Abu Dhabi, a modern city born from the desert – World Meanderings (n°53)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Thanks to the seemingly endless flow of petrodollars Abu Dabhi has enjoyed an unprecedented high level of growth over the recent decades. After attracting tourists from the whole planet with its year-round sunshine, its sandy beaches, its futuristic architecture and its wide range of luxury hotels Abu Dhabi now intend to appeal to art lovers. It has just begun with the recent opening of the “Louvre Abu Dhabi”, a unique partnership between the famous Parisian museum and the Emirates.
A new cultural district is under construction on Saadiyat Island, an island created around an environmentally sensitive plan. No less than five Pritzker Price winners have been chosen to design five new cutting-edge museums. The Louvre Abu Dhabi designed by Jean Nouvel was the first one to open last November. The construction of the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry will begin this year and the Performing Art and Conference Center by Zaha Hadid, the Maritime Museum by Tadeo Ando and the Sheik Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster will open soon. This cultural offer like no other in the Middle East is about to give an unexpected new image to this constantly innovating city.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi, an amazing architecture for a unique collection
The museum building created by Jean Nouvel indisputably is an architectural masterpiece and a technical feat. Its huge dome looks like a flying saucer floating on the seashore. Although it is 180 metres in diameter and weighs 7,500 tonnes it’s supported with only four pillars. It is made of 8 different layers of steel pierced with 7,850 stars through which the sunlight creates a poetic “rain of light”. Walking in the agora below the 29 metres high dome gives the visitors a feeling of quietness and beauty. The dome shelters 55 cubic white buildings interlocked in one another of which 26 are entirely dedicated to the permanent exhibition from the Louvre.
From the beginning Louvre Abu Dhabi was never meant to be a simple adjunct to the Parisian original. This new Louvre has its own unique identity and tends to be a universal museum linking human beings through space and time. From prehistory to present times the exhibition juxtaposes artefacts made at the same time in separate parts of the world, different cultures or religions. Visitors are thus able to compare an extraordinary statuette of a Bactrian (Central Asia) princess made between 2,300- 1,700 BC with a female figurine from Baluchistan (Pakistan) made between 2,800- 2,700 BC and another one from Egypt made between 3,100- 2,800 BC.
Later a 18th century astrolabe from Maghreb, a 16th century map of the world made in Iraq, a 17th century pair of folding screens with maps of Japan and the world from Japan allow the visitors to understand the way people from different countries comprehended their world. The last museum rooms put in perspective art and globalisation with painting and sculptures of contemporary artists of the five continents.
To go further before or after your visit you can read the exhibition catalogue that presents and analyzes a wide selection of artefacts of the museum collection. This book called “Louvre Abu Dhabi, Masterpieces of the Collection” is edited by Skira and is available at Amazon.
The Sheik Zayed Mosque”
Recently built, its construction was completed in 2007, the Sheik Zayed mosque is the largest one of the Emirates and the only one open to non-Muslim. The mosque’s construction was initiated by Sheik Zayed the Father of the Nation who ruled the Emirates until his death in 2004.
Figures are impressive. With 120,000 sq metres of white Carrara marble covering its walls it is the largest marble building of the world, it is large enough for 40,000 people, its main dome is the largest mosque’s dome on earth, its main chandelier is the largest crystal chandelier ever made and the main praying room is covered with a 5,627 sq metres and 47 tonnes handmade Persian carpet! Sheik Zayed loved flowers and personally chose the delicate floral patterns made of colourful semi-precious stones that ornate the white marble floors, walls and columns. A magnificent achievement! All day long visitors wonder in front of its tall white silhouette shining against the clear blue sky. At night its illuminated white facades draw attention from afar.
