Last November, Abu Dhabi hosted the grand finale of Taste the World – a fabulous culinary competition featuring ten of the world’s best chefs, who battled it out in the Etihad pavilion recreating their signature dishes in front of a live audience. The independent panel of judges included Taste founder and director Justin Clarke.
London was represented by Club Gascon’s Pascal Aussignac – who cooked his famous slow-cooked truffled duck egg in the nest – but chefs came from as far afield as Toronto, Hong Kong, Moscow and Sydney. It was Dutch chef André Gerrits of Michelin-starred ‘t Amsterdammertje who took the winning mantle, bagging two first-class tickets with Etihad to anywhere in the world.
I spent a week with the chefs, exploring Abu Dhabi and learning about Emirati food culture before the festival. We visited the fruit market, the fish souk, the Manarat Saadiyat contemporary art and cultural centre, and walked around the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque at sunset.
We took a boat around the corniche and sipped cocktails from the 62nd floor of the mind-boggling Etihad Towers. From here you could see for miles, and get a sense for the topography of the city. To say it was a good week is an understatement.
Abu Dhabi is the largest, wealthiest and most populated of the seven emirates. Consisting of some 200 islands, most of which are joined up by highways, it accounts for 80% of the UAE’s total land mass. Cars and boats rule the roost here – and there are barely any pavements, though in this heat, you probably wouldn’t be up for a long stroll.
Only 50 years ago all this was a small village dotted with palm huts and coral buildings. The desert was inhabited by nomadic tribes, and the main source of income was fishing, pearl diving and date palms. The discovery of oil in 1958 changed things forever.
Now a veritable box of luxury delights, the city features some of the world’s best restaurants and hotels, with outposts of Zuma, Hakkasan, Marco Pierre White, Asia de Cuba and Cipriani, as well hotels such as Rosewood, Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons, Emirates Palace and The St Regis, all of which have top-class restaurants of their own. If you like the finer things in life, you’ll be in heaven. It’s like holidaying in Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The majority of Abu Dhabi’s 2.3 million citizens are ex-pats, and Taste is just one of many highlights in the jam-packed social calendar. Next week is the F1 Grand Prix on the famous Yas racetrack. Then there’s the Coutts international polo tournament, the horse and camel racing, the tennis and the PGA golf championships.
We stayed in the futuristic-looking Viceroy on Yas Island, which overlooks the famous Yas Marina Circuit. It’s the best place to stay if you’re a petrolhead – though be warned that the price of the rooms skyrocket during F1 week. The rooftop pool and trackside Origins restaurant are also fabulous.
What surprised me most about Abu Dhabi was the surrounding nature and abundance of outdoor activities on offer. My naive preconception of the city was the it was all shopping malls and seven-star hotels. But this is a diverse place, with mountains, desert, mangrove forests, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 400km of coastline on its doorstep.
Aside from the glitzy skyscrapers, there’s kayaking, hot springs, trails to hike around and coral reefs and wrecks to dive, as well as beaches that wouldn’t look out of place on the French Riviera. We took a 4×4 dune-bashing around the desert, but you can also camp here or go sand-boarding.
Abu Dhabi is a pleasant surprise, and definitely somewhere I’d visit again, either as a stopover en route to Asia, or as a destination in its own right. It feels relaxed, safe and respectful. The locals are friendly, the hospitality first-class, and nearly everyone speaks English. At this time of year, the temperature has dropped to a balmy 25-30C, so if the grey skies of Blighty are proving too much, you know you’re only six hours away from guaranteed sunshine and good times.
Next year, the city opens a brand-new outpost of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. But, to be honest, there are plenty of draw-cards here already – the galleries will be the icing on an already very fancy cake.
Katie travelled with Etihad Airways, which is the national carrier of the UAE and the global airline partner of 15 Taste Festivals across the world. A return fare to Abu Dhabi, departing from London Heathrow, starts at £360 in economy class, including taxes and subject to availability. Etihad Airways also flies from Manchester and Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi. For reservations and further details, visit www.etihad.com or call 0345 608 1225.
Katie stayed at the Viceroy hotel on Yas Island. For more information, visit www.viceroyhotelsand resorts.com.