Vibrant arts and culture, fine dining, a luxurious stay, pristine beaches and beautiful wildlife is what Melissa Nazareth experienced at Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi.

I’ve always known Abu Dhabi to be a cultural hub in the region and so, when I learned that I was headed there, I was thrilled. Saadiyat Island, which translates to island of happiness, is undergoing extensive development and is expected to become the state’s cultural centre.

After a breezy flight, we were transferred to Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort, one of the six exclusive hotels and resorts on the island. I spotted residential complexes en route, many of which looked like something from the 1,001 Nights! The architecture here is breathtaking and unique. It wasn’t long before we reached the luxurious oasis that was to be our home for the next couple of days. The property is strategically located, 20 minutes from the airport and city centre, keeping transit time to a minimum.

A Natural Haven

On entering the lobby, I was transported to an oceanic paradise. A glittering installation created from more than 100 droplets of hand-blown Bohemian crystals and reminiscent of the azure blue waters that surround the island stood out. In fact, all parts of the property have been designed to offer a seamless transition from the hotel to the adjoining natural haven, with dolphins that swim close to the shore in the wee hours of the morning to the sociable birds that join you for an al fresco breakfast.

The sparrows aren’t the only ones with a friendly demeanor. Driven by a team of proactive, dutiful staff members, the service here is top-notch and personal. Everyone, from the lobby attendant to the manager, is warm and welcoming – a testament to generous Arabian hospitality. A painless check-in later, I headed to my Ocean Deluxe King Room, which offers breathtaking views of the award-winning beach. Saadiyat Island was recently crowned the Middle East’s Leading Beach Destination at the World Travel Awards for the 12th consecutive year. I had some time before we headed out for the first leg of our adventure so, I made myself a cup of coffee which I enjoyed on the cosy love chair – a circular sofa-like seat – on the balcony, but not before I explored a little. A fully stocked fridge, a Nespresso machine, a TV with local and international channels, complimentary wi-fi, a walk-in shower and separate bath… what more could I have asked for!

Arts & Culture

Our generous hosts and the organisers of this eventful trip had planned an exciting day ahead. Our first destination, The Abrahamic Family House is a unique space with a mosque, church and synagogue under the same roof. Welcoming people of all faiths, it upholds peaceful coexistence and acceptance among different beliefs, nationalities and cultures – just like the UAE – home to people from all walks of life. Each of the houses of worship is symbolically designed; the crucifix in the church has a silhouette of Jesus and not a statue with a face because depicting God is forbidden in Islam and Judaism; the mosque’s roof is reminiscent of the cave (of Hira) where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) received his first revelation. Numbers such as three, five and seven, which hold significance in all three religions, are incorporated into the design. You need to be modestly dressed but there is a counter to borrow a coverup. It’s a soulful, interactive experience and, if you’re lucky, you might catch a wedding! There’s a gift shop too and a garden where you can relax.

Manarat Al Saadiyat (MAS), a community centre, was next. Designed to host a variety of events from workshops in the amphitheatre and immersive exhibitions at their sprawling galleries to film screenings at Cine’MAS’ – their film fest – to art installations in the garden, this place has so much personality. The programme keeps changing so it’s best to check before you visit. There’s also an art studio that you could walk in and use for a nominal fee. Great to keep the kids busy for an hour or two!

Of course, we couldn’t miss Louvre Abu Dhabi, which has a newly added canoe rental option perfect for the winter months. On our visit, we stuck to exploring the museum. I strongly recommend hiring a guide because this place is huge. Further, having someone knowledgeable (and passionate!) with us helped us understand the displays better. It’s a lot of walking so wear comfortable shoes and you can always unwind at the café later. The outdoor area, with the specially designed dome, is a wonder to behold. During the day, the sunlight passing through creates a beautiful pattern on the ground.

Saadiyat Culture District, where these sites are located, is fast developing and tourists can expect a number of museums to open in the near future, such as Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National Museum. The latter will have narrow glass atriums resembling the wing tips of a falcon – the UAE’s national bird.

