Is it really possible to recreate Venice in the Gulf?
An ambition so grand that only the UAE, which is already bringing the Louvre to Abu Dhabi, would even attempt it, writes Scott Armstrong.
But Venice? Of course it was Abu Dhabi that took on that challenge, teaming up Ritz-Carlton on a mega-hotel project that sits in the shadow of the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the emirate’s most revered architectural treasure.
The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal aims to bring the glory of 17th century renaissance Italy to the GCC, it being situated on the Al Maqta’a Creek waterfront.
Of course, it’s a glorious conceit, anyone who has ever visited Venice would know actually replicating that jewel of a city is impossible. However, Ritz-Carlton and Abu Dhabi have had an earnest attempt and in doing so have created a resort which is an impressive hat-tip to historic Venice, a tribute if you like.
The sheer amount luxury which has been poured into this 447-room property combined with Ritz-Carlton’s light-touch sophistication steers the Grand Canal away from being a tacky Vegas-esque themed resort, being as it is a beautiful hotel with some really sumptuous touches.
Grand it certainly is, and that is no illusion, this really is a big undertaking.
Perhaps the best way to appreciate the sheer scale of this project is to walk to the water’s edge and look back on the hotel, which is in fact ten separate (but connected) buildings which form a crescent around the huge swimming pool. It’s then you see the passing resemblance to a Venice waterfront and also that you appreciate the architect of this particular hotel for creating such an impressive resort.
It’s not just physically large thanks to the number of buildings, it grounds are also dramatic with manicured lawns and water features honouring the spirit of the renaissance if not the exact classical definition of it. Private villas which can also be rented punctuate these gardens creating a wonderful space to wander through, especially at dawn as the sun is rising (said the father of a baby girl strolling around far too early for his liking).
Acres of stunning marble have been used to create a lobby with real punch, delivering on that slack-jawed gawping which one assumes is a given at all Ritz-Carlton properties.
So it’s beautiful, but what is it like to stay at?
Ultimately with five-star properties you know there is a certain comfort level to be expected, but what Ritz-Carlton consistently deliver on is the staff who make sure your experience is exceptional. At the Grand Canal those staff included the affable but astoundingly competent Adrian Almirante, the Assistant Director of Rooms, or the team at the hotel’s fabulous Asian restaurant Li Jiang, where the food is almost surpassed by the service.
The danger in operating such a large resort is that those service levels can be diluted, and thus the guest experience, so it is reassuring to find that in Abu Dhabi people like Adrian are thoroughly committed to maintaining Ritz-Carlton standards.
Of course, service aside a traveler wants to know what kind of room they can expect. Well if they plump for the Ritz-Carlton suite they can’t go far wrong.
This expansive suite clocks in at 126 sq m, featuring a living room, a grand dining room, a kitchen, spacious bedroom adjoined by a cavernous en-suite bathroom awash with marble with separate dressing area plus bath and monsoon (colour therapy) shower.
Add to that two balconies overlooking the pool and out to the creek (and the city beyond) and you have a spectacular view and a room that has the wow factor.
When it comes to dining Li Jiang really is where it is at. Dark and intimate décor sets the mood, deft and intelligent service delivers delicious oriental fare, their dumplings are simply amazing.
The Grand Canal also has its Venetian Village, a lively al fresco promenade featuring all manner of cuisine, perfect for winter months when temperatures allow diners outside again.
For ultimate relaxation Grand Canal also features an ESPA spa where Jacuzzis, saunas and massage therapists wait to sooth your troubles (if it is possible to have any if you checked into the Ritz-Carlton suite). A session there will leave you revived, ready for more fine dining, or some action in the Sorso sports bar.
Should you really feel the need to leave the resort in search of food just across the creek is the Souk Qaryat Al Beri, a lively spot with more eateries which is a five-minute taxi ride away, or you can take an abra across the water from the Ritz-Carlton.
Wherever you are in the Grand Canal you are never far from that mesmerising view of the mosque, one of the architectural wonders of the Gulf. This iconic building provides the grandest backdrop any hotel could hope for, and is a must visit for any guest.
Is it Venice? Of course not, but does it matter? No, Abu Dhabi’s homage to the renaissance has created a spectacular property which delivers a distinctive experience in an emirate awash with five-star choice.