Caitlin Herlihy/Old Gold & Black
Caitlin Herlihy/Old Gold & Black

Spring Break at the Oasis

Giving my seatbelt a reassuring tug, my heart pounds fiercely in my chest. Our Toyota Land Cruiser glides effortlessly over the smooth sands of the Rub’ al Khali, or Empty Quarter of Abu Dhabi. Like a postcard image, the golden sand dunes ripple in the distance, and I can’t believe the world’s largest sand desert is our playground for the day.

As we zoom toward the first dune on our desert safari, our driver’s need for speed is palpable. The sand dune looms overhead at an impossible height, but we continue to climb toward the sun until we reach the summit. From the passenger’s seat, I spy our driver flashing a taunting smile to the passengers in the backseat before shifting into four-wheel drive.

Our SUV jolts forward and races downhill toward the unblemished sea of sand. I grip the edge of my seat with white knuckles and stifle a girlish scream as we dive toward level ground. Bouncing to a halt, a wide smile spreads across my face. The thrill of a roller coaster doesn’t compare to the frenzied excitement of dune bashing.

When I first considered spending my spring break exploring the sites and sands of Abu Dhabi with my dad, I was hesitant. Located 407 kilometers (253 miles) southeast of the Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi is a unique jewel among the six states that make up the United Arab Emirates.

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The cultural blend of tradition and progression ameliorates Dubai’s populous epicenter for shopping and dining by providing unparalleled outdoor experiences. With boundless sand dunes, cerulean waterways and stunning architecture beneath the torrid sun, U.A.E.’s capital offers an array of attractions for the most adventurous traveller.

The SUV slows as we approach a gated oasis. The 45-minute jaunt through the sand dunes leads us to the final chapter of the Abu Dhabi Desert Safari: dinner and entertainment under a sky full of stars. Hopping out of the vehicle, I scope out the campsite, which is luminous among encircling torches. A teen poses for a picture on the back of a camel nearby while a man attempts to “sand board” down a great sand dune. Women chat over Arabian coffee and admire the fresh Henna tattoos that decorate their forearms. This cultural sanctuary allows visitors to partake in traditional Arabic food and customs.

Seated on a woven blanket, I bite into the savory Arabian barbecue. My plate is overflowing with flavorful grilled chicken kabobs, fresh hummus and Tabbouleh, an Arabian vegetarian dish resembling a salad. Amid courses, a young woman saunters through the crowd swinging her hips to the music. Clad in a sheer mauve garb embellished with golden coins, the alluring performer bewitches the audience as she moves gracefully to the pounding rhythm. The blazing sun melts into the ground providing a brilliant backdrop to dinner’s entertainment. With every shake of her hips, I become more enthralled by the magic of Abu Dhabi.

The next morning I swap sand for sea as my dad and I board kayaks near the Eastern Mangroves National Park. Sporting lifejackets, we aren’t sure what to expect from the two-hour self-guided tour through the canopy of mangroves. Unlike most plants, the small shrub-like trees thrive in muddy waters and intense heat. Before admiring the fascinating wildlife, we must cross the channel of water knocking against our kayaks.

Our tour guides at Noukhada Adventure Company seek to advance eco-tourism for Abu Dhabi by providing unforgettable experiences that are sympathetic to the city’s environment. 

Plunging my paddle into the water, I use my upper body to drag the blade behind me and careen my kayak over an oncoming wave. I grip the paddle’s shaft tightly fearful that it will slip out of my fingers. With this same motion, I propel myself forwards until I am skating across the choppy waters with ease.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my dad quickly approaching my kayak with his arms swinging wildly. In an attempt to race ahead of him, I forcefully pull the water back behind me. The sudden jerk of my kayak collides with a powerful wave, ejecting me from my seat and face-first into the brackish water. Submerged, I flail my arms until I regain enough strength to pull myself upright in the kayak. My dad and the tour guide cackle with laughter at the spectacle as I wring my now-sodden hair.

We proceed through the channel into the heart of the mangroves where the branches intertwine in an umbrella overhead. Sunlight trickles through the gapped awning to warm my bare shoulders. This unique environment’s beauty is apparent in the dense mangroves of the coastal waters’ mature ecosystem. Despite my dip in the water, the afternoon’s endeavor was successful. As I park my kayak, I appreciate the diverse landscapes Abu Dhabi offers.

Perched on a bench along the Corniche, my dad and I enjoy watching locals and tourists alike as they ride bikes and rollerblade down the sweeping path. The 8-kilometer (5-mile) waterfront provides a manicured park complete with pedestrian pathways and areas for children to play. We snack on assorted nuts fresh from LuLu, the local supermarket, and enjoy the evening’s setting sun. Whether you’re romping through the desert, (accidentally) swimming the seas or embarking on a jog inland, Abu Dhabi proudly accommodates the active tourist in all of us.

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