Arabian Nights in Abu Dhabi

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara offers camel trekking which lets guests get a feel of the Bedouin lifestyle.

Forget what you saw in Sex and the City 2. (The flick was, in fact, filmed in Morocco.) Sure, you’ll find plenty of Dubai-style superlatives (the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World) and a healthy dose of Arabian opulence (the $3 billion Emirates Palace) in Abu Dhabi. But this emirate—comprising 85 percent of the UAE’s geographical area—is shifting the focus to culture. Soon Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island will have the world’s largest concentration of cultural institutions—created by Pritzker prize-winning architects Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Zaha Hadid.

St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort’s
St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort’s Ocean Suite living room is done in a mix of cool browns and creams that makes the interiors come alive.

Luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi are sprouting at record pace. The last few months of 2011 saw a flurry of properties from Jumeirah, Hyatt and Starwood, and new five-star hotels from Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood, St. Regis and Anantara are in the works for 2012. Come 2013, the pinnacle of French art de vivre will arrive on the scene when Le Bristol Abu Dhabi plants its flag in the Middle East’s hottest destination. Though 2011 was a record year for the number of arrivals (2.1 million), this boom in hotel inventory means that luxury vacations are a real value right now. Fresh from a trip to Abu Dhabi, Luxury Travel Advisor has the skinny on where to stay and what to do.

Island-Hopping

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We checked into The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, newly opened in December 2011, and swooned over the view from our Superior Sea View Room: the sparkling pool, the white-sand beach, and the turquoise Arabian Gulf beyond. Abu Dhabi is home to an archipelago of more than 200 islands, and Saadiyat will soon welcome the Louvre, flagship Guggenheim, and other buzzed-about museum projects—just down the road from the resort. Stop by the Manarat Al Saadiyat museum to learn the Saadiyat story.

Monte Carlo Beach Club
Monte Carlo Beach Club’s private pool cabanas are for members only.

The view isn’t the only thing we ogled at the St. Regis. The bathroom runs the length of the room; you can actually walk through the rain shower to get to the sinks on the other side. A stand-alone soaking tub overlooks the sea, and your personal butler can draw a bubble bath upon request. (Another sign of the stellar service: a wake-up call comes with a coffee delivery.)

The palatial resort complex was designed to elicit a “wow.” It’s the largest St. Regis in the world with 377 guest rooms, including the two-storey Royal Suite. There are more than 700 staff: beach attendants set up umbrellas in the sand; personal trainers customize workouts at the Athletic Club; Iridium Spa staff attend to 12 treatment rooms; and Head Concierge Mark Corpus can arrange everything from tee times at the nearby Saadiyat Beach Golf Club to a helicopter ride to Dubai.

Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara
The Desert Suite at Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara boasts a tasteful Arabian décor and a private patio.

We dined with Director of Marketing & Communications Candice D’Cruz ([email protected]; 011-971-0-2-498-8882) at 55&5th, The Grill, named for the address of the original St. Regis New York. Locals also flock to Sontaya, the Asian restaurant set in glass-walled pavilions by the pool.

Nearby, the Park Hyatt unveiled its sleek interiors in November, and the new Monte-Carlo Beach Club draws the cool crowd to its Sea Lounge, named “Best Bar in Abu Dhabi,” where resident DJ Nathalie spins the soundtrack. Monte-Carlo SBM imported a dose of Riviera color and glamour when designing its members-only club with poolside daybeds covered in yellow striped towels. It’s possible to buy a day pass to test-drive the facilities and experience the coastline that’s the emirate’s great pride. A boardwalk traverses the protected sand dunes, where hawksbill turtles nest and dolphins frolic in the waves. Lunch at the award-winning Le Deck restaurant was one of the best meals we had in Abu Dhabi.

Desert Dream

Agadir Moroccan Restaurant
Westin Abu Dhabi’s Agadir Moroccan Restaurant blends Arabic and Mediterranean cooking styles.

Straight out of a fairytale, Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara rises majestically from the dunes of the Liwa Desert in Abu Dhabi’s Al Gharbia region. These shifting sands are part of the legendary Empty Quarter, the largest continuous sand desert in the world. Built like a traditional, low-rise fortress, Qasr is one of the most magnificent resorts we’ve ever seen. After a two-hour drive from Abu Dhabi city, we were greeted with Arabic coffee, while the resident falconer presented a hooded bird atop his gloved arm. Tip: To learn more about falconry’s important place in Emirati heritage, visit the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, now a tourist attraction in the city.

From camel trekking activities to the resort’s aesthetic, Qasr Al Sarab showcases the Bedouin lifestyle of the desert. The lobby and library are decorated with 2,500 artifacts, some of them priceless. Walls of windows overlook the dunes, their color changing with the setting sun. And guest rooms also reflect the setting with furniture custom-made in the UAE. The resort is more than a mile in length—with golf carts used to access the pool, tennis courts and spa (complete with ice room).

