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Abu Dhabi - tradition and modernity in perfect harmony

Seven hours from London, in the heart of one of the most rapidly developing regions of the world, Abu Dhabi is the largest of the United Arab Emirates, with Abu Dhabi City as its capital.

Click here for a map of the United Arab Emirates

The extraordinary Abu Dhabi National clubhouse

Although it holds some ten per cent of the world’s known oil reserves Abu Dhabi is very much looking to the future, trying to diversify its economy and enhance its environment, and is therefore keen to attract tourism. They are making sure all the best hotels and the best world class golf courses are there.

We were recently given the chance to experience the traditional hospitality of the Middle East and the quality of three very distinctive golf courses, with more than a few surprises in store.

THE NATIONAL COURSE

The National at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club by Sheraton is a world-class and tough golf course, which will once again challenge the pros in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, part of the European Tour, from January 18-21, 2007. (Click here for a report on the 2006 tournament, won by Chris DiMarco.)

This luxurious golfing complex is located in Sas Al Nakhl, just outside the city and only ten minutes from the airport, which makes it an ideal golfing venue for people on short business trips or those in transit. It boasts two Peter Harradine-designed courses: the 18 hole National Championship Course and the more forgiving 18 hole Garden Course (2x9 holes, off different tees). There are also unrivalled practice facilities, with the Gulf's longest driving range.

The signature 12th hole at Abu Dhabi National

Completed in 1998, the picturesque Abu Dhabi National (see image gallery at right) is fully mature and offers all golfers a wonderful game of golf. It meanders through palms and ornamental trees and shrubs maintained to the highest standard, thanks to an extensive irrigation system which also feeds its seven salt-water lakes. In fact, the course is so green it is hard to imagine you are in one of the most arid areas of the world, but it takes two million gallons of water a day to keep it that way!

On the first tee, with a large lake on your right and the cleverly placed fairway bunkers, it's hard to keep your mind on your game as you look at the astonishing clubhouse designed in the shape of a falcon swooping down on a golf ball.

The course has some very long par 4s. The 468 yard 5th is a tough hole, especially as it often plays against the wind and there is a lake to drive over. Longer still is the 14th, a 475 yard long par 4, although it is less dangerous. But you need all your strength and concentration for the 454-yard 9th: there’s water and trees to be avoided and strategically placed bunkers protecting the green.

Two par 3s are particularly memorable: the 196 yard 7th and the 183 yard 12th. The 7th is one of the most dramatic holes on the golf course requiring accuracy and distance control as it has water from tee to green and again over the back of the green. The 12th is the signature hole, with water to be carried and a landscaped rock wall back drop with date trees and shrubbery - club selection is critical here.

The Abu Dhabi Golf Club clubhouse

After 18 challenging but fair holes, you can relax in the luxury of the extraordinary 'falcon' clubhouse, which features three floors of restaurants, a piano bar offering beautiful views of the National from the 'belly of the falcon' and a fully equipped executive meeting room. (See image gallery at right)

Non-golfers will enjoy the leisure facilities on offer which include a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, and a health club with sauna, spa and jacuzzi. The atmosphere is excellent, the Club manages to make you feel very special and the staff couldn’t be more helpful.

         
Interior views of the Abu Dhabi National clubhouse - click on an image for a larger version

Full details of the course here

THE AL GHAZAL SAND GOLF COURSE

Abu Dhabi is one of very few international airports worldwide with its own golf club. Owned and managed by Abu Dhabi Airport Duty Free, Al Ghazal Golf Club opened in November 1997 and is an 18-hole, par-71 layout regarded as the leading desert golf course in the world and measuring 6,487 yards off the white tees.

Any transit passenger is provided a transit visa and given transport between the airport and club. Once at the club, all golfing equipment can be rented, making it easy for transit passengers to play a round between flights.

