The hottest destination in the desert

With a wave of spectacular hotels, Abu Dhabi is challenging Dubai as the desert's hottest destination, says Nigel Tisdall.

How, I wonder, are children in the United Arab Emirates taught about their country's recent history? While we learn about wars and monarchs, in Dubai the timeline from pearl-fishing backwater to jet-set playground is surely mapped out in milestone hotels. First came the sail-shaped, "seven-star" Burj Al Arab, which opened just over a decade ago and was then the world's tallest hotel. Six years later, Abu Dhabi weighed in with the gargantuan marble and gold Emirates Palace, which the guidebooks trumpet as the most expensive hotel in the world. Now Dubai has fired back with the world's first Armani hotel, which opened last month in Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building.

My dirhams are on Abu Dhabi to win this game of superlatives. It is hard not to see Dubai as the young, profligate playboy who has overreached himself, while the wise old uncle next door played the waiting game. Now, suddenly and spectacularly, the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi have leapt onto the dance floor to show the world they can cut it too. Of course, it helps to have nearly 10 per cent of world oil reserves in your back garden - but while Dubai wobbles, Abu Dhabi seems set to become the emirate of choice for the discerning traveller.

One sign of this is the eye-catching Yas hotel, which opened on the shores of Abu Dhabi city last October as a flagship for the emirate's brisk move into tourism. Hitherto the focus had been on business, and a trip here was a dull and pricey affair. Now the rulers have set a target of attracting 2.3 million visitors a year by 2012 and if the Yas is a sign of things to come, their ambitious plan could succeed. Shaped like a lady's razor, this is the UAE's first design hotel - and it's a visual cracker. Built beside a marina filled with superyachts, it has a Formula One track running underneath - offering sensational views from your room on race days. The lobby is like a fridge-white art gallery, while its exterior is transformed from an unexceptional box into a bewitchingly 21st-century spectacle by a hairnet-like "gridshell" with 5,000 LED lights that sparkle and swirl at night with slowly changing colours.

As is customary with design hotels, you need to download a manual to work the shower and turning off the lights at night is a Mr Bean-like farce. The beds and pillows could be more comfortable and some guests have complained of being kept awake at weekends by late-night music in the hotel bar. It's a good idea to keep an eye on prices - a decent bottle of wine costs about pounds 50 while a portion of Rice Krispies is pounds 7. If the traffic is bad it can take an hour to get into the city centre and the surrounding Yas Island is still a building site. Soon, though, it will be home to a championship golf course, the biggest Ikea in the Middle East and Ferrari World, the world's largest indoor theme park, which will feature - yep, you've guessed it - the world's fastest roller-coaster. Meanwhile, on nearby Saadiyat Island they are building a Louvre, a Guggenheim, a performing arts centre by Zaha Hadid - oh, and 29 more hotels...

Photos: Like a lady razor: the Yas Hotel

Overwhelmed? Well, don't go yet. Abu Dhabi doesn't just have pots of money, it also has bags of space. Now its whole western region, Al Gharbia - which covers 71 per cent of the UAE - is being opened to investors. The grand plans include a trans-emirate railway that will run all the way to the Saudi border, along with new highways, airports and the development of offshore islands as five-star tourist resorts.

The first phase is the $A3.3 billion transformation of Sir Bani Yas Island, which lies five miles off the mainland and was the private wildlife reserve of the UAE's founding father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Best reached on a 50-minute seaplane flight from Abu Dhabi city, its landscape would be as flat and dry as pitta bread had it not been singled out for a "greening" that introduced 2.5 million trees, all planted in graph-paper rows with a life-support of umbilical black hoses.

Most visitors to Sir Bani Yas are Emiratis taking the children to see the animals and for a snoop around what was once a royal retreat. At its northern end sits the 64-room Desert Islands Resort, which began life as a VIP guesthouse and has been turned into an assured luxury escape by the Thai hotel group Anantara. It's as if the Queen were to allow Ritz-Carlton to open a hotel on the fringes of the Balmoral estate. The diversions here include mountain biking, archery, Arab cooking classes and a spa, along with game drives through the wildlife park that covers almost half the island. While the Arabian oryx, sand gazelles, black buck and giraffe (along with some elusive cheetah and hyena) are of some interest, there is no escaping the artificiality of the place.


In these world-is-your-oyster times, I find it hard to recommend a sojourn on Sir Bani Yas - unless you fall into one of three categories. You are a trysting expat; you are looking for a hideaway seaside resort in the sun where you can read books, enjoy spa treatments and eat well without disturbance; you are in dire need of a good night's sleep (at more than seven-feet square, the hotel's beds are bliss in a box).

Far more appealing is Al Gharbia's other great shimmering asset, the Rub al Khali (Empty Quarter). Stretching all the way to Yemen, this vast sand desert gnaws at the emirate's southern border and was famously crossed twice by Wilfred Thesiger in the late Forties. Back then it took the explorer a week to travel between the coast and the palm groves of Liwa, where the rulers of the UAE have their roots. Today you can drive from Abu Dhabi city in under two hours, crossing a landscape of - well, that's hard to say, because the day I took this road to nowhere the country was besieged by a shamal (north-westerly wind) that provoked sandstorms, choppy seas and - my goodness - rain! The visitation was strangely pleasing, like the reverse of a snow day, and a reminder that the desert is not some slumbering beauty reclining on a box of dates but a capricious, living beast. Huge streamers of sand flew up from the dune-tops and the tarmac turned orange, as if the desert were quietly pointing out how, for all our puny efforts at civilisation, in the long run it will always win.

But, hey, we are trying, and down near Hameem, at the eastern end of Liwa, the new kings of Arabia have built a grandiose hotel that deserves, at the very least, an A* for aplomb. Opened in November, Qasr Al Sarab lies just 12 miles from the Saudi border and is built on a vast scale. There are only 206 rooms, but this fortress-like resort is more than a mile long, gently curved to take in panoramic views of mountainous dunes, a valley dotted with luminous bean caper bushes and the setting sun. If your idea of a desert encounter is one that comes with a palm-lined swimming pool, coconut bodywraps and wagyu beef tail parmentier on the side, then Qasr Al Sarab is a mirage come true.

And what else would you expect from Abu Dhabi? While some hotels you love instantly, others take time to befriend - and that is the case here. Unusually, the cheapest rooms are arguably the best, with a spacious garden area. Others come with a balcony or terrace, while families and honeymooners are well served by commodious villas with private pools and sundecks. Thai therapists float through the spa, an accomplished French chef oversees the gourmet restaurant, the lobby doors are opened by 7ft-tall men specially imported from Pakistan. There's an engrossing library and a children's club, along with the expected camel treks, 4x4 desert drives and dinner in a Bedouin tent.

All this is good holiday fun, but of course many of us are drawn to the Empty Quarter because it is exactly that. While Qasr Al Sarab is manna for the well-heeled winter sun-seeker, it can also satisfy guests who yearn to take a lone, soul-succouring walk into the sea of dunes. As an old Arab saying goes, "The desert is the Garden of Allah", from which all superfluous life was removed so that "there might be one place where He can walk in peace".

Just watch out for the bulldozers.


Getting there

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi (14hr 25min) for about $1580 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.

Staying there

The Yas Hotel (00971 2 656 0000;, double rooms from $A252. Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara (00971 2 801 5400;, doubles from $A502 including breakfast and two excursions. Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara (00971 2 886 2088;, doubles from $A604, including breakfast.

Further information

Useful websites are and

- The Telegraph, London