With its man-made islands, opulent hotels and iconic buildings, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has always been a show-stopping, headline-grabbing destination, offering an intriguing blend of Islamic culture and modernity.
The world watched spellbound as billionaire Emiratis built megastructure after megastructure, seducing slack-jawed tourists and expats with everything from the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab to bustling souks, sprawling tax-free shopping malls and decadent hotel brunches.
For a while, it seemed as though nothing could halt the rise of this burgeoning Arabian Gulf country, until the global financial crisis took hold and saw residents ditching their million dollar Ferraris at the airport, and years of construction plans came to a halt overnight. With billions of dollars invested in property projects, Dubai suffered a major economic blow. However, the oil rich capital of Abu Dhabi managed to escape relatively unscathed and its ruler agreed to bail out the neighbouring Emirate. As a result the name of the world’s tallest building (Burj Dubai) changed to mirror its late investor’s moniker; Burj Khalifa. The UAE capital now looks set to become the country's cultural heart, with the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, the Louvre and the Guggenheim galleries scheduled to open in the next five years.
While the crisis may have crippled markets around the world, the UAE as a whole remains a billionaires playground, the Bentleys, Louis Vuitton handbags and mega yachts are still ten a penny, yet some hotel rates remain lower than they were pre-crash, meaning there has never been a better time to visit the country. You'll also find that many of the hotels and restaurants are now offering meal deals and freebies aplenty, in order to increase customer numbers, encouraging visitors to forget there's a depression happening, and party like it's 2007.
Explore the country’s luxurious side and be pampered at the reams of five star abodes and spas, flex your credit card with world-class designer shopping or dine at gourmet restaurants. Alternatively, visit the nation’s less showy attractions including the buzzing Creek with traditional abra boats, and a vista dotted with mosques and markets, or the Falcon Hospital where tours teach visitors how to care for the UAE’s royal birds. Meanwhile, the vast natural desert offers endless discoveries via exciting modes of transport from hot air balloon and quad bike to helicopter or sandboard.
Don’t be dazzled by Abu Dhabi and Dubai alone – the other emirates are also worthy of exploration. Coastal Fujairah offers nature walks and a host of outdoor adventures, including off road mountian biking, wakeboarding, plus snorkelling and scuba diving with sea turtles and reef sharks. Ras al-Khamiah has excellent off-road driving and hiking in the rugged Hajar Mountains, Al Ain, part of Abu Dhabi, boasts natural cave systems and hot water springs, as well as sports car driving on the world class Jebel Hafeet mountain road, which draws car fanatics from across the globe. Plus, this normally sleepy town recently opened the Middle East’s first manmade whitewater rafting, kayaking and surfing centre, Wadi Adventure. If that lot won’t get your heart racing, nothing will.