Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Dubai - an amazing city with unlimited potential

Last week I had the chance to go on a special 'whsitle-stop tour' of the amazing city of Dubai. To be honest this isn't my normal kind of place - too hot? too flash? - but I was genuinely seduced by it all. Here is my lengthy overview of a remarkable place which is featured in a full page of the Bath Chronicle on November 19. Grab a coffee and read on . . . .

Some of the most popular computer games on the market at the moment are ones that give you the chance to design your own city out of thin air.

You are given the resources, the tools and the manpower to create your dream civilisation and the only thing limiting your ambition is your imagination.

At some point (particularly when things are going well), I’m sure most of the players secretly ponder: “if only this was real, if only you could really create a city out of nothing”. Well, ladies and gentlemen, stop pondering. It has already been done for you – welcome to Dubai.

Dubai didn’t even get electricity until the 1950s and it was one of those places where if you looked in any direction you would see the same thing – sand and the odd bit of Arabian water. Now, however, Dubai is one of the most exciting and rapidly-developing cities on earth. It has turned into an irresistible tourist magnet by wholeheartedly adopting the vision of becoming the most modern, innovative, stylish and forward-thinking resort on the planet.

I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Dubai courtesy of Virgin Atlantic and the Hilton hotel chain and I left – as I guess most people do – totally staggered by what I’d seen. I felt as though I was a witness to a unique and unprecedented experiment – one where money was no object and the desire to be the biggest, brightest and most dramatic tourist hot-spot was the sole driving force.
But, first things first.

Dubai is not cheap (but equally it’s not as expensive as you would think) and Dubai is hot – and I mean ‘microwave hot’.

I was there in the first week of November as we entered the ‘winter months’ and the temperature hit 33 degrees. A couple of months earlier – during our summer holidays over here – you could expect that figure to reach 45 degrees, a figure guaranteed to turn even the hardiest of Brits’ skin a deep shade of black. Be warned.

Those extreme months apart, however, this is a genuine beach resort and those beaches are beautiful, white and sandy and lapped by the gorgeous Arabian sea. So, if you want a luxurious beach holiday you will struggle to find a better one – but you would be wrong to go to Dubai just for that – it has so much more to offer.

As Dubai is a newcomer to the world of tourism, it hasn’t fallen into the trap of saying ‘here’s a beach, here’s a towel, that’s your holiday’. It has, for example, taken into account that one of the other great modern joys (for some people!) is high-class shopping and so in a population of a relatively modest one million people, there is currently 14m square feet of shopping space – and that figure could double in the next 10 years.

We visited just three of the 40 plus shopping ‘malls’ and I was left dumbstruck at the sheer scale.One of them, The Dubai Mall, covered nearly six million square feet and featured 1,200 shops. Every top class name you could imagine was there – it even boasted a Bloomingdale’s.

And, although this is a serious mall for serious shoppers, it is not without its fun side either because you could buy sweets from the world’s biggest sweet shop or visit a splendid cinema, an ice rink or dive in a remarkable indoor aquarium.

I took the latter option and stared into the white, naked teeth of the sharks encircling me – a feeling I’m sure many of the shoppers felt elsewhere.
But Dubai being Dubai, it doesn’t end there.
Inside one of these malls (The Mall of the Emirates) you can have the surreal experience of being baking hot on one side of a piece of glass and watching skiers on the other as a breath-taking indoor snow centre has been set up. So you can go down the slopes at Ski Dubai as the same high speed as your bank balance . . .
When you’ve finished all that sunbathing, shopping and skiing, then it’s time to head back to your hotel – and here again Dubai sets a very high standard indeed. Many people will, I’m sure, have seen pictures of the Burj (the world’s first seven star hotel) and there are other astonishing hotels like The Atlantis to admire but from what I saw, you would be hard-pressed to find any hotel that didn’t impress you with its quality, cleanliness and high level of service.

As an example, we stayed in two excellent and very different hotels – both of which were part of the Hilton chain.

