By Hayley Lewis for Metro.co.uk, Traveller. Adventurer. Foodie. Blogging at www.alovelyplanet.com. Follow on Instagram @alovelyplanet
Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 8:00 am
Flying into Abu Dhabi, you cant fail to notice the huge desert to the south of the emirate.
The Rub al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter, isnt just any old desert – it happens to be the worlds largest uninterrupted sand mass.
In fact, its the same size as France.
Ive always wanted to stare out across the dunes of the Arabian desert, with the sand between my toes, and experience the vastness of this natural wonder.
And having been through the emirate on stop overs many times before, I decided it was finally time for me to stop and explore Abu Dhabis desert.
Leaving bright and early, we met our guide and set off in his 4×4. The car came complete with a roll cage, which slightly unnerved me – but more on that later.
Beyond the high rise buildings of the city, the landscape soon flattened out and we whizzed past a number of camel farms without stopping.
Forty five minutes later, we had really arrived in the desert.
While there was still a road, the tarmac had gone, and waves of sand blew across it in the breeze.
More camels appeared, but this time they werent contained in a farm – they were wandering freely across the dunes.
I jumped out to get a closer look and discovered that they were extremely friendly and keen to say hello – or at least try to give me a kiss.
Camels are highly valued in Abu Dhabi, where they are farmed for milk and for racing – a popular sport in the UAE.
Hopping back in the car, we headed to our real destination: Arabian Nights Village.
This is a purpose-built village offering tourists a taste of traditional Bedouin life and a mixture of cultural and adrenaline-inducing activities.
You can visit the village for a day trip, or stay overnight in the Bedouin style woven huts, palm houses or the fort tower, all with luxurious interiors and, more importantly, air conditioning.
I was particularly eager to try dune bashing there, which I discovered was why the 4×4 needed the roll cage.
Dune bashing is all about speeding up steep hills and sliding back down the other side, fast.
It was definitely an exhilarating experience – the dunes can reach as high as 300 metres.
It felt a bit like a roller coaster without a track and all you could see is sand as you swing in the vehicle.
Halfway through, we stopped to admire the scenery and it really was as lovely as I had imagined.
The sand has a reddish hue, and is scattered with the occasional tree, but is otherwise quiet.
After admiring the endless desert, I hopped back into the 4×4 for more dune bashing en route back to the village.
If dune bashing sounds a bit too terrifying for you, you could also try sandboarding, camel riding, quad biking and henna painting at the village.
I decided to climb a sand dune for a better view of the sunset. It was exhausting – those dunes are incredibly high – but it was worth the effort.
The view from the top, especially of the sun setting over the dunes, was breathtaking.
After Ive tired myself out in the desert, dinner was served – a buffet of Arabic and western dishes, accompanied by traditional live music and belly dancing.
If its a cloudless night, you can see stars with incredible clarity across the night sky.
It really is an incredible experience.
If you only have a short time in Abu Dhabi, make sure you visit The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
Built in honour of the UAEs founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, it is the largest mosque in the country and one of the biggest in the world.
The impressive landmark is built from white marble and decorated with gold, crystals and ceramics and entry is free.
Culture vultures should also check out the recently opened the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.
Make sure you take in the 360-degree view of the city from the Observation Deck at 300, Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, too – entry is £19.50 (AED 95).
Thrill-seekers will want to ride the worlds fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World, where the Formula Rossa ride reaches speeds of 240km/h in less than five seconds.
Or if you just want to kick back, relax at the gorgeous Corniche and Yas beaches or spend a day by a hotel pool.
Abu Dhabi isnt short of great restaurants either. Enjoy a delicious lunch at Li Beirut, which overlooks the water, where set menus start from £51 (AED 250) per person.
You will probably want to try a 24 karat-gold flake cappuccino or cake at the opulent Emirates Palace – the worlds most expensive hotel – as well.
Where to stay in Abu Dhabi and how to get there:
Stay at the four-star Yas Island Rotana, where the classic rooms start from £52 (AED 258) per night including breakfast for two.
A Desert Days Safari at Arabian Nights Village, which was what I experienced, costs £61 (AED 300) for adults (above 12) and £41 (AED 200) for children (aged 6 – 12).
And if you wanted to stay the night, its £310 (AED 1500) for two adults, including activities, dinner, breakfast and transfers costs.
Etihad – the national carrier of Abu Dhabi – offers three daily flights between London Heathrow and Abu Dhabi.
Return fares start from £350 in economy and £1,953 in business class. From Manchester, return fares start from £346 in economy and £2367 in business class.