From the top floor of Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Towers, partakers of a glitzy afternoon tea can look over the sprawl of modern skyscrapers on the edge of the Persian Gulf then back—past the city’s outskirts—toward an expansive desert. It’s easy to mistake the latter scene as lifeless, but it has wildlife galore. Here are three of the best places to find it.
Mangrove National Park
You’ll forget you’re in the United Arab Emirates capital, home to over a million people, once you get into a kayak. In the city’s eastern outskirts, Mangrove National Park has more than seven square miles of mangrove forest best seen at high tide by kayak. That’s when tight, weaving channels cut through a dense habitat, allowing slow paddle trips past herons, flamingos, and crabs in shallow waters where you’ll practically squeeze through the roots. The mangroves, which can reach 15 feet in height, live in saltwater and feature a long root system that “snorkels” up away from plants for air.
A half dozen operators offer guided kayak trips, including Sea Hawk at the Eastern Mangroves Marina, which has three daily trips for AED 160 per person (U.S. $44). Single and double kayaks can be rented for self-exploration too. Three-hour rentals cost AED 110/160 (U.S. $30/$44). Sea Hawk is on the promenade at Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa by Anantara.
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve
The unexpected Arabian experience of seeing flamingo-filled wetlands suddenly appeared 25 miles southeast of the city only by accident. In the late 1990s, a nearby water treatment plant mistakenly released saltwater into an open plain hemmed between a few highways, resulting in wetlands. Soon reeds swayed in the breeze alongside big banks of water, and pink flamingos took note. Thousands of them.
“Finding food and water here makes it a special place for them,” explains Mustafa Eltoum, the wetland coordinator originally from Sudan who’s lived on-site for 10 years.
Visitors to the two-square-mile Al Wathba Wetland Reserve can walk trails or ride dune buggies to a handful of viewing areas that ensure minimal disturbance to the flamingos (and 250 species of other birds that populate the area). In some cases you can get within 30 feet of hundreds of the flamingos looking for brine shrimp on the shoreline.
About 4,000 flamingos make the wetlands home from fall until spring, when most head to Central Asia for summer; many stay year-round.
The reserve, reached via E30 (the Al Ain Truck Road) and E11 (Ghweifat International Highway), is open to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays only. It’s often quiet. The viewing area is not marked, but it’s to the left (east), by the water, as you enter the park.
Arabian Wildlife Park
Abu Dhabi is named for the gazelle. You won’t find any of these small antelopes around the city, but they abound along with hundreds of other (mostly endangered) species that populate the largest of the Desert Islands, a few hours west of the city (via Highway E11 and a water taxi ride).
Equally as ambitious as Abu Dhabi’s new waterfront Louvre or the gleaming, coin-shaped Aldar building, Sir Bani Yas is a 34-square-mile island that used to be a treeless desert. In the past four decades, however, millions of trees have transformed the landscape into something that wouldn’t look out of place in the Kenyan savanna. The island, rimmed by beaches and activities on offer for guests of the three luxury hotels run by Thai hotel chain Anantara, teems with life both indigenous to the region and brought in from abroad. Safari drives in open Land Cruisers pass by reticulated giraffes, Somali ostriches, eland, beisa and Arabian oryx, Barbary sheep that often lock horns, emus, and a few cheetahs.
Robert Reid is a digital nomad and editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler. He's based in Portland, Oregon. Follow his next travel experiences on Instagram and Twitter.