Travel: Life in the fast lane at Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Picture: Thinkstock
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Picture: Thinkstock
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ABU Dhabi leads the way in luxury, and from grand prix to grand designs, the Gulf state is thinking big

WELCOME to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest indoor theme park, where the Galleria Ferrari houses the largest collection of the much coveted motors outside Maranello in Italy. With cars dating from 1947 to the present day – and the chance to meet the people who make the magic behind the “prancing horse” badge happen – it’s paradise for petrol-heads. Inside are more than 20 attractions, including the waltzer-inspired Tyre Twist, a miniature Italy tour (either walking or driving in small-scale Ferraris), the Formula Rossa roller-coaster (inspired by the Italian track, Autodromo Nazionale di Monza) or a thrill-seeking adventure in the Karting Academy where you race on a mini version of the Yas Marina F1 circuit.

The Formula Rossa rollercoaster. Picture: Contributed

The Formula Rossa rollercoaster. Picture: Contributed

The neighbouring five-star Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi is the only hotel in the world to straddle an F1 race track. It has two 12-storey hotel towers, one set within the race circuit and another placed in the Marina, itself linked by a glass bridge. With a sweeping gridshell draped over it all, changing colour thanks to the fantastic pixelated lighting system, it’s a most striking edifice.

Inside, the Origins buffet restaurant offers an amazing array of dishes and breathtaking views of both the track and the Yas Marina, where the super yachts of the world congregate every November to watch the finale of the F1 season – the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

You can get on to the starting grid from tomorrow as Etihad Airways are launching a non-stop service from Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi with timings that make it perfect for short “long weekend” breaks, plus it connects onwards to over 100 destinations.

Loud engines aside, culture is at the forefront of the Abu Dhabi game-plan and, over the next 18 months, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are coming together to create an enormous cultural superpower on Saadiyat Island.

Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, which straddles the Yas Marina F1 circuit. Picture: Contributed

Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi, which straddles the Yas Marina F1 circuit. Picture: Contributed

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by architect Jean Nouvel to become the first universal museum in the Arab world, will open at the end of this year. Two-thirds of the museum is covered by a flat, white, shallow dome 180 metres in diameter, which is a symbolic feature of Arabian architecture. The dome’s slatted openings are inspired by the layered palm leaves traditionally used as roofing material. Visitors will be able to explore the permanent art collection from civilisations all over the world and this collection will be supplemented by temporary exhibitions and loan pieces from leading cultural institutions. The loans include Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière (also known as Portrait Of An Unknown Woman) from the Musée du Louvre in Paris; a portrait of Napoleon presently residing in the palace of Versailles, and a Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait from the Musée d’Orsay.

Opening next year in the middle of this cultural triangle will be the United Arab Emirates’ national museum, the Zayed National Museum. Designed by UK firm Foster and Partners, its five steel sculptures resemble the feathers of a falcon and will act as thermal chimneys, using the same aerodynamic principles as a bird’s wings to capture fresh air and draw cooling currents naturally through the museum. It will tell the story of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding father of the United Arab Emirates, the history of the region and its cultural connections across the world.

Twelve times the size of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim in New York, architect Frank Gehry will bring the 450,000 square foot museum to life when its doors open in 2017 – think Guggenheim Bilbao design, only much bigger and better. Sharing works from the Guggenheim Foundation’s extensive collection and having programmes with a particular focus on Middle Eastern contemporary art, this looks set to complete the perfect trio for any culture vulture.

No trip to Abu Dhabi would be complete without a visit to the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the Middle East, covering 30 acres. The country’s grand mosque, it took more than 3,000 workers 11 years to construct and the beautiful white marble, a symbol of purity, is one of its distinguishing characteristics, covering the 82 domes and over 1,000 columns. Initiated by the late president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who wanted to establish a structure which unites the cultural diversity of Islamic world, it can be a very busy place, with more than 41,000 worshippers visiting during Eid. Alongside the 24-carat-gold gilded chandeliers, each weighing 12 tons, there is the world’s largest carpet in the main prayer wall. Measuring 5,627 square metres, it took 1,200 women two years to make.

As the second most populous city in the United Arab Emirates after Dubai, there is an abundance of five-star hotels that rise into the sky. I stayed at the St Regis Abu Dhabi located on Corniche, the beautiful sandy sweeping curve on the western side of the main island. Fabulous restaurants range from the hearty Italian-themed Villa Toscana to the vibrant Asia de Cuba, with its own beach deck, where Chino-Latino cuisine dances on the palette along with the music and cocktails. Throw in the complimentary signature St Regis butler service for every room with the dreaded unpacking and packing done for you, garment pressing and around the clock assistance, and we are in pampered heaven.

High on the sky-bridge between the two Nation Towers, suspended more than 200m above the ground, is the out-of-this-world Abu Dhabi Suite. Costing £18,000 per night, it offers three bedrooms, private elevator, library, cinema and full dining room, plus a full-service spa. The views over the Arabian Gulf ain’t too bad either. Welcome to Abu Dhabi.

• A return flight from Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways costs from £418 pp (economy class) and £1,980 pp (business class). Must book by 15 June. Valid for travel until 31 March, 2016. Call Etihad Airways on 0345 6081225 or visit www.etihad.com

• A three-night break in Abu Dhabi (with the last night spent on the return flight but with late check-out from the hotel for the night flight) costs from £749pp with Etihad Holidays. This includes return economy 
class flights from Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways, two nights in a superior sea view room at the St Regis Abu Dhabi (www.stregisabudhabi.com) including breakfast, airport transfers and two-day pass to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and Yas Waterworld. Price is based on two people sharing, includes all taxes and is valid for travel until 30 September. Call Etihad Holidays on 0844 5570646 or visit www.etihadholidays.co.uk.

• Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi (www.viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/en/abudhabi)

• Manarat Al Saadiyat culture district (saadiyatculturaldistrict.ae/)

• Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque has guided tours daily, except Friday (www.szgmc.ae/en/).For more information on Abu Dhabi, visit www.visitabudhabi.ae.