Hala's Story of Abu Dhabi
This half-day tour gives a good introduction to Abu Dhabi. From its history of Bedouin nomadism, pearling, the first oil find in 1958, through the British era to the unification of the United Arab Emirates in 1971 and a real insight into life in Abu Dhabi today, excellent guide Nevine Jacxsens brings alive the essence of the place. Hala uses only luxury four-wheel-drives and we visit Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which can hold 41,000 people under its 82 domes, with its virtually faultless marble inlay, chandeliers weighing up to 12 tonnes and the world's biggest carpet. It took 1200 people a year to make the more than two million knots. Nevine, who studied at Edith Cowan University, understands the Middle East intimately and has lived in Syria and Saudi Arabia. She takes us along the Corniche, to Yas and Saadiyat islands, Artscape cultural centre, the UAE Heritage Village and the date market. And it's a surprise that there are so many types - from sukkari to namees, and the big, juicy medjool.
The half-day tour is AED180 ($52) for adults, AED120 for children. halaabudhabi.ae
Abu Dhabi Pearl Journey
Before oil and gas changed the place forever, there was the pearling industry. And we set off in a jalibut (a small dhow) from the Eastern Mangroves Hotel towards the city, Hafeth Sharhan telling how up to 20 people lived on board for up to four months in the summer - needing the warm water to stay warm as they were free diving. "They were diving every day for four months - for four minutes, 50 to 200 times a day." They wedged a stone on a rope between their toes, to descend faster to between 4m and 8m. They'd dive with one eye open, one closed, as the extreme saltiness of the water sent them blind, and this slowed the inevitable. But many ended up blind, deaf and with bone problems by the time they were in their 30s. At one time there were up to 1400 jalibuts here but then came the Japanese invention of pearl seeding, and the bottom fell out of their market.
The tour leaves from the jetty at Eastern Mangroves Hotel between 9am and 7pm most days. It is AED500 for adults and AED400 for those under 12. adpearljourney.com
Yas Marina Circuit Tour
The November 21-23 Formula 1 weekend is a big deal on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island but, even when the race isn't on, there's the chance to get a bit of F1 insight and a close look at the 5.5km circuit with its 21 turns. The Yas Marina Circuit Tour gives guests the inside story (44 generators that run lights for the twilight racing) and takes them into F1 garages, to stand on pit lane, go inside a team villa, visit the race control room, where a wall of screens shows images from the 44 cameras around the track, and even get on the circuit (albeit in a coach). We get to stop on the straight and stand on pole position . . . and then stand on the podium.
The tour is AED120. yasmarinacircuit.com
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital tour
The falcon's talons are clipped and reshaped into the killer crescents they're supposed to be, as the bird lies deceptively soft under anaesthetic. But soon it is held on the floor, the safest place for it as it shows the first signs of waking, and then it is flapping and stretching and, within a minute or so, back on the glove, fully alert. While the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital was established to fix broken legs and wings and do more minor medical work like this, it has also become a key tourist attraction. Its two tours a day give insight not only into the work here but the importance of falconry to the local Bedouin culture. For, unlike Europe, where falconry was a sport of kings, here it was a practical method of finding food. Migrating falcons passing over the Arabian Peninsula were trapped, carried on the glove for 24 hours a day to train them, treated like members of the family, used to hunt prey (all-important protein) through the cooler months and then released in spring to join their migrating mates on the way back to breeding grounds. Female falcons are a third bigger than males and so can catch bigger prey - a female falcon can hunt, kill and carry in flight a 6kg grey bustard which is three times her body weight. The sacred falcon is the country's emblem but the fastest of all falcons is the peregrine, which can fly in horizontal chase at up to 300km/h and dive at 350km/h - the fastest bird in the world.
Hunting is banned in the Abu Dhabi region and the birds now have their own passports, so that they can be taken by aircraft to countries such as Uzbekistan to hunt. "They are the only animal allowed in Arab planes in the cabin without a box," hospital director Dr Margit Muller says.
She says this is the leading centre for falcon medicine worldwide: "Almost all the equipment we have here comes from human medicine, and especially paediatrics." There's an intensive-care unit and theatre. When the hospital started in 1999, it treated 1000 patients a year, and now it's around 9500. But clearly the culture of falconry is important to Dr Muller: "Here, falconry goes through all social classes. It is part of the Bedouin identity and values. We are not just a hospital for birds - it's part of their culture."
The two-hour tour is AED170 for those aged 10 and over, AED60 for five-nine years and free for under-fives. falconhospital.com.
Etihad Airways now flies direct between Perth and Abu Dhabi, and then connects to what is expected to be 102 destinations by end of 2014. etihad.com
For more information on visiting Abu Dhabi, see VisitAbuDhabi.ae
Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Tourism.