Saadiyat is about to boom. Its museums may have been delayed but its luxury residences are rapidly filling up. Yet a tour of the island chain shows that tranquillity - and the sound of the waves - still rule. Words by John Henzell, photos by Christopher Pike
For an island that was terra incognita to almost everyone in Abu Dhabi only three years ago, Saadiyat is about to experience a population surge normally reserved for gold mining boomtowns. It is about to become Abu Dhabi version 2.0: the city's new public face to the world through the cultural district museums on which the capital is staking its tourism credentials for the decades to come.
Even today, Saadiyat's beach is a place where you can stand in the warm evening breeze and hear a soundtrack that disappeared from life in the capital nearly a generation ago: the rhythm of waves lapping on a natural beach. Just three years ago, this was a sound enjoyed only by the gazelles and by the occasional hawksbill turtle looking for an undisturbed location to bury its eggs.
A week ago, I joined some long-term Abu Dhabi residents for a kind of housewarming for one of the first occupants of the St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort's adjoining residential apartment blocks and villas. Heading to the beach, it was the waves that stunned everyone. Ever since man-made Lulu Island was completed in 1992, sheltering the newly reclaimed expanse of the Corniche, that simple natural soundtrack has been missing.
Besides the St Regis's 259 apartments and 33 villas, providing a permanent population to offset the hotel's transitory residents, 254 beach villas - all already sold - are due to be handed over this month.
The first three apartment blocks in Saadiyat Beach Apartments are due to follow by the end of the summer, with another three due at the start of 2013.
This year was also supposed to see the opening of the Sheikh Zayed National Museum, to be followed by the Louvre and the Guggenheim in 2013: the three institutions that would turn Saadiyat into a cultural centre of world renown. The recession, of course, created a hiccup in the development process - now resolved - with tendering for the Louvre project just restarted.
The main contract works for the museum are expected to be awarded late this year, according to a spokeswoman for the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), with a projected opening in 2015. The Zayed National Museum is expected to open the year after, followed by the Guggenheim in 2016.
But while the cultural district may have been delayed slightly, many of the residential parts of Saadiyat's development continued and are about to come on stream.
Even a year ago, trying to reach the beach was more than likely to be thwarted by a phalanx of guards and gates, leaving the galleries of the Manarat Al Saadiyat as the island's sole publicly accessible feature.
Now it's possible to access the foreshore via the St Regis or Park Hyatt hotels, the Monte Carlo Beach Club or even by retrieving a wildly sliced shot while playing a round at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
None of the new developments quite capture the new nature of Saadiyat like the Monte Carlo Beach Club. From being part of a rough and desolate shoreline that attracted both hawksbill turtles and the Gulf's inexhaustible supply of plastic flotsam, a local version of the namesake Monaco resort has become a beachside haven that many deem to be the most luxurious destination in Abu Dhabi.
It needs to be, because the yearly membership for one person is a wallet-wilting Dh35,000, and that doesn't even include access to one of the poolside cabanas, which cost an extra Dh750. A day.
A couple with four children will pay Dh85,000 for a family membership. (Although for that, one nanny can accompany them for free, while subsequent nannies will cost an extra Dh10,000 each).
The Monte Carlo club's combination of grace, luxury and exclusivity clearly has considerable appeal. Nearly 150 memberships have been bought since it opened last October, well on the way to its intended membership base of between 200 and 250. Who is accepted for membership, the fine print on the application says, is solely at the discretion of the club's management and no explanation will be given for refusal to award or renew membership.
For those who can't stretch to the annual membership fees, or are only passing through Abu Dhabi, a taste of the experience is available by eating at one of the club's restaurants. A visiting Australian businessman, Sam Yassa, brought here by his Dubai-based German colleague, Julia Al Jenabi, tries to define that "extra something" offered by the Beach Club.
"It's the right mix of luxury," he says. "And it's a much higher quality of service."
Ms Al Jenabi cites the beautiful location and the service. "It sounds rude," she adds, "but I feel like I'm in Dubai but I'm in Abu Dhabi."
If Saadiyat and Yas islands are earning worldwide name recognition, other parts of the island group are destined to remain both unpopulated and wild. Fahid Island, which is sandwiched between Saadiyat and Yas, is usually little but a blur to motorists speeding on the Sheikh Khalifa motorway, although a lucky passenger might occasionally spot one of the numerous groups of gazelle that live among the sand banks and mangroves.
Further along the archipelago, at the western end of Yas Island, reached via a girder bridge that dates from long before the grand vision for this area was announced, is a previously inaccessible beach that is home to a more brightly coloured and rather less shy species.
Known universally as Kitesurfing Beach - for obvious reasons - it offers what the capital's kitesurfers had long craved: ease of access, reliable onshore winds, and the lack of hazards such as other beach users or overhead power lines.
Until the Sheikh Khalifa motorway opened, kitesurfers had faced slim pickings because most of the emirate's coastline was in private hands and off limits. They congregated instead around the former public beach site on the far side of Emirates Palace, but then it became the site for the new presidential palace.
Sameh Elsghir, an Egyptian kitesurfing instructor who has been based in Abu Dhabi since the late 1990s, is one of those making the most of the new site.
"I've been in Abu Dhabi for 15 years," he says.
"Before we had windsurfing and there were two or three kites but then people started shifting from windsurfing to kitesurfing.
"Here, if it's windy, you get maybe 30 kites out. It's easier and you don't have to carry a lot of gear. You need 15 knots of wind for a windsurfer but only 12 for a kitesurfer. It's regular to get 12 knots here and we kitesurf until the end of July and then the wind drops."
From being a happy accident of Saadiyat's development, kitesurfing has become something of a tourism earner in its own right, attracting European enthusiasts.
"Here there's good weather, good facilities and also prices are cheaper than in Europe," he adds. "It's Dh300 an hour and it usually takes about seven hours to get going, although I can't say how long it will take until I see you fill the kite."
The kitesurfers aren't the only unintended beneficiaries of the opening up of the coastal zone that the motorway has allowed. The workers who populate the labour camps on Yas Island also enjoy the freedoms that it brings.
For six days a week Randy San Antonio works helping construct Abu Dhabi's new business district on Sowwah Island.
But on Friday, he wanders 45 minutes from his home on Yas to the channel separating the northeastern side of the island from the mainland. Sometimes he goes even further. A 90-minute walk takes him to better fishing grounds but today he's gone for the nearer option because he's hosting a Filipina friend, Emma Abdullah, who took the bus from town to Ikea and then walked to here.
There's no annual membership fee for this beach, but then the facilities are limited to a single shady tree under which he's fashioned a couple of crude seats from driftwood and has lit a small fire fuelled by twigs.
San Antonio has three hand lines which he keeps in the water and uses old juice bottles for floats. When he hauls in a fish, it's usually cooked straight on the fire.
It's Ms Abdullah's first visit and she's impressed. "Normally I go to the Corniche on Friday," she said. "I'll come back here."
One of Mr San Antonio's hand lines whirrs as a fish takes the bait and it's hauled in. "I don't know the name of this fish but it's good eating," he said, admiring the small white and yellow fish gasping its last breaths.
"In Philippines, we don't have this fish. Last Friday we catch maybe 2-3 kilograms. We catch two big fish."
The latest catch goes on the fire to become the next course in an extended lunch. For an investment of three hand lines and a few prawns as bait, he's entertained and fed himself and his friends on their day off.
He misses his native Manila and it'll be a while before he will have the chance to go home. In the meantime, he has his Friday fishing expeditions to assuage his hankering for his homeland.
"After fishing," he declares, "homesick over."