Before my visit to Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi this summer, I thought I knew what I was in for: a Dubai-esque party paradise, with white-sanded beaches and luxurious hospitality scene.

And while, in all fairness, the United Arab Emirates’ capital does boast most of those things (albeit a considerably more relaxed nightlife offering), there was so much more – a combination of well-conserved, ecological beauty and an incredible cultural offering, blending old and new.

I spent most of my time at the art and architecture hub that is Saadiyat Island, a 27 square kilometre island 20 minutes away from the international airport, which among its charms boasts an actual Louvre (Louvre Abu Dhabi). There’s also the new Manarat Saadiyat gallery & exhibition space – soon to host Abu Dhabi’s Culture Summit in October. It feels like the beginning of something exciting here – an open, inviting arts & culture scene where some of the best global and historical art comes together.

During my time in Abu Dhabi, I saw the most diverse range of art possible (from medieval relics to trippy, immersive installations), enjoyed delicious food & felt regularly awe-inspired by the Arabic and modern architecture. Abu Dhabi is less than 50 years old – making it younger than both my parents. In that time, it has been transformed from little more than empty desert inhabited by nomadic tribes into a thriving 21st century society, which remains strongly attached to its Arabian culture and heritage.

Which makes all the below that bit more mind-blowing to experience….

Where to stay

For an aesthetically-stunning resort experience: Jumeirah hotel at Saadiyat island

If you’re looking for majestic luxury situated within an architecturally stunning setting, the Jumeirah hotel at Saadiyat island is it. The hotel has 293 rooms and suites, all facing the sea – the serene view heightened by the ocean-inspired interiors, think wood and wicker furniture and blue-and-white colour schemes.

When it comes to facilities, your cup overruneth at this hotel. There’s the spa, with its grand Moroccan hamman, its hydrotherapy pools and 13 treatment rooms; there’s the state-of-the-art gym, with classes running all throughout the week; and then there’s the three separate swimming pools: kids, family and an adults-only infinity pool.

There are also three restaurants: Italian seafood haven Mare Mare, world buffet at White (where you can enjoy high-end food from every cuisine) and TEAN, a Levantine inspired restaurant where you can try all the local favourite foods (more on this below). You can also eat at sports bar, Offside, where you can enjoy buffalo wings while watching the biggest sports matches on a 5×3 metre projector display.

Finally, the hotel has an impressive eco-conscious approach. It’s involved in a partnership with Trust Your Water, a local initiative which does what it says on the tin – the hotel provides complimentary reusable water sports bottle – in a notably chic design – for each guest, with helpful water stations all around the hotel with still and sparkling local filtered water, so you can hydrate frequently and do your bit for the planet at the same time.

Where: Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort.

Cost: Rooms at Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort start at £328 a night.

What to do

For art lovers: Louvre Abu Dhabi

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by French President Emmanuel Macron himself in 2017, has an impressive worldwide collection including artwork from the likes of Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci and Picasso – one of the most diverse, thought-provoking art collections I’ve ever seen. Its pegged as the Arab World’s first ‘universal museum’, ‘translating and fostering the spirit of openness between cultures’, and upon my visit I can understand that – particularly impressive was a ‘world religions’ room full of religious artefacts from the likes of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhist, Hinduism and more – together with Islamic ones.

The concrete and stainless steel building itself, designed by French architect Jean Nouvel (winner of the Pritzker Prize – architecture’s biggest honour), is also one of a kind, with its distinct floating silvery dome casting a beautiful dappled lighting effect underneath, and its soothing water features.

Where: Louvre Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Island

For a day at the beach: Saadiyat Beach Club

To enjoy the more luxurious side of Abu Dhabi, I highly recommend booking a day poolside at uber-cool lifestyle venue Saadiyat, where you can lounge back with a book on canopied beds ordering from their extensive cocktail menu, taking a splash in the pool every so often to cool down.

Where: Saadiyat Beach Club, Saadiyat Island

For an alternative day out: The National Aquarium Abu Dhabi

If you love aquariums (and/or are entertaining little ones!), be sure to check out Abu Dhabi’s National Aquarium, the largest in the Middle East – boating over 46,000 animals. That’s a whole lot of fish.

Where: Al Qana, Abu Dhabi

What to see

For a mosque experience: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Prepare to be thoroughly overawed when visiting this site – one of the largest mosques in the world, resplendent with Arabic style domes and marble pillars and arches, and surrounded by reflective pools of water (‘water mirrors’). While stunning at any time of the day, sunset is the best time, on account of the lighting and, well, the kinder temperatures. It’s worth adding a note on dress code, as you might well be wearing a little more material than usual: given this is a religious building, it’s absolutely compulsory to wear modest, loose-fitting clothing when visiting (for men, no shoes, and for women long-sleeves that covers wrists, and long trousers or skirt, plus a head covering that covers all the hair).

For an immersive modern art show: teamLab Phenomena

From Tokyo-based art collective teamLab, this multi-sensory art space, located in the Mamsha Al Saadiyat beachfront area, has a mighty claim to be: “a home for infinite curiosity”. A sneak peak at its first exhibition would suggest its well on its way, with a serious of installations including floor to ceiling projections and tactile objects. I wasn’t quite sure what I saw – but it definitely sparked my interest.

Where: teamLab Phenomena, Mamsha Al Saadiyat

Where to eat:

For beach-side dining: Safina

For the most indulgent poolside meal in the lap of luxury, try the Mediterranean-inspired Safina restaurant at the Saadiyat Beach Club, which serves delicious fresh salads as appetisers (we loved the pomelo salad with tiger prawns, and the wakame salad with snow peas and quinoa) followed by some truly special mains, think sharing platters of paella or mixed seafood, or stand-alone mains like lobster thermidor.

Where: Saadiyat Beach Club, Saadiyat Island

For an authentic Arabic feast: TEAN

Want to try Levantine specialities, from delicious breads and dips (their houmous is to die for) to traditional chickpea falafel, TEAN – one of the Jumeirah hotel’s offerings – is the place to do it in style. Make sure you try their kibbeh (fried minced lamb and pine nut dumplings) and mouthwatering shisk taouk (chargrilled chicken breast with garlic, thyme and chilli paste), followed by delicious pistachio baklava for dessert.

Where: Beach Side, Jumeirah at Saadiyat Island Resort

For some retail therapy: Yas Mall

If you’re looking for a luxury mall experience – or need to pick up a special outfit for an unexpected addition to your itinerary – you should definitely head to Yas Mall, which is Abu Dhabi’s largest shopping centre (and the second largest in the UAE).

Where: Yas Mall, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

Visit the official Saadiyat Island website, and the Saadiyat Island page on the Visit Abu Dhabi website, to discover more.