11 really wild encounters you can experience in Abu Dhabi

For those that like to take a walk on the wild side…

Those that have made this beautiful emirate their home, know that there is far more to Abu Dhabi than just glittering towers and buzzing beach clubs. There’s a world of untouched wilderness, abundant wildlife and BIG country to explore. And you don’t need a machete, safari truck or a snazzy bandana (although do please always wear a snazzy bandana) to experience it, you just need to follow us…

Kayak through the verdant waterways of Jubail Mangrove Park

Jubail Mangrove Park opened in January last year, offering visitors the opportunity to explore one of this region’s most fascinating natural ecosystems. Found nestled on a quiet outcrop of Jubail Island — the mangroves became an instant hit with locals, residents and tourists. It features a meandering 2.3km boardwalk and sits about 20 minutes drive from Downtown Abu Dhabi. Park inhabitants include herons, flamingos, turtles, gazelle, crabs, as well as some more mysterious creatures. There’s plenty of ways to explore this fascinating turquoise expanse including ranger-led, guided boardwalk (from Dhs50), kayak (Dhs100), and e-canoe tours (from Dhs80) of the mangroves. For a longer stay, there are now a series of glamping pods on the island. Stays at Pura Eco Retreat start around Dhs2,000 per night call (050) 383 7878 to book or visit staypura.com.

Jubail Mangrove Park, Al Jubail Island (next to Saadiyat Island), Abu Dhabi, 8am to 7.30pm daily, Dhs15 for adult, Dhs10. Tel: (05) 63032423. park.jubailisland.ae

Blaze your own trail through the empty quarter

Abu Dhabi’s Off-Road Driving Project is a series of six cross-country driving routes mapped across meandering terrain, compiled by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT). The trails have been designed for those with a taste for adventure to head off on safe self-drive expeditions, and track down intrepid desert camping experiences. The routes have been graded at different accessibility and driving ability levels, from beginner to expert. Each option offers its own exciting sight-seeing opportunities, with wildlife encounters such as gazelle and camel, the entrancing dune configurations of Al Quo’a, secret ghaf forests of Al Mirayr, camel racing tracks, desert tombs and hidden oases. You can pull up detailed information on routes, points of interest and camping opportunities as well as safety procedures, emergency information and pre-trip checklists on the visitabudhabi.ae website.

Meet the mountain inhabitants of Jebel Hafit

Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jebel Hafit is Abu Dhabi’s tallest peak, located in Al Ain, and about 90 minutes’ drive from the capital city. There is a campground that offers tented accommodation and pitches for those that wish to bring their own canvas and poles (campsites from Dhs100). You can also rent traditional Bedouin-inspired tents (from around Dhs500); bubble tents — equipped with panoramic windows that are just perfect for star-gazing (from Dhs700); and luxury dome tents which come with AC, a TV and, excitingly a telescope (from Dhs900). Holiday-makers come here to hike, mountain bike (rental available), dune buggy, ride horses and camels and enjoy the rare fresh air (and lack of light pollution) that contributes to the perfect conditions for astronomy. Those seeking out a historical thirst trap should make the trek to the Jebel Hafit’s two archaeological sites. One, a neolithic excavation, dates back 8,000 years — whilst the other, a 5,000-year-old tomb was excavated in 1959 on the orders of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.

You can book your stay now at jebelhafitdesertpark.com, or by calling (03) 711 8362.

Embark on a desert island safari at Sir Bani Yas

Sir Bani Yas is Abu Dhabi’s very own Jurassic Park, if you exchange murderous giant dinosaurs with an exotic collection of African mammals. Accessed via a 25-minute boat ride from Jebel Dhanna (itself a two-hour drive from downtown Abu Dhabi), the island wilderness is home to a collection of exciting wildlife, architectural wonder, romantic vistas and three luxury Anantara resorts. This castaway paradise is a protected Royal Nature Reserve, flourishing with over 11,000 animals, including 30 different endangered species such as blackbuck antelope and Arabian oryx as well as giraffe, ostrich and cheetah. Guests on the island have the opportunity to go on-safari and snatch memorable opportunities to glimpse these rare creatures, without a single cage or handler in sight.

Sir Bani Yas is located 8 km off the coast of Jebel Dhanna (two hours’ drive from downtown Abu Dhabi), accessible by complimentary water taxi or private seaplane. You can book stays on the anantara.com website, starting at Dhs1,999 with full board and all inclusive options. 

See the start of Abu Dhabi’s ‘origin story’ at Al Wathba wetlands

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve

The reserve re-opened on January 1 2021 and is a great place for families and children to take a wander through some real undeveloped UAE habitat. It’s primarily known for its large population of shocking pink flamingos but is home to more than 250 species of birds, 37 plant species and a wide range of aquatic life. Some of which were discovered here — completely new to science, and yet more that may be unique to this region. The reserve is free to visit and open from Tuesday to Saturday from 8am until 6pm (last entry is at 4pm). Read more here.

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, Directions: Take the E22 Abu Dhabi-Al Ain road and connect with the E30 Abu Dhabi-Al Ain Truck Road, then follow signs for the reserve, open Tue to Sat, 8am to 6pm, free entry. ead.gov.ae

Take breakfast with giraffes at Emirates Park Zoo

Emirates Park Zoo has an incredibly diverse population of animal inhabitants, some of them cuddly, some of them decidedly less so. They also have awesome immersive experiences where you can get up and close and relatively personal with a select crew of animal pals. The Big Cat Brunch lets you eat lunch in the company of an actual leopard (because, UAE), you can pose questions, take photos and there’s even a private expert-led tour. Too willd? Why not book up the famous ‘breakfast with a giraffe’? The zoo also has its own resort, with chalets, zoo view rooms and accommodation with pool access.

