Watch the coast and skyline in Abu Dhabi, and you could be forgiven for thinking it moves, such is the pace of a building boom that’s put this city on the tourist map. The Emirate seems to be under constant development, while its borders continue to expand into the Persian Gulf as land is reclaimed and fashioned into man-made islands. The pace of life may be a bit slower here than Dubai, but it’s relaxing to know you can zip around the traffic jam-free city, and in very little time arrive at beaches, golf courses, theme parks and malls, many with slightly cheaper prices. As new hotels open, competition gathers pace, which means your budget might go further than you think — what’s more, many of the new properties are close to similarly new attractions. While all eyes are on the long-delayed Louvre, expected to open later this year, 2018 will also see the launch of Warner Bros. World entertainment hub on Yas Island, which is also home to the popular Yas Waterworld and Ferrari World, where adrenaline seekers can ride the fastest rollercoaster on the planet. Though most tourists remain in the city, they arguably miss out on Abu Dhabi’s most beautiful asset: the rolling dunes and majestic sandy mountains of the Liwa desert, just a 90-minute drive away.
For landmark views: Shangri-La
An enchanting Arabian atmosphere prevails at this expansive resort threaded with pretty winding waterways. Step aboard an abra — a traditional wooden boat — for a relaxing journey through verdant gardens to the hotel’s souk to buy traditional artefacts, paintings and jewellery. Located on the opposite side of the Grand Canal to the Ritz-Carlton, guests are treated to superb views of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque’s Arabic domes and minarets at sunset.
Rooms: From AED682 (£140), room only.
For a luxury getaway: Zaya Norai Island
This private retreat, just a 15-minute speedboat ride from Saadiyat Island, is pricey but offers relaxation in spades. Contemporary villas have huge open-plan marble bathrooms and Acqua di Parma toiletries, while terraces open to views of the beach. Pedal old-fashioned bikes down to the infinity pool or the watersports centre and dine in any of three international restaurants. An expanded spa and gym opens at the end of the year.
Rooms: From AED5,500 (£1,142), room only.
For desert activities: Qasr al Sarab
Drive 90 minutes out of the city and this magical resort materialises from the dunes like a mirage. Fashioned in the style of a mythical fortress, with turrets, towers and studded mahogany doors, it blends into the desert. There’s even an adult-only royal pavilion pool villa, set apart from the main resort, with plunge pools and double day beds. Experience Arabian nights under the stars, dine Bedouin-style outdoors or fly falcons, then at dusk when temperatures dip, zoom down dunes on fat bikes.
Rooms: From AED1,165 (£242), room only.
For foodies: The St Regis Abu Dhabi
This hotel is close to some of the city’s best restaurants along the Corniche and home to some cool epicurean adventures. Feast on authentic Italian food at Villa Toscana, and select from an excellent wine list presented on an iPad. The restaurant offers a hearty Tuscan Saturday brunch or, for a high-flying culinary expedition, book the hotel’s infamous Brunch in the Clouds. In the world’s highest suspended suite (on the 48th and 49th floors), it includes a cinema full of candy, a dedicated cheese and dessert room, a caviar ice-bar, an oyster room, roaming chef stations and, of course, a private bar equipped with the hotel’s top mixologists.
Rooms: From AED840 (£174), room only.
For opulence: Emirates Palace
Everything appears to be sprinkled with gold at Abu Dhabi’s grande dame — even the cappuccinos. The palatial, eight-storey, kilometre-long palace, with gleaming domes and acres of marble, has more than 1,000 acres of landscaped parkland and a spa with treatments incorporating gems. While the Arabesque glitz and glamour may not be everyone’s cup of tea, try the 24-karat camel burger — complete with truffle mayonnaise on a gold-dusted bun.
Rooms: From AED 1,800 (£376), room only.
For spa-goers: Ritz-Carlton
This palatial property has views of the Grand Canal on one side and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque on the other. The pool and gym are gems but it’s the Bedouin-inspired beachfront spa that really sparkles. The Espa-branded haven has a regal hammam and 16 serene treatment rooms. With separate spas for men and women, you can meet your partner in an open-air courtyard with a plunge pool and waterfall. There’s a choice of restaurants by the canal, but book an executive suite for club lounge access and complimentary snacks and tipples.
Rooms: From AED950 (£201), room only.
For pool parties: Aloft Abu Dhabi
This hip, high-tech hotel is all about work and play. Locals rave about the panoramic rooftop nightclub and pool parties, while travellers love its location next to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (a covered walkway links the two). While it’s a taxi ride to the beach, there’s a flip-flop vibe with eclectic tunes around the pool. The interior isn’t dull either; funky rooms in vibrant colours feature giant Fatboy bean bags, refrigerators and 42-inch flatscreen TVs. Can’t see a waiter? Then order poolside snacks or room service via WhatsApp.
Rooms: From AED2,200 (£465), room only.
For family fun: Yas Island Rotana
For cheap views of the Formula 1 Grand Prix, book a room on the 10th floor with free access to the executive lounge; its balcony overlooks the track. Families on a budget are just a hop and a skip from Abu Dhabi’s top theme parks and there are shuttles to Yas Beach. The four-star property also features a spa, outdoor pool plus a steakhouse and popular Indian eatery. Some UK operators feature a new all-inclusive option.
Rooms: From AED265 (£56), B&B.
For petrol heads: Yas Viceroy
Set right in the middle of the Formula 1 Grand Prix track, all rooms have balconies overlooking the race. The building is striking, shrouded in a veil of glass and steel with over 5,000 LED panes that ripple with different colours. Inside, there are six restaurants and a hip rooftop bar. A popular venue for golfers (Yas Links Golf Course is nearby), it’s also ideal for families keen to visit Yas Island’s entertainment venues.
Rooms: From AED719 (£149), room only.
For sports lovers: Marriott Al Forsan International Resort
A sporting spirit is the driving force at this new hotel. Notch up laps in the Olympic-sized swimming pool or choose from a mind-boggling array of activities including go-karting, archery and wakeboarding. Test your aim on indoor and outdoor shooting ranges or head to the stables to test out your equestrian skills. Post work out, relax in the superlative spa, watch live sports on screens in the Appaloosa bar or refuel at any of six restaurants — The Grill is recommended.
Rooms: From AED600 (£127), B&B.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)