The capital of the United Arab Emirates, Abu Dhabi is the largest and wealthiest of the nation's seven emirates. Covering 80 percent of the land mass of the UAE, the emirate of Abu Dhabi is divided into three parts: the city of Abu Dhabi, the historic Al Ain region centered on a large oasis on an old camel caravan route and Al Gharbia, part of the world's largest uninterrupted sand desert with towering dunes spreading across the Arabian Peninsula.
The cruise port lies in the central city of Abu Dhabi, a rapidly growing cosmopolitan metropolis where glittering skyscrapers pierce the sky and five-star resorts spread across natural islands where you'll find golf courses, beaches, marinas, upscale malls, a Formula One race car track, amusement areas and cultural institutions.
Compared with Dubai, the nation's playground and largest city 90 minutes to the north, Abu Dhabi is more family oriented and, with a population consisting of a higher number of native Emiratis, more traditional in its values. The head of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi is also president of the UAE, and the city is the seat of the national government and a financial center.
Abu Dhabi's extreme wealth stems from oil, discovered in 1958. The UAE was formed in 1971 when the head of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, persuaded his fellow emirs to form the union and became its first president. Transformation has been swift. Abu Dhabi put its oil money into the development of a modern infrastructure, health care, education, arts and culture. Abu Dhabi grew into a modern, Westernized civilization in a little more than a generation, evolving from a society of fishing villages along the coast and Bedouins living a nomadic life in the desert. Still, you'll find it preserves its Arabian traditions and Bedouin hospitality. It is diversifying its stake in oil by developing other industries, including tourism, and is warm and welcoming to visitors.
Abu Dhabi's culture is rooted in Islam, but all faiths are respected and protected by the constitution. The dress code is liberal, and Western wear is common, though native Emiratis often choose to wear their national dress.
--By Claire Volkman, Cruise Critic contributor
The Zayed cruise port terminal, which is almost brand-new, offers a few souvenir shops and restaurants if you find yourself stuck there in between excursions. There are shops selling hand-knit scarves, trinkets (many of which aren't made in the UAE) and small coffee shops selling savory and sweet dates and the infamous Arabian tea.
The terminal also offers a check-in counter for Etihad Airways, currency exchange, ATMs, a free shopping shuttle service, a kids play area and complimentary Wi-Fi.
Located right on the Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi is one of the easiest cities to explore while in port. Zayed Port, the main cruise ship docking point, allows for super easy exploration. Both the Big Bus and taxis are lined up all day -- which transport guests to and from Abu Dhabi's biggest and most popular sights.
Abu Dhabi is one of the safest places to travel for just about anyone, from solo female travelers to families and couples. However, there are things to note if you're a female -- you need to wear clothing that covers your shoulders and your legs (from the knees) when you're out in public. Although you're still able to walk around comfortably if you don't, its respectful to dress appropriately, according to local customs, in shopping malls, hotels, resorts and in the city. You do, though, need to make sure you're fully covered at the Sheik Zayed Mosque -- as they won't let you in otherwise. If you're dining out or going to beach clubs or nightclubs, it's recommended to cover your shoulders to and from the venue. To make sure you're always prepared, keep a pashmina or a sweater with you at all times. It's a good idea to keep a shawl with you at all times, as it can be cold in many air-conditioned venues. It's also important to note that PDA (or public displays of affection) are not welcomed or permitted in Abu Dhabi.
On Foot: Abu Dhabi is not a walkable city and it's designed for driving. With most attractions away from the city center (like Yas Island and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque), it's impossible to get around without a car hire, taxi or a Big Bus ticket. However, if you're downtown, you can walk to explore the towering skyscrapers and shops that are clustered in the center.
By Bus: Always parked outside of the Zayed cruise terminal is the Big Bus, an international brand that is known the world over for transporting passengers around cities. The price is reasonable and will take you to and from some of Abu Dhabi's most popular landmarks, like the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, through Yas Island or around the downtown area. It's a little touristy, but riding on the upper level will give you epic views of the city as you drive around (make sure you bring your camera!) Plus, you can choose from two routes -- the city route or the one that takes you around Yas Island.
By Taxi: Taxis tend to be inexpensive and you can find them almost everywhere in Abu Dhabi, especially around the major landmarks. If you don't have time to wait on the Big Bus, taxis are often waiting outside of the port to take you to and from the city's biggest landmarks. With vast distances between some landmarks, be wary of costs escalating, though, and always get into a cab with a clear approximation of how much the ride will cost you. Also, only get into registered taxis (you'll see their license, photo and a number to call on the back of their seats).
Abu Dhabi and Dubai use the same currency -- the dirham. Whether in the terminal or around town, there are ample banks and ATMs that can exchange foreign currency into dirhams, or can dispense the local currency. For up-to-date currency exchange rates, check www.xe.com.
Like all of the Middle East, the primary language of Abu Dhabi is Arabic. However, because the city is so multicultural and has a huge expat community, nearly everyone -- from taxi drivers to restaurant owners to shop purveyors ---speaks at least basic English. In addition, almost every single tour operator will provide English speakers with an English guide.
