It was a tough Christmas with the sudden passing of Ellen's Dad in Canada. I knew we had to get away; something different, something exotic. I had been to Dubai before on one of my work trips in and out of Saudi Arabia. I really enjoyed it but, not entirely sure if we felt it was better because of our endlessly dreary time in Riyadh. Worth a try.
I picked 'The Palace' out of dozens of great hotels as it was near the gold Souk and the incredible Dubai Fountain. The Souk turned out to be a modern shopping mall (unlike Riaydh's many ancient souks that are fascinating) but at least we had the Fountain which was mesmerizing. Like Bellagio in Las Vegas but 25% bigger, the exploding waters set to music with booming fireballs and the low pitched grumble of thousands of pounds of pressure building up to fire shots of water over 500 feet in the air. We relaxed by the pool in the warm mornings and headed for the Mall of the Emirates in the frying pan hot afternoons.
The Dubai Mall
I know, we went to a mall? But this place isn't just a mall, it's an entertainment complex beyond belief. First, it is 6 million square feet with 1,200 stores, 95 elevators and 450 escalators. It has 120 restaurants and the Dubai Aquarium that holds 10 million liters of water and 33,000 sea creatures including 400 sharks. The main tank is 33 meters long, 8 meters tall and its acrylic face is 750 mm thick. It sprang a leak once and they had to evacuate the entire mall because if it went, well you can use your imagination. The Mall gets more visitors a year than New York; over 50 million people. We dined at 'Carluccios', the Italian TV chef who also has a restaurant in London. Best Italian food I've had anywhere, period.
The Burj Khalifa
The Mall is also the official entrance to The Burj Khalifa, at this writing still the tallest building in the world at 163 stories or 2,722 feet. They have had two base jumpers, one suicide and one reported construction death (although, the 7,500 South East Asians who built it dispute that number). The view from the open observation platform is as stunning as is the price of a room at the Armani Hotel that occupies the first 20 floors. The heat reflecting building face hits temperatures of 50°C and it takes the equivalent of 29,000,000 pounds of ice a day to cool it. On New Year's Eve they set off fireworks in sequence from every floor, from the top to the bottom. Fantastic. We also went to the Mall of the Emirates to see Dubai Ski, the incredible man-made ski hill inside a giant aluminium tube the size of an aircraft carrier. Nothing is small in Dubai.
For the second time I could not find a way to get in to Gordon Ramsay's 'Verre'. Not surprised, the first time I name dropped a Saudi Prince and that didn't do it. Fortunately, there are no lack of great brand names & chefs to choose from. Everybody is here from 'Nobu' to Alain Ducasse. We are, like every tourist, itching to see the 'Burj al Arab', the giant sail shaped, 7 star hotel on the waterfront. While only hotel guests can dine in the hotel, they do allow the poor and indigent to book at 'Majlis Al Bahar', their beach restaurant facing the hotel over the water. Brilliant. Feet in the sand watching the ever changing lighting wash over The Burj. After, we did go in and up to the bar on top. Nice but incredibly gaudy with gold everywhere. I don't recall the food at all but the experience was.... interesting. Another night we tried a well known London chef's place 'Rhodes Mezzanine' by Gary Rhodes. It sits in the Grosvenor House Hotel; all white, silent and not worth the effort. It seems every time I go to one of these Michelin starred places I leave much poorer and not loving the food or the experience. Give me a big bowl of 'Carluccio's' penne bolognese anytime.
Shopping and eating seems to be everything in Dubai. Well, not quite. There are dozens of day and overnight desert treks to choose from and they all get mixed reviews. We dig deeper and find: " Al Maha". This luxury resort is 65 KM's out of Dubai. The scattered faux tented villas are gorgeous with perfect infinity pools overlooking the endless desert. Set in an oasis that is part of a 225 square mile nature reserve, it was created by the big guy Sheik Maktoum and another Sheik who controls Emirates Airlines to bring back this part of the 'Empty Quarter' by re-populating animals, reptiles and plants that had disappeared due to years of the lands use by wild camels. Camels are nasty creatures who eat everything in sight and there was very little to begin with. The principal animal brought back is the Oryx. A big, long horned, white beasty that came from a herd of 70 brought in from, of all places, the USA. Now, there are over 400 oryx's plus gazelles, foxes, wild cats, desert falcons and the ubiquitous camels. The resort does offer a one night stay with two desert 'experiences'. You choose from an evening champagne camel ride, a desert trek, falconry or dune bashing. Our choices had us atop a camel for a 45 minute slog to the dunes where we toasted the sun dropping into the sand. Ellen loved it but I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. Men were not designed to ride these things. The next morning we geared up for dune bashing: two Toyota 4 by 4's take us to a gate that is actually the UAE border. Someone is waiting to open the gate, we enter and let half the air out of the big tires and then, Holy Shit! We race up near vertical dunes and tip off the other side. We churn sideways along the face of the dunes defying gravity for an hour. No wonder they insist we have breakfast after and never before. Then, we get stuck. That's why there are always two vehicles. The guides say the rich Arabs come out from Dubai alone in their Porsche Cayenne Turbos, get stuck in the sand with no water and no cel phone reception. Most of them are rescued but some aren't. Tremendous fun and then back to Al Maha for a massage, lunch and it's all over. That, boys and girls, is a $1,525 USD a night experience that was worth every penny.
Asado at The Palace
We return to The Palace for one night and book dinner on the patio of 'Asado', their Argentinian restaurant. Here, they grill over a 'Parrilla; a circular fire pit where they stand meat on skewers leaning toward the centre. It is simply fantastic and we dine on the terrace looking over the fountain and another spectacular fireworks display on the Burj Khalifa. On our way out, we make use of the famous Dubai Airport Duty Free to buy a lottery ticket on a Bentley convertible for $100 US. Only 1,000 tickets sold and we still didn't bloody win. That's OK, we have had a fantastic trip and look forward to coming back. Looking out over thousands of miles of shifting dunes from atop a camel is as intoxicating as watching the ocean from a bobbing boat.
Update 2013: Not so fast. Our December 2010 trip was the last month that Canadians could get into Dubai without a visa. It seems Emirates Airlines requested additional landing rights in Montreal and were turned down. As a consequence Canada lost our only desert military staging base in neighboring Qatar and are now one of the few countries in the world that are required to get a $250 CAD visa that takes over two weeks to obtain. Thanks again Air Canada.