Long eclipsed by its glitzier neighbour, Dubai, Abu Dhabi has woken up and remembered that it controls the purse strings, and has ramped up its campaign to lure travelling families to stop over for a night or two for some Arabian hospitality.
Set on Saadiyat Island, which is joined by a vast highway to the mainland, what gives this hotel the edge is the nine-kilometre stretch of white, sandy beach which endows it with a surprisingly natural experience in a largely artificial world inserted into the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. Half an hour from the airport, it's also 20 minutes to Yas Island, home of many of Abu Dhabi's biggest attractions, including the new Warner Bros. World. The five-star hotel celebrated its first birthday earlier this year.
With its cavernous foyer featuring tinkling water features, an inviting cafe filled with tempting petit fours and glass walls looking out to the Arabian Gulf, Saadiyat Rotana is dressed to impress, and the look is desert luxe. Bigger is better in this part of the world, so the 340 rooms, suites and beach villas are set in a sprawling arc reminiscent of a desert fortress in terracotta and sandstone hues that glow prettily at dawn and dusk. This hotel has one of the best kids' clubs I've seen – a lazy river runs through Aladdin's Cave and the kids floating past on tubes are watched by diligent lifesavers. Otherwise, the cool inside playrooms cater for sleepy, arty and chilled-out kids who just want to kick back and watch movies. There is a separate program for teens (duct-tape wars, anyone?)
Set on the first floor, my Deluxe room faces the enormous lagoon pool and the bright blue seas beyond, where northern Europeans and their white-blonde children turn bronze under the Middle Eastern sun. I am sharing with my young daughter and our two king-single beds could fit a whole brood. There's nothing challenging here: a fresh, beachy palette decorated with paintings of Abu Dhabi's signature animal, the oryx, a super-spacious open-plan bathroom with freestanding tub, the obligatory coffee machine and a balcony, where our swimmers dry in minutes.
You reckon you've had breakfast buffets? To sleep in and miss this one would be a sin. There's the Indian station, filled with the delights of sub-continental breakfast foods, from dosa to northern curries. There's the Arabian station, with falafel and ful (basically, Arabian baked beans). There's also the fruit station (with the obligatory dates), pastries station, egg station, fresh juice station and the pancakes and chocolate fountain station. Don't plan a lunch date. Cross the lagoon via a wooden bridge to the beanbags of the poolside Nasma beachfront bar for snacks, Mexican beers and cocktails. There's also a gastropub, Italian and seafood grill on site. Avoid wine: very average bottles carry a three-figure price tag.
Nothing is far away in this town: the Louvre Abu Dhabi is just eight minutes away and the beautiful Grand Mosque – best visited at sunset –is 30 minutes' drive. If travelling with kids, make a beeline for nearby Yas Island's Warner Bros. World, Yas Waterworld water park and Ferrari World. You can ride on the hotel's free Yas Island shuttle. For a more natural experience, endangered hawksbill turtles lay their eggs on Saadiyat Beach between April and September (hence the bronze turtle fountains surrounding the pool). Had I the time, I would have taken a kayak tour of the Eastern Mangroves. The hotel's neighbour will eventually be the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, set to open in 2022.
This is a fantastic option for stopovers, or even as a destination in its own right, with one of the most lavish breakfast buffets I've ever seen, a fantastic kids' club and a beautiful beach.
Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas, Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Rooms from AED806 (about $320) a night. . See rotana.com
The kids' club lazy river, beach and lagoon pool are all attended by trained lifeguards from seafaring nations.
Possibly the most expensive cup of coffee outside Venice.
Belinda Jackson stayed as a guest of Abu Dhabi Tourism and Saadiyat Rotana.