Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich capital of the United Arab Emirates, rises with a skyline of striking modern architecture where the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula meet the azure waters of the Persian Gulf.
Made up of a swath of desert on the Arabian Peninsula, a ‘main island’ that is the city’s center, and outer islands developed for leisure, luxury, and culture, I’m on a quest to experience all Abu Dhabi has to offer, with a beach, city, and desert experience.
Saadiyat Island Beach Culture
My first stop upon arrival are the unspoiled beaches of Saadiyat Island. Bringing new meaning to the term ‘beach culture,’ this outer island of Abu Dhabi offers a mix of luxury resorts, as well as the highly anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first institution of what will become an entire museum district.
I’m staying at the new Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort. This low-rise beachfront property offers a contemporary take on Arabian design and my guestroom, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and beach house vibe offers balcony views of the resort’s three pools, protected dunes, and Arabian Gulf.
To celebrate my Middle East arrival, I dine at the hotel’s TEAN restaurant, offering a Levantine-inspired menu with grilled seafood and meats prepared with Arabic spices like za’atar. I soak up my king prawns with traditional pide bread, a glass of Lebanese wine, and enjoy the evening breeze drifting off the Gulf.
After a morning beach walk of spotting dolphins offshore, I head to Louvre Abu Dhabi to explore the museum’s permanent exhibit that weaves a story of cultural connection through its collection of ancient and modern art and artifacts from around the world.
Despite these priceless works, it’s the architecture of this Jean Nouvel-designed structure that leaves me in awe, and I’m glad I’ve taken time to meander the museum’s perimeter pathways that offer hidden art spaces and spectacular city and water views. As the sun moves across the museum’s dome, a ‘rain of light’ provides a cooling shade canopy reminiscent of desert oasis palm fronds.
City Life at Abu Dhabi EDITION
For a sense of Abu Dhabi’s city life, I check into the newly opened Abu Dhabi EDITION. Located in the exclusive Al Bateen Marina neighborhood, this Ian Schrager-curated property meshes with the area’s new retail and dining outlets, becoming the city’s most vibrant gathering spots for Lamborghini-laden Emiratis, well-heeled expats, and international jet setters.
The curved five-story lobby atrium, suspended artwork, airy seating areas with furnishings by Emirati designer Latifa Saeed, alongside a pool table encourages guest interaction, and despite this sleek modernity, there is an inviting feel reminiscent of a private social club here. My guestroom features a balcony with water views to Abu Dhabi’s skyline, and the herringbone floors, dark woods, and desert dune photography provide a tranquil space to recover from the city’s heat and energy.
On my first evening, I enjoy a gin and tonic in the cool velvet coziness of the Abu Dhabi EDITION’s Library Bar, then head to the Oak Room, a Tom Aikens take on a classic English steakhouse with a British rock-and-roll twist. There’s Tomahawk, Ribeye, Wagyu, and Kobe on the menu, but it’s learning about the restaurant’s own ‘meat sommelier’ and a view to its meat lockers that wins the night.
With proximity to the city’s newest cultural sights, during my stay, I visit Qasr Al Hosn, a 1700s fort and royal residence that was once Abu Dhabi’s only permanent structure. Now a museum, Qasr Al Hosn offers an interactive history of the region, people, and founding ruler Sheikh Zayed, who once made this his home.
After, I head to Qasr Al Watan, a newly accessible cultural landmark within the UAE’s Presidential Palace compound used for State visits. The opulent Arabian architecture recalls the region’s heritage and artistry, with halls of geometric and floral patterns. Highlights of my tour include a collection of ancient objects demonstrating the contributions of the Arab world to science, art, humanities, and literature, as well as a display of gifts received from foreign dignitaries that include coins, carpets, and even samurai armor.
Eager to head to the emirate’s interior, I enjoy watching the cityscape turn to the desert on the two-hour drive to the furthest reaches of Abu Dhabi’s borders.
Qasr Al Sarab is located on a land reserve at the edge of the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. Turning into the main gates, it’s a seven-mile approach along a narrow-paved road through the dunes before we reach the five-star resort that looks like a small city rising from the sands in an Arabian fairy tale.
Inside, Qasr Al Sarab feels intimate, with a sitting room and library offering panoramic landscape views and a staff that welcomes us with cold water and towels. My room features a large private balcony overlooking the Empty Quarter, and while it’s well over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, my shaded veranda, chaise lounge, and a glass of lemonade and mint is all I need to relax and take in the view.
Late in the day, I meet for desert activities that include camel treks, dune walks, and falconry demonstrations, and opt for a desert drive into the resort’s reserve. Our skilled driver leads our small group of Toyota Land Cruisers through the dunes, cruising along at forty-five-degree angles along dunes several stories high with only gravity and the gas pedal keeping us upright. As the sun begins to set, we break for dune photos, then drive a bit further to a sand summit where were toast the end of the day with champagne.
My trip ends with a last night’s meal at the resort’s Al Falaj, a Bedouin-style dining experience set among the dunes. Plush carpet and cushions over the sand and views of the Arabian night sky and dunes provide a stunning backdrop for our grilled lamb served fresh off the spit.
With the full belly of a sultan, I wonder if Abu Dhabi’s real wealth lies not in its oil fields, but in the days spent with new and exotic experiences in these lavish surroundings.
Etihad Airways is the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates and offers non-stop service to Abu Dhabi from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Washington, DC. For travelers visiting and returning to the States, Etihad offers U.S. Immigration Preclearance from Abu Dhabi International Airport, enabling travelers to be treated as domestic passengers upon U.S. arrival.
Through the end of 2019, Etihad offers two free nights of hotel accommodation in Abu Dhabi for all guests booking flights to and from all Etihad destinations via Abu Dhabi. For more information, and to book, visit www.etihad.com
Hotels and Resorts:
Jumeraih at Saadiyat Island Resort Phone: 1-877-854-8051; Email: email@example.com
Abu Dhabi EDITION: Phone: +971 2 208 0000; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Qasr Al Sarab: Phone: +971 2 886 2088; Email: email@example.com
Info, Tours, and Activities:
For more information on travel to, tours, dining, and other activities visit the Department of Culture & Tourism Abu Dhabi at www.visitabudhabi.ae