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Abu Dhabi: The Older Brother

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Mention Dubai and many will conjure up images of extravagant architecture rising from the desert sands. Yet, ask those same people about the United Arab Emirates and they appear distinctively uneasy about their lack of knowledge. Dubai had a head-start on marketing itself. “Build it and they will come,” said the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. And they came in droves.

Dubai is the flashy younger brother, the trend-setter in Armani, wearing oversized Bulgari sunglasses and a diamond encrusted Jaeger LeCoultre timepiece on its wrist, which dangles from a Lamborghini, loudly revving its powerful engine to draw attention. The distant cousins - Ras al Khaimah, Umm al Quwain, Fujairah, Sharjah and Ajman - look on, emulating Dubai’s style in small bursts.

Abu Dhabi is the older brother. More conservative, this city has learnt from Dubai’s mistakes and takes a measured pace as it creates a classic city. The hedonistic pleasures are all there, from architecturally resplendent hotels to pumping nightspots and exclusive enclaves, such as the Saadiyat Beach Club. Yet, amongst the high rises, the top notch restaurants and designer fashion stores, a city of culture lurks. An outpost of the Louvre is here and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is underway, testament to Abu Dhabi's underlying artistic bent.

There’s much to see and do in the Capital and trying to pack it into one weekend is a challenge. I start at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, perhaps Abu Dhabi’s finest monument and one of the most-visited buildings in the UAE. The gleaming white spires rise out of the sand as if a mirage. Destined to be one of the great architectural treasures of contemporary UAE society, this may be the most opulent mosque in the world. Composed of elements from a cornucopia of global destinations, as well as home-grown, more than 3,000 workers took part in its construction. A palatial edifice of marble, stone, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals and ceramics, it covers a massive 22,412 square metres.

Dressed in an abaya, a loose, black covering from head to toe, as a mark of respect, I stroll through the arches to the courtyard entrance, marked by flowers in natural colours inlaid into the pathway. The mosque can hold 41,000 people, and today, with only a smattering of visitors braving the humidity, it is filled with a hushed reverence. The spires point towards the bright blue sky as the sun bakes the glittering marble. At the main hall, I leave my shoes to walk over the largest carpet in the world - all 5,627 metres of it. Above hangs a multi-coloured chandelier of immense proportions. The third-largest in the world, it was imported from Germany, its Swarovski crystals reflecting shards of light in the silence.

A road-side shwarma snack provides balance after so much grandeur. The grilled beef wrapped in pita delivers a citric crunch via the accompanying pickles that's texturally satisfying. Then it’s time to try a new local delicacy at Bobo Gelati. This innovative Italian-style café combines the best of two worlds – smooth Italian gelato with the flavours of Arabia. The especially daring can sample the velvety pistachio with camel-milk iced-treat. It's surprisingly more-ish.

Abu Dhabi is blessed with an extensive coastline. The emirate is in fact a collection of islands linked by bridges. The city boasts broad boulevardes, tall towers and myriad malls, and on its perimeter is the Corniche, a busy thoroughfare for both traffic and pedestrians. Running along the coast, the Corniche is designed for a stroll, stretching almost the width of the city. Lined with greenery, palm trees shifting in the slight breeze, it is a pleasant place to take in the local scene. The Corniche is punctuated by Emirates Palace, perhaps the most opulent hotel in the city. Resembling a royal palace, this expansive abode is an attraction in its own right.

For more active pursuits, Watercooled at the Hilton Beach Club along the Corniche offers a comprehensive array of water sports activities in Abu Dhabi’s turquoise waters, from sailing to paddleboarding and wakeboarding. They've also come up with an innovative fitness concept inspired by water sports - Blue Gym by Watercooled. I give the SUP Yoga a try and find it challenging, but calming, my worries washed away by the tide.

As the desert sun heads towards the sea, I check in to the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi. This iconic hotel is the focal point of Yas Island, Abu Dhabi’s entertainment district. Encased in an eye-catching LED mesh canopy, the Formula One track weaving around its boundary, these 499 five-star rooms and suites embody a contemporary fusion of elegance and momentum, created with sensuous curves and sleek lines. My spacious suite is decked in fresh-white, its generous balcony overlooking Yas Marina, a collection of yachts bobbing in the sea’s light swell.

I don’t have time to dally. My friend Roy is meeting me for dinner, so I freshen up and head to Origins, one of the hotel’s many top-notch dining spots. Today there is a special Arabian buffet, the sumptuous spread stretching across every available surface. Plates are piled high with wrapped vine leaves, fattoush (Arabian salad) topped with crunchy pita flakes, falafel (chickpea patties) and all manner of temptations – and that’s just the starters. Lamb ouzi, a delicious slow-baked lamb and rice dish, is at the head of a line of tureens wafting delicious smells into the air as each is opened. There are hundreds of dishes to choose from. I cast aside my perpetual diet without a second thought and tuck in to the fabulous fare. Every morsel is delicious and we graze until we can fit no more in.

Waking refreshed the next morning, I atone at the gym before heading to the glorious rooftop pool to soak up some sunshine. I hover between lounger and pool, perfectly relaxed, my reverie broken only by staff delivering cool towels and iced water. Thoughts flit through my head of activities I should be sampling. Yas Waterworld, an extensive water park, is a short paddle away, as is Ferrari World, with Formula Rossi, the world’s fastest roller coaster. I could slip into the hotel’s fabulous ESPA for a soothing treatment, or dine at one of the waterside restaurants scattered around Yas Marina. I could head to the Louvre, shop, dine and play, but in the end, the sun decides, ensnaring me in its rays. I'm happy right here, so here I shall stay until the sun releases me. There’s always tomorrow.

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