Abu Dhabi resident Matthew Brace reports on the city’s new wave of glamorous romantic hotels.
Three years ago Abu Dhabi – capital of the United Arab Emirates – was one vast, dusty building site. The hotel and restaurant choice was pretty average and the construction roared 24 hours a day.
Sure, there were sumptuous hotel interiors (think wall-to-wall Carrara marble, inlaid gold, Swarovski crystal everything) and luxury car fleets (Rollers, Bentleys, you name it) but it was always tough to get good food and service.
That challenge still exists but there have been remarkable recent improvements as the city has witnessed an explosion of glamorous hotels and resorts. This resort revolution means Abu Dhabi is finding its niche – as a great short-stay destination for romantic travellers.
For anyone en route to Europe, the city now offers an excellent two- or three-day pit-stop. It’s smaller than Dubai and less relentlessly gaudy, and its new hotels and resorts are much more than just places to spend the night – they are romantic travel experiences in themselves.
This is an important selling point because Abu Dhabi cannot match rival Arabian cities such as Muscat, Oman, and Sana'a, Yemen, for preserved heritage (there’s barely a building more than 40 years old here).
The resort revolution is being led by the very special Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal, Abu Dhabi’s first truly world-class hotel.
The Elegant Grand-Dame
Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal
The pool is long and wide, the loungers shaded by palm trees, the room beds have just that perfect give to them, the food is superb, the spa serene and the staff delightful. I can’t quite work out why there’s a Venetian theme to the property but when all those other factors work so well, who cares?
If you are lucky enough to wake in a 7th floor Club Suite you can plug your ipod/iphone into a large Arctic-white Geneva sound system and waltz with your partner around the bedroom and bathroom, through the living area and the dining room, out on to the balcony, through the kitchen, past the guest loo and back into the hallway. Not a bad way to start the day and build an appetite for breakfast in the Club Lounge, overlooking the Al Maqta creek.
The Club is one of the best I have experienced and well worth the extra money. The team running it would grace any five-star from Manhattan to Melbourne.
But don’t worry if your accommodation is on one of the other floors because all rooms are excellently appointed.
Another treat is The Forge steakhouse where the food and service are amazing and the décor and ambience make for a really special evening out. There is a wide array of cuts, from richly flavoured Canadian tenderloin to marvellously marbled Australian wagyu rib eye, all cooked to perfection and served on hot slates. You even get a choice of steak knives. If you ask nicely you may be seated in one of the cosy semi-private areas that are perfect for couples.
If you fancy Asian instead, try Li Jiang where some tables afford a view that is among the most spectacular and romantic in the Middle East: the glorious domes of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque soaring into the night sky, painted by turquoise, white and purple spotlights.
Top tip: Book a treatment in the ESPA (the most authentically Arabian spa in Abu Dhabi) and ask for the superb Moroccan therapist called Fatima.
Pet peeve: At peak times the service can be slow at the pool; lower-floor rooms are subject to some noise.
Perfect for: Lovers of elegant, serene, sophisticated, world-class hotels.
The Sky-High Palace
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Jumeirah is the global hotel chain from Dubai, where bling is king. Dubai’s exuberance has met Abu Dhabi’s conservative chic and the result is a visually stunning high-rise five-star. The public areas are awash with marble and the lifts are inlaid with vast slabs of polished rock, petrified wood and minerals from around the world. The cavernous lobby soars more than 30m to a clutch of six gigantic crystal globe chandeliers, suspended in space like the hotel’s very own solar system.
There are eight restaurants, three bars, two coffee lounges, a good Talise spa, a great gym, three pools and a 20m long swimming beach, and guests have free access to an observation deck on the top floor of a neighbouring skyscraper, which – at 300m – is the highest point in the city.
We starved ourselves one day to prepare for what the hotel calls “Epicurean Escapades”, a progressive supper that moves between five of the hotel’s restaurants. We started with Fines de Claires oysters and Veuve Clicquot at Scott’s, the only other branch of the famous London restaurant; then moved to the Lebanese Li Beirut, an amazing Japanese place called Tori No Su, and – for the main course – a fun French bistro called Brasserie Angélique with live jazz, French chefs, chilled Chablis and a table weighted down with cheese. For dessert we hopped into the lift and shot up to the 63rd floor to Quest, where we shared a delicious tofu cheesecake and gazed out over the twinkling city. Heaps of fun!