 

Flying High with Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways is turning heads for its premium product and service. The airline just rolled out the First-Class Chef Program, whereby trained chefs with a minimum of five-year restaurant experience customize meals for first-class passengers. Hot soups are ladled at each passenger’s seat, and chefs use whisks and mixing bowls to whip up requests on the spot. The only airline with full F&B managers onboard, Etihad won the Skytrax award for first-class catering last year.

Etihad Airways’ Diamond First Class Suite
Etihad Airways’ Diamond First Class Suite has a Poltrona Frau leather seat that fully converts into a bed.

The Diamond First Class Suite is designed to be the pinnacle of luxury. Sliding doors ensure privacy, and the Poltrona Frau leather seat converts into a bed, with a 23-inch personal entertainment, wardrobe and personal minibar close at hand. First-class passengers get his and her pajamas, and special amenity kits: a black cosmetic purse studded with Swarovski crystals for the ladies and a cuff link box for the gentlemen, both full of La Prairie toiletries.

In Pearl Business Class, each new Poltrona Frau seat converts into a fully flat bed and has direct aisle access. Eat whenever you like, choosing from a menu that includes at least one local destination choice and one Arabic one. On our roundtrip to Abu Dhabi, we found that the time flew—especially with the Panasonic eX2 in-flight entertainment system providing broadband Internet and live TV.

 

The resort is a favorite haunt of the sheikhs, who have their own private villa onsite. Guests can also luxe it up in the palatial Royal Pavilion, rented out in exclusivity to groups. (One birthday party projected a film on the giant dune across from it.) For VIP bookings, contact Simona Dobre ([email protected]; 011-971-0-2-558-9156), area director of sales. Note that half- and full-board rates are available.

Urban Delights

There’s a lot going on in town, and taxis—cheap and plentiful—are the best way to get around. Abu Dhabi city hosts large-scale music concerts and major sports events like the Yas Island Formula 1, Volvo Ocean Yacht Race and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Tiger Woods kicked off his season on the 27-hole golf course at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where the new Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort & Spa is the host hotel.

In close proximity to the airport, the luxurious Westin has a small room count (only 172) but full-scale resort amenities—from the large conference rooms to the copious gourmet spread at Fairways restaurant. Loaded with Nespresso machines, Heavenly beds and top-of-the-line technology, the rooms are spacious and comfortable. (Starting at 484 square feet, the standard rooms are the largest in town.) General Manager Klaus Niefer greets VIP guests on arrival.

The Corniche, the leafy promenade along the city’s waterfront, welcomed the swanky Jumeirah at Etihad Towers last November. The 382 guest rooms are situated on levels 27 to 60, guaranteeing impressive birds-eye views. A total of 12 restaurants and bars are in the works; Quest restaurant has already nabbed the What’s On Award for “Best New Restaurant 2011,” and Ray’s Bar—perched on the 62nd floor—is a popular spot for fashionable night owls. Helmed by Doris Greif (the only female general manager in Abu Dhabi), the hotel won “World’s Leading New Hotel” at the World Travel Awards 2011.

The new Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi deserves a special mention for its unique setting inside the world’s furthest leaning man-made tower. (The 18 degrees incline is four times the angle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.) Needless to say, the 18˚ restaurant on the 18th floor is a fantastic spot to savor a drink.

A long-established luxury address is the Shangri-La Hotel situated in the Qaryat Al Beri complex, which also houses CHI The Spa, the Souk, residences and a Traders Hotel. Arabic gondolas called abras ply the Vegas-style waterways that wind through the complex. This setting “Between the Bridges” is ideal for gazing at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque across the water. A gleaming vision of marble domes and bejeweled columns, this is one of the largest mosques in the world. We recommend a guided tour, available daily except for Friday mornings, when 40,000 worshippers come to pray.

The 214 balconied rooms have thoughtful touches like travel kits stuffed with L’Occitane amenities. Standout Shangri-La hospitality kicks in with the welcome tea, served in a porcelain teapot in-room. For positively plush digs, book one of the six villas which have private swimming pools and fully equipped bars. Contact Director of Sales Covi Larxe-Rey ([email protected]; 011-971-0-2-509-8308) for more information.

We were dazzled by Bord Eau’s exquisite tasting menu paired with wines. Hailing from Alsace, Chef Alexandre Pernetta even comes to the table to shave truffles over the filet mignon. For dessert, order the chocolate dome, melted in front of your eyes with a pitcher of hot chocolate, then party the night away at the rooftop Pearls bar.

Not to miss: the turquoise infinity pool that seems to flow into the sea. You can float while gazing at the Grand Mosque on the horizon.

Head Concierge Ashraf Al Nabulsi ([email protected]; 011-971-0-2-509-8812) has pulled off some over-the-top requests—like when a honeymooning couple requested a last-minute dinner in the middle of the desert.

 

Monte Carlo Beach Club
The Sea Lounge at the Monte Carlo Beach Club has been named the ‘Best Bar in Abu Dhabi.’

 

Shangri-La Hotel
Shangri-La Hotel’s gondolas ply the waterways.