Kendall Hill rises early for a taste of coffee and figs, palaces and souks, all set in a desert of gold.
The once-drowsy fishing village of Abu Dhabi (the name means Father of the Gazelle) has come a long way since it first struck oil in 1958. Super-yachts dwarf the dhows in the harbour and lavish villas have supplanted the humble palm huts that lined the coast before Abu Dhabi became a haven of luxury for travellers.
Abu Dhabi is one of seven emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates. It has a strong emphasis on cultural tourism - the $US27 billion ($41.6 billion) Saadiyat Island, due to open in stages from 2012, will feature outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. Adventure also features strongly on the menu, with the emirate's back yard one big, desolate sandpit perfect for camel rides and four-wheel-drive fun.
Start early to beat the heat and head to the magnificent Emirates Palace, a gold-plated Versailles beside the Persian Gulf and reputedly the most expensive hotel ever built. Settle down to breakfast in the elegant 300-seat cafe where coffee (espresso or Arabic) is served on a silver tray with a plump date and a gold-flecked chocolate. Not cheap but you get free wireless internet.
Afterwards, join tourists marvelling at the palace's 60-metre-high central atrium and its ceilings glistening with many of the hotel's 1002 Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Then visit the permanent display showing the visionary plans for Saadiyat by the founding president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and learn how some of the world's finest architects - Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Zaha Hadid among them - are in the process of transforming a barren offshore island into a world cultural centre.
Emirates Palace, West End Corniche, +971 2690 9000; see emiratespalace.com.
Take a cab to the port area of Al Meena and lose yourself in the souks selling carpets, dates (Saudi Arabian "pearl" dates are the ultimate, at about $40 a kilogram), the cleanest fish you'll ever see and fine fruit and vegetables from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Nearby is the Iranian souk, which houses traders who have crossed the Gulf by dhow to sell household goods and homewares, spices, rugs and fabrics. Prices are tax-free and about half what you'd pay in the shops.
Opened last year, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque shimmers like a white marble mirage beside the sea. It contains the world's largest carpet and the world's largest light fitting, a massive 24-carat gold-plated chandelier, 15 metres high and 10 metres in diameter. Unusually for the UAE, the mosque is open to non-Muslims - opening hours are 8.30-11.30am Saturday-Thursday, with free guided tours at 10am. Reservations at email@example.com. Dress modestly - no bare arms or legs.
For a falcon's-eye view of the city, take a lift to the top of the Le Royal Meridien hotel in the central Tourist Club Area. Here, on the 25th floor, there's a rooftop revolving restaurant that non-diners are welcome to visit for a peek at the spectacular panorama.
Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa Street, +971 2674 2020; starwood.com.
Tuck into a Levantine lunch at the Lebanese Flower restaurant in downtown Khalidia. The fluffy felafels and breads and melting garlic chicken more than compensate for any flaws in the Formica-heavy decor. Wash it down with a glass of watermelon juice.
Lebanese Flower, Khalidiya (behind Electra St and 26th St); +971 2665 8700.
Drop by the Cultural Foundation for an insight into the character of the Abu Dhabi people. A permanent photographic exhibition charts the city's transformation from an arid village of fishers and pearlers to the gleaming mini-metropolis of today. The foundation hosts regular exhibitions, events and lectures and houses the national library and a cinema screening Western and Arabic films. There is also a coffee shop where you can savour a traditional brew infused with cardamom and saffron. (Etiquette tip: the server will hand the coffee to you with the left hand and you should receive it with your right hand.)
Cultural Foundation, Sheikh Zayed the First Street; +971 2621 5300.
Abu Dhabi is blessed with desert - 90 per cent of its mass is a sandy wilderness - ripe for dune bashing, camel trekking and sunset barbecues. Arabian Adventures runs daily sundowner tours into the desert where you can experience all of the above from the rustic comfort of a Bedouin camp. After dinner, relax beneath the stars.
Arabian Adventures, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Street; +971 2691 1711; see arabian-adventures.com.
Toast the day with a cleansing ale in the lush oasis of Le Meridien. Not to be confused with the five-star Le Royal Meridien, this modest 1970s-era hotel is home to a lively "culinary village" - Turkish, Thai, French, Tex-Mex and more - and has tap beers in the Captain's Arms pub.
Le Meridien Hotel, Tourist Club Area; +971 2644 6666; see starwood.com.
Spend the night at the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, a striking canal-front complex of hotel, villas, spa, souk and beaches. Hotel rooms are decorated in a tasteful modern Arabesque style. Book one with a garden terrace and wake to sunrise on the minarets of the Sheikh Zayed mosque, just across the strait.
Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, Between the Bridges, +971 2509 8888; see shangri-la.com.
Etihad flies non-stop to Abu Dhabi, $1160 from Sydney and $1110 from Melbourne. Qatar Airways flies there for $1400 (a partner airline to Asia and then Qatar Airways with an aircraft change in Doha). Emirates flies non-stop to Dubai for $1599 and then you can take a bus to Abu Dhabi for Dh15 ($6) one-way. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney excluding tax.)