Abu Dhabi--Up and Away
Once a little sleepy backwater, Abu Dhabi has grown into a modern megapolis. Only a dozen years ago it was possible to stroll along a waterfront corniche in the evening, watching families out together enjoying the sunset. Now it is hard to see the waterfront for all the high-rises.
Thankfully, amidst the futuristic architecture, there are still areas to see the water and view the impressive skyline. There are plenty of museums, markets, and cafes with opportunities to experience local Abu Dhabi culture. For an escape to spectacular elegance, there is the Emirates Palace. With a thousand chandeliers, hundreds of luxury suites, beautiful domes, and its own private beach, the Emirates Palace is a destination. I loved seeing it years ago, but I have another “must see” scheduled.
This time my destination is the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital. It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the falcon, their national symbol, in the history and culture of the United Arab Emirates. An Emirati’s falcon is not just a bird or pet, it is a cherished member of the family. (And can cost thousands of dollars.) Falcons are the only animal allowed to fly on an UAE plane, only in business or first class, and with their own passport.
Obviously, a creature this important must be well cared for—hence the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the largest such facility in the world. Dedicated to protecting the health and welfare of falcons, the sprawling buildings of the hospital complex include places for exercise, for physician checkups, for surgery, treatment and recovery. There is a research center to address falcon treatment and diseases. Each year about 11,000 falcons are admitted and treated for everything ranging from a checkup to feather repair or replacement, to diseases or old age retirement. The patients come from all over—Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia—as well as Abu Dhabi and the other UAE members.
Visiting the center was well worth the long drive. Most of us just see the birds in majestic flight. Up close they are regal, elegant, and beautiful. There were gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons, and smaller kestrels. A highlight for all visitors, including me, was to host a falcon (hooded and calmed) on the arm.
Most visits to Abu Dhabi include experiencing the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. This is not an ordinary mosque visit. It is a hike, along with thousands of other tourists, past strict dress code enforcers through the 3rd largest mosque in the world. It’s a study in superlatives: space for 41,000 worshippers, a roof supported by over 1000 pillars, a building with over 100,000 tons of pure white marble and inlaid with semi-precious stones, huge chandeliers with tons (yes, tons) of Swarovski crystals, and the world’s largest hand-loomed carpet. Try as I did, I could not get a photo that included the entire carpet. Supposedly it took 1200 weavers two years to complete. I’m sure Sheik Zayed, the first president of the United Arab Emirates, is satisfied with the result. I know after all this Middle East sensory overload, I was ready for lunch.