This is what 2.4 G-force feels like. We are sprinting from 0 to 240km/h in five shrieking seconds on Formula Rossa – the fastest rollercoaster in the world.
We are at Ferrari World, the world’s largest undercover theme park on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Ferrari World is just one of a growing number of ‘biggest’ and ‘bests’ in this ambitious Arab emirate. With an estimated 30-year lifespan left in the oil industry, Abu Dhabi is re-focussing on its future and re-branding as a world-class tourist destination.
A water park on Yas Island, due to be completed in 2013, will be the biggest in the world. At the moment, the half-built tangle of chutes and tunnels look like giant coils of wiring caged in scaffolding, and crawling with hard-hat wearing workers.
Manarat Al Saadiyat is a brand new gallery built to showcase the epically ambitious construction projects on Saadiyat Island. Like much of the emirate, the island is still under construction, but by 2030 it will be transformed into a sprawling leisure hub – home to 30,000 residents in resort-style villas and a leading arts and culture precinct. The coastline will be populated with Guggenheim and Louvre satellite galleries and a performing arts centre which, from the artist’s impression, looks like a space ship floating over the water.
Construction projects dominate in the central city, too. Cranes punctuate the skyline, alongside freshly built and half-completed shimmering sky scrapers, with banners flung from upper levels advertising space for lease.
Friday mornings are for prayer and relaxation, so our car is one of few travelling the highways. We arrive at the Central Market just as it opens for the afternoon. It is a modern multi-level take on the traditional souk which once occupied the site. I eat my first Arabian date – chocolate covered and stuffed with almond. The United Arab Emirates grows over 120 varieties of dates, and even has an annual festival to celebrate the deliciously sticky dried fruit.
We emerge from the air-conditioned souk, laden with silk pashminas, perfumes and spices, into a rippling wave of heat and the sonorous, beautiful call to prayer resonating through the streets.
The city comes to life as the afternoon wears on. The streets flow with late-model cars, including brand new Mustangs, and grunty Mercedes coupes filled with groups of young men.
Each emirate has its own patron sheikh, whose image adorns billboards that tower over vast empty freeways. These new highways cut swathes through the parched landscapes, under the pale haze of a recent sandstorm. Another overnight sandstorm leaves a fog of dust over our hotel windows and powdery drifts of sand on my balcony.
One of the jewels of Abu Dhabi is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the biggest mosques in the world. Accommodating more than 40,000 worshippers, alongside thousands of tourists, the Mosque is the size of five football pitches and is made entirely of white Italian marble. It features minarets, domes and spires topped in 24 carat gold and Murano glass mosaics from Italy. In the main prayer hall, the world’s largest crystal chandelier hangs over the world’s largest hand-woven carpet.
Women visitors are expected to don traditional Muslim garments out of respect for the holy place. With a long black abaya fluttering around my legs and sheyla wound over my hair, I walk barefoot over the cool marble of the vast courtyard. The tiles are inlaid with intricate floral designs in mother-of-pearl and semi-precious stones. Despite the scale and opulence of the building, there is a kind of soulful serenity here.
On our last night we zoom along another sand-swept highway, out into the desert. Our driver swerves off the tarmac and into the creamy pastel dunes that unfurl in front of us. The sand is so fine and powdery it seems to splash over the car like water. Waves fling from under the tyres, as the car screams and lurches up one dune and careens down the next, snaking in gravity-defying curves.
From a distance, the desert is intimidating in its vastness. But, when we finally stop to stretch our legs and watch the sun set behind the curving horizon, there is something pure and strangely intimate in the stillness.
In addition to Abu Dhabi’s already extravagant collection of superlatives – the biggest water park, fastest rollercoaster and arguably grandest mosque – the national airline for the United Arab Emirates, Etihad, is the fastest growing commercial airline in aviation history, since its launch in 2003. It is also one of the most awarded, winning the ‘World’s Leading Airline’ at the World Travel Awards three years in a row.
The airline prides itself on impeccable service and offers exceptionally comfortable lie-flat beds in business and first class, alongside fine-dining options concocted by an on-board chef.
Based out of Abu Dhabi, Etihad flies to 45 countries, including Europe, Asia, the US and Australia, and has code share agreements with Air New Zealand.
Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Winter 2019 issue