Wake up in room 101 of St Regis Saadiyat Island and you are in a unique position, here in Abu Dhabi. You look out over your private pool, and already there are golfers on the course. Yes, the gal is told, hotel guests can play, arrange it via your butler. If someone wants a luxury golf resort with nonstop hot sun and an adjacent beach, this is perfect.
Arrive here early morning, or leave late evening, and there is a special lounge, with washrooms and showers and a small gym – the main gym is in a separate building, seven minutes’ walk from the hotel. The lounge is also next to the fabulous two-floor-high all-day dining, Oleo, with an overhang over the serving and buffet area that reminds you that outside there is a clear blue sky above the sandy beach. I sit outside, having chosen lots of fabulous fruit. A waiter brings really good coffee, in a white china ‘tea’ pot.
It is worth going to the egg chef just because of the chefette, who is deftly managing two omelette pans at once. Most have omelettes filled with all kinds of things: there are lots of Germans staying here right now, with hefty appetites. They, and the slim-line, white dish-dash locals (who adore eating breakfast in hotels) have one thing in common. BREAD. Both pile plates mountain-high with breads, both rolls and cut-your-own baguettes and local flat bread. With the Europeans, you can see where it goes. With the locals, I wonder.
I head for the spa, a hearty walk, about ten minutes in all from room 101, but fortunately all inside as it is so so hot outside, even at 9.30. I am amazed at the ingenuity in the spa locker room. Taking the eye around vertically, you see a bank of three lockers, say 5A, 5B, 5C (all yours), one above the other. Next comes a high alcove with padded leather seating, then the next three vertically-set lockers (all your neighbours). This is such a stylish idea and gives you your own seating area.
The spa is very calming, very relaxing. You could stay here and be so busy you would need that. As well as golf and the usual beach and pool activities, this is the nearest hotel to what will be Louvre Abu Dhabi, now opening 2015. Already there are cultural programmes. On Saturday June 1st, 2013, the museum’s French director, Laurence des Cars, is hosting a family workshop, and on Wednesday June 26th, 2013, she is lecturing on unlocking the mystery of art, with science. Stay here for culture, for the whole family.
The door of my Bentley – actually, the hotel’s – is already unlocked and rarin’ to go. Max Wiegerinck, who is in charge of the luxury hotel at the moment, found time to come out to say goodbye, as did some of the staff, all with big smiles.
What makes one luxury hotel group stand out from another? At Kempinski, every lobby has one Lady In Red, a brilliantly simple idea by an American producer, Bruce Tallon. Dress one of the chic customer agent females in red and she stands out. At St Regis, one stand-out feature is a hotel’s version of the Bloody Mary. At St Regis Saadiyat Island Abu Dhabi they offer an Arabian snapper, with za’atar (actually it is so substantial that the gal thought you barely need any food!).
This fabulous hotel, right on the edge of the island and almost, as it were, surrounded by golf course, was conceptualized with such passion by John Pelling, who everyone, colleagues and guests and friends, loved so much. Having been a food man so much of his professional life, he not surprisingly made the restaurants pretty special. The grill is called 55/5, because of the address of the original St Regis, in New York. Look up at its striking ceiling.
Look down, at the dishes they serve. Before we started the chef sent out an amuse of a boiled egg, but it was an egg with a difference, there was caviar on top. I looked down at the table linens, which had borders of exquisite pulled thread, the kind of decoration that some people used to do in embroidery classes years ago. The menu cover, by the way, is brown leather, embossed as if it is woven, to match the metal decoration on one wall of the restaurant, woven in wide metal bands.
That dinner was one ongoing delight. How about the entr’acte, or palate cleanser, shown? The martini glass holds a green tomato and lettuce sorbet and, on top, there are tiny beads of olive oil and ouzo. I wonder how much time has been taken, by aspiring culinarians in the kitchen, to produce such a dish.
The culinary team has also been travelling, to Al Ain oasis some 45 minutes away. Al Ain’s farms are producing superbly fresh organic produce, and a salad here at 55/5 includes pink bottle radish and garden mache greens from Al Ain, plus pickled cucumber and roast hazelnuts. There are sun-dried tomato bread rolls, and miniature baguettes.
And at some point another chef’s delight came out (I think between the vintage beef and the chocolate soufflé with Madagascar vanilla icecream and crème anglaise but who cares – like a beautiful museum, the order in which you experience something is not always vital). The point is that when a luxury hotel like this takes food seriously, your whole stay seems better. When a sense of fun is introduced as well, you remember it all the more. One of the chef’s offerings tonight was a small taco filled with spiced Wagyu beef, from Australia, served with a shot glass of Corona beer.
The symbol of Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest in the UAE, is the eighth largest in the world –total area the size of five football pitches. Any luxury hotel down by the Creek is lucky as guests have amazing views of the Mosque at all times (also amazing are the ghastly, thoughtless jet-skiers, banned from other areas of this Emirate and the gal strongly believes they should be banned from here, too, before someone gets killed).
Over three thousand worked to create this Mosque, with its 82 domes and four minarets. Total cost is thought to have been $545 million but who cares? HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is buried here, now. On Fridays, up to 40,000 come here to pray, on what is said to be the word’s largest carpet, 6,570 sq ft in all, made by over 1,200 Iranian carpet knotters. Oh yes, Swarovski got into the act too. Millions of their crystals are in the mosque’s seven giant chandeliers, which come from Germany.
Talking of beautiful things, my first night back in Abu Dhabi was dinner at Pearls & Caviar, next to the villas that are part of The Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, which means ‘village by the guard-tower crossing to Abu Dhabi Island’. Pearls & Caviar is a separate two-floor building cantilevered over the creek. Arrive at your table and your place is marked by an eight-inch wide silver-black ‘pearl shell’ holding a cherry-sized pearl. The shell is in fact a black silver-topped white china bowl. The pearl is pierced and I shall hang mine on a thread to replace my gold champagne top, stolen a couple of years ago.
The food, as you would expect, is very elegant. Before we started properly, the chef, Cyril Calmet, sent out another shell, this time a real one filled with a single oyster Rockefeller, created 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine Alciatore, the New Yorker who had opened the famous Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans in 1840. Alciatore Jr called his dish for John D. Rockefeller because the sauce was as rich as JDR was, at the time. My meal after that was less rich, namely a palette with little blobs of Sterling Farm beetroot and goat cheese, and walnut butter and pickled Shimej mushrooms, followed by Norwegian halibut.
But this is also something of a wild place. Head to the upper floor, above Pearls & Caviar, and you find a day-glo bar, with streaks of fuchsia and streaks of gentian light, and lots of happy people enjoying themselves. By day this resort, for that is what this 214-room hotel is, right on the water’s edge, is a haven for kids, who love splashing in and out of the water. By dark, adults love it just as much (though the locals and expats here in Abu Dhabi seem to be more controlled, especially at weekends, than some of their Dubai neighbours).
In the morning, I pulled back the curtains and looked across the Canal to – the Mosque. What a lovely and peaceful start to the day and, at that hour, not a single jet-ski in sight. While working out in the gym, though I did think that every luxury hotel should give a jet-ski count. Are they likely to be a nuisance? And what can be done to make the authorities take note? But no time to take action now. I eschewed the offered buggy and took a ten-minute garden walk along the banks of the hotel’s own mini-canal, and over a wood bridge that would do Venice proud, to have a half hour of relaxation in the Chi spa in the hotel’s own, and very splendid, soukh shopping mall. Somehow one does not look either elegant or like the luxury traveller one hopes to be when going into a spa…