UAE: Abu Dhabi - More Than A Flight of FancyWith just 48 hours in Abu Dhabi I had a full schedule of attractions to visit including the third largest mosque in the world, Sheikh Zahed Grand Mosque.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2013
‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,’ so the old saying goes, but in Abu Dhabi, a bird in the hand is worth 5000 in the bush. This is approximately the number of birds, falcons to be precise, that the world’s leading falcon hospital treats each year.
As I entered the foyer, it looked like any other hospital waiting room, people stared into space apprehensively, men paced back and forth as others waited patiently for the doctor to call them. The big difference was that there were no women in the room, only men wearing a dishdash(a) or khandurao – a white full length shirt dress which is worn with a white headdress or red chequered headdress, known as a gutra. Suddenly I noticed birds of prey sitting calmly on the arm rests of chairs occupied by their owners – this was the waiting room of the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
Representing the passion and love of Arab Bedouin the falcon is the national emblem of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Dating back centuries, falconry and falcons represent a unique tradition that is still very much alive in Abu Dhabi. The Arabian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi is actually the largest in land area of seven which make up the UAE. With a population of 1.75 million it is a country where style and sophistication are infused with traditional values of hospitality, respect and magnificent birds of prey.
Arriving in Abu Dhabi off an Etihad Airways flight from Manchester, where the onset of winter was beginning to crisp things up a little, I walked from the air-conditioned four-wheel drive towards the 5-star Yas Hotel as the heat hit me - it was still about 32 degrees centigrade at 10.30pm. Situated half on land and half over water next to a large flashy marina, this is the only hotel in the world to straddle an F1 race track – Abu Dhabi’s purpose built, Yas Marina Circuit.
With just 48 hours in Abu Dhabi I had a full schedule of attractions to visit including the third largest mosque in the world, Sheikh Zahed Grand Mosque. It is arguably one of the most important architectural treasures of contemporary UAE society. It can house more than 40,000 worshipers, many of whom kneel to pray on the world’s largest hand-made carpet, which measures 5,627m square.
You can also get an idea of where this oil rich nation is heading with a host of intriguing new projects on the horizon. The latest is the opening on 30th November 2010 of Ferrari World. It is the world’s largest indoor theme park and the only attraction and leisure experience of its kind in the Middle East. The park features 20 rides and attractions designed to bring to life the Ferrari story. The most thrilling ride is when you strap yourself into an F1 cockpit and hold onto your soul as you blast away on the fastest roller coaster on the planet. You’ll accelerate up to 240km/h and get a clear understanding of what the pull of 4.8 G’s really feels like.
There was also a visit to Saadiyat (Happiness) Island, a natural 27 square kilometre sanctuary 500 meters off the coast of Abu Dhabi city. By 2020 it will become a major significant cultural hub in this desert oasis with housing for 150,000 new residents. What was once a desolate plot of land is being transformed as the oil-rich Emirate spends US$22 billion turning this sandy island into a green metropolis that will encompass a new Guggenheim Museum, a Louvre Museum, a performing arts complex, a maritime museum and a national museum modelled on the British Museum.
For lunch I dined at the Emirates Palace, a hotel that was built by 20,000 workers in three years at a cost over three billion US dollars. To appreciate the size and scale of the hotel consider this. It has 128 kitchens and pantries, eight escalators and 102 elevators, as well as 1002 chandeliers. Factor in 100 hectares of land, 8000 trees in landscaped gardens, an open air concert capacity of 20,000, a 6.4 km jogging trail and 12 external fountains and it goes a long way to explaining why Emirates Palace offers the world’s most expensive one million US dollar tailor-made suite holiday! Oh and the cuisine is superb too.
However, in all honesty it was the small insignificant building that housed the falcon hospital that blew me away completely. Established in 1999, the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital (ADFH) is the first public institution in the world providing comprehensive veterinary health care services exclusively for falcons. In 2007 the hospital opened its doors to tourists allowing visitors to experience the fascinating world of falcons and falconry.
As a lucky visitor, I was personally guided around the hospital by the director, Dr. Margit Muller, yet any tourist to Abu Dhabi can now visit the hospital on a guided tour. It’s a chance for you to enjoy a unique falconry show and museum whist gaining an insight into this traditional desert sport by trying your hand at falconry under expert instruction. This unique award-winning tour provides a once in a lifetime experience which is truly unforgettable.
Featuring a combination of cultural and eco-tourism, the first stop I had was a guided tour of the small falcon museum just inside the foyer, where Dr. Muller explained the three types of falcon used for hunting that they care for: peregrine, gyr and saker falcons. Both the peregrine and gyr falcons are bird to bird hunters and can reach speeds of up to 180mph, whereas the saker falcon is incredibly unique as it can bring down animals as large as a gazelle!
Next there is a visit to the examination room where you will see all manner of precious falcons undergoing feather repair, micro chip implants or having a manicure and pedicure. You will experience real life work and surgery on both male and female falcons (who are a third larger in size than the males). There is then a visit to their large aviary where falcons are kept and fly free inside. The highlight of the tour will stick in your memory forever. You’ll have the extraordinary opportunity to have photos taken with the majestic falcons sitting on your arm in their beautiful hospital garden.
However what I found amazing is that falcons can travel as hand luggage on Etihad Airways – economy allows one bird per person and in Business and First they are allowed two birds in the cabin per traveller – and believe it or not the birds have a special falcon passport that carries their micro-chip serial number!
The Falcon Hospital is a truly amazing place to experience. If there was a list of the top things to experience in Abu Dhabi then this should be the number one reason to have an enroute stopover in this Emirate.
If you think you’ve seen it all, then think again. Maybe you’re a motorsport fan, a golfer, or a visitor just looking to discover the city’s cultural side and indulge in some great shopping in the souks. Beyond the plentiful beaches and city sights you can venture into the stunning Arabian Desert where heritage sites and old forts are still waiting to be explored. With just 48 hours at your disposal, Abu Dhabi’s attractions will certainly live up to all your visitor expectations.
Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital
The tours are held as guided tours in different languages such as English, Arabic, French and German. They conduct our tours daily (except Friday, Saturday and public holidays). Tour timings: Sunday – Thursday: 10.00 am and 2.00 pm. There is a two hour tour or take the normal package plus lunch in the traditional Arabic tent (Khaima) as an intercontinental buffet. Bookings are essential.
Emirates Palace Hotel
Yas Island Hotel
Sheikh Zahed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Grand Mosque
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