It has been just over a year since Abu Dhabi opened the highly anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, a futuristic pantheon to the combined narratives of global art and civilisation. Resembling a lattice work spaceship that has landed in the desert, the Jean Nouvel designed building is a marvel of artistic achievement in its own right.
That Abu Dhabi spent 400 million euros to secure the Louvre brand over 30 years was testament to its desire to become a global cultural destination. It took France millennia to achieve that status, so the fact that Louvre Abu Dhabi attracted one million visitors in its first year of opening indicates that’s money well spent.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi has accumulated so much artistic star power under one roof, any visitor could spend days there and still come away wanting more. The first thing you see on entering Louvre Abu Dhabi is The Virgin Mary, Isis and Phemba – a Catholic saint, Egyptian goddess and maternity figure from Congo sitting side by side – which encapsulates the museum’s motto ‘See humanity in a new light’.
In fact that could be Abu Dhabi’s motto, as you’d be hard pressed to find a destination that so emphatically wants to be global in every sense. But not at the expense of losing its own cultural identity.
Talking identity, the latest cultural landmark is the Presidential Palace which only opened its doors this year. Built on the palace compound, this no-expense-spared feat of architectural wonder has a dual identity. It is both an official meetings space, having already hosted the likes of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, president of China, on their official visits, and also a public space dedicated to cultural exhibitions that explore a vast collection of artefacts and rare manuscripts highlighting the Arab world’s contributions to various intellectual fields including science, arts, humanities and literature.
However, Abu Dhabi’s most visited star attraction is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Millions of visitors come every year to what is the largest place of worship in the UAE. And yet, it is an oasis of tranquillity. It took 12 years to build, and that should come as no surprise given the level of detail which has a very global heritage. From the largest handwoven carpet, the meticulous labour of women only in Iran, to the ornate tiles designed by UK artist Kevin Dean. The building itself was designed by Syrian architect Yousef Abdelky, who consciously echoed both the past and present. To emphasis its duality there are even two clocks on display, one with the current date, the other set to the Hijra calendar, which started in AD622 with Muhammad’s migration to Medina.
But this isn’t some gaudy monument to excess, this is a place of worship and the final resting place of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan who buried in the mosque’s courtyard.
Bling for bling’s sake, head to Emirates Palace, which is like something out of a Trump fantasy. Everything here is gold, even down to the sprinkling of gold leaf on your cappuccino.
This hotel doesn’t do egalitarian, there is a strict hierarchy here, with a floor for exclusive use by royalty, one for heads of state, and one for celebrities. You may not make it beyond the lobby but that doesn’t stop you from feeling like king or queen, at least for the time it takes to have a drink.
For hotels you are really spoilt for choice, but one brand you can’t look past is Jumeirah. They have three offerings in Abu Dhabi, each one bringing a distinct character to their location, united by an impeccable level of service and luxury.
Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is the go-to corporate luxury hotel so iconic their amenities bottles are the same shape of their five towers. Jumeirah at Etihad Towers set the standard for luxury hotels in Abu Dhabi, and that reputation is still going strong, with its combination of breathtaking views over the Arabian Gulf, a conference centre that caters up to 400 and private beach. A visit to the Friday brunch at the hotel’s Nahaam restaurant is a must for guests or visitors alike, with free flowing Veuve Cliquot champagne, food stalls offering every cuisine under the sun and live music. Just don’t expect to rush it. If you just want to pop in, the Observation Deck on Level 74 is the highest vantage point of Abu Dhabi and is open to all.
For those wanting to relax a little more, the Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort offers a futuristic blend of styles on the island’s prime beach. Take your pick from seven dining destinations and then work off the calories with a swim in the Persian Golf or one of three outdoor pools. The pool is also a great place for sunset cocktail before or after dinner.
It’s all about the light, with the hotel’s design taking full advantage of its location. The modern and light filled rooms feature expansive sea views and the panoramic suites offer floor-to-ceiling glass walls that open up to the sea breeze. A cool touch is the refillable water bottle given to every guest which can be refilled at water stations, and local filtered water in glass bottles served throughout the resort in an effort to eliminate the need for single use plastic and minimise the impact to the island’s habitats.
For a total change of scene the new Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort and Spa is an oasis in the desert landscape. Despite being brand new, the style of this intimate 103-room retreat is reminiscent of a traditional Arab village. But this boutique resort still ticks all the luxury boxes you would expect without losing its old world charm. The rooms may resemble classic architecture of old, with traditional artwork and Arabesque accessories, but there is still a coffee machine in the corner and all the right adaptors to plug in your devices.
This is a destination where you can truly unwind. The desert landscape alone calms the soul but throw in six restaurants and bars and a ridiculously Instagrammable 1000sqm swimming pool that ends where the desert begins and that’s a level of relax that you didn’t know you had in you.
And we haven’t mentioned the spa yet. Jumeriah’s signature Talise Spa connects all the three properties, and is something that should not be overlooked. Their treatments include Turkish Hammams, snow caves, hot and cold plunge pools and crystal salt rooms. The spa at Jumeirah Al Wathba Desert Resort also has a cryo treatment room which chillax’s you to a teeth chattering -110C. Other than giving you huge bragging rights, it is also meant to be really good for your wellbeing. At least as good as an espresso martini on the balcony watching the sunset. Other activities include a dedicated yoga platform, dune biking, archery or the daily falcon show, so there is plenty to do in between not doing anything.
And if all this sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. Abu Dhabi is a work in progress. That’s no slight. You can find global cultural treasures, mind bending architecture, unparalleled luxury, and immerse yourself in the culture of the Arab Peninsula. But there is still much more to come. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first major piece in Abu Dhabi’s cultural island puzzle. Saadiyat Island still has a lot of empty space on it which, if everything goes to plan, will be home a Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim, a Sheik Zayed National Museum by Normal Foster in the shape of a falcon’s wing, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, and a performing arts centre by the late Zaha Hadid.
What has been achieved here in just under half an century is remarkable, the next 50 are surely going to be just as ambitious. It’s time to put Abu Dhabi on your bucket list.
National carrier Etihad fly to Abu Dhabi twice daily from Sydney and Melbourne, and daily from Brisbane.
Let’s leave the carrier’s The Residences out of the equation unless you’ve just hit the Powerball, but if you’re lucky enough to go business class you can expect some rather unexpected levels of luxury. Just take for granted the comfort of the, let’s not call them seats let’s call them beds. Remember to take home the Acqua di Parma amenity kits which contain a sampler of Colonia fragrance, hand cream, socks and a toothbrush. No there are no pyjamas, but seriously airline PJs only make you look like you joined a cult or a Wiggles cover band.
Let’s focus instead on the delight of being offered a glass of Piper-Heidsieck NV Brut champagne before take-off by a flight attendant who will spend the rest of the flight knowing what want before you know what you want.
The on-board menu is a mix of Arabic and western dishes, with a selection of matching wines such as a full-bodied Barossa Valley 2015 shiraz. The three course meal(s) are brought out in silver service style, with stiff white linen, metal cutlery with some proper heft and a level of implacable service the match of any starred restaurant back on the ground.
With a satiated appetite, and a movie or two under your belt, its time to hit recline and pull up the quilt. And after a quality night’s sleep you’ll wake up ready to reach for the menu again. The only downside is the plane does at some point have to land.