For a keen cyclist, a good luxury hotel needs a suitable bike. I first came across Scott bikes when staying at InterContinental Resort Berchtesgaden, 120 miles from Munich, and 700 metres above sea level with marvellously clear air (Berchtesgaden, which produces lovely tastly yoghurt, is birthplace of the Talise nutritonalist the gal wrote about a couple of days ago). Now here, in Abu Dhabi, I am put on a brand new Scott bike at Hilton Abu Dhabi and off I pedal, along the Corniche.
They are commendably health-aware at this cosy-comfortble resort which is so popular that 20 percent of people staying here come back again and again. Some of them, says the big-boss Wolfgang Maier, who funnily enough also thinks of himself as a Munich Man, return not only for the people who make it all happen but because this is the only hotel in Abu Dhabi where all rooms have windows that open. What a treat this is.
From the top floor, in room 1002, I can look across the water, blessedly free of jet-skis (I think they are banned here) at what is called Marina Mall, an island reached by a long causeway bridge. I had been given a jogging map, total 13 miles (ha ha!) that would take me along the Corniche, which has a cycle track, and back again and over to Marina Mall and along to the big mosque at the end of it. I did not go quite that far. Having dropped my loaned bike off with the concierge, I was back up on the tenth floor when another guest, obviously a regular, came out of his room in Bradley Wiggins type gear, with a hundred-speed bike, all the works.
No fewer than 1,500 locals are members of the hotel’s private beach club, which is packed every day. There are pools, and lounging areas, and squash, and tennis and a big gym. You reach the beach club either directly from the road or via an underground walkway from the hotel. Later, I walked across just as a little girl’s sixth birthday party was about to start. I went into the gym and watched arrivals walk past the window. Some of the invitees were wearing the ultimate Little Princess frocks, and carrying their own gifts for the birthday girl. Others got the maids to carry them (gifts, not Little Princesses). Mothers were dressed in anything from blue jeans to the latest Versace. Presumably there was a gigantic cake.
I too ate splendidly at the beach club, at the outside terrace of Vasco, Mediterranean plus seafood plus steak, whatever you like. Joseph, the manager in charge, knew exactly what we wanted – the salad bar and a great piece of Aussie beef and a glass of Pinot. I loved the way the water features around the Vasco terrace change day-glo colours as the night progresses.
This is a luxury hotel for those who prefer their favourite, rather than their newest, pair of shoes, and for those for whom the words Cosy and Comfortable are key. In the tenth floor Club Lounge, I could not see a chef but I asked for an egg white omelette. It came in three minutes, cooked just out of sight by a real chef… I asked if by any chance they had a Financial Times. That took four minutes.
To continue on the luxury theme, seeing something so natural and so unexpected as a perfect new moon is another component. The gal was about to dine outside, on the terrace of Sayad fish restaurant at Emirates Palace Kempinski Abu Dhabi. There, looking down at us, was this sliver of a moon. The hotel’s lovely chef Sandro Gambo, who made his name at another luxury hotel, Park Hyatt Chicago, came by to say hello and we toasted the moon, together.
Sandro Gambo knows how to prepare food to bring out the best of its flavour. It does not have to be complicated, but a bit of show helps. Here one of the servers is finishing a bouillabaisse, the Provençal fish stew that originated in Marseille. At Sayad, a bowl is brought with tiny fish creations in it, and the soup part is carefully poured over. I discover later that word bouillabaisse comes from the Provençal dialects for bolhabaissa, bolhir, to boil, and abaissar, to simmer.
At breakfast, here, as in other top hotels in Abu Dhabi, locals are eating almost as soon as the place, Le Vendôme, opens. Several tables are ladies-only, completely veiled in black. Twice as many tables are men only, guys in white dish-dashes. There are Arabic, and Chinese and Japanese sections, and a salmon carving table, and omelette specialists and waffle specialists. The coffee, by the way, is sensational (if you hear anyone say hotels cannot produce good coffee, suggest they come here, for coffee from a local company, Maromas).
Luxury is also feasts for the eye, of beautiful old sculptures like some of the Xi’an warrior-type in vitrines in the shiny marble walkways. Outside, there is an exhibition of sculptures suspended between trees. All the pieces are by a Pole, Jerzy Kedzior, known as Jotka. He specializes in pieces that defy gravity – in 2008 his Under the Dubai Sky – Creating Balance collection was shown to great acclaim in Dubai, sponsored by Barclays Wealth.
Each piece here in Abu Dhabi is more amusing than the last – head to see the collection now, as it is a temporary show, and will at some point be taken down (so far it has been extended twice). Jotka was born in Czestochowa, southern Poland, eldest of the seven offspring of an electrician and a professional knitter. The little boy would draw designs which his mother would incorporate into her knitting. He graduated to decorating churches and other buildings. Today, his balance sculptures are inspired by Gothic architecture throughout Europe, and by New York’s skyscrapers. Many are bought by German hospitals as therapy for patients.
Seeing his pieces in the gardens of this, one of the world’s ultimate luxury hotels, I felt awe-struck by the laws of physics that Jotka says help him to gauge a piece’s stability. I get into the back of a cream leather-lined Maybach and leave, having learned yet more lessons on what today’s luxury could be. Having clear clocks in the back of the car, clocks that tell me the time here and in other world cities, is another element.
What is luxury? As a noun it is the state of great comfort and extravagant living, say some. But the gal is set to show that a ‘luxury’ hotel, or a luxury resort, does not always have to be about extravagance. Sometimes an element of sheer over-the-top implies luxury. See this lush curtain fabric and the amazing cord and its tie, at Emirates Palace Kempinski, Abu Dhabi. You simply want to touch it, to feel if it is real.
Taken as a whole, this place does exemplify ‘luxury’ magnificently. Look at it from outside. It is a kilometer long, which means it has to have mirror-images gyms and spas at the ends of both wings. There are 394 bedrooms, including 16 Royal Suites, but look at the facts and figures. There are 114 exterior domes, and, inside, 7,200 doors – who counted them? – and 114 elevators.
On the total-200 acres of land there is one cricket pitch, a mile of white sandy beach, a marina – and two camels. These live on the sand fairly near to the main building, and their minders were just getting up from their bed rolls on rugs in the open-sided rush-topped camel ‘hotel’ when I ran past, as the sun came up. This is the only time of the day to run, here, as it is appallingly hot by about eight.
Who stays in a hotel like this? Government delegations galore, and all their minders – and tourists, lots of Germans and Russians and people from the UK. I hope they make them pay on arrival as the interior is so confusing it could be quite easy to get lost, never to be seen again. The tourists, however, find their way to one of the many outdoor pool complexes and spend their days there, many turning different shades of tomato hue.
Once back inside, that is where the fun, and the exercise, begin. To get from my room, 2517, I can take one of those elevators, or 104 carpeted steps of a wide curving staircase down to base level, to the gardens and the gym. To get to the lobby, I quickly discovered the simplest way was down one flight of that staircase and head, left and right and through the absolutely gorgeous long marbled walkway to the Grand Atrium, centre of the whole building (this open space is 150 feet across, nearly 200 feet high).
If luxury is space, you have it here. If luxury is a gold bath filled with sweet-smelling petals in the two Anantara spas here at this luxury hotel, you can tick off two more requirements. Add to that, of course, Thai therapists who know what they are talking about. And the fact that mine got me out by my requested hour. Luxury is also time, and every five minutes saved adds to that state of great comfort.