To the Infinity Pool and Beyond! In the lap of luxury

Community Highlights Africa & The Middle East To the Infinity Pool and Beyond! In the lap of luxury

In recent years the name of Dubai has evoked associations with glamour and exclusivity, something of a hybrid between Monaco and Las Vegas. I knew that we didn't have to choose luxurious experiences to enjoy our visit in Dubai but I had a particularly good year financially in 2023 and I decided that we should take advantage of some of the city's more unique attractions. After all, this might be our only visit to Dubai. If there's one aspect of the city that stands out more than anything, it is the commitment to cutting edge and avant garde architecture. The sheer number of breathtaking buildings that have been constructed in Emirates over the last quarter century is phenomenal. It seems that the country's leadership is singularly committed to making Dubai a bucket list destination for world travelers with architecture being just one of many aspects of that drive. I had a long list of buildings I wanted to see during our visit and near the top was the Burj Al Arab, the iconic sail-shaped luxury hotel that stands on an artificial island connected to Jumeirah Beach by a short bridge.

We had learned our lesson from the previous day and fed the kids at the breakfast buffet at the hotel. It was a wonderful spread with a surprising variety of choices and I regretted that I had placed myself on a rather strict caloric restriction. The dining room was quite beautiful as well. The hostess only charged us for two of the kids which was a nice touch.

The Burj Al Arab was quite far to the south so we decided to take the metro instead of a taxi. We still hadn't seen much of the area around our hotel and it was quite an enjoyable fifteen minute walk to the metro station. The area was filled with hotels and office buildings clad in sand-colored concrete and greenish glass.

We bought our tickets at the window instead of buying the Nol card because I wasn't sure if we would continue using the metro after this trip. The fare was ten dirham each which was more than I had expected, I suppose because of the distance we were traveling. The train came quickly and was quite crowded. Most of the journey was above ground and we had our first views of many iconic buildings through the train windows. A man overheard me talking to the kids and offered advice on which stop we should best get out. He engaged me in conversation and I figured he wanted to eventually promote something but it seemed like he was just curious. Like many locals he was an emigrant from Pakistan. I knew that Dubai had many expats but it wasn't until our visit that I learned that more than 90% of Dubai's three million residents are foreign, with the majority emanating from Pakistan and India. After these the largest groups are from the Phillippines, Somalia, and Westerners.

Once we exited our station I mapped the distance to the hotel and realized we were going to need a taxi anyway. The Dubai metro is great for covering most of the north-south distance between two points but has no coverage of the city more than a couple of blocks east or west of the main highway. There are buses as well but I figured we had already done enough public transportation for one day. Taxis were easily found as usual and after about ten minutes we found ourselves at the entrance to the bridge to the hotel. When I told the security guard we were there for a hotel tour he waved us off and directed us to the Jumeirah Beach Hotel where the tickets were sold. I noticed a massive roll-up bollard set into the roadway after the entrance to the bridge which seemed like a very effective way of stopping any nefarious actor who decided to ram through the security gate.

The Burj Al Arab offered a family tour for four for six hundred dirham with an option to add an additional child for ninety dirham. This brought our total to about two hundred American dollars, which was rather steep for a hotel tour but I had made a conscious decision to be rather liberal with our spending on possibly our only visit to Dubai. I hadn't reserved the tour online because I wasn't sure how long it would take us to get there from the Edge, guessing that the expensive tours wouldn't sell out ahead of time. If I was wrong, we had plenty of time to come back with advance reservations. Our taxi dropped us off at Jumeira Beach which seemed pretty opulent in its own right. The enormous hotel with a private beach seemed to be exclusively populated by Western leisure tourists.

A concierge directed us to the lobby of a nearby building where the Burj Al Arab tours were sold. As I expected there was no issue with being booked out and a regular stream of trams were taking tourists over the bridge to the sail hotel. The price at the desk was the same as the deal offered online. The tram paused on the bridge for a photo opportunity in front of the facade of the hotel. This isn't the most impressive angle from which to view the hotel but we could see the giant exterior struts and the famous cantilevered helipad as well as the honeycomb base of the artificial island. The Burj Al Arab's successful construction and international acclaim is considered to be the forerunner of Dubai's architectural revolution. The country is rightfully proud of how its team of engineers and builders were able to surmount countless obstacles to realize the ambitious vision of architect Tom Wright. The details of the building's construction at a cost of eight billion dollars are fascinating even to someone without any background in the field.

