For many of us, the Middle East is a handy stop-over point, where you would simply change planes for an onward connection, foregoing it as a destination its own right. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and one of the key destinations of the region, with a myriad of attractions and hotels to tempt all kind of visitors. I spent a few days here to get a taste of what this Emirate has to offer.
My hosts, If Only and Etihad Airways, flew me from Heathrow on their A380 Airbus. I was fortunate to experience this flight in the business cabin on the upper deck. Greeted with a glass of champagne, what better way to start the journey? The business class cabin is stylish and functional, and the lie-flat bed is a blessing, particularly on a longer journey.
Abu Dhabi airport’s proximity to the city, resort areas and attractions offers quick transfers along wide roads empty of vehicles. If you have been to Dubai and witnessed the frenetic traffic there, Abu Dhabi is a breath of fresh air! Though it’s difficult to see from the roads, Abu Dhabi is made up of several islands at the edge of the Arabian Gulf, pretty much all linked by the excellent road network.
My first night was spent at the Saadiyat Rotana on Saadiyat Island. Facing the Arabian Gulf and set on a pristine white beach where dolphins and turtles are often spotted, this 5-star hotel exudes a warm Arabian welcome - with a refreshing towel and a chilled juice!
There are a variety of room types catering for all needs. My deluxe room overlooked the manicured grounds, with a terrace. At the top end, if privacy and space are a must, I’d recommend the beach villas with their own private sea-facing pools. And families with young children will love the kids’ club, with its soon to be complete lazy river.
Yas Island is the ultimate destination for thrill seekers, with no less than four star attractions: Ferrari World; Warner Brothers World; Yas Waterworld; and the Yas Marina Formula 1 Circuit. At Ferrari World, I recommend you experience the world’s fastest rollercoaster: Formula Rossa. From zero to 240 kilometres an hour in less than 5 seconds… what a thrill! In Warner Brothers World, rekindle your childhood memories and meet your favourite characters from yesteryear. You can fuel your adrenaline rush on rides such as Tom & Jerry’s Cheese Spin or the Riddler Revolution. And if motorsport is your thing, take a driving experience on the Formula 1 track itself.
Straddling the F1 track is the Yas Hotel, with views of the track and marina. The hotel’s architecture is striking and even more impressive at night. The comfortable rooms are sleek and modern. Stays here are complimented by a regular shuttle bus to the local attractions, a great benefit to avoid a lengthy walk in the heat of the day.
Zaya Nurai Island
For a smaller and unique hotel stay, visitors looking to escape might enjoy the serene and elegant Zaya Nurai Island, just a 10-minute speedboat transfer from Saadiyat Island. My arrival was promptly greeted with a cooling towel (it’s been 35 degrees every day!) before taking a buggy to view some of the villas on this island resort.
The villas here are spacious and luxurious, and come with your own private pool overlooking the beach. If you can drag yourself away from the villas, there is a lively beach club, and families are well catered for with a kids’ club and shared pool. Every villa even has its own set of bicycles to get around. I enjoyed a spectacular lunch, which included a mix of Arabian influenced dishes, seafood and freshly caught seabream and sea bass.
Abu Dhabi has its own version of the Grand Canal, lined with hotels taking advantage of sandy beaches and the back drop of the dominant and beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. My one night here was enjoyed at the Ritz Carlton – with its Venetian-influenced architecture. There’s a super pool and beach area, a gym and spa, and a great choice of dining options, from Italian to Asian. That evening, we dined al fresco at Mijana, serving delicious regional and Lebanese dishes. I found the rooms at The Ritz Carlton spacious yet cosy, and the views over the gardens and pool were stunning.
The Qarat Al Beri district is across the canal, and here we visited the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr. The contemporary exterior belies its interior, which is modern yet soft and elegant. Rooms are well appointed, and many enjoy views across the water and to the Mosque beyond. Lunch was again an extended affair in their Italian restaurant, Frankies. Outside, the Olympic size pool and sandy beach are the main attraction.
Our final visit was the downtown area of Abu Dhabi, popularised by the Corniche – a manicured waterfront dotted with cafes, restaurants and play areas. The St Regis Abu Dhabi is the place to stay here. Housed in the modern skyscraper of Nation Towers, opulent interiors and 5-star service are the order of the day. If you are one for a spa, The Remede Spa will be the place for you, with its gorgeous views and relaxing ambience. Whilst it is a downtown location, the beach is easily reached via a tunnel accessed from the hotel. There are various dining options and bars, and this evening I enjoyed a sumptuous buffet dinner in Terrace on the Corniche.
As a first-time visitor to Abu Dhabi, I was very impressed. The airport experience is efficient (a new terminal is currently being built), the hotels and service excellent, the food delicious and there is something here for those looking to relax and those wanting an activity-based holiday.