While gay travelers aren?t racing to the Middle East -- for good reasons -- the region?s architectural, cultural, and artistic wonders are a serious spectacle, particularly in the United Arab Emirates. (Here, as in other ostensibly antigay countries, such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, the Seychelles, or Singapore, you can safely travel and enjoy it as long as it?s approached with discretion and respect.)
While Dubai had its over-the-top one-upmanship that spawned the jaw-droppingly gigantic Burj Khalifa (at 160 stories, the tallest building in the world) and the engineering magic of the Palm Islands, its neighbor, Abu Dhabi, is betting on quality over quantity to win the day and tourist buck.
Saadiyat Island, an hour and a half drive from Dubai, is a sleepy little island being groomed to become the artistic heart of the region. With a slew of big-name projects now under construction in its cultural district, like the Louvre?s first foreign outpost (below, Jean Nouvel?s design) and Frank Gehry?designed Guggenheim slated to open in 2015 and 2017, respectively, as well as a performing arts center by Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster?s Shiekh Zayed National Museum in the intervening years.
The UAE Pavilion, also by Foster, a steel-paneled stunner referencing the undulating curves of sand dunes, will open in time for the Abu Dhabi Art Fair(November 16?19)
. In the meantime, affluent, design-inspired travelers are lured from their Palm Island bubble for the city?s galleries, and monthly cultural exhibitions (the ongoing Manarat Al Saadiyat offers insight into the history and future development of the region), as well as Saadiyat?s miles of sublime, natural beaches, sprinkled with only a handful of luxury hotels and the exclusive Monte-Carlo Beach Club.
The recently opened Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi(from $326)
, is an oasis that offers five pools, three dining facilities (don?t miss fresh seafood at the Park Bar & Grill), a state-of-the-art fitness center with onsite trainer, the Atarmia Spa, and a staff of mostly internationally imported ex-pats (many of whom are light on their feet). Park Hyatt?s strict "green building" practices are naturally in line with the ethos of the island, which enforces guidelines to ensure it remains as protected and unspoiled as it was three years ago, when the only way to reach it was by boat.
>BEST BEACH All 5.6 sandy miles of Saadiyat Beach.