Abu Dhabi is a gem hiding in plain sight.
By Sam Sakocius.
We recently traveled to Abu Dhabi as part of a group of 40 invited guests (a contingency of golf tour operators, golf travel writers, golf photographers from all over the globe) courtesy of a switched-on group of golf and related businesses who, with the full support of Department of Culture and Tourism and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, showcased its fully integrated tourism offering spanning golf, entertainment, luxury accommodations, and extensive leisure activities. A trip that would span 4 days, 4 rounds of day golf, 2 rounds of night golf, 4 nights at a wide range of hotels, and exotic side trips.
Ok with the official mission statement out of the way…my mission begins.
There is an enigmatic essence to Abu Dhabi. It first came over me shortly after striking out through the spectacular dunes between the airport and our first stop, Al Ain. Barren from a distance, seemingly without hint of life, yet mercurial in their lifelike and constant shifting, my problems shrank into bug like insignificance and opened my mind to something much bigger. It is no wonder that some of the worlds greatest ancient philosophers were born of the desert. Clearly, this was not going to be your run of the mill destination review.
Inevitable visions of “Lawrence” aside, it seemed fitting that the trip would begin at the inland oasis of Al Ain. This refuge provided the essence of life in the desert for millennia, now it provides the life force of another inexorable re-creation of a desert commerce. Fitting, as this whole place is crisscrossed with ghosts of 12th century silk road caravans.
The current incarnation, however, is far different from any of the previous ones.
In golf travel circles, the capital of the UAE, Abu Dhabi has been long treated as a distant cousin to Dubai. Yes, no doubt that Dubai is wonderful in its excessiveness, but for a first-rate golf holiday that is out of the ordinary and offers a dizzying array of experiences from soothing to extreme and everything in between on a moment’s notice, I will be looking to Abu Dhabi for a whole lot of reasons.
From the history to the culture to the pace of life, there is so much in Abu Dahbi to explore. But, for golfers the first thing to mention is that the city meets the traveling golfer’s gold standard of having three golf courses within a half hour or so of each other that are all worthy of more than just a round or two or three.
The star of the show is Yas Links. Conducted by my friend, management maestro Howie Roberts, it is a Kyle Phillips masterpiece along the Persian Gulf that could take a decade or two for one to figure out, and even then, I am not sure it is possible. With breezes than can vary from a beguiling puff that feels on the ground like not much of anything, and then become a swirling morass just as a ball rises above the dunes can leave you guessing and off your stride right up until, in our case, the breeze picks up slightly and turns into a seemingly innocuous deceiver of a head wind on the last four holes that knocks about 30% off every shot. That said, even on a calm day the routing and contouring is a master class in strategy. Every hole is memorable and not always of the “fondly” sort. However, it is a fair test that demands a player has a good understanding of his limitations. It is one of those I would have on a very short list in answer to the question, “If you could only play one course the rest of your life, which one would it be?” It is truly deserving of its ranking in the World top 50.
Moving down the road to the spectacularly picturesque, TROON managed seaside Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is one of Gary Player’s best that I have seen. Like Yas, each hole is unique and memorable. Unlike Yas, what you see is what you get. Massive mounding and bunkering leave no doubt of the preferred route. However, the generous fairways tempt you to unload off the tee only to find that on the fairway doesn’t mean you are in a great place to score. This is a course you could post a solid score and still get smoked by an observant player of equal skill who has been around the track a few times. For most of the one round I played there, I thought it was one of the most enjoyable courses I have ever played. In addition to being in great shape, it is just fun, a lot of fun. To be noted, TROON is one of the world’s most trusted management brands. When I travel, a TROON logo on a facility virtually guarantees a special golf experience of the highest standard. No, I am not on the payroll. They are just good, consistently.
Another short jaunt brings you to Abu Dhabi Golf Club, a European tour venue, it goes without saying you have landed at another golfing slam dunk, the meticulously well maintained course offers a fine but fair test and is no pushover. Coupled with the excellent onsite WESTIN hotel and a dedicated night golf track, it is no surprise that this property is rated the best golf resort in the region by Trip Advisor. Clinton Norris, Sr Sales Manager who looks after ADGC and Saadiyat and is a main player in promoting his clubs and the region, says that the reason Abu Dhabi is becoming a focal point on the golf map is that, “the offerings of three incredible golf courses in close proximity and another beauty in an oasis, just a fast 150 km away, coupled with two of the world’s major airlines, Etihad and Emirates, offering direct flights from just about anywhere, and that there are local partners providing 7 night, 5 round packages for around USD 1,000.00, make for a powerfully attractive scenario.”
So there are three, but there is one more which can’t be ignored despite the fact that it is a bit of a trek through the desert and some jaw dropping sand dunes to the town of Al Ain, an inland oasis full of palm groves and natural springs. The Al Ain Equestrian Shooting and Golf Club is simply a blast.
