Having visited Abu Dhabi many times on stopovers, FLIP BYRNES finds there’s always something new to do as her kids grow
Abu Dhabi is a fantastic family stopover destination
Relaxing on a sun lounger in Abu Dhabi, dappled sun from palm fronds dance on my feet as I part them to spy on my two youngsters. They’re running towards the pool like golden labrador puppies let off the leash, shrieking as little bodies turbo through the shallow waters. Hmm, where would I rather be? A) on the second leg in 48G, halfway on a long-haul flight to Europe? Or B) here, waiting for a freshly squeezed orange juice while my three and four-year-olds burn volcanic amounts of energy? I’ll take B.
Answer B doesn’t mean it’s Plan B. Whether on a stopover or a longer holiday, this desert emirate, one of seven that comprises the United Arab Emirates (and is in fact the capital) is made for kids. Which kids? Any kids. Having visited on stopovers with babies, toddlers, and now pre-schoolers, the Middle Eastern warm arms of welcome, and new parts of the city, unfolded as nap times changed and dropped, different hotels were explored, and new gems were built in the city (hello! The Louvre Abu Dhabi). And teenagers? Even their long-life batteries will be tested with all that’s on offer.
What to do in Abu Dhabi with babies and toddlers
Imagine this: while wallowing in the Ritz Carlton pool, directly across the river the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque looms like a white mirage, minarets gleaming – an otherworldly edifice of beauty that could easily pass for Jasmine’s palace in Aladdin. Abu Dhabi’s premier religious site is not just a visual fairytale for a three-year-old, but for adults it is a thing of swoon-worthy wonder that will stir the imagination and produce an almost visceral reaction.
Let’s face it, travel with this set can be simply about survival; feeding, naps and, if there’s only one chance to peer into the local culture, a mosque visit is that portal. Plus, it’s only five minutes away from the hotel door. Distances for toddlers are like dog years – multiply by seven, so choose your location wisely (in this case, near downtown).
The stun of extreme beauty never fades, no matter how many times it’s sighted – and be at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque bang on 9am for maximum impact. Later it will remain cool under the midday sun beneath the white marble, with a little tickling zephyr around the ankles.
The numbers are heady – the mosque boasts the world’s single largest carpet, the world’s third largest chandelier and acres of pure white Carrera stone. But none of this describes the serene peace within. Despite the quiet murmurs, my two are free to play chase amongst the 96 mother of pearl pillars, their giggles wafting like songbird notes towards the high ceilings. They revel running in the long corridors, eyes huge with wonder.
In daylight it’s extraordinary, but by night dazzles with violet hues reflecting off the marble. Never rule out a 9pm visit before closing time at 10pm; if you have jet lagged kids, the wide expanses and smooth strollering makes for one the most sensational kid-tastic nighttime experiences in the world.
Abu Dhabi with kids under 10s
The world is your oyster! And you can delve further afield. With this age group there’s only one place to rest your weary head – the Yas Island Rotana. It’s only 15 minutes’ drive from the airport, has a heated wade-in pool, and is smack bang in the entertainment hub just a stroke from Warner Bros World, Ferrari World, Yas Marina Circuit and Yas Waterworld. The in-hotel kids’ play area is one of Abu Dhabi’s best, luring guests from other hotels (and locals) with its gargantuan ball pit, a two-storey obstacle course, slides and supervisors.
Beeline for The Louvre Abu Dhabi. “What, oh what?” I hear you ask, “will a five-year-old enjoy at an art institution?” Only their own separate two-storey Children’s Museum, the floors connected by a mesh crawl tunnel swaying as it spirals up (I take the stairs). Free strollers, free entry for under 13s, and the current Costume Adventure interactive display (in turn, the girls dress in the thobe of Emirati women, a vibrant crimson ancient Greek draperie, Medieval doublet and kimono) make it a winner.
With two children stuffed into a stroller, there’s even time to manage a Louvre by Pram Tour, poking noses into some of the 12 galleries until, alas, it ends – as many things do – when the snacks run out.
Things to do in Abu Dhabi with teens
Start your engines … this is where Abu Dhabi gets high octane. There’s the Yas Kartzone; a behind-the-scenes tour at Yas Marina Circuit; Clymb, combining the world’s biggest indoor skydiving flight chamber and the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall (because one isn’t enough), and desert dune bashing in 4WDs.
But the real action is at Warner Bros Park, Ferrari World (with the world’s fastest rollercoaster) and Yas Waterworld. The AUD$100 plus entry price for Yas Waterworld may seem a little steep for a few hours of toddler water play (and don’t be confused, a sign proclaiming ‘50 dirhams for nannies’ refers to an entry fee, not that they’ll appear like a genie in a bottle). But if you have a teenager, the 2 Days, 3 Parks Pass for 499 AED (AUD$220) is an entertainment one-purchase bargain.
More than a two-day wonder, or stop over afterthought, the A in Abu Dhabi is a nudge to make it your holiday Plan A.
Getting to Abu Dhabi
If you’re flying with the national airline, Etihad, you can receive discounts of up to 20 per cent at participating attractions, restaurants, malls and tours when you show your boarding pass.
Where to stay in Abu Dhabi
Yas Island Rotana. Splurge on a Suite with separate living room (starting at AUD$190). The classy yet casual on-site Indian restaurant, Rangoli, has a butter chicken that will tempt even the fussiest eater.