From stunning sky-high buildings to exploring epic desert dunes, Ben Lerwill offers a rundown of the Arabian Gulf’s top experiences
See the world’s tallest building
Soaring into the Arabian sky at a height of 2,717ft, the Burj Khalifa has stood as the world’s tallest building (and by some distance) since its completion in 2010. Visitors can be whisked up to the 124th floor to take in the extraordinary view from the observation deck. The structure itself is made up of more than 26,000 glass panels. burjkhalifa.ae
Visit the world’s largest theme park
Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World is the largest indoor theme park on the planet, its gleaming red canopy giving shelter to a pulse-raising range of adrenalin thrills and Ferrari-themed shops and restaurants. While top billing goes to Formula Rossa — the world’s fastest rollercoaster, which reaches a top speed of 150mph — there’s a whole host of family-friendly rides and attractions. ferrariworldabudhabi.com
Hit the desert
Desert defines much of the region’s landscape, and the epic dune-filled interiors of Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi can all be explored in rip-roaring fashion. A 4WD dune-bashing tour offers the chance to experience the magnitude of the Arabian sands up close — courtesy of some high-speed driving manoeuvres — while comfortable desert camps are also popular.
Stroll along the corniche
An evening walk along one of the region’s corniches — city avenues that sweep for a mile or more along the water’s edge — lets visitors witness the Gulf at its most appealing, with the sea breeze mingling with the late heat of the day as locals meet, eat and relax. Doha, Muscat and Abu Dhabi all have atmospheric corniches.
Appreciate Islamic Art in Doha
A beautiful waterside building created by renowned architect IM Pei, Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art is a fitting showcase for Qatar’s religious treasures, from ornate ceramics to manuscripts and embellished carpets. mia.org.qa
Explore the fjords at Musandam
Oman’s remote Musandam Peninsula has huge rugged inlets that draw understandable comparison with Norway’s fjords, making a cruise along the coast — with time for snorkeling in the clear waters — a dramatic experience.
See some iconic architecture
The Gulf plays home to a glossy array of eye-catching architecture, including Qatar’s Aspire Tower and Abu Dhabi’s Capital Gate — a skyscraper that leans almost 20 degrees to the west, while Dubai’s New York-inspired Al Kazim Towers is proof of the region’s diverse influences.
Get up high
If the phenomenal view from Burj Khalifa isn’t quite vertiginous enough for you, ascend to the skies above Dubai by other means. Take a hot-air balloon ride over the dunes and oases of the desert, watching the sun rise against the Hajjar Mountains, or take a helicopter tour over the city itself, admiring the emirate’s iconic skyline from above.
Visit a falcon hospital
Falconry is a serious business in the Gulf, and the pastime’s long desert traditions mean the majestic birds themselves are looked after with real care and reverence. So much so there are dedicated falcon hospitals, which can be visited on guided tours — Abu Dhabi is home to the largest such facility in the world, with its own falcon museum. falconhospital.com
Venture into the past
The Gulf may be best known for its burnished modern cityscapes, but this doesn’t mean its traditions have been lost. From the boats crisscrossing the waters of Dubai Creek to the vendors who still hawk their wares in Muscat’s atmospheric Old Town or Kuwait’s clattering Sharq fish market, much of the region’s past has been kept alive.
Explore a historic fort
Overall, the region has relatively few heritage sites, so the historical forts dotting the landscape hold huge cultural interest. Offering a fascinating window onto the warriors (and architects) of the past, these strongholds were built to protect settlements from attack. Qatar has some particularly fine examples, as does Oman.
Visit a lesser-known emirate
Dubai and Abu Dhabi draw the vast majority of tourists to the UAE but there’s plenty to reward visitors to the other five emirates, from the mountain scenery of Fujairah and the historic old town of Sharjah to the palm-lined sands of Ajman and the fertile surrounds of Ras al-Khaimah.
Uber-luxury experiences on offer in Dubai include a stay at the ‘seven-star’ Burj al Arab (perhaps arriving via the rooftop helipad), paying $30,000 a night for an entire floor at Raffles Dubai, a desert safari in a Mercedes G-Wagen, or a $135 Wagyu tenderloin at Jumeirah Emirates Towers.
Dine in a big-name restaurant
Eating well isn’t difficult in the Gulf. International celebrity chefs have long recognized its appeal as a foodie destination, with the likes of Jamie Oliver, Pierre Gagnaire and Marco Pierre White all putting their name to local restaurants. For a high-end culinary experience in a memorable setting, meanwhile, seek out a highly prized table at Nobu at Dubai’s Atlantis, The Palm. atlantisthepalm.com
Visit a souk
Nothing in the Gulf sums up the atmosphere of Arabia more readily than its oldest markets. Muscat’s Muttrah Souk, where the aroma of frankincense adds to the sense of portside exoticism, is the perfect example. It’s somewhere to browse tiny stalls selling Omani silver and embroidered textiles, before losing yourself in winding lanes infused with sunbeams and spices.
Enjoy traditional cuisine
Doha’s Souq Waqif is a warren of shopping lanes and shisha lounges, as well as home to lots of wonderful traditional restaurants. Immerse yourself in soft lamplight, live Arabic music and exotic decor and enjoy the flavors of the Gulf and Middle East. It’s a chance to sample the myriad delights of a mezze menu, such as kibbeh (spiced meat), tabbouleh and baba ghanoush.
PUBLISHED IN THE 2014 FALL ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork