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Guide to the Persian Gulf: Abu Dhabi

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Whereas Dubai represents the marketplace, Abu Dhabi—the largest and richest of the emirates in the UAE—stands for government. Protected from the sometimes rash urban development of Dubai, this is a city that is sensitive to green space and the environment. It has the grandest beaches, the finest coastline, and, not least of all, the most oil. Situated about 90 minutes from Dubai by car, Abu Dhabi today is little more than a relaxed and pleasant city with a seaside drive and a few streets of low- and high-rise buildings. To visit in a few years’ time, however, will be to discover a leading international center for art, culture, sport, and technology.

An indication of the shape of things to come is the Emirates Palace Hotelthe spot to stay in town—which was conceived as a meeting place for the Gulf Cooperation Council, a union of six countries that determines joint economic and social policy. The hotel’s extensive facilities have made it the principal event space in the city. Impressive and stately, the property is a bit overblown, with seemingly endless corridors and a marble-clad ballroom; the bedrooms are a plush cross between sets from Dynasty and Aladdin. More than any other hotel in the Gulf, the Emirates Palace exudes wealth and power, its public spaces crawling with tourists gaping at the grandeur. A superior variety of sand for the hotel’s beach was even imported from Algeria.

A key attraction of the hotel is its display of models showing the development of Saadiyat Island, the proposed capital of Abu Dhabi’s new cultural metropolis, which will house residences and more than 20 hotels, a St. Regis, a Park Hyatt, and a Shangri-La among them. Most important, however, will be the series of arts institutions built by leading international architects, which are set to begin opening in 2012. Eventually, a national history museum by Norman Foster, an outpost of the Louvre by Jean Nouvel, a branch of the Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, a performing-arts center by Zaha Hadid, and a maritime museum by Tadao Ando will all skirt the island. For now, though, the city reaches its cultural peak in mid-November, when it hosts Abu Dhabi Art: exhibitions, performances, talks, and discussions, with international galleries featuring various works for sale.

Historically, the main site in town has been the Qasr Al Hosn, the residence of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family from 1761 until 1966, when their oil wealth permitted the construction of a substantial Western-style palace complex. Originally the most imposing building in what was a small fishing and pearling village, the Qasr Al Hosn is being refurbished as a museum, whose galleries will depict the history and traditions of Abu Dhabi. Nearby is the Cultural Foundation, with its vibrant program of international exhibitions, performances, and arts-related activities as well as shopping at the Heritage Corner, where local artisans produce embroidered and woven textiles.

Anyone interested in the culture of the Emirates should tour the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, a veterinary facility that explains the region’s noble culture of falconry to visitors. It is also worth seeing the newly constructed Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, the third-largest Muslim prayer house in the world, erected in memory of the late founder and former president of the United Arab Emirates. Here, traditional mosque design meets contemporary craftsmanship on a vast scale. The white-marble-clad complex is characterized by a sea of bulbous domes similar to those at the Badshahi Mosque, in Lahore, and horseshoe arches derived from the Islamic architecture of Morocco. The mosque offers complimentary guided tours every day except Friday and Saturday.

The nearby Shangri-La Hotel, set on a beach overlooking the mosque, has excellent restaurants, the best being Hoi An, which serves contemporary Vietnamese food, and Pearls and Caviar, with its all-white bar. Kiwi chef Stephanie Rowe took over the kitchen there in September, introducing a Middle East–inflected modern Mediterranean menu featuring dishes like fish carpaccio flavored with sumac, served with a tuna–and–bulgar wheat salad. Other favorites for dinner include the Beach Rotana hotel’s Finz, which specializes in fish dishes—the cooks there prepare a delicious sea bass in a bed of sea salt—and Mawal, at the Hilton Abu Dhabi, which serves excellent Lebanese food and has a belly-dancing performance and an Arabic singer after 10 p.m.

Guide to Abu Dhabi

Staying Put

Emirates Palace Hotel Rooms, from $385; West End Corniche; 971-2/690-9000;

At Table

Finz Dinner, $68. Beach Rotana, Tourist Club Area; 971-2/697-9350;

Hoi An Dinner, $50. Shangri-La Hotel, Between the Bridges; 971-2/509-8509;

Mawal Dinner, $68. Hilton Abu Dhabi, Corniche Rd., 971-2/692-4563;

Pearls and Caviar Dinner, $70. Shangri-La Hotel, Between the Bridges; 971-2/509-8777;


Abu Dhabi Art November 19–22, 2009;

Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital Sweihan Rd.; 971-2/575-5155;

Cultural Foundation Sheikh Zayed First St.; 971-2/621-5300

Qasr Al Hosn Sheikh Zayed First St.;

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque Sheikh Zayed Second St.;

Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.


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