We recommend: Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Abu Dhabi has no shortage of shiny, skyscraping five-stars, but it’s the little things that make the design-focused Jumeirah at Etihad Towers stand out. The toiletry bottles are shaped and positioned to look like a scale model of the five towers that make up the building; night lights automatically come on, leading the way as you pad towards the bathroom; a stuffed toy turtle sits on the bed, raising a smile every time you get back to the room. The views, of course, are spectacular, especially in rooms on the higher floors. From the chaise longue next to the ceiling-to-floor windows, it’s all sea and islets. There’s an impressive array of restaurant options, though if limiting it to one, the modern twists on classic Lebanese dishes at Li Beirut are prime feasting territory. Three pools — each with a different vibe — and a private beach help add a relaxing string to the bow, while having a Waitrose supermarket in the shops below is mega-handy for those who want to stock up on soft drinks, snacks and light lunches, without having to pay hotel restaurant rates.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 836 dirhams (£140). jumeirah.com
Best for culture: Emirates Palace
There’s no shyness about scale here. It’s half a mile between the west and east wings and there’s one employee whose job it is to maintain all the gold in the walls and ceilings. There’s also a cricket pitch and polo field outside. Culturally, it’s worth a visit even if you’re not staying; there’s always some sort of event going on — whether it’s a Picasso exhibition or collections of statues from the ancient world.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,500 dirhams (£250). kempinski.com
Best for entertainment: Hilton Abu Dhabi
The Hilton is one of Abu Dhabi’s oldest hotels, but intelligent refurbishments over the years have left it looking good, and it packs in a tremendous amount of fun. Hemingway’s pub, the Jazz Bar and the Cinnabar nightclub are ex-pat staples. The Beach Club is one of the most enjoyable in town, too. The quarter-mile private stretch of sand has an extensive pool and watersports complex, making this a great family resort option.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 754 dirhams (£130). hilton.com
Best for layovers: Centro Yas Island
As Abu Dhabi is Etihad’s hub airport, a sizable chunk of visitors are breaking their journey to Asia or Australasia for a night or two here — Yas Island’s only 10-15 minutes’ away from the airport. Of the six nigh-on interchangeable hotels clustered in a circle on Yas, the Centro is generally the cheapest. With free wi-fi, a decent pool and rooms that get all the basics right, it’s a perfect hassle-free choice. The 24-hour deli is a bonus for staving off jetlag-induced hunger pangs.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 417 dirhams (£70). rotana.com/centrohotels
Best for action: Park Inn Yas Island
Of those six hotels, the Park Inn is closest to both Ferrari World and the deceptively challenging Yas Links golf course. It also regularly offers packages that include substantial discounts at both, as well as Yas Waterworld. The rooms dare to add bold colours (rare in play-it-safe Abu Dhabi), but the real bonus is that it shares facilities — tennis courts, cabanas and a wide choice of pools and restaurants — with the more expensive Radisson Blu next door.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 463 dirhams (£78). parkinn.com/hotel-abudhabi
We recommend: Yas Viceroy
This is the spot where everyone wants to stay for the final Grand Prix of the Formula One season. The Yas Marina circuit goes around the hotel, and underneath the bridge connecting the two wings. From the outside, it looks spectacular, largely due to the curving, sinuous LED ‘canopy’ that cocoons the buildings and puts on a light show at night. Taking in the marina as well, whatever your room (and balcony) is looking out at, it’s not going to be dull. Those rooms? Well, even at the base level they’re a sizable 580sq ft, and everything has clearly been designed to fit. Beds, couches, work desks and mini-bars are all carefully built into curving fittings — the architect in charge of the design clearly had an aversion to straight lines. The overall feel of the place is different to Abu Dhabi’s other luxury hotels. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to go for young and cool rather than stately and sophisticated. That shines through in the hypnotic lines on the floors and carpets that resemble the racing lines of Formula One cars, the DJ-frequented rooftop bar, the Rush nightclub and chillout club-style music soundtracking every footstep.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 696 dirhams (£116). viceroyhotelsandresorts.com
Best for business: Cristal
Avoiding the worst of the traffic noise, the Cristal unflashily manages to get everything right. Rooms are slick enough, and it’s a fuss-free place to get some work done. All the plug sockets are in the right places and the wi-fi is free. There’s also a small kidney-shaped pool on the roof, and a few good local restaurants within a short walk. Cristal is a cut above most of the drab, functional joints.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 441 dirhams (£74) cristalhospitality.com/cristalhotels
Best for longer stays: Eclipse Suites
A short walk to the parks and public beaches of the Corniche, the Eclipse is equally close to the business end of things. There’s also plenty of space to kick back in — even the smallest apartments take up 645sq ft, while the kitchen, microwave, fridge and washing machine help to create a semblance of home. For families, the sofa bed in the lounge area is a useful addition.
