Christine Iyer takes her 10-year-old son on a short but spectacular flight in a seaplane over Abu Dhabi, with the charter company Seawings.
Abu Dhabi from a seat on a Seawings flight
Standing under a shady tree on a hot afternoon at Yas Marina, I mull over how ironic it is that we have been waiting more than three-quarters of an hour for a 20-minute flight over Abu Dhabi's main attractions. But Calvin, my usually impatient 10-year-old, manages to keep busy, watching the fish in the canal, shouting "Airbus" or "Boeing" each time an airplane thunders across the sky, or trotting behind a staff member and asking innumerable questions.
The only scenic flights operator in the UAE and the Middle East, Seawings offers flights to 15 water strips and 10 airports across the UAE, including Yas Marina and Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Shweta Pednekar, the company's press officer, admits demand in the capital hasn't picked up yet, mostly because the tours were introduced only a few months ago. But Dubai, where Seawings has been based since 2007, is a different story. Tourists and residents - at a 60-40 ratio - are apparently queuing up to fly around this city of superlatives, sometimes with stops in Abu Dhabi, Fujairah or Ras Al Khaimah. In fact, 15,000 people flew with Seawings last year, up by more than 20 per cent from 2010.
It's not exactly inexpensive, though. I tell Pednekar that at Dh795 per person, the price of the 20-minute flight is roughly twice as much as a return economy airfare from Abu Dhabi to Muscat. Just as she launches into an explanation about operating costs, the plane arrives.
We hear it before we see it: for a full minute all of Yas Island seems to reverberate with the loud droning of its engine. Hands clamped over our ears, we turn in the direction of the noise, and the aircraft suddenly appears around a bend in the canal. Squat on its pontoons, skidding on the water with its propeller-fronted nose high in the air, it looks a lot like a goose trying to take flight.
I joke about this to Calvin, who stops jumping up and down and gives me a look of utter disdain. "That's a Cessna 208 Caravan amphibious plane. Respect, Mum," he says, and runs off towards the pier to be the first to climb aboard.
The plane pulls up, the pilot kills the engine, an almighty peace descends and a couple of men in colourful shorts and baseball caps who were idling about jump into action, opening doors and setting up a gangplank. A few tourists from Dubai jump out of the plane and one of them pumps his fists and calls out to us: "You're going to love it!"
While we wait - there are five of us booked on the flight - a card printed with objects banned on board is waved around. We're not subjected to a security check but one of the passengers has his cigarettes and lighter confiscated. These are then stashed into the pocket of a seat on the plane. "You can retrieve them after the flight," the bemused passenger is informed.
Then the pilot steps up and introduces himself as Andrew Kennedy. After Calvin shakes his hand enthusiastically and tells him he has "a lot of questions", we clamber aboard. It's hot inside, and we sigh in relief when the engine and A/C are turned on. Each of the nine white-leather passenger seats comes with a window, but I choose to sit at the back, where the windows are wider. Calvin, predictably, plonks himself down just behind the cockpit and fiddles with the air vents above his seat. After a quick safety brief and a round-up of what we can expect to see - Ferrari World, the Corniche and Emirates Palace - we're off. The engine drowns out the pilot's voice and the plane skids along the canal, sunlight scattering like diamonds on the water. We take off steeply, turn due west and fly straight into the sun.
Conversation on board is practically impossible for two reasons: the engine's infernal racket and the views, which are so glorious that Calvin goes from excited to speechless in a second. Now cruising at more than 1,000 feet, we watch the plane's shadow glide over the muted browns, blues and greens of the landscape below.
We rise a few hundred feet and before we know it Ferrari World has slid into view - an enormous, shiny red saucer flanked by the spindly loops of the world's fastest roller coaster. Nearby is a colourful jumble of tunnels - Abu Dhabi's first water park, due to open next month. Beside it, amid dozens of cranes and clouds of white dust, is the slowly forming shape of Yas Mall, still a couple of years from completion. Soon Yas Island - now a blur of ribbon-like roads, dusty construction sites and the soft, white contours of the Yas Viceroy prominent among the cluster of hotels - is left behind. The plane angles and lines up with the coast.
"Look, mum, Legoland," shouts Calvin, pointing at Mina Port, its waters busy with ships and its docks filled with stacked cargo containers.
Then, the city looms up on our left, so we fumble with our seat belts and scramble to the other side of the plane.
Because it's a hazy day, it's difficult to identify landmarks, but everyone lets out a cry when the round shape of the Aldar HQ building appears, like a dirham stuck upright in the ground; Calvin immediately pretends to flick it over. Abu Dhabi looks surprisingly green from the sky, and I find myself willing the plane to bank left and fly directly over the neatly laid out grids of glass-and-steel towers and tree-lined streets.
As it turns out, there are restrictions on our flight path - scenic flights are not allowed over the city - so we have to be content with flying up and down the Corniche's coastline. I cannot help but think it's a shame that one of the capital's most beautiful structures, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, does not feature on any of the Seawings routes.
Calvin is also disappointed that we're not going to get a close-up of the mosque's graceful white domes, but only for a minute. Soon he's shouting out a request to the pilot: "Can we fly by my home? We live by the Corniche."
"Not over it," Kennedy yells back. "But if it's along the front you should be able to spot it."
My son whoops when our building comes into view. "That's where I live! If we had parachutes we could skydive and land on it. Or the beach. Or even on the water, I'm a fantastic swimmer," he says, looking longingly at the transparent green waters below. A little ahead, dwarfed by the gleaming new Etihad Towers, is Emirates Palace, its golden roofs and landscaped grounds shimmering in the afternoon heat.
Calvin, the only one whose voice can be heard over the engine's din, turns his attention to Kennedy and asks him a few things. The pilot gamely pulls off his headphones and yells back his answers: "Yes, I love being a pilot! Ninety litres of fuel for a 20-minute flight! Eleven hundred feet! I like seaplanes, too!"
The plane makes a big U-turn, tilting so sharply that my view is completely hidden by the wing, then suddenly we're upright again and thundering back. The return trip goes by in a flash, and soon we're pelting over the canal that will lead us into Yas Marina. The pontoons touch water and we skim across to the pier in a shower of foamy spray. The engine is finally turned off and, savouring the silence after the deafening thrumming, we disembark and say goodbye.
But Calvin is loath to leave. Leaning against the plane bobbing on the water, he is still talking to the pilot. I edge closer to eavesdrop; they're discussing the forces that keep a plane in the air.
"He asks interesting questions - very good for my brain," Kennedy tells me with a wide grin, as I drag my son to the car park while he resists and shouts: "That was pure awesomeness, Captain!"
We're barely inside the car when he asks me if we can go on another scenic flight - maybe Dubai?
Yes, I find myself saying in an uncharacteristically excited manner, and Calvin, his cup overflowing, chants "lift, weight, thrust, drag" all the way home.
The 20-minute Abu Dhabi Scenic flight costs Dh795 per adult and Dh695 per child (2 to 11 years). A 40-minute Silver flight over Dubai costs Dh1,375 per adult and Dh1,165 per child. Infants fly for free; a maximum of four children are allowed on any flight. For more tours and to book, visit www.seawings.ae or call 04 807 0708