Abu Dhabi, Al Ain cater to animal lovers and the adventurous
Step out of the concrete jungle in Abu Dhabi for a different experience
While the capital city of the United Arab Emirates is known for its soaring skyscrapers and desert sands, that is not all there is to Abu Dhabi.
Instead of the usual tourist attractions, adventurous travellers can explore a side of it and its surrounding cities that is not known to many.
The falcon hospital and the local camel market may not be as well-known as the white sand beaches and museums, but they have been gaining popularity in recent years for offering a unique experience.
Falcons have always been central to Middle Eastern culture, and tourists can step into the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital for a glimpse of how the national bird is cared for.
The largest falcon hospital in the world opened its doors in 1999 after hunting with falcons was banned in the country and falconers needed a place to certify the bird's health before bringing them to hunt overseas.
It has received over 110,000 patients, and finally opened its doors to tourists in 2007.
In the examination room, dozens of falcons stand perched on their stools with hoods on to keep them calm.
You feed these muscular birds, watch veterinary procedures and visit the moulting room, where dozens of falcons shed their feathers and stretch their wings.
Another exotic animal awaits when you venture out of Abu Dhabi to its local camel market in the city of Al Ain.
Camels from around the region are housed in rows of pens and the stench hit me the moment I stepped out of the van. But the pungent and chaotic place is one of the last few remaining and is well worth your dusty clothes and dirty shoes.
While camels were once used as a means of transport, traders now buy them for various reasons - food, milk, as a status symbol or for racing.
The camels are brought to the centre of the market where the haggling begins, wads of cash are exchanged and the occasional bleating of the camels fills the air as they are loaded onto trucks.
For those who are not animal lovers, Al Ain, a 11/2-hour drive from Abu Dhabi, has much more in store.
The inland oasis city is a Unesco World Heritage site and is starkly different from the capital. Skyscrapers are replaced with dusty roads that soon give way to rows of date palms, rugged terrain and sand dunes.
Ai Ain is home to the Al Ain Oasis, the largest oasis in the city that showcases the 3,000-year-old falaj irrigation system, the ancient water channels keeping the city green.
The oasis spans an area of more than 1,000 football fields and the palm trees lining the oasis walls sway lightly in the rare breeze.
The stifling heat can make the oasis a little hard to visit in the summer, but the cool winter months bring thousands of visitors to the attraction.
To get a great view of the historical city, head for the Jebel Hafeet mountain.
The 1,250m mountain is on the border of the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
The twisting road leading to the top has some 60 bends and is often touted as one of the best driving roads in the world.
The viewpoint is a perfect place to watch the golden glow bathe the rocky outcrop and the city at sunset.
If you can't get enough of the sand, the Telal Resort, in the heart of the Remah Desert, is a good place to stay.
The ancient forts at the main gate and the romantic Bedouin tents will bring you back to the days where the nomadic tribe lived in the desert.
I stepped out to my veranda one morning to see gazelles grazing right outside my doorstep.
The veranda has a private fire pit facing the wind-whipped dunes and the desert horizon, and some of these safari-themed villas even come with their own private pool.
But for those who prefer greenery over gritty sand, the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara faces the Mangrove National Park, where visitors can take their time to kayak through the channels of the mangroves.
* If Abu Dhabi's rich arts and culture scene strikes more of a chord, check out the second of our two-part series on the city on May 24.
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