Bland, conservative and filthy rich: Abu Dhabi embarks on an ambitious project to reinvent itself as the social and cultural hub of the Middle East.
When Abu Dhabi opened its first airport in the 1960s, the city was little more than a patchwork of low-rise concrete buildings and thatched huts arranged around an azure bay. These days, thanks to the oil revenues that have been swelling state coffers since independence in 1971, the capital of the United Arab Emirates ranks among the richest places on the planet, with a skyline to match. Just don’t expect another Dubai: for all its wealth, Abu Dhabi remains a quiet, conservative counterpoint to its glitzy and spendthrift neighbor. But with billions of dollars being poured into its fledgling tourism industry, this onetime fishing village is gearing up to welcome visitors as never before. Last year saw the launch of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (yasmarinacircuit.com), which will return to the Yas Marina Circuit this November fast on the heels of an international film festival (abudhabifilmfestival.ae; Oct. 14-23) and art fair (abudhabiartfair.ae; Nov. 4-7). Attractions in the works include a Ferrari theme park, a 15-hectare water park, and, slated to open in 2014, outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums alongside a Zaha Hadid-designed arts center. How that will all play out remains to be seen, but for now, Abu Dhabi offers one of the most intriguing stopovers in the Persian Gulf.
Where to Sleep
Opened just in time for last November’s inaugural Grand Prix, the Yas Hotel (Yas Island; 971-2/656-0000; theyashotel.com; doubles from US$205) straddles the Formula One circuit on a man-made island just north of the city center. At night, its undulating glass canopy glows with thousands of color-changing LED lights. Seven restaurants, two roof-top swimming pools, and 499 silver-and-beige guest rooms (some with balconies overlooking the racetrack) complete the picture.
Newer still is Starwood’s 408-room Aloft Abu Dhabi Hotel (Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre; 971-2/654-5000; aloftabudhabi.com; doubles from US$115), where the fusion of affordability and flair- think sumptuous beds and a lobby strewn with board games- is cheekily dubbed “style at a steal.”
A 90-minute drive from the city, the spectacular Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (Liwa Desert; 971-2/886-2088; qasralsarab.anantara.com; doubles from US$354) is the showpiece of Abu Dhabi’s emerging tourism scene. Nestled amid sand dunes on the edge of the Rub’ al-Khali, this romantic retreat has been built like an old Arabian fortress, complete with crenellated mud-brick walls. Guest rooms have stone floors and timber beams offset by rich Persian carpets; for private sun decks and plunge pools, book one of the resort’s 42 villas.
Where to Eat
Fine dining in Abu Dhabi is largely restricted to hotels, which are in any case the only places allowed to serve alcohol. The most newsworthy restaurant is the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr’s months-old Marco Pierre White Steakhouse & Grill (Bain Al Jessrain; 971-2/654-3333; fairmont.com). Here, the eponymous restaurateur (once one of Britain’s most celebrated- and notorious- chefs) has designed a calorific menu of trusty chophouse favorites, like char-grilled Angus fillets and rack of lamb with triple-fried chips.
With 11 restaurants, the grandiose Emirates Palace- reportedly the most expensive hotel ever built, at a cost of US$3 billion- offers plenty of bling for your buck. The best of the bunch is Sayad (West Corniche Rd.; 971-2/690-7999; emiratespalace.com), an ethereally blue dining room serving Pacific Rim-style seafood dishes.
More casual meals can be found at Souk Qaryat Al Beri, a new waterfront shopping mall fanning out from the Shangri-La hotel. Trendy Dubai import Sho Cho (971-2/558-1117) has neon-lit interiors and Japanese fusion fare like rock-shrimp tempura with a butter-citrus sauce and calamari dressed in soy and ginger. Next door, Ushna (971-2/558/1769) dishes up contemporary takes on Indian favorites like aloo chana chat and Punjabi-style tandoori chicken.
Gulf Arab cookery being what it is, the default “local” cuisine here is Lebanese. For the best of that, head to no-fuss diner Lebanese Flower (Defence St.; 971-2/641-4128), where you can gorge on staples like chickpea soup, hummus, and grilled meats without denting your wallet. A broader survey of Arabian food awaits at Atayeb (Yas Hotel; 971-2/656-0600), a stylish indoor/outdoor venue offering tajines, grills, and couscous dishes from Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere. It also features a wine list strong on Lebanese labels.
Abu Dhabi’s coolest place for a drink is the Shangri-La hotel’s Pearls Bar (Qaryat Al Beri; 971-2/509-8888; shangri-la.com), a breezy rooftop affair that pairs champagne cocktails with a bird’s-eye view over the Moorish-style Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Also buzzing is Rush (971-2/656-0000) at the Yas Hotel. Soaring over the Formula One racetrack, this bar and nightclub has a back-lit resin bar, cozy booths, and a huge dance floor pulsating to DJ-spun house music. Big spenders should slip by the Emirates Palace’s Havana Club (971-2/644-030). With marble floors and leather armchairs, the smoky lounge has the most expensive cognac in the world: Hardy Perfection, for a whopping US$2,581 a shot.
What to Buy
Abu Dhabi is not a shopper’s mecca: its souks carry mostly cheap synthetic goods, while its sprawling air-conditioned malls are tenanted by the usual assortment of international fashion brands. Still, there are a few places worth seeking out. Among them are Mona Mansouri (1/F, Al Dhaham Bldg., Khalidiyah; 971-2/633-3001; monamansouri.com), whose theatrical, gem-studded frocks and abayas have been making their way onto the catwalks of France and Italy; Damas (damasjewel.com), a Lebanese-owned jewelry firm that sells well-priced gold creations (including cute flower-motif pendants) at outlets across the city; and the Persian Carpet House (Fairmont Bab Al Bahr; 971/50 526 8760; pch.ae), which stocks everything from tribal necklaces and bangles to Iranian carpets and Syrian chandeliers.