#2 ABU DHABI
Abu Dhabi is a growing destination, with natural influences of sea, river and marina. And while the city, like Dubai, is perhaps better known for its 21st-century transformation than for its historical or cultural sites, there is still plenty to see.
A visit to the refined Grand Mosque is a must, with its white marble, inlaid decoration and exquisite carpet – the largest of its kind in the world. Swarovski chandeliers adorn the building, and visitors are asked to cover themselves in the local abaya; happily, these tourist coverings have recently been upgraded to stylish animal-print soft coverings with bright emerald or cerise patterns!
The Al Hosn Fort and Heritage Village gives a glimpse into the historical culture of the region. Like the mosque, entry is free – you’ll need about half an hour or so here. Outside, we marvelled at the gigantic oversized flag and towering flagpole of which the country is most proud.
My brother lives in Abu Dhabi, working in the construction consultancy industry, and he was a valued tour guide, pointing out ground-breaking buildings, and explaining innovations in architecture and design. He also took us to local spots, such as Bentleys for dinner on the water, and a quirky stop at the dim and peaceful little interior of the Hidden Bar, behind an inconspicuous closed door, in a brightly lit shopping mall. Tips from local expats are priceless when travelling!
Stay: Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara
Surprisingly for such a sandy country, Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa is set along river frontage overlooking a 1.2km stretch of protected mangrove reserve. It’s 20 minutes from the airport.
Spread over five levels, the 222 guestrooms and suites are triple-glazed to ensure a peaceful stay. Arabic architectural heritage is expressed in the archways, mashrabiyas, intricate mosaics and trellis, with subtle touches of 18-carat gold, and you get a full sense of the Emirati influences on arrival, through the aromas of burning bakhour oils, and the complimentary dates and traditional coffee (not for the faint-hearted!).
Our rooms had water views; others look towards the city lights and the glass facades of countless skyscrapers. The hotel’s terraced water features and pools invite relaxation, while more energetic guests can explore the mangrove reserve by kayak, or walk, jog or cycle along a promenade that borders the waterway.
Live music at night, alfresco dining and a rooftop bar; what more could you want from a balmy destination like this? Oh, yes – a spa! The Anantara Spa offers luxurious and authentic treatments, including the highly recommended Signature Turkish Hammam Ritual, which uses flower oils and essences readily associated with this part of the world – jasmine, mint, cardamom and fig. The ritual includes use of a sauna and steam room, basking on warm stone, various scrubs and cleansers, a full body massage, skin rehydration and more.
Stay: Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi
Newly opened on Al Maryah island, this “hotel of the moment” embodies urban chic, with two towers of rooms, and direct access to the high-end Galleria Mall. The views of the city skyline and Arabian Gulf from the rooftop pool looked even better after I’d taken advantage of my first-ever sunglasses-cleaning service!
My sister and I also took great pleasure in our husbands being unable to call us away from complimentary use of the spa, as we were safely ensconced in the women-only section where we indulged in the hammam, sauna, steam room, and Jacuzzi plunge pools, before relaxing on tile-clad, heated recliners shaped to the contours of our backs.
All six dining outlets and bars have water frontage. My favourite was the 1940s-style Chicago steakhouse, Butcher & Grill, themed to recall the prohibition era with leather lounges, pictures of Al Capone, and restrooms with classic pull-chain facilities. Another in-house dining option, open to non-hotel guests, is Café Milano, an Italian restaurant with stunning silk scarves framed and adorning the walls.