The Hedonist: Abu Dhabi

What to see and where to be seen

Mouna, my adorably incorrigible Lebanese partner in crime, meets me upon arrival at the gleaming airport. We've been great friends since my first trip, when Abu Dhabi was still prim and proper compared to wild child Dubai next door. We hop into her tiny red Mini and begin the white-knuckle ride that passes for driving in this part of the world.





We head for the Corniche, Abu Dhabi's showiest boulevard, which runs along the sparkling waters of the Persian Gulf, where mega-yachts glide past palm-fringed beaches and the cityscape flashes by in a blur of futuristic skyscrapers, swanky five-star hotels, glittering shopping malls and the occasional Arabian footnote, such as a shisha café or kebab house.



Cosmopolitan, upbeat and culturally aspirational, Abu Dhabi is thinking big. Maybachs and Rollers pass by in stately splendour, buzzed by speedier rivals in sports cars.



We pull into the Hiltonia Beach Club (00 971 2 681 1900; hilton.com), an Abu Dhabi institution, to enjoy sundowners on the beach at Escape – a quintessential beach and poolside bar that attracts a lively local crowd along with tourists showing off their sunburn. We shamelessly bag the last two beanbags on the terrace and flop down. Arabic pop music floats out over the sound system: it's Egyptian heart-throb Amr Diab. "So good-looking," sighs Mouna, as she sips an icy mojito. Alas, that cannot be said for the men posing poolside... a couple of beefy Russian businessmen sporting loud new Vilebrequin swim shorts and barking into gold-plated mobile phones. We decide to make a move.



The Havana Café (00 971 2 681 00 44) is a popular shisha café overlooking the breakwater. In Abu Dhabi, shisha cafés are places where locals can have a smoke and a chat. They are the last bastions of traditional Arabic social life in a city being Starbucked into submission. Emirati men in their spotless white dishdasha robe and headdress, and women in graceful long black abbayas sit around the low tables while their kids run about. The rumble of fast-paced Arabic is punctuated by laughter, and the air is scented with aromatic flavoured tobacco. Taking a puff, I get carried away and inhale too fast, spluttering and coughing like a total tourist. Time to seek out the bright lights of town.



Souk Qaryat Al Beri (00 971 2 558 1670; soukqaryatalberi.com) is an elegant shopping and nightlife enclave done in Arabian style, overlooking the waterfront. Current hotspots include Sho Cho, which serves Asian fusion cuisine and evolves into a lounge bar with a DJ in the evenings; The Noodle House, the UAE's answer to Wagamama; and trendy Left Bank (00 971 2 558 1680), where we pop in to see Abu Dhabi's young professionals at play. The sexy red leather banquettes are all occupied by media types chatting up glossy female companions, so we drift out to the terrace and gaze at the magical white domes and minarets of the Grand Mosque glowing like a mirage in the velvety night.



I'm looking forward to Abu Dhabi's famous seafood at Finz, the restaurant at The Beach Rotana Hotel (00 971 2 644 3000; rotana.com) where the grilled local hammour (a meaty fish similar to sea bass) is always in demand. The atmosphere is chic and sleek, all glass and wood, and if you sit outside under the stars, you can hear the waves rushing up the sand.



The evening flies by. At 11pm, it's time to hit the dance floor. We opt for the pretty party scene of Pearls & Caviar (00 971 2 509 8777; pearlsandcaviar. com) at the lush Shangri-La beach resort. Abu Dhabi's beautiful people are draped over the modernistic white sofas that run the length of the terrace while the DJ spins Ibiza chill-out tracks. A trio from an Italian F1 team wearing tight black T-shirts with "Enzo" emblazoned in red offer to buy us cocktails. Never one to hurt feelings I agree to a lychee martini, while Mouna poses like an extra from La Dolce Vita with a Campari and soda. ("There are designated clubs and restaurants in hotels that are allowed to serve alcohol to non-Muslims," is the official line on drinking.)



The boys are in town to promote the opening of Ferrari World (yasisland.ae), a theme park boasting the world's fastest rollercoaster. A few hours later we have invitations to meet next day at the F1 circuit at the surreal new Yas Hotel (00 971 2 656 0700; theyashotel.com) for some hands-on driving lessons. Abu Dhabi does it again.



A Hedonist's Guide to... ( Hg2) is a luxury city guide series for the more decadent traveller. For more information, see hg2.com

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