As Saadiyat Island’s future takes shape, life retains simple pleasures

By John Henzell  www.thenational.ae

Saadiyat is about to boom. Its museums may have been delayed but its luxury residences are rapidly filling up. Yet a tour of the island chain shows that tranquillity – and the sound of the waves – still rule. Words by John Henzell, photos by Christopher Pike

Sun seekers enjoy the Monte Carlo beach club on Saadiyat Island. Christopher Pike / The National

Sun seekers enjoy the Monte Carlo beach club on Saadiyat Island. Christopher Pike / The National

For an island that was terra incognita to almost everyone in Abu Dhabi only three years ago, Saadiyat is about to experience a population surge normally reserved for gold mining boomtowns. It is about to become Abu Dhabi version 2.0: the city’s new public face to the world through the cultural district museums on which the capital is staking its tourism credentials for the decades to come.

Even today, Saadiyat’s beach is a place where you can stand in the warm evening breeze and hear a soundtrack that disappeared from life in the capital nearly a generation ago: the rhythm of waves lapping on a natural beach. Just three years ago, this was a sound enjoyed only by the gazelles and by the occasional hawksbill turtle looking for an undisturbed location to bury its eggs.

A week ago, I joined some long-term Abu Dhabi residents for a kind of housewarming for one of the first occupants of the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort’s adjoining residential apartment blocks and villas. Heading to the beach, it was the waves that stunned everyone. Ever since man-made Lulu Island was completed in 1992, sheltering the newly reclaimed expanse of the Corniche, that simple natural soundtrack has been missing.

Besides the St Regis’s 259 apartments and 33 villas, providing a permanent population to offset the hotel’s transitory residents, 254 beach villas – all already sold – are due to be handed over this month.

The first three apartment blocks in Saadiyat Beach Apartments are due to follow by the end of the summer, with another three due at the start of 2013.

This year was also supposed to see the opening of the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, to be followed by the Louvre and the Guggenheim in 2013: the three institutions that would turn Saadiyat into a cultural centre of world renown. The recession, of course, created a hiccup in the development process – now resolved – with tendering for the Louvre project just restarted.

The main contract works for the museum are expected to be awarded late this year, according to a spokeswoman for the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), with a projected opening in 2015. The Zayed National Museum is expected to open the year after, followed by the Guggenheim in 2016.

But while the cultural district may have been delayed slightly, many of the residential parts of Saadiyat’s development continued and are about to come on stream.

Even a year ago, trying to reach the beach was more than likely to be thwarted by a phalanx of guards and gates, leaving the galleries of the Manarat Al Saadiyat as the island’s sole publicly accessible feature.

Now it’s possible to access the foreshore via the St Regis or Park Hyatt hotels, the Monte Carlo Beach Club or even by retrieving a wildly sliced shot while playing a round at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.

None of the new developments quite capture the new nature of Saadiyat like the Monte Carlo Beach Club. From being part of a rough and desolate shoreline that attracted both hawksbill turtles and the Gulf’s inexhaustible supply of plastic flotsam, a local version of the namesake Monaco resort has become a beachside haven that many deem to be the most luxurious destination in Abu Dhabi.

It needs to be, because the yearly membership for one person is a wallet-wilting Dh35,000, and that doesn’t even include access to one of the poolside cabanas, which cost an extra Dh750. A day. More info

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