First-time visitors to Abu Dhabi usually come via layover on Ethiad,
arriving to this capital of the United Arab Emirates that looks like a
smaller, more dramatic version of Dubai that lies about an hour
northeast. With a population of just over 1-million, the vertical
prowess of Abu Dhabi makes it look far larger than it feels with its
traditional souks and more-conservative populace that lacks the
international showmanship of Dubai. In a city that essentially didn't
exist 50-years ago, everything is built with intention. From its Sheik
Zayed Grand Mosque to Yas Island with its infinite waterparks and
Formula 1 circuit - in Abu Dhabi it is only built if it can be the
biggest, tallest, loudest or grandest thing you will ever see.
This weekend is the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an ambitious decadal development with the iconic French museum agreeing to lend its name to a United Arab Emirates project worth in excess of $1 billion. While some may lesson the merit of a museum that was essentially bought through a sovereign wealth fund, the opening is a boon to Middle Eastern art even if the opening celebrates far more of the collection's European masters than Arab ones. The museum is designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, who creates a world wonder-worthy space with iconic dome hovering over a landscape of reflection pools and stark white silhouettes. Inside, the collection is arranged like a chronology of the human experience and includes collection pieces like a 9th-century Quran in Kufic script and "Madonna and Child" by Giovanni Bellini in addition to loaned masterpieces from 13 French museums including Leonardo da Vinci's "La Belle Ferronniere" and an 1887 self-portrait by Van Gogh.
As for staying in Abu Dhabi, Emirates Palace is the local version of Burj al Arab with a sprawling horizontal layout on the west Corniche that actually benefits from a better, more humble design than its Dubai competition. Its lavish grounds and private beach offer an impressive resort infrastructure with in-house Hakkasan restaurant that’s one of the best in town. More central is Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi, a modestly sized 300-room resort situated on a span of white sand beach on Saadiyat Island that’s ideal for quick, efficient stays in amiable luxury. Days in Abu Dhabi tend to be lulled away as a tourist in one of its iconic malls, water or theme parks - we prefer taking to its natural amenities like a day at Nation Riviera Beach Club or a trip to nearby Zaya Nurai Island that's more of a true beach riviera without the kitsch. As for dining, opt for a late night at Coya, Li Beirut with its contemporary Lebanese dishes in Jumeirah at Etihad Towers or Al Maqam that does 1001 Arabian Nights to theatrical perfection in the pseudo Abu Dhabi desert.