Liz Gill discovers lots of style in the most modern city on earth
There is, I think, more food with more choices than I’ve ever seen in one place before – and it all looks delicious. There are roasts and curries and all day breakfasts; there are sushi bars and seafood bars and salad bars. There are rows of appetisers and ranks of desserts that range from the sophisticated to the pick ‘n’ mix sweetie shop. And there must be a dozen ingenious ways of dispensing booze including water melons filled with vodka, pineapples filled with rum cocktails and pipettes filled with shots to squirt into your mouth.
We are in Atlantis, The Palm but we could be in any of the major hotels in Dubai. For this is Friday brunch and if a city less than a quarter of a century old in its present form could be said to have a tradition then this is it. It’s where ex-pats join tourists to eat, drink – alcohol is only served in hotels in this Muslim country – and generally be very merry. In many ways it sums up what Dubai is all about: exuberance, flamboyance, lavishness.
Earlier we have visited the building that embodies this ambition to be the most modern city on earth – the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building which itself rises out of the world’s largest shopping mall. We step into the world’s fastest elevator – of course – to be whisked skywards at 33 ft a second. There is little sensation of moving so fast but the music playing over the loud speakers builds to a crescendo as we reach the observation deck. At floor 124 it is not much more than half way up the 2,722 ft high tower but it is still – you’ve guessed it – the world’s highest.
Of course the views are spectacular, stretching out over all those state-of-the art skyscrapers (they seem particularly fond of building twin towers), swanky hotels and more shopping malls (including the one with the indoor ski centre) across to the beaches, the man-made islands like the Palm and the warm blue water. What is equally fascinating though is the nearness of the desert which laps at the city on three sides as the Arabian Sea laps on the fourth. It’s a reminder of how far the place has come, springing out of an arid landscape, empty apart from one crucial component – oil.
It was the discovery of oil in the Sixties which launched the emirate on its path to modernity but it was the vision of the Maktoum brothers to follow that with the development of the city as a business, commercial and tourism hub that really propelled it into the 21st century.
There is an old part of Dubai, of course. There’s been a settlement here for a thousand years and it was a stop-off on trading routes as well as a pearl diving centre. So there’s an old fort and the Bastakiya district alongside the Creek has The Centre for Cultural Understanding where you can sample local food and learn about history and tradition. Around it are old style houses with their internal courtyards and wind towers and nearby is a souk with alleyways crammed with little shops offering pashminas, leather goods, embroidered shoes, gold jewellery and camel’s milk and saffron ice creams.
All this is pretty small scale though compared to most other countries in the Middle East and though we trooped around dutifully it was not really what we had come to Dubai for. The real draw here is the ultra modern. Even when we went out into the desert for an evening of belly dancing, sheesha pipes and henna hand-painting, the best part was getting there in a massive Toyota Landcruiser which took us on a thrilling, stomach-churning ride up and down and along the edge of some serious Lawrence of Arabia style red sand dunes.
Back at Atlantis, which has its own lagoons, aquarium and Aquaventure waterpark, it was also up-to-the-minute technology which enabled me to go on a ‘shark safari’, courtesy of a new device which allows non-divers to walk under water. It’s rather like having a goldfish bowl on your head. Air is pumped in from the canister on your back, you breathe normally, look out the front and make sure you stay upright. There’s an instructor on hand for the full 20 minutes and it’s all rather wonderful. The black tipped reef sharks are not doing much – they appear to be snoozing in a corner – but there are plenty of other fish to enchant.
After that I go into another pool to feed rays who certainly are not snoozing but thrashing around up close and personal in a feeding frenzy the moment I hesitantly offer them a shrimp. On another afternoon I have a close encounter with a dolphin which I’m able to touch, hold, hug and even kiss. It’s fun, informative and exhilarating and the dolphin certainly seems to be having a good time as she rolls and pirouettes and leaps from the water in what genuinely seem to be high spirits.
That night we dine in the restaurant which has the aquarium as its fourth wall, watching mesmerised as some of the 65,000 marine creatures make their way past our table where, needless to say, we haven’t gone for the fish option.
I had expected Dubai to be expensive and extravagant and over-the-top and indeed it was. I had feared it might be gaudy and tasteless too but I was wrong. In fact what did surprise me was how smart and stylish and, yes even beautiful, many things were. So the shopping mall does have a boutique called Baby Bling and does sell tots’ frocks for £400 but it also has deep leather armchairs to lounge around in and bowls full of orchids and a fountain with fabulous sculptures of divers.
And Atlantis might boast a royal suite with its own private elevator which costs £25,000 a night but in the lobby it also has a sensational floor-to-ceiling Chihuly sculpture of 3000 pieces of blown glass for everyone to see.
And the Burj Khalifa is impressive enough by day but lit up at night it seems even more of an architectural masterpiece, a luminous silver needle reaching for the stars while water jets from the lake in front of it rise and fall in time to classical music in a fabulous show. And that’s free.
Travelbag are offering three nights at the 5* Atlantis, The Palm, staying on a B&B Basis from £759 per person including flights with Royal Brunei from London Heathrow. Book by 30 October for travel between 11 November and 9 December. To book call 0871 703 4240
Article, Desert Safari and Dolphin images ©Liz Gill other images ©Atlantis, The Palm