Emirates Park Zoo, 12th St – Al Bahyah, 1pm to 2.30pm, Dhs149 per person (minimum of four people) which includes zoo admission. Tel: (02) 501 0000, emiratesparkzooandresort.com

Feed the lions at Al Ain Zoo

lions in al ain zoo safari

This 400-hectare park’s animal register includes gorillas, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, jaguars, lemurs, hippos, chimpanzees, wolves, and crocodiles. It also offers off-the-beaten-track experiences, Al Ain Zoo recently opened a pair of mountain biking experiences (from as little as Dhs15), allowing you to take a tour through the local landscape under your own steam. For those rocking a bit of a Steve Irwin vibe, the zoo is now giving visitors a rare shot at making friends with Mufasa, by heading into the lion’s den and feeding the king of the jungle. Blimey, what a ripper. At this stage, we should point out that safety equipment, including caged vehicle, is provided. Hop in the back of the all-terrain truck, gingerly grasp your tongs and offer pieces of meat through the gaps in the cage into the jaws of waiting lions. And doesn’t it makes a nice change for once, you being the one behind the cage, rather than the animals?

Al Ain Zoo, Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, daily 10am to 6pm, adult price of park tickets Dhs29, lion feeding experience, Fri and Sat Dhs150. alainzoo.ae

Walk the border between city and serenity at Al Gurm Corniche

Abu Dhabi has just opened a brand new waterfront promenade, Al Gurm Corniche — and it has far more than simply (cor)niche appeal. Its shaded walkways and Mangrove National Park views are open seven days a week, 24 hours each day and dotted with engaging opportunities to rest, get fit, or learn about the local area and its inhabitants. There’s a cycle track; three outdoor gym-style exercise platforms; kayaking adventures; areas designated for alfresco yoga sessions; a range of food and beverage outlets; overwater cargo net chill stations that are perfect for getting lost in the pages of a riveting read. There are also nodes dedicated to edutainment — with activities including water play, swings and installations that teach kids about tidal movements, nature and gravity; binoculars to peer into the green beyond in search of fascinating forna; there are historical hubs, filled with fascinating facts about the region’s past and local ecology; and also fun-filled play areas.

Al Gurm Corniche is located along Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Street, next to Anantara Eastern Mangroves. Find out more at @algurmcorniche

Consult parliament at this Owl Cafe

Before we start, we should clarify, ‘a parliament’ is the collective noun for owls, taken from a description in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’. The region’s first owl cafe is doing a barnstorming trade in coffee and close-up cuddly encounters with a collection of feathered baristas. Boomah is located next to AlSeef Village Mall, close to the Eastern Mangroves, it’s open daily from 2pm to 10pm. If you’re concerned about the well-being of the birds, you needn’t be. The animals are cared for by a team of highly skilled owl specialists who are on hand to look after the birds as well as lead interactions with the cafe’s guests. You are allowed to supervised interaction with the birds but yo will have to wash your hands with special owl-friendly hand sanitiser before going ahead and tickling a tawny (or any of the other 10 species of owl). The owls are free to fly at night, and because the cafe only opens at 2pm, they get a proper lie-in during the day.

Next to AlSeef Village Mall, open daily 2pm to 10pm. @boomah.ae

Discover the ancient green scenes of Al Ain Oasis

This 1,200-hectare desert oasis is found in the middle of Al Ain and attained UNESCO World Heritage status in 2011. It contains more than 147,000 date palms, trees bearing mangos, oranges, bananas, figs and jujube. The lush botanical abundance is created with the help of falaj systems, ancient irrigation networks that tap into mountain aquifers. Whilst the wildlife isn’t a deliberate attraction here, with its whimsical shaded pathways beneath fractal canopies it’s still a place that provides a shuddering contrast to the urban jungle of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape. If you fancy a trek round it, you can also swing by the Eastern Fort on the edge of the property, it was completed around 1910 by the late Sheikh Sultan bin Zayed. There’s also an Eco-Centre that offers insight into the conservation efforts at the oasis, and a look back at its history.

Al Ain, open daily 9am to 5pm. Tel: (03) 711 8251, take a virtual tour at visitabudhabi.ae

Go dolphin spotting on Saadiyat

We all know Abu Dhabi has some pretty unique adventures on offer. It’s a city with more records under its belt than Paul McCartney after all, and usually that scarcity of experience is something to celebrate, enjoying these indigenous gems make us feel special, privileged. But there are some encounters we wish weren’t so rare. The Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) has calculated that the coastal waters of Abu Dhabi are home to approximately 700 humpback dolphins, which, sadly, makes it potentially the largest community of these endangered creatures in the world. Saadiyat is probably one of your best shots at seeing these magnificent animals in the wild, as their preferred feeding grounds stretch along the northern beaches and across to Jubail’s mangroves. Grab a pair of binoculars and head to one of the many hotels along that shorefront (including Jumeirah at Saadiyat and Rixos Premium Saadiyat Island) and get yourself a day pass. Or there’s the beach club, Soul for an affordable alternative to hotel flop-and-dropping.

If you’re visiting Abu Dhabi from outside the emirate, you will need a negative Covid test result obtained within 48 hours of entry. For more rules, including those on further tests for stay durations of four days or more, consult our guide.

Images: Getty/Assorted provenance