Top tip: The view is a huge selling point so reserve a room on a high floor and bring the confirmation email with you to check-in.
Pet peeve: The room-wall insulation is not five-star; the service still needs some polishing; avoid the beach in the late afternoons (especially on weekends) when local jet-skiers turn up and ‘buzz’ the guests.
Perfect for: Couples looking for a more glitzy, glamorous Gulf experience and a sky-high evening out.
The Beach Paradise
St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort
The St Regis sits right on a stunning, white-sand beach with uninhibited views of the Arabian Gulf. You can walk along the shoreline, watching the resident dolphins playing in the warm waves and even dive in to join them for a swim. If that all sounds too energetic, grab a salad and a beer and flop down in a cabana or on a floating lounger in the blue-tiled adults-only pools.
The resort is on Saadiyat Island, already gaining fame as the future home of a Guggenheim Museum and the first Louvre Museum outside France, designed respectively by ‘starchitects’ Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel.
As well as the delightful beachside lunch-spot Turquoiz, the resort boasts a terrific fine-dining grill restaurant with the tongue-twisting name 55&5th; try saying it after a bottle of their fabulous Château Jean Faure 2008 Grand Cru. 55&5th is a good example of Abu Dhabi overcoming the odds to deliver really amazing food and service. My Aussie Black Angus tenderloin with spinach Rockefeller and potato puree was delicious but the starter of taleggio, parmesan and black truffle was the most amazing thing I’ve eaten in years. With luck, the French sommelier Aurelie Crozet will be working when you dine – not only is she a mine of information but her enthusiasm for wine is (pardon the pun) intoxicating.
Work it all off the next day with some serious ocean swimming and then a treatment at the Iridium Spa. Ask for Thidarat, a Thai therapist who superbly found and eased the myriad of knots that my shoulders were harbouring and made me almost float out of there.
Top tip: An ocean-view room is a must; splurge on a long evening of taste sensations at 55&5th.
Pet peeve: Not having any record of my booking at check-in was not really a five-star welcome.
Perfect for: Honeymooners and beach bunnies.
The Forge (Ritz-Carlton)
Brasserie Angelique (Jumeirah)
55&5th (St Regis)
The desert on a day-tour, preferably one involving some dune-bashing in a 4WD (try www.arabian-adventures.com).
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the Middle East’s most iconic modern buildings and a marvel of Islamic architecture.
Couples Will Love
Dining under the stars in the balmy Arabian night on delicious Middle Eastern food, splashing in the clear, warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, trying Arabian spa treatments and luxuriating in the new romantic resorts.
To Abu Dhabi: Etihad Airways (code-sharing with Virgin Australia) flies direct daily to Abu Dhabi from Sydney and Brisbane (4 flights per week from Melbourne and Perth).
To Dubai: Qantas (code-sharing with Emirates) flies direct daily to Dubai from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. Abu Dhabi is a 2-hour drive south-west of Dubai; Emirates offers a free bus service between the cities. Some Abu Dhabi hotels will offer Dubai airport pick-ups (usually for an extra fee) while a taxi to Abu Dhabi will cost roughly AED350-400 (A$100-115).
The UAE is one of the most moderate of Arabian Gulf countries but it is governed by Islamic Sharia law and certain practices are illegal. Check what you can and cannot bring into the country; all bags are checked on entry.
Avoid public shows of affection and wearing too little clothing outside hotel grounds; women should never go topless anywhere, not even at hotel pools. There are strict clothing rules for visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – check the “Mosque Manners” section of www.szgmc.ae and with your hotel first.
The driving is crazy and pedestrians are invisible – do not rely on anyone to obey speed limits or pedestrian crossings, or use indicators. Despite this, stay calm and absolutely do not make rude hand gestures.
Be careful with alcohol: it is only allowed in hotel bars and restaurants and public drunkenness is not tolerated; police impose zero tolerance on drink driving – you will be jailed if caught. Oddly, each adult can bring in a very generous 4 litres of alcohol and Duty Free prices at Arrivals are generally cheaper than Australia.