Far below your aeroplane window the world looks beige, flat, hot and dusty. You circle in for the final approach to Abu Dhabi on one leg of your journey to or from your latest business trip. Your flight has been smooth, the food good, the flight attendants smiling and the seats comfortable. You’re so refreshed, in fact, that you’re in the mood to make the most of a warm 24-hour Emirati stopover.
Check into the comfortable Holiday Inn Abu Dhabi (31st Street Airport Rd; ) – highly rated for its business facilities and just 15 minutes from the airport- then head straight into Abu Dhabi, the calm capital city of the United Arab Emirates, where mosques, parks and skyscrapers mingle comfortably. First take a saunter around the blossoming, waterfall-studded gardens of the Emirates Heritage Village down on the Breakwater, where you’ll find evidence of an older era Abu Dhabi, complete with Bedouin encampment, mosque and a re-creation of a traditional souq. After this, if your senses are up to it, make a quick round of the fish market at Al Meena, where locals browse for the pungent catch of the day.
Next, with heat of mid-morning already mounting, escape to the air-conditioned retail bliss of the huge Marina Mall, equipped with cinemas, ice rink and bowling alley, along with an impressive selection of Chanel, Dior and Fendi. Alternatively for more unusual, unbranded souvenirs, visit the Women’s Handicraft Centre (Karama St, Al Mushrif), where local female artisans produce weaving and thread-work, or don your haggling hat at the carpet souq on Al Meena Road.
Once you’ve shopped within a whisker of your luggage allowance, grab a Lebanese mezze lunch outdoors at Cafe Layali Zaman on the Corniche (look for the ‘Baguette’ sign), where the hummus is perfectly garlicky, the baba ganoush a smoky, aubergine dream, and you might choose to accompany your Arabic coffee with a sweet-scented shisha water-pipe. Well fortified, detour back toward the airport for the fascinating 2pm tour (Sunday to Thursday) of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital where birds of prey are nursed lovingly back to health and whose tour ends with an opportunity to hold a rehabilitated falcon, then head back into town to take high tea at the opulent Emirates Palace Hotel. Choose from raspberry jam and Devonshire clotted cream, or go local with date and zaatar (a Middle Eastern spice mixture of sumac, hyssop and sesame) scones, rosewater-scented grapes and Arabic pastries. Check out the exhibition-of-the-moment at the hotel (there’s almost always something worth seeing), then hop aboard a taxi to Saadiyat Island – where the Guggenheim and Louvre Abu Dhabi are currently under construction – to visit the Manarat Al Saadiyat visitors centre, with an interactive exhibition detailing the future of the island, and the Arts Abu Dhabi Gallery.
Once the heat of the sun has dissipated a little, head back for a stroll of the Bateen shipyard (open daily except Friday), close to the Intercontinental hotel, where traditional teak dhows are still assembled, and techniques date back centuries, though dhows for racing or pleasure are today more common than the trading boats of the past. Continue on to the Corniche to stroll with locals as the sun sets, and wander over to watch the last rays catch the imposing Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, probably Abu Dhabi’s most important landmark, known as the ‘Grand Mosque’ to locals, and whose lavish buildings materials hark from as far afield as Greece, Italy, Morocco and Germany. Finally, for dinner, dig into a delicious plate of gnocchi at the highly rated Spaccanopoli (Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi) then head over to Jazz Bar (Hilton Abu Dhabi) for a post-supper cocktail served with a dash of live jazz – the perfect nightcap before your early morning flight.