Just off the mainland, on an island in the Arabian Gulf, sits the city of Abu Dhabi. While this modern metropolis is well-known for its gleaming skyscrapers, palatial hotels and impressive shopping malls, if you take the time to look beyond, you’ll soon discover that the UAE capital is full of seaside surprises.
1. Enjoy a dip in agate-hued waters and try watersports for all thrill levels
Abu Dhabi is an archipelago made up of hundreds of islands, with its rich coastline being home to one of the world’s most stunning agate-hued coastlines (Google Earth Abu Dhabi for a visual treat). If you love a swim in the sea, you will be pleased to know that not only is the water in this part of the world gentle, but it’s also the perfect temperature year-round.
Corniche BeachIt’s no surprise then that there are plenty of thrilling watersports on offer, from wakeboarding to stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), jet-skiing, kayaking, snorkelling, scuba diving, flyboarding and free diving, with numerous watersports adventure tours across the emirate offering fun, family-friendly activities at pristine beaches and world-class marinas. Some of the best beaches in Abu Dhabi include Saadiyat Beach and the private beach at Saadiyat Beach Club – both of which play active roles in the protection and conservation of endangered Hawksbill turtles – Corniche Beach, Yas Beach, Al Bateen Beach, Al Bateen Beach for Females, Mirfa Beach and the private beaches at Nation Riviera Beach Club and Intercontinental Bayshore.
2. Kayak around one of the world’s urban wonders
If kayaking around one of the world’s seven urban wonders (which also happens to be the first universal museum in the Arab world) doesn’t sound like a must-do bucket-list activity, then we don’t know what does. Set at the base of the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Pritzker prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, this kayaking adventure allows you to appreciate and learn more about the museum’s breathtaking architecture from the stillness of the Arabian Sea.
Sea Hawk Water Sports offers this once-in-a-lifetime hour-long excursion, with no prior experience necessary. You’ll be accompanied by professional instructors and given a safety and paddle briefing before the tour starts. Kids between the ages of 6 and 12 need to be accompanied by an adult or guardian.
3. Slide down the world’s first and largest hydro-magnetic powered tornado waterslide
If you’re looking for a full day of belly laughs and heart-pumping fun and one of the best places to go with kids, Yas Waterworld Abu Dhabi is your place. This Emirati-themed waterpark spans 15 football pitches with over 40 rides, slides and attractions perfect for all ages. Try your hand at the world-first, largest hydromagnetic-powered, 238-metre long, six-person tornado waterslide, Dawwamma, or check out three-metre-high waves on Bubbles Barrel, which boasts the world’s biggest surfable sheet wave for flow boards and bodyboards. The Bandit Bomber, a 550-metre coaster, showcases onboard water and laser effects, with riders shooting jets of water at targets, dropping water bombs and triggering special effects. Passersby below them, meanwhile, can also get in on the action, spraying riders with water as they pass.
4. Kayak through a no-fishing zone along the coast of a protected island reserve
Desert Islands Watersports Centre is situated at the jaw-dropping Sir Bani Yas Island, one of eight islands making up the desert islands of Al Dhafra and a nature-based destination home to stunning wildlife, family-friendly adventure, five-star boutique hotels, luxury villas, purpose-built stables and historical sites.
A two-and-a-half-hour drive and ferry-hop from Abu Dhabi, the centre offers sailing lessons and sunset cruises, as well as diving expeditions and PADI certification. One of the treasures of this trip, however, is the chance to kayak along numerous routes through the area’s non-fishing zone that stretches 8km from the shores of the island’s incredible nature-based wildlife reserve. The waters around this life-giving island are teeming with marine flora and fauna unique to the region, also allowing for some of the world’s best snorkelling and diving.
5. Spot flamingoes, foxes, herons and dugongs while exploring mangroves by kayak or SUP
Not many people know, but Abu Dhabi boasts some of the planet’s most unique and important ecosystems: mangroves. Home to crabs, herons, flamingos, fish, turtles, foraging foxes, dugong and dolphin, Mangrove National Park is the perfect place to escape the bustle of the city.
Ideal for bird watchers, photographers and curious children, this surprising park continues to be one of the emirate’s most essential ecological assets, protected by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) and constituting about 75 per cent of the total mangrove forest area in the UAE. A biodiversity hotspot that includes mangrove forests, salt marshes, mudflats, and algal communities, its indigenous trees act as natural windbreakers, protecting the region against tidal surges and purifying surrounding water. Mangroves are also highly effective at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, trapping it in flooded soils for millennia. Get access to this fascinating natural landscape through the upmarket Eastern Mangroves Marina, adjacent to the five-star Anantara Eastern Mangroves Abu Dhabi Hotel. Youll be able to book kayaking, paddleboarding, sailing and other water-based tours to explore the lush mangroves from here.
6. Glide through the water on a jet ski or water ski, fish, sail or relax in a sea hammock
There something wonderfully idyllic about taking time out on a private boutique island, which is exactly what you can do at Zaya Nurai Island. Perched in the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf, to the east of the Abu Dhabi coastline and a short 15-minute boat ride from the shores of Abu Dhabi, it’s hard to believe that this peaceful, paradisiacal island is so close to the city. From the Arabic word ‘nur’, meaning ‘light’, this sun-drenched paradise is perfect for luxury adventures, boasting azure waters, powder-white soft sand beaches, stunning architecture and garden scapes, and uninterrupted Arabian Gulf views.
A jewel in Abu Dhabi’s crown, this is a playground for the young and the young at heart, with an ultra-luxurious resort offering visiting and staying guests a range of watersports, including scuba diving, snorkelling, jet skiing, water skiing, SUP, fly-fishing, windsurfing, wakeboarding, banana rides and more. Consider yourself something of a foodie? Catch fresh fish on a fishing trip and have the chef at the island’s upmarket Hooked restaurant cook it to your liking. If you feel like a surf, the Surf Pool at Smokin Pineapple is perfect, while a laze in one of the island’s sea hammocks is great for some downtime.
7. Speed down man-made white water rafting channels or try out an epic surfing wall
Looking for a dose of adventure travel? A little more inland, Wadi Adventure is a fantastic family-friendly adventure park that sits at the base of the majestic and history-rich Jebel Hafit mountain, Abu Dhabi’s tallest peak about an hour and a half away from the city in Al Ain. This epic spot is home to the Middle East’s first man-made white water rafting channels, measuring 1,100 metres in length and perfect for rafting and kayaking.
It also has a surfing wall, wakeboarding facilities, swimming pool and splash pool. Families and groups of friends will love it here, but it’s also great for team building and corporate events. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself rubbing shoulders with well-known sportspeople. Sports professionals from around the world regularly visit the park, which also provides training programmes and complete packages, including accommodation and airport transfers.