The Hilton Dubai Creek (its sperctacular toof top pool is pictured above) is more of a top class business hotel than a typically ‘touristy’ one and it boasted the sort of bathroom that will make every guest feel like a member of the royal family. It also had the considerable attraction of a Verre by Gordon Ramsey restaurant where we were treated to a meal cooked by its charming head chef (who has somehow managed to keep his head and his humour despite working 10 years for Gordon!) which was superb.

Like everything we encountered in Dubai, you got the impression that first class was the ONLY class and that actually feels quite unusual in this day and age. Unusual – but rather nice.

Our second hotel stay was in a more traditional beach hotel – the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah. Once again the rooms, the food, the service and the general ambience made you feel very special and in terms of my culinary highlight this time, I enjoyed an unforgettable meal in the hotel’s South American restaurant called Pachanga. Here we ate a dish called Churrasco which gave you the chance to slice your own beautifully cooked meat off various spits and eat your meat with gay abandon. It all made me feel a bit Henry VIIIish.

Elsewhere on our five day trip we had a revealing tour of the city (which really reinforces the excitingly experimental nature of what they’re trying to do there), a lovely meal on the the delightful Bateaux Dubai dinner cruise and also a chance to visit the (thankfully authentic) gold and spice souks which gave you a glimpse into the true nature of these lands.

This was a far cry from the more westernised malls and beach hotels and there were real bargains and haggling to be had here – particularly in terms of gold. I would urge everyone who goes to Dubai for the more glamorous, cosmopolitan attractions to at least taste this other aspect of life in the United Arab Emirates because it is a fascinating (and friendly) cultural experience.

Our trip, expertly organised by the Virgin Atlantic team, was relatively brief – and as you can see from the fact boxes below, a lot of trips to Dubai are marketed that way. In some ways three-five nights just isn’t enough because I’m pretty certain that no matter how long you are able to spend there, you simply could never be bored.

The reason for this is that Dubai has had the luxury as a tourist latecomer of viewing all the rest of the world – and then taking the best of the best of ideas. As well as those gorgeous beaches, incredible shops and impeccable hotels, there are festivals galore, a brilliant water park, top class sporting events (the nearby Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a massive success and don’t be surprised if the Emirates go for a unique indoor Olympics in 20 years or so!) and you get the distinct impression that there are people in that city who, as we speak, are already planning the next jaw dropping attraction to tempt yet more of us ‘punters’.

Of course this may all sound too new and too flash for you and, let’s be honest, Dubai won’t be to everyone’s taste. But what impressed me is that the city has (remarkably perhaps), avoided allowing the extreme wealth behind their vision to turn the whole experience into a giant tacky Las Vegas style chocolate box.
Yes there are very tall, sky-dominating buildings (including the world’s tallest structure which is genuinely breathtaking) and yes there is a fair share of neon lighting as well but there’s still a subtlety and sophistication about virtually everything you experience which shows that Dubai wants to be the biggest and the best – but wants to remain a class act while doing it.

I personally think this is the kind of resort that has got something for everyone and also has an added ‘something’ which unfortunately many more modern resorts lack – and that is seemingly unlimited potential. Dubai has set itself a goal to attract 15 million visitors a year by 2015 and it aims to do so by improving its offering at every turn.

There is the vision to achieve it, the imagination to push boundaries, enthusiasm aplenty and, most of all, money to make it happen – bucket loads of it.In your dreams (or on your computer screens) you have probably already created Dubai.

Now go and see it for yourself.

Facts and figures..... We flew with Virgin Atlantic and stayed at the Hilton Dubai Creek and the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah.Five nights in Dubai with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow direct to Dubai, accommodation at the 5V Hilton Dubai Creek with breakfast and transfers starts from £620, saving up to £93. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room. Price includes all taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. These prices are based on departures between May 8 to 18 2010.Five nights with Virgin Holidays staying at the 5V Hilton Dubai Jumeirah with breakfast and transfers starts from £712 saving up to £56. Prices are per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a standard room, price includes all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change. Prices are also based on departures between May 8 to 18 2010.Virgin Holidays is a member of ABTA and is ATOL protected. For more details on these breaks contact, call 0844 557 3860 or, even better, visit the new Bath Virgin Holidays store on the first floor of the Jollys House of Fraser store in Milsom Street.


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