In the beauty contest between the United Arab Emirates’ various constituents, Dubai stands out as the glitzy heart, increasingly competing with the leading cities around the world in terms of shopping and fine dining.
To the north, Ras al Khaimah has of late been positing itself as the adventure emirate, capitalising on the Ru’us Al Jibal mountain range to offer a selection of adrenaline-fuelled experiences to millennial travellers.
There might well also be something happening in Sharjah and Ajman – but they are still a little way behind in getting that message out to the world.
Abu Dhabi, in contrast, wants to be seen as the reserved, fatherly figure – the cultured one.
But that is not quite the whole story – as Abu Dhabi also has a wild side.
Drive just over an hour out of town, toward the Empty Quarter where the United Arab Emirates’ border with Saudi Arabia begins, and you will come across the Arabian Nights Village.
The attraction is a theme park dedicated to the lives of Arabs, where guests can experience for themselves a variety activities designed to showcase the heritage of the region.
During a flying visit in the spring this year, I was able to head out to the dunes to see what is on offer.
Despite being in an inhospitable desert, visiting is remarkably easy, with a quick, efficient pick-up possible from any hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi.
The drive is scenic enough for the most part, until the final half an hour when you turn off the road and seemingly head into the endless desert – dunes pile up either side of the car and you begin to question if your guide has made an error with the directions.
Soon enough, though, the camp appears in the distance – like the oasis or mirage that always takes centre stage in so many movies.
Arrival is professional and brisk and – given the location – very professional: cards no problem, but no Wi-Fi.
We are quickly seated, enjoying a welcome drink (alcohol is available for those who want to take the risk out here in the sand) and deciding which activity to sample first.
Various options are available at all times, including henna and sand-boarding, while others require the participation of the hosts.
There is also an Oasis Pool with a wonderful desert view.
During the day guests can swim to get away from the heat, while at night they can watch shooting stars in the clear crisp sky.
First up for us though is camel riding, seemingly the most authentic experience on offer, but we get off to a slightly disappointing start.
A five-minute trot around the carpark does not really convey the true majesty of the surrounding desert, though getting up on the back of the beast is an adventure in itself.
Much better is ‘dune bashing’, which essentially involves getting in a 4x4 and driving at the sand as quickly as you can.
Needless to say, it’s terrifying!
Our driver seems completely unperturbed as we hurtle at the towering, shifting dunes, seemingly poised to roll over at any moment – he even goes as far as to flick the radio on as we teeter at the top of one particularly monstrous precipice.
A quarter of an hour of this is enough to leave you feeling dizzy, but its an exhilarating experience and one which can only be repeated in a few places around the world.
Next, we try our hands at sand-boarding.
It is quite a workout to get to the top of the dune, slogging through the subsiding sands, but once we are at the summit, the views are incredible – well worth the effort.
The trick to getting down, it turns out, is to sit on the boards: stand and you quickly sink, but sit and spread your weight, and you can pick up some serious speed.
For those willing to pay a little more, quad bikes are also offer.
Personally, this was the highlight, bouncing over the dunes on a remarkably powerful machine, sliding through ravines and cresting over the top of mini mountains.
There can be nothing like it, driving into the setting sun, the cool breeze cutting through the desert heat – a must for any visit to Abu Dhabi.
Just make sure you keep calm – those dunes are trickier than they look!
After it all, time for dinner.
Arabs have long considered generosity to be the highest of virtues and this is celebrated in Bedouin poetry, sayings and songs.
In honour of this tradition, a feast is thrown at the end of the day, with countless dishes on offer to the ravenous guests.
It is a family atmosphere, with shared seating building a sense of camaraderie among those who have spent time out in the desert.
With live oud music to accompany, it is the perfect end to the day.
It is possible to stay over at the Arabian Nights Village with more information on accommodation here.