Sand golf is a whole new experience and this is a fun course to play, as many of the top European pros - including Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo, Padraig Harrington, Paul McGinley, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ian Poulter - discovered during the World Sand Golf Championships (won by Greg Owen in 2004 and Thongchai Jaidee in 2005) hosted here by Abu Dhabi Duty Free.

Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo, Ian Poulter, Greg Owen (winner in 2004) and Miguel Angel Jimenez playing in the World Sand Golf Championship at Al Ghazal Golf Club
From l to r: Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo, Ian Poulter, Greg Owen (winner in 2004) and Miguel Angel Jimenez playing in the World Sand Golf Championship at Al Ghazal Golf Club

Instead of 'greens', in sand golf there are 'browns', which are created by compacting a mix of sand and oil, a concept pioneered in the 1940s. Specific rules and etiquette also apply to sand golf. Spikes are not allowed, to avoid damaging the browns which must be swept after every group has putted out, providing a perfect surface for the group behind. Whenever possible, you should enter and exit the green on the same path as your playing partners; this will save the sweeper a lot of work and speed up play. As to putting, the browns are surprisingly firm and very true, although their pace - the ball begins to roll very fast but pulls up quickly - takes a little getting used to. However, once you have the hang of it, it is great fun and guaranteed to bring out a few laughs.

Because there is no grass, when on the designated 'fairway' - indicated by marker posts - you play off a small, portable Astroturf mat, so you always have a perfect lie. However, if your ball lands outside the fairway marker posts - the equivalent of being in the rough on grass - you must play it as it lies and may find your ball among small stones or in the burrows of 'dhubs', the local spiny-tailed desert lizards which can grow up to 85cm long and eat the sparse desert vegetation.

The Al Ghazal sand golf course

We also discovered that, because of the difficulty in making out the ball on the very pale sand, a coloured ball is easier to spot. It is also much better not to follow immediately behind the buggy in front of you, or you will get even dustier.

The front nine holes are built around an archaeological site, which is out of bounds, while the back nine are on flatter reclaimed land. The feature holes are the 1st, 16th, 17th and 18th, several of which have water hazards.

The Al Ghazal clubhouse, designed in traditional English style, has a large terrace offering great views of the course and Abu Dhabi city. The welcome here is very friendly and you get a pleasant feeling of unpretentious simplicity.

The Club posseses a health club with a gym, jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. There is also a swimming pool, three tennis courts and two multi-courts where basketball, five-a-side football and volleyball can be played. For those eager to improve, it features a golf academy with some of the most advanced golf teaching technology in the world: a Royle Golf Visual Communication system and also Durnian frames to perfect your swing plane.

An amusing quirk is that the practice ground is on grass whereas the course is entirely sand, but rugby tournaments are also organised here, so that may explain it. On your way to the academy, do not miss the thirty gazelles (gazelle = 'al ghazal' in Arabic) fenced in by the 2nd.

The clubhouse at Al Ghazal Golf Club and one of the lakes

Al Ghazal Golf Club boasts top of the range facilities at affordable prices, and on the way is a new 200-room hotel and a 9-hole grass layout. The course is great fun to play but also undoubtedly presents an exciting challenge. Playing here is a memorable, almost surreal golfing experience, one not to be missed.

Full details of the course here

ABU DHABI GOLF AND EQUESTRIAN CLUB

Located in the Mushrif area, in the heart of Abu Dhabi, this seemingly more manageable two by nine-hole, 6,350 yard, par 70 floodlit course is located in the middle of the racetrack. It looks innocuous at first sight, there are no large trees so you can take it all in at a glance, but scoring well is not that easy.

The Abu Dhabi Golf and Equestrian Club

There are numerous shrubs, deep bunkers and a huge scenic lake which runs through the course and offers golfers an interesting challenge on five of the nine holes; if your ball bounces off the stones surrounding the lakes you will not recover it. Long hitters must be accurate - and long; the monstrous 630 yard long par 5 8th just goes on and on… From the tee, the lake on the far right is out of most players’ reach, but then you still need to carry the water with your second.

