Splendor In The Desert


Al Ain Museum

Everyone knows Dubai, shopping capital of the United Arab Emirates.  Fewveryone know Abu Dhabi is that country’s national capital, however, and while Abu Dhabi is not exactly Manhattan with regard to homoactivities, it still makes a great stopover for those travelling onward to destinations in the Gulf, India, or Central Asia or recovering from their excesses on the way home.  With Etihad Airways’ new flights from Chicago being added to its worldwide network, which already includes New York and Toronto, getting there from North America has never been easier.

and I think YOU look funny

Abu Dhabi is rich, with emphasis on very.  Arriving at Abu Dhabi Airport, perhaps on the newly opened second runway that will facilitate air traffic growth to accommodate the emirate’s increasingly numerous connections to the world,  You are apt to take one look at all the sand and think "Not another city in the desert!"  How right you would be.

Arabian nights never looked so good

All the clichés brought to life by petrodollar wealth—ornate mansions, European luxury cars, and gleaming skyscrapers among them—are alive and well in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.  What makes Abu Dhabi so much more interesting than other recently created metropolises is that the creations here are realised with foresight and planning disturbingly absent in other places.  It’s not often a city can be created fresh from the drawing board, and the government of Abu Dhabi is not about to squander the opportunity to make its mark in the world.  A very deliberate plan to position Abu Dhabi as a sophisticated city enticing upscale travellers is firmly in place and is already reaping its intended benefit on every level.  Accommodation, entertainment, culinary, and shopping options are first rate, all offered in a well-organised, ultrasafe, and—yes, really—green city by the sea.

desert camp where the evening unfolds

Often branded unfairly as the sedate sibling of flashier Dubai, the city of Abu Dhabi abounds in activities of its own; just because Abu Dhabi maintains a lower profile than its hyper neighbor does not mean it is devoid of appeal.  In fact, with the endless construction and maddening traffic of Dubai, many visitors—and expatriate residents, for that matter—are forsaking the permafrenzy of Dubai in favour of a quieter, less stressful experience in the national capital.  Concerts by major international acts have graced the stadium concert stages; more eclectic preferences for jazz and opera are also catered for in venues around the city.  The malls for which Dubai is so well known now have competition in Abu Dhabi’s recently opened shopping centres; France’s most famous university, the Sorbonne, recently opened an Abu Dhabi branch; and the number of festivals for music, films, sports, and other pursuits is growing every day.  This year will see Abu Dhabi’s first Formula One race, in November, giving the world’s elite a second chance to meet up after the Abu Dhabi Yacht Show last March.  Have no doubt that that every event taking place here is deeply funded (even in these times of financial uncertainty) and matches—or surpasses—similar events in other countries in quality.  The United Arab Emirates is one of the wealthiest countries in the world; only the best will do.

Desert Islands Resort’s lobby chandelier makes a statement

The Sorbonne is not the only Parisian institution to be establishing a presence in Abu Dhabi.  For the first time ever, the Louvre has permitted an overseas branch to be created.  The current dearth of attractions in Abu Dhabi is being rectified as the emirate’s government catapults it from cultural desert to cultural capital with the monumental Saadiyat Island project slated to beget no less than five major cultural institutions, each of them designed by a world-famous architectural firm.  This plot of land will live up to its ‘island of happiness’ name for those who know their Manets from their Monets.  The master plan for the island looks absolutely amazing; typical of the United Arab Emirates embrace of worldwide influences, the architectural firms themselves come from across the globe.  The Maritime Museum is being designed by Japanese genius Tadao Ando, he of Omotesando Hills in Tokyo.  The Guggenheim is set to repeat the success of its extraordinarily popular Bilbao collaboration with Canadian Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel, the Frenchman celebrated for his landmark buildings such as the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, is in charge of creating the first-ever Louvre outside Paris.  It looks absolutely amazing, a UFO of a building pierced by rays of light.

Grand Mosque as seen from Shangri-la

Abu Dhabi offers a lot more than an urban experience in the desert.  Get into the Land Cruiser and head for the dunes in the company of a real, live Emirati; nearly as rare as the Gulf pearls that used to form the basis of the economy before the discovery of petroleum reserves in 1958, the charming and hospitable Emirati people constitute a mere 20% of their country’s population, so the opportunity to meet a local should not go unexploited.  With dark good looks highlighted further by immaculately pressed white kandora, your driver will be only too happy to talk about life from a non-expatriate point of view, even if that happens to include not knowing in which of his houses he will sleep that night or how his falcons and racehorses are doing; unlike in other countries, your driver here may happen to be a millionaire with a few extra hours on his hands.  Past the sheikh’s desert palace, past the camel farm, you arrive at the setting for the night’s dinner and entertainment.  It’s still not dark, so why not go for a camel ride or, for the more adventurous, some sandboarding down the dunes?  Don’t worry if you fall; the sand is as soft as a cotton ball, and, in winter, cool to the touch.  Pre-dinner entertainment includes a bellydancer and her wannabe spectators who are not shy about mimicking gyrations on the open-air stage in the middle of our Bedouin enclosure.  Good food is served for a fine and filling dinner, followed by a date with the shisha pipe or a meeting with the stars; far away from the city lights, lie back and enjoy the zillions of stars in the sky.  The weather is neither stifling hot nor stickily humid; in the northern winter months, it can actually be cool enough for a light jacket.

