Living it up in style in Dubai

The country’s reputation for excess is well deserved

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 01:00

I know absolutely nothing about yachts, but this one looked familiar. I was told it belonged to Saudi billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, but I’d never heard of him: I’m even less familiar with the names of the world’s mega-rich. Google confirmed that the yacht was indeed the Kingdom 5KR (named after the prince’s investment company, his favourite number and his children’s initials) but the reason I recogni sed it was because in 1983 it had played a starring role in Never Say Never Again , as Maximilian Largo’s floating luxu ry HQ the Flying Saucer .

The yacht was moored just off the causeway to the Palm Jumeirah, Dubai’s most outrageous creation, which is really saying something in this ambition-soaked emirate. Where else would you find an artificial island shaped like an actual palm tree – 17 fronds stretching outward from a central trunk and encircled by an 11km breakwater? It’s the kind of place suited to a Bond villain’s hideout.

In Dubai, superlative accomplishments exist in place of a rich cultural lineage. There’s the world’s tallest building, the horse race with the richest purse and the hotel with two more stars than anybody else. There’s the longest dancing fountain and the world’s biggest sweet shop, both a short walk away from the second-largest aquarium anywhere . . . and all are within the confines of the Dubai Mall . . . yes, it’s the biggest shopping centre on the planet.

It’s all faintly ridiculous, but this is the country where the police recently added a Bugatti Veyron to their fleet of cars, which already includes two Ferraris, a Bentley, a Lamborghini, a Mercedes and an Aston Martin; James Bond would be in his element. But this is what Dubai is all about: indulgence unfettered by any kind of guilt and available to all so long as their credit cards are suitably supple.

Its critics dismiss it as a soulless sandbox built for bling, but there’s no denying its popularity – 10 million visitors in 2013 and an aim to double that number by 2020, when the city will host World Expo.

In an ordinary Toyota, I drove up the main trunk of the Palm and tried to wrap my head around the feat of engineering that transformed the lapping waters of the Arabian Gulf into a high-end residential neighbourhood that is home to 120,000 people, over a dozen fancy hotels and a monorail – as well as doubling the length of Dubai’s coastline – in just under a decade. The child in me loves that kind of thing.

The grown-up in me, on the other hand, likes a nice hotel and the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, on the southern edge of the breakwater, is the most elegant hotel I’ve stayed in for many years, even allowing for the amnesiac effect of repeated experience (ah, the travails of a travel writer!).

Some of Dubai’s best-known hotels are undoubtedly impressive: the Atlantis, at the head of the breakwater, is the Palm’s most popular, but its oversized, baroque-meets-Disney aesthetic is just a little too gaudy; and Dubai’s most famous hotel of all, the sail-shaped, seven-star Burj-Al-Arab, offers every conceivable luxury but there really is such a thing as too much gold-plate.

Not the Zabeel Saray. Designed in the style of an Ottoman palace ( saray in Arabic), it is – as befits Dubai and the hotel’s own theme – suitably imperial in scale, with a huge, vaulting lobby decked out in five kinds of imported marble, ceramic tiles and the kind of artwork that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace in its majestic pomp.

The bedrooms are fabulous (I never saw any of the suites or the villas, but I can only imagine what they’re like), the restaurants are all excellent, but it was the breakfast buffet that really got me: a cascading brocade of every conceivable foodstuff appropriate to the morning, laid out as if Süleyman The Magnificent himself was expected. Instead of a sultan, on the first morning I shared a moment at the bread station with former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, who was decent enough to let me have first dibs at the rolls. Far more impressive than Turkish royalty.

When I wasn’t lying around the pool or sitting around the lobby feasting on the bowls of complimentary figs and dates, I was losing myself in the exotic surrounds of the simply magnificent hammam. For an hour my body was kneaded, exfoliated, cleansed and purified by a loin-clothed masseur who delivered me to a state of unparalleled relaxation before parking me on a lounger, wrapping me in a warm towel and handing me a glass of Aryan – plain yoghurt, water, salt, some chopped fresh mint and ice – that was liquid perfection.

But there’s only so much of a climate-controlled pleasure paradise I can endure, so I travelled north, into Dubai proper, to engage in some traditional sightseeing – a pastime so many visitors to Dubai ignore as an entirely redundant experience.

The city’s only historical museum, in the Al-Fahidi Fort (built in 1799 as the rulers’ original palace and now the oldest building in town), is the butt of easy jokes (“exhibits from as far back as 1998”) but it’s in the streets around it that Dubai’s real heritage is revealed. This is Bur Dubai, the oldest part of town and, along with Deira on the far side of Dubai Creek, the most interesting neighbourhood in the city, if only because they’re the only ones designed on a human scale.

To get to Deira, I get on an abra , a traditional, flat-decked wooden water taxi with a central bench for up to two-dozen passengers. As we chugged across the choppy waters of the creek, we passed the motley collection of trading vessels tied two- and three-deep along the creek, buggalows with ornately painted decks and a permanent stench of diesel, that trade the length and breadth of the Arabian Gulf and beyond, down the African coast.

On the far side, beyond the stevedores busily loading and unloading crates of cargo, are Deira’s famous souks. Here, you can buy gold, clothing, textiles and fish, but my favourite of them is the Spice Souk, where baskets and bags overflow with every possible ingredient from the whole of the Indian Ocean littoral.

A trader walked up to me with a white translucent crystal in a bowl, lit it with a lighter and asked me to inhale. “What is it?” I asked him with the scent of 1,000 extra strong mints in my nose. “Menthol,” he said with a smile. I didn’t buy any, but it cleared my sinuses.

The contrast with the modern city, growing at an exponential rate to the south, couldn’t be greater. Where old Dubai is typical of a mid-sized Middle Eastern trading port, new Dubai is the kind of place the Jetsons would feel comfortable in, a collection of sky scrapers and fast-flowing thoroughfares without pedestrian footpathsen.

Rising above it all, stretching upward from the jumble of flyovers that inevitably lead to the Dubai Mall, is the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building and, since its opening in 2010, the symbol of the city: 828m and 200-plus stories of untrammelled ambition. I write ‘200-plus’ because the exact number is a secret: these are the kinds of precautions you need to take to preserve the superlative nature of your tallest structure.

For the last couple of nights, I toiled in a lagoon-side bungalow at the new Anantara Dubai resort on the far side of the Palm, delivered to my room in a tuk-tuk, all part of the Thai-style fantasy the resort is built to represent. And it works too: at 5am on my last day, as I lugged my bag onto the front step and waited for another tuk-tuk to escort me to my airport-bound taxi, it took a few seconds to remember that I was in Dubai and not in Southeast Asia.

I flew home with Emirates, seven hours of comfort and convenience and, as I sat on the plane, I was reminded that the country’s prized falcons will often travel in their own first-class seat (business- and first-class passengers even get their own terminal) and that two of the airline’s most carried cargos include thoroughbred racehorses and botox. Typical Dubai.