From diving for pearls to touching the skies, Dubai has come a long way. ANURAG MALLICK lives the high life…
Tom Cruise may have climbed, rappelled and swung around Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol but I wasn’t letting that deter me from dining calmly at At.mosphere, the 122nd floor restaurant in the world’s tallest building. Ushered past the quiet Armani Hotel reception by a graceful hostess to the express elevator, in 45 seconds, I was transported 670 feet to the world’s highest restaurant ‘from ground level’. The change in air pressure is so drastic, you’ll be popping more than the bubbly.
A cantilevered staircase connects the restaurant to the lounge with the best view in Dubai. Our mission impossible? A nine-course festive ‘taster’ menu of Oscietra caviar, Maison Soulard foie gras, Portugal Langouste, truffles, oysters and sea scallops. It was as if Ethan Hunt had sleepwalked onto the sets of Casino Royale with the memory of Jason Bourne. Thus stuffed, the only danger lay in rolling off while admiring the view…
Two floors up, the world’s highest observation deck, At The Top, was voted recently as the ‘Best Attraction’ in the world. Storming the 2015 Worldwide Attractions Awards, Burj Khalifa surpassed tourism heavyweights like London Eye and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
The viewing deck also came second to the Empire State Building in the ‘Best Observation Deck’ category and was voted the ‘Most Romantic Attraction or Tour 2015’ alongside the Eiffel Tower. The fireworks display from Burj Khalifa easily ranks among the most spectacular year-end celebrations.
While Burj Khalifa offers a terrific bird’s eye view, it is quite another thing to leave the stationary perch and see Dubai from the air, like a bird in flight. SeaWings, Dubai’s ultimate luxury excursion, took off from Dubai Creek for a 25-minute seaplane tour of the city. Barring 5 minutes each for take off and landing, it was 15 minutes of pure flying time. The New York Times calls it the No.1 thing to do in Dubai for good reason. The 10-seater Cessna Caravan cruised along the coastline past landmarks like Port Rashid, Dubai’s old port that’s now a cruise terminal.
It’s only from the air that the 300 man-made islets of The World Islands, using sand dredged from the sea, can be seen in the shape of a world map. Most are still uninhabited, except the Sultan’s pleasure playground ‘Greenland’ and ‘Lebanon’, the only island in commercial use. We flew past Downtown Dubai’s skyscrapers, dwarfed by the Burj Khalifa. The iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab stood like a yacht at the edge of the Arabian Gulf, almost poised to set off.
There was a collective gasp as the seaplane swooped towards the fronds of Palm Jumeirah. Nakheel Group’s flagship artificial archipelago is Dubai’s most exclusive address with several mega hotels like Waldorf Astoria, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray and Atlantis. Shaped like an Arabic portal to another dimension, Atlantis featured extensively in Shah Rukh Khan’s heist flick ‘Happy New Year’, described by critics as ‘Ocean’s 11 written by baboons’. Indian cinema is huge here and the world’s first Bollywood-themed park is slated to open this October. SRK is a big celeb here as well and owns a villa (k..k..k..K-93) at Palm Jumeirah.
“That’s where I’m staying,” I pointed to Anantara’s unmistakable orange gabled roof on the eastern crescent. Another gasp and envy, as we splashed down near Jebel Ali Golf Resort where my chauffer-driven Merc whisked me back to Anantara at Palm Jumeirah. The word Jumeirah is derived from the Arabic jamilah, meaning ‘beautiful’. And it sure was! The blue waters of the Persian Gulf looked so inviting one could jump in. Fortunately, my lagoon villa provided the perfect opportunity to do so. Overlooking an exclusive beachfront, The Beach House serves excellent seafood and signature cocktails like ‘After the Storm.’
After a relaxing spa session in the new Turkish hammam, I headed to the in-house Mekong, Dubai’s top Pan-Asian restaurant, where I was welcomed with miang kham, a traditional Thai snack of roasted coconut shavings, chilli, ginger, garlic, shallots, peanuts, dried shrimps and raw mango, wrapped into a betel leaf. Miang kham translates to ‘eating many things in one bite’.
In the dimlit interior, I leafed through the menu – it came with its own clip-on torch. My steward Sunday (born on a Sunday in Myanmar) suggested that despite dining alone, I should try the ‘sharing platter’ of spring rolls, crab cakes, satay and chicken pandan. Sunday made my day.
Now I’m a big fan of eating local and purists may question the logic of eating Thai in Dubai! But with 200 nationalities making Dubai their home, there’s mind boggling cultural and culinary diversity. Lebanese, Japanese, Turkish, Mexican, Egyptian, French, Italian, American diner, Australian Outback, you name it, they got it. Like the UN went to a party and forgot to report back to duty.
There are other multi-cultural cities too, but Dubai is unique because expats comprise nearly 80% of its 2.45 million population. So whatever the cuisine, it’s top-notch. Here, they throw around ‘Michelin star chef’ with the same casualness as we use ‘hotel management course from Switzerland’ in India.
As a city, Dubai believes in the best, the biggest and the tallest. After seducing immigrants with tax-free income and quality of life, it provides every avenue to make sure they spend it all. And the more you spend, the more you must earn. It’s a neat little cycle; a whirlwind ride that’s easy to get in but hard to get out of! Over 50 shopping malls – Ibn Battuta Mall, Deira City Centre, Dubai Marina Mall, Burjuman Centre, Mall of the Emirates with its own indoor ski slope and Egyptian-themed Wafi Mall – let you buy any brand or product in every variation possible. However, Dubai Mall took not just the cake, but the entire boulangerie.
It was as if someone went to God or Santa Claus and made the most impossible wish. “I want the largest and best mall in the world”. (Granted) “Er… with a Dancing Fountain and an Aquarium. And the world’s largest collection of sharks and rays. (Will 33,000 marine creatures do?) “Ya, but behind the world’s largest acrylic panel! And an Ice Rink, with intermittent snowfall like the real thing.” (Ok…) “Hang on, also a waterfall, across four floors.” (Anything else?) “Umm maybe a dozen fiberglass divers plummeting down the cascade? And a 155-million-year old dinosaur to round it off.” (OKAY already, it will have every goddamn thing you ever need!)
Spread over 13 million square feet (and still expanding), Emaar Group’s Dubai Mall also has its own indoor theme park SEGA Republic, the world’s largest sweet shop Candylicious, the largest shoe store in the world by Chalhoub, a 22-screen cineplex with 4-D, edutainment zone KidZania, a Gold Souk, Hamley’s from London, Bloomingdale’s from New York and Galeries Lafayette, their only store outside Paris.
And a flight simulator for Emirates A-380, the largest aircraft in the world, because you always wanted to fly a plane, right? With over 1200 stores, you can be here for a while. Thankfully, we had a buggy for the mall crawl and Karim from Emaar as our guide. Amidst all the action, it’s easy to miss the daily show at Dubai Fountain (every half hour 6-11pm) just outside the mall.
Dubai wasn’t always like this. Its humble origins lay in a nondescript fishing village of makeshift dwellings, home to Bedouins who depended on pearling, dhow making and trade. In the 1930s, the Japanese learnt how to artificially manufacture pearls and road and air travel reduced the dependence on boat building.
Dubai lived in relative obscurity till the discovery of oil in 1966. Though Dubai’s foundations were laid on oil and gas, its present economy is run on real estate, gold, diamonds and free-market capitalism. “Dubai, Do Buy, get it?”, my Sri Lankan guide Wickeramasinghe cackled at his profound joke.
The best place for a sense of the old traditions is Dubai Museum, housed in the Al Fahidi Fort built in 1787, the oldest existing building in the city. The 20-seater abra (boat) ferries passengers across the creek from Bur Dubai to Deira, the old commercial quarter with its gold and spice souks. For a dirham it’s the cheapest thrill to be found in Dubai.
Cheaper still is hearing Malayali men in thick accents selling ‘Rolllexxx and original fake watches.’ A more leisurely experience is the Thai long tail boat ride at Anantara – ‘a touch of Thai in Dubai’. It was a lazy cruise to Dubai Marina past parked yachts and looming skyscrapers. The danger was, you could get used to this life of luxury…
By Day 3, I was ordering ‘Grilled tiger prawns a la Provençale with crispy olive polenta’, like I had been having polenta for lunch everyday back home. Google informs you, in chaste Devanagari, that polenta’s Hindi equivalent is ‘Makai ki khichdi’. Perhaps I wasn’t too far from the truth. “So what did you have in Dubai?” “Umm… khichdi”. Nah, polenta was fine.
That’s the thing about fine dine – it makes anything sound good. Before being presented with magical flourish, nearly every dish was preceded by a 1-minute introduction, as if it were nobility, listing its pedigree and parentage. When confronted by words like Moelleux and Cremeux that you might mispronounce, ask for recommendations and snootily confirm.
The sheer choice in Dubai is mind boggling – dine next to a ceiling-to-floor aquarium in the opulent Al Mahara restaurant at the 7-star Burj Al Arab or al fresco by Jumeirah Beach at Four Seasons’ SeaFu, dig into a whole seabass baked in salt crust at the Chef’s Table at La Serre or try Indian cuisine with a twist at Atul Kochhar’s Rang Mahal.
After eight elaborate courses in Rang Mahal’s orange and black interiors dominated by massive temple pillars, we hankered for dessert and were frostily informed, ‘The chef is painting.’ We wondered if this was indeed a tall tale in the world’s tallest hotel JW Marriott Marquis, when five minutes later the Dessert Canvas of assorted Indian sweets was presented like Modern Art. “Is that Gouda?” “No that’s Gaudi”, went my imaginary conversation with the steward.
