Fairytales do come true in one of the world’s richest cities. Just walk into Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi and you’ll see why. Cashed up with oil money and sitting on almost 10% of the world’s oil reserves, it’s obvious why Abu Dhabi one of the world’s richest cities. Its 420,000 citizens have an average net worth of US$17 million. And the government is rapidly building hotels and resorts to rival those in neighbouring Dubai.
I catch my breath as my limousine arrives at the shimmering fairytale Emirates Palace, my accommodation for the night. Against the inky night sky, the most expensive hotel ever built (it cost the Abu Dhabi government US$3 billion) is a fairytale wonderland of twinkling lights and gleaming colourfully lit domes.
With rooms starting at around $750 a night up to $17,700 a night for the Palace Grand Suite, the hotel was built to rival Dubai’s sail-shaped Burj Al Arab.
While checking in, I nibble on sweet dates and sip Arabian coffee. Surprisingly, the paperwork is done standing at a registration counter in an area open to the public. For a hotel that was built as the nation’s showpiece, I would have expected a little more luxury and privacy.
Hallways of gold
I’m then escorted along shiny marble floors, through gold-gilded hallways the size of football fields, past plush lounge areas and rows of glass cabinets with priceless artefacts. We walk under so many Swarovski chandeliers (there are 1002 altogether) until I’m lost.
We’re in the West wing, says my elegantly dressed escort. Just walk back this way in the morning for breakfast. I try to remember the way but I think I need a GPS. Seriously, this hotel is absurdly large; it’s one kilometre from the East wing to the West wing sprawling over a total area of 100 hectares.
Each wing has its own pool, beach access and fitness centre. The West Wing swimming pool has an adventure theme with water slides, waterfalls and a river. For a quiet dip, I’m advised to order a buggy for a ride to the East wing relaxation pool.
My room is one of 302 spacious Grand rooms which are plush but not too flashy. The colour scheme is subtle: light blue, gold and cream, with silk upholstery and marble bathroom floors.
My butler, Mohammed, arrives with orange juice and a toothy grin, falling over himself to be of service. He helpfully points out the Marantz entertainment console which controls the 127-centimetre flat-screen television, DVD, music system and lighting. I’m delighted with the device; thankfully my mum isn’t staying here or Mohammed would be tearing his hair out.
I decide to explore. But with 114 domes and 102 elevators, I’m afraid of losing my way so Mohammed takes me on a short tour.
Outside on the waterfront, we stroll past merrymakers eating in the Italian Mezzaluna and Sayad seafood restaurants (there are 10 restaurants altogether).
A procession of giggling women swathed in black glides past, faces hidden behind veils and designer handbags tucked under their arms. They are part of the entourage of the Sheikh of Qatar and presumably occupying some of the hotel’s 92 suites.
With all this luxury floating around, it’s mind-boggling to think that when the oil started flowing (around 50 years ago) the city’s rich lived in mud houses.
Sir Bani Yas Island
The next morning, a limousine is waiting to drive me 250 kilometres to Sir Bani Yas jetty at Jabel Dhanna where I board a boat to Sir Bani Yas Island. At the time of writing, sea plane transfers are not yet operational.
It’s the first of eight desert islands to be developed at a total cost of US$3billion.
I’m staying at the 64-room Anantara Desert Islands Resort and Spa, which opened in early October. Rooms have plush bedding and all the modcons (satellite television, individually controlled air conditioning, an electronic in-room safe and mini-bar) you would expect from an upmarket Thai luxury resort brand.
But unlike other Anantara resorts, which are usually designed to blend into its surroundings, Desert Island’s main building is a four-story block-like structure with little architectural flair. According to General Manager Andre Erasmus the building was built as a guest house, several years ago, by the UAE’s founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In memory of the sheikh, the existing guest house was refurbished to provide the bulk of the resort’s accommodation. And other low-lying buildings such as the spa, beach villas and $5000-a-night royal villas were added around it.
Fortunately the interior design more than makes up for its hulking exterior. Marble, brass, timber and leather are stylishly combined to offer an exotic ambience to the common areas. There are splendid ornamental pots, gorgeous patterned cushions, sink-into-your-seat leather chairs and stunning Arabian-style lanterns hanging from the ceiling in the main lobby.
25 year ago, the island was developed as a private wildlife reserve by Sheikh Zayed who was a keen environmentalist and conservationalist. The sheikh’s desert greening project introduced 2.5 million trees to the desert island, each watered with individual watering systems that provide moisture to the roots and leaves.
I join a wildlife safari in an open-air cruiser where we see most of the island’s 23 species including giraffes, sand gazelles, blackbuck antelope, and hundreds of Arabian Oryx, a species of antelope extinct in the wild. The reserve is a work in progress and animals are cautiously being released, in stages, to roam free.
Other activities are snorkelling, scuba diving or fishing in the Arabian Gulf, mountain biking through the desert hinterland and kayaking among mangroves. Or simply lying back and succumbing to the expert ministrations of excellent Thai therapists at the spa.
Given the water, energy and power supply challenges of building a resort on a sand island eight kilometres from the mainland, the Miracle Island is a fitting description of Abu Dhabi’s newest resort.
Discover Abu Dhabi
Etihad Airways flies to Abu Dhabi. Free airport limousine transfers are provided to Pearl Zone (business class) passengers.
Emirates Palace, West End Corniche, Abu Dhabi, tel: +971 26909000.