Other interesting holes are the dogleg right 5th hole where the adventurous can take on the corner over the huge sand rough, and the short par 3 7th with a dam on the right and out of bounds left guarding the green.

 
The Abu Dhabi Golf and Equestrian Club

The Abu Dhabi Golf and Equestrian Club only has nine holes but with alternate tees, so it offers golfers a new set of challenges for the back nine.

The smart clubhouse has a semi formal atmosphere and houses the Spikes Bar and restaurant overlooking the course. It has tasteful dark brown leather chairs, which are delightfully restful on the eyes after all the sunshine. It offers a range of refreshments and cuisine from a kitchen of international caliber and a well-provided pro shop, while the Golf Academy includes a large, floodlit driving range available to all and a short game area, with lessons available from the Club's professionals.

The Club also boasts three floodlit tennis courses and a swimming pool. Being so close to the city (see map here), it is very handy, and the floodlit course is playable in the cooler hours. While not as daunting as the other two, it represents an interesting challenge, even to the big hitters, rather surprising, given its location.

Full details of the course here

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Golfing enthusiasts will find that Abu Dhabi, despite its desert location, has world-class golf courses with outstanding facilities: three very different courses to choose from in Abu Dhabi City and two more outside the Capital.

Although sunshine is guaranteed all year round and it hardly ever rains, the best season for golf is October to April when temperatures are in the mid- to high 20’s, as it gets too hot and humid the rest of the year. And please, remember to drink lots of water – cold water is available on every hole on the above courses - and, at all costs, wear a hat. Sunstroke is not pleasant!

For details of all golf courses in Abu Dhabi: click here

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THINGS TO DO WHILE THERE

In the desert

There is an embarassment of choice, depending on how adventurous you feel, from dune buggy riding (also called wadi-bashing, from the dry creek beds or wadis along which you drive), quad biking, hot air ballooning, rock climbing and caving, to falconry displays and also superb organised desert safaris.

Riding the sand dunes on the desert safari

We were given a taste of the desert only 45 minutes from the city limits, beginning with an afternoon ride up and down the sand dunes in a 4x4. Once off the tarmac roads, the tyres were deflated, the seat belts tightened and we held onto our hats. What a thrilling ride over undulating sand dunes and their shifting sands! The experienced driver clearly relished hearing our shrieks as he accelerated down or up a dune, as the sand engulfed the sliding 4x4 on the side of a dune at a 90-degree angle or as we watched in awe what the other car was doing, knowing it would be our turn next. Wonderful fun, but definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Then it was on to the desert camp, with a stop en route, at a camel and goat 'farm'. The smiling shepherds sleep on a rudimentary roofless platform which is elevated to protect them from the wild life (although we weren't told what wild life!).

Once you get to the camp, you can have a go at skiing or sand-boarding down a dune, that's if you've got the energy to climb up it first! You may choose to avoid this, but camel-riding is a must; a short, gentle ride that makes for a good photo opportunity, especially if it coincides with a beautiful sunset.

Belly dancing on the desert safari

You can have your hands or ankles decorated with a temporary henna design, which will attract plenty of interest when you get home, and another traditional activity to be enjoyed is the chance to puff away on a shisha pipe. Shisha is smoked all over the Middle East and is invariably part of the desert safari experience. Smoked through a pipe attached to a glass orb filled with water, the tobacco comes in a variety of flavours, from apple to mint.

It will be very dark by then and you can admire the beautiful clear sky while eating a delicious selection of traditional dishes: barbecued meats, ouzi (rice with minced lamb and vegetables) and mezzeh (a selection of appetisers) and listening to traditional music blasting from loudspeakers. To the regret of some, there was nothing interesting to wash it down with, but we were told that will soon change. Then it is belly-dancing time and you are invited to join in and try your hand, or rather your belly, at the hip-swiveling art. It all makes for a memorable evening, and a wonderfully relaxing one.

