Beach buoyed: A short stay on Saadiyat Island

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Updated 12 May 2019

Beach buoyed: A short stay on Saadiyat Island

DUBAI: There is nothing unassuming about the Arabian fortress that is Saadiyat Rotana Resort & Villas, but its exterior is the only imposing thing about it.

Step inside, and you will see what you’re really here for: The vast expanse of white sands and aquamarine water of Saadiyat Beach, viewed through floor-to-ceiling glass windows that run the length of the lobby. Underfoot, through glass display panels in the floor, are sands from the seven emirates that make up the UAE, the most telling sign that this hotel takes pride in its place. 

Another feature it clearly takes pride in is its staff, who are friendly and attentive throughout, and recognize me when I return. It’s unusual to stay in a hotel where the staff are clearly enjoying themselves, but here, it’s on display. In the off-hours, when I pass by one of the restaurants, they are laughing and singing together. 

My room is more Cape Cod than Arabian Nights: light-wood floors, exposed ceiling beams, boat lamps near the bed, all in keeping with the beach resort vibe. A narrow wooden desk and coffee bar (with a Lavazza espresso machine), run the length of one wall, and there’s a daybed near sliding glass doors to a small balcony. Automatic curtains open when I touch them, and a control panel allows me to choose different lighting options, including “movie” and “relaxing.”

The bathroom opens through two wooden sliding doors. If you’re not concerned about privacy, you can sit in the angular modern tub and gaze out through the room to the view. Fresh flowers in the main room and the bathroom are a nice touch. Waking up in the morning, I can hear some traffic on the road outside and children’s voices in the hall, but this is quickly forgotten as I sit on the terrace at Sim Sim, the all-day dining restaurant, drinking grapefruit and celery juice in the morning sun.

The buffet has a good selection of Arabic, Indonesian, Indian and Western breakfast food, including an omelet station, an Emirati food corner and a fresh juice bar.

On the way to the beach, I walk over a footbridge past the pool — which gets direct sun most of the day — to the Nasma Beachfront Bar, under a tent-like canopy with roomy swing chairs. Facing the beach are 13 villas, which have their own pools behind mashrabiya fences for privacy.

And then there’s the UAE’s best beach — a long strip of natural white sand running from Louvre Abu Dhabi on one end to the Saadiyat Beach Club on the other, with nothing but water and blue sky beyond. That strip is getting busier, mind you, with the opening of this resort last year along with two others, from Jumeirah and Rixos. But I was relieved to find the beach just as pristine as I remembered it back when I lived on the island, watching these hotels rise from the sands. 

In the morning, you can find tracks in the sand from the gazelles who still roam the island, and you may even see evidence of the hawksbill turtles, who use it as their nesting place. Do not deny yourself at least a day on the beach here; it’s better relaxation than a spa (although the resort has one of those, too). 

Lunch is served at the beach bar or poolside, but for something more formal, Si Ristorante Italiano & Bar serves better-than-average Italian food. The menu had me at mozzarella di bufala bar, but that didn’t leave me much room for the main course, a rich dish of gnudi (Italian dumplings) with sheep ricotta and lamb ragu.

Once the evening rolls around, Hamilton’s Gastropub offers live music and a more casual menu, drawing residents with weeknight promotions (it’s also open for lunch on weekends). But for dinner I prefer the Turtle Bay Bar & Grill, where you can dine on the dimly lit terrace near the pool, once the resort has grown still. This restaurant is classic surf and turf, with steak (including Wagyu) and seafood prepared to your liking. My rib-eye is worthy of a repeat visit. 

As, indeed, is the hotel. With complimentary wifi throughout and the Sama bakery café in the lobby making it an inviting place to stop even for day visitors, I just might make it my Abu Dhabi base.

Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

Updated 22 May 2019

Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

  • The director says Cannes is more than just a movie festival
  • Attendees wear color-coded badges, which specify their title and occupation

Film director Hadi Ghandour takes us behind the scenes at the Cannes Film Festival with his revealing diary entries.

Day 1

I am on a train from Paris to Cannes. A middle-aged woman maneuvers her way around my legs and sits beside me. She is on her phone, making sure to loudly telegraph to the entire train that she is attending the festival. “I hope Xavier Dolan doesn’t disappoint me like last time! And can you believe that Alain Delon is being honored? What a travesty!” We are all supposed to be impressed. My festival experience begins before I get there, it is a preview of things to come. I am forced to endure her pontification for the next five hours.