Once inside we were given an overview of the tour and told that we were allowed to take pictures anywhere except inside the lobby, which was rather odd as there was no such restriction on guests and countless images can be found online. I imagine they feel a little embarrassed about cashing in with the tours and want to minimize the distraction to their guests brought about by the great unwashed taking selfies in the lobby. The most remarkable feature of the lobby is the atrium which at one hundred and eighty meters is the tallest in the world. The colors set into the balconies gradually change from deep blue to yellow as the colors ascend The lobby was almost excessively opulent with plenty of gold leaf and marble on display as well as a large aquarium. Mei Ling of course managed to snap a quick photo despite the prohibition.

The bulk of the tour was devoted to the Royal Suite on the twenty-fifth floor which is now maintained for exhibition only but has hosted many international celebrities in the past. The theme here was sumptuous elegance with classical European-styled furniture and Arabic notes in the design. There was gold plating everywhere from the staircase railings to the ceilings. Even the marble in the bathroom had a golden hue. The extravagant decoration was reminiscent of a royal palace such as Versailles or Topkapı.

From this high level we had our best views yet of Dubai's urban landscape. To the north we could see the outlines of the skyscrapers in Bur Dubai with the Burj Khalifa towering over all the rest. To the south we could see the amazing Palm Jumeirah and the futuristic hotels of the Atlantis resort. Jet skis traced white circles in the calm blue waters of the gulf.

Our next destination wasn't too far away but it was a little too much for the kids to walk in the heat. There was no shortage of taxis back at Jumeira Beach and we directed our driver to the Ripe Market. This seasonal outdoor market operates every year from October to May in a park on the grounds of the Dubai Police Academy. There were just a couple of stalls selling produce and rows of them dedicated to a variety of artisanal merchandise like clothing, jewelry and crafts. There were plenty of cold drinks and frozen desserts to combat the midday heat and in the back of the market there was a large array of food trucks. It was the kind of place one might have found in Chicago, Amsterdam, or London with little to remind us that we were actually on the Arabian peninsula. The vendors and the visitors all looked to be expats as well with no Emiratis to be seen. Mei Ling bought a couple of hand made kimonos and we fed the kids lunch from the trucks. After our large breakfast at the hotel Mei Ling and I decided to abstain in anticipation of the special dinner we had planned.

Another short taxi ride brought us to the ARTE Maker's Market at the Times Square Center mall. This had been billed online as a very large market for handmade designer clothes and crafts but we only found a dozen stalls on the ground floor of the mall. We had seen everything within about fifteen minutes and then took a tour of the two level mall. Despite its small size there were several interesting businesses inside including an ice bar and a music store with a large array of beautiful pianos on a platform outside. Someone was playing on one of the pianos quite skillfully which was a pleasant change from the typical mall background music. There was also a STEM-based educational play area for kids but they had opened fairly recently and didn't seem to have gotten up to full speed yet.

Even though the next place on my itinerary looked to be practically next door to the mall, it still took us fifteen minutes to walk there. It would have been even longer if we hadn't spotted a covered arcade that provided a shortcut through one of the city blocks. The arcade had European styling and sported a collection of small boutiques and cafes, and even a theater that was offering drama courses for children. It was clearly a hangout for European expats and many of them were enjoying drinks at the outdoor tables amidst fountains and lush greenery. At the far end of the arcade there was an art installation depicting Icarus plunging earthward. This Icarus was a department store manikin wearing an engine on his back that might have been taken from a lawnmower and wings that seemed far too narrow and flimsy to support the weight of a human.

Across the street from Icarus was the entrance to Alserkal Avenue. This creative repurposing of a city block full of industrial warehouses opened in 2008 as the brainchild of Emirati businessman and art afficionado Abdelmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal. The warehouses have been converted into art galleries and performance spaces with a supplemental industry of designer shops and cafes. Immediately after the entrance was the beautiful showroom of boutique chocolatier Ganache. I was immediately struck by how every surface in the expansive space was rounded, from the walls to the light fixture, evocative of the shape of a piece of chocolate. Rather than making an effort to overwhelm visitors with shelves and aisles of product the chocolate was displayed artistically on the walls and a few countertops. Most of the showroom was devoted to open space with small tables for customers to sit at.

The warehouses had been remodeled in Dubai's ubiquitous adventurous style. The building facades were all in textured concrete and corrugated metallic panels in homage to the area's industrial heritage and the outdoor spaces were repurposed ingeniously into al fresco lounges and gardens. The pedestrianized streets within the complex were lined with container-like miniature stores with transparent walls. It was a fascinating area to explore with a surprise around every corner.

The artwork in the galleries was as playful and experimental as the design of the buildings. One of my favorite exhibits offered a three dimensional take on a staple of Arabic culture, the hand-woven carpet. There was also an impressive display of glass sculpture from Dale Chihuly including many examples of his lifelike plant and flower forms. I could have happily spent hours at Alserkal Avenue but I had to be cognizant that the kids hadn't fully recovered from jetlag yet and we were going on eight hours of sightseeing by this point.

