Standing in solitary splendour at the western end of the city is the vast Emirates Palace Hotel. Opened in 2005, it was intended to rival Dubai’s Burj al Arab and provide Abu Dhabi with a similarly iconic “seven-star” landmark – although in fact the two buildings could hardly be more different. Driveways climb up through the grounds to the main entrance to the hotel, which sits in an elevated position above the sea and surrounding gardens. It’s impressively stage-managed, although the only really unusual thing about the building is its sheer size: 1km in length, 114 domes, 140 elevators, 2000 staff and so on. The quasi-Arabian design, meanwhile, is disappointingly pedestrian and much of the exterior looks strangely drab and even a little bit cheap – ironic, really, given that the hotel is believed to have been the most expensive ever built (at a rumoured cost of US$3 billion). All of which means the Emirates Palace is as cautiously conservative as the Burj al Arab is daringly futuristic and innovative – which says a lot about the contrasting outlooks of the two very different cities which they represent.
The interior is far more memorable, centred on a dazzling central dome-cum-atrium, with vast quantities of marble and huge chandeliers. Cavernous corridors stretch out for what seem like miles towards the rooms in the two huge flanking wings – you can work up a healthy appetite just walking between your room and the lobby, and even staff have been known to get lost. The six “ruler’s suites”, with gold-plated fittings throughout, are more conveniently situated, but are reserved for visiting heads of state. Visitors with cash to drop can shop to impress at the world’s first gold vending machine (in the lobby), which dispenses over three hundred pure-gold products, including miniature gold ingots. Non-guests can visit for a meal at one of the numerous restaurants, or drop in for a sumptuous afternoon tea – although it’s a good idea to reserve in advance.
Directly behind the Emirates Palace is Abu Dhabi’s staggeringly vast Presidential Palace. Finished in 2015 at a reputed cost of almost half a billion US dollars, the palace’s rambling Arabian-style skyline of endless marble-clad domes, cupolas and towers looks like almost a mirror image of the adjacent Emirates Palace, and equally huge, or perhaps slightly more so.