x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Destinations on our doorstep

A busy hub at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and still only a one-leg haul from Australia and the United States, Abu Dhabi is brilliantly positioned on the global travel map.

The Grand Bazar in Istanbul is a shoppers' paradise.
The Grand Bazar in Istanbul is a shoppers' paradise.

Apart from tax-free salaries, clean streets, cheap petrol and endless sun, there is one particular reason why so many residents of Abu Dhabi have no plans to go home - ever. It's the location. A busy hub at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and still only a one-leg haul from Australia and the United States, Abu Dhabi is brilliantly positioned on the global travel map. Such is the wealth of destinations on offer within a jetlag-free four-hour flight radius - fly east and you reach India, west and you're in the souks of Damascus and Cairo - that every week in Arts & Life we will profile a different destination. Here we give you a taste of 15 destinations unsurpassed for their shopping, beaches, culture and luxury, and those that offer outstanding value for money. As new routes are added, our teams will follow.

Istanbul Istanbul is a vast but easygoing city bursting with spectacular mosques, churches and palaces, but it is in the souks that you really feel its pulse. The Grand Bazaar in the old city lives up to its name, with 58 streets and more than 4,000 shops selling everything from jewellery, pottery, spices and carpets. Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com) flies four times a week from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul, from Dh1,430 return including taxes. The Empress Zoe in Sultanahmet is a 25-room hotel consisting of four Ottoman townhouses joined together; it is surrounded by a private garden and rooms on the top floor have terraces with views over the sea of Marmaris (www.emzoe.com); doubles from Dh525 per night including breakfast.

Mumbai For the serious shopper committed as much to the overall sensory experience as the acquisition of bargain consumables, Mumbai is where it's at. Exclusive boutiques, ethnic markets and mini bazaars make the choice virtually endless. Crawford Market - officially known ­as Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market - is the city's main produce market; Chor Bazar (Thieves Market) is dedicated to antiques; and Zaveri Bazar specialises in diamonds, gold and silver. The Mangaldas Market is the largest indoor cloth and dress material market in Mumbai; on-site tailors will cut clothes to fit. Etihad Airways has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,020 return including taxes. The 29-room Gordon House Hotel is a chic, modern hideaway near the Gate of India (www.ghhotel.com); doubles from Dh3,000 per night including breakfast.

Lahore Famous for its love of sport, food and fabulous Mughal architecture, Lahore is also a great city for shopping. Liberty Market is the busy modern commercial zone, with shops selling fabric, clothing, jewellery, suits, leather goods and children's clothing. For food, visit the Old Anarkali Market, where a traditional bazaar, Gowal Mandi, has been converted into "Food Street". Here tourists can enjoy Lahori food such as Nihari, Haleem, Fish, Sri Payay and Taka Tak. The Pearl Continental (www.pchotels.com) is a large, grand hotel with almost 500 rooms. Bedrooms are spacious but cosy, with warm tones, thick curtains and antique furniture; the lobby, bar and eight restaurants are thoroughly swish, with elegant high ceilings, sleek floors and colonial-era paintings. Etihad Airways has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Lahore for Dh1,820 including taxes.

Kerala Abu Dhabi residents are spoilt for choice with flights to Kerala, with both Etihad Airways and Air India ­Express operating routes. Air India Express (www.airindiaexpress.in) flies to Cochin, Kozhikode and Thiruvanathapuram from Dh800 return including taxes. A quieter, gentler introduction to India than Goa, Kerala boasts miles of clean sandy beaches and languid backwaters. Kovalam is just 10 kilometres from Thiruvanathapuram airport, and offers sandy coves sheltered by a rocky shoreline and backed by coconut trees. The five-star Leela (www.theleela.com) has an infinity pool overlooking Ashok beach. Doubles from Dh500 per night excluding breakfast.

Sri Lanka Rather than trekking all the way down to Bentota, travellers flying into Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport are just 20 minutes from Negombo, a resort offering wide, flat expanses of sandy beaches just north of the capital. Still a popular fishing town, visitors can dine by candlelight in beach shacks next to the sea. The Ranweli Holiday Village (www.ranweli.com) is an environmentally sensitive resort located on a 22-acre peninsula where mangrove forests and winding rivers converge at the sea; accommodation is bungalow-style, and the resort offers bird-watching and yoga facilities. There is also an on-site ayurvedic centre, restaurant and bar. Double rooms from Dh1,440 per night including breakfast. Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.aero) has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Colombo from Dh1,500 return including taxes.

Amman A 45 minute drive from Amman airport takes you to the shores of the Dead Sea. At 420 metres below sea level, this is the lowest point on earth. Apart from the stunning scenery - beautiful views across the sea and the Jordan Valley to the Jerusalem mountains - and the luxurious spa hotels, a key benefit of a beach holiday here is the fact that you will not get sunburned. The geographical conditions mean the region has very low levels of ultraviolet radiation, particularly UVB rays, meaning you do not need to wear sunscreen. Oxygen levels are also high due to the high barometric pressure. The Dead Sea is warm and sunny all year round, with less than 100 millimetres of rain per year. Many people believe that the mud and highly saline water of the sea has health and cosmetic properties. The Marriott Jordan Valley (www.marriott.com) is luxurious without being oppressive; double rooms from Dh880 per night excluding breakfast. Etihad Airways has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Amman from Dh1,700 including taxes.

Damascus One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus contains remnants of human civilisation stretching all the way from the Arameans, Semitic nomads who arrived from the Arabian Peninsula, to the Romans, Christians and Ottomans, among many others. The old city is surrounded by ancient walls, gates and ramparts and is filled with churches and mosques including the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque, where a shrine is said to contain the head of St John the Baptist. The mausoleum where the Muslim conqueror Saladin is buried is located in the gardens outside. The National Museum of Damascus covers all periods of the city's history and contains the reconstruction of a second century synagogue. Stay at the Dar al Yasmin, an ancient Damascene palace beside a Franciscan church in the Christian quarter of the old city, which has been turned into a comfortable boutique hotel with in-house restaurant, hammam and sauna. Double rooms from Dh1,200 per night excluding breakfast. Etihad Airways offers flights from Dh1,530 dirhams return including taxes.

Tehran Despite being labelled part of the so-called "Axis of Evil", the Iranian capital is a relatively open, cosmopolitan city with hundreds of museums, art galleries, theatres, cafés and public parks. Key sights include the National Museum of Iran, containing ceramics, stone figures and carvings up to 5,000 years old, and the Treasury of National Jewels, holding the world's largest uncut ruby, the world's largest pink diamond, a globe made out of 34 kilograms of gold and more than 50,000 precious stones. It also houses the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Hotel Naderi on Jomhuri-ye Eslami Avenue (0098 21 6670 1872) is a fun, bohemian haunt where for Dh110 a large double room comes complete with Bakelite telephones and 1950s-era furniture. Downstairs, the Café Naderi is a meeting place of artists, intellectuals and smokers. Etihad Airways has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Tehran from Dh1,270 return including taxes.

Addis Ababa The Ethiopian capital is a green, modern city, but its greatest fascination lies in its claim to be the cradle of human civilisation. At the Ethiopian National Museum, which houses the country's main artistic and archaeological treasures, are the remains of what archaeologists say is the oldest skeleton on earth. The remains of the 1.1 metre tall adult, nicknamed "Lucy", were discovered in 1974, and are thought to be 3.2 million years old. The real remains are too fragile to be on permanent display, so a replica is on show. The city is also home to the Ethiopian ­National Library, the Ethiopian Ethnological Museum (and former palace), the Addis Ababa Museum, the Ethiopian Natural History ­Museum, the Ethiopian Railway Museum and the National Postal Museum. The Sheraton Addis Ababa (www.sheraton.com) was built in 1998 in the style of a Neoclassical pleasure palace; it occupies one of the most prestigious sites in the Ethiopian capital, just below the hilltop on which Emperor Menelik II built his palace when the city was founded. The hotel's client list consists of politicians, businessmen and do-gooding Hollywood celebrities. The atmosphere is calm, the service is friendly and security is strict but unobtrusive. Double rooms from Dh720 excluding breakfast. Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Addis Ababa from Dh1,500, including taxes.

Kathmandu With its laid-back atmosphere, sublime scenery, exquisite markets and endless Buddhist temples, shrines and stupas, Kathmandu has always appealed to travellers on a budget. Flyyeti's new service from Abu Dhabi has just started, offering flights from Dh900 return (www.flyyeti.com). But those able to spend that bit more can live like kings. With the savings you make on flights, food and shopping - silver, silk and hemp clothing, rugs and electronics are the most popular buys - why not upgrade from the hundreds of cheap guesthouses to Dwarika's, a hand-crafted, World-Heritage-listed traditional wooden hotel, with courtyards, terracotta pillars and intricate antique carvings, with a library, bar and pool and spacious rooms. Doubles from Dh630 per night including breakfast (www.dwarikas.com).

