Pole position - Katie Byrne at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
Katie Byrne visits Abu Dhabi for the Grand Prix and discovers a city that is well on its way to becoming the cultural and sporting epicentre of the Middle East.
Cultural perceptions are a funny thing. We all have opinions on the places we've never been. I always had Abu Dhabi down as the shy cousin of flashy Dubai, but of course, you have to watch the quiet ones...
Yes, the pace is different in Abu Dhabi. It doesn't have the hustle and bustle of Dubai. This isn't by accident, though. It's by design.
Like Dubai, the capital of the UAE knew it had to diversify its economy. Travel and tourism were the obvious choices, but late UAE President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, wanted the city to respect its roots as it continued to grow.
Preservation of its cultural heritage is key (even the waterpark is a homage to the pearl-diving expeditions that sustained their forefathers), while the pursuit of a greener environment is as important as the development of ever higher towers.
Abu Dhabi is home to both the world's fastest rollercoaster (the Formula Rossa at the Ferrari World theme park) and the world's largest concentrated solar power plant, which says it all, really.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi know how to spend, but the latter has plenty more left in the coffers. Oil, that is. The feeling in the business community is that they have been more prudent than Dubai, and this certainly reflects in the infrastructure of these two jewels in the desert.
They both know how to do ostentatiousness (indeed, they might not know any other way), but there is also an elegance to parts of Abu Dhabi, an elegance that is enhanced by more traditional values and impeccable standards.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness in Muslim countries and the flawless, light-filled spaces (not to mention the immaculate kanduras sported by Emirati men) heightens that sense of sumptuousness.
The vast architectural style, whether it's a marble-tiled hotel lobby or the majestic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, plays its part too. It beckons you to slow down and luxuriate in your surroundings.
Unless of course you're there for the high-octane action of the Grand Prix. Petrol heads will be in heaven at the Hermann Tilke-designed Yas Marina Circuit.People-watchers will be just as impressed as the event dominates the November social calendar and all sorts of movers and shakers fly in especially. Super-yachts bump bows in the marina and VIP clubs become VVIP clubs. I met Maradona at one party and, er, David Hasselhoff at another. There's a line-up of after-race concerts too. Jay-Z and Depeche Mode played last year, and while the acts haven't been unveiled for November's event yet, an equally stellar bill is expected.
Rihanna also played the du Arena on Yas Island last year, while wearing her most radical outfit to date: full-length trousers, jacket and cap. The uncharacteristically modest attire was no doubt a caveat of the concert organisers.
It goes without saying that you can't dress like Rihanna on a normal day in Abu Dhabi but the dress code - covering the top of the arms and legs - doesn't feel restrictive.
Neither do the codes of etiquette surrounding public displays of drunk or disorderly behaviour. Actually, it was refreshing to leave a nightclub and not have to endure the primitive displays that typify town centres on Saturday nights.
Most of our socialising was done in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Canal hotel. Emiratis can stay up until all hours chatting, drinking mint tea or sometimes just sitting in quiet contemplation.
Of course, the Venetian architecture -all vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers - of the Ritz-Carlton provides plenty of eye candy.
You could spend a week here and still only take in a fraction of the sprawling 57-acre estate. I never made it to the 21,500 square foot ESPA spa for fear that I would get lost on the way back.
Instead, I spent my time ooh-ing and aah-ing at the unashamed displays of wealth and abundance. The service industry in Abu Dhabi wants you to feel like royalty… even if only for a week.
And yet the prices are accessible. For now, at least. Bed and breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton is as low as €190 per night during certain months, while the average room rate in Abu Dhabi is just €70.
It's makes for a tantalising proposition when you add the sub-tropical climate (and almost daily sunshine) and direct flights from Dublin with Etihad.
And there's more: Abu Dhabi is in the process of building a Cultural District on Saadiyat Island ('Happiness Island' in Arabic), which will be home to a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum and a Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre, among other world-famous institutions.
The area will be flanked by five-star hotels (my money is on the Regis) and luxury villas. Watch this space... and watch the quiet ones...
A five-night stay during the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the five-star Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi on a bed and breakfast basis costs from €3,083 per person. Return flights with British Airways from Dublin to Abu Dhabi International Airport and private transfers are included in the price. For more information or to book, visit westernoriental.com or call 0044 207 666 1234.
A one-day ticket to the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix costs from €79 per person and includes access to the after-race concerts and Yas Marina entertainment areas. For more information on the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, or to book tickets, visit yasmarinacircuit.com. For more information on what to see and do in Abu Dhabi.
Five things to do in Abu Dhabi
1 Visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
The awe-inspiring mosque, initiated by the late UAE President and ruler of Abu Dhabi, HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is the city's most iconic landmark. It can house more than 40,000 worshippers, many of whom kneel on the world's largest hand-knotted carpet.
2 Buy some gold
Granted, it's a touch gimmicky but it's hard to leave Abu Dhabi without seeing the world's first gold bullion vending machine in the Emirates Palace hotel (which is often mistaken for the presidential palace). Gold-to-go dispenses gold bars, coins and keepsakes at prices synced with the international gold market.
3 Visit Yas Waterworld
With 43 rides over 15 hectares, and the largest sheet wave surf ride in the Middle East, this is without doubt one of the most spectacular waterparks in the world. Culture vultures may baulk but they'll never get to see a burqini with their own eyes. Ferrari World is next door.
4 Visit the Arabian Nights Village
For an authentic desert experience, the Arabian Nights Village is a must. Part heritage centre, part adventure centre, activities include dune bashing, sand sledding, quad biking and falconry. There's overnight options, too, in private houses decorated with traditional Arabian interiors.
5 Pick up a custom-made suit
Savvy shoppers know that the UAE is the place to get Savile Row tailoring at a quarter of the price. The craftsmanship is exquisite and the turnaround is swift. Ask your concierge to point you in the direction of the nearest tailors and don't forget to bring a photo of your desired ensemble. You could also pick up fabrics from the haberdashery shops near the Souk Central Market.
Prices correct at time of printing.