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A Long Weekend in Abu Dhabi, Dubai's Increasingly Dazzling Rival
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Being overdressed for the beach is a new one for me.
'I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to leave,' said an attendant on yet another sweltering day in Abu Dhabi. 'You're dressed inappropriately.'
I was baffled. Then I glanced at my attire — T-shirt, cargo shorts, flip-flops. Not a great look, I grant you, but apparently I should have been more obviously kitted out for the beach so that my motives would not be questioned.
'Sometimes men come to look at the ladies in their costumes, which makes them feel uncomfortable,' the attendant explained, as several sunbathers looked on suspiciously.
I pondered my fashion faux-pas over a frothy camel's milk cappuccino at Le Café in the lobby of the nearby Emirates Palace. This iconic downtown hotel has opulence at every turn and, I happened to notice, its own private beach.
It's not often you get into trouble for wearing too many clothes, but Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is a curious place.
Spread across 200 islands on the Persian Gulf, it is finally settling into its skin and sizing up to the might of Dubai.
Often overlooked for the razzle-dazzle — or the bling, depending on your view — of the Gulf's most popular city, an hour's drive north-east, Abu Dhabi is fast emerging as the cultural heart of this young nation.
Big, bold and brash, the UAE boasts the world's tallest building and largest shopping centre, but while Dubai revels in such accolades, Abu Dhabi takes a more understated approach — not that you would think so, standing outside the aptly named Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
It rises from a flat landscape, the city's skyscrapers visible in the distance, a majestic vision of white marble shimmering in the late afternoon sun.
A steady trickle of worshippers swept by to pray before rushing home. Built in 1996 and named after the late leader who united the seven Emirati states in 1971, it is a complex of 82 gleaming and gold-topped domes that sit atop more than 1,000 pillars. With a distinct resemblance to the Taj Mahal, it is Abu Dhabi's star attraction.
Wearing a full-length black abaya, my guide, Fatima, was waiting in a shady corner and together we crossed the spacious, almost blindingly white, courtyard as our footsteps quietly tapped against the Macedonian marble.
Fatima proudly pointed out the Italian glass mosaics and semi-precious stones set in the rows of columns.
Removing our shoes, we ventured into the interior: a vast prayer room with the world's largest hand-knotted carpet — a Persian rug two years in the making — laid beneath multi-coloured chandeliers of Swarovski crystals. Low mumblings of those reciting holy scriptures drifted across the otherwise silent room.
Unlike in many mosques, non-Muslims are welcome to roam freely, except during prayer times, but all visitors must dress respectfully. Women are provided with robes and headscarves. I had ditched my cargo shorts for something more appropriate.
There is no doubting Abu Dhabi's intention of changing the world's perception of the Emirates, better known for gargantuan shopping malls and ostentatious hotels than its culture.
This worthy change of direction was spearheaded by the arrival of the Formula 1 Grand Prix in 2009, which paved the way for a rich sporting and cultural calendar that attracts big names.
Diver Tom Daley has visited for a spot of camel riding at the new Arabian Nights Heritage Village desert camp, while Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods will fly in for the HSBC Golf Championship in January, to be followed a month later by a citywide gourmet food festival (www.gourmetabudhabi.ae).
Across the Khalifa Bridge, away from downtown Abu Dhabi, is Saadiyat Island, a corner of the city destined for global acclaim with a new cultural district already taking shape. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, will open in 2015, and the Guggenheim, housed in a conical masterpiece by architect Frank Gehry, two years later.
All that is still some way off, but the island has already been heavily developed with a scattering of high-end hotels, including the newly opened 377-room St Regis.
It has everything you'd expect from a five-star resort in the Middle East: rooms with assiduous butlers, five pools, a spa and seven gourmet restaurants.
None of that, however, beats the miles of beachfront blissfully uncompromised by jet skis. All motorised watersports are banned in an attempt to protect the area's fragile eco-system and the creatures that call it home. Visit between April and July and you stand a good chance of seeing hawksbill turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
Even more exclusive is the Monte Carlo Beach Club farther along the coast. It's the first branch to open outside Monaco. The palm trees rustled lightly; waiters, almost gliding, delivered chilled cocktails to the three couples relaxing on cabanas around the WAG-free infinity pool. I had the beach to myself.
Double-checking that the fashion police were nowhere to be seen, I strolled along the sandy shores that almost sizzled, before taking a dip in a sea that was as warm as a bath.
Such glamour is all very well, but the soul of a place is in its local flair and flavour.
Venturing back to the city centre the following day, I headed to Lebanese Flower, a popular local restaurant near the Abu Dhabi Mall, famed for its meat skewers, home-made hummus and creamy avocado smoothies made with a secret ingredient.
Outside, stomach-rumbling aromas of freshly made manakish (traditional pastries filled with cheese and spinach) drifted by from the adjoining bakery.
Inside the main dining room, hungry locals sat hunched over plates of fatteh, crushed chickpeas mixed with yoghurt and served with bread and lamb for only £3. Nursing my overindulgence with a cup of strong Arabic coffee, I couldn't help but wonder whether Dubai is set to be eclipsed.