Plush Palaces, Maseratis & Women’s Handicrafts: A Weekend in Abu Dhabi, Part I

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Images by Robyn Dutra

 

Few places have held so fast in our cultural imagination as Abu Dhabi. So when New York winter temps quickly plunged, we booked the first plush Etihad flight to the sunny, exotic – and just 47 years young – capital of the United Arab Emirates, to at last satisfy our curiosity.

Sitting pretty off the mainland on an island in the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Abu Dhabi has decisively eclipsed neighboring Dubai as the current hottest travel destination in the Middle East. And our visit neatly coincided with the year-long celebration of the father of the U.A.E., Sheikh Zayed, which gave the whole place a palpably festive vibe.

Checking into the Andaz Capital Gate (notably the brand’s first hotel in the region) made for the perfect grand entrance. The design-focused Hyatt property is actually a Guinness World Records certified structure, and inclines an unparalleled 18 degrees – a dizzying sight! Equipped with expansive Gulf views, our very modern suite (one of 22, along with another 189 guest rooms) was so chic and spacious, we had to work to convince ourselves to get up and get out.

Andaz’ notably gracious staff steered us post-haste to the complimentary Arabian coffee (which is more like tea to us Westerners) and fresh dates at reception to stave off the usual jet lag; and it was just those kinds of little touches that make the hotel so singularly special. To wit, we lingered in the lobby at an art exhibition dedicated to the aforementioned Sheikh Zayed, the founder of Abu Dhabi and a widely revered humanitarian; his legacy was interpreted in all manner of painting styles, adding an homage-like feel to the cool ground floor design.

Also, we couldn’t say enough about the sumptuous breakfast buffet, where scrumptious Middle Eastern (like, the best labna ever) made nice with more Western fare, fueling us up for a day of sightseeing. (And later, a treatment at the property’s heavenly Rayana Spa, as well as a spot of lounging by the gorgeous infinity pool.)

Speaking of filling up, we noticed every other car on the road in Abu Dhabi seemed to be a Range Rover or Maserati. So it’s certainly no secret how this cosmopolitan city-state enjoys such unbroken prosperity – no surprise, it’s those steady oil exports, especially those of an Occidental nature.

We rolled up to the ultra lavish Emirates Palace in the West Corniche district for a midday coffee fix. The landmark five-star property overlooks its own private natural bay – but is also well known for its 24k gold-flecked cappuccinos, served up regularly to its power-broker-and-royal clientele. With a sweet, metallic mustache on our lips, we then got a chance to peep a few of the 92 opulent suites. Rivaling any seven-figure New York City penthouse, bottles of gold-flecked water flowed freely and, of course, the views stretched far and wide before us.

Since Emirati Dirham, the local currency, is preferred for tipping, we then made use of the gilded ATM machines in the hotel’s very posh lobby. Though late lunch at the exceptional Mezlai Emirati restaurant was suggested, we politely demurred on the menu’s offering fresh camel meat and milk.

Being restless traveler types, we switched mid-visit over to the Grand Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Residences Emirates Pearl (yes, that’s a really long name). With 428 rooms, and 36 luxury suites (naturally, including the Presidential and the Royal), this very grand property was only a short walk to the sprawling, breath-stopping Presidential Palace, and the Founder’s Memorial celebrating the life and legacy of Zayed.

We do highly recommend familiarizing yourself with a little Abu Dhabi history (hey, the city-state might be younger than you) at the visitor’s center before strolling through the Heritage and Sanctuary Gardens. Leading to the site’s epic centerpiece, we were mesmerized by “The Constellation” by artist Ralph Helmick, housed in a massive cubic pavilion. When illuminated at night, a collection of 1,327 geometric shapes suspended on 1,100 cables becomes a three-dimensional silhouette of Zayed’s reassuring countenance.

Back at the Grand Hyatt, we were absolutely smitten with our water-facing room, sending us into an Instagram frenzy before it was time to head to the Women’s Handicraft Centre. A creative initiative run by the Abu Dhabi Women’s Association, traditional crafting here is largely dominated by women, who have passed on their skills from generation to generation. It was a far better choice for picking up authentic souvenirs than the slightly gaudy Heritage Mall (a fake souq-type set up), where most tourists frequent.

As part of the General Women’s Union dedicated to promoting the status and position of women in the U.A.E., it was fascinating to observe the creators together in small groups, practicing the arts of textile and palm tree frond weaving, embroidery, sewing and tailoring, basketry and sado (weaving cotton and wool into elaborately designed patterns used to make Bedouin tents, much like we suppered in during our desert excursion).

Marveling at the elaborate embroidery adorning the sleeves and collars of women’s robes, ‘teli’ is woven from gold, silver and colorful string, on a wooden block. It’s an impressive sight, the robes only worn on special occasions and ceremonies. To remember, as Abu Dhabi is an Islamic state, you should ask permission from the ladies before you start shooting away on your iPhone. And of course, leave your shoes at the door the Centre’s bungalows.

Read on to Part II