Cultural Desert: part 2
Eat, Play and Love in Abu Dhabi
When you think of the world’s top dining destinations, Abu Dhabi doesn’t readily spring to mind but cast aside any preconceptions. While it isn’t up there with the likes of London and New York, there are nonetheless plenty of places where you can feast like a sheikh. Most of the imaginative, innovative (not to mention licensed) restaurants are located in the high thread count hotels. Of the current crop, the Emirates Palace boasts swanky standouts such as Sayad – the Palace’s signature seafood restaurant where customers can select their own fishy fare from the tanks – and buzzy brasserie, Le Vendome. For authentic Italian fare in an alluring setting, make for Mezzaluna – hailed by style bible Grazia as “quite possibly the nest Italian restaurant in the Middle East”. If it’s a light bite you’re after, the Palace’s posh patisserie, Café Majlis, should hit the spot. Anyone opting for afternoon tea (from Dhs165) can expect the full panoply of silver teapots, tip top pastries, interesting sandwiches, rivers of refreshing teas and extravagant cakes. For one of the best views of the city’s burgeoning skyline, Al Fanar –Abu Dhabi’s only revolving restaurant on the 31st floor of Le Royal Meridien – won’t disappoint. The rooftop makes a 360-degree rotation during the course of your meal allowing diners to drink in breathtaking views of the capital. Alternatively, spend a couple of hours cruising the corniche while tucking into a bountiful buffet on board the sleek Shuja Yacht.
Of course being in Arabia and all, you really can’t leave without filling your boots with fattoush, falafel, and other mouth-watering mezze. At Al Mawal in the Hilton, you can feast on all your Arab favorites (think tabbouleh, shawarmas, hummus, moutabal and more) in an Aladdin’s cave interior. Live entertainment – courtesy of one of the best belly dancers we’ve seen – completes your Arabian experience. For more Middle Eastern morsels, make for the Millennium’s Marakesh but arrive late – the place doesn’t start filling up until 10.30pm when the band and belly dancer takes to the stage – and with an appetite, as portions here are plentiful.
It’s got to be the grandiose Emirates Palace which, at US$3billion, is reputedly the most expensive hotel ever built. This is the capital’s equivalent of Dubai’s seven-star extravaganza, the Burj Al Arab, only with a touch more class. Gone are the mock submarines and headache-inducing carpets and in their place are pink marble floors and gold leaf ceilings. On arrival, guests are greeted with a beautiful bouquet of roses before being shown by staff (there are over 1,000 staff for 300 odd rooms) to sleeping quarters fit for royalty. It would be easy to spend all your time holed up in your room owing to the giant plasma screen TV controlled by a space-age console, complimentary soft drinks and snacks on offer in the mini bar, and bath in which you and an entire football team could wallow like a hippo half submerged in an African river, but don’t. Make time to explore the grounds, which abound with leisure options like a lazy river, two pools, and a 1.3km stretch of private beach. If you can bear to be parted from the palace, Marina Mall, the Heritage Village (a great place to get to grips with life in Abu Dhabi pre-oil) and the attractive corniche – a popular place for an evening stroll – are all within easy reach.
For an equally luxurious yet less ostentatious experience, seek out the Shangri La Qarayat Al Beri. Set on a kilometre of beach and a stone’s throw from Abu Dhabi’s stunning white mosque (the largest place of worship in the region after Mecca), the Shangri La stands out for its service. Staff ensure that are you spoilt non stop – from the welcome drink that is served on arrival, to the ice cold towels handed out to help you beat the heat as you soak up the sun. Bedrooms meanwhile are big, and all boast huge sea facing balconies. Stir in a smattering of superb restaurants, an exquisite infinity pool, sumptuous spa and a complimentary shuttle bus that ferries guests to Abu Dhabi’s main areas of interest, and you have all the ingredients for a relaxing holiday haven.
Shopping is serious business in the UAE (a recent report revealed that one-third of the population visits a mall at least once a week). While Dubai is famed for being a shopper’s paradise, there’s no longer any need to schlep up the Sheikh Zayed Road for a retail therapy fix. The capital now has several structures of its own – all dedicated to the joys of consumption. Al Wahda mall is the current favourite and is chock full of shops such as Armani Exchange, celeb favourite Club Monaco, chic surf shop Beyond the Beach and stylish food shop Oil and Vinegar – a far more pleasant experience than your average supermarket hell. Between bouts of buying, there are plenty of upscale cafes like Galler and Café de la Praix in which to refuel.