Pearls and Caviar at Shangri-la

The new Shangri-la Abu Dhabi Qaryat Al Beri is more aptly described as an urban resort rather than a hotel, complete with its own private beach, multiple pools, an array of accommodation from rooms to entire villas, plus a spa staffed by therapists who work more magic with their hands than Glenda The Good with her magic wand.  Shangri-la’s location across the creek from the amazing Grand Mosque, imposing in grace, size, and beauty, is convenient to both the city centre and the airport.  First of all, it’s a Shangri-la; that alone tells you something.  Second of all, it’s right across the deep turquoise waters from the graceful lines of the Grand Mosque, which is one of the largest mosques in the world and is home to (literally) tons of marble inlaid with semiprecious stones in elaborate designs.  Found here also is the largest Swarovski crystal chandelier in the world and the largest carpet in the world.  5700 square metres—more than 61,000 square feet—all one piece, no seams.

Shangri-la’s main pool at night

The just-opened Souk At Qaryat Al Beri is located on Shangri-la’s property and allows guests to explore a nonhotel ambience—without leaving the hotel.  From pistachios, dates, and chocolates to drinking and eating establishments, there is yet more diversity for the guest.  Upping the ante on them all, however, is the sublime Pearls and Caviar, with Pearls being a gorgeous open-air bar terrace upstairs and Caviar being an exclusive fine dining establishment downstairs.  Pearls and Caviar are located in a separate building from the main hotel; just step into an electric buggy and off you go. 

Street decorations are big in Abu Dhabi

Another way to get around the Shangri-la property is by boat.  If you are thinking something cheesy like a pizza or a Venetian gondola, Shangri-la’s water vehicles are simply nice little boats taking guests from one side of the resort to the other.  The waterways are filled with seawater continuously pumped in and out so that the water is never brackish and needs no chemical treatment, one of the steps in environmental awareness taken seriously by Shangri-la in general and at this location in particular being that the Abu Dhabi ecosystem is fragile to begin with.

Sunset over the sands is a magical experience

Another appealing  Abu Dhabi destination is on Sir Bani Yas Island, located two and a half hours’ drive west of Abu Dhabi.  That’s right, west; with all the focus on the Abu Dhabi-Dubai corridor, it is often forgotten that the emirate of Abu Dhabi offers a lot more beyond the city limits.

The camel minders spend long days in the sun waiting for customers

Bangkok-based Anantara has opened a new resort on Sir Bani Yas Island.  Looking at a map, your first impulse may be to ask "Why here?" but it becomes very clear once it is known that this 85-square-kilometre island was previously the private domain of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, whose passion for wildlife conservation had him bring in species of endangered animals to his sanctuary.  All the animals are from hot climates and range from the small but unusual hyrax (known in South Africa as dassies) to the beautiful Arabian oryx.  The animals currently live in large, spacious enclosures, but the eventual plan is to release them to roam the island at will.  Plans are afoot to have two wildlife sanctuaries sharing the island, one featuring endemic species, the other featuring imported animals.  For the time being, until these territories are established, the animals remain separated as it would be impossible to recapture them all later.

The friendly staff at Desert Islands Resort and Spa ensure a stay is memorable

Anantara’s Desert Islands Resort & Spa brings fine accommodation to the island, whose master plan is but one of the many ecological projects underway in Abu Dhabi, which is also site of the world’s first zero-carbon-footprint city.  Desert Islands is an unexpected treat that still feels like an adventure, albeit one with all the comforts expected in a five-star hotel.  The decor is stylish and contemporary, the rooms spacious, and the setting on the north side of the island peaceful.  Aside from the popular game drive and walks, there is snorkeling and kayaking in the tropical sea abounding with marine life as well as mountain biking for the chance to explore the island and the animals in a more physical way than simply watching from the backseat of the resort’s safari vehicles.

view from Mercure Hotel Jebel Hafeet

At this time of year, the weather is very comfortable in Abu Dhabi.  In fact, it can be downright chilly on the island, another unexpected experience on Sir Bani Yas.  Many guests don jumpers to ward off the evening’s cool seabreezes. 

Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates based in Abu Dhabi, is the world’s fastest-growing airline.  Etihad, which means ‘unity’ in Arabic, is not shy in the use of new inventive concepts in its aircraft.  Gone are the viewblocking armchair-style seats claustrophobing the plane’s interior; instead, there are ergonomically correct seats with space between them, giving the Coral Zone Economy-class cabin an air of openness.  Etihad’s business class is called Pearl Zone and offers cocoons of comfort and functionality, while the first-class Diamond Zone is the ultimate in airborne luxury.  Of course, the staff is very attractive; enjoy the attention while it lasts! 

images:  John Douglas, JohnDouglasArt.com

Source = WoRLdviews: R.L.B
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