United Arab Emirates

Sleep: Abu Dhabi

With no shortage of plush five-stars, but plenty of affordable options, Abu Dhabi has beach resorts, business retreats and budget rooms in abundance. Take a short stopover or a longer stay to experience this intriguing emirate

Sleep: Abu Dhabi
Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. Image: Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi/Kempinski Hotels

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West Corniche

It’ll probably be supplanted by quickly-growing Saadiyat Island once it’s fully developed, but for now the western end of the seafront Corniche is the home of Abu Dhabi’s biggest-hitting, high-end hotels. The Emirates Palace, in particular, is a symbolic national landmark in its own right. It’s also the most appealing area for visitors — the public beach is of good quality, and many of the buildings are exercises in architectural chutzpah. Along the Breakwater, the massive Marina Mall keeps shopaholics happy while the Heritage Village offers a reconstruction of what Abu Dhabi was like before the oil money poured in.

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

Centro Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Image: Rotana Hotel Management Corporation PJSC

Centro Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Image: Rotana Hotel Management Corporation PJSC

Yas Island

Yas is where the emirate lets its hair down. Expensive yachts dot the marina and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Circuit goes around it. Also home to the Ferrari World theme park, Formula Rossa — the fastest rollercoaster in the world — is certainly a thrill to remember. Throw in the Du Arena, where all the big music acts play, and Yas Waterworld, and there’s just no excuse for being bored.

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

Cristal, Abu Dhabi. Image: Cristal Hotels and Resorts

Cristal, Abu Dhabi. Image: Cristal Hotels and Resorts

Downtown

The dusty streets to the west of the Tourist Club Area make up Abu Dhabi’s rather ill-defined downtown. It’s a bit of a hodge-podge of things that haven’t got round to moving elsewhere yet. Banks and financial services tend to congregate, as do businesses that have decided they don’t need to be inside a shiny glass skyscraper. But it’s arguably the best area of Abu Dhabi for clicking with locals. Little pockets of life spring up around unsung restaurants that span the world’s cuisines and a quiet busyness pervades.

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

Beach Rotana, Abu Dhabi. Image: Rotana Hotel Management Corporation PJSC

Beach Rotana, Abu Dhabi. Image: Rotana Hotel Management Corporation PJSC

The Tourist Club Area

To the east of downtown, the traditional hub of Abu Dhabi’s visitor accommodation has been supplanted by grander builds elsewhere. Plenty of hotels and resorts still remain, but there’s more of a residential feel these days — and a lot of expats live in the area. Now officially known as Al Zahiyah, the Tourist Club Area is riddled with coffee shops, and plays host to the Abu Dhabi Mall. Nearby Al Marwah Island is the one to watch, with its bold developments.

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)