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 UAE, 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 One 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 UAE, 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 UAE 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.
--By Claire Volkman, Cruise Critic contributor
Abu Dhabi is one of the safest places to travel for just about anyone, from solo female travelers to families and couples. However, there are things to note if you're a female -- you need to wear clothing that covers your shoulders and your legs (from the knees) when you're out in public. Although you're still able to walk around comfortably if you don't, its respectful to dress appropriately, according to local customs, in shopping malls, hotels, resorts and in the city. You do, though, need to make sure you're fully covered at the Sheik Zayed Mosque -- as they won't let you in otherwise. If you're dining out or going to beach clubs or nightclubs, it's recommended to cover your shoulders to and from the venue. To make sure you're always prepared, keep a pashmina or a sweater with you at all times. It's a good idea to keep a shawl with you at all times, as it can be cold in many air-conditioned venues. It's also important to note that PDA (or public displays of affection) are not welcomed or permitted in Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai use the same currency -- the dirham. Whether in the terminal or around town, there are ample banks and ATMs that can exchange foreign currency into dirhams, or can dispense the local currency. For up-to-date currency exchange rates, check www.xe.com.
Like all of the Middle East, the primary language of Abu Dhabi is Arabic. However, because the city is so multicultural and has a huge expat community, nearly everyone -- from taxi drivers to restaurant owners to shop purveyors ---speaks at least basic English. In addition, almost every single tour operator will provide English speakers with an English guide.
Abu Dhabi is one of those places you can stumble upon truly authentic souvenirs -- like silk-spun scarves and decadent date desserts -- as well as knockoffs -- like cheesy camel figurines and hijabs made in China.
Regarding must-buy items in the UAE, opt for anything gold. Gold is abundant throughout Abu Dhabi and you can get it ranging from 14 carats all the way up to 24 carats. Make sure you heavily research the shop before you buy to ensure you're getting real gold. Another popular souvenir is Arabic perfume, which is actually not the type of perfume you're thinking of. Made from the resin of the agarwood tree, oud (which is the primary ingredient in many of the perfumes) have different types of aromas. Once you've selected an oil, you can custom blend a perfume mixing other oils and scents to create something personalized.
Arguably the most classic souvenir (and most delicious) is the date. One of the most important dishes in the UAE, it's highly regarded for its taste and nutritional value. Dates range in flavor, but the most popular are the regular ones, which are often served alongside honey, dipped in chocolate or stuffed with almonds and orange peel. Bateel is one of the best date shops in town, and offers an incredible selection of all sorts of dates, date juices, jams, preserves and even balsamic vinegar made from them.