Kaye Holland is dazzled by the kingdom of bling, which last week won the right to host the 2020 World Expo
As recently as two decades ago few Brits had heard of, yet alone been to, Dubai. Now the emirate is a permanent fixture on the winter sun scene thanks to its promise of guaranteed rays, without the need to fly halfway around the globe.
For while in Britain the sky is the colour of porridge, the leaves are falling and everyone is succumbing to flu, in Dubai it’s baking-in-a-bikini-hot – making a few days in the desert, a tempting prospect to warm weather starved winter tourists. A holiday here also comes with a seductive stretch of coast and charming English speaking locals.
Apologies if I sound like I am gushing but, having spent two and half fabulous fun filled years living in the sand pit (as we expats affectionately termed it) in my twenties, I have a soft spot for Dubai – even if, on a recent press trip, the ambitious emirate often proved unrecognisable.
A favourite local saying in the UAE (of which Dubai is one of seven emirates) has long been: “Miss a week and you’ll miss something major” and certainly it’s true that in Dubai’s desire to take its place on the world stage, change is the only constant. The city reinvents itself more times than Madonna and in the five years since I left, has had face lift on a scale that even Joan Rivers would balk at.
- The Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa - aka the world’s tallest building- was still being built during my Dubai days. Today it stands 828m high and offers dizzying views of Dubai’s skyline, punctuated as it is by skeletal hotels and stellar shopping malls.
The Burj Khalifa’s next door neighbour, the Dubai Mall, is another new arrival. It’s the world’s largest shopping mall and is home to enough shops (1,625 no less), bars and restaurants to satisfy serious shopaholics and gourmands alike. The mega mall also houses an on site aquarium (the largest in the world, natch) where you can scuba dive with sharks should you – heaven forbid – suffer shopping fatigue. (Shopping is ritual for Emiratis- as much a daily event as dinner). Stir in an Olympic sized ice rink and the world’s highest dancing fountains and you’re guaranteed something to gawp at.
- View from the top
And then there’s arguably the most audacious of all of Dubai’s breathtaking projects: the Palm. These three palm-shaped man made islands are often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world owing to the fact that they, along with the Great Wall of China, can be seen from space. When I arrived in Dubai in 2005 there was nothing here but unbroken sea. Fast forward to 2013 and this awe inspiring engineering feat is home to scores of swanky apartments (Becks has bought a place on The Palm as have Freddie Flintoff and Frank Lampard) and sumptuous resorts such as the marine themed, celeb studded Atlantis and the brand new Anantara The Palm Resort & Spa.
The cast of Made in Chelsea and Keeping up with the Kardashians, WAGS and wannabes may flock to the Atlantis, but tasteful travellers will prefer the Anantara which blends a medley of architectural styles (think Asia meets Arabia) to mesmerising effect.
- Anantara The Palm
A stay at the Anantara (I was lucky enough to check in for two nights) is like being wrapped in the most luxurious cashmere blanket. Unlike other hotels in Dubai (here’s looking at the ‘iconic’ Burj, with its gold pillars and garish carpets), you get a sense of elegance almost immediately you enter Anantara the Palm. None of the buildings are higher than two storeys (an anomaly in an emirate that thinks big) and all are surrounded by lush tropical islands and large lagoons.
The staff, meanwhile, stand leagues above the competition from the charming receptionists and waiters to the emirate’s most conscientious concierge team and spa therapists who will, on request, knead your jet lagged body from head to toe using a melting combo of massage techniques in the privacy of your bedroom.
On the subject of bedrooms, they’re vast- there’s so much space you can play at being your own billionaire – as are the bathrooms. My bath was so wide and deep, I didn’t want to get out for dinner.
Factor in a few excellent restaurants (I’d run out of column inches if I was to include all the unforgettable meals I had), private sun-drenched beach and a wonderful kids’ club and it would be easy to stay cocooned in the resort.
But while it is a challenge to do so, prize yourself up off your sun lounger so as to see glimpses of ‘traditional’ Dubai. People, perhaps understandably given the emirate’s penchant for publicising its outlandish projects, have the wrong idea about Dubai – believing it to be all about malls and modernity. On the other hand, these popular misconceptions only go to show that there is an awful lot to discover about Dubai beyond what you know from the glossy brochures.
- Modern Dubai
Scratch beneath the shiny surface and you’ll find another side to the ‘city of gold’. Alongside the skyscrapers like the Burj Al Arab (the self proclaimed seven star hotel, shaped like the sail of a dhow) and the Emirates Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road, sit historical sites such as Bastakia and the creek – arguably the heart beat of Dubai.
Here you can watch abras and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) weave their way across the water, as they have done for centuries. For further local flavour, factor in a tour of Jumeirah Mosque (Dubai is after all an Islamic state even if it isn’t quite how you’d envisage Arabia) on Beach Road, before sauntering through the bustling souks.
These traditional market places are alive with stalls selling everything from curly Aladdin-esque slippers and jewellery to pashminas (a necessity given the Arctic air conditioning levels that you’ll find in Dubai’s myriad malls and hotels), batteries, bananas, spices and Indian sweets. All are sold out of large open sacks, making for sensory overload.
- Dubai Creek
For more glimpses of the ‘real Dubai’, explore ethnic residential districts such as Satwa and colourful Karama where you’ll get to mingle with the melting pot of cultures – there’s an incredible influx of expats from all over the world – that make up modern day Dubai.
All of the aforementioned areas can be easily reached by the Dubai metro - the world’s longest (but of course!) self driving metro system that was introduced four years ago and has helped ease road congestion, no end. (Back in my day there was no metro system and subsequently traffic in Dubai was as aggressive and chaotic as anything you’d find in India). The metro is cheap too at just 34p per journey – a rare bargain in a city where prices tend to match the glamour.
- Dubai’s bustling souk
Yes Dubai has never been a cheap date and you will leave with a lighter wallet. Prices for accommodation and food were high even when I called the emirate home, but so is the quality. And surely it’s a price worth paying for a slice of sunny paradise just seven hours flying time from an icy London – and the chance to see history in the making.
For whatever you think of Sheikh Mo and the way in which he has transformed his city from a sleepy pearl diving village into one of the most talked about towns in the world, you can’t knock his dream, drive and determination to make it happen. Or in the words of Dubai’s charismatic ruler himself: “Becoming number one is not impossible – the word impossible doesn’t exist in our dictionary.”
- Sheikh Mo
Ultimately this dazzling desert kingdom might not be entirely to your taste – much like marmite you’ll either love it or hate it – but if you don’t go, you will never know. Got your passport?
Kaye flew to Dubai with Pegasus Airlines; five times weekly scheduled service from London Stansted to Dubai with fares starting at just £197 one-way including taxes and charges. Book online at www.flypgs.com