We are often asked by clients what do we think of Dubai. How long should I stay? Is it a holiday destination? Is it worth staying at all? These are questions that have resulted in several conversations around the office. I was fortunate enough to gain firsthand experience as a guest of Emirates and Dubai Tourism. What do I think? Read on ...
Arrival in Dubai is about as easy as it gets. No forms just a quick stop at immigration or a smart gate then through to collect your bags. I quickly found myself in a taxi hurtling along Sheikh Zayed Street to the Sofitel the Palm. I have to say I was a bit disoriented at this stage. I knew we were in the palm area but nothing en route provided any clue as to the layout of the area. It wasn't until I had a look at a map I found the hotel was on the outer circle with the fronds enclosed. The famous Atlantis Palms is about a 10 minute walk away.
I was provided with a Beach Suite at the Sofitel which completely exceeded my expectations. A double bedroom with en suite bigger than the bedroom featuring a round bath that looked as though it would take a week to fill. Both the lounge and the bedroom opened out to a balcony overlooking Internet City on the mainland. The room featured all I needed and more with 12 channels devoted to football.
The resort itself had a Hawaii theme. I couldn't help feeling that Kiwis would go to Hawaii rather than stay at a Hawaiian themed resort in Dubai especially if you take the beach into account. There is nothing natural about the beach facing in towards the palm overlooking a construction site. No question that the resort ticks all the boxes as a 5 star resort, the 7 restaurants and bars are superb along with the 8 pools and services. It certainly appeals as a place to unwind but as a stopover. The resort also features apartments but the nearest shops are at least 20 minutes away. There is another mall being constructed while I was there in the Palm area which may make this option more practical. It would depend on your purpose of visiting Dubai whether I would recommend this area. It is a significant distance from the Creek, Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates. You would have to have relaxation as the number one priority. If sightseeing or shopping was also a focus I would look at the Jumeirah Beach area for similar properties in the same category.
Fortunately by arriving a day earlier than the rest of the group I had a day to myself. Decided to use it by visiting the area around the Creek incorporating Al Fahidi Fort, Bastakiya, the dhow port and souks, i.e. the oldest part of Dubai. I took a taxi from the Sofitel which took about an hour and $30.00 to the fort. As far as 17th century Islamic forts go it is not hugely impressive but I really like this sort of thing so enjoyed the half hour visit. Nearby Bastakiya features reconstructions of the traditional housing in these parts. It's moderately interesting but houses where no one actually lives are soulless. From here I wandered through the Textile Souk then crossed the Creek by Abra (water taxi) to the Dhow port to visit the Gold and Spice Souks. I understand gold is well priced here but as a visual or cultural experience the souks are disappointing. Istanbul, Cairo, and a multitude of other Middle Eastern locales offer much more satisfying Souk experiences unless of course gold is your focus.
In complete contrast I then visited the modern souk in the form of Dubai Mall. From ho hum to brand overload. The taxi dropped me off at the Address Hotel and I wandered towards the mall being utterly dumbfounded by the sight of the Burj Khalifa. There are tall buildings all around Dubai but the Burj Khalifa literally soars into the sky. Visiting the mall I would suggest grabbing a map as soon as you get there and making a plan. Along with shopping you can also consider a bit of ice skating or scuba diving with sharks as you do when you go and buy a pair of Nikes! I particularly enjoyed the food court but as with everything here it is better you do some research before wandering around. Every conceivable fast food chain is represented and it took me half an hour before settling on one.
The following day we paid a visit to Atlantis the Palm to swim with dolphins. The hotel itself is themed around the legend of Atlantis, more Disney than Plato. The experience with the dolphins is heavily controlled but I imagine my kids would go ballistic! There was no swimming involved just a pat and a cuddle. Given the opportunity again I would definitely go with the actual swimming option.
Lunch was spent at the Moana Restaurant at the Sofitel. A three course seafood affair was really, really good. Despite the fact I wouldn't necessarily recommend the Sofitel for the reasons mentioned previously there is no doubt the quality of what they do offer is first class.
From one dinner to another we headed into the Burj Khalifa and the super chic Armani hotel, this place is designed to be noticed in. There is no reception and the hallways are minimalist in the extreme so the only decoration is the beautifully decorated people that inhabit the environs. The rooms themselves are surprisingly comfortable given the austere decoration leading to them and many overlook the Dubai Fountains. Butler service is provided. We had dinner at the Armani Deli. The food and wine were ok and while I wouldn't go overboard, the Tiramisu was nigh on perfect. The Dubai Fountains sounded a bit corny to me but they were actually really good, maybe I was starting to 'get' Dubai.
More indulgence followed the next morning at the opulent Zabeel Saray Hotel. Based on a Turkish Ottoman palace of immense proportions the place drips with opulence. We were treated to a Turkish Bath complete with rib crunching massage. The spa itself features among the top rated in the world and the surrounds certainly back this up. After a decent beating we had a look around the hotel featuring a cinema, several pools and a myriad of lavishly decorated restaurants. We had yet another multiple course lunch in the Turkish restaurant. I have spent quite a bit of time in Turkey and I can attest unequivocally this is the best Turkish culinary experience I have ever had.
Bidding farewell to the Saray we headed off to what I foresaw would be the highlight of the journey for me, the Al Maha Desert Resort. An hour or so from the city the resort set in a national park is stunning from the moment you walk in overlooking a manmade waterhole where Arabian Oryx and gazelle replenish themselves. Our individually located rooms set apart physically and visually from each other fulfilled my expectations. The decor is pure Bedouin with a huge bed and a couple of chaises longues facing out towards the double doors that led to my private plunge pool overlooking the waterhole and a sea of dunes. I would travel to Dubai for this!
That night we were scheduled to have dinner al fresco amongst the dunes. Dinner in the desert sounds better than it actually is. Scrunched up sitting on a cushion, wind blowing sand over your food and, more irritatingly into the wine, has never made for a good time in my experience, especially when one of the best restaurants anywhere is enticingly close in the resort.
An early start the following morning to attend a falconry display. This was quite interesting as the park guides explained the history and training of various birds of prey before a very up close and personal demonstration. However the highlight of the entire trip was to follow. The Desert Dune drive outside the reserve in the Emirate of Sharjah was magnificent. I have driven across a few deserts in my time in lumbering trucks, how I wish I had had one these vehicles. The resort Drivers handle the landcruisers deftly for the right balance of entertainment and thrills. I absolutely loved this. Another day, another spa, this time a full body Swedish massage. Bizarrely after lulling us into a state of utter tranquility someone thought putting us on camels would be a good idea. Fortunately this particular camel ride was easily most comfortable I have ever been on.
In between times we were taken on a game drive. If I were being critical the reserve needs a greater diversity of game. The Oryx have no natural predators affecting their behaviour. For example they have the choice of wandering around in herds or individually as the fancy takes them. They have no need for others to cover their backs. Bird life is varied but no superstars. Once again this is a great place but a destination in itself? If you were after animals and deserts keep going to Africa. Somewhere like Namibia has both and more spectacular. Al Maha doesn't have that much to offer in terms of game but definately worth a stop if it was en route. Could be better when the Arabian Wolf is introduced. Nothing like a bit of life and death to liven up a game park!
That evening was spent at the resort restaurant. We dined in several high quality restaurants on this trip but the meal at Al Maha was truly magnificent. The Wagyu steak I had was the best I have ever and ever likely to have, perfection on a plate. Combined with the food the staff were brilliantly attentive and personable.
The group wanted to visit the Gold Souk the following morning. Fortunately I needed a haircut and found a barber nearby to occupy my time here. We also visited the Sheikh Maktoum Cultural Center. If you actually want to get an idea of Emirati life this is a far better investment of your time than wandering around Bastakiya. A visit covers food and lifestyle aspects but the gem is the opportunity to sit down with a local female student and ask absolutely any question that you like. Answers are provided in a straightforward manner and with a fair degree of humour.
Our final hotel was the Burj al Arab, yep the really posh one! The foyer of the hotel doesn't really reveal what lies beyond. There is an aquarium on either side of the elevators but the full extent of the hotel is only revealed once the escalators are ascended. Our group had an entire floor booked for us so once we disembarked from the elevator a dozen butlers were standing at attention outside each of our rooms. Rooms allocated the butler showed me around my two story suite. The room itself is luxuriant but I didn't really have time to test all the features as we had to fit in lunch at Pier Chic on Jumeirah Beach.
The restaurant is located at the end of a pier jutting from Jumeirah Beach with perfect views of the Burj al Arab and the beach area. Another high quality dining experience ensued but I was still dreaming of the Wagyu steak at Al Maha. My culinary expectations had been raised unexpectedly high! A hotel inspection of the al Qasr and al Minaa hotels followed. I really liked the way these places were set out, the rooms themselves and their Middle Eastern styling.
Back to the Burj and a decent look around. The first floor of the room features an office area complete with iMac, the usual coffee making faculties, bar, a dining setting for 4, TV, huge couch, arm chairs andchaise longue. Upstairs features the enormous bathroom complete with spa bath, dressing room and bedroom complete with mirror above the bed and TV that comes out of a desk. All curtains, and probably other stuff, are remote controlled. We had cocktails scheduled for the evening with hotel management which was followed by a visit to the Skyview bar. With cocktails starting at $70.00 the visit was brief!
Back home reflecting on what turned out to be a completely unexpected experience would I recommend Dubai as a destination, maybe. Would I recommend it as a stopover, most definitely.