ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—If Dubai and Abu Dhabi were '50s 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. Some 60 miles away, the nation's political capital of Abu Dhabi has gone largely overlooked. But Abu Dhabi doesn't have to stand for that anymore, and it isn't going to.
Not that there's a rivalry, but this city, widely regarded as the world's richest, is spending $100 billion -- that's billion-with-a-B -- on infrastructure over the next five years to change its numbers and attract more vacationers. A bigger airport, wider roads and dozens of developments that each measure in the tens of millions of square feet already are under construction, somehow without the frenzied sense of urgency that permeates Dubai.
The world's only extension of Paris' vaunted Louvre Museum will rise, all 258,000 square feet of it, here in Abu Dhabi. A 323,000-square-foot Guggenheim also is in the works. Look for them to open their doors in 2011-'12 on Saadiyat Island, a 10-square-mile natural formation that claims to be the largest single mixed-use development in the Arabian Gulf, which would make it bigger than any of the manmade 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, I ought to mention that 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 -- 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 center, 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, condos, hotels.
At first blush, Abu Dhabi's Corniche might easily be mistaken for Chicago's Lake Shore Drive -- with some dramatic exceptions: Mosque minarets and flocks of construction cranes pierce the skyline. The bike path is surfaced with blue pavers. Underpasses are decorated with painted-and-fired tiles.
There's Lulu Island, where people can experience the dunes of the Arabian desert without the inconvenience of leaving the city limits. There's that Heritage Village I mentioned, from which you can catch a boat over to the "desert" or take a sightseeing cruise by traditional dhow. And in a destination that takes shopping as seriously as it does the oil business, I'm willing to bet -- though I haven't conducted a count -- that there are more big-name design houses in the various malls here than grace Chicago's Magnificent Mile.
At the western tip of town, they still build the traditional wooden dhows, or cargo boats, in the shipyards of Al Bateen. Also in this area are the marina, the Marina Mall, the breakwater and the Emirates Palace, the city's landmark hotel that opened in 2005. 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 1,100-seat indoor theater. The most basic of rooms here come with 'round-the-clock butlers and views of gardens or pools, if not the Persian Gulf, when you're not watching the 4-foot plasma TV.
At the other end of town and flanking the Abu Dhabi Mall -- it's also new -- are the eastern beachfront hotels of the formerly prestigious, now demolished, soon-to-be-redeveloped Tourist Club area. The neighborhood holds such a place in the local psyche that cabdrivers plead to show you where it used to be: The void on the shoreline awaits a new five-star hotel and appropriate trappings. I spent my one night in town next door at the moderate-by-Emirate-standards Le Meridien, an older hotel that has only one pool -- unless you count the one in the spa -- and a small beach that, unfortunately, faces the industrial clutter of Suwwah Island. Still, the rooms were updated along the lines of a W Hotel, and I'm still impressed by the multi-hued onyx fountain in the lobby.
Hotels are a bigger part of the experience in the Persian Gulf than in some other regions of the world. With few exceptions, they're where you'll be dining and drinking, so it matters where you stay.
I wish it were possible to tour some of the royal family's palaces. But the best you can do is a drive-by of the perimeter fences and entry gates -- a waste of time. You're better off stopping by the Women's Craft Center or prowling through Al Menna, a warehouse district where carpets, birds, garden gnomes, garbage pails and vegetables are sold flea-market style. Play the license-plate game here, and you'll bag Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan. Al Menna's docks aren't bad either for local color. 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 harbor.
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 through local outfitters, 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.
Taxis are the way to go. They're less than $5 between the gold souk and most hotels in town. Your hotel can book a half-day custom taxi tour of the city for about $73.
The top stay here is the lavish Emirates Palace, on the western tip of the island. Standard rooms start at $602 in March (during Abu Dhabi's shopping festival) and come with garden or pool views -- when you're not watching the 50-inch plasma TV -- balconies and marble baths. It's a Kempinski affiliate. (800-426-3135; emiratespalace.com)
In the same neighborhood is the less pricey Hilton Abu Dhabi, with a beach of its own and rates in March ranging from $299 to $544. (800-445-8667; www1.hilton.com) Another familiar name nearby is InterContinental, $544-$1,497 in March. (888-424-6835; ichotelsgroup.com)
Many other business and resident hotels are scattered along the Corniche.
At the other end of town are the eastern beachfront hotels. I spent my one night in town at Le Meridien, $381-$517 in March. (800-543-4300; starwoodhotels.com ) Also here is the Beach Rotana Hotel & Towers, a Middle Eastern chain, $414-$657 in March. (rotana.com)
Rates may be considerably less during the hot summer months and Ramadan. Add 16 percent tax to hotel rates.
Arabic is the official language, but English is spoken by most workers in the tourist sector; everything from street signs to menus is bilingual. Islam is the official religion. Those of other faiths are free to attend churches or temples so long as there's no proselytizing. Dress code is on the side of modesty. Women should wear blouses with sleeves, calf-length pants or skirts (but no slits), and avoid exposing cleavage and midriff. There's no need to wear a scarf. Men should wear shirts with sleeves and long pants.
Friday is the Islamic holy day, when many businesses are closed or work shorter hours. Shops are open on Friday but close for prayers 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. The rest of the week, shopping in souks is generally 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Malls usually are open 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Visas are unnecessary for U.S. citizens who intend to stay less than one month. According to the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, this policy includes "those with visa or entry stamps from other countries." Anyone who wants to be doubly certain that an Israeli stamp, specifically, won't raise problems may contact the embassy. (202-243-2415 or 202-243-2465; uae-embassy.org)
Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, abudhabitourism.ae