Abu Dhabi: the real Arabia – 23 Nov 2006

A tax-free shopper’s paradise; cosmopolitan, clean, green and welcoming. No, it’s not Dubai. It’s Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates making up the UAE.

The name refers to both a major city and the state that surrounds it, but despite its capital status, it was off the tourist radar until fairly recently.

Surprisingly lush for a desert city, Abu Dhabi also has 200 offshore islands and beaches at the heart of the city. A large slab of the country is given over to the Empty Quarter (Rub Al Khali), a vast desert known for its spectacular dunes and which doubles as a playground for adventure seekers.

Traditionally a business destination, Abu Dhabi is now rapidly establishing itself as a major tourism player. With a $6.8 billion airport expansion under way and plans for an offshore island, a new marina, hotels and golf courses, Abu Dhabi means business.

About 4,500 hotel rooms will come on stream in the next three years, with major names such as Shangri-La and Four Seasons opening properties. Banyan Tree’s first UAE hotel opens at the waterfront Al Gurum development on Abu Dhabi Island in 2007.

The one to watch, however, is Saadiyat Island, a self-contained beach resort island opening in three phases until 2018.

“Saadiyat Island will be to Abu Dhabi what Sentosa is to Singapore, or Capri to Italy,” said Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. But Abu Dhabi insists there are no plans to emulate Dubai’s Las Vegas approach to development. This quieter, more exclusive emirate welcomed 1.2 million visitors in 2005 and is looking for a moderate three million arrivals by 2015.

Where to stay

The Emirates Palace is an unforgettable treat. Even if clients only stay one night they’ll thank you for booking it. The iconic Kempinksi property, with its staggering 114 mosaic-clad domes poking out of the desert, is brochured by almost all Middle East operators.

For luxury smack in the centre of the city, Le Meridien ticks all the boxes. A recent £2.85 million refurb has upped the luxury stakes even further. Its city-centre location belies another great plus – the hotel fronts onto a beach.

For those venturing outside the capital, yet more extensive facilities can be found at the InterContinental Al Ain, where numerous pools, a fitness centre, children’s club, seven bars and restaurants, deluxe villas and a royal villa set in vast landscaped gardens, make this one of the UAE’s most impressive inland resorts.

Insider knowledge

Women are fully integrated into society and foreign females are welcomed. Politically stable, Abu Dhabi has one of the world’s lowest crime rates so, male or female, get out there on foot, in one of the safest cities in the world.

By day

Give the malls a miss and shop instead at the atmospheric Central Souk, where local traders hawk everything from spices and khanjars (a traditional dagger worn by Arabian men), to pashminas and Afghan carpets. Pick up a terracotta urn at the Iranian Souk near the free port and bag a tax-free bargain at the Madinat Zayed Gold Centre.

More active visitors can choose from world-class golf, diving, kayaking, and dune buggying or go off-roading to dramatic wadis.

Half, full-day and overnight island-hopping trips are available to some of Abu Dhabi’s 200 offshore islands and clients can even take a barbecue to a private island.

Liwa claims some of the UAE’s highest and most impressive sand mountains. Full-day adventures include dinner and shisha pipes under the stars. Kuoni offers an Overnight Safari from £60 per person, including food.

By night

With its manicured lawns, fountains and walkways, the seafront corniche is Abu Dhabi’s answer to the promenade at Nice. Popular with runners, families and tourists, it’s also a lively place to hang out in the early evening when the locals congregate to chat, drink coffee and picnic.

With the sale of alcohol largely restricted to hotels, this is where most of the after-dark action can be found – in five-star restaurants and cocktail lounges, Western-style pubs and nightclubs or Arabic venues featuring belly dancers. Popular nightspots include Lab at the Beach Rotana Hotel and Towers; the opulent Havana Club at the Emirates Palace, where a trendy clientele sips designer cocktails on leather sofas; and the Hilton’s Balcony Bar, where champagne and caviar are on the menu.

Atmospheric dining doesn’t come much better than from the upper terrace of the Sheikh’s own dhow. Moored just off the Breakwater the Al Safina Dhow features local specialties such as shrimps and hammour with magnificent views of the corniche and city skyline thrown in for free.

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