Abu Dhabi things to do: The emirate is worth more than one stopover

In the early morning light, the waters lapping through the mangroves are completely clear. Schools of tiny fish dart over submerged roots, occasionally obscured by the reflection of a passing cloud drifting across the water's still surface. It is a serene place to start the day – and an extraordinary oasis hidden within a bustling city.

I never imagined that a day in Abu Dhabi could begin with a stroll through the mangroves. As we meander along the boardwalk that snakes through the Jubail Mangrove Park, watching as a heron stalks the shallows, my guide tells me that these wetlands draw all kinds of birdlife – even, on occasion, flamingos. Approaching the exit, we see a group of kayakers easing themselves into the water, ready to go for a paddle. I make a mental note to sign up for that experience on my next trip.

It's not the last time that I will find myself already planning a return trip. Abu Dhabi's remarkable diversity means there is always another experience to try – and plenty more coming down the path. I spend a lovely afternoon wandering The Louvre Abu Dhabi, housed in an eye-catching building designed by acclaimed architect Jean Nouvel that is an attraction in its own right. Its silvery dome has lace-like perforations that filter the sunlight, creating an ever-changing dappled dance of light.

A suite of planned museums will soon be joining The Louvre Abu Dhabi. My stay coincides with a teaser exhibition for the planned Natural History Museum, set to open in three years. With exhibits including a chunk of meteorite older than our solar system and one of the most complete T-rex skeletons ever found, it promises to be another scene stealer.

Scheduled to open the same year are the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Foster and Partners-designed Zayed National Museum, dedicated to the natural and human history of the United Arab Emirates.

One of Abu Dhabi's most intriguing buildings is designed by an architecture firm I'd never heard of. Aedas Architects is the team behind the eye-catching Al Bahar Towers, their facades clad with panels that open and close with the movement of the sun. My guide tells me that the energy to operate the system is generated from solar panels on the tower roofs.

When it comes to Abu Dhabi's most memorable building, however, there is no competition. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is conceived on an extraordinary scale. It can fit 40,000 visitors inside its 22,400 square metres, and has 106 minarets, 82 domes, and the world's largest hand-knotted carpet. What really makes it remarkable, however, is its serene beauty. With 165,000 square metres of gleaming Macedonian marble, elegant arabesques and magnificent inlaid columns, it is elegant in its simplicity.

Nothing could be more different from the mosque's cool marble than the rust-coloured desert sands. Yet a desert safari is another Abu Dhabi experience that should not be missed. We head to Tele Resort at Al Ain one afternoon where we hop aboard a Jeep into another world, one where the wind paints pictures in the ever-shifting sands. This arid landscape supports a surprising amount of life: as we drive, we spot elegant Arabian oryx and even the odd deer.

My guide tells me that Abu Dhabi was founded when a hunter followed a deer that led him to the aquifer around which Abu Dhabi was built – and that the name itself means "Father Deer". Out here in the sands, it seems, we have gone right back to the beginning.

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 The writer was a guest of the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi and Etihad Airways.

THE DETAILS

FLY

Etihad Airways flies direct to Abu Dhabi daily from Sydney and Melbourne. See etihad.com

STAY

Fronting onto Abu Dhabi's most beautiful beach, St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort has views from every room and an array of restaurants. From $308. See stregis.com

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