The Las Vegas of the Middle East, shoppers’ paradise, cosmopolitan metropolis or concrete jungle; whatever your impression of Dubai, it’s probably accurate. But beyond the never-ending buildings and eyesore road constructions is a city brimming with beauty, vibrancy, culture, diversity, activity and unrivalled friendliness.
The most populated of the seven cities making up the United Arab Emirates and the largest after the country’s capital, Abu Dhabi, Dubai is a mere 42 years old. Sheiks, royalty and oil tycoons have invested billions into making it the biggest and best of everything. Mall of the Emirates is the biggest shopping centre in the world. The Burj Khalifa (Burj meaning ‘tower’ and Khalifa being the chap who owns it) is 882 metres high and the tallest building in the world. In Dubai, money and the sky are no limit.
The ground floor of Burj Khalifa houses the stunning and stylish Armani Hotel, designed by Giorgio himself,of course. We shoot up the elevator at 10m per second and take in the spectacular view from the 123rd floor. At 442m high, it’s like looking over a toy town. And beyond the city? Vast desert, ready and waiting for Dubai’s rapid expansion. We step down to the 122nd floor to At.Mosphere, an art deco bar with panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling windows. It would be rude not to enjoy a drink with this view, and my Si Mi – made of Hendricks, lemongrass, cucumber, fresh apple, lime leaf and Midori – is a refreshing antidote to Dubai’s searing heat.
My home for this trip is at the JW Marriott Marquis which, at 355 metres is, naturally, the tallest hotel in the world. Two soaring towers each have 77 floors and 804 rooms. Décor is black, white and understated, rather unlike the garish, jewel-encrusted hotels often associated with Dubai. A focal point for business and conferences, expect to see suited globe-trotters and Qantas pilots by day (it is the official hotel for the airline) and high-heeled clubbers and dapper diners at night.
The Dubai weekend is Friday and Saturday, so Thursday nights in the hotel are heaving with party people. We drink and dance at Vault bar and GQ Bar, with the magazine’s proudest covers framed all over the walls. Friday brunches in Dubai are as mandatory as a Sunday roasts in England. Check out Prime:68, a chic steak restaurant on the 68th floor. The eatery’s Prohibition Brunch is an eight-course feast of sharing plates including shrimp ceviche, devilled eggs, steak, asparagus quiche, brownies and ice cream. All washed down, of course, with cocktails and Champagne. Did I mention that you’ll leave Dubai half a stone heavier?
One of the most delightful surprises of Dubai is its thriving art scene, best reflected in Alserkal Avenue, a batch of warehouses exhibiting paintings, installations and sculptures. It’s less Middle East, more East London, featuring a variety of spaces such as A4: a community hub where creative types rock up with their laptop to work. The two floor air-conditioned studio also showcases work from local and regional artists and has a cinema room, popular during the Dubai International Film Festival.
Family activities in Dubai are endless. Whilst the beachside Madinat Jumeirah has villas plush enough for George Clooney, who rented one out and rode along the hotel’s Venetian style waterways by boat, you can also feed injured sea turtles at their Dubai Turtle Rehabilitation Project. Next to the hotel is the Wild Wadi waterpark. I channel my inner adrenaline junkie and head to Jumeirah Sceirah; 32 metres high, you’re flung down a 120 metre slide at 80 km/h. Whatever your age, it’s a LOT of fun.
A day of these non-stop activities has completely worn me out, so I opt for the 60-minute Sun Soother skin wrap at the Marriott’s Saray Spa & Health Club. Aloe and rose and mint oils are massaged into my body, before I’m swaddled in towels for 30 minutes. Hot coconut oil is worked through my hair, and when the wrap is removed I’m treated to a full body massage with jojoba, orange and apricot oils. I leave feeling tingly, refreshed and utterly pampered. My skin is silky smooth for days afterwards and my parched, sun-wrecked hair is naturally tamed into soft waves.
But no luxury holiday would be complete without Michelin-starred suppers. Within JW Marriot Marquis, I sampled baked salmon at La Farine, Thai papaya salad at Tong Thai and sushi with pickled tomatoes at Izakaya. The chef at Rang Mahal was trained by Atul Kochlar, the owner of London’s Benares restaurant and the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star. And don’t miss Qbara: a wonderfully modern Middle Eastern bar and restaurant. Think hummus, chilli calamari, spicy prawns and espresso martinis peppered with Asark – groups of Arab man in their pristine white thwab sit around round wooden tables, as do groups of chattering women in heavy makeup, hijabs and clutching Chanel handbags. Violinists play along to the DJ’s gently thumping house music.
At the One&Only The Palm, an opulent palace of a hotel, we dined at STAY and were treated to different wines with each course, my favourite being a fruity Chenin Blanc with the tender sea bass. On the restaurant floor is the Pastry Library, a stand of dessert delights. Patrons can stride up and try whatever they like. Locals take hospitality seriously and I quickly find out that no request in Dubai is too small or big, even offending a waiter when attempting to pour my own water.
Our last night sees us venture outside the city, braving the desert for a safari. A four-wheel drive whizzes us over sand dunes in the Arabian outback – it’s not for the faint of heart or sickly of stomach, and 20 minutes of a dusty rollercoaster is testing but wonderful. We stop to take in the view as the sun sets from an unblemished sky. It is remarkable. Our next destination is a BBQ dinner of Middle Eastern cuisine. There’s belly dancers, henna tattoos and shisha and we’re welcomed by camels who are only too happy to be petted before I jump aboard. You haven’t lived until you’ve walked the desert on camel, even if it is only for 60 seconds. The Middle East may not have the best rep, but this city is a veritable playground and welcome to anyone. I’d return in a heartbeat – it’s welcoming, fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Dubai, you’ve won me over.
Need to know…
Rooms at the JW Marriott Marquis start from £207+ 20% taxes and service charge per night for a Deluxe Double. For more information, see the hotel’s website. Return economy flights from with Emirates from Heathrow start from £361. Travco organises safari trips and transfers in Dubai, for more information and to book, see the company’s website.