Emirati food, much like Turkish and Mediterranean, is wholly focused on spices, nuts, fresh and dried fruits, beans and hearty game meat, like lamb. However, it's also very vegetarian friendly. Thanks to the city's proximity to Morocco, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, almost all of the dishes are inspired by these cuisine types (think lamb shwarmas, Lebanese tabbouleh, Iranian honey dates) and are heavily infused with spices and ingredients from throughout other parts of the world too, like Asia and the Middle East. The most common spices are cinnamon, saffron and turmeric, along with nuts, limes and dried fruit heighten the flavor of Emirati dishes, some of the most popular of which are harees, a dish of meat and wheat slow-cooked in a clay oven or pot and served with ghee, and majboos, made by boiling meat in water to which a distinctive blend of spices and dried limes are added.
Hearty meats abound in most Abu Dhabi cuisine, but fish is also a mainstay in many of the local dishes. One of the most common fish dishes in the UAE is jisheed, which is Arabic for shark. It's typically minced or diced and served over rice that's been spiced with saffron and bezar and topped with freshly grated lemon and vegetables. If you're up for it, wake up before sunrise so you can catch a glimpse of the plentiful bounty of the Arabian Gulf at Mina Fish Souk then hop over to the Al Mina Fruit & Vegetable Souk to meet local producer-sellers and watch locals buy vibrant tomatoes, brightly colored peppers and more for their daily haul. Even if you are not buying, this area provides excellent photo opportunities.
Food is only a fragment of the dining culture in Abu Dhabi -- just as important is the concept of hospitality and generosity. You'll find the family table concept at almost every contemporary restaurant and can expect to find friends, family and even strangers laughing over a platter of grilled lamb, hummus and soft-baked pita bread. Often, a platter of meze -- a selection of four or five appetizer dishes to share -- is served with dinner, and sweet desserts, such as baklava round out the dinner with a traditional Arabian coffee.
Al Maqam: Translating to "The Gathering Place" in Arabic, you'll experience true Arabian hospitality at Al Maqam, a local restaurant that's in the heart of Arabian Nights Village in the desert. You can opt for a traditional dining room table or a low sofa, or you can dine like the locals do -- on a soft cushion on the ground. The palm-thatch-covered terrace is a hot spot year-round for stunning desert views. The food is traditional Emirati with an Asian spin -- think biryani (an Asian rice dish served with chicken or seafood), Mashwi (grilled meat slathered in sauce or accented with Middle Eastern spices) and honey and date sweets. The fare is served in large family style platters -- making it easy to share. (Arabian Village; +971 2 551 0590; open daily, noon to 3 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.)
Byblos Sur Mer: Paying homage to the area's heavy Lebanese influence, Byblos Sur Mer, located in the InterContinental, serves up some of the best Lebanese fare in the UAE. The two-level venue sits right on the marina, which means most of the seats offer breathtaking views of the million-dollar yachts and sparkling Persian Gulf. The decor is bright and airy, with industrial accents -- like copper-colored hanging lights that cast a warm and welcoming glow. The first level serves as the dining room, while the second level serves as more a relaxed lounge. You can opt for the regular menu, which offers dishes like Raheb (whole roasted eggplant with apple vinegar), cold meze platters, kastaleta (grilled lamb with pine nuts and garlic yogurt) or, if you're daring, the fawaregh (lamb intestine filled with rice, chick peas and meat). Or, you can order off the signature menu, which has everything from hummus to snapper fish sashimi and deep-fried eggs coated with lamb. For something healthy and authentic, order the fattoush salad, which is topped with crunchy, sumac-covered bread rounds. (InterContinental Abu Dhabi, King Abdullah BinAbdul Aziz Al Saud, Al Khubeirah; +971 2 666 6888; open daily, noon to 2 a.m.)
Hakkasan: Boasting four dining rooms, a bar and a separate lounge, the 16,000-square-foot Hakkasan was designed and emulated after the flagship restaurant in London. Separated by carved wooden screens and featuring designs by Gilles & Boissier, the aesthetic is modern meets Asian, with the dining room being enclosed in a wooden cage and is backlit by a soft blue, ambient light. Located inside the super luxe Emirates Palace hotel, Hakkasan offers a mouthwatering blend of Cantonese and Chinese dishes. Signature dishes include the Peking Duck with caviar, the grilled wagyu beef with king soy sauce. Crowd favorites include the stir-fried lobster in black bean sauce, the succulent dim sum platter and hakka hand-pulled noodles with mushrooms and chives. (Emirates Palace Hotel Al; +971 2 690 7999; open daily, noon to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.)
Abu Dhabi is one of those places you can stumble upon truly authentic souvenirs -- like silk-spun scarves and decadent date desserts -- as well as knockoffs -- like cheesy camel figurines and hijabs made in China.
Regarding must-buy items in the UAE, opt for anything gold. Gold is abundant throughout Abu Dhabi and you can get it ranging from 14 carats all the way up to 24 carats. Make sure you heavily research the shop before you buy to ensure you're getting real gold. Another popular souvenir is Arabic perfume, which is actually not the type of perfume you're thinking of. Made from the resin of the agarwood tree, oud (which is the primary ingredient in many of the perfumes) have different types of aromas. Once you've selected an oil, you can custom blend a perfume mixing other oils and scents to create something personalized.
Arguably the most classic souvenir (and most delicious) is the date. One of the most important dishes in the UAE, it's highly regarded for its taste and nutritional value. Dates range in flavor, but the most popular are the regular ones, which are often served alongside honey, dipped in chocolate or stuffed with almonds and orange peel. Bateel is one of the best date shops in town, and offers an incredible selection of all sorts of dates, date juices, jams, preserves and even balsamic vinegar made from them.