With its rich culture, majestic landscape, Michelin-star restaurants and plethora of shopping opportunities, Abu Dhabi has what it takes to be a world-class holiday destination – but thanks to its extravagant neighbour Dubai, the thriving metropolis has long been overlooked.
This isn’t at all surprising considering it’s only been 50 years since the city emerged out of a largely empty desert, fuelled by the discovery of oil in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1958 and the income that came with it. Recognising that the oil wells would eventually run dry, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who was president of the UAE from 1971, invested in philanthropy, education, travel and tourism, allowing for urbanisation and the influx of foreigners into the previously guarded community.
The result was the development of luxury resorts, private beaches and jaw-dropping structures that combined Arabian opulence with a passion for art, and caught the eye of the Western world. As well as being the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi is developing at a rapid rate, and prototypes for ambitious projects abound.
As a plan for a lavish underwater apartment block with a billboard emblazoned with ‘If we can dream it, we can build it’ looms in the distance, it’s easy to imagine the great things to come for this multifaceted destination.
Sleep: Park Hyatt
Just off the coast of Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island you’ll find the 5-star Park Hyatt, a three-year-old hotel that lies adjacent to an 18-hole golf course, designed by Gary Player, at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. It’s a striking example of East meets West as Arabic design elements fuse with contemporary features and furniture.
The hotel consists of 306 guest rooms, suites and villas, and boasts 9km of immaculate white beach as well as a spa, business centre, children’s club, tea lounge, café, pub and grill and the Beach House restaurant led by Michelin-star chef Ivan Musoni.
Eat: Brunch in the Clouds
Friday brunch is a weekly tradition in the UAE, and on the last Friday of every month, The St Regis Abu Dhabi invites 50 people to journey to the Abu Dhabi Suite on their 48th and 49th floor and experience a decadent brunch like no other in the world’s highest suspended suite.
On offer is a sweets-stocked cinema, cheese and dessert room, caviar ice bar, oyster room, mobile chef stations and a private bar staffed with the hotel’s best mixologists, and guests are treated to massages and manicures between courses.
Manarat Al Saadiyat
The striking glass-and-steel exterior of this 15 400m² art and cultural centre is located in Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District and was created to tell the story of the area’s cultural development. Manarat Al Saadiyat means ‘the place of enlightenment’ and is home to four gallery spaces that showcase both local and international work, as well as a 250-seat theatre, restaurant and outdoor exhibition space. The best time to visit is in early November during Abu Dhabi Art, an art fair that brings together renowned curators from across the world.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi’s striking white domed structure is inspired by the natural world, featuring faceted openings that replicate the interwoven palm leaves traditionally used as roofing material in this part of the world. This allows rays of sunlight to enter the building, creating an effect described as a ‘rain of light’.
A cultural collaboration between Abu Dhabi and a variety of French cultural institutions (including the Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie and Centre Pompidou), the Louvre Abu Dhabi will borrow works for its permanent galleries and exhibitions from France during the first 10 years of its existence.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The construction of this spiritual masterpiece was said to ‘unite the world’, as over 3 000 artisans from different countries joined forces to create it using natural materials such as marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics.
It’s the third-largest mosque in the world, featuring 82 domes and gold-plated walls, as well as being home to the world’s largest chandelier – a 9.5-ton creation comprising Murano glass and red-and-green Swarovski crystals – and the world’s largest single-piece hand-knotted carpet, which covers 5 200m². Surrounded by lush gardens and calm water pools, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque feels like an oasis and is the main place of worship in Abu Dhabi.
Zaya Nurai Island
Partly natural but mostly artificial, Zaya Nurai Island is a private island that epitomises bespoke luxury and boasts prime real estate. All of the buildings have a uniform style and feature contemporary architecture and elegant interiors. Even if you aren’t staying on the island, entrance is free and the pool deck and beach bar are open to the public.
Simply hop on a ferry – which is also free – and in just 13 minutes you’ll be reclining on a sun lounger as a waiter serves you ice-cold Voss water and delicious toasted nuts. With impeccable service, views of the ocean in front and jungle-like greenery behind, it’s a tranquil and relaxing retreat from the busy mainland.
This feature originally appeared in House and Leisure’s April issue.