Pop-Up Abu Dhabi: Look between the mangroves and the leaning tower of Abu Dhabi to find luxury homes that seem to walk on water. You've reached Al Gurm, where nature begins not just outside your front door but under it.
Al Gurm: life beside the mangroves
Fish jump from the turquoise water causing ripples to lap lazily against a boat jetty, the sun falls across the western sky towards the deep green of the mangroves and a heron takes off from its perch.
This view could easily be somewhere along the wild and sparsely populated coastline of Al Gharbia but it is in Abu Dhabi city, a stone's throw from Khaleej al Arabi, close to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) and a 10-minute drive from the Corniche.
The view greets the new owners of luxurious villas in the recently completed Al Gurm resort, which its developer, Aldar, describes as a new benchmark for high-end residential housing in the capital.
Anyone whose daily commute takes them along Khaleej al Arabi past Adnec will be familiar with the large boards on the western side of the road that have been concealing the development.
The boards came down not long ago and up popped Al Gurm. Suddenly the rooftops of large and grand villas were revealed, peaking over mounds of earth and the green shoots and saplings of what promises to be some rather elegant landscaping once it has matured.
There's only a glimpse of the buildings from the road, but it's enough to know this is no ordinary neighbourhood.
Aldar's deputy CEO and chief commercial officer, Mohammed al Mubarak, said the vision for Al Gurm was that of "a high-quality waterfront development within an outstanding eco-friendly environment with good access into the city while also providing residents with a hideaway from the stresses of daily life".
This is a tough objective in any city but Al Gurm proves it can be done in Abu Dhabi, so maybe this is the shape of things to come for the capital.
There is a definite South East Asian flavour to the design and architecture, and the size and grandeur of the villas is reminiscent of hotels run by the exclusive Singapore-based Aman Resorts group. The wide, sloping roofs and the stylish interior juxtaposition of natural stone and dark walnut wood are particularly Aman-esque.
The villa floor plans provide large, open-plan living spaces to accentuate water and mangrove views, emphasise the merging of indoors and outdoors and create what Aldar calls a "window on nature".
There are 73 villas, each of which has a private waterfront, boat jetty, bathrooms en suite, an infinity pool and deck, living quarters for four domestic staff, smart home technology (fingertip controls for lights, temperature, alarms, etc) and a three-car garage. Each villa has two kitchens - one for day-to-day family cooking and the other (separate from the main house) for producing larger meals and catered events. Kitchen appliances in all villas are from the renowned German designer and manufacturer Gaggenau.
There are 61 waterfront villas on the mainland that vary among three-bedroom, four-bedroom and five-bedroom models. The remaining 12 are island villas (all withfive bedrooms), each of which inhabits its own small island accessed by a road bridge, and has lush gardens and its very own beach.
The villa exteriors boast natural Yemeni stone, which is predominantly oat-white but with hints of cream and very pale salmon pink, making for an intriguing and attractive facade. A number of the most exclusive hotels in Bali and Thailand favour this use of white stone for walls and walkways and it adds immeasurably to the overall feeling of serenity; Al Gurm is proof that it works just as well here in the UAE.
For privacy, shade and as a design motif, some of the large picture windows are shielded by irregular aluminium screens (made in Al Ain), the design of which is a modern take on the ancient Arabic lattice screen or mashrabiya. The motif appears again in the railings found at the rear of the villas and around the swimming pools.
Inside, the dark wood floors are Canadian walnut and are laid alongside smooth, creamy limestone from Turkey and the colours and textures complement each other perfectly. Walnut is also used (along with meranti wood from Malaysia) for the cabinets and cupboards in the living areas and the elegant wardrobes in the bedrooms, the doors of which are highlighted by natural leather handles from China.
One of the big wow factors is found in the master bedrooms, where there is a large, deep stand-alone bathtub carved from a single piece of limestone, smooth as silk to the touch. I wasn't sure whether it was a real bath or a piece of art.
Possibly the most striking difference in Al Gurm is the workmanship. The "make-do" joinery that is sadly quite common in some of Abu Dhabi's residential buildings is not present here. Instead, the joins are neat and precise and there is a sense of symmetry, order and professionalism. The materials have been cared for: the wood is not scratched, the floors are not scuffed, the stone is not chipped, and during my tour I was given blue plastic "socks" to wear over my shoes to ensure the floors remain pristine.
Of course, for multimillion-dirham villas such as these, owners would expect nothing less than the very best but, still, the reality is that things do get broken, marked and stained in even the most exclusive developments unless immense care is taken in construction and finishing.
To deliver such precision while adhering to the Government's plans for housing in Abu Dhabi and focusing on sustainable development and the maintenance of the health of sensitive natural environment has been a triple challenge for Aldar at Al Gurm. Maybe the conquering of this challenge is a sign of increased excellence for Abu Dhabi.
Al Mubarak would like to think so.
"As with all our developments, we worked closely with the Urban Planning Council to ensure that Al Gurm adhered closely to the 2030 development plan," he said. "Most relevant to Al Gurm is the plan's focus on respecting the natural resources - planning for careful, sensitive growth in order to preserve the critical natural environment that makes Abu Dhabi unique.
"Clearly, a home at the heart of Abu Dhabi's natural ecosystem is extremely attractive but only if this natural environment can be preserved. As well as the work carried out to maintain those mangroves already in place, we have also restored planting soil and extended the area of the mangrove forest beyond its original boundaries by 31,000 square metres." (For every mangrove tree removed during Al Gurm's construction, Aldar has planted two trees to replace it.)
"As with all our developments, the focus is on creating attractive and sustainable environments that complement the existing beauty of the ecosystem and facilitate the social and economic development of Abu Dhabi," said al Mubarak.
Almost all of the 73 villas have been sold and a few have already been handed over to Al Gurm's first new VIP residents who are waking to views of mangroves, jumping fish and flying herons and very possibly wondering if they can get away with working from home today.
Al Gurm Phase II
Phase II of the project will include a range of facilities to which the residents of Al Gurm’s existing villas will also have access. According to Aldar’s deputy CEO and chief commercial officer, Mohammed al Mubarak, it is currently in the master planning phase. “It will include a range of amenities that are designed to meet the requirements of Al Gurm residents. The key foundations of the islands that make up Phase II are already well advanced. Further details on these elements will be announced at a later date,” al Mubarak said.