Hamdan Street in the Al Markaziyah Sharq district.
Been There, Done That
Al Ain: Leave modern Abu Dhabi city behind and travel about 90 minutes to Al Ain, a city built around an oasis on an old caravan route between Abu Dhabi and Oman. One of the oldest permanently inhabited settlements on the Arabian peninsula, it is the historic home of Abu Dhabi's ruling family. Among the sights is Al Jahili Fort, erected in 1891 and birthplace of U.A.E. founding father Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was both a fort and summer residence of the royal family. It houses a permanent exhibit of the impressive black-and-white photographs taken by British adventurer Wilfred Thesiger on his crossings of the Empty Quarter desert in the 1940s. You'll find it in the southeastern section of the city near the Public Garden and center of town. (Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Thursday and 3 to 5 p.m. Friday.)
You'll find another UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby. The Al Ain Palace Museum was built in 1937 and was once the home of Sheikh Zayed. It has a large collection of objects related to the ruling family. It's on (Al Ain Street; open 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday through Thursday and 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Fridays.) The nearby Al Ain National Museum keeps the same hours. Divided into two sections, ethnography and archaeology, it has artifacts of people living in the region going back 7,500 years, including household items, costumes and jewelry, agricultural tools, funerary artifacts, weaponry, musical instruments and traditional wedding boxes containing jewelry called mandoos.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital: Take a guided tour of the specialty hospital treating the royal bird. See the luxurious wards where the birds are kept; visit the museum to learn more about the sport of falconry and a free-flying area to see falcons soar; and try your hand at the sport in the garden. The hospital is in the Al Raha district near Abu Dhabi International Airport. (Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.)
Golfing: Several courses are located within a half hour of the central city. Among them are the nine-hole Abu Dhabi City Golf Club on 19th Street in the Al Mushrif district; Abu Dhabi Golf Club, home to the PGA European Tour with two par 72, 18-hole courses on Umm Al Nar Street in the Umm Al Nar district; Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, an 18-hole ocean course designed by Gary Player with several beachfront holes, on Saadiyat Island; and Yas Links Abu Dhabi, an 18-hole links course and nine-hole academy course on the western shore of Yas Island.
Best to mingle with residents: The Corniche, the city's manicured front yard, stretches for five miles along the coast with the skyscrapers rising behind it. Corniche Beach Park features lifeguards, an ATM, cafes and children's play areas. The main entrance, Gate 3 at Al Khaleej Al Arabi Street, is about five minutes by taxi from the port entrance.
Most luxurious: The Monte Carlo Beach Club on Saadiyat Island, about a half hour from the port, is a private club but offers day passes. In addition to the white-sand beach, it offers a spa, restaurant, lounges, fitness facility and pool.
Best for a view: The Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, offers day passes for access to its pool, spa and small beach with a view of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque across the water. It is located in Bain Al Jessrain between the three bridges connecting Abu Dhabi city to the mainland, about 20 minutes from the port.
Emirati cuisine reflects Abu Dhabi's trading heritage with ingredients and spices from around the Middle East: cinnamon, saffron, turmeric, nuts and dried fruit. Fish is a staple. Al Madrooba, for example, is a mix of salted fish, spices and a thick sauce served with white rice. For a snack, look for falafel or shawarma, pita bread filled with lamb or chicken carved from a spit. Fruit juices come in many varieties, including a popular lemon-mint drink sweetened with cane syrup. Serving Arabian coffee is a social ritual. It's made blended with cardamom and saffron and served in small cups, often accompanied by dates.
With more than 130 nationalities residing in the U.A.E., you'll find a wide variety of ethnic restaurants: Asian, Indian, Italian, French, Mexican, Middle Eastern -- you name it.
Because liquor licenses are expensive and difficult to obtain, most restaurants that serve alcohol are found in hotels. Some of the largest hotels contain more than a dozen restaurants and function as social centers for residents.
During the holy month of Ramadan, however, observant Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, and non-Muslims are asked to refrain from eating and drinking in public. Most restaurants close during the day. The time of Ramadan varies according to the Islamic calendar.
Local eats: Lebanese Flower is popular with locals and often crowded but worth the wait. Try the mezze, the Middle Eastern curries or the grilled meats or fish served with freshly baked Arabian bread. (Al Khalidiyah district, behind Electra and 26th Street, +971 2 665 8700, and in the Tourist Club district, +971 2 645 6338; 7 a.m. to 3 a.m.)