The taxi back to Deira traveled along Sheikh Al Zayed Road, the vital traffic artery that courses the entire length of Dubai and neatly bisects it longitudinally. Behemoth, alien skyscrapers towered above us on each side and we got our first clear look at the breathtaking spire of the Burj Khalifa, by far the tallest building in the world.

After a short rest my brother Michael arrived at the hotel to pick up the kids. Thanks to him, Mei Ling and I we were about to have an evening to ourselves in a foreign country for the first time since Cleo had been born in 2012. We've never regretted missing out on Michelin starred restaurants during our travels but this seemed like an opportune moment for a different experience. The kids were even more excited than we were that they would be spending the night with their cousins. I had done quite a bit of research to choose the optimal restaurant for our adult dinner and ultimately settled on Trèsind Studio, a Michelin two star that I had encountered highly placed on a list of the world's best restaurants. I saw that the restaurant was located on a rooftop on the Palm Jumeirah which made it even more enticing. Who wouldn't want to enjoy a world class meal while gazing out at a night time view of the incredible palm tree-shaped archipelago? Once again we traversed the entire length of Dubai and were deposited at the entrance to the St. Regis Hotel. We had arrived early as I hoped we would be able to walk further into the Palm and maybe even stroll along one of the fronds but we quickly discovered there was no sidewalk or other route for pedestrians. Undaunted we returned to the St. Regis and spent our remaining extra minutes people-watching in their luxurious lobby.

Once our reservation time arrived we were directed to an elevator to the restaurant. We were quite surprised when the elevator came to a stop just a couple of seconds after we pressed the button for the rooftop. We emerged to find ourselves not at the rooftop of a skyscraper but on a large outdoor patio just a couple of levels up from the lobby. The enormous tower of the St. Regis loomed behind us and we could see the light reflected from of the surface of a pool dancing on the windows of the uppermost level. I realized that this was the Aura Skypool, one of Dubai's famous infinity pools that I had considered visiting before choosing another. It was another small disappointment that "rooftop" in the restaurants address meant the roof of the Nakheel Mall in which the hotel was located, not the roof of the hotel. In all fairness, the restaurant had never promoted itself as being on a rooftop or having a view.

We had a few more minutes in the lobby of the restaurant which I spent in conversation with a Congolese artist whose colorful paintings occupied an entire wall of the room. He was working on a new painting at that moment and I thought that having a pop up gallery was a very cool touch for the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant there were just a few tables and everyone was seated with a view of the open kitchen as though it was a stage. This was no accident as the dinner was as much a piece of performance art as it was an act of consumption. There were more than a dozen tiny courses and each was preceded by a brief description from a young woman who came to our table carrying a large, framed bas relief map of India. The chef Himanshu Saini hails from India and the theme of the restaurant is to tell the story of Indian cuisine through a series of courses representative of each of the country's diverse regions. The dishes were complemented by a series of props on the tables and artful lighting, just as if we were watching a play unfold on Broadway.

Of course all the accessories would have been meaningless if there was nothing special about the food. Each course arrived as a miniature work of art, to be consumed in just one or two bites. Sometimes it seemed a shame to destroy such exquisite creations but there was no way to progress to the next course without demolishing the one in front of us. Even though each offering was so small, they were so numerous that we were uncomfortably full by the time we were mercifully released. At the end we were each presented with a booklet with a description of each course and an explanation of how it exemplified a particular region of India. I was quite impressed and satisfied with the experience but Mei Ling, ever practical, thought the entire production was a little overwrought.

As we waddled rather uncomfortable back to the elevator we looked up again at the tower and could hear the sounds of revelry emanating from the uppermost level. We found a second elevator that indicated it would take us to the top and the security guard waved us through from his desk. This was a much more satisfying, ear-popping ride. At the top was another restaurant as well as a rather raucous bar which had a rather typical scene of people dancing uncomfortably in the cramped spaces around their tables and generally trying to have a good time. It was a lifestyle I had left behind quite a long time ago and had never missed one bit. We were only up there to see the layout of the Palm but the views from the outside deck were very poor. Eventually we settled for what was available through the glass windows inside the bar. We could see along the illuminated tree trunk which pointed directly to the iconic central archway of the Atlantis Palm hotel. The fronds were more difficult to make out in the darkness.

Our second full day in Dubai had been even more memorable than the first and I was glad Mei Ling and I had this rare opportunity to share an evening together on our own. Our adventures as childless couple were far from over however, as we were under no obligation to reunite with the kids until late the next day and I had an even more exciting destination planned for the following morning.

This featured blog entry was written by zzlangerhans from the blog Fledgling Explorers.
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By zzlangerhans

Posted Mon, Apr 15, 2024 | United Arab Emirates | Comments