Abu Dhabi with a hipster twist
The wording of the do-not-disturb doorknob sign is succinct: Chilling by the pool. All the accommodation at Zaya Nurai Island in Abu Dhabi comes with a private swimming pool, and so it should in the desert-surrounded capital of the United Arab Emirates.
At this time of year temperatures are edging well into the 40s and there’s a pressing urge to float and flop before retreating to streamlined white spaces with arctic airconditioning. Someone is making a mint, as it were, from scented refresher towels.
This otherwise uninhabited small island is a 20-minute speedboat hop from its arrivals pavilion on Saadiyat Island but still within easy reach of CBD attractions. On a map it’s the shape of a jaunty sea creature, like a prancing sea horse, perhaps. Such a cartoonish shape seems appropriate as Zaya Nurai Island is a playpen for UAE locals and expatriates alike, many of whom just zip across for meals, cocktails and beach parties.
For those who spend the night, it’s an oasis of sorts, minus tents and camels, and feels uplifted from more recognisable tropical resort realms such as, say, The Maldives or the Caribbean. Certainly the designers have referenced holiday hot spots; a blast of Bali chic has been layered with California cool.
The Smokin’ Pineapple beach bar sets the scene with its pineapple-patterned deckchairs and cushions, tiki mugs, shisha pipes, and hammocks and swings on the sand. There are groovy little beach huts and the pizza oven is shaped like a pineapple, which doesn’t seem so ridiculous after a creamy colada luca from the beaming African barman. Belly dancers are on the weekly agenda at this fun hub, along with movies and popcorn under the stars and beach volleyball jousts.
The squat, white architecture of the 33 one-bedroom Beach Villas is sugar cube-like, the bluntness of the exteriors softened by date palms, bright bougainvillea, succulents and frangipanis in creamy yellow and scarlet.
These spacious one-storey habitats are set in a crescent arc on the northeast side of the island overlooking a strip of sand lined with sun-loungers and flat, swimmable water beyond. It’s a view best enjoyed from bed, floaty curtains opened, overlooking that private aqua-tiled pool, big basket of beach towels, outdoor shower and covered pavilion piled with cushions and bolsters. Arabic design references appear in curved archways and latticed screens; floors are limed timber and furniture is pastel, although the bulky suede sofa is remarkably unattractive.
The layout is roughly T-shaped with a bathroom, including a freestanding tub, at one wing and a living and television area on the other.
The overall floor plan is 110sq m, so there’s been no stinting on space. A kitchenette is tucked behind the bedhead and stacked with treats such as Egyptian camomile blossom and Arabian jasmine tea bags, a Nespresso machine and packets of hummus chips. The Penhaligon Quercus toiletries smell of basil and citrus and other thoughtful little touches include a cotton cover-up, woven beach bag and pairs of thongs in two sizes. There’s a shelf of paperbacks and a pile by the bed. A quick Agatha Christie mystery, anyone?
And so to eat. Dining outlets, reached by bicycle along the sandy ways or via a summoned golf buggy, are arrayed like a neighbourhood of specialty restaurants, each with a high-end fitout.
Best spot for sunset and a seafood supper is Hooked, hung with glass globes and kitted with mismatched beachy furniture. A signature punch with pomegranate, a pyramid of crispy calamari served in a paper cone, a crunchy fattoush salad drizzled with lime and already I am halfway through A Murder is Announced.
Frangipani is the all-day diner with adjoining airy spaces and a multi-tiered, if not logically arranged, breakfast buffet where the standout picks include coconut quinoa granola or banana and yoghurt parfait with dates and toffee. A freshly pulped green apple juice is the go, although it tastes even better in one of those funky tiki mugs at Smokin’ Pineapple.
Other restaurant choices include Dusk, for Mexican, or you could order a floating sushi platter for a private pool party or demand a beach bonfire with a paella cooked to order. Ginger Mermaid pool bar has beef and wasabi sliders, tempura fish and chips and the extraordinary prospect of gin-infused popsicles.
Or you could do none of the above and just laze in luxury, which is quite the thing at the clutch of Estate Villas, some as big as five bedrooms, where Middle Eastern roy- alty resides on holiday, rarely venturing out. Of similar scale are the dozen Water Villas on the east point and both styles are part of the real-estate development that complements the resort inventory.
I take a peek inside one of the Estate Villas, with a living room that looks like an official meeting hall and servants’ quarters.
It’s a relief to head back to cosy Beach Villa 127 where Miss Marple will soon reveal the identity of that dastardly murderer run amok in Chipping Cleghorn.
Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Tourism.
Beach Villa, Zaya Nurai Island, left and top left; spa with a view, above centre; Hooked restaurant, above