Liz Beneski asks the question. “What will persuade Western Australians to stay in Abu Dhabi? What are they looking for?”
And it’s a good question. While Etihad Airways now offers the third option for flying through the Middle East and on to the rest of the world, what will make travellers pause for a few days?
Abu Dhabi still has a sense of its culture and history and there’s plenty to do during stopover days, from affordable golf to the world’s biggest indoor theme park in Ferrari World.
But Liz stares me out and I sense her wanting a very precise answer, and it may be the combination of very good quality hotels and dining.
Big-name chefs love Abu Dhabi and while visitors might end up paying “Perth prices”, they are likely to get exceptional, great quality dining.
“Seven-star service at Perth prices,” as one well-travelled Abu Dhabi hotelier puts it. “When the Russian Bolshoi Ballet performed, a ticket was around $80, complete with a reclining seat. The Louvre gallery in Abu Dhabi will have free entry.”
Ms Beneski is director of public relations and marketing at Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi on Yas Island and a champion of the city.
“It was considered the ugly duckling,” she says, making clear reference to its relationship with bigger and glitzier Dubai. “But 10 years ago it transformed.”
Perhaps belying her American background, she says that if Dubai has become a Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi has become a Beverly Hills. But then, they do call Liz “the Yas Diva” because she’s obsessed with the United Arab Emirates and she does call Yas Island, which she adores, “Yas Vegas”.
Abu Dhabi has a lot of hotels and Etihad Airways offers good stopover packages – often the first night is free, the second ridiculously inexpensive for the standard of hotel.
And if there is one thing that will draw Western Australians to stop over in Abu Dhabi, it is the mix of quality hotels and dining.
Every hotel I stayed in (a different one each night) had free wi-fi.
It is unusual to have two of the fine quality St Regis hotels in one city and each so different.
One insider in the industry points out that with so many hotels competing for guests, “for the next two or three years you can stay in five-star luxury at three-star prices”.
MONACO ON STEROIDS
Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, on Yas Island, opened five years ago, has 428 rooms and suites, is the biggest hotel on Yas Island and is right next door to the Yas Marina Circuit where, in November, F1 cars will race again.
Ms Beneski says the place really buzzes then. “It’s like Monaco on steroids.” Last year, it is said that 35 of the world’s 45 most expensive yachts pulled up in Yas Marina. The Ferrari team stays at Crowne Plaza. But then, she says, Yas Island is a “destination island”.
“There’s nothing on this island that I can say bad about but it reminds me of the Disney hotels in the 1980s – they had to convince people they were ‘more than Mickey Mouse’.”
During my brief stay at Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi, perhaps the thing that strikes me most is the vast mix of guests. Indian businessmen in suits waiting in the lobby to be picked up for a meeting. European families with children having fun for hours in the swimming pool and its shady surrounds.
More than one young Asian couple who look like honeymooners are busily photographing one another and taking selfies with their mobile phones.
Part of the explanation is the setting and facilities – the hotel is set along the Yas Links Abu Dhabi golf course, the beach and turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf, and within walking distance of the Ferrari World Abu Dhabi theme park and Yas Marina Circuit. There’s something for almost everyone.
There are five bars and restaurants, including the popular Jing Asia restaurant.
yasisland.ae and search for Crown Plaza Abu Dhabi.
MANGROVE AND MARINA
The extensive and healthy mangrove system skirting Abu Dhabi’s sandy coast is a surprise, and Eastern Mangroves Hotel and Spa by Anantara looks out at some of the best of it, while still being close to the city’s heart and yet having its own marina.
The five-star hotel has a three-storey lobby and 222 rooms, and even the standard room is sizeable, with a large bed, sofa, full bath and balcony.
There’s a big gym and, of course, the Anantara Spa, which includes single and double treatment rooms and Vichy rooms.
Its infinity pool and shaded pool area look out over water to the mangroves.
There’s a range of dining options (lunch was truly international but with an Arabian flavour) but Eastern Mangroves Hotel also benefits from being on the Eastern Mangroves Promenade – a walkway along the water’s edge and Abu Dhabi’s newest dining spot, with restaurants, health and beauty and leisure goods shops springing up.
As the sun sets, I stand out on the pool deck, looking out over the mangroves towards the city skyline, all under a classic Middle Eastern vanilla sky.
anantara.com and search for Eastern Mangroves Hotel.
SERVICE ABOVE AND BEYOND
Walking into the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi, is almost a deja vu moment. It feels so recognisable – so familiar, so comfortable and (oddly, for a five-star hotel foyer, perhaps), so much like “coming home” that just for a moment I feel I must have been there before.
Obviously I’m quite used to walking into hotel foyers and I have stayed at other Shangri-La hotels (from Hawaii to Singapore) – so what makes this different?
Perhaps it is just something about the personal nature of the staff’s welcome.
How’s this . . .
The woman behind reception is checking me in and can’t find the immigration stamp she needs to see in my passport. It becomes apparent that the passport hadn’t been stamped – and I simply haven’t noticed that it hasn’t been done.
They kindly take things out of my hand (very helpful, as I’ve lost my voice at this stage of the trip) and, between the front desk and concierge, arrange to take my passport to the airport to have it stamped. When they get there, they need more documents from me, which they scan and email through to the person who has taken the passport.
And there, as I sit at dinner, in their fine dining French restaurant Bord Eau (where new chef de cuisine Didier Quennouelle is about to reveal his own menu) with communications manager Twinky Posa, it is returned to the table, duly stamped.
A kindness and help well above and beyond the call of duty – and the sort of tourism that Abu Dhabi offers.
shangri-la.com and search for Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi.
Etihad Airways now flies direct between Perth and Abu Dhabi, and then connects to what is expected to be 102 destinations by end of 2014. etihad.com
For more information on visiting Abu Dhabi, see VisitAbuDhabi.ae
Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Tourism.
Luxury beneath the vanilla sky