David Whitley checks in to check out the emirate’s hotel selection
If Dubai and Abu Dhabi are brothers, Dubai is the younger, noisier, more attention-seeking sibling. Abu Dhabi is the sensible and business-like – but less intense – alternative.
It doesn’t seek to emulate Dubai’s brash energy, but has quietly developed a highly impressive portfolio of sumptuous places to stay. There’s a heavier focus on culture – outposts of the Guggenheim and Louvre are on the way in the next couple of years – and it’s more pedestrian friendly.
Abu Dhabi works as a relatively close-to-home sunshine break – flight times are about seven hours and temperatures range from 20C-30C during the winter months. But with the rise of Etihad, the Gulf airline using Abu Dhabi as a hub, it comes into its own as a journey-breaking stopover for a few days on the way to Asia or Australasia.
Save: Go downtown
Staying on a relative budget in Abu Dhabi generally means stepping back from the beach and looking at the somewhat business traveller-focused hotels and apart-hotels downtown. Functionality wins out over flamboyance, and they’re best suited to people planning to explore the city rather than lounge by the (usually tiddly) pool.
The Vision Hotel Apartments is a solid example of the genre. Small kitchenettes, washing machines, cutlery and crockery are aimed at self-catering longer stayers, while rooms are relatively spacious but bland. Studios cost from £71 a night room-only.
The Hala Arjaan by Rotana does much the same thing, but it’s brighter and the rooms, from £70 a night, have comfortable king beds instead of twins. The design, with a chaise longue, flexible alien antenna-style bedside lights and sleek wood panelling, is also more contemporary.
The location – basically in the middle of a traffic island – initially seems awful, but it’s a short and easy walk to the sea and the Abu Dhabi Mall. The pool is passable for a few laps, and is partly indoors (handy in the blistering summer heat), while there’s also a steam room and a sauna.
The three-star Centro Yas Island is another excellent stopover option, just a 15-minute drive from the airport, and close to the Ferrari World theme park and Yas Waterworld.
The downstairs deli avoids the need for expensive restaurant lunches, there’s at least an attempt to raise the rooms above non-descript with art, and there are free shuttle buses to Yas Beach and the city centre.
The key bonus is that guests can use the facilities at the more expensive and better-equipped Rotana hotel next door. B&B prices start at £44 a night with Trailfinders.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Abu Dhabi is highly seasonal – the more lavish hotels and resorts are surprisingly affordable in the hot summer months.
Spend: Established addresses
The best mid-rank stays tend to be those that have been around for a while and, while made over fairly regularly, have been overtaken as the top addresses in town by newer, multimillion-dollar arrivals.
Opened in 1979, Le Meridien is a classic example – and it was substantially refurbished last year. Sprawling gardens dotted with pools, a private beach and tennis and squash courts make it a strong option for unabashed downtime, while the village-like parade of restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world is a strong point of distinction.
In a city full of rather interchangeable interior design, there’s also a fun factor in the frankly odd and ultra-colourful Mexico-meets-Gulf lobby. Three nights’ B&B starts at £567 with Kuoni, including flights and transfers.
The InterContinental was built for a Gulf States political summit in 1981, and while the rooms aren’t as glam as the crystal-drenched lobby suggests, there’s a strong likeability factor.
The property stretches its arms around a marina, has tropical-shirted waiters around its large third-floor pool complex and serves up the best beers in town at its Belgian Cafe. Three nights’ B&B with Western & Oriental starts at £575, including flights.
Another stalwart, the Hilton Abu Dhabi, has an excellent family-friendly beach club with a sizeable playground. The Hilton is also strong on entertainment – the cocktail bar and nightclub are popular haunts with ex-pats as well as guests. Mosaic Holidays offers four nights’ B&B with flights and transfers from £799.
The hip option is the Yas Viceroy, which the Yas Marina Formula One Grand Prix circuit weaves around and under. The pulsating lights of the outer cocoon making it look highly distinctive, while it’s all bright whites and curved lines inside.
The hotel earns extra marks for a phenomenal breakfast buffet and a seriously happening rooftop bar area. Seven nights’ B&B starts at £909 with Virgin Holidays.
Splurge: Signature showstoppers
The Abu Dhabi government wanted a no-expense-spared landmark that would put Abu Dhabi on the map, and whether the Emirates Palace actually makes any money as a hotel is a secondary requirement.
The word ‘cavernous’ doesn’t do it justice, but it is surprisingly tasteful given that there is a full-time member of staff to look after the gold in the public areas. Expect to spend 20 minutes walking from one end of the hotel to the other, and if you can tear yourself away from the private beach, there are two extraordinarily gargantuan pools.
The more family-focused one comes complete with a snaking lazy river. Caribtours offers five nights’ half-board from £1,649, including flights and transfers.
Slightly more business focused, albeit with a showstopping circular infinity pool surrounded by padded sunbeds, the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers has tremendous views from the higher floors.
The restaurant selection – which ranges from Milanese to Lebanese via the rest of the world – is particularly strong. And for shoppers, the luxury-slanted Avenue Mall is right underneath. Gold Medal has an offer on some May and June departures, when three nights’ B&B starts at £559, including flights.
Saadiyat Island has been earmarked as the new top-end escape – it’s where the big cultural landmarks are under construction.
Thus far, the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort is the most notable addition. Subtle, it isn’t – there’s a big-is-best gigantism at play – but it’s certainly impressive.
Huge balconies, butler-serviced rooms, a Gary Player-designed golf course next door and pools with multiple spa jets round off the sense of majesty. Five nights on a half-board basis in May, with flights, starts at £889 with Etihad Holidays.
The Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara adds an Asian twist to the usual marble-drenched, gold-trimmed Arabian decor, with a humungous spa and Thai cooking classes.
This is the best choice for anyone hankering after a speck of nature in the desert – the resort is alongside a relatively well-protected stretch of mangroves. That makes for both bird-song and paddle-boarding or kayaking outings. Five nights’ B&B starts at £639 with Travel 2, including flights.
News from Abu Dhabi
Jumeirah Group is set to open a five-star luxury resort on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. Due to launch in 2017, the 294-room hotel will be on the island’s northeast coast and feature spa suites, presidential suites and villas. It will also offer an all-day dining venue, two signature restaurants, shops, and bars in the lobby, at the pool and by the beach.
Yas Mall opened in November 2014, boosting the entertainment options for visitors to Yas Island. The mall features more than 370 stores, 60 restaurants and bars, a 20-screen cinema, a Fun Works children’s play area and Snow City, which offers snow and ice sports.
Scheduled to open in December this year, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be a 688,000sq ft complex of pavilions, plazas, alleyways and canals, covered by a 180-metre-wide shallow-domed roof perforated with patterns.
More than 300 loans from major French institutions will complement the permanent collection for its first year, including works by Da Vinci, Manet, Monet and Matisse.
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