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.