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Discover Abu Dhabi's surprising nature and wildlife

Abu Dhabi is more than a city destination. Apart from shimmering architecture and a rich cultural heritage, the capital of the UAE boasts surprising nature and wildlife, so it’s an ideal choice for lovers of nature and outdoor adventure. The emirate is home to diverse terrains and natural wonders − mesmerising deserts, fertile oases, archipelago islands, stunning beaches, mysterious mangrove forests and impressive wildlife reserves. These can be enjoyed through experiences catering to all activity levels, from walking and mountain-biking to scuba diving, free diving, 4x4 safaris, horse rides and much more. 

Abu Dhabi’s natural resources have always been key to its prosperity, so they’re vigilantly protected. In keeping with the vision of the late UAE founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi is deeply committed to preserving the emirate’s environment and ecology. The Sheikh Zayed Protected Areas Network, for example, is made up of 19 protected areas. Some of these – such as the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve on Bu Tinah Island, the largest UNESCO-designated marine biosphere reserve in the region − are only open to researchers. Others – such as the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, Mangrove National Park and Jebel Hafit − are open to the public. 

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  1. If you’ve only got a couple of hours...
  2. If you’ve only got an afternoon...
  3. If you want a day out…
  4. If you’re overnighting...

If you’ve only got a couple hours…

Looking for a quick nature stop between fine dining and destination-hopping? Options near Abu Dhabi hotels include the zoo and falcon hospital, and adventures on or in the ocean. The Emirates Park Zoo is one of the top places to visit with family. Admire hundreds of animals − including a 300kg-plus Siberian bear and a majestic pair of white tigers – while staying cool, thanks to a park-wide misting system. To learn more about the UAE’s national bird, visit the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, a 45-minute drive from the city. 

This veterinary and research facility is an award-winning tourism centre where you can see the majestic birds swoop through a free-flight aviary. Love submerging yourself in the mysterious depths beneath the sea? Snorkel or dive in Abu Dhabi’s warm waters all year round. Explore wrecks and reefs, and marvel at the emirate’s abundant marine life, including spotted eagle rays, stingrays and more. Prefer your head above water? Being an archipelago, Abu Dhabi is ideal for kayaking or SUP, sailing or jet skiing, whether you’re a beginner or pro. 

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A few hours…

If you’ve got an afternoon… 

Got a few hours? Abu Dhabi’s mangrove forests are worth meandering, whether by foot, boat or kayak. The indigenous mangroves serve key ecological functions − acting as windbreakers, purifying surrounding water, protecting against tidal surges and removing carbon monoxide from the atmosphere. Abu Dhabi’s mangrove forests are habitats for a range of fascinating land and marine creatures − including crabs, turtles, herons, flamingos, foxes, gazelle, dolphins and fish – so they’re a treasure for nature-lovers, young and old.

The Mangrove National Park, a biodiversity hotspot making up about 75 per cent of the total mangrove forest area in the UAE, is at the edge of the city. Head to luxury hotel Anantara Eastern Mangroves Abu Dhabi for a range of activities, including kayaking, tours and boat cruises, so you can fully appreciate the flora and fauna found in the park’s salt marshes, mudflats and algal communities. Birdwatchers, nature-lovers and photographers will swoon at the Jubail Mangrove Park, the first self-contained educational, nature and leisure destination of its kind in the Emirate. Pack binoculars to spot some of 88-odd avian species, including the ‘vulnerable to extinction’ greater spotted eagle, from resting nodes, viewpoints, floating platforms, boardwalks or kayaks. Top tip: High tide is the best time to go.

Things to Do

An afternoon…

If you want a day out…

For a full day of nature exploration, head to Saadiyat Island for sea-side beauty or Al Wathba Fossil Dunes and wetlands for landscapes that look out of this world. Geology enthusiasts and movie fans will love the eerie formations of the Al Wathba Fossil Dunes, where scenes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, were shot. These wind-whipped ancient structures seem like something from another planet. The area’s Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, on the IUCN Green List of Protected and Conserved Areas, was once a coastal salt flat (sabkha) and is now a series of natural and man-made lakes. Walking trails and bird-hides let you discover the reserve’s large population of Greater Flamingos, over 250 bird species, 37 plant species and a wide range of aquatic life. Top tip: There aren’t any cafes on site, so bring snacks and refreshments for the little ones. 

Saadiyat Island − the world-class leisure, residential, business and cultural hub a seven-minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi – caters to more than culture afficionados. This eco island’s beaches are part of a protected habitat, and its waters and green spaces offer plenty of outdoor activities. There’s something for everyone at the pristine Saadiyat Beach and nearby Saadiyat Beach Club. The dunes here are protected, as are the critically endangered Hawksbill turtles that use them as their nesting ground. Thanks to the Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Programme, some 650 eggs have hatched successfully on Saadiyat since 2010. Keep an eye out for dolphins frolicking in the bay.

Golfers will adore the stunning sea views from the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, the Gary-Player-designed masterpiece that respectfully harnesses the natural splendour of Saadiyat Island’s magnificent beaches for a memorable playing experience. 

One day may not be enough to truly appreciate all this island has to offer. Enjoy a family adventure vacation at one of the premium properties nearby, including The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotels and Villas, and Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort.

Things to Do

A full day exploring…

If you’re overnighting…

Be ferried to an island dedicated entirely to wildlife.

There are many reasons Sir Bani Yas Island, the largest island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, scooped the World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination award in 2014 and 2018. The Middle East’s only dedicated cruiseliner beach stopover destination has Late Stone Age and Bronze Age roots, and is also a wildlife haven. The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan turned what was his once-private island into a nature reserve in 1977. Thanks to on-going conservation, the Arabian Wildlife Park is full of lush plant life, birds and free-roaming animals − such as the Arabian Oryx, Somali ostrich, gazelle and giraffes. At this bird sanctuary and wildlife reserve, experience nature through activities like 4x4 safaris, kayaking, mountain biking, hiking and snorkelling. After all that action, enjoy luxurious accommodation at one of three five-star Anantara retreats on the island.

Discover the desert’s life-giving side.

If the magical desert calls to your nature-loving soul, head to the Rub’ al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter. The epic landscapes here have formed the backdrop to many a series and film, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The desert’s harsh, hypnotic terrain is home to hardy creatures and plants that have long fascinated scientists and explorers. The Ghaf tree, for instance, grows roots as long as 30 metres to reach waters beneath the sand, while its branches are where Desert Eagle Owls roost and breed. Desert animals include the Sand Cat, Rupell's Fox, Sand Gazelle and Arabian Oryx. 

The best way to experience the desert is from a comfortable base that arranges tours. For example, the magnificent Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara offers falconry and Saluki shows. Falconry, the traditional Emirati sport passed down the generations for 4,000 years, was once an important form of hunting in a resource-scarce land. Guided by their Bedouin (desert nomad) handlers, falcons hunted together with Salukis − one of the oldest known breeds of domesticated dog, which has been a hunting and guard dog for the desert people of the Arabian Peninsula for 5,000 years. 

Enjoy an eco-conscious African safari (and a dinner with lions). 

Another destination that offers a desert safari is the Al Ain Zoo, set in Abu Dhabi’s lush garden city of Al Ain, about one and a half hours away from the capital. Magnificently positioned against the imposing backdrop of Jebel Hafit, Abu Dhabi’s tallest peak, the Al Ain Safari is situated in an incredible 217-hectare park carefully crafted out of the desert environment. It’s home to a range of African animals – including lions, white rhinos, zebra and wildebeest − and around 2,500 plants. There’s a range of safari options and packages to choose from, with Emirati tour guides who have extensive knowledge of the local fauna and flora. End your day with a Dinner With the Lions, enjoying a sumptuous meal on the edge of the park’s lion territory. If you’d like to stay nearby, consider Jebel Hafit Desert Park. It offers camping for all budgets, from DIY to glamping under the stars.

Things to Do

Staying overnight…

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