Travel Long Haul: A secret life beyond duty-free

Abu Dhabi is more than a transit airport: it's a desert paradise.
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The Independent Culture
Think of Abu Dhabi as an onion. The outer skin is Abu Dhabi, the the largest and richest of the United Arab Emirates states. On the map, it sprawls comfortably across the north coast of the Arabian peninsula, reclining on the broad bulk of Saudi Arabia, an elbow poking into Oman. The next layer is Abu Dhabi, the capital, which occupies a bare slab of island in the Gulf; in a part of the world where everything is roasted to a crisp by the blinding sun, the city is an extraordinary, high-rise collusion.

The tender heart is Abu Dhabi, the airport, which resembles a discarded prototype for the Millennium Dome - a shiny emerald orb which makes you feel you have been swallowed up by a particularly elegant flying saucer. Yet the only part of this trinity that gets any attention from most travellers is the bit in the middle: that green gem of an airport.

These days, long-range aircraft allow most travellers from Europe to the Far East to fly straight overhead, but the destination board at Abu Dhabi airport still reads like a global gazetteer. Anyone heading from Amsterdam to Zanzibar, Casablanca to Chittagong, or Paris to Peshawar, can make it with a single stop at Abu Dhabi, an aerial crossroads. To paraphrase an old American adage, when you die and go to whichever heaven is expecting you, you have to change planes at Abu Dhabi.

Your first encounter will inevitably be in the middle of the night. You will spend an hour being befuddled by jetlag and bemused by the duty- free shop, and leave behind a city, and a state, that deserves much more of your attention. Abu Dhabi sells itself solely on its airport, so the unwitting traveller never knows what a fine time is waiting to be enjoyed in the city and state, with a free side-trip to another Sultanate.

Here's how. A couple of the best-value deals to the Far East and Australia are on Gulf Air and Royal Brunei. The former will take you to Hong Kong for around pounds 400, while the latter charges little more for a trip all the way to Perth or Brisbane. With many of these discounted tickets, you are allowed to stop over at no extra charge. Seize the chance; it will be a highlight of your holiday.

For starters, getting in is simple. Britain's historic links with the former Trucial States (of which Abu Dhabi is but one), mean UK passport holders are allowed in without a visa. You'll need some cash, of course. Your credit or debit card should work in the Automatic Teller Machine just outside customs. Careful how much you take out; for a two-day stay, I drew out the dirham equivalent of pounds 100 and found it impossible to spend more than half.

The airport bus conductor will demand rather less than pounds 1 for the 20- mile run to the city centre. The ticket "wishes you a happy journey". The driver will solicitously work out the best place to drop you for your lodgings. You will be politely pointed in the right direction, through streets that are safe day and night, towards a hotel where a suite bigger (and nicer) than my home costs just pounds 40 for the night. On the way, drop in to a cafe for a spicy kebab and salad, washed down with coconut milk straight from the shell; oh well, there goes another pound. Fancy a drink? All the big hotels conceal a pub, and a pint costs a lot less than in London. You get the picture.

A foolish traveller, of course, knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. So what is the touristic value of Abu Dhabi, the city? Probably not as high as it was in the days before oil, when it was a one- camel town with a real live souk as municipal market, rather than the sanitised, concrete successor. But still worth half a day of anyone's time, for three good reasons.

The set-piece highlight is the Al-Husn palace, a low-rise oasis in a muddle of skyscraping. Built in the 19th century atop a freshwater well, it is also the only building more than 30 years old in the entire city. In line with the effortless architecture of Abu Dhabi, you seem able simply to wander in and glide around shady courtyards where intensely purple and yellow flowers flourish against dazzling, whitewashed walls. Waft up to the fortifications. Take a twirl and marvel at the towering array of steel and concrete that has sprouted from the most arid of ground.

The skyline is the second big attraction. Imagine the more interestingly shaped components of a plumbing system being magnified a millionfold. Great tubes stretch skywards, and perform improbable turns before a flashy finish. Inevitably, there is an array of Identikit domino blocks but the rarity of glass gives a texture different from the average high-rise city. A typical building looks like a gigantic cheese-grater. Any larger windows, and the occupants would melt in the sun.

The melting that does take place is mainly of the cultural kind. The greatest of all Abu Dhabi's attributes is the population. For a real compendium of cultures, forget London, Paris, or New York - look no further than the Gulf states. The oil wealth sloshing around Abu Dhabi has drawn people from all across the Muslim world.

The only certainty about your taxi driver (you take a lot of taxis, due to the absurd heat, longish distances and the fact that no ride seems to cost more than pounds 1) is that he will be male. His home, though, could be in Sudan, Pakistan or Indonesia.

He will be a model of dignity and concern for your welfare, even if these attributes are not reflected in his driving. Wherever you pause - whether for a cup of strong, sweet tea or the complete works of curry - you will sense a generosity of spirit, as well as a dollop of curiosity as to why anyone would want to be a tourist here.

One excellent reason to believe in the concept of "Abu Dhabi, holiday destination", is the desert. Outside the city, it is almost everywhere. Take the bus through it for 80 miles due east, along a highway that comes with its own vegetation but carves through dunes that resemble soft, golden pillows. As you get deeper into this, the fringe of Arabia's Empty Quarter, the horizon gradually rises. Distant mountains are ignited by the drooping afternoon sun. What you need is a decent oasis.

Al Ain, when it appears through the heat-haze, is no mirage. Abu Dhabi's second city grew up around the Buraimi oasis, but anyone hoping to encounter a squadron of camels quenching their thirst from a pool of clear, blue water fringed by palm trees, is in for a shock. For a start, the watercourse is entirely dry at present. And in place of nomads' tents, these days you find a row of shops in a frenzy of fluorescence.

The commerce gets calmer across the Omani border. Thanks to a wrinkle in international frontiers, Al Ain throws a loop around the town of Buraimi - part of the Sultanate of Oman. You can wander freely between the two countries. The pace of life around the souk is gentle, and the most notable encroachment of modernity is the occasional telephone box - castellated, and dressed up like a miniature desert fort. To finish this foray in style, pack yourself into a service taxi - a lumbering Peugeot estate, with room for seven in comfort - and hurtle through the blistering desert due north, to Dubai. You cruise into a city which has been trading for centuries, and is therefore at odds with the instant prefabrication of Abu Dhabi. Dubai feels like a city with a human pulse, rather than simply a place which exists as a means to an end: pumping around oil money. But the airport isn't as nice as Abu Dhabi's.

Simon Calder stopped at Abu Dhabi as part of a British Airways/Qantas round-the-world itinerary, for which he paid pounds 856 through Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322). He paid pounds 40 for a night at the Federal Hotel in Abu Dhabi city (00 971 789 000).

The bus to Al Ain runs roughly hourly, takes around three hours, and costs pounds 1.70. A place in a service taxi from Al Ain to Dubai costs pounds 3.40. To complete the triangle, there are frequent fast service taxis between Dubai and Abu Dhabi