Beirut Endlessly resilient, the residents of Beirut have struggled through decades of civil war and acts of terrorism with admirable optimism. Despite the economic and infrastructural damage caused by the Israeli bombardment of 2006, award-winning architects are working again to build fabulous structures in stainless steel, plate glass and chrome lighting in shellshocked neighbourhoods. The city has impressive Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Arab and Ottoman archaeology, and a breathtaking array of cathedrals and mosques, yet it is the small things that make up Beirut's allure. In what has long been referred to as the Paris of the Middle East, visitors can still stroll through jasmine-filled courtyards, strut along the Corniche, dive into the sea and feast on fresh flatbreads, tahini-rich hummous and fresh salads. Finish the day relaxing with a date juice and a shisha in Cafe Gemmayzeh on Rue Gouraud, with its etched windows and Art Deco lanterns. Le Meridien Commodore (www.starwoodhotels.com) offers large, comfortable, no-nonsense rooms from Dh860 per night including breakfast. Middle East Airlines (www.mea.com.lb) has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Beirut from Dh1,520 including taxes.

Cairo Since its founding in AD 969 as the royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliphs, Cairo's population has swelled to a staggering 17 million. In the desert near Giza are the Pyramids and Sphinx, while 18 kilometres to the south of the modern city is the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis and adjoining necropolis of Saqqara, both ancient predecessors to Cairo. Al-Azhar University, dating from 972, is the oldest purpose-built university in the world. In the centre of the modern city, which is also home to a thriving film and opera scene, is the Egyptian Museum, host to the most extensive collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the world. It has 120,000 items, including 27 royal mummies and the treasures of Tutankhamen, on display. The Hotel Longchamp (www.hotellongchamp.com) in leafy Zamalek, an upper-class area filled with embassies and private schools, offers a relaxing escape from the throng with its quiet, spacious rooms and airy terraces filled with plants; doubles from Dh255 per night excluding taxes. Etihad Airways has return flights from Abu Dhabi from Dh2,240 return including taxes.

The Chedi, Muscat Opened in 2005, the Chedi Muscat on the Gulf of Oman still delivers the ultimate retreat: 15 minutes from the airport, this low-slung, contemporary spa hotel is coolly stylish, offering mahogany and black stone rather than marble and gold leaf. It is lavishly laid out before the mountains and desert: minimalist Omani architecture is surrounded by lush palm gardens, two swimming pools and a stretch of private beach. Guests have a choice of modern rooms and private villas and staff give discreet, intuitive service. The spa is staffed by Indonesian therapists whose massage is expertly administered; there are also several Elixir body treatments including scrubs, baths (milk, floral and clay), wraps and pedicures. Double rooms from Dh1,500 excluding breakfast (www.ghmhotels.com). Return flights to Muscat from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh1,250 including tax, through Oman Air (www.omanair.aero).

Banyan Tree, Bahrain The Banyan Tree Al Areen offers opulence as standard: every guest gets a villa and every villa has its own private swimming pool. But the centrepiece of this new hotel is its spa - at 10,000 square metres, it's the biggest in the Middle East. The Hydrothermal Garden offers a mind-boggling array of facilities, including a samarium, igloo and "brine cavern", which gently heats the body in a mist of steam and salt to strengthen the circulatory system. At the health club, daily activities include aeroboxing, circuit training and meditation. One-bedroom villas from Dh3,650 per night including breakfast and a 90-minute massage for two (www.banyantree.com). Gulf Air (www.gulfair.com) has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain from Dh1,080 dirhams including taxes.

Delhi With ancient forts and royal palaces rising out of wild desert scenery, Rajasthan is the home of luxury travel in India. Yet, with the country's below-average prices on everything from food and accommodation to transport and shopping, opulence can be had for outstanding value. The Imperial (www.theimperialindia.com) is in the city centre but screened from the busy Janpath area by high hedges and palm trees. Behind the grand, whitewashed 1931 exterior is a glamorously refurbished combination of colonial and Art Deco style, blending red-suited staff, high ceilings, languid verandas and marble floors with supremely comfortable rooms, friendly staff and excellent restaurants. The hotel houses three art galleries, and a collection of life-size oil paintings of the princely rulers of India are on display throughout the property; each room has lithographs and sculptures, along with Burmese teak and rosewood furniture. Afternoon tea is taken under the high-domed Atrium, and there is a spa, swimming pool and fitness facilities. Double rooms from Dh1,150 per night room-only. Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Dehli cost from Dh1,820 including taxes. rosemary.behan@admedia.ae