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April 05, 2015

Abu Dhabi: Drama In The Desert

Text by Wyanet Vaz

Ensconced in the lap of luxury with royal encounters, midnight suppers and Bloody Marys, the St. Regis hotel in Abu Dhabi pampers the senses

Miles away from home, somewhere over the Arabian Sea, I wondered if Abu Dhabi was very much like the famous Arabian Nights — belly dancers swaying in the streets, souks lit by dim lights, Oriental music in the background and yes, I’ll throw in Aladdin for good luck. Hoping I’d do justice to all that I learnt from Sex and the City 2, I was well-equipped with a stash of harem pants, loose rubies for change, and Middle East-ish everything.

Vast oceans and sand dunes later, as we touched down at Abu Dhabi International Airport, I spotted a gigantic work of art — a futuristic glass-panelled structure that seemed to be a cross between a yacht and building. Little did I know it was an airport tower! As we were ferried to our destination, huge structures, and garages decked with shiny cars and private speed boats screamed out, “It’s the new Middle East!”

On the frontline of my mind and the Corniche stood the twin towers of St. Regis. After the culture shock at the airport, I almost failed to believe in the mystic properties of the land till huge diamond-studded chandeliers and gold leafed walls welcomed me with everything I hoped Arabia would be. Drawing on the warm colours of the sand, this Starwood hotel is awash in geometric patterns, jewel-toned tapestry and my favourite is the ‘art deco that wasn’t’. Since the style moderne movement didn’t really see the light of day in this part of the world, St. Regis cleverly replicates an idea of what could have been.

Making my way past the towering ceilings, men in crisp white thawbs, intertwining staircases and paintings of the prince of Abu Dhabi, I pick up an occasional date (the welcome fruit, just clarifying) and officially check in.

The view from the 37th floor comes as a surprise. Specks of towers in between the ocean-blue sky and the picturesque Corniche put all the Instagram filters to shame. And if you thought that was the works, wait for it… St. Regis provides me with a personal butler, perfectly nailing the sweet spot of luxury.

A day prior to the Sentebale Polo Cup, I had the opportunity to meet the alleged ‘David Beckham of Polo’ – Nacho Figueras. The very first polo ambassador for St. Regis, is a towering Argentinian and a huge fan of Lionel Messi. In a quick tête-à-tête with the polo star, he talks to me about his love for horses and his plans of creating a museum for all the 500 horses that he has been breeding so far. He has named each one and tells me that he remembers most names, but humbly states that he is bound to make mistakes. Of all of them, Sue Ellen happens to be his favourite.

I also experienced a Jazz 101 session with Dominick Farinacci, who is the Artistic Director at the Lincoln Centre. He was accompanied by acclaimed pianist Richard Johnson. The east-meets-west scenario saw a clever jazz rendition of the Arabian Nights music, as well as What a Wonderful World by popular demand. The St. Regis Bar doubled as a melting pot of culture, tied together by music and their classic Bloody Mary. If you’re at the St. Regis, there are signature elements that you must be party to. One of them is savouring the Bloody Mary, also known in this hotel as the Desert Snapper. The second is the St. Regis Bar stocked up with all the exotic alcohol in the world. American flavours still linger around, with huge paintings making the experience seem like a tangible trip to the Gatsby era. At the iconic Midnight Supper at the Saadiyat Island property, I happen to witness a fun tutorial on champagne sabering — that is (without the shadow of a doubt) the big daddy of party tricks.

The agenda for the next afternoon is the Sentebale Polo Cup — a fund-raiser polo match all in favour of the Sentebale Charity started by Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho. The not-too-harsh Abu Dhabi sun contributed to perfect lighting for a fancy day on the turf. Amidst flowing gowns and fancy hats, the St. Regis team captained by Figueras was pitted against the Sentebale team featuring their key player Prince Harry. Haven’t really gotten over the colonial hangover, I did secretly cheer for the rival team. It was overwhelming to watch him play in real time, without the barrier of a TV screen — something that has fond remains only in my phone memory now.

The final leg of my stay in Abu Dhabi is a guided city tour. The Heritage Village was complete with sand dunes, camels and tiny shops selling authentic souvenirs. The Grand Mosque is an intricately designed monument holding the world’s largest chandelier. Designed with exquisite materials, the pristine white structure would take up a photographer’s day. I overheard the tour guide grumble of a fellow Russian journalist who literally photographed each and every mosaic tile there. Our last stop was the Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island which talks about Abu Dhabi’s cultural expansions as they plan on building a home grown version of The Louvre and The Guggenheim Lab. As we leave, I look back at the museum which has a quotation that reads, ‘Today will end’.

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