The train arrives on an overcast afternoon. The first thing I do is pick up my badge. Without it you are considered a third-class citizen. I inch past the security blocks that barricade the Croisette like a fortress and make my way to the Grand Palais.

What makes this place so distinctive and often daunting is the sheer amount of stuff going on. It is not only a film festival, but a massive market, an annual industry meet-up, a sprawling seminar, a paparazzi hunting ground, an awards ceremony, and an everlasting party.

Cafes, restaurants and hotel lobbies turn into networking hubs and industry meeting grounds. TV screens that usually broadcast football matches or music videos air live feeds of press conferences and red carpets. Beachfront apartments are transformed into movie company offices, with their logos hanging from the balconies and the harbor morphs into international pavilions for global cinema.

I often find that the most interesting films play at the Director’s Fortnight. It is late in the evening. My friend has snatched up a couple of priority invitations to Robert Eggers’ latest picture “The Lighthouse.”

Envious eyes watch us zip through the interminable line that wraps around the JW Marriott.

I sink into my chair but, within moments, a sense of dread washes over me when I hear the shrill voice from earlier today. It’s the woman from the train. The festival may be larger than life, but it is still a very small place.

“The Lighthouse” is hypnotic, terrifying and has remarkable performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It is guaranteed to give me nightmares later.

Willem Dafoe stars in The Lighthouse. (AFP)

Day 2

I am having a breakfast meeting by the shore. A seagull swoops in and boldly pilfers a piece of bread from the basket. Even the seagulls here are fierce and determined.

 A 50-something gentleman interrupts our conversation and humbly introduces himself as a filmmaker from Saskatchewan who has been in the business for years.

He slides over a heap of DVDs. Films he has written, directed, produced, edited, shot, acted in and composed. He points at one of them, which is enveloped in a half-ripped cover. “This one here is my masterpiece,” he tells me.

Everyone has something to pitch. The whole town is like a never-ending speed date. Shifty eyes dart around mid-conversation. First, they land on your color-coded badge to decipher your title and worth, then swiftly onto the next person.

Ideas float around with the heft of low-hanging clouds over people’s heads. You can almost see them. The movies in competition may be front and center, but the energy is already directed at the future.

I swing by the Marche Du Film, the festival’s film market. Located in the Palais basement, it is a maze of industry booths where deals are negotiated and struck. It is not only the least glamorous part of the festival, but the least glamorous place you could ever visit.

The market begins to suffocate me so I decide to watch a movie, “Lilian” by Andreas Horvath. Waiting in line at this festival is a rite. You must always add an hour and a half to a movie’s running time to gauge your overall time investment.

The sun is setting and the sea is iridescent. A nighttime chill begins to emerge. One of my favorite things to do at the festival is to watch a film on the beach. There is something wonderfully primal and peaceful about it. A bunch of strangers gathered on a sandy shore beneath the moonlight, watching and listening to a story unfold.  A documentary is playing, “Haut Les Filles” by Francois Armanet. Everyone has sunk into their chairs and are wrapped up in blankets to protect them from the gusts of wind. They look so peaceful and vulnerable, a poignant end to the vicissitudes of their day.

A woman checks her phone in the Marche Du Film. (AFP)

Day 3

It is 7:30 a.m. and I make my way to a film screening — “Frankie” by Ira Sachs. On my way there I spot a group of people, one of them is in a wrinkled tuxedo that has lost its respectability. Last night hasn't yet ended for them. 

The film dips me in and out of a light and pleasant sleep, but I somehow suspect this could be its intended effect.

I walk out of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The glare assaults my eyes and brings me back to the real world, which suddenly looks more mundane.

I begin to exit the Grand Palais when I am approached by a festival attendant. She randomly offers me a seat at the press conference for “Young Ahmed,” the latest movie by the Dardennes brothers. Perhaps she liked my countenance, but most likely she needed to fill a few empty seats. 

Things are in overdrive today. It’s the Tarantino film premier and everyone seems to be seeking access to the screening. I overhear a woman pleading for that golden ticket. “My son is diabetic!” she says. What in the world does that have to do with getting a movie ticket?

After lunch, I glance at my watch and realize I’m about to miss my train. I run to the station and just barely make it. 

Three days in Cannes feel like a week. It is a cycle that ebbs and flows between the mad rush of the movie business and the peace and refuge of movie watching. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s all about the movies, so who can really complain?

Quentin Tarantino premiered ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ in Cannes. (AFP)