That’s Dubai for you, where dessert can be made into art and an oasis can be carved out of a desert. Clearly no mission is impossible, if you have the audacity to dream it. Despite a slowdown after the 2009 economic crisis, development continues at a furious pace. Dubai Creek is being deepened and extended through the city.
The heritage quarter of Al Bastakiya is being shaped into a Historic District. Large scale construction with buildings, cranes or South Asian workers in overalls are seen in every frame. If Dutch comfort is ‘Thank god it’s not worse’, Dubai lies at the other end of that scale. ‘We know it’s great, but it will only get better.’
There are several direct flights from India to Dubai International Airport (3-4 hrs). Emirates, the national carrier, boasts the world’s biggest fleets of Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s. www.emirates.com
When to visit
Weather-wise Nov-Mar is the best time to visit, with big sporting, entertainment and shopping events all year round – Dubai Shopping Festival (1 Jan-1 Feb), Dubai Food Festival (25 Feb-12 Mar), Al Marmoom Heritage Festival and camel race (April), Al Gaffal Dhow Race (May), Ramadan/Eid (June), Dubai Summer Surprises (July-Sep), among others.
Where to Stay
Anantara The Palm Dubai
Ph +971 4 567 8888 www.dubai-palm.anantara.com
Located on the eastern crescent of Palm Jumeirah, the Thai chain offers excellent lagoon rooms, beach pool villas and the only over-water villas in the UAE.
St Regis, Al Habtoor City
Ph +971 4 435 5555 www.stregisdubai.com
Dubai’s newest 5-star hotel that’s centrally located on Sheikh Zayed Road. A grand staircase, huge chandelier and excellent food at its specialty restaurants like Brasserie Quartier. Try the ‘Brunch at the Manor’ on Friday.
Where to Eat
Al Mahara, Burj al Arab
Ph +971 4 301 7600 www.jumeirah.com
Sheer opulence with gilded interiors and a giant aquarium; try the sea bass with Almond Sauce, Maine Lobster with seaweed butter or poached tsarkaya oysters in cucumber and apple broth
At.mosphere, Burj Khalifa
Ph +971 4 888 3828 www.atmosphereburjkhalifa.com
French cuisine by Michelin chef Chef Jerome Lagarde, the Lounge has a minimum spend policy of 200 AED per person at lunch and 250 AED for dinner, with guaranteed window seating. The same seating privilege for lunch at the Restaurant will set you back by 500 AED. The festive menu comes for 880 AED.
Mekong, Anantara The Palm Dubai
Ph +971 4 567 8304 www.dubai-palm.anantara.com/mekong/
Rickshaw style seating at oriental tables with overhead lights in bird cages and excellent Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese. Try the sharing platter – crispy spring roll, Vietnamese spring roll, Tod Mun Goong (Thai shrimp cake), Plah Goong (prawn salad with lemongrass), BBQ minced prawn on sugarcane skewer, Gai Hor Baitoey (Chicken pandan), Chicken satay
Rang Mahal, JW Marriott Marquis
Ph +971 4 414 0000 www.jwmarriottmarquisdubailife.com
Indian cuisine with a twist by Atul Kochhar; the Navratan Menu features Chowk kee Aloo Chat, Lasooni Scallops, Meen Moilley, Limbu Rubiyan, Tandoori Murg & Gosht Boti Korma
La Serre, Vida Downtown Dubai Hotel
Ph +971 4 428 6969 www.laserre.ae
Classy Parisian-style café with boulangerie on the ground floor and upstairs bistro in white, serving Med fare like Tarte Flambée, Burrata with tomatoes, Lentil salad with pickled vegetables, Rigatoni with white truffles and the most succulent Grilled veal chops
Sea Fu, Four Seasons
Ph +971 4 270 7777 www.seafudubai.com
Asian-influenced dishes presented Med-style in a cool, loungey atmosphere overlooking Jumeirah Beach. Great for sundowners; try the Sea Fu platter, homemade seafood fettucini and crispy prawn with wasabi lemon dressing.
What to Do
Sea Wings Dubai
Ph +971 4 807 0708 www.seawings.ae
The 40-min Dubai Silver Tour takes off from Dubai Creek near Park Hyatt and costs AED 1695 per person. They also do Dubai Creek heritage walking tours.
Ph +971 4 353 1862 www.dubaiculture.gov.ae
At AED 3, it’s quite a bargain for insights into Emirati culture and the history of Dubai in neatly laid out galleries in an old fort. Also has a souvenir shop near the exit.
Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
Ph +971 4 448 5200 www.thedubaiaquarium.com
Located on the ground floor of Dubai Mall, the 10-million litre aquarium can be viewed from a distance for free, besides a range of immersive experiences like cage snorkeling, scuba dive and encounters with rays, otters and sharks for AED 100-200.
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared as part of the Cover Story ‘Experiential Holidays: International Special’ in the March, 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine. Read the story on OT at http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/dubai-the-ultimate-luxury-destination-1008693