Abu Dhabi is known for its man-made marvels, but its natural attractions set it apart. Step just beyond the city limits to explore savanna-like wildlife reserves, serene mangroves and fossilised sand dunes.
Many people consider the United Arab Emirates to be little more than a desert, but a visit to its capital, Abu Dhabi, proves that the country’s varied landscapes are as unforgettable as any. The emirate is home to the majestic Rub’ al Khali desert (also known as the Empty Quarter), the world’s largest uninterrupted sand mass, where you can summit dunes hundreds of metres high. In Liwa Oasis, watch preening flamingos flock to the wetlands. Abu Dhabi’s coastline is equally impressive; here you can kayak through tranquil mangroves or catch boats to wildlife-rich islands – you might even catch a glimpse of a cheetah. Whichever you choose to explore, these secret spots will change how you think of the desert.
The Rub’ al Khali desert spans 650,000sqkm (251,000sqmi) from the UAE to Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. On its outskirts, surrounded by honey-coloured sand, is Liwa Oasis – a village area with dense date palm groves, camel farms and traditional forts. Tel Moreeb – considered one of the world’s largest sand dunes – looms above it. This incredible 300m-high (984ft) dune attracts off-roading enthusiasts from around the country to race to the top in the annual Moreeb Hill Climb event, part of the Liwa International Festival. Climbing Tel Moreeb on foot is not for the faint of heart, but if you can make it to the top by sunset you’ll be rewarded with the best view in the emirate. If you’d rather not work up a sweat, there are plenty of desert safaris that include a visit to the dune.
The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is a tranquil slice of nature, where more than 4,000 flamboyant greater flamingos migrate during autumn and spring. With 3km (2mi) of self-guided trails, you’ll be able to delight in the incredible bird life from the hide and other viewing points, plus there are plenty of informative signs to help you identify lizards and interesting wildlife. In keeping with the preservation of the delicate ecology of the reserve, there is no cafe on site, so you’ll need to bring your own refreshments, especially in the warmer months.
Admire a cheetah dozing beneath a tree and watch giraffes stroll through a savanna-like landscape on Sir Bani Yas Island, home to the Arabian Wildlife Park where more than 17,000 animals roam free. Make the most of the island with an overnight stay in one of the luxury resorts. On a wildlife safari you’ll spot hyenas, caracal and the Arabian oryx – a species that was previously extinct in the wild – while kayaking expeditions into the surrounding waters offer the chance to encounter turtles and dugongs. Don’t miss a guided walk to notable sites across the island, including surreal rainbow-coloured wadis and a Christian monastery thought to have been built around 600CE.
Although this ecological park is right in the middle of Abu Dhabi’s islands, kayaking along its many channels feels as though you’re miles from civilisation. The best time to visit is the morning, when the mangroves thrum with the activity of herons, flamingos, crabs, fish and more. There are wooden walkways throughout the reserve, but kayaking is the best way to get a closer look at this indigenous forest and the wildlife that inhabits it.
These ancient rock formations in Al Wathba were whipped into shape by the elements over thousands of years after calcium carbonate hardened the sand. Experts believe they could have formed as far back as the last ice age. The fossil dunes are most memorable at sunset, when you can watch the light transform the landscape into something Mars-like. The view changes once again after dark when the 1,700 formations are illuminated from below. Make sure to stick to the designated trails to help protect the fragile structures from damage.
The beaches in and around Abu Dhabi are the best in the UAE. With the city’s southern coastline almost entirely undeveloped, you don’t need to venture far to find gentle waves and clear waters. Visit Saadiyat Beach for white sand and an unobscured horizon over water that wouldn’t be out of place in the Caribbean. Lounge in luxury for the day on Zaya Nurai Island, with its quiet beaches, breezy palms and hammocks over the shallows. Or escape the city altogether and head to peaceful Mirfa Beach in Al Dhafra – it’s a little over an hour’s drive from the city and the small town nearby offers picnic supplies and traditional tasty karak (sweet, spiced tea made with evaporated milk).
Discover cultural and natural wonders on your next trip to Abu Dhabi. Click here for more information and to book your visit today.