Words by Katie Wood
On your first visit to Dubai there will be one word that keeps slipping out of your mouth: ‘Wow’. This is a city of big wows – the biggest, the newest, the most expensive, the most cutting edge – it’s all over Dubai.
It has a truly remarkable urban landscape, including major landmarks such as the ‘seven-star’ soaring, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, and the luxury man-made islands known as The Palm, as well as ‘The World’, where, if you’ve a few million knocking about, you can buy yourself an island.
This former fishing village has built an enormous tourist industry out of being ‘the first’ to do things, and then doing them to excess. The fact is this is simply one of the world’s most amazing places, it’s a glimpse into the future and testament to what shedloads of oil money can do. Through a mixture of oil revenues, foreign investment and tourism, Dubai has transformed itself into somewhere that is simply unique, and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. This is the place where you can see what money can buy. The deluxe hotels are sights in themselves and make up for the lack of historical buildings.
Only 11 per cent of its 3.3 million population are local-born Emiratis. They’re the lucky ones with guaranteed wealth, houses and jobs, courtesy of the government; the immigrant workers (mostly from the Indian sub-continent) are not so fortunate. Sitting between the two groups is a burgeoning band of Western expats, lured by tax-free, high wages and the year-round sunshine. Dubai has over 100 nationalities living there and 8m visitors a year come on holiday – wow, eh?
When I visited in May I flew Emirates and stayed at the new Raffles Hotel on the Palm. If you want a splurge, I would thoroughly recommend both.
I flew in business class so had the luxury of a chauffeur drive through from Edinburgh to Glasgow airport (and again, on the return, straight to my door). The hassle that saves is considerable – a great added bonus.
The service both in the airport Emirates lounge and on board was exemplary and the cuisine is excellent. Western and Middle Eastern dishes can be found on the menu, it truly is like eating in a very good restaurant and the drinks menu is just as seductive with fine wines and champagne to accompany the food. Emirates is renowned for its service, and I certainly can see why. There’s also a choice of a staggering 5,000 channels for entertainment so you’ll not be bored during the seven-and-a-half-hour flight.
Dubai airport is another wow. It’s the world’s busiest airport by international passenger traffic (90m passengers a year) and the shopping experience is arguably the best in the world with some genuine bargains in designer labels.
Where to stay
There’s huge competition in the five-star market in Dubai. After all, some of the most amazing, luxurious hotels in the world are here, with new ones appearing every year. The new kid on the block just now, though, is the wedding cake Raffles Palm – a HUGE wow.
Representing the very best of the iconic Raffles brand, here you’ll find sophisticated nth degree in luxury accommodation, great dining experiences and lavish amenities, including a stunning 500-metre private beach and the award-winning Parisian Cinq Mondes Spa, which features 23 treatment rooms, two private spa suites and an indoor swimming pool.
Enter the hotel and you’re transported to a fairytale, reminiscent of Versailles: pink Portuguese marble columns; Swarovski chandeliers (6,000 of them throughout the hotel); gilt pillars, superb quality Chinese carpets; fantastic floral arrangements – it’s truly palatial.
Your room will be just as wow! They have a vast choice of room categories and all 389 of them are exceptional, with superb super king size beds, state-of-the-art technology, a tub, shower, dual vanities and luxe toiletries and generous balconies. You will have your very own butler who will attend to your every need and be on call 24/7. In addition to the rooms and suites, filled with antique furnishings, there are villas (high season US $11,000 a night) which sleep eight and are beyond another ‘wow’ (I now, officially, run out of ‘wows’). Each villa has a private pool and complete spa suite, with sauna, massage room and so on.
The attention to detail shows. But then, the intention is to position Raffles as the leading luxury resort in the Middle East. The hotel’s Ukrainian owner, Nver Mkhitaryan, personally went down the mines to handpick the marble for the lobby area and insisted on importing fine white sand from the Maldives. A total of $700m was spent developing this resort, which started life as a Kempinski before French-owned Accor took over its management.
The restaurants in the hotel are outstanding (and I’m not one to praise easily). In ‘Le Jardin’ you can help yourself to a breakfast of anything you can think of.
I baulked at the thought of a restaurant which was half Italian; half Japanese, but the Asian fusion mix worked ridiculously well and Mauro di Leo, the Sicilian Chef, takes great pride in his ‘Itameshi’ creations such as risotto with caviar and wagyu beef. Matagi needs booking but it’s worth it.
The beachside Italian restaurant, Piatti, is as good as any Italian in London, and the Cinq Mondes Spa should be a treat you decidedly allow yourself. I was lucky enough to have a skilled Thai masseur who found the knots and left me much happier and relaxed.
Then there’s the SOLA Raffles Jazz Lounge, and a wonderful traditional afternoon tea is served at Bluthner Hall, complete with live piano music.
There are plenty of impressive sights to see across Dubai, shopping to be undertaken and areas to be explored, here are some of the top picks.
For an insight into the city’s history, head to the museum in the fort of Al-Fahidi. Built in the 18th century, it gives an insight into the local way of life and shows the remarkable transformation that Dubai has undergone in recent times.
The Satwa District, one of Dubai’s Little India and Little Manila districts, it a great place to source gold and textiles for keen shoppers, while Bur Dubai boasts several tourist attractions from souks to floating restaurants. Deira is a bustling commercial-residential district with old souks, including many specializing in spices, while Jumeirah is a diverse district with easy access to the beach, beautiful villas; ‘The Walk’ and Jumeirah Mosque are the top attractions here.
The quirk about shopping in Dubai is that the actual shopping is actually average, but the experience is so OTT you’ve got to try it. The Souk Madinat inside the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel has its own waterway to transfer people from its shops to the neighbouring hotels. The massive Mall of the Emirates boasts an indoor ski slope with real snow, and the palatial Dubai Mall is the largest in the world with over 1,300 shops – insane.
A tour you simply cannot miss is the 90-minute butler-guided ‘Inside Burj Al Arab’ which gives you an exclusive glimpse into this opulent hotel. It’s the most iconic hotel in the Middle East and the very apogee of luxury.
Firstly, you’ll admire the atrium – wow! It’s the world’s tallest, of course, and it is stunning. Filled with colour, golden columns and a central fountain that represents the tree of life, it sends arcs of water springing 42 meters into the air, using ‘hyper-shooter’ technology.
The glass panoramic lift is an anchor point of Dubai’s coastline, and commands spectacular views across the Arabian Gulf. In a flash you’re on the 25th floor. The Royal Suite with its revolving beds is beyond Wow. This has everything money can buy, though the vibrant mix of reds and oranges and gold may overwhelm you. From the marble in the bathroom to the down in the duvets, only the finest quality materials are used.
In the Private Dining Room, the ceiling is painted to resemble the sky with clouds while the Murano glass chandelier represents the sun. It’s insane the level of luxury has been put into this suite, from 24 carat gold shower tiles to gold taps.
The Architect’s Studio is fascinating and shows the thinking behind this amazing hotel which started out as a sketch on a napkin. Book at insideburjalarab.com, the tour costs AED 249 (about £54).
A good way to see Dubai is on the Big Bus Dubai Hop-on-Hop off bus tour. Viator offer a good one for £55, it’s really easy to book, and well worth it for the ultimate of all ‘Wow’s’! Viator also offer a visit to the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world (of course). See viator.com.
Emirates offers return economy class flights from Glasgow to Dubai from £669, while business class flights start at £2,939. Tel: 0844 800 2777, website: emirates.com/uk
Raffles on the Palm Dubai – raffles.com/thepalm-dubai