Over the years I've spent a lot of time in Dubai – I think I first visited around 2004, and even then I remember being overwhelmed by the synthetic sense of rapidly manufactured place, which was, by turns, both fascinating and repulsive. Six years later, the emirate's landscape has evolved in directions that make the Dubai of 2004 seem positively quaint. The Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is almost complete, along with the surrounding neighborhood which has been termed 'Downtown Dubai', populated by the world's biggest mall (the Dubai Mall, natch) and a number of high-end hotels and condominiums. Dubai has seen suburban sprawl, with residential communities springing up all over the place, thanks to the building boom. 2008 saw Dubai's real estate market implode, of course, which means that there are massive numbers of empty commercial, and to a lesser degree, residential units available, along with all number of incomplete and stalled building projects but from outside appearances, all seems to still be bright and sunny. And for the tourism industry, it actually is – Dubai's desirability as a vacation destination hasn't been diminished in the least. Prices have come down slightly, making it more affordable than before, and more rooms have come online, catering to larger demand.
I made a recent trip there to test out Emirates' Business Class service, and had the pleasure of discovering a number of experiences that were either new, or at least new to me. Emirates did an amazing job of coordinating all aspects of my visit, reinforcing my fondness for the airline. First off was my arrival at The Address Downtown Dubai. Emaar, the development company behind the Burj and a number of other high-profile Dubai projects, has started their own hotel brand from scratch, The Address, and this is their flagship property. The hotel is perched across a small manmade lake from the Burj Khalifa and enjoys amazing views, as well as walking access ( a big plus in Dubai's 120 degree weather) to the Dubai Mall and the 'old-style' Souk al Bahar shopping center, along with a number of cafes and restaurants. My pet peeve is coordinating early flight time arrivals with hotel rooms that are usually not available until 2 pm. The Address staff went out of their way to accommodate me, sending me up to a room to rest until my room was ready, and in the process, making a great first impression. My proper suite had a balcony and a beautiful water view, along with a massive marble bathroom with rain shower and soaking tub.
I had slept enough on the plane so I decided to check out the hotel's breakfast spread. I'm a huge fan of buffets and I'm the first to admit that this can lead to very unfortunate dining experiences.The Address, however, has managed to elevate breakfast to a fine culinary art. I don't think I'd be overstating the case by saying it was the most impressive breakfast I've ever had the pleasure of pigging out on. The spread itself was massive (I'd estimate that the sq. feet it took up was easily bigger than my NY apartment), with stations for Western, Asian, Indian and Arabic breakfast options. Within each station there were a full range of hot dishes along with assorted cold ones. The hotel has its own bakery which supplied about 30 different kinds of pastries and breads. I asked for gluten-free bread (a big test of a hotel's kitchen capability, not to mention its patience with annoying guests) and they had it baked and to my table within 15 minutes. I'll spare you the details of everything I ate, but I think it's safe to estimate that I gained at least a couple of pounds before I went back up to my room.
By that evening my fellow travelers on the Emirates' trip had arrived – we convened for drinks at the hotel's outdoor lounge where we could watch the light and fountain show that takes place in front of the Burj. The next day my group went on a tour of Old Dubai, an area I was already familiar with. I opted, instead, to max and relax by the hotel's pool, an innovative series of stepped water bodies with an infinity edge, overlooking the manmade lake. That night we ventured up to the Neos bar, the highest in Dubai, which has unbelievable views of the city from the 63 floor, and then headed back down to Hukama, the hotel's fine dining Chinese restaurant. As much as I love General Tso's Chicken, there wasn't any to be had here – it was more along the lines of delicacies like shark's fin soup (which made me a little bit sad in theory, but quite happy in practice) and other dishes probably unknown to the average Western diner.
The following day we had breakfast and then headed out to At The Top, the viewing station in the Burj Khalifa. Now I've heard about the Burj since the project was announced, and I've seen it go up in stages over the years, so I was a little bit suspicious about how amazing it would really end up being, but for once my jaded outlook was put out to pasture. The building is an architectural marvel. From afar it reminded me of a grey and silver version of the Emerald City, or a futuristic take on graphic Art Deco lines. The view from the platform was incredible, and there were digital binoculars that allowed visitors to zoom in on the backyard's of the surrounding buildings. I tried to look into the backyard of the Sheikh's palace, but sadly my binoculars couldn't make out many details, beyond that the palace is ENORMOUS. It's probably visible from space.
