The tiny emirate of Abu Dhabi is determined to punch above its weight, and a raft of new luxury hotels bear witness to its ambition. Tom Otley tries to keep up with the pace of change
1. Abu Dhabi Heritage Village
It can be difficult to get a handle on Abu Dhabi’s history, so rapid is the pace of change, but a good place to start is the Abu Dhabi Heritage Village. On the breakwater, and admittedly newly-built, the village occupies a 1,600 sqm site and gives a taste of what traditional life was like until only a few decades ago. There are courtyard houses, wind towers and an example of the ancient irrigation system which was used in the Emirate’s oases. In different workshops, craftsmen and women demonstrate traditional skills, and you can also peruse interesting displays of coins, Qurans, garments, weaponry, diving equipment and jewellery. The village is open daily 8.30am-5pm. Entrance is free.
2. Marina Mall
Also located on the breakwater, the Marina Mall couldn’t be more different. Here you’ll find some 160 boutiques and shops including luxury brands such as Chanel, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany, and Mont Blanc alongside high-street favourites Gap, Zara and Old Navy. It’s a good place to escape the sweltering midday heat and, perhaps surprisingly, an effective way of mingling and experiencing life at the pace of Abu Dhabi’s various residents. If you are in town for a while, there’s even a giant supermarket on the basement level where you can stock up on provisions, and a Snoworld with ice rink is in development. Open Sat-Tues 10am-10pm, Wed-Thurs 10am-11pm, and Fri 2-10pm.
3. The Corniche
Abu Dhabi’s most famous street stretches all the way from the Sheraton Abu Dhabi Resort and Towers to the Hilton Corniche Residence. At almost 6km long, the Corniche has been considerably “greened” over the past few years with the steady appearance of parks, benches and even fountains. Best seen in the early evening when the heat begins to dissipate, it is a pleasant place to take a stroll and soak up the picturesque views and ambience. Along the way you can also spot distinctive landmarks, such as elegant white mosques, the 200-year-old Maqta Bridge Fort and the famed Clock Tower.
4. Al Bateen Shipyard
Take any city tour and you will be taken to the Al Bateen shipyard. This area is one of the oldest parts of the emirate and was also once the centre of its maritime industry. Here you can watch local boat builders, who still use traditional methods to craft sailing dhows from planks of teak, or welcome the old-fashioned fishing dhows as they return with their daily catch of prawns and seafood. Taxis can be found on the Corniche if you don’t want to fork out for a tour but still want an air-conditioned ride to the shipyard.
5. Emirates palace
A visit to the Emirates Palace (pictured above) is essential, not least because of its jaw-dropping size. Abu Dhabi’s answer to Dubai’s Burj Al Arab – and likewise a symbol of its international ambitions – the Emirates Palace also houses a variety of temporary exhibitions, events, concerts, and spectacular shows. The hotel’s scheduled line-up for this autumn includes the Middle East International Film Festival (October 12-17) and Artparis Abu Dhabi (November 26-29), a modern art fair in which 46 international galleries are participating and which will present a broad panorama of 20th-21st century painting, sculpture and photography. The hotel’s opulent and multifunctional auditorium/theatre is also hosting productions of Carmen and Phantom of the Opera in November and December. Tel +971 2 690 9000, emiratespalace.com.
6. Shangri-la qaryat al beri
While the Emirates Palace is the most famous hotel in Abu Dhabi, it is the arrival of a new raft of five star hotels which signifies the way the emirate is set to go. For various reasons – from licensing laws to the attached leisure facilities – hotels remain a central feature of expatriate life. The new Shangri-La, which is situated on a 21-acre project and has a total of 214 rooms and suites, offers all of the necessary facilities to keep expats flocking in. All the rooms are sea-facing and have their own private balconies, providing a luxurious setting from which to view the sun setting over the Persian Gulf. The hotel also includes seven deluxe beachfront villas, each with its own theme. This development is the first stage of a larger project, which is set to include 161 serviced apartments ranging from studios to four-bedroom units, along with a state-of-the-art business centre and four conference and meeting rooms. There are also four outdoor swimming pools, a health club with its own private pool, a children’s pool and playground, five private beaches and a variety of sporting activities on offer. The whole complex is situated only 15 minutes from the Abu Dhabi Corniche and five minutes from the newly opened Convention Centre. Tel +971 2 509 8888; shangri-la.com.