Gastronomy Galore

After a long and eventful day, we were glad to be returning to the hotel. Dinner was at Mare Mare, the Italian restaurant, which serves a modern spin on classics. We sat indoors but they have an outdoor area overlooking the beach, great for cooler days. Famished, we tucked into the starters. Fritto Misto, a selection of batter-fried seafood and vegetables, is a wonderful sharing dish. I recommend the Bruschetta Mista, a set of three sour dough slices topped with premium toppings and drizzled with the finest olive oil. We could taste it in every bite. I enjoyed the Spaghetti Alla Carbonara for main, with a glass of grape. It was creamy, complemented by the moreish saltiness of the bacon.

The dining offerings at Jumeirah at Saadiyat are diverse. During our stay, we also ate at the Levantine restaurant. Tean, meaning fig in Arabic, serves some of the best grills I have ever eaten. The succulent and lightly spiced shish taouk and equally juicy lamb kofta went so well with the vermicelli rice – a light side dish that took on the flavours of the meat. I recommend the falafel, which was a hit with the vegans and carnivores at the table – crunchy on the outside, mushy on the inside – you know a restaurant is good when it gets the simple things right.

On the second day, we dined at Beirut Sur Mer, at Mamsha Al Saadiyat, a vibrant beachfront venue. An extravagant Lebanese feast best describes our experience. There are other restaurants here, serving varied cuisines, from sushi to steaks. Day passes to the adjoining SOUL beach, that stretches for one kilometre, are available or you could enjoy a leisurely stroll along the promenade.

The island’s beaches truly are the jewel in its crown. Determined to experience them, my companion and I headed to the hotel’s beach every morning. We followed it with a sumptuous breakfast, served at White which has a pearly, oyster-shell-inspired interior. I was thoroughly impressed with the variety on offer. There were so many stations including one just for avocado on toast! Every palate will find something here, Indian staples such as idli, English baked beans, American hashbrowns… Carb enthusiasts can explore a variety of Danish pastries and breads and those on the health wagon will find their solace in the beckoning fruit, cereal and muesli counters.

Fitness Fanatic

Speaking of health, the island offers many options to stay active. Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is the Gulf’s first beachfront course. One of the highlights, for me, was spotting Arabian gazelles. The club is home to Hawksbill restaurant, the namesake of the turtle species that calls this island home. There’s a conservation programme to protect them too.

Sustainability is at the heart of virtually every initiative on this natural island.

Co-designed by golfing legend Gary Player, this 18- hole championship course will challenge both pros and amateurs. Safe to say, my companions and I were the latter but thanks to our friendly and experienced instructor – he has been playing for over two decades – we learned the basics of the game and hit some decent shots too. Book a guided session on your next holiday – you won’t regret it!

Saadiyat Beach Club is perfect for a day trip if you’re looking for a change of scene. The property has a collection of nice restaurants including La Salle Bistro where we dined. You can spend the mornings splashing in the temperature-controlled pool or relaxing on the loungers. There is a steam room, sauna, plunge pool and Jacuzzi too, and I’ve said enough about the beach. Day passes are available.

My colleague, a fitness enthusiast, made the most of the facilities at Jumeirah at Saadiyat. A fully-equipped gym with machines and studios for yoga and other classes are available. There’s a dedicated ladies’ gym, as well as a private room where those who are body conscious can train – well done, Jumeirah!

The wellness facilities are fitting for a five-star property such as this one. We were told that Spa, as it’s called, is the largest hammam spa in Abu Dhabi. With exclusive sections for male and female guests, it also offers couples’ treatments, using some of the most luscious products ever, 111 Skin, Biologique Recherche and marocMaroc, to name a few. Other facilities include a cold bath – 13 degrees Celsius – a pool Jacuzzi and Moroccan treatment areas. The 13 massage rooms include one with a Thaistyle low bed. There’s a VIP area with a private sauna if you’d like to pamper yourself and guests can choose from a wide range of treatments.

All good things must come to an end and likewise with this trip. However, it wasn’t a goodbye from me, rather au revoir. I will definitely return to this amazing island soon and with my family. Maybe try one of the many luxurious villas at Jumeirah at Saadiyat – they have an elevator inside! I would like to thank our hosts who organised this culturally rich experience for us. Saadiyat, you truly are ‘happiness’ island! ✤