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Saadiyat: Abu Dhabi’s ‘island of happiness’

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At barely 10 square miles, it’s less than half the size of Manhattan – but with world-class culture, pristine nature and plenty of vacation-friendly activities, Saadiyat Island delivers big.

Floating in the Persian Gulf just north of central Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat combines nature, culture, cuisine and calm – though if you’re up for adrenaline and partying, it has you covered, too. No wonder its Arabic name translates as “Island of Happiness.”

Dolphins beyond the dunes

While Abu Dhabi itself is home to bombastic contemporary architecture, Saadiyat – an easy 20-minute drive from downtown and Abu Dhabi International Airport – is a natural wonderland, edged by small sand dunes.

Bottlenose and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins are regular visitors to the island’s clear waters. They’re often joined by endangered hawksbill turtles, which nest on the dunes along Saadiyat’s 5.5 mile beach from March through June. Each nest can hold around 100 eggs – though only one in 1,000 hawksbills make it to adulthood. Elevated boardwalks protect them from beachgoers – part of a conservation project led by Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort and its inhouse marine biologist.

Gazelles on the golf course

The wildlife’s not only in the water. Red Arabian foxes and peacocks are among the island wilder residents, while players at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club often have to time their shots in between the movements of Arabian gazelles.

More than 300 species of birds are counted across Abu Dhabi every year. Saadiyat Beach Golf Club has even been designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary – meaning that it enhances natural areas and wildlife habitats, while minimizing the potentially harmful impact of a golf course. Thanks in part to the club’s environmental management practices, more than 150 different bird species can be seen on and around the course.

Looking ahead, the Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi is set to open by 2025 in Saadiyat’s Cultural District – the designated area dedicated to the arts, heritage and culture, with seven world-class museums and performing arts centers.

A vast, nearly 400-square-foot facility with teaching and research institutions attached, the new addition will exhibit some of the rarest and most precious specimens found on earth, from meteorites to a T-Rex skeleton.

A Blue Flag beach

Another participant in the turtle conservation project is Saadiyat Beach Club, an oceanfront retreat with a Blue Flag-certified beach – claimed to be one of the best in the Middle East – and entertainment for the party crowd.

Instagram-friendly outdoor pools are surrounded by cabanas and daybeds, while DJs play alongside live jazz and R&B musicians throughout the day. A gym, spa and sauna helps members keep in shape.

There’s a Mediterranean restaurant, Safina, while Cabana 9 serves Arabic dishes, and has a shisha lounge, too.

Open year-round, Saadiyat Beach Golf Club is home to a Gary Player signature 18-hole golf course. Player himself – the legendary South African golfer – has also hosted charity invitational tournaments there in past years.

When playing off optional black tees, the course becomes the longest in the UAE at 7,784 yards – while it’s even more daunting thanks to multiple sand traps.

Vastly experienced coaches and generous pin placements ensure that everyone enjoys themselves, regardless of their standard, however. Stay and play packages are also available at hotels including the adjacent St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort.

Around the world in 50 meals

Overlooking a long white sand beach and the clear waters of the Gulf, coastal neighborhood Mamsha Al Saadiyat has a spectacular waterfront promenade. Dining out is of course one of the UAE’s favorite pastimes, and there are plenty of options here. Coffee and healthy dishes like smoked salmon in tataki sauce and figs and burrata on zaatar flatbread are the order of the day at spots including Ten 11 Beach and Cafe Artea. Beirut Sur Mer serves classic Lebanese dishes to a soundtrack of popular music from the country.

Roman-style pizza made from a 50-year-old sourdough starter is the draw at Italian trattoria Antonia, while Black Tap Craft Burgers & Shakes promise real-deal eats from New York. And then there’s contemporary Japanese restaurant NIRI, which has sushi, plus wagyu beef and lobster coming off the robata grill.

Culture worthy of the Louvre

Inaugurated in 2017, The Louvre Abu Dhabi is France’s largest cultural project abroad. Its remarkable exhibits are housed in an architectural show-stopper by Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker Architecture Prize winner.

The museum takes visitors on a chronological journey through global civilization, from prehistory to the present day. The permanent collection of 700 treasures includes ancient Greek amphorae, Roman gold jewelry, Chinese porcelain and paintings by the likes of Bellini and Manet. It’s supplemented by another 300 pieces loaned annually by other museums around the world, including 100 from the Louvre in Paris.

There are also regular temporary exhibitions, and you can even take a moonlit kayak tour around the museum to take in the architecture from a whole new angle. Tickets can be purchased from the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s website.

Louvre Abu Dhabi isn’t the only highbrow place on Saadiyat – behind the dunes there are two world-class educational institutions, too.

Boston’s renowned Berklee College of Music has its first Middle East outpost in the Cultural District – a 42,000-square-foot arts education center celebrating contemporary music and the performing arts, with studios, performance spaces, multimedia tech labs and more.

NYU Abu Dhabi is a degree-granting campus from another storied institution. It has welcomed students from 120 countries working across 25 majors since opening in 2010. Its public-facing programs include performances, art exhibitions and talks, all open to visitors.

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