Travel Story Abu Dhabi: A winning formula for glitzy stopovers

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque can hold 40,000 worshippers. Picture: Angie Tomlinson
Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Gold-flecked coffee is just the start of a thoroughly gilded Arabian experience in Abu Dhabi.

‘You’ve got gold on your lips.” Pardon? There are just some things you never expect to hear. In a poppy-seed-in-the-teeth scenario, I have 24-carat gold flakes stuck to my lipstick courtesy of the Emirates Palace signature gold cappuccino.

This is Abu Dhabi, where skyscrapers glitter in the sun and victorious owners of camel beauty contests walk away with a brand-new SUV.

Despite this desert glitz, Abu Dhabi is a different proposition to its flashier, busier neighbour Dubai. It is presenting itself as a cultural centre, and given what has been achieved since the oil boom began in the 1960s, the UAE’s capital looks set to achieve its vision.

Currently central to this is the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first foreign outpost of Paris’ Musee du Louvre, which has been a decade in the making. As we pass, we see its 180m dome of 8000 metal stars by the Arabian Gulf, ahead of the November 11 debut. Along with the Formula One grand prix later this month, and plans for a Guggenheim, there’s a buzz in this desert air.

As a stopover destination, Abu Dhabi offers both sides of the coin — the glamour synonymous with the UAE and a cultural experience encompassing Bedouin heritage and the beauty of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

But first, the glamour.

In the world’s highest suspended suite, the Star Wars theme is playing. The sommelier is removing the foil from the bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal champagne, building the drama. He lifts the sword and swiftly slices the blade up the bottle neck, cleanly cutting off the top. The crowd cheers. The art of sabrage, where champagne is opened with a sabre, dates back to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte. These days, it is performed as a historic ritual at St Regis hotels around the world.

The St Regis Brunch in the Clouds is a monthly affair for 50 guests in the Abu Dhabi suite that links the two Nation Towers 48 floors up. The $12,000-plus per night suite is usually the domain of government ministers and Formula One drivers.

Unlike late breakfast in Australia, brunch in the UAE is all you can eat and drink, like the annual Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat of my childhood but with caviar and Cristal bubbly.

In the decadent suite, an ice sculpture slowly drips, encircled by metres of seafood. A waiter serves from the dedicated caviar bar. There’s a cocktail room where Nutella martinis sit alongside mojitos, a theatre and candy room, a spa for shoulder massages, the carving station and the dessert room. In the dining room, we are served seven courses.

Then there’s the view to the sea and the dream-like architecture of the city. The five Etihad Towers lean into each other as if telling secrets. I imagine the world’s best architects sketching designs from the far reaches of their imaginations, handing them on to the poor engineers with an instruction to “make it happen”.

While this glitz is great fun, what truly grabs me is the natural beauty of the dunes of the Empty Quarter outside the city and the man-made beauty within. Chief to this is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

It may be winter the day I visit but it still climbs above 35C. The smooth marble is blessedly cool on the soles of my feet. A breeze skims the reflective pools, flitting through the perfect symmetry of the inlaid marble columns and into the expanse of the central courtyard.

This place is more than one of the world’s biggest mosques: it is also simply beautiful. The scale, architectural artistry, and serenity. The mind boggles at the cost. It was a gift from Sheikh Zayed, the founding father of the UAE, and where he is buried.

Able to hold 40,000 worshippers (though our guide tells us 60,000 worshippers within the mosque and its surrounds is the record), it’s reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, with its white marble cladding, 82 domes and minarets.

Beneath the smallest 1.4 tonne chandelier in the northern foyer, our guide pauses as the call to prayer plays over the loud speakers and I stare up at the dome adorned with Arabic calligraphy. I enter through automated doors to the main prayer hall, stepping lightly on the plush 5000sqm Persian carpet — the largest in the world. Handmade in Iran, 47 tonnes of carpet were flown in nine pieces to be joined inside the hall. Twelve tonnes were shaved off to create the prayer line ridges along its length.

At the hall’s centre is one of the largest chandeliers in the world, at 10m wide, 15m high and 12 tonnes in weight. Made in Germany from gilded brass, Murano glass and Swarovski crystals, it houses a hidden staircase for the maintenance workers.

The mosque uses materials and craftsmanship from around the world — there’s even some New Zealand wool in the Persian carpet — and, as I’m leaving, I spot Australia’s contribution. It seems the Brisbane-founded Coffee Club has grabbed the only retail spot at one of the UAE’s most popular attractions.

The perfect stopover

Abu Dhabi is perfectly positioned as a stopover destination for West Australians bound for Europe or the east coast of the US flying Etihad Airways. It’s an excellent stepping stone, less than 11 hours flight away. 

US-bound passengers can take advantage of Abu Dhabi’s purpose-built preclearance service, clearing US customs and immigration in the UAE and arriving as a domestic passenger. A good time saver if you are connecting in the US or as a final destination.

I flew on Etihad’s Boeing 787-9 in business class, where attentive service was a staple of the flight. White table cloths are laid and your choice of meal and drinks are served whichever time you choose. The flat bed is a treat for a tired traveller.

My visit to the Etihad Innovation Centre shows the little touches the airline has implemented to create a homely environment, from the soft colour schemes to the patterned lamp at my side. 

The visit is an opportunity to peak into the Airbus A380’s Residence — a self-contained apartment that goes beyond first class. Etihad’s Residence has remained unmatched since its inception in 2014. A guest (or couple) have their own dining and lounge, bathroom and bedroom, a Savoy-trained butler on call, even bathrobes come with a guest’s initials. Tickets are “two-times plus a bit” a first-class ticket.

Etihad passengers typically stop for at least two days in Abu Dhabi, either taking in the city sites or heading further afield, including the astonishing Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort. 

See etihad.com for more.  

Fact File

Disclaimer

Angie Tomlinson was a guest of Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism and Etihad Airways.

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