Wednesday 26 April 2017

Abu Dhabi: Have a good trip? You B-Etihad

Abu Dhabi was a simple fishing village on an island before the discovery of the seventh biggest oil reserve in the world
Abu Dhabi was a simple fishing village on an island before the discovery of the seventh biggest oil reserve in the world
Up and away: Etihad Airlines
Aine in the Great Mosque, women must be covered

Aine O'Connor

As the temperature in Ireland tumbles, the thoughts of winter sun grow ever more appealing. With fewer than 10 days of rain a year, the United Arab Emirates can almost guarantee sunshine.

And where Dubai has been offering that for some time, the United Arab Emirates capital, Abu Dhabi, is upping its game, offering high-end breaks to rival any in the world.

Abu Dhabi is the biggest of the UAE's seven emirates and its second largest city. There is a friendly rivalry with the largest city, Dubai, with inhabitants referring to it often as "down the road". Whereas "down the road" has a long history of trading, Abu Dhabi's history is in hospitality and this is what it seeks to foster.

It is a fascinatingly large, high-end vision run through with superlatives. Everything aims to be "biggest", "best" and "only". An integral part of the vision is the emirate's airline, Etihad, and befitting the superlative vision, when it was set up 12 years ago it aimed to become the best travel company in the world. They are happiest when a customer (not traveller, punter or passenger) says their trip didn't feel like a flight at all.

Up and away: Etihad Airlines
Up and away: Etihad Airlines

My usual travelling is done almost exclusively in donkey class and although the Abu Dhabi vision is high-end, Etihad has kindly included donkey class in the overall flying experience upgrade. Customer feedback and input is a big part of its process and so, for instance, it is a 6ft 4in Australian man we have to thank for adjustable head rests in economy class seats. The man was rather irritated over always having to book a window seat in order to have somewhere to rest his higher than average head, hence the development of a head rest that offers support to people seated anywhere on a plane. This Etihad innovation has been adopted by many other airlines.

Although well accustomed to donkey class the chance to fly top of the bus with Etihad was one I looked forward to. It's a reputation confirmed by the airline's story of the man who wanted to fly from London to Dublin, but, as he couldn't get a business class seat for the one hour flight he opted instead to fly London-Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi-Dublin, a round trip of some 15 hours. Business class is a whole other world of champagne, menus for anytime dining and lie-flat seats in lovely little cocoons. The Dublin-Abu Dhabi route does not offer first class which is a whole other world again, upstairs on the plane with nannies and actual beds. And only some flights offer the Residence, an apartment, separate even from first class, a flight on the Residence fare from Abu Dhabi to New York will set you back €35,000. One way.

There is enormous wealth in Abu Dhabi, wealth that we are just not exposed to on a regular basis. Space and money do not seem to be an object. They build entire buildings to promote upcoming projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi which is scheduled to open in March. One of three large museums on Saadiyat Island, there is a 30-year deal with the Louvre in Paris to licence certain of its collection for exhibitions but it will also have its own permanent collection. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi looks in ways like the Guggenheim in Bilbao thanks to the same architect, Frank Ghery. It will, of course, be the largest of the world's Guggenheim museums and it is planned to house a modern art collection with a focus on middle Eastern work. It too is scheduled to open next year.

The Zayed National Museum will focus on the millennium of the area's history. The most radical change however has happened since the discovery of oil in 1966. The UAE has the seventh biggest oil reserve in the world and the vast majority of this is in Abu Dhabi, which, before the discovery was a fishing village on an island.

The name means "Father of Gazelles" and those gazelles can still be seen down at the shore on some of the 200 small islands that make up the emirate. Early one morning we leave the opulence of the Yas Viceroy, the only hotel in the world to be built partially over a Formula One race track which can be loud when the locals are taking their Maseratis out for a postprandial spin.

Across a marina packed with cruisers and yachts we board a dhow to cross to the island where the original settlement was. These were fisherpeople and pearl divers until oil changed their fortunes. In 50 years one of the most modern, flashy cities in the world has grown with renowned architects contributing to its skyline. The natural population is not very high, about half a million (up from 25,000 in 1960) so many (about 2.5 million) foreigners live and work in the region. Emiratis are paid differently to ex-pat workers, which is how the wealth of the nation is spread among all its citizens. It's a very different and by all accounts pleasant life with excellent healthcare.

Aine in the Great Mosque, women must be covered
Aine in the Great Mosque, women must be covered

There is a wide range of cuisines available, we had Middle Eastern classics at Byblos sur Mer. Alcohol is legal, it just cannot be consumed publicly during Ramadan, and recommended local hot spots include Pearls & Caviar and Shangri-La.

There are resorts too, like the very lovely, family-friendly Saadiyat Beach Club. Abu Dhabi is a popular family destination with many child-friendly hotels.

The city's newness means no historical visits but the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a sightseeing highlight. It took 11 years to build and can accommodate up to 41,000 people. It contains the world's biggest single carpet which was made in Iran, taking 1,200 women two years to complete. The seven chandeliers made of gold and Swarovski crystal are worth up €8m each and the pillars are made of imported marble and inlaid with semi precious stones.

It is the only place with a strict dress code, Men cannot wear shorts and female visitors must have their heads and all skin bar the face covered so abayas can be borrowed. Otherwise, within limits, there seem no restrictions on clothing.

You won't feel wealthy in Abu Dhabi, but it is an interesting vision of a very different world.

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