Dispatch, Abu Dhabi: Rapid riches

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 Travel Weekly’s Kenneth Kiesnoski is in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. His dispatch follows.

I eagerly strapped myself into my seat on the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, at the Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi and braced myself for the promised force of 4.8 Gs — to be delivered thanks to a launch speed of 150 miles an hour, reached in just 4.9 seconds.

As the few seconds before takeoff surreally stretched into what seemed like several agonizing minutes, I got to thinking about all the superlatives on offer in Abu Dhabi, the largest of seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates and home to the country’s booming capital city.

Ferrari World roller coaster

The world’s fastest coaster is housed in the world’s largest indoor theme park, measuring 2.2 million square feet.

The world’s largest chandelier (weighing 10 tons) and the largest hand-knotted carpet (comprised of almost 2.3 million knots) are at the enormous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

If you check into the posh Hyatt Capital Gate, you’ll be staying in the world’s most inclined tower, leaning a record-breaking 18 degrees off center. Take that, Pisa.

Then there’s Saadiyat Island, just next to Abu Dhabi city proper, which is being developed into a residential, commercial, cultural and leisure center.

Already home to palatial St. Regis and Park Hyatt luxury beach resorts, Saadiyat will by 2020 boast a branch of the Louvre designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the Zayed National Museum by architect Norman Foster, a space-age performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid and the world’s largest Guggenheim Museum outlet, courtesy of Frank Gehry.

Most of Saadiyat’s attractions are in various stages of construction. In fact, Abu Dhabi could be the world’s largest building site. Only China and, perhaps, neighboring Dubai might give it a run for its construction money.

As you speed along the new 10-lane causeway linking Saadiyat to downtown Abu Dhabi, a forest of cranes greets the eye as far as you can see. A local Emirati told me that at one point, Abu Dhabi had 70% of the cranes operating around the world. That might have been partial hometown pride and bluster, but it doesn’t seem implausibly far off the mark to the awestruck first-time visitor.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque


What’s more impressive than all the facts, figures and hyperbole is the sheer speed — roller coaster-like, in fact — at which Abu Dhabi, like Dubai, has been built. This is a land where, until 1966, UAE founder and president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan lived in a surprisingly humble earthen “palace” without running water or electricity.

Today, that structure, in the ancient oasis town of Al Ain on the Omani border, is a museum. The sheikh’s descendants have long since moved into grander digs, thanks to the emirate’s generous streams of oil — and cash.

Despite all the wealth amassed, the museum is bereft of priceless heirlooms and historical artifacts. It’s kept purposefully bare and simple, as it was when it was a royal home, to remind Emiratis and visitors of Abu Dhabi’s ancient history and humble origins.

Follow Kenneth Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.

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