Wanting to stretch our legs after the 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi, we decided to leave the car in the parking lot and walk up to the hotel lobby, but were intercepted by a hawk-eyed attendant who burst through the glass doors to relieve us of our luggage, all the time clucking in horror at our quiet arrival. At reception the check-in formalities took some time - the staff did a lot of appearing and disappearing with my ID and other papers - but once done we were escorted to our room with much grandeur and solemnity.
Al Ain is a city of roundabouts. On our drive to the hotel we counted at least 13, variously decorated with incense burners, lavish pavilions, extremely large horses in mid leap and, puzzlingly, a deer on a tall monolith. The hotel is a five-minute drive from the town centre and about 20 minutes from popular tourist spots such as the Al Ain Wildlife Reserve and Park, the National Museum and Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain's famous 1,240-metre-high mountain. Across the street from the hotel is Al Jahili Fort, the setting for many cultural events, and a children's park.
We were allotted a large room in the hotel's old wing. The furniture was plain and the palette muted, but the bright contemporary paintings on the walls added a feeling of warmth. At one end of the room was a wide balcony with a couple of comfortable chairs; we never used them, however, because the view was a letdown - all we could see was a bit of road and a dusty terrace full of air-conditioning units. The bathroom was well-appointed and spacious. The shower head turned out to be temperamental, spouting water either in a forceful blast or a miserable trickle.
Solicitous and thoughtful. At lunch, one of the waiters overheard my son tell me that he couldn't find any croissants at the bread counter, and came by a few minutes later with a freshly baked batch. Room service was a dream - all requests were dealt with in a matter of seconds, followed by a call to make sure we got what we needed.
Zest, the hotel's restaurant, offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, all buffet-style. For lunch (Dh105 per person), I tried the duck breast in orange sauce, my husband went for the shrimp biryani, and my son chose pad thai (stir-fried noodles with vegetables and chicken). The dim sum, cleverly shaped to resemble goldfish, was so good that most of the children, and several adults, gave the pizza counter a miss. At dinner (Dh119), the hot station was surrounded by a crowd of people waiting patiently for the chef to dish out succulent jumbo prawns and chicken tikka straight from the tandoor. The desserts were to die for - fresh fruit peeked out of everything, from the white chocolate mousse and raspberry tarts to the coconut and kiwi trifles. Breakfast (Dh74) was a hearty affair, with a wide variety of fruits, cereals, yoghurts, bread fresh from the oven, more yummy dim sum, and perfectly cooked omelettes from a busy egg station. The juices were excellent.
We arrived during Easter break, so there were plenty of tourists milling about, both Western and Arab. The cafe in the atrium and Trader Vic's, a French-Polynesian restaurant, are popular hangouts. But much of the buzz was centred around the pool - children splashed at one end, parents crowded round the cocktail bar at the other, and everyone else lay sprawled on deck chairs or on the lawn. The Jacuzzi, which for some reason is situated right beside the children's pool, drew a constant stream of toddlers trying to jump in with plastic ducks and squeals of "bubble bath". This kept the lifeguards busy.
The ambience at Zest. The multi-level lighting, cosy booths, tables for two in corners away from the aisles, the sweeping view of the gardens and music that does not drown conversation all add to the sophisticated feel of the place. Even the children talked in hushed tones and remembered not to run.
The tired-looking beauty salon. I booked a manicure and the staff did a good job, but the place needs new equipment and a makeover.
The place to go if you're looking for a break far from the madding crowd. Perfect for families in search of five-star surroundings where children are allowed to be children.
Double rooms cost from (Dh570) including taxes without breakfast. Al Ain Rotana Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road, PO Box 1210, Al Ain (www.rotana.com; 00 971 3754 5111)