Which brings me back to my first impressions of Abu Dhabi. Al Ain was our first stop. Arriving late, we spent a too short session on the perfectly maintained tee at the massive practice range, I am not kidding, the conditioning of the thing felt like they were closed for months just waiting for our little group to appear. Next, we moved over to the lighted Par three course for a fun 9 hole round on turf so lush that my travelling partner, Zenta Thomas (Destination Golf representative in Asia), who wasn’t playing, took off her shoes for the entire round and luxuriated in the sensuous softness while experiencing at one point, the sound of evening prayers from the nearby mosque. We were all quite affected by the thought of playing a game of the modern world amidst the timeless sounds of the prayers.
Our next day, it was out to the regulation course for a solid round on a pretty terrific, as in “pretty and terrific” course that confirmed its status as well worth the drive and a night’s stay. I have to say; the hospitality of the staff was outstanding. Gavin Chappell does a fantastic job of personalizing the experience including live scoring to your home club, so friends can track your round. The special treatment wasn’t just because there were a few golf writers in our group. I spoke to several people from different groups unrelated to our visit, who had exactly the same experience.
We were more than a little curious about the camel racing facility and shooting center on the grounds but alas, readers of this article who visit with a little more time on there hands can explore that activity themselves. I would have liked to have stayed a little longer at this venue as the place has lots to see and do aside from camel sprints. They include white water rafting (seriously) surfing (they make perfect 3 meter+ waves!) Bronze Age tombs in an Archaeological Park and a well-regarded car museum. This literal outlier was a very pleasant surprise and we highly recommend a couple of nights here as part of any itinerary to the region.
So now that we have established Abu Dhabi’s golf chops, here is the rest of the story. The place is splendid! Back in Abu Dhabi we were presented with tons of options, there is something for every age and taste from an immersion at the Louvre Abu Dhabi* complete with famous master masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Gogh (self portrait), Whistler (Whistler’s Mother), Picasso and many others on loan from the Musee du Louvre and other renowned collections, to Ferrari World’s astounding theme park featuring the world’s fastest roller coaster, to Yas Island Water World, to Warner Brothers indoor theme park, to a desert Safari complete with dune bashing, Sunset Dinner, belly dancing, henna painting and camels. There is rocking beach club and water sports, with more creative entertainment surprises on the way like the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi under construction, to keep things fresh. There is also a fast-growing club scene on the highest level. And sand surfing.
As Howie generously explained in American terms so I could understand, “If Dubai is Las Vegas, Abu Dhabi is Naples”
- the ceiling of the museum alone is worth the visit.
Not knowing a thing about the Persian Gulf aside from the controversies in the news, the white sand beaches and azure waters are as pretty as any I have seen, and I have seen my share. (I was expecting war torn muddy with tar balls, way wrong on that one) With 5 Star hotels directly adjacent, it is truly a paradise after a day of golf or activities or a day at the beach for its own sake.
In truth, it is my understanding from tour operators, while Dubai is currently the #1 destination for traveling golfers in the region, but I suspect that is large part because Dubai is famous for “over the top” everything. However, golfers and nongolfers alike are fast discovering the allure of Abu Dhabi. With the government/private sector partnership’s commitment to cultural heritage as well as their embracing new ideas from every direction, it would be no surprise to me if the place becomes “the” destination hotspot as golfers these days seem to be flocking to experiential destinations with great golf, plenty of options for down time and comparatively attractive prices.
Kevin Zweidik, a tour operator we met on the trip says that the bookings to Abu Dhabi increased up significantly since his visit. Word of mouth, along with an increasing media interest in Europe about this growing holiday hotspot is driving it.
If you have been to Dubai, you may appreciate the fact that you can choose between a relaxed family friendly atmosphere combined with an air of modern sophistication and elegance found anywhere in the world or a rollicking week of nonstop entertainment sure to please those inclined. If there was ever a place positioned for this kind of traveler, it is Abu Dhabi. Now, and because their commitment to constantly reinvent themselves, for many more years to come.
Prime season is October through March.
If you are following the race to Dubai and plan a trip over for the event, Abu Dhabi is a perfect place to unwind and relax before or after.
A special thank you to Ibrheem Maki, Sr Executive Promotion, Abu Dhabi Travel Trade and Market Development.
Hotels: Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort & Spa, Park Hyatt Saadiyat, Saadiyat Rotana, Crown Plaza Yaz, Al Ain Rotana
What to wear: Foreigners are free to practice their own religion and dress code is liberal. But off the beaches, it is typical to exhibit a degree of modesty.
Visa: Citizens of Australia, Andorra, Austria, Brunei, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States of America and the Vatican State can get a free-of-charge entry visa upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport.