As summer heat and humidity begin to fade, what could be more inviting to residents of an island city than a dip in the sea? But finding a place to put your toes in the turquoise waters of the Gulf is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone without a wallet full of dirhams.
The closure for at least another month of the public beach on the Corniche means it is almost impossible to find open access to a patch of seafront sand in the capital. A number of the city's best hotels offer clean sand, umbrellas and sun loungers on their private beaches, but these comforts come at a price, usually well over Dh100. The issue of access to Abu Dhabi's beaches was brought to a head last week with the news that the only public beach on the Corniche is likely to remain closed for renovations until the middle of October.
Although barely a year old, the beach is undergoing massive reconstruction that includes adding a boardwalk, cycling and sports facilities, improving the lighting, shading, pedestrian access and adding more parking spaces. The project, which includes bringing in less-gritty sand, began in August and has left would-be bathers and sun worshippers with few alternatives that do not involve a pricey beach club.
"I'm always searching for open water, for beach, and this is it, this is all," laments Ernest Mihailescu, 40, who has lived in the city for four years. "This is very strange. I'm European; I want a beach where I can swim, go camping, dance, make a fire. I can't find it. And this is an island, right? Strange." Although Abu Dhabi's city coastline stretches nearly 60km, the Corniche beach takes up just 2km. The majority of the rest is owned by hotels and private individuals.
Access to Beach Rotana's stretch of sand costs Dh150 a day, unless you are a guest of the hotel. The InterContinental charges Dh115 for guests to share the sea with yachts and sailboats. Le Méridien charges Dh195 which includes access to its pools and spa facilities. The Hilton Abu Dhabi charges Dh160 and has a view of the Marina Mall. The view from almost all other private beaches is of cranes and construction sites.
One popular alternative is a smaller open beach close to the Emirates Palace hotel, although in recent months most of the trees and greenery that lined the shore have been torn out to make way for a construction project. There are often almost as many cranes as people on the adjacent sand. "I'm not interested in paying hundreds of dirhams to go to the beach," says Darryl Natulla, 29, who works at a glass factory in Abu Dhabi. Dripping after a dip in the sea behind the Emirates Palace, he said swimming here instead of at the Corniche beach was not a big problem, except there were no public washrooms or shops selling water or sunscreen.
"I don't know what their plans are for the Corniche beach, but they need more long, open beaches here. Those are better," he said. Reja Jacob, 42, came with his wife and small child to enjoy the view of the sea from his air-conditioned car. "There's no shade here," he said. "There was at the Corniche beach. But for the time being, we'll just come here." Mr Jacob is worried about how long the Corniche beach construction will go on. It tended to be crowded, particularly on weekends, he said, but was bigger than this beach behind Emirates Palace, which has become noticeably busier since the public one closed.
Also out of bounds is Lulu Island, at least for anyone without a boat. The ferry service to Lulu was suspended earlier this year and all facilities were closed, pending a major development of the island, by Sorouh, as a luxurious tourist resort. For the moment, private boat owners can still land and use its beaches. A more accessible spot is a short, 700-metre stretch of sand on the south-west coast of Abu Dhabi island, bordered by 8th Street. It offers a view of tugs heading out to sea and the barren expanse of Hudayriat Island, earmarked for low-cost housing in the Abu Dhabi 2030 plan.
The sand is littered with builders' rubble and there is a solitary ghaf tree for shade, but it has a gently shelving beach, even if the water is frequently littered with plastic bags. It is free, with plenty of parking. One last option remains. Not far from the Corniche public beach is the Breakwater and the best chance to swim in the sea near the centre of town. The tiny beach is located just past a sign warning that Lulu Island is closed "for an indefinite time". There is no indication the site was intended to be used as a beach bathers must actually climb over a cement barrier and jump down a drop of about a metre but this small stretch of white sand may just be Abu Dhabi sun-seekers' best-kept secret.