Abu Dhabi: Luxury beyond imagination
They say travel broadens the mind. Well, Abu Dhabi blows it away. When oil was discovered in this little part of paradise, Abu Dhabi was a sleepy fishing and pearling village surrounded by desert. That they did not squander the money in some Arabian version of Celtic Tiger madness is due in large part to the leadership of Sheikh Zayed, still affectionately referred to as the father of the nation.
The weather was perfect in November when I visited but, as any petrol head will tell you, it is also Grand Prix time. In my book, whenever you are given earplugs with your laminate there is fun pending.
I left a damp Emerald isle behind having completed my very speedy Etihad check-in. With time on my hands, I lazed in the business-class lounge, where the employees had taken a course in how to make me feel special. They all got As.
Papers read and emails checked, I was directed to my flight. To my delight, I had a seat that could massage me, if I so desired. It also turned into a bed, which I certainly desired. After I had watched a few of the 200-plus films available.
Business class is a restaurant. They refer to it as 'dine on command'. There are no mealtimes. You just eat and drink what you like, when you feel like it. If Etihad were a woman, I would propose on the spot.
Eight hours, some quality bubbles, and 40 winks later, I was being ferried to the Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa by Anantara. The luxurious, marbled reception has three pyramids of dates to nibble. I checked into my room and realised that 'everything is bigger' no longer applies just to Texas. Beside my magnificent bed was a music machine for my iPhone.
I headed to the rooftop for a nightcap in the warm evening. Back to my giant TV, slept like a baby and awoke to blue sky and a perfect view of water and mangroves.
To the pool with a view for a swim and orange juice. I believe the spa is also wonderful, but I couldn't do a spa for love nor money. Friends gave it the five-star thumbs-up.
The morning was spent kayaking in the mangroves with the Noukhada Adventure Company. Three leisurely hours with a very knowledgeable guide who kept six of us entertained and informed in still waters under the sun. I had not expected to see a bikini-clad lady on a stand-up paddle board glide past, but I swear I did. We returned to appreciating nature. The calm before the Grand Prix storm.
So I headed to Ferrari World, a theme park where I had the surreal experience of watching a woman in full black abaya trying her hand at a shooting gallery.
Ferrari World boasts Formula Rossa, the world's fastest roller coaster. I declined, as I like to keep my innards inside my rib cage.
And I didn't want to spoil my appetite for the Abu Dhabi Chequered Flag Ball at the St Regis Saadiyat Island. A four-course gourmet dinner where the champagne never stopped flowing and after Jocelyn Brown there was Eddie and the Robbers. That's Eddie Jordan to the uninitiated. There was music every night with Kylie, Nickleback and Eminem in town. Gold medallist Jessica Ennis was there, a big hero, but I was too cool to ask for a photo.
It was time to see some of the city. One of the many stars of the show is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, built by the same father of the nation who is now buried there. It can house more than 40,000 worshippers and boasts the world's largest hand-knotted carpet at 5,627 sq metres. Our guide, an Emirati woman recently graduated from university, spoke perfect English and was reserved, polite and hugely informative.
Next a drive along the Corniche to look at the dhow fishing boats and the magnificent leaning Capital Gate.
Then to the desert, at Arabian Nights Heritage village to be precise (www.arabiannights.ae). I should have suspected something when our driver lowered the pressure in the 4x4 tyres. They call it dune bashing and it was scarier than the Formula Rossa.
We were second car, which was worse as we knew what was coming next and cars are not supposed to do these things. I did a lot of Top Gear howls and fell to the ground in thanks when it was over. Wow! A few brave souls then tried their hand at sand surfing. I merely admired them. And partook of an excellent lunch before blazing over the dunes on quad bikes, reversing any carbon-footprint savings of the morning.
Saadiyat Island was desert a few years ago and the models in Manarat Al Saadiyat show the spectacular changes. Soon it will be home to cultural icons including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim. It also has a Gary Player golf course with three lakes, 67 bunkers and fantastic ocean views. The fifth hole, Dolphin View, is spectacular. I can't wait to see how Rory and Tiger play it. I hit a crisp drive to the right side of the fairway, followed by a five iron to eight feet and the putt rolled in. In my dreams! Anyone who walks off that hole with a four is happy.
The Emirates Palace Hotel! Now there is luxury and LUXURY. I had dinner in Sayad, one of its 14 restaurants. It was beautiful to be outdoors looking across the manicured gardens to its 1.3km private beach. I started with a calamari and capers amuse bouche, followed by a warm scallop carpaccio with fennel and sweet chili sauce.
A little gazpacho with steamed langoustine, and then a main course of pan-roasted hammour, a local fish a bit like snapper. I have been in very good hotels, and the occasional great hotel... but this one takes the biscuit. A weekend in one of their 92 suites and I will die happy.
Race day; I have a lie-in. My seat was over the starting line. I get ready for the decibels. A lady pushed past and sat two seats away. Jessica Ennis, with boyfriend Andy. This time I got the photo.
The Abu Dhabi tourist slogan is Abu Dhabi – Travellers Welcome. They certainly live up to it.
Etihad has 10 flights from Dublin to Abu Dhabi each week. The A330-200 offers the airline's award-winning business class flatbed seat. See www.etihad.com
Plugs same as Ireland.
Visitors from Ireland are issued with a free of charge Visit Visa on arrival
See www.visitabudhabi.ae www.anantara.com www.noukhada.ae www.sbgolfclub.ae www.emiratespalace.ae
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