However, if you want to flash some serious cash, make for Marina Mall by the Breakwater. Luxe labels like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Burberry, Bulgari, upmarket accessory store Paris Gallery (tip: rest weary feet in the wonderfully secluded onsite tea room, Salon du Chocolate), Christian Dior and Van Cleef and Arpels – the high class French jewellery house whose designs have been worn by Hollywood legends Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardener – can be found in the fabulous new extension. Be sure to suss out S*uce on the first floor of Abu Dhabi’s largest mall, which is awash with cult labels including locally based designer, Essa. Meanwhile, for designer stores in palatial surroundings, the Emirates Palace Hotel houses a Rolex and Rodeo Drive amongst others.
Even if shopping doesn’t interest you, it’s worth visiting one of the super-sized malls for the atmosphere alone – this is where the Arabs hang out to hide from the heat and congestion. For further local flavour, saunter around the souks (Arabic for ‘marketplace’). Madinat Zayed contains a glittering gold souk while the ones at Al Mina are alive with vibrant stalls selling everything under the sun.
If you’re looking to party, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dubai has much more of a pumping party scene than Abu Dhabi, where nightlife revolves more around restaurants than nightclubs. That said there are several ‘star bars’ that are perfect for a sun-downer. Right now, it’s all about the Embassy owing to its attentive service, moreish food and lavish surroundings (well it is situated inside the UAE’s glitziest hotel, the Emirates Palace). Stay on in the palatial property and head to Havana – a plush place to sink into a leather armchair, suck on a cigar and savour a mean mojito. Other upmarket drinking dens to check out include the institution that is the Jazz Bar (02 681 1900), Oceans and Sax (681 1900) – arguably Abu Dhabi’s most Sex and the City worthy venue – and Al Hanah . Situated in the Shangri La, the latter is a hip rectangular chocolate brown bar serving seriously good cocktails.
But while these style spots are all well and good, for an authentically ‘Arabian evening’, why not watch the dhows (traditional Arabic sailing boats) unload their cargo at Al Bateen or smoke some shisha. The greatest concentration of places to puff out clouds of sweet tobacco from long hookah pipes lie along the corniche, but for a more upmarket experience try Zardozi Hukka. Located on the third floor of a villa inside the luxurious Le Royal Meridien Hotel, Zardozi is the only place in Abu Dhabi to serve alcoholic shisha (Dhs40). Of course, no visit would be complete without taking a trip into the desert – the true heart of Arabia. Virtually every tour operator offers a half or full day desert safari tour; after dune driving you can have your hands henna’ed, make like Lawrence of Arabia and ride a camel, before enjoying a desert sunset, Arabic barbeque and a bit of belly dancing.
If camel riding takes its toll on your body, indulge in treatment or two at the daddy of Abu Dhabi’s spas, Anantara – indeed a few illicit hours hidden away in a seriously good spa should feature high on any holiday itinerary. The unique Morocco meets Asia décor – think Arabian elements such as lamps and mosaics juxtaposed alongside strategically scattered Thai orchids, silk cushions and the soothing sound of cascading water – at Anantara (O2 690 9000) creates a calming environment in which to enjoy a little bit of ‘me’ time. Meanwhile, culture vultures will want to check out Abu Dhabi’s oldest building, Qasr al Husn, and the vibrant Cultural Foundation (www.cultural.org.ae) while the Pringle wearers amongst you won’t want to pass up the chance to play around at Abu Dhabi Golf Club (02 558 8990) – the venue of the annual Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. But if you prefer a traditional sand, sea and sun holiday, spend a day at a private beach club; Hiltonia (02 692 4205) and the Beach Rotana (02 697 9302) are both good bets. Here you can laze on a stretch of fine white sand, swim in azure Arabian waters, and when you’re ready for action to explore the underwater kingdom; there’s dozens of decent dive sites within easy reach of the emirate.