Then we headed to the Aquarium at the Dubai Mall. Again, I was prepared to be underwhelmed – "An Aquarium? Really?" i thought to myself. And then I saw the thing. Like everything else that day, it was ginormous, filled with giant groupers, tiger sharks, rays, and schools of brightly colored fish. You can pay to dive in and do all kinds of scary/fun things in the tank, but we opted to walk through the glass enclosed passageway, where we saw a hammerhead shark, a new introduction to the tank, being held in solitary confinement while he or she adjusted to their new home. I tried to find out some good stories from our guide about any accidental deaths but supposedly there haven't been any. Just kidding, I totally believed teh guide. Although, I'm not going to be diving into the tank anytime soon or whatever it is that other people do. I also had a flashback to the safari I took in South Africa a couple years back when me and my safarimates kept chanting "KILL, KILL, KILL!" everytime we went on a drive and saw a lion and any kind of prey in the distance, hoping that our encouragement would lead to a dramatic scene of natural savagery. Walking through the aquarium I kept hoping to see a shark eat a ray, or a ray electrocute a turtle or some such excitement, but sadly no one seemed that interested in attacking anyone else.
Shark and Ray
A giant grouper in the Aquarium!
We ate a quick but (in keeping with the day's theme) big lunch and then hopped into 4×4's and headed into the desert where we were due to go on a desert safari. Now when I hear 'safari', naturally I think of wildlife and nature and all that jazz. But that's not what a wildlife safari means in Dubai. There, it's better known as 'dune bashing', i.e. riding up and down sand dunes at extremely high, stomach churning speeds. In my car were two other journalists, as well as Bettie DeBruhl, the amazing host from Emirates' PR affiliate in Houston. I promised not to reprint the transcript of our ride, but suffice it to say, Bettie lost it a little. To be fair, there were at least 10 times where I thought I was going to die, but I was seated all the way in the back so I had not much to see. Bettie was way up front and every time we nose dived I'm pretty sure she saw her life flash before her. When the time comes, don't expect Bettie to go quietly. Girlfriend is going to put up a fight!
Suitably 'bashed', we returned to our new hotel, the Address Dubai Marina. We checked in quickly then headed out to dinner at the Yacht Club, just down the street. Everyone turned in early because the next day we had a trip planned to Al Maha, Emirates' desert resort about an hour outside of the city proper. Al Maha was rustic and restful and expensive (stand-alone suites start from around $750 a night), where locals go to 'get away from it all' when the life of chauffeured cars, air conditioning, non-stop shopping and gourmet dining gets to be too much. We toured the property then had another giant buffet lunch. As you can probably guess, I was a very happy camper. We ended our visit by setting off in another group of 4×4's, although this time our trip was more along the lines of a traditional safari. I managed to scare a giant lizard into its hole in the sand, discover a set of camel bones and see a number of other creatures out and about. We also visited the falconery, where I made sure to stay well away from the falcons who all seemed overly excited to me. They wear these really cute helmets to calm them down, but I decided to admire their cuteness from a distance because obviously there's some kind of danger they pose if they need to wear helmets in order to calm down.
After making our way back to the hotel, some of our group went off to play golf, some went to ski at the indoor ski slope and others (me) went up to the pool and soaked up the last bit of sun. We reconvened for our farewell dinner, which was sad, but delicious. The next morning the rest of the group headed out, but I decided to stick around in Dubai for another few nights. Bad decision. Just as I was about to leave the volcano exploded, causing the massive ash cloud and leaving me stranded for another 4 nights. Luckily I was one of the first to escape, thanks in no small part to Emirates. Liz Opalka went out of her way, during what was probably the most stressful episode in her career at Emirates, to make sure that I was kept up to date on flight conditions and options. The first slot that opened up, from Dubai to Vienna (instead of Frankfurt, which was still a no-fly zone) saw me sitting back in business class, as if I didn't have a care in the world.
I'm not sure when I'll be back in Dubai, but for anyone who is skeptical of what the emirate has to offer, it has to be seen to be believed. And even in person, sometimes you need to pinch yourself.