Should first impressions count, then the doorman greeting guests at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental in Abu Dhabi makes a big one. At 7 ft 6 in tall, Abdul Jabbar cuts a striking figure as he towers over everyone — including me, at 5ft 10in.
Pronounced the world’s third-tallest man when Guinness World Records measured him up in 2009, he’s a fitting first step into a place where size is everything, expense is no object and bling is king.
The hotel, which has just held a lavish party to celebrate its transition from Emirates Palace to a Mandarin Oriental, doesn’t do things by half.
Inaugurated in 2005 on land half the size of Monaco, at $3 billion it was the third costliest hotel construction in the world.
First impressions are of a Gulf Grand Hotel, but it’s more than that. It sits on nearly a mile of private beach created from imported white sand (proving you can actually sell sand to the Arabs), though there’s hardly anyone in the sea, and it doesn’t feel like a beach resort, either.
Extravagant: Andrew Harries checks into the newly refurbished Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental in Abu Dhabi
The hotel sits on nearly a mile of private beach created from imported white sand, but it doesn’t feel like a beach resort, Andrew notes
A sign marked Dangerous Marine Life with pictures of sea snakes and sharks, wasn’t especially encouraging. No, this humungous structure is exactly what it says it is — a palace.
Further inside, the 240ft-high central dome is one of the largest internal spaces in the world. With selfie-snapping tourists squeaking excitedly around its polished stone floor, it’s less a reception space and more as though St Peter’s Basilica in Rome has suddenly embraced the hospitality industry.
There are an additional 113 domes with geometrical patterns, 1,000 Swarovski crystal chandeliers, 200 fountains, 93,000 sq metres of marble and 26,000 metres of 22-carat gold leaf. It’s the only hotel with its own in-house gold leaf specialist.
At one kilometre wide, the hotel (centre) is bigger than Buckingham Palace
The hotel is embellished with 1,000 Swarovski crystal chandeliers, 200 fountains and 93,000 sq metres of marble. Pictured right is Andrew with the hotel’s 7ft 6in doorman Abdul Jabbar, who was pronounced the world’s third-tallest man when Guinness World Records measured him up in 2009
At one kilometre wide, it’s bigger than Buckingham Palace, has 128 kitchens, a secret subterranean two-lane service highway and golf buggies busily ferrying people around its perimeter.
At the rebranding party, where Ruinart champagne flowed as if it was coming out of a very exclusive hosepipe no one knew how to turn off, a fellow guest, who’d also been at the 2005 opening, maintained that all of this ‘my hotel’s considerably bigger than yours’ ostentation, was in response to Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab.
Either way, Dubai’s unstoppable journey into the outer reaches of the blingosphere is putting clear water between these two rapidly developing neighbours.
Rooms and suites have undergone a ‘subtly stylish redesign’, Andrew reveals. Above is one of the ‘vegan rooms’ which are totally free of animal-based products
‘It’s the only hotel with its own in-house gold leaf specialist,’ Andrew reveals. Above is the bathroom in the hotel’s Royal Suite
Abu Dhabi, however, has settled into a more sedate direction of travel; its credentials increasingly coated in a veneer of cultural respectability. An outpost of the Louvre in a beautiful Jean Nouvel-designed building sits in the purpose-built Saadiyat cultural district, where a branch of the Guggenheim Museum, as well as a Natural History Museum, will join it in 2025.
Conferring the stewardship of Abu Dhabi’s landmark hotel to Mandarin Oriental may well be emblematic of this more measured pace of progress, though transforming such a hospitality behemoth is no small undertaking.
Mandarin, with its coterie of celebrity ‘fans’, from Helen Mirren to Morgan Freeman, projects an image of restrained refinement that, at first sight, makes for a curious bedfellow.
I’m definitely a fan, ever since I was seduced by the colonial-era charm of Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel, from where the brand takes its name.
Rooms and suites have been expunged of any tendencies toward the Neapolitan godfather look and repurposed with a subtly stylish redesign.
There are two large outdoor pools, and later this year, a sumptuous overhaul of the Moroccan-inspired spa will also be unveiled
Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk; 0330 173 4712) offers a five-night stay at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental Abu Dhabi from £2,899 pp based on two people sharing a deluxe room on a B&B basis. Includes flights and transfers, based on a late April departure.
There are even six ‘vegan rooms’. You don’t get to eat the cushions, but travellers can now stay in an environment that, from toiletries to feather-free bedding, is totally free of animal-based products. There are two large outdoor pools, and later this year, a sumptuous overhaul of the Moroccan-inspired spa will also be unveiled.
Of the ten dining options, renowned Chinese restaurant Hakkasan, and Talea, the first non-Italian outpost of acclaimed chef Antonio Guida, each claimed one of the three stars awarded in the 2023 inaugural Abu Dhabi Michelin Guide.
But it was people-watching up on the expansive balconies of the Vendome restaurant, with a warm wind wafting off a softly shimmering Persian Gulf, where Abu Dhabi’s grande dame cast its spell. It’s big, it’s buzzing, it’s all rather fabulous — just don’t take it too seriously.
The famous gold cappuccino arrives, with its topping of 24-carat gold flakes. Why anyone would ingest precious metal for breakfast is bizarre, but clearly, a Mandarin Oriental injection of sophistication isn’t going to change everything.
And why should it? In this part of the world, it just don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling.