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On my city tour in Abu Dhabi, I visited the beautiful, modern Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, drove along the Corniche and browsed through the Heritage Village. The city likes to promote the fact that it has the fastest rollercoaster in the world, the largest caviar factory in the world and the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi theme park. Theoretically, Abu Dhabi can be seen in a day or two — but that’s soon to change with new sites and a plan to greatly enhance the city experience.
Abu Dhabi is investing significantly into its infrastructure in order to achieve worldwide recognition. The capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is racing to create an identity similar to that of Dubai’s, the most recognized city in the country, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary. Because Abu Dhabi is such a new tourism destination, some say that there is a lack of culture. But culture has to start somewhere, and travelers can see it begin to cultivate, most specifically on Saadiyat Island.
Saadiyat Island — one of the 200 islands that make up Abu Dhabi — is being groomed to be the art, leisure and cultural hub of the city. Not only is it already home to fine beach clubs and arguably the best, white-sand, turquoise water beaches of Abu Dhabi (some say of all of UAE), there are major plans to make the island a center for global culture by including hotels, art, iconic institutions and more.
In the art world, the future openings of Louvre Abu Dhabi and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are already abuzz. In 2007, the Louvre in Paris announced the Abu Dhabi outpost, expected to open in 2014 (though locals believe the opening will be in 2015), with a construction price tag of approximately $134 million. The 450,000-square-foot Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is slated to open in 2017. In addition to these two powerhouses, there will also be a Sheikh Zayed National Museum designed by Norman Foster, a performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid and the UAE Pavilion, a steel-paneled architectural wonder referencing the undulating curves of sand dunes, which will open for the third annual Abu Dhabi Art Fair this November.
While the financial and political hubs remain in the Abu Dhabi city center, Abu Dhabi’s arts and leisure is key to Saadiyat Island’s identity. Saadiyat is home to cultural festivities, including the annual Abu Dhabi Art Fair. The Saadiyat Beach Golf Club with a Gary Player-designed course and exclusive Monte Carlo Beach Club ensure the draw of high-brow travelers, who will also flood the future opening of a marina chock full of cafes, boutiques and a nightlife scene. Hotels are luxurious and comprise beachfront settings and direct sunset views. There are plans for a Mandarin Oriental Hotel & Residences, a Shangri-La hotel (in addition to the two already in Abu Dhabi) and Saadiyat Rotana Resort, a luxury property. Currently open is the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, which features 377 guestrooms and suites.
While many parts of the St. Regis are still under construction, the Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel officially opened in November 2011 and is in full operation. With 306 rooms, suites and villas, the urban oasis attracts business and leisure travelers alike, thanks to miles of sandy beach; five pools; three dining facilities; a state-of-the-art-fitness center with an on-site trainer; the Atarmia Spa, with 11 flexible function rooms; and local design features reflecting Saadiyat. It is as luxurious and intimate as you would expect from a Park Hyatt hotel, and the property is destined to be iconic on the island because it is spearheading numerous environmental standards such as a turtle and dune protection zone and a LEED Silver rating.
This year, Abu Dhabi is targeting 2.3 million hotel guests, which would be a 9 percent growth from 2011.
Getting there:Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s flagship carrier, offers nonstop flights to Abu Dhabi from Chicago and New York (JFK). The airline recently announced direct flights to/from Washington D.C., starting in March 2013. www.etihadairways.com
Where to Stay:Abu Dhabi is home to fine luxury hotels. The 369-room Fairmont Bab Al Bahr is close to the airport and has views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. On Saadiyat, the 306-room Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi is the newest beachfront property with a terrific spa and culinary scene. www.fairmont.com; www.parkhyatt.com
Where to Eat:While most great eats are found in Abu Dhabi’s hotels, the fairly new Cafe Arabia has been winning over ex-pats and travelers alike. Housed in a converted villa with contemporary Arabic furniture, Cafe Arabia is both charming and relaxing, featuring a variety of Middle Eastern and Western flavors. The restaurant is located in Al Mushrif on 15th Street, between Al Karama and Airport Road.