Thursday, January 29, 2009

Abu Dhabi is classiest place in the Emirates

IF Dubai and Abu Dhabi were 1950s film idols, Dubai would be Marilyn Monroe. Abu Dhabi would be Grace Kelly.

Dubai is the sizzle. Abu Dhabi is the steak.

Dubai is the commercial hub of the United Arab Emirates that gets all the attention. Almost 100km away, the nation's political capital of Abu Dhabi has gone largely overlooked.

However, Abu Dhabi doesn't have to stand for that any more, and it isn't going to.

Not that there's a rivalry, but this city, widely regarded as the world's richest, is spending $A166 billion (that's billion, with a B) on infrastructure spread over the next five years to attract more vacationers.

A bigger airport, wider roads and dozens of developments that each measure in the tens of millions of square metres are already under construction, somehow without the frenzied sense of urgency that permeates Dubai.

Australian companies are in on the building spree, too: Leighton International has won a $A387 million building project here.

Other works include the world's only extension of Paris's vaunted Louvre Museum, all 786,000sqm of it, and a 984,000sqm Guggenheim.

Look for them to open their doors in 2011 or 2012 on Saadiyat Island, which is a 16sqkm natural formation and claims to be the largest single mixed-use development in the Arabian Gulf. That would make it bigger than any of the man-made island projects Dubai's got going.

Despite the massive project, much of Saadiyat Island will remain the wildlife habitat it always has been, thanks to its mangrove swamp.

In fact, Abu Dhabi city itself sits on an island. To get there from Dubai you take a freeway that runs past power plants, dusty blue-collar communities and right there –between the desert and the deep blue sea –is a mangrove swamp.

This city is newer than you'd think. Except for the Heritage Village out on the breakwater and the Qasr Al Hosn fort, there's little sign of rural Arabia here.

The heart, if not the centre, of town seems to be the Corniche, or shoreline road that, on the gulf side, brushes a golden beach framed by landscaped walks and bicycle paths. On the town side, behind a string of grassy parks, stand banks of high-rise offices, apartments and hotels.

Then there's Lulu Island where people can experience the dunes of the Arabian desert without the inconvenience of leaving the city limits.

Fronting almost a mile of private beach, Emirates Palace is the sort of spread that holds two pools and two helicopter pads, with plenty of room left over for a performance of Aida on its west lawn.

They've staged the musical Chicago in the 1100-seat indoor theatre. The most basic of rooms here come with round-the-clock butlers, 1.21m plasma TVs and views of gardens or pools, if not the Persian Gulf.

At the other end of town and flanking the new Abu Dhabi Mall are the eastern beachfront hotels of the formerly prestigious, now demolished and soon-to-be-redeveloped, Tourist Club area.

The neighbourhood holds such a place in the local psyche that cab drivers plead to show you where it used to be: the void on the shoreline awaiting a new five-star hotel.

Stop by the Women's Craft Centre or prowl through Al Menna –a warehouse district where carpets, birds, garden gnomes, garbage pails and vegies are sold, flea-market style.

Play the licence-plate game here, and you'll bag Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan.

Al Menna's docks aren't bad either for local colour. Working dhows tangled with fishing nets hold the foreground alongside what look like offshore drilling rigs on shore leave. Depending on the humidity, you may or may not get to see the glass skyline across the harbour.

You could take a day trip south to Liwa Oasis, near Saudi Arabia. Or you could trek due east to Al Ain, another oasis in the Hajar Mountains. Either excursion can be booked locally, assuming you make Abu Dhabi your base of operation, which isn't a bad idea.

Not that you'd leave Dubai out of the picture. After all, if you're going to stay in the richest city on Earth, you ought to show a little charity to those places less fortunate.