By Marshall Fine
As I sipped a cocktail in At.mosphere, the world’s highest restaurant located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, I turned to my wife and indicated what looked like shreds of detritus floating in my drink.
Except that these smallish bits were not trash but treasure, flecks of gold leaf afloat in a martini glass that held the restaurant’s signature cocktail, a drink consisting of rose Champagne, fresh green apple and vanilla-and-cinnamon-infused vodka.
“Are you going to drink those?” she asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” I said, “because this may well be the most expensive drink I’ll ever have.”
Indeed: At 180 AED (the Arab Emirates dirham), which was trading at roughly 3.6 to the American dollar, that cocktail ran about $50.
In other words, if you’re going to travel to Dubai, the burgeoning cosmopolitan city-state on the Persian Gulf, you had better feel at home with high prices. It’s an expensive place to visit, let alone live.
I spent a week there in December as a guest of the ninth Dubai International Film Festival, a weeklong gathering focused on bringing attention to Arab film and filmmakers. It was an adventure in luxury travel and accommodations, as well as an immersion into a foreign culture that seems torn between the impulse to embrace modern Western values and the pull of religious tradition that stretches more than a millennium into the past.
In this case, the modern seems to be winning, as represented by, among other things, the film festival itself and its environs. The festival headquarters and the housing for festival guests comprise a string of three luxury hotels along the Persian Gulf west of downtown Dubai, all part of the Jumeirah chain, each more lavish than the next.
We stayed in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which offered us a breathtaking view of the Burj al-Arab, the trademark hotel (also a Jumeirah property) that juts up from the gulf like a lofty steel-and-glass sailboat, its sail unfurled in the warm breeze. Our room offered everything from a daily gift of fresh oranges and bananas to touch-screen-activated curtains that opened to give us that panoramic view of the Burj (a hotel property so exclusive that you need a reservation just to visit the bar on the 60th floor).
Just down the beach – past the Wild Wadi water park – is the Madinat Jumeirah, another luxury hotel, which served as headquarters for the festival and the site of two of the festival theaters. It’s also the site of the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a multistory market full of shops and restaurants for everything from traditional garb and artwork to frozen yogurt and Starbucks.
Right next door is the Al Qasr Madinat Jumeirah. (It’s about a 10-minute walk from Jumeirah Beach, far enough that it’s connected to the Madinat by a series of canals, which you can traverse by electric gondolas). The Al Qasr is the most luxurious of the three hotels, with a lengthy driveway full of large golden statues of stallions. The driveway itself is like an artwork of multicolored marble in mosaic patterns. And the interior – as much as I saw of it while visiting for a couple of interviews – seemed like a palace, again with marble and crystal and a fine-toothed attention to the tiniest detail.
If you travel to Dubai and do any sort of research about cultural dos and don’ts, you inevitably come up against that clash between the Western world and the traditions of Islam and its many strictures, particularly as regards women’s dress. Certainly we ran up against that during a trip into the old city of Dubai.
(A thumbnail history: Dubai was an oasis and trading center for both desert tribes and ships well into the 20th century, transformed by the discovery of oil in the 1960s and independence as part of the United Arab Emirates once Britain left in 1971. It is ruled by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, a descendant of the sheik who founded it and who, in turn, was descended from the sheiks who once ruled the oasis.)
In the old city, my wife wore a long skirt and a dress with sleeves and a shawl for her arms (despite mid-December temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s), as we walked through the fabrics souk (or market) and then caught a motorized taxi-skiff across Dubai Creek (actually, a salt-water river, roughly a half-mile across) to the spice souk. On one water taxi, a woman in a burka essentially pushed my wife aside to sit next to her, rather than next to me, a man to whom she was not married.
The hard-sell in the souks is intense, with the owner of virtually every stall trying to shepherd you into his store. “My friend, come inside – you want saffron? I have herbal Viagra – best prices,” we heard repeatedly in the spice souk.
But those traditions either coexist or disappear altogether when you visit the modern sections of Dubai. And Dubai seems to thrive on the modern. The landscape is littered with construction cranes – a building boom that’s been in the works for more than a decade and that includes the Burj al-Arab and Burj Khalifa, as well as buildings we glimpsed to the west from our hotel, which have sprouted up at the Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City and other free economic zones that seem to pop up like mushrooms in the landscape.
The architecture we saw riding to and from the old city was dazzling, with colors and geometric shapes that somehow never find their way into American design. American cities seem trapped in an endless cycle of large glass boxes, while Dubai – a city that barely existed 50 years ago, perched on the edge of a desert – is awash in buildings that swoop and curve, jut and teeter. Everywhere, there’s evidence of the past – and yet the future intrudes at every turn.
That was particularly true at the Mall of the Emirates, where we found the 14-screen multiplex that housed the majority of public screenings for the Dubai International Film Festival. The mall itself seems to stretch into infinity. Wandering its marble-and-crystal hallways can, at times, feel like you’ve stumbled into one of M.C. Escher’s optical-illusion drawings.
We had most of a week at the film festival and spent at least part of every day wandering the Mall of the Emirates, which includes a pair of luxury hotels as anchors at either end.
And yet, with more than 500 stores, the Mall of the Emirates offers fewer than half the 1,200 stores at the even more lavish and elaborate Dubai Mall (the world’s largest), which is part of the “Centre of Now,” the almost-square mile development near downtown Dubai that includes the Burj Khalifa. Our trip to At.mosphere was the closest we got to the Dubai Mall, which we also glimpsed from an elevated section of the Dubai Metro as we rode back from the old city.
The Mall of the Emirates provides visitors with what seems to be an endless menu of designer and luxury stores – everything from Céline and Christian Louboutin to Ted Lapidus and Tiffany & Co. – as well as a mammoth Target-like big-box store called Carrefour, the Gap, Tommy Bahama and more. Dozens of fast-food outlets in the numerous food courts – everything from KFC and Burger King to Shake Shack – sit next to a football-field-size food court with sit-down restaurants offering everything from steakhouse fare to Middle Eastern food to pizza.
And that’s not to mention the indoor ski area, which makes its own snow.
But the modern and the traditional stand in stark contrast to each other in the mall’s hallways. Young Dubai teens dressed in tight jeans and low-cut tops wander the aisles of Prada and Phat Farm or line up at Pinkberry, next to young women covered head to toe in burkas (though the burkas may be decorated with sequins around the slits for the eyes).
Eventually, our time in Dubai came to an end – which was almost the best part, because it meant a return flight in business class on Emirates Air. The round-trip alone, in what felt like a tiny airborne luxury hotel room, was an experience I still feel slightly giddy about when I recall it. As someone who regularly travels coach, it offered comforts and amenities for the 12-hour direct flight – three separate meal services, hot cloths to refresh you at regular intervals, a bar and lounge at the rear of the cabin – that seemed like something someone in a parody commercial about air travel would dream of.
It almost made me sorry to get home. My parting words to the festival organizers were, “I hope you’ll invite me back.”
For Marshall’s latest reviews and interviews, visit marshallfine.com.