■ Rooms: Apartments from 462 dirhams (£77). eclipsesuites.com
We recommend: Mercure
The Mercure’s not going to win any interior design awards — the rooms are decent, but perhaps a little dated. But its three-star rating (and matching low prices) is the key to its appeal. It can’t compete with the flashier (and somewhat generic) four- and five-stars, so it forges its own path, based very much in the European character. The little cafe, therefore, feels like it should be looking out onto a French or Italian square — a place for slowly enjoying sinful cakes rather than wolfing down a buffet breakfast. The restaurant, Le Beaujolais, feels charmingly out of time with its red and white checkerboard tablecloths and reasonably-priced French classics. It may be this point of difference that makes it a popular expat haunt, but it’s more likely to be the separate pork dishes menu that’s pulled out for anyone who doesn’t look local. Oh, and the cheap house wine — in a city where any alcoholic drink usually comes with eye-watering mark-ups — helps. The rooftop pool is put in the shade by the surrounding towers, but in summer, that’s a bonus.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 255 dirhams (£43). mercure.com
The Tourist Club Area
Best for summer stays: Le Méridien
One of Abu Dhabi’s stalwart resorts — it was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979 — Le Méridien’s ace card is its village-style cluster of 14 restaurants and bars offering cuisines from around the world. But in the summer months, when Abu Dhabi gets so hot that even swimming outside can be unpleasant, it has the advantage of an indoor spa-style ‘Aquamedic’ pool to cool off in. Four-star Le Méridien looks different too — from the lobby alone, you could be mistaken for thinking it’s an Aztec meets Arabia theme hotel, with its low seating and rich colours.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 653 dirhams (£109). lemeridienabudhabi.com
We recommend: The Rosewood
The flagship of Al Marwah Island’s new builds, the Rosewood has the obligatory Gulf luxury sheen about it, but there’s a lot of dark wood panelling going on, lending a dignified, private air rather than look-at-me showiness. The technology is there — everything from air-con to do not disturb lights can be controlled from an in-room iPad — and there’s a good restaurant collection, with flagship Catalan offering Barcelona-style fine dining. One drawback is the isolated location. You’re not really going to walk to many places from here. But, given that taxis are so cheap, this doesn’t really matter all that much.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 1,148 dirhams (£192). rosewoodhotels.com/en/abu-dhabi
Best for shopping: Beach Rotana
The Beach Rotana links to the Abu Dhabi Mall — which is full of high street-ish, mid-range stores rather than the ubiquitous designer labels, so it’s a much better bet for a credit card blitz. You’ll find a T-shirts rather than suits vibe, aided immeasurably by the surprisingly large, sprawling park area abutting the pools and private beach. The kids’ play area and separate children’s pool makes it a popular family option, while kayaks, pedalos and stand-up paddle boards are available for hire. There are also squash courts and beach bars on site. In short, it feels like fun in a serious city.
■ Rooms: Doubles from 638 dirhams (£107). rotana.com
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)