Abu Dhabi has always held the promise of being a great beach destination. Everyone who lives here knows there's no shortage of sunny days, the water of the Gulf is warm and often clear and the capital's layout means the shore is never more than a few minutes' drive away. For years, though, reality never quite managed to match that promise. But new beaches open to the public on Yas, Saadiyat and Abu Dhabi islands have opened recently just in time for the season when the water warms up but the days are not yet baking hot. We take a tour of Abu Dhabi's best beaches open to the public, starting with the latest arrivals and complete with a numbered map, and find something for every taste and every budget.
1. Saadiyat Public Beach
Standing on the beach at Saadiyat Island, watching the preternaturally turquoise surf pound the sandy shoreline, is to see both the past and the future.
The Corniche was once just like this until the creation of Lulu Island a little more than 20 years ago and the extension of the seafront made the capital's main beach a much tamer and more civilised affair.
And the new public beach on Saadiyat Island, located just past the Park Hyatt Saadiyat, provides a glimpse of Abu Dhabi's future, where the natural shoreline is retained, both for the benefit of the hawksbill turtles that nest here and for those who yearn for a taste of unmodified nature.
Much of the rest of the nine-kilometre-long beach is accessible for free but, until now, the use of a Saadiyat beach patrolled by lifeguards and with amenities such as bathrooms required a hefty payment to one of the beach clubs that have opened in the past few years.
Now there is a public bus service that runs right to the car park for the beach, entry is Dh25 and you can bring your own food and drink, all of which makes for an inexpensive day out on an island that mostly caters to those in the upper economic echelons of the capital.
View A guide to Abu Dhabi's beaches in a larger map
For another Dh25 midweek and Dh50 on weekends, you get a sun lounger shaded by a beach umbrella. The picnic option will end when Bake, the company that runs the public beach, gets permission to open a cafe restaurant at the site. Other plans include introducing water sports like windsurfing and kitesurfing, but the organisers vow that the fun will remain non-motorised. In the meantime, a small shop sells the usual beach essentials such as buckets to make sandcastles and sunblock.
2. Yas Beach
One of the odd omissions for the hotels on Yas Island was the absence of a beach, with the crescent of hotels separated from the shoreline by the Yas Links golf course. Yas Beach is the solution to that, with unexpectedly crystal clear water lapping gently at a crescent of white sand and with views to the mangrove forests on the far side of the channel.
The sand was brought in and replaces the natural beach, which might look like pristine sand from a distance but up close tends to be cloying light grey mud, which probably explains why the beach was never part of the hotel crescent design. While it's still in the soft-opening phase, entry is Dh50 and that gets you a sun lounger, a suitably chilled modern soundtrack playing unobtrusively from the sound system and access to the beach bar. Dh250 (Dh300 on weekends) buys access for two and the use of seductive cabana beds draped in gauzy material and what might quite possibly be the best place in Abu Dhabi to watch the sunset.
The beach is already full every weekend but the operators have plans to increase the capacity and amenities on offer, including a fish restaurant where you can choose your dinner from an aquarium, but they insist the activities will remain non-motorised - no annoying jet skis blasting up and down the channel. Yas Beach is also a home-grown affair, with the management company and the beach club designers both involving fledgling companies run by Emiratis.
3. The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal
The Ritz-Carlton, the capital's latest five-star hotel, includes the name Grand Canal in the official title, but that's as much a reference to its inspiration (renaissance Venice) as to the watercourse on which it sits.
As with the Shangri-La and Fairmont on the other side of the channel, the beach is an artificial one comprised of sand brought in from elsewhere and deposited between two rock groynes. But, just as in Venice, they don't have much control over the water that flows past, and the beach also features rocks amid the sand and some tendrils of green slime.
There was not a soul on it when we visited, with the few guests in the hotel favouring the 1,600-square-metre pool. Outsiders who pay Dh150 on weekdays and Dh200 on weekends not only get access to the pool but also the hotel's lavishly-equipped health club, where you can burn off the guilt from indulging in the excellent home-made ice cream at Dolce, a cafe just a few steps from the pool's edge.
The rest ...
Some of the better beaches of the capital are not open to the general public. Some of the new housing developments, such as at Raha Beach, include private beaches as part of the amenities. The Club, the traditional heart of the expat establishment, has an extensive beach facing the channel towards Al Maryah Island but is open only to the more than 4,000 members and their guests. The St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort also has a long frontage on the Gulf, but the beach amenities and pools are only for use by guests staying in the hotel. But there are most definitely other, more established alternatives for the public.
Abu Dhabi island
4. Emirates Palace
The most lavishly created beach in Abu Dhabi has to be the 1.3km sweep of imported white sand at Emirates Palace. Originally access was restricted to 100 members of the beach club and those staying at the hotel. Day passes have now been introduced, costing Dh500 on weekdays and Dh700 at the weekend, which includes all the non-motorised activities such as kayaking, sailing, windsurfing and stand-up paddle boarding.
5. Corniche Beach
The original Abu Dhabi beach bears no resemblance to the one that existed when the UAE was created, not least because the shoreline is now about 100 metres further out to sea and protected from the swell by artificial Lulu Island. It is also now a sandwich of sun and sand, with streaming traffic on one side and screaming jet skis on the other. But the main 400-metre section on imported white sand is still free to everyone and the only condition of entry is to be wearing swimming attire. A modest Dh10 fee applies at the family and single sections and there are beach lounges and cafes available.
6. Hiltonia Beach Club
One of the original Abu Dhabi beach clubs, the Hiltonia impresses with its established ambience. There are a range of restaurants and pools separated by grassy areas, plenty of mature trees to provide shade from the Arabian sun and, of course, an expanse of private beach. The charge is Dh150 on weekdays and Dh185 on weekends.
The Intercontinental has probably one of the capital's best hidden beaches - a short walk through the marina from the hotel. It's not at its best while the associated restaurant zone undergoes major renovations but the price - Dh50 on weekdays and Dh95 on weekends - reflects that and the sand is white and fine, the water is clear and warm and there are plenty of shaded sun lounges.
8. Jumeirah at Etihad Towers
Another relatively new arrival, the beach is not extensive but there are also three pools and a pool bar. Scott's fish restaurant is perched, jetty-like, over the water for when it's time to seek sustenance. Weekday entry costs Dh250 and on weekends it's Dh450, but includes a Dh50 discount if you eat at one of the restaurants.
9. Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan
Day use of the beach also includes access to the sauna, Jacuzzi and pools. The Sunset Bar beside one of the pools makes a fine place to watch the sun sink below the horizon. The water sports centre includes jet ski rides. Day use costs Dh150 on weekdays and Dh185 on weekends.
10. Sheraton Corniche
The development of modern Abu Dhabi has not been kind to the Sheraton Corniche's beach, which is now an 80-metre sliver of sand in a small lagoon surrounded by ongoing construction in place of its original ocean frontage. But the water quality still exceeds the Blue Flag beach safety standards and the recreation manager, Ciprian Giurgiu, says the staff work harder to compensate for the vicissitudes of fate. Weekday entry is Dh124 and Dh175 on weekends.
11. Le Meridien Abu Dhabi
When the beach club was created, the view was over a deserted island. Now it is towered over by the nascent business hub of Al Maryah Island, all of which provide more to look at for those who ensconce themselves in the two pools or wander down the short but sandy beach. The fee of Dh90 on weekdays and Dh150 on weekends includes access to the gyms of the health club.
12. Beach Rotana
Hidden by the hotel building on one of the capital's busiest roads is one of the biggest beach clubs, with sprawling grounds and a 120-metre beach facing Al Maryah Island. There's a poolside bar that serves snacks and the water sports on offer cater to everyone from adrenalin junkies to those who seek more sedate adventures. Weekday prices are Dh150, rising to Dh210 on weekends.
13. Bateen Beach
Hidden away at the end of Al Saada Street, Bateen Beach serves the same role for the eastern half of Abu Dhabi Island that the Corniche Beach does for downtown. The beach is patrolled, the facilities are good, the water passes the Blue Flag tests for quality, there's plenty of parking, there are cafes to relax in between swims and the view is over the not-yet-developed Hodariyat Island, linked to Abu Dhabi by the picturesque "bridge to nowhere". And best of all, entry is entirely free.
Just off the island
14. Shangri-La Qaryat al Beri
The Shangri-La has a series of sandy beaches between rock groynes but also provides pools, including a lap pool and another pool on the rooftop, which take advantage of views towards the Grand Mosque. For those who want more activity than basking by the water, there are two gyms - one mixed and one solely for women. Day passes cost Dh250 regardless of the day.
15. Fairmont Bab al Bahr
The hotel features two separate beaches but the one nearest to Maqta Bridge gets all the attention. What the beach lacks, the resort makes up for in facilities such as access to kayaks, pools, sun loungers and a health club with separate men's and women's gyms. Day access costs Dh100 on weekdays and Dh160 on weekends.
16. Al Raha Beach Hotel
Long before the grand plans for Raha Beach went from architects' drawings to lavish reality, this was the beach destination in this part of Abu Dhabi. While Al Zeina and Al Muneera's beaches are private, the hotel's beach is available to anyone for Dh130 on weekdays and Dh175 on weekends. Besides the beach, there are four pools with facilities matching the five-star hotel standard.
17. Park Hyatt Saadiyat
Located right next to the new public beach, the Park Hyatt offers a step up in luxury, with the beach complemented by four pools, including an infinity pool overlooking the shoreline dunes. When you're done with the water, it's only a few steps to wander from the loungers into one of the cafes and restaurants for sustenance. Day access on any day includes a hotel room for use from 10am to 6pm and costs Dh1,150 for up to four people.
18. Monte Carlo Beach Club
The first of the Saadiyat Island beach clubs set a new standard in Abu Dhabi when it opened, albeit with a price tag to match the facilities. Day use on a weekend costs Dh450 and Dh250 during the week and includes access to the gym and a range of bars and restaurants - all created in the club's elegantly understated style.
Unpatrolled free beaches
19. Heritage Village beach
When the crowds have descended on the Corniche beach, this little-known alternative is just across the bay on the peninsula with the giant flag and never gets swamped with people. There is limited parking nearby but few other facilities.
20. Lulu Island
It's been years since the scheduled ferry service to Lulu Island stopped, but those with boats can still enjoy a choice of beaches. The Corniche side of the island has one of the best views of the Abu Dhabi skyline but the far side of the island is more private and quiet, protected by a breakwater. Visitors cannot go inland from the beach.
21. Kitesurfing beach, Yas Island
On weekends, dozens of kitesurfers weave their way across this bay, but there is still plenty of room for those looking for a swim. The bay stays shallow for a long way out, making this a safe beach, too.
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