As you soar towards it across the bleached white desert, Abu Dhabi rises like a scene from a Star Wars movie.
Its towers, defying the laws of gravity and architecture, seem to stretch on forever in their neat grids as they glint in the sun and heat haze, framed by the deep blue of the sea on one side and desert on the other.
Dubai – just 60 miles away – has become a top destination for UK travellers in the last decade due to guaranteed sun, luxurious hotels and glitzy shopping, while there’s also the potential to pack in an exotic desert experience.
All of this ensures a holiday so different from anywhere in Europe, while the direct seven-hour flight from the UK also makes the Arabian Gulf an attractive option when compared to, say, the Far East.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (which includes Dubai and several other small city states), is very much Dubai’s little brother in the travel stakes.
For one thing, it is nowhere near the size of its neighbour in terms of its tourism infrastructure with far fewer hotels and, consequently, visitors. So think small-scale Dubai. Nevertheless you will find an array of attractions to match the quality of its accommodation.
For instance, the fairly new Yas Island complex (around 30 minutes from the heart of the city itself), boasts the Ferrari World theme park, the Formula 1 grand prix circuit, a large aquatic park (Yas Waterworld), a marina, golf course, and a sparkling new mall. A Warner Brothers theme park is also about to open.
Shopping is one of Abu Dhabi’s major draws – the Yas Island Mall is now the largest, but other good options are the original Abu Dhabi Mall as well as the newer Marina Mal.
There is also a sports district with a variety of world-class facilities, and nearby is the massive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which opened ten years ago and is simply stunning with its many domes and minarets. It is the city’s must-see attraction, especially early evening when it is illuminated in spectacular style.
The city centre is located just inland from the five-mile long, man-made Corniche (a Middle East version of the Nice sea front right on the Arabian Gulf itself). It is along the Corniche that the majority of the skyscrapers (mainly hotels and apartment buildings) sit.
The whole city seems brand new, with very little trace of anything that may have existed beyond a couple of decades ago. It’s like a shiny, scrubbed version of Manhattan, self-indulgent under a bottomless blue sky.
Just along the coast from the Corniche is the new, up-and-coming area of Saadiyat Island, which, unlike the Corniche, boasts a beautiful natural beach. This is undoubtedly the place to stay.
The beach, still used by nesting turtles, is amazing with deep fine, white sand while the sea is probably the warmest you’ll ever swim in. There is also a gentle shelf of sand stretching some distance – and usually a nice ocean breeze to keep you cool.
At present, there are only a couple of hotels on Saadiyat beach, though more are currently under construction. The area is also set to become Abu Ahabi’s new cultural hub with Guggenheim and Louvre museums being built.
The Park Hyatt at Saadiyat is impressive. Only opened a couple of years ago, it has a stretch of that wonderful beach all to itself as well as a truly magnificent pool area (with three pools in all) and beautifully landscaped tropical gardens. It is an exotic setting.
Three restaurants all serving great food – from the Mediterranean feel of the Beach House to the steaks and seafood Park Grill, the quality is first-class.
Along with European oysters and Canadian lobster, you can enjoy faultlessly chargrilled American beef on the bone. Even breakfast is a feast and especially memorable when taken on the terrace.
In a resort such as this, the quality of the food is paramount and it certainly does not disappoint.Rooms are gorgeous with large, furnished balconies. There’s also a spa with a range of treatments on offer. Again, in a resort, this is a vital component.
The Saadiyat Island golf course is right next to the hotel or there are several other courses to choose from, including the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which hosted last year’s HSBC European Tour event.
And, of course, being part of an American hotels group, the service throughout the property, from check-in to the beach staff, is exceptional. Service is an often-overlooked aspect of travel that can make a holiday unforgettable. That’s the case here. The facilities are one thing but it’s the human element that elevates them.
Away from the hotel, you can spend some time in the city centre (a short taxi ride away), at one of the malls, at another beach club or take a trip out into the desert on a 4×4 or take a camel ride. Other day trip options include the Abu Dhabi emirate’s second city, Al Ain (a UNESCO World Heritage site), which is only a couple of hours’ drive away in the heart of the desert.
It’s a wonderful contrast from ultra-modern Abu Dhabi with its ancient souks and rugged mountain scenery. And a similar distance away is Dubai, with numerous day trip options on offer from Abu Dhabi.
Even for the Dubai devotees Abu Dhabi is a surprisingly good choice for a sunshine holiday, especially from October to May. Combine real culture and adventure alongside the glorious beach, a round of golf, and that essential shopping element. Or just escape and hunker down on your own stretch of the Arabian Gulf.