Scotland on Sunday travel
The striking outline of the Louvre Abu Dhabi looms into view as we approach by road – the sunlight glinting off its steel and aluminium domed roof that weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower and whose design took inspiration from cupolas seen in Arabic architecture.
The museum was opened in 2017 by French President Emmanuel Macron, is the first Louvre outside France, and houses some 600 pieces of artwork spanning thousands of years, including prehistoric tools.
Its marrying of state-of-the-art architecture and vivid insights into centuries-old cultures in fact mirrors my experience of Abu Dhabi and the rich range of experiences it offers.
We enjoy several high-end, modern attractions, many of which have only opened their doors in the past couple of years, but also learn about the country’s fascinating origins and traditions.
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and is described to me during the visit as the “cool older sister” of its more high-profile compatriot Dubai (which at just under 100 miles away could easily be visited on the same trip) with a real focus on family and culture.
We stay at the Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas, a comfortably elegant five-star property. Like many of the spectacular Abu Dhabi buildings that we visit, its vast, palace-style exterior means it makes a grandiose impact long before we’ve even crossed the threshold.
We’re welcomed with coffee and dates in the huge, stunning lobby that shares the sandy and blue colour scheme seen throughout the property and echoing its 9km stretch of beach on Saadiyat Island.
The Rotana has a host of in-house restaurants, including Sim Sim – which has one of the best buffet breakfasts I’ve ever had including delicious local fare. And there’s Hamilton’s Gastropub – which memorably offers sausages by the metre – and very high-end surf’n’turf at Turtle Bay Bar & Grill.
But while it’s tempting to lounge around the resort’s azure pool, complete with its own bar, or head to the pristine white sands of the beach, we have much to see. Getting out and about also provides some respite from the heat. January and February are recommended as relatively cool months to visit.
One evening we dine at Martabaan at Emirates Palace, a restaurant that only opened in June 2019 which serves classic Indian dining. It is led by chef Hemant Oberoi, who has catered for luminaries including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and the Duke of Edinburgh.
We experience the Diamond set menu, including a quietly fiery coconut soup, chicken biryani with deep levels of flavour, and a creamy, gold-flecked kulfi.
My waistband significantly tighter, we make our way through the jaw-dropping Emirates Palace lobby, which is decorated in gold as far as the eye can see – and the venue, suitably enough, is also famous for its Palace Cappuccino, sprinkled with 23-carat-gold flakes. Making myself a cup of instant at home will now pale in comparison.
Another striking architectural marvel we visit is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which can accommodate more than 40,000 worshippers, and boasts 82 domes as well as what is billed as the world’s largest handmade carpet, which clocks in at 35 tonnes.
The attraction is third in TripAdvisor’s list of the world’s top 25 landmarks, ahead of the likes of Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal.
The latter provided some inspiration for the mosque, our guide explains, pointing out the spotless white Macedonian marble used for its exterior, and explaining that the 24-carat-gold gilded chandeliers incorporating Swarovski crystals were designed to look like upside-down date trees.
Also on the agenda is Qasr Al Watan – or Palace of the Nation – which opened to the public in March 2019. It houses the formal offices of the president, vice president and crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and it is breathtaking both in size – we are transported through its grounds by an on-site shuttle bus – and the immaculate opulence of the blue, white and gold colour scheme inside.
What’s more, each evening a 15-minute light and sound show takes place on the exterior of the palace, telling the story of Qasr Al Watan and the UAE’s past, present and future.
Additionally, we pay a visit to Qasr Al Hosn – also known as the White Fort – which was built in 1761 to defend the only freshwater well on Abu Dhabi Island, and is a symbol of Emirati heritage, culture and tradition.
Abu Dhabi in fact means “father of the Gazelle” in Arabic, and was founded when an antelope led a wandering tribe to fresh water, with the city having been dependent on fishing and pearling in the 18th century. It’s hard to believe now, with the White Fort now dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers in the city’s downtown area – I even spot a branch of M&S nearby with the sign also displaying the store’s name in Arabic. (During the trip we also pass Etihad Towers, which provided the setting for an audacious, admittedly CGI, stunt in Fast And Furious 7 where a car travels between three towers.)
My increasing caffeine cravings thankfully coincide with us being treated to the Bait Al Gahwa experience – where we are shown how Arabic coffee is prepared and served, in a style unique to the UAE. We’re seated on cushions on the floor, transfixed by the demonstration, and I’m quick to ensure I learn the hand gesture to signal that you would like a refill.
At the other end of the scale there are more high-tech attractions, such as the Yas Marina Circuit, which hosts the Grand Prix. But it now opens its doors every Sunday and Tuesday for those wanting to cycle, run or walk around the 5.55km long track.
While my cycling skills are rusty to say the least, after a wobbly start it’s genuinely exhilarating to pick up speed and head around the undulating track – and other participants range from hardcore lyrca-clad enthusiasts to families with primary school age kids.
Indeed, Abu Dhabi strikes me as very family-friendly – attractions near the circuit include Warner Brothers World Abu Dhabi – while also suitable for a range of ages is kayaking at the Eastern Mangrove National Park with Sea Hawk.
We head out into the open water, the city’s skyline sitting quietly in the distance. The park is a protected area, home to a range of wildlife. We get a much closer view when we paddle into the increasingly narrow route through the mangroves – spotting tiny fish and crabs in the shallow water – before heading back to dry land, but not before a stop-off for a welcome, cooling dip in the water.
Sea Hawk also offers the chance to navigate the water surrounding the Louvre Abu Dhabi by kayak, on Fridays and Saturdays, which unfortunately didn’t coincide with our visit.
That gives me one reason to come back, I think to myself as we return to Britain in the luxurious comfort of Etihad Airways. But I have plenty of other reasons to revisit a location that boasts the Louvre, luxury and leisure; culture, coffee and kayaking, and so much more.
Clockwise from right: cycling around the Grand Prix Yas Marina Circuit; Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque; the Louvre Abu Dhabi; by the pool at Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas
A night at the five-star Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas starts at about £171 including breakfast, based on two adults sharing a classic room. To book or for further information, visit www.rotana.com
A return Etihad Airways economy class fare departing from London to Abu Dhabi starts at £470 and £2,096 in business class, both including tax. Etihad Airways is the national carrier of the UAE and offers three daily flights between London Heathrow and Abu Dhabi. For reservations and further details visit www.etihad.com or call 0345 608 1225.
For further information about Abu Dhabi, visit https://visitabudhabi.ae/uk-en/default.aspx