No, Millennium Falcon is not zee answer.
But a visit to Dr Muller’s Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital is such an other-worldly experience, the Star Wars reference isn’t too far from the truth. Besides, it was all I could think of when our group was asked if we could name a type of falcon.
Cue awkward silence.
Without missing a beat, Dr Muller was off again with her heavily accented spiel about the intriguing Emirati tradition of falconry.
Falconry here is a guy thing and it’s taken very seriously. An important expression of social status, the birds are carried by the well-to-do (there’s no shortage of those), even on planes. The birds are issued with passports and, as you can see from Etihad Airways’ falcon policy (yep, that’s a falcon policy), it’s not unusual for them to travel in airline cabins across the region. But unless you’re right up the pointy end, it’s unlikely you’ll gingerly squeeze past one en-route to the loo.
Dr Muller has led the hospital’s medical team for a few years now, and in her time the facility has won some prestigious tourism awards. More importantly, the general health of Abu Dhabi’s sporting falcon population has improved dramatically. The procession of sickly birds that was once brought in is a distant memory, and most simply pop in now for a check-up, a beak and nail file, the odd X-Ray, and maybe some nice new, colour-matched flight feathers.
Over the last decade or so, Abu Dhabi has watched its neighbour, Dubai, transform itself into, let’s face it, an irresistible freak show of the biggest, tallest, longest, most jewel-encrusted and bedazzling – let’s be honest here – kitsch.
Bigger and wealthier than Dubai, and with oil reserves likely to last for generations, Abu Dhabi’s potential is clearly immense. So far, however, Abu Dhabi’s approach has been somewhat more conservative. Sure, it has a hotel with an ATM that dispenses gold bars, but it just seems to quietly go about the business of being mind-blowingly wealthy.
With multiple flights from Australia departing to the UAE every day of the week, it won’t be long before stopping-over here is as commonplace as in traditional faves like Singapore or Hong Kong.
And whilst it’s tempting still for visitors to head straight for the bright lights of Dubai (I get it), spending a night or two (or more) in Abu Dhabi will open your eyes to an authentic, welcoming culture thriving by the Tiffany Blue waters of the Gulf.
If you do, try to make time to visit the Falcon Hospital. I guarantee you it’ll blow you away just as much the world’s longest indoor ski fields up the road in Dubai. Hell, why not do both?
But here’s a tip. If Dr Muller asks if you know any species of falcon, try Peregrine. Because Millennium Falcon is definitely not the answer she's looking for.
As a bonus for those who made it this far, click on the link below for some Abu Dhabi visuals to add a bit of sparkle to what is, let's face it, a pretty intriguing, welcoming and accessible destination.