Abu Dhabi's humble roots are difficult to unearth. Following its oil boom, the city has become a playground for the Gulf’s rich and famous. But beyond the domino-like deluxe hotels and futuristic shopping malls straight from Star Trek, it retains seductive charms and a treasure trove of archaic spice souks, traditional dhows, date palm gardens and the odd thirsty camel. From this perspective, it’s easy to picture the great Arabian scholars and storybook heroes making their home here once more.
So what do the locals do to pass the time? Depending on the season and time of day – remember cold nights, sandstorms and summer temperatures of 48 Celsius 48°C (118°F) are not uncommon here – you could be dune bashing in the desert, taking a boat trip along the coast or rugging up under the Gulf's burnishing stars. This is a place that requires options for all times of the day.
The best way to get to grips with Abu Dhabi is to do as the locals do. Begin the day with a steaming cup of kahwa (strong Arabic coffee) and head to the restored Al Bateen Shipyard (Al Bateen Island, next to the Intercontinental Hotel), one of the oldest inhabited areas of the city. In the company of gnarled Sinbad the Sailor seadogs, you can learn about the city’s maritime heritage, which has been forged by dhow sailing boats, offshore pearl harvesting and fishing. If the ocean breezes beckon, you can charter your own boat to skirt the city's outer limits in style.
After checking out the historic Qasr al-Husn fort, drop by one of Abu Dhabi's best contemporary art galleries – take your pick from Gallery One at the Emirates Palace or the Ghaf Art Gallery. Alternatively, visit the Al Ain camel market, a drive to the south, where frenzied breeders and buyers haggle over prized animals like the region’s nomadic shepherds have done for centuries.
Come in winter – the best time to visit as the temperature hovers in the mid-20s – and you may find the locals practising more modern pursuits on one of Abu Dhabi's out-lying islands. Sporting legend Gary Player has opened a signature golf course on Saadiyat Island, while the arrival of the Yas Marina Grand Prix circuit on nearby Yas Island has opened up the city to go kart racing and a calendar of motorsports.
Before the sun dips below the horizon like a ripe orange, Abu Dhabi's souks become chaotic, bustling beehives – the perfect place to buy a pearl necklace, aromatic pinch of frankincense or kitsch mosque alarm clock. Better still, practice your haggling and pick up a pair of curly-toed Persian slippers for that difficult aunt.
Built on the edge of the Rub' al Khali – one of the world’s great desert seas – Abu Dhabi is prime territory for dune bashing and 4x4 off road safaris. Once more accustomed to the likes of Lawrence of Arabia and great British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the rolling carpet of sand is perfect for all manner of family adventures. Ever the entrepreneurs, the Emiratis will give you the chance to ride a camel, get to grips with falconry, or even try sand skiing. Don’t miss the chance to dine under the stars either, especially in the cooler winter months, as plenty of tour companies offer sun-downer drive and dine trips into the dunes.
Into the night
The best way to mingle with the Emirates' increasingly young and funky population of locals and ex-pats is to enjoy a night of hookah at one of numerous hotel bars or sheesha cafes – preferably in an imitation Bedouin tent. Slide yourself onto a divan couch and tuck into a wide variety of Middle Eastern dishes including hummus, moutabel, fatoush and ubiquitous sweet local dates. Be warned though: after socialising for what may seem like 1001 nights, getting up will be harder than you at first thought.