Abu Dhabi City

From a humble Bedouin and fishing village beginnings, the island city of Abu Dhabi has developed, thanks to its huge oil profits, into one of the world's richest and most forward-thinking metropolis in just over fifty years.

Click here for a map of Abu Dhabi city

Yet everything is not futuristic skyscrapers, huge shopping malls and international luxury hotels. Abu Dhabi has successfully fought against the odds of a hostile climate thanks to a desalination plant which supplies 75 per cent of its water. There are no hose-pipe bans here and watering goes on all day long! The city features twenty beautiful, well-maintained public parks, tree-lined streets, lush private gardens and highways that are bordered for miles by oases of green won over the desert and tended by armies of gardeners.

The Corniche - a spectacular skyline for modern Abu Dhabi

The following examples of Abu Dhabi's heritage and culture are all well worth visiting: Al Husn Fort, The Cultural Foundation, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, The Women's Handicraft Centre and The Heritage Village. And you really should take a walk - or even a cruise - along at least part of the famous 8km long Corniche (above).

If you're short of time, organised tours are the ideal way to see the attractions of Abu Dhabi and its surrounding areas. Tours can be arranged by your hotel or the local tour operators.

Shopping in souks and malls

Shopping in the souk

You must visit the traditional souks (right), where great buys include the ornate Arabian silver and brass coffee pots, carpets, incense and the local perfume essence called 'oudh'. You will be expected to bargain, but expect to pay at least half of the first asking price and take time for tea too!

Abu Dhabi is also a tax-free haven and in the modern, air-conditioned malls you will find a huge choice of bargains and souvenirs. They are also a fashionable spot for coffee and cakes when the temperature soars.

For your last minute shopping, the award-winning Abu Dhabi Airport Duty Free has a vast assortment, with the most popular items being gold, electronics, local antiques and souvenirs. You may also strike lucky at the popular ADDF Big Ticket Prize Draw, with its monthly prize of Dhs 1 million - around £140,000! - plus luxury cars and other cash prizes. You can even buy a ticket online - click here to find out more.

Sports and leisure

Golf, of course, but Abu Dhabi also offers deep sea game fishing, reef and scuba diving and snorkeling, water skiing, windsurfing, sailing, camel racing, hang-gliding, parachuting, polo and much more besides.

A word about coffee

Traditional Arabic 'gahwa'

Hospitality is one of the most treasured values of Arab culture. 'Gahwa' (coffee) and dates are a classic sign of Arabic hospitality and respect, and are served with great ceremony. The UAE's own gahwa is very mild and flavoured with cardamom and saffron, served black and sweetened, never with sugar, but with mouthfuls of dates. The host always serves his guests personally and will only half-fill the cups, but it is normal to have about three tiny cups. Never refuse the first, to accept an odd number is considered more polite, and try not to swallow the dregs at the bottom!

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Abu Dhabi has truly become a welcoming paradise for tourists and residents alike. They have a perfect climate with year-round sunshine, a safe environment, superb facilities for leisure and recreation, spectacular desert scenery, golden beaches, a relaxing way of life and traditional values on which the society was founded, and which they do their utmost to preserve.

So why not escape the gloomy European winter and enjoy the genuine friendliness of these cosmopolitan people?

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WHERE TO STAY

Among the numerous international hotels open at the time of writing, we can recommend:

The 'Versailles of the Middle East' - The Emirates Palace

The Emirates Palace

A showcase of Arabian heritage and culture opened in 2005, the Emirates Palace is the ultimate in luxury and style. It combines resort and meeting facilities in an opulent setting which, while possibly not to everyone's taste, has to be seen to be believed!

The hotel has 302 rooms (park- or sea-view) and 92 'regular' suites, not to mention the extraordinary Palace suites, often used by privileged guests of the Sheikh. Add to that 1,3 km of private beach, an on-site marina with private berths and other facilities too numerous to mention, and the word 'palatial' is, for once, not an exaggeration.

