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A scenic walk where old meets new

Walk? In Abu Dhabi? The hotel concierge looked dubious when I asked him to suggest a 3-4 hour sightseeing stroll around what, according to the International Monetary Fund, is "the world's richest city".

20 Jun 2010

By Steve Meacham

Walk? In Abu Dhabi? The hotel concierge looked dubious when I asked him to suggest a 3-4-hour sightseeing stroll around what, according to the International Monetary Fund, is “the world’s richest city”.

If you thought Los Angeles was one big, artificial urbanscape resembling an internal combustion engine, then welcome to Abu Dhabi (or  “AB” as I heard it referred to in the spirit of “LA”). Here is a city where the car is not just king, but the source of all that uncountable wealth.

But walk I intended to do, especially after being cooped up in a jet plane for 12 hours from Sydney. Why walk? Partly for the exercise. Partly because walking is free in a city that knows how to charge. But mainly because walking in a strange city allows you to see things, meet people, and experience diversions you can never appreciate at speed.

Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, has changed significantly in the past decade. Since 1971 when the UAE was created, Abu Dhabi has been seen as the sober, sensible, slightly dull older brother of the union – especially when compared with its boisterous, brash, party-now younger brother, Dubai.

Where Dubai turned itself into the Las Vegas of the Middle East with its lavish tourist attractions and over-the-top hotels, Abu Dhabi served predominantly as a financial and bureaucratic hub.

How gratifying it must have been in 2009 then for Abu Dhabi to step in and rescue Dubai as it teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

But in fact Abu Dhabi is busy re-inventing itself in the Dubai mould – at least in the sense that it is frantically building project after mega project to establish itself as a similar tourist destination before the oil wells run dry.

Last year Abu Dhabi staged its inaugural Formula One Grand Prix, hijacking the event from another Gulf state, Bahrain. Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One grandee, described the new Yas Marina Circuit as one of the most exciting he had ever seen; certainly it is the only race track in the world to be built around a five-star hotel.

Ferrari World ­­– billed as the world’s largest indoor theme park – will also open later this year, it’s sleek red roof inspired by a Ferrari GT car. It too is on Yas Island, a 15-minute drive from Abu Dhabi and just 50 minutes drive from Dubai.

Another island, Saadiyat, is being developed into the cultural capital of the Middle East, or at least the Middle Eastern capital of western culture. Both the Louvre and the Guggenheim Museum will open satellite museums on the island, along with new centres for the performing arts and a national museum. Architects include Frank Gehry, whose Guggenheim Bilbao is regarded as one of the outstanding buildings of the 20th century. Other draw cards on Saadiyat are to include a Gary Player-designed golf course and several marinas.

Meanwhile, the Middle East’s own version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa – Capital Gate – will open this year as part of the city’s new National Exhibition Centre. With “a world record lean” of 18 degrees, the 35-storey tower will house a 189-room, five-star Hyatt Hotel.

Still, most of these new attractions are still being built. What I wanted to see was the old Abu Dhabi – or what remains of it.

Since my hotel, the Crowne Plaza, is in the heart of the CBD, I start my walk by heading to the Abu Dhabi Corniche, which runs the entire length of the city foreshore. Once I have negotiated the traffic to reach the oceanfront promenade, I am greeted by a spectacular sight behind me: a skyline that is a virtual history of the past two decades of Arabian/Muslim architecture, with its accent on mathematical design and rather gaudy decoration. I turn south and walk towards the Emirates Palace and the ancient Al Bateen Wharf, the oldest occupied area of a city which began as a fishing and pearl-trading community.

However, I press north to the city’s market district. After half an hour, I arrive at the fish market, a colourful co-operative with each stall piled high with fish names I don’t recognise.

The nearby wharves are crammed with traditional dhows (traditional Arab sailing vessel), which still trade as far away as India and Africa. Crewmen relax in the sun – some doing their washing, others playing cards.

I take time to visit one of Abu Dhabi’s most celebrated restaurants, located in the heart of the dhow harbour. Al Dhafra isn’t cheap. The Sunday buffet lunch costs about $A60 a head, but the dark wood ambience and tasty Arabian dishes make it more than worthwhile.

After lunch, I wander through the Iranian Souk and the nearby Carpet Souk, the best place to buy Persian carpets. Then I cut back to my hotel, strolling through the weave of streets in the odd area known as Tourist Club. Here you’ll find lots of traditional coffee shops, with men puffing on hookah water pipes; pastry shops; Turkish, Iranian, Lebanese, Pakistani and Indian restaurants; and men worshipping at corner mosques.

It’s a lovely mix – and something you’re not ever going to really appreciate from the back seat of a car.

Published: 20 Jun 2010