On Another Planet

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 5th May 2004.

In this surreal, dynamic, often beautiful place you can go to the races (camel or horse), play golf at midnight, ski on sand or snow, bash wadis and dunes in four-wheel drives, camp in the desert, skate on ice, and shop until you drop.

Present-day Dubai is one vast, futuristic building site, and yet right in the thick of the city you can have a winter beach holiday (October half-term is a perfect time to go) so relaxing and sybaritic that five-star resorts on paradise islands feel like Butlins in contrast. It’s an easy seven-hour flight, there’s no jet lag and the climate is idyllic. First you must loose your grip on reality, then you can enjoy. Mine started slipping on day one when I went shopping in Madinat Jumeirah.

Opened on August 1st, this vast ‘city within a city’ in the style of old Arabia is the latest addition to the string of astonishing hotels along Jumeirah Beach. It comprises two 300-room ‘grand boutique’ hotels, a further 256 rooms in 30  villas, a Six Senses Spa, an amphitheatre, 40 or so restaurants and cafés, and a re-creation of an ethnic waterfront souk. Connected by a network of freshly-dug canals, the Madinat complex is pure Disney. As we chugged around the souk on a theme-park version of an abra (traditional water taxi) our resort guide told us with alarming conviction: "you see, here we are in ancient Dubai. It makes a perfect contrast to modern Dubai over there". By "over there" he meant the next two hotels along the beach, both in fact older than Madinat by several years. They are the truly beautiful sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, now the symbol of Dubai, and the wave-shaped Jumeirah Beach.

From the windows of Burj Al Arab’s 1,000-ft Teflon-coated glass fibre tower I had a birds’ eye view of the city erupting from the sand in a series of vast new developments as it races to meet its target of 20 million annual visitors by 2010 (there are five million at present). When I look again in a few years time I’ll see, instead of a forest of cranes, the world’s tallest tower, Burj Dubai, the world’s biggest building, the Crystal Dome, a £3 billion theme park, Dubailand, a huge new marina, a ‘Festival City’ and much more.  From the top-floor restaurant I gazed down on the extraordinary goings-on at sea: two artificial island resorts, one in the shape of two palms trees (David Beckham has already signed up for a villa) and the other, three miles offshore, shaped like the globe’s land masses. Also under construction nearby: Hydropolis, the world’s first underwater hotel.

"What’s Burj Al Arab like inside?" I had asked our guide at Madinat Jumeirah. "Ah," he said "it reflects Arab tradition in a futuristic way". No it doesn’t.  An animation for a fantasy computer game would be a better way of describing the soaring full-height atrium in which a 100-ft water column leaps towards its peak. It stuns, it amazes, it flaunts its wealth, but it reflects nothing.  As for the £1,000-a-night purple and gold duplex suites, complete with sweeping staircase, wall-to-wall windows, more than a dozen telephones, an awesome security system and giant ceiling mirrors over the beds, they would make a Martian megalomaniac feel at home. When you dine in the hotel’s Al Mahara seafood restaurant, you get there on a three-minute journey in a submarine  -  in reality a lift, I remind myself – but the boundary between fantasy and reality is by now pleasantly blurred and I succumb willingly to Dubai’s spell.

The sheer audacity of Sheik Rashid Al-Maktoum’s plan for his city is breathtaking, but there’s sound business sense behind it. Oil only accounts for six per cent of Dubai’s GDP, so trading and tourism must lead the way. And at breakneck speed: it’s incredible to think that in the 1960s there were no cars, only donkey carts, in the small pearl-diving settlement that grew up around an inlet on the Gulf, Dubai Creek.

The glamourous resort hotels along the sea shore have all the ingredients for fun and luxury, offering endless activities, facilities, restaurants and bars and the sort of service you only dream of back home. Amongst them, the Royal Mirage stands out as an oasis of Arab-influenced elegance, while Jumeirah Beach is particularly good for families as it’s next to the Wild Wadi Water Park (with free entry for hotel guests). But it’s not just for a beach holiday that visitors come to Dubai. These days, it’s packed year round by people looking for dynamism, perhaps a bit of dune bashing and some serious shopping. Even the searing heat of summer can be avoided in an indoor world of air-conditioned hotels, theme parks and shopping malls. There are 44 glitzy, marble floored malls to explore, plus numerous souks, including textile, spice and fruit, vegetables and fish.

Best and most famous is the gold souk, where the displays of jewellery in the windows of dozens of little shops create a mesmerizing sight, especially when the gold glows in the evening light. For convincing fakes such as handbags and watches, head for Karama in Bur Dubai. Al Fahidi Street is known for cheap electronics, though quality is not assured. For proper warrenties and the best prices, say insiders,  go to Carrefour in the Deira City Centre shopping mall. At the heart of Dubai, close to where the city first began, is a hotel perfectly placed for shoppers. The Hilton Dubai Creek is that rare thing in this city: intimate. The lobby cuts a dash without being overwhelming, the food is superb in Verre, Gordon Ramsay’s only restaurant outside Britain, and there’s a magical rooftop swimming pool. And if you want the beach, a shuttle bus takes guests to its sister hotel, the Hilton Jumeirah Beach.  

On the last day of my stay, I stood on the Hilton’s roof terrace. The improbable modern buildings all around glinted in the sunlight, and in the distance the soaring Emirates Towers cut into the sky like a pair of knives.  Immediately below me, however, lay a very different sight. Jostling together on Dubai Creek’s wharf were dozens of brightly- painted Arab dhows, traditional wooden trading boats being loaded, as they have for centuries, by hand. The scene looked exotic, chaotic and refreshingly probable, not like being on another planet, but like a real foreign country.

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