Marroush is a homey and inexpensive Lebanese and Arabian spot known for its kebabs and shawarmas. (Open 8 a.m. to midnight in the Tourist Club district, +971 2 621 4434.) Al Arish is popular with visitors for its buffet of Emirati dishes. (Meena Street in the Al Meena district, +971 2 690 7999; noon to 4 p.m. and 7 to 11:30 p.m.)
Gourmet options: Mezlai is the only five-star Emirati restaurant in the U.A.E., located in the Emirates Palace. You might order hammour mafrook (fish mashed with cream) as a starter and the Bedouin dish, lamb shoulder Medfoun, as a main. (+971 2 690 7999; 1 to 10:30 p.m.)
Quest overlooks the city center from its perch on the 63rd floor of the Jumeirah Hotel at Etihad Towers off Corniche Road. The pan-Asian cuisine turned out by chef Benjamin Whatt earned him a best chef designation from What's On magazine. (+971 2 811 5555; noon to 3:30 p.m. and 7 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 7 to 11:30 p.m. Friday.)
Li Beirut, also in the Jumeirah Hotel, is an upscale take on Lebanese cuisine. Time Out Abu Dhabi magazine gave it an award for best menu. Start with one of the mezzes or foie gras and progress to a fish, seafood or lamb main dish. For dessert, consider the Umm Ali, a clever take on traditional bread pudding. If the weather is pleasant, choose a table on the balcony. (+971 2 811 5555; noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight.)
Restaurants close to main attractions: Emirates Palace, a hotel and an attraction in its own right, features several restaurants inside its expansive walls. The busy Le Vendome Brasserie is especially good for lunch, particularly if you can snag a table on the terrace. Choose from a variety of dishes on the international buffet, but save room for Palace Cake, a rich, double chocolate cake with flecks of gold in the icing. (+971 2 690 7999; 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 to11:30 p.m.)
Pearls and Caviar occupies a separate structure next to the main building of the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri near Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque. The menu marries Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines and is especially known for its seafood and its Friday brunch. It is located in Bain Al Jessrain between the three bridges connecting Abu Dhabi city to the mainland. (+971 2 509 8777; 1 to 4 p.m. Friday, 7 to 11:30 p.m. Saturday through Thursday.)
Staying in Touch
The cruise terminal has Wi-Fi, but if you need an Internet cafe you'll find several in the city center. Closest to the port is Al Rass Al Akhdar Internet Hall in the Tourist Club district. Also, try Cerutti il Caffee, Corniche, Muroor Road, and the Gardenia Internet Cafe on Sheikh Zayed The First Street -- Street 12.
Best for First-Timers: An Abu Dhabi City Tour with Grand Mosque gives you a good overview of Abu Dhabi city plus a visit to its two top attractions, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque and Emirates Palace. Half- and full-day tours are available; the longer tours include lunch or tea at Emirates Palace.
Best for Bird Lovers: Find out how falcons are cared for at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. A half-day tour introduces you to the sport of falconry, a favorite of the royal family, with a visit to the hospital's falcon museum. See falcons undergoing treatment in examination rooms. Outside, have your photo taken with one of these birds of prey on your arm and watch birds in flight during a falcon show. A break for refreshments is included.
Best for Speed Demons: What's it like to go 150 mph in a roller coaster? Find out at Ferrari World, an all-things-Ferrari theme park and home of the world's fastest roller coaster. The theme park is included on full- and half-day excursions to Yas Island, which also has the Yas Marine Circuit Formula One race track winding around a luxury marina and five-star hotel.
Best for History Buffs: Full-day tours of Al Ain in the eastern region of the emirate of Abu Dhabi visit UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built around an oasis on an old caravan route, the city is the historic home of Abu Dhabi's ruling family. The day includes a visit to Hili Archaeological Park with its 3,000-year-old tombs, the Al Ain Museum and the Camel Market, where these ships of the desert are traded. Lunch is included.
Best for Desert Rats: Leave the city behind and head into the desert for a full-day safari of sun and sand. Take the opportunity to ride a camel or go dune-bashing: bumpy off-road driving across sand dunes in a 4X4. Participants must be in good physical health. The tour is good for families but not for pregnant women or people with back or mobility problems. A picnic lunch is included.
For More Information
On the Web: Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Contact Center, +971 2 666-4442
Tourist Offices: New York (212-338-0101; firstname.lastname@example.org) and London (+44 207 201 6400; email@example.com)
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--by Katherine Rodeghier, Cruise Critic contributor