"The falcon is waking up now," the veterinary technician says, causing everyone to take a step back. The groggy patient looks around, his pedicure complete, those lethal talons clipped, filed and massaged with moisturiser - all under anaesthetic, of course.

Like glitzy neighbour Dubai, Abu Dhabi - the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates - has its fair share of over-the-top architecture and no-expense-spared attractions (the giant Ferrari theme park springs to mind), but, in town for 48 hours, we're determined to seek out some more unusual adventures, too.

The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital certainly fits the bill. The clinic, located a few kilometres from the airport, treats about 5,000 birds a year and welcomes a few thousand more tourists, who are given fascinating guided tours.

As a dozen birds sit on perches in front of us, their heads covered in small leather hoods, technician Mohammed Nafeez explains that falconry - hunting with trained birds of prey - has been practised in these parts for centuries, originally by Bedouins in pursuit of small animals for food and, later, as sport. Today, many well-heeled falconers take their birds abroad, mainly to Pakistan, during the winter hunting season.

"The birds need a falcon passport but they don't need a visa or photo," Nafeez jokes.

Etihad Airways, the national airline, allows passengers to bring their birds on board (two falcons per guest in first or business class, and one in economy).

The emirate's most popular tourist spot is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Completed in 2007 and named for the late founder of the UAE - attendants recite the Koran 24 hours a day at his mausoleum, beside the main prayer hall - the majestic mosque is one of the world's largest, with 82 domes, 1,000 columns and space for 41,000 worshippers. Its design blends architectural styles, with onion-shaped domes reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, Moorish-style columns and reflective pools, and glowing white marble inlaid with semi-precious stones.

Inside, seven enormous crystal chandeliers hang overhead - "gold-plated, of course," laughs our guide, Majed, all too aware of his nation's reputation - while the world's largest Persian carpet, hand-knotted by 1,200 Iranian women, covers more than 5,500 square metres of the mosque's floor.

When it comes to food, Abu Dhabi has an ever-growing list of international restaurants, yet it's surprisingly tricky to find one that serves Emirati cuisine. Mezlai, at Emirates Palace, the luxury hotel with the infamous gold-vending machine, is one of only a handful that does so. Executive chef - and Emirati - Ali Ebdowa explains why.

"It's still a tradition in the UAE for locals to go to their grandmothers' homes for local cuisine, which is why it's not so common to find Emirati chefs and restaurants," he says. "Emirati food is actually quite different from what you would find in the rest of the region. The differences come in the spice mixtures and combinations, as well as the cooking technique."

Meat, fish and rice feature heavily, flavoured with combinations of cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaf, coriander, mint, ginger and saffron, while recreating Bedouin techniques such as " medfoun" - slow cooking meat wrapped in banana leaves in an earthen hole - keeps desert traditions alive.

True to their Bedouin roots, Ebdowa's dishes - moist and tender lamb medfoun; veal hariz, a creamy, porridge-like concoction made with barley and spices that's considered one of the national dishes; and grilled shari fish topped with spicy potatoes - are hearty and wholesome. The standouts, however, are the desserts: shebab, a saffron-flavoured pancake smeared with cream cheese, rolled up like a cigar and doused in a honey-orange sauce; and bethitha, fresh cream sandwiched between doughy date discs spiced with saffron and cardamom, a calorific treat originally eaten by pearl divers to keep their energy levels up.

Keen to see more than sand and skyscrapers, at 7am the next day we climb into a kayak for a paddle through the Mangrove National Park. The emirate has 2,700 hectares of mangroves, and there are whispers of humpback dolphins and flamingos, although we spot only the odd heron and purple climbing crabs, which scurry into muddy holes along the bank as we glide past. We beach our kayaks on a sandy isle to peer at red fox dens and take a swim in warm aquamarine water, before slowly meandering back to base.

With Abu Dhabi hosting the last leg (on November 23) of this year's Formula One Grand Prix championship, a lap of the Yas Marina Circuit is on our list. Yas Island is an entertainment hub about half an hour outside the city centre that's also home to theme parks, a golf course, a concert arena and half a dozen hotels.

At the track, there are various driving experiences in dragsters and single-seaters on offer - or you can be chauffeur-driven around at breakneck speed in an Aston Martin GT4. Although it looks like a road-going Vantage, the GT4 has been modified for racing, with a beast of an engine (a 4.7-litre V8, to be precise) and a roll cage. Any coherent thoughts go out the window as the professional driver pulls out of the pit lane and floors for it three laps, tyres screeching around the circuit's 21 twists and turns and clocking 270km/h as the car tears down the straight, one of the longest in F1.

Staying on the island, we decamp to the swanky Yas Viceroy hotel, which straddles the circuit, to visit Burlesque, a new supper club with scarlet decor. It'll be interesting to see just how risqué routines can be in this region.

As we take our table between four glamorous young women wearing abayas over their mini-skirts and a separate group of 20-something Arab men in jeans and T-shirts, the band strikes up and a sultry American singer croons hits by Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.

The live sets are interspersed with burlesque numbers, during which two lithe dancers wearing identical bobbed wigs shimmy onto the floor. There are fishnets and feather boas, and the girls are playful and sexy, but there is no Dita Von Teese-style sauciness.

Still, with the girls on the next table glued to their phones and the guys chatting over drinks, it's a glimpse into local life not pointed to in any guidebook.