Fit for a pharaoh

Fionn Davenport on Abu Dhabi’s entertainment playground


In 2560BC, Egyptian pharaoh Cheops (or Khufu) ordered the construction of a vast mausoleum for himself and his family. It’s not unreasonable to assume that, over the course of the 20-odd years it took to build the Great Pyramid at Giza, the pharaoh pored over the plans, correcting details he didn’t like and making improvements that the builders dare not question. What pharaoh wants, pharaoh gets.

I wonder if it is the same for Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, hereditary ruler of Abu Dhabi, as he cast a critical eye over the plans for man-made Yas Island (, landfilled and landscaped between the desert and the sea about a half hour’s drive northeast of town.

Construction began in 2006 and now – seven years and €40 billion later – Abu Dhabi’s entertainment playground is approaching completion. It is a combination of Monte Carlo, Las Vegas and Florida, minus the history, gambling or hurricanes.

Instead you’ve got motor racing. The island’s centrepiece is the Yas Marina circuit, a track built to play host to the Formula 1 party when it comes to town. For the other 51 weeks of the year it is open – for a fee – to walkers, cyclists and less-skilled drivers who relish the chance to try their hand at a bit of rally driving.

Nearby and easily recognized by its bright red curvilinear design is Ferrari World, home to the world’s fastest rollercoaster (150mp/h in five seconds) and one of the best simulators I’ve ever been on: strap yourself into the racecar and “drive” your way around the track at 200km, feeling G-force at every turn of the tiny wheel. It was amazing, and I don’t even like cars.

What I did like was the Viceroy Hotel (, a five-star property in the middle of the racetrack that looks like a spaceship cloaked in a blanket of shimmering stars. I’ve never actually stayed there, but the Amici restaurant serves some of the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten outside of Italy.

My choice of accommodations are the cluster of midrange hotels at the island’s western end, all of which have really elegant rooms, some excellent restaurants as well as easy access to the island’s only beach and the sensational Yas Links golf course.

When the pyramid at Giza was built I imagine that Cheops showed up to take a look and, satisfied with what he saw, gave the chief builder an approving nod. There are few additions still to come on Yas, and it’ll all be done by 2020 – but when it is it’ll undoubtedly be to Sheik Khalifa’s satisfaction. What pharaoh wants, pharaoh gets.

Fionn Davenport travelled to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways (, booked through Cassidy Travel (

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