Abu Dhabi

There’s perhaps no better place than this to live a luxury lifestyle.

Luxury isn’t always made up of the most expensive or covetable things. Sometimes it comes in the form of total isolation, living simply and being at one with nature. The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan - founding father of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi - found his own personal nirvana on Sir Bani Yas island, an abandoned pearling outpost in the Arabian Gulf, eight kilometres off the coast. In the 1970s he established a private wildlife reserve there. Several million trees were planted to ‘green’ the desert and breeding programs were introduced for more than a dozen endangered species, including the Arabian oryx and the Arabian gazelle.

After the sheikh’s death in 2004, the sanctuary was expanded and developed by the Abu Dhabi government. Reopened as the Arabian Wildlife Park in 2009, it now covers half the 87-square-kilometre island, with red mangrove forest and thousands of spectacular, free-roaming animals, including oryx, gazelle, giraffes, hyenas and cheetahs (which now seem to prefer the luxury of having their meals delivered straight to them, rather than actively hunting for themselves).

There are three Anantara resorts on the island, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive and 20-minute water-taxi ride from Abu Dhabi. Originally Sheikh Zayed’s guesthouse, the Desert Islands Resort & Spa is the place to be for families. It has a range of accommodation options, including spacious two-bedroom villas, and a kids’ club. Alternatively, if sipping cocktails by the beach is closer to your idea of a perfect getaway, the Al Yamm Villa Resort awaits - set between the turquoise sea and tranquil mangrove lagoon, it’s the epitome of eco-chic. For luxury with a side of adventure, choose the Al Sahel Villa Resort, which is set within the boundaries of the Arabian Wildlife Park - just be prepared to share your private plunge pool with the resident gazelle or guinea fowl. (Reassuringly, the park’s cheetahs and hyenas are kept well out of range at all times.)

Guests of all three resorts can explore the island through a wide range of activities. Rise before the sun for a safari drive, then spend the day mountain biking across salt flats, horse riding along sandy beaches or snorkelling among the gulf’s exotic marine life. Afterwards unwind with an indulgent spa treatment before heading to a secluded hilltop, like Sheikh Zayed often used to do, with cup of fragrant qahwa (coffee), to watch a traditional falconry demonstration and marvel at the majesty, skill and speed of this amazing bird.

Big is Beautiful

Of course, there’s plenty of the more traditional style of luxury on offer, too. If you have a couple of days to spare after your wildlife retreat, take a chauffeured transfer to Emirates Palace. Built by the ruling Al Nahyan family in 2005, the hotel is a vast pink-hued structure, topped with jade-hued domes that cast an imposing silhouette on the city’s skyline. Inside are 394 rooms, 14 bars, cafes and restaurants, and a lobby decorated in marble and gold leaf - accessorised with a novelty gold ATM.

Rooms come in varied levels of luxury, but even the first-tier Coral rooms are five-star, with 55 square metres of space decked out in lavish furnishings. A butler is in attendance to cater to your every whim, which comes in handy when you need another glass of champagne to be delivered directly to your sun lounger at the beach club. After working up an appetite lazing in the sun and doing laps of the pool, tuck in to excellent dim sum at the hotel’s Hakkasan restaurant, or sample delicate saffron and cardamom-infused Emirati cuisine at Mezlai restaurant.

Throughout the UAE, Friday brunch is a must-do extravaganza, and the three-and-a-half-hour offering at BBQ Al Qasr, in the grounds of Emirates Palace is without peer. Here, you’ll mingle with glamorous expats and locals over an endless array of food prepared at tented cooking stations. Grab a plate or three and settle into one of the many beachside cabanas while the resident DJ lulls the crowd into an afternoon trance.

If you’ve still got legs left after that, there’s sunset camel riding and water sports ready and waiting. Or have an early night and wake up the next morning for a 24-carat gold facial in the hotel spa - voted the world’s best signature treatment at last year’s World Spa Awards. You could even make it a full-day affair with a massage, hammam, pedicure and lunch thrown in.

St Regis Nation Towers made headlines last year when it unveiled its Abu Dhabi Suite. Suspended 220 metres above the ground between two towers, it comes complete with spa, cinema, private kitchen, butler, 360-degree views and a chauffeur-driven Bentley. Costing around AED25,000 a night (about $9000), it’s comparable with a stay in the opulent Royal Suite of Dubai’s famous Burj Al Arab hotel (at AED24,515).

A 20-minute drive from the St Regis Nation is Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is consistently named among the world’s top landmarks. It might not be the largest mosque on the planet - that accolade goes to the Masjid-al-Haram in Mecca - but it’s certainly the most expensive ever built.

On most days, visitors are free to roam through the mosque’s peaceful interior and surrounds, though during key calendar events such as Ramadan, the place teems with up to 40,000 worshippers. Walk across the blindingly white marble courtyard towards the main prayer hall. Here, the floor tiles are made of stone from 28 countries, while the columns are inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gilded accents. Inside, the 5700 square-metre floor covering is the largest hand-knotted carpet in the world: the work of 1200 artisans. Gleaming above are 82 domes and, in the central dome, a giant chandelier adorned in bronze and Swarovski crystals, that weighs in at 12 tonnes.

Gilded Pampering

For a taste of village life in the region, head to the Liwa Oasis, a 100-kilometre greenbelt of date farms and Bedouin settlements that fringes the immense Rub’ Al Khali, or Empty Quarter. This desert stretches across a third of the Arabian Peninsula, making it one of the largest desert expanses on the planet.

Beyond the oasis is Anantara Qasr Al Sarab Resort, a luxury hotel of five-star opulence in a romantic desert setting. A two-hour drive (or just a short hop in a helicopter) from the city, the resort is designed in the style of a desert fortress; its interior, while undeniably lavish, is also stylish and understated. Qasr Al Sarab’s exclusive Royal Pavilion Villas, set one kilometre apart, are a favoured escape of the elite. Each sandy-hued villa comes with a private plunge pool, personal villa host, complimentary mini-bar and a large patio from which to enjoy uninterrupted dune views. If you’re still keen to really get out on the sand, the usual desert safari pursuits are on offer, including camel riding, land sailing, dune-bashing, falconry demonstrations and sunset desert walks.

En route back to the city, make a stop at the Emirates National Auto Museum, where you’ll find a 200-vehicle collection of concept cars, off-road, military and vintage models from around the world. The museum is the private car collection of Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, who’s nicknamed ‘The Rainbow Sheikh’ for his fleet of seven different coloured Mercedes. Only in Abu Dhabi.

Rebecca Haddad - Published in Voyeur July 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 860,000
Time Zone UTC +4
Languages Arabic (official), English
Currency United Arab Emirates Dirham (AED)
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Abu Dhabi: The One to Watch
With desert-scapes, oases, fabulous beaches, heritage sites and the much anticipated Louvre Abu Dhabi, it’s no wonder Abu Dhabi is always on the ‘Destinations to Watch’
Arabian Height - Abu Dhabi
Discover jaw-dropping opulence at every turn in Abu Dhabi — from five-star hotels to themed amusement parks.
Arabian Sights in Al Ain
The city of Al Ain – where sweeping red desert meets tranquil oases – is Abu Dhabi’s best-kept secret. And it’s also fast becoming a popular travel destination. Beige and black camels lazily grazing...