You may not immediately think a Middle Eastern holiday is for you, but there are plenty of good reasons to add Abu Dhabi to your list writes Stephanie Holmes
It's a good place for a stopover
It's a long way to travel, sure. But Abu Dhabi could be worth considering for anyone flying long-haul to Europe, who is looking for something different than the usual Asia stopover. Kiwis will have to fly via Australia first and then it's a 14-hour flight across to the impressive Abu Dhabi International Airport. But from there, London is only an eight-hour flight away. It's not just stopover friendly however - there is plenty to do to make this a holiday destination in its own right.
You can holiday like an A-lister on a private island...
With more than 400km of pristine coastline and upwards of 200 natural islands, Abu Dhabi has plenty of opportunities to get out on the water and away from the city's towering skyscrapers. To get a taste of true Abu Dhabi luxury, stay at Zaya Nurai — a private island that was named World's Leading Luxury Villa Resort at the 2016 World Travel Awards.
This uber-cool island is the resort of choice for Lewis Hamilton when he's in town for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and other guests have included Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (pre-split, obviously), Orlando Bloom, Margot Robbie, and Lionel Richie — who performed at the resort's opening party. Only accessible by boat, helicopter or seaplane, Zaya Nurai offers a mix of boutique accommodation, from one-bedroom villas through to five-bedroom estates suitable for 12 guests, featuring private beach and infinity pool. We imagine it's the latter that hosts Hamilton et al. Around the island — which has been styled to perfection thanks to the vision of young Emirati CEO Nadia Zaal — you'll find a range of bars, restaurants, lounge areas, activities, a spa and a kids' club. If you're not on a Hamilton-sized paycheck, you can pop over for the day to enjoy some downtime.
...Or pretend to be one for a day
Public beaches make up 10km of Abu Dhabi's coastline. The most popular is The Corniche — the city's seaside promenade, with gardens, playgrounds, cycle and pedestrian pathways, cafes and restaurants. The beach itself has been awarded Blue Flag status, a world-renowned eco-label guaranteeing clean and safe bathing water, and attracts up to 50,000 visitors every month. Divided into three sections, you'll have to pay AED10 (NZ$3.75) admission to the Family or Singles beach, but entry to the General Public section is free.
If you'd rather enjoy a bit of luxury for the day, head to one of the city's many beach clubs, where you can enjoy access to a private beach, watersports, restaurants and bars. Saadiyat Beach Club is an exclusive members' club with health and wellness facilities, a private beach area, swimming pool and day spa. Day passes start from AED220 for a weekday and AED420 for a weekend/public holiday, and include access to the beach, swimming pool and loungers until sunset, and use of the workout room and spa facilities until 8pm. Or book out your own cabana for AED400 weekdays/AED600 on weekends. Social media mavens won't want to miss their chance to get a poolside selfie next to the giant "#SAADIYAT" sign.
Find luxury in the city ... or the desert
You'll find a range of accommodation options in Abu Dhabi, but one thing is guaranteed across all of them — your room will be huge and luxurious. At the newly opened Bab al Qasr on Corniche Rd, you'll enjoy views of the Presidential Palace and the elaborate Emirates Palace, and out to Yas Island — home of Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld and the Yas Marina Circuit, where the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held annually.
The Emirates Palace is likely to be beyond even the largest Kiwi budgets, but you don't have to book a night to experience its opulence. Make your way into the expansive gold-leaf adorned lobby for a Palace Cappuccino — a coffee dusted with 24 carat gold flakes — for AED60.
For something completely different, head two hours from the city into the Empty Quarter and the Rub' al Kahli, the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world (which Star Wars fans will recognise as a location for The Force Awakens). There, you'll find Qasr al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
To call this a "hotel" would be doing it a massive disservice - it's a palatial luxury retreat in the middle of an overwhelmingly beautiful landscape. Built to resemble a bedouin village, Qasr al Sarab is huge, yet manages to feel like an intimate private oasis. Activities range from camel riding to falconry, dune-buggy safaris to sandboarding ... or you can just laze by the lagoon-style pool.
