Abu Dhabi's high-end hotels are attracting fashionable crowds, writes Helen Elfer.
The signs are all here: sparkly Christian Louboutin heels beneath designer abayas; red Lamborghinis pulling up outside new hotel lobbies; shiny skyscrapers stretching into the cloudless sky.
With its abundance of oil money, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has never been short of a dirham or two but its traditionally conservative culture has curtailed the showy displays of wealth that neighbouring Dubai is famous for.
In recent years, however, a raft of high-profile events, including the formula one grand prix and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, have drawn A-list celebrities, sports stars and crowds of well-heeled jet-setters to the city. Naturally, entertainment venues have sprung up to accommodate them.
The past year has seen a raft of five-star hotels open in downtown, at the Corniche and on Saadiyat Island, about 10 minutes' drive from the city centre.
UAE law dictates that (with very few exceptions) alcohol can be served only in hotels, which means this is where most of the city's nightlife is - in hotel bars, clubs and restaurants.
To the beach
The Gulf's sun-worshippers have been eager to lay their towels on the nine-kilometre, white-sand coast of Saadiyat Island and they were finally granted access in September. The most sought-after sand in the city isn't open to the general public, however. Only guests at the island's upmarket Park Hyatt and St Regis hotels and members of the exclusive Monte-Carlo Beach Club are allowed on the stretch.
Which is the more luxurious place from which to catch the sun? It's hard to say - all have seaside villas, chic poolside cabanas and day beds. Lucky sunbathers can see bottlenose dolphins off the coast, with occasional sightings of endangered hawksbill turtles, which nest in dunes on the island.
Golfers can play a round at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, the only beachfront course in the Gulf. And art-lovers should see Manarat Al Saadiyat, an arts centre that houses a contemporary gallery, theatre and permanent exhibition about the history of Saadiyat Island. This hub is a taste of things to come; most of the Saadiyat Cultural District is under construction and will house outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums and the Zayed National Museum, designed by architect Foster+Partners.
To a party
The conservative capital of a Muslim country isn't an obvious destination for a hedonistic night on the tiles.
Abu Dhabi's party-goers favour cocktail bars rather than raucous pubs and absolutely everyone dresses up - certainly at the Monte-Carlo Beach Club's Sea Lounge, where local DJs keep the weekend crowds up until the small hours.
For breathtaking urban views, Ray's Bar on the 62nd floor of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is in a league of its own. Sleek, expensive and always busy, it's the expats' favourite, so make sure to book a table if you're planning a weekend visit and want to be seated.
And for sundowners and shisha, there's the inimitable Emirates Palace. Something of a celebrity haunt, its beach club has always had a strict members-only policy. Last year, however, the poolside Breeze Lounge was opened to the public. The service isn't always up to scratch but the dramatic floodlit swimming pools, swaying palm trees and backdrop of the imposing 394-room hotel make it one of the most atmospheric places in the city to take an early-evening drink.
For a glamorous night's stay close to the airport, the award-winning Rocco Forte in the city's commercial district has 281 bright rooms featuring bold local artwork.
The hotel is unmistakeable, with a strikingly original blue and green glass exterior. Its Mizan spa delivers some of the city's finest massages and a recommended jet-lag relief package for weary travellers.
Mingle with the wealthiest Gulf visitors at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers on the other side of town. A giant, colour-changing Swarovski crystal-chandelier dominates a fabulous lobby that is always full of well-heeled locals.
The top-floor rooms in the 66-storey hotel have huge baths beside floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the Corniche. Then descend to the interconnecting designer mall, Avenue at Etihad Towers - opened last month - which is Abu Dhabi's first stand-alone high-end luxury shopping destination; the Manolo Blahnik boutique and Piaget flagship store have had local fashionistas salivating.
The most prominent of the city's recent openings is the Hyatt Capital Gate, which leans at a dizzying 18 degrees, staking its claim to be the world's most-leaning building (it is four times more askew than the Leaning Tower of Pisa). Whether viewed from inside or outside, the heavy framework of the hotel is artfully exposed.
In the UAE, swank new hotels inevitably mean equally swank new restaurants. Sontaya, at St Regis hotel, showcases a spread of south-east Asian food, including Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian dishes. But even better than the fishcakes and spicy salads is the setting: a beautiful pavilion floating on a series of connected pools with views of the ocean.
For a stylish Italian meal, Oro at the Rocco Forte hotel serves a memorable five-course degustation in an opulent art deco-style dining room. The restaurant's signature mix is a basil mojito, with grappa and limoncello.
Most travellers will hanker for fine Middle Eastern fare at some point, so book a table at Jumeirah at Etihad Towers' newly opened Li Beirut for refined Lebanese dishes and a local style of mezze likely to include fattoush (a chunky salad with fried pitta chips), moutabel (eggplant dip) and sambousek (a fried, stuffed pastry).
Helen Elfer stayed courtesy of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers and Rocco Forte Abu Dhabi.
Etihad has a fare to Abu Dhabi from Sydney and Melbourne (about 14hr) for about $1890 low-season return, including tax; see etihad.com. For about the same fare (taxes will increase) you can fly beyond Abu Dhabi to some major European cities. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.
- Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi has an elegant beach club with views of Saadiyat Island. Rooms from 850 dirham ($222), see abudhabi.park.hyatt.com.
- Monte Carlo Beach Club, see montecarlobeachclub.ae.
- Jumeriah at Etihad Towers is glamour epitomised. Rooms from 1095 dirham, see jumeirah.com.
- Rocco Forte Hotel Abu Dhabi has a great location if you don't want to stray too far from the airport. Rooms from 754 dirham, see roccofortehotelabudhabi.com.
- St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort has some of the city's best restaurants. Rooms from 1202 dirham, see stregissaadiyatisland.com.
- Hyatt Capital Gate Hotel's breathtaking lean makes it a memorable place to stay. Rooms from 788 dirham, see abudhabi.capitalgate.hyatt.com.
- Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, see www.sbgolfclub.ae.
- Emirates Palace has a dated atmosphere, but is still an iconic place to stay. Rooms from 1550 dirham, see kempinski.com.