The restaurants are, naturally, in keeping with the rest of the hotel, and we would single out in particular the Sayad Fish Restaurant, not just for the succulent, fresh seafood, but for its almost eerily undersea decor (see photos in image gallery above). The Vendôme Brasserie, with its architectural blend of Arabian and medieval French, is also a feast for the eye, never mind the stomach (see image gallery below).

The Blue Saloon at Emirates Palace

If you choose to indulge yourself at the Emirates Palace, a friendly word of warning: once you leave your room for a meal or to go out, try not to leave anything behind and be sure to respect the dress code (no shorts, even for breakfast) - believe us, you don't want to have to go back to your room unnecessarily. Most airports have shorter corridors than this amazing hotel, and it's always a very long way back!

Tel: +971 2 690 9000
Fax: +971 2 690 9999
Email: info.emiratespalace@kempinski.com
Website: www.emiratespalace.com

Reliable, luxurious and comfortable - The Hilton International Abu Dhabi

The Hilton, Abu Dhabi

Located on the famous Corniche, the Hilton is close to the financial district and within walking distance of the latest modern shopping malls.

All rooms have a breathtaking view of the Arabian Gulf, and the hotel offers 325 rooms and suites overlooking either the breakwater or the beautiful landscaped gardens. The hotel has newly refurbished conference facilities and ten different bars and restaurants; we can heartily recommend the Vascos for its superior food, welcome and service.

The Hilton also has a Beach Club and Spa, a private beach and three temperature-controlled pools and offers a complimentary return shuttle service from downtown throughout the day.

Hilton International Abu Dhabi
PO Box 877, Abu Dhabi, U.A.E
Tel: +971 2 681 1900
Fax: +971 2 681 1696
Email: abudhabi@hilton.com

Human-sized and luxurious - The Al Raha Beach Hotel

The Al Raha Beach Hotel

The friendly Al Raha Beach Hotel has 99 deluxe rooms, exclusive suites and 24 serviced villas with their own pool for rent, as well as a spa/steam room, meeting facilities, the grand ballroom and a private beach. Five restaurants serve beautiful food from around the world and we can vouch for the excellent 'Sevilla' lunchtime buffet. Banqueting facilities are also available, and the Black Pearl bar. There is a fully equipped gymnasium, indoor squash courts, indoor and outdoor pool facilities as well as water sports, including windsurfing, canoeing and kayaking, and a discotheque.

The Al Raha Beach Hotel is situated in lush, verdant parkland overlooking the Al Raha corniche on the southern Arabian Gulf, just a 25 minute drive from the capital and 10 minutes from the airport. Shuttles are available to the town centre. A shopping mall is due to open next door in December 2006 and it is also the closest hotel to the National Golf Club and Al Ghazal.

Al Raha Beach Hotel, Abu Dhabi
PO Box 38616, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Tel: +971-2-5080555
Fax: +971-2-5080429
Email: info@danatresortalraha.ae
Website: www.ncth.com

HOW TO GET THERE

Etihad, the excellent national airline of the United Arab Emirates, currently offers daily direct services to Abu Dhabi from three UK airports: London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester (a total of 25 services a week). Flights from other European cities are also available (Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich and Geneva). Since its launch in November 2003, Etihad has inaugurated services to 30 destinations. Bookings can be made through travel agents or by calling Etihad Airways in London on 0870 241 7121.

Offering complete flexibility with up to date prices and availability, letsgo2 allows you to create your own holiday to Abu Dhabi, online. Visit www.abu-dhabi.letsgo2.com for further details.

For further information on Abu Dhabi call the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority in London on 020 7201 6400, email to info@abudhabitourism.ae or visit www.exploreabudhabi.ae



 Photo credits: © The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority - Emirates - Yukiko Aramaki - GolfToday

 



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