The food is incredible
As well as the Arabic cuisine you'd expect in the UAE, the diversity of expat residents means international cuisine is widely available. Japanese, French, Italian, Indian, Peruvian, Lebanese ... whatever you're looking for, you're likely to find it. Hotel breakfast buffets are expansive, covering your standard eggs and pancake options, through to a multitude of hummus, labneh and traditional sweets and pastries. Fresh dates are everywhere ... and they're plump, moist and delicious. Although Abu Dhabi is a dry country, you'll be able to enjoy alcohol at hotels and private clubs.
Friday brunch is a massive deal in Abu Dhabi (weekends are Fridays and Saturdays) and is great value — at many beach clubs you can pay a flat fee for an all-you-can-eat buffet and unlimited beverages. At Zaya Nurai Island, you can helicopter over for brunch, while at Saadiyat Beach Club, you can buy a French bubbly brunch package for AED690, which includes free pour Dom Perignon. It would be rude not to, right?
The weather is reliable
In Abu Dhabi, other than a seasonal sandstorm, you're pretty much guaranteed blue skies and sunshine year round. Temperatures vary of course — in the summer months of June to September you can be looking at upwards of 40C. The best time to visit is November to April, where the daily mean temperature is between 18C-30C.
On average, there are less than 10 precipitation days a year, and the sea temperature ranges from a low of 20C in February to a high of 33C in August and September ... which would turn a refreshing dip into a warm bath.
You can visit one of the most impressive buildings on Earth
Voted by TripAdvisor the top attraction in Abu Dhabi and the number two attraction in the world (second to Machu Picchu), the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a must-do for all visitors, no matter your religious inclinations.
Launched by the UAE's late president Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, building began in 1996 and the mosque was completed in 2007. It's the largest mosque in the UAE, and features the largest mosaic artwork in the world as well the largest hand-knitted carpet in the world. Aside from all its boastability factors, however, the mosque is one of the most beautiful buildings you're ever likely to see — a marvel of cool, white marble, rich gold leaf, intricate inlaid mosaics, and ostentatious Swarovski crystal chandeliers.
Visitors can take guided tours, or explore the mosque by themselves but be sure to abide by the strict dress codes or you won't be allowed in. Abayas — the robe-like dress worn by Muslim women — are available for hire for female visitors, but aren't essential. Just be sure to bring a scarf to cover your hair, wear long sleeves and long pants or ankle-length skirt, and no sheer fabrics. The restrictions may go against your own cultural values, but the mosque truly is a sight to behold and well worth the couple of hours of enforced modesty.
The arts scene is growing
As part of a 30-year agreement between Abu Dhabi and the French government, a new Louvre museum is being built on Saadiyat Island — the first Louvre collaboration to be opened outside of France. Designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the project's completion has been delayed several times, but is now slated to open this year. It will be home to artworks from around the world, including a Mondrian and a never-before seen work by Picasso. The project is part of the development of Saadiyat Island into a cultural precinct, which will also include a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim and the Zayed National Museum, showcasing the history, culture and development of the UAE. A point to note for anyone timing a trip to Abu Dhabi around any of these museums — construction is still ongoing and completion dates are unconfirmed.
Did you know...
• Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and the largest of its seven emirates.
• It's the UAE's second most populous city, with 1.5 million residents in the city itself. (Dubai is the first, with 2.7 million).
• Bedouins migrated to the island of Abu Dhabi in 1793, after the discovery of fresh water there.
• The UAE was established on December 2, 1971, celebrating its 45th anniversary last year.
• Only 20 per cent of Abu Dhabi's population is Emirati. Expats from 200 nations make up the other 80 per cent.
Getting there: Etihad Airways is the national airline of the UAE and flies non-stop from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Abu Dhabi with connections from New Zealand via code-share flight arrangements with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia.
Further information: See visitabudhabi.ae/en