Exploring Abu Dabhi’s mangroves at Anantara
An extensive mangrove-planting program was launched 40 years ago and it’s been very successful. Today plantation times are over and the mangroves are a living autonomous ecosystem. If you get the chance to stay at the “Anantara Eastern Mangrove Hotel” you will have the opportunity to explore them in the best possible way. Just across the pedestrian promenade at the foot of the hotel you can book a kayaking package. Experienced and knowledgeable guides will take you through the mangroves and make you understand why they are such an important part of the local biodiversity. You will be able to admire turtles, snappers, grunt fish, sea bream and countless seabirds that have found there a peaceful paradise.
Apart from being the ideal starting point to discover the mangroves the “Anantara Hotel” has found many ways to entertain its guests. You can board on an authentic dhow for a pearl-cruise to discover the ancient pearling traditions of the Emirates while enjoying Arabic coffee and snacks. Bike along the seashore, stand up paddle along the coast, have a romantic sunset cruise, have a rebalancing yoga session combine with a 40-minutes Turkish Ammam ritual in the beautiful spa, go to the local market with the chef and learn new recipes, play golf, get a thrilling experience at the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, have fun with yours kids at Yas Waterworld… It’s an endless list of entertainments.
And of course you will get what you should expect and much more in this stunning 5-star hotel, large and beautifully decorated rooms, a gorgeous breakfast buffet, an infinity pool overlooking the mangroves and most of all a smiling staff always eager to fulfil your every need. The Pachaylen was recently awarded best Thai restaurant in Abu Dhabi and well deserves it. Watching the chefs cooking you will have an authentic Thai dinner to the sound of live music played on a kim, a traditional Thai string instrument. The Pool Deck is the swimming pool’s restaurant and proposes a wide range of fish and seafood dishes. The “lobster menu” is a real treat for a very affordable price once again enjoying the view over the mangroves and their wildlife. This newly built hotel has quickly become a must for demanding guests in Abu Dhabi. www.anantara.com
Abu Dhabi, a man-made oasis in the desert
Abu Dhabi is an incredibly green city. Hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted over the last decades, creating an oasis in a desert land. A drop-by-drop irrigation system allows parks and tree-lined streets to flourish and wild birds have quickly taken ownership of this new territory. Among them you will easily spot colourful budgies and parrots. The most futuristic buildings spring up like mushrooms in the middle of these green areas, such as the Aldar Headquaters, the world’s first circular skyscraper or the Capital Gate building a 160-metre high leaning building that leans even more than the Tower of Pisa, or the Etihad Towers a group of five tapering skyscrapers from where you can get a wonderful view over the city.
Close to the Etihad Towers the “Intercontinental Hotel Abu Dhabi” is a seaside resort on its own. Don’t let yourself be put off by the hotel building. Being the very first luxury hotel built in Abu Dhabi its architecture is far from being original but you soon forget it once you get inside. With its own marina, its charming private beach, two pools, an elegant spa and no less than 10 restaurants and bars the hotel is a total destination. Far from the bling-bling style of many Emirati luxury hotels the hotel’s decoration has a discreet charm intending to make you feel comfortable at once. From the elegant rooms the flour to ceiling windows give a wonderful view over the Persian Gulf or the Etihad Towers.
The marina is the beating heart of the resort, surrounded by lively restaurants and giving access to the sandy beach and the outside lake-like swimming pool ideal for a lazy day away from the bustle of the city. If there were only one good reason to stay several days at the Intercontinental it would be its dining offer. Along the years the hotel’s restaurants have won an ongoing good reputation with the locals and of course with visitors, whether mere tourists or celebrities. When in Abu Dhabi Lady Diana used to have dinner at the “Fishermarket”, where guests can choose raw fishes, seafood and vegetable from a big stall and have them cooked at their liking before enjoying them on the candlelit terrace. There are also a Belgian restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Greek restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a Bottega bar, a piano lounge… Obviously choosing will be the hardest dilemma!
Winter is the ideal season to visit Abu Dhabi. At only a few hours flight from Europe the Emirate offers sunshine, mild temperatures and many things to do, see and taste. Lets face it, doesn’t it feel wonderful to selfishly sunbath while unlucky ones bear rain and dull grey sky!
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes