Sky's the limit
Author: George Epaminondas
Photography: Nassima Rothacker
High-tea service at the tallest building in the world elicits a double dose of light-headed pleasure. The excitement begins with a seamless elevator ride from the futuristic foyer of the Burj Khalifa, a commanding spiral of glass, steel and architectural ingenuity rising majestically from downtown Dubai. Before you can say "inshallah" you're admiring the staggering vistas from Atmosphere, the restaurant on the 122nd floor, with the entire city sprawled out beneath you. From this lofty perch, decked out with lacquered mahogany walls, sleek modern furniture and amber-coloured lighting, Dubai resembles a miniature metropolis expressly arranged for your entertainment.
"For the first week I felt like I was walking on a floating rug," says Stuart Sage, a British émigré and Atmosphere's chef. On my visit, Sage's gastronomic offerings almost equal the restaurant's panoramic thrills. Afternoon tea includes smoked wagyu beef sandwiches, chicken and mushroom quiches and multicoloured macarons, all served on a tiered silver platter.
From this month, with the new alliance between Qantas and Emirates taking effect, more Australians than ever will experience the dizzying delights of Dubai. Its charms as a stopover destination with stellar shopping are well documented, but what if you want to delve deeper? Excess is the lodestar of this glittering desert state in the United Arab Emirates. Soaring buildings, massive shopping centres, flamboyant fountains, and the world's most lucrative horse race are among the city's celebrated sights.
But in a place devoted to overwrought shrines, it can be challenging to pinpoint moments of serene beauty. With this in mind, these pages focus on Dubai's most discerning distractions - dreamy hotels, world-class restaurants, sumptuous spas and luxurious bars - as well as a few surprising cultural attractions. Surprising because there's little that is native here - almost everything is imported.
From its origins as a pearl fishing port, Dubai has become the locus of Middle East tourism in just two rapid decades. Motoring along Sheikh Zayed Road, a skyscraper-studded highway that slices through the city, can feel as though you're observing a shimmering mirage. At dusk the countless buildings, in emerald, cobalt and obsidian, glow like gigantic perfume bottles. The new Dubai Metro was installed to ease traffic congestion, yet it's still a car-oriented culture where taxis are plentiful and affordable. If you're visiting the historic districts of Bur Dubai and Deira, try an abra, or small ferry. Floating down the creek that divides the western and eastern sides of the city is a tranquil respite from all the hustle and bustle. Another fetching locale is the Dubai Marina, an artificial canal city spectacularly etched into the shoreline. Don't forget the sunscreen: the summer months can be exasperatingly warm. Better to visit between November and March.
In a city of absurdly orchidaceous design, this hotel makes a compelling case for understated elegance. Admittedly, it's the opulent version of unfussiness espoused by the Italian designer of the same name. That means creamy furnishings, moody lighting, stone floors, and a fully branded environment from textiles to chocolates. The handsome hotel is located on the lower floors of the Burj Khalifa and is within walking distance of the gargantuan Dubai Mall. Rooms from $580. Burj Khalifa, +971 4888 3888.
Popular with business travellers, and more an urban retreat than a beach resort. The 749 simply furnished rooms play second fiddle to the glamorous public spaces, sophisticated spa and slew of vibrant restaurants and bars. Among the biggest draws are Buddha-Bar, Bar 44, Rhodes Mezzanine and recent arrival Toro Toro, which serves Latin American fare. Need some Vitamin D? Guests have access to sister hotel Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort and Spa. Rooms from $340. Al Sufouh Road, Dubai Marina, +971 4399 8888
Burj Al Arab
OTT doesn't even begin to explain the level of ostentation at this oft-photographed, sail-shaped hotel. OMG might be more apt: witness gold leaf, rare marble, cascading waterfalls and Technicolor trimmings. Bi-level suites come with floor-to-ceiling views of the Persian Gulf, butler service, prismatic furnishings and Jacuzzis. High tea costs $120 per person and spans seven courses - five courses too many if you ask me. Rooms from $1980. Jumeirah Beach Road, +971 4301 7777
The Palace Downtown Dubai
Fountain fanatics, shopping addicts and lovers of Arabian trappings will all appreciate this sophisticated property set on a lake. The Palace, facing the Dubai Fountain, is positioned next to the Dubai Mall, and is in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa - which is cool when you're lazing by the palm-lined pool. Spacious rooms have wood-carved details and balconies with city or lake views. Rooms from $370. Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, +971 4428 7888
Jumeirah Creekside Hotel
Conveniently located five kilometres from the International airport is this gleaming new arrival which boasts well-designed rooms (with details including Arabian doors floating above beds), several dining options, endless art, and a rooftop lounge with a chilled floor, Cuban cocktails and lap pool. Wafi mall, with the excellent Khan Murjan Restaurant, is a short drive away. Golf and tennis courts are also nearby. Rooms from $250. Al Garhoud Deira Road, +971 4364 7172
Avid golfers, spa devotees and those in search of a peaceful escape from Dubai's harried city centre will appreciate this low-rise, creek-side Moroccan-themed hotel with 225 rooms. The Park Hyatt is set beside a golf course and yacht club, and its vibe is sedate, polished and grown-up. French brasserie Traiteur frequently gets rave reviews. Room from $520. Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, +971 4602 1234
Don't be put off by its kitschy pyramidal design and ancient Egyptian flourishes in the lobby. Raffles is a supremely elegant option with spacious and tasteful Asian-inflected rooms, excellent service and arguably the most stylish afternoon tea in town. Chef Roland Etzinger oversees the procession of sweet and savoury fashion-inspired morsels shaped like bags and shoes. At Raffles you can have your couture - the Wafi mall adjoins the hotel for shopping splurges - and eat it, too. Some of the hotel's bars and restaurants overlook a botanical garden. Rooms from $340. Sheikh Rashid Road, Wafi, +971 4324 8888
One & Only The Palm
This property, situated on a remote peninsula, is decorated with an understated blend of Moorish, Arabian and Andalusian styles, and blessed with three top-tier restaurants steered by French chef Yannick Alléno. The impeccably landscaped hotel offers spacious villas, private pools, beach access and an ESPA spa with a full roster of sybaritic treatments. Little wonder guests are known to linger. The taxi ride to town can feel like a schlep but you can also take a water shuttle. Rooms from $930. West Crescent, Palm Jumeirah, +971 4440 1010
JW Marriott Marquis
This swanky property opened at the end of last year and made an instant splash by being the world's tallest hotel. It is spread across two eye-catching towers rising above Dubai's business district. One of its standout restaurants is Rang Mahal by lauded Indian chef Atul Kochhar. Only the first tower, with 804 rooms, has been completed, with the second tower set to open in 2014 and double the room count to 1608. The breezy rooms are kitted out with control tablets - so you needn't ever get up from bed. Rooms from $220. Sheikh Zayed Road, Business Bay, +971 4414 0000
Jumeirah Emirates Towers
This 400-room hotel, set in the heart of the financial district, has attentive service, comfortable rooms, and a host of stellar bars and restaurants including Al Nafoorah, which serves excellent Lebanese food. Guests staying in Club suites gain access to an exclusive lounge, limousine transfers, and butler service. Rooms from $330. Sheikh Zayed Road, +971 4330 0000
Al Maha Desert Resort
A 45-minute drive from Dubai airport deposits you at this extravagant oasis, inspired by a Bedouin camp, on a nature reserve inhabited by oryxes, gazelles and camels. The 42 suites resemble lavish tents, albeit tents embellished with antiques, plunge pools and air-conditioning. Seclusion is the operative word. At Al Maha you can cocoon yourself from the rest of the world. Rooms from $770. Dubai Al Ain Road, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, +971 4832 9900
Young chefs Scott Price and Nick Alvis both worked for Gordon Ramsay before they pooled their talents for this ambitious bistro in the Hilton Dubai Creek. The menu comprises small plates, such as scallops, plum and seaweed, and large plates, such as pork belly, pumpkin and bok choy, which focus on a handful of choice ingredients. A seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings costs $200. The regularly changing art on the walls comes from Dubai gallery Mojo, while the dinnerware is provided by local potter Homa Vafaie-Farley. Baniyas Street, Hilton Dubai Creek, Deira, +971 4212 7551
A landmark restaurant in a landmark building where you can dine in the clouds. Come for lunch, afternoon tea, cocktails or dinner in the adjoining grill room. The latter is an expensive proposition with suitably rarefied dishes such as poached langoustine with lobster ravioli, sea urchin and mango, or Master Kobe striploin seared over a charcoal grill. Thankfully, altitude does not breed attitude, and the service is reliably friendly. Burj Khalifa, +971 4888 3444
Michelin-starred, spiky-haired British chef Gary Rhodes serves up his brand of inventive modern British cuisine at this highly regarded restaurant. Think cream of cauliflower soup with English cheddar and truffle croque-monsieur, or bread and butter pudding. The all-white space is enlivened with baroque furniture in bright colours. Rhodes has a second Dubai restaurant, Rhodes Twenty 10, a steakhouse in Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort and Spa. Grosvenor House, Dubai Marina, +971 4399 8888
Patrons are led down a narrow corridor lined with hurricane lamps to reach this exceptionally glamorous restaurant - with gold-plated cutlery, taupe napkins, and the type of shadowy lighting that would impress even Caravaggio. Take a seat at a booth and order one of the handmade pasta dishes, such as beef-cheek ravioli, that represent the highlight of this Tuscan-inspired menu. The wine list, heavy on Italian drops, is also commendable. Armani Hotel, Burj Khalifa, +971 4888 3444
La Petite Maison
This French-themed restaurant bustles for lunch and dinner serving cuisine Niçoise. What that means is simple, pristine dishes such as burrata with tomato and basil, salt-baked sea bass and lemon tart. We like the colourful displays of fresh vegetables, the cosy interiors and the chic pewter-edged bar. Gate Village 8, Dubai International Financial Centre, +971 4439 0505
The Pavilion Downtown Dubai
An exhibition space, library and café rolled into one inviting venue that's open daily from 10am to midnight. A great choice for a moderately priced salad or a sandwich and coffee. Polished concrete floors, pale wooden tables, and grey sofas create a breezily modernist setting that's a magnet for Dubai's digerati - iPads are in abundance. Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, +971 4447 7025
The dazzling interiors of this Argentine steakhouse include gleaming metal chandeliers, cowhide furniture and a sinuous black marble bar. On the menu are ceviches, empanadas and 15 varieties of grass-fed beef imported from the Pampas and expertly prepared from an open kitchen. This London-based chain perfected their recipe for success in the UK before opening this Middle East branch. Podium level, Gate Village 5, Dubai International Financial Centre, +971 4422 7898
Is it the spectacular setting, the faultless service or the fine French-Vietnamese cooking that most impresses at this restaurant nestled in the Zabeel Saray hotel? It's all of the above. The space is rendered in dramatic black and white with high ceilings, twinkling chandeliers and theatrical touches. The menu, meanwhile, confidently explores fusion concepts such as "pot-au-pho": poached beef, beef cheek and bone marrow transformed with rice noodles, chilli and lemon. Ground floor, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, +971 4453 0444
Sushi enthusiasts have multiple dining options in Dubai, including Miyako in the Hyatt Regency, Nobu at Atlantis, The Palm, and the wasabi-hot Sho Cho. But if we had to choose one Japanese eatery above all others, it would be Zuma. The space, decked out in granite, steel, teak and bamboo, is breathtaking; its sushi, sashimi and robata dishes are always inventive. Gate Village 6, Dubai International Financial Centre, +971 4425 5660
Although it opened in 2004 (ancient by Dubai standards) this seafood restaurant is still revered by locals and tourists alike. As the name suggests, it's perched at the end of a long wooden pier. Dine on the terrace, with its wistful ocean views, cool winds and decidedly romantic ambience. The menu is overseen by Australian chef Lee Owen Sugiandi. Al Qasr Hotel, Madinat Jumeirah, +971 4366 6730
The little sister to Buddha-Bar has a dramatic Barbarella-like gold and white colour scheme, and various seating options - from indoor booths to poolside lounges. Visitors not staying at the hotel can access the lounge from 6pm. Grosvenor House, Dubai Marina, +971 4399 8888
Patrons flock here for the sensational Cantonese cuisine but it also has an arresting bar with one of the largest selections of alcohol in the region - 340 different types to be exact. Take a seat at the illuminated sky-blue bar and ask beverage manager Angus McGregor for the unlisted Smoked Rum Old-Fashioned. Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Sheikh Zayed Road, +971 4384 8484
A glitzy beach bar on the Arabian Ocean with front-row seats to the Burj Al Arab light show, a nightly occurrence. The ambience for sunset drinks is more relaxed than the electronic music pumped out later until 2am, when most bars close. Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Jumeirah Road, +971 4406 8999
Situated on the 63rd floor of a hotel is this glitzy sky bar, with sunken lounges, chrome fittings, cinematic vistas, and a seriously posh clientele. The Address, Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai, +971 4436 8888
A sophisticated wine bar at the Westin with live jazz, a fromagerie for cheese pairings, and an unrivalled selection of tipples, from vintage French sparklers to modern Australian labels of shiraz. The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, Al Sufouh Road, Jumeirah Beach, +971 4399 4141
Toast all your retail acquisitions from the Mall of the Emirates at this stylish boite. The room is all rich purples and dark woods, and the cocktail list is refreshingly imaginative. Kempinski Hotel, Mall of the Emirates, +971 4409 5999
Dubai's shopping malls are hives of activity that come equipped with countless dining options, attractions galore and ceaseless air-conditioning. With 1200 stores, an aquarium, an icerink and a fountain that shoots water jets 150 metres high,The Dubai Mall, part of the Burj Khalifa complex, is a retail and entertainment extravaganza. Even with all its bells and whistles, one of the biggest draws is the Level Shoe District, a sprawling display of designer footwear. Similarly, the Mall of the Emirates, in the Al Barsha district, is frequently marvelled over for its wacky indoor ski slope. More impressive is the expansive branch of Harvey Nichols, with a first-rate North African restaurant, Almaz by Momo. BurJuman, in Bur Dubai, is a haven for luxury and high-end fashion, while the Dubai Outlet Mall is the leading location for designer bargains. Most shopping centres are open from 10am through until 10pm, and until midnight on Thursday and Friday.
Jumeirah Beach Road
Need a break from all the mega-malls? This low-key district has a smattering of worthy boutiques. Check out If (Villa 26, Umm Al Sheif Street) for avant-garde designers such as Yohji Yamamoto, and Bambah for an edited selection of vintage clothes. The leading retailer in the area is Boutique 1, a three-storey emporium with hip labels such as Mary Katrantzou, Alexander Wang and Kenzo. Meanwhile, at Garderobe, you can pick up "pre-loved" pieces shed by some of Dubai's wealthiest ladies. I spotted recent looks from Balenciaga, Vivienne Westwood and Rodarte. "We have clients who wear designer pieces once and then have their drivers drop them off," says owner Micha Maatouk.
Low labour costs and fewer taxes make Dubai an ideal place for acquiring gold, diamonds and precious stones. The listed price is almost meaningless, and you're expected to bargain with calculator-wielding vendors. An Arab friend suggested offering a third of the original price, and you might end up getting it for at least half off. For deals on everything from minimalist bands to elaborate Indian dowry jewellery, head to the gold souk in Deira (Khalid Bin Waleed Road). If you prefer to shop for your bling in air-conditioned comfort, and without being harassed by roving vendors hawking fakes, then the Gold & Diamond Park is a better option. This centre has 100 retailers and one of the most popular is Cara, which is typically crammed with English-speaking expats having their engagement rings custom-designed.
DAS Collection offers modernised versions of the abaya, the black robe-type dress worn by women in the Arabian Peninsula. Designers Reem and Hind Beljafla imbue the traditional garb with colour, print and lightness. Their clothes are available at Symphony in the Dubai Mall and at Saks Fifth Avenue in BurJuman. Another notable local designer is Syrian-born Rami Al Ali. Ali crafts exquisite couture confections featuring intricate embroidery, crystal beading and red carpet-worthy silhouettes.
For guidance in navigating Dubai's consumer whirl, engage the services of those in the know. Personal stylist Kelly Lundberg, a bubbly Scottish native, will curate shopping expeditions that include mall trawls, visits to indie boutiques and meetings with the best local tailors in the textile district of Satwa. These scissor-handed individuals can whip up a spiffy designer copy in a mere two days.
If Dubai seems bereft of culture, this emerging arts district is edifying and electrifying enough to fill the void. The erstwhile industrial suburb of Al Quoz is like a slice of downtown New York transposed to the Middle East, and has been transformed into a creative hub with more than 20 cutting-edge arts venues. Among the most noteworthy galleries are Carbon 12, Green Art Gallery, Grey Noise, Mojo and Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde. Another essential stop is the Salsali Private Museum, established by visionary Iranian collector Ramin Salsali. "Dubai has become an outlet to show the best of Syrian, Iranian and regional art," says Vilma Jurkute, director of communications for Alserkal Avenue. At the Lawrie Shabibi gallery, I was captivated by the work of Pakistani artist, Adeel uz Zafar, who engraves large-scale drawings of bandaged animals onto vinyl. Exit 43 off Sheikh Zayed, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, +971 4416 1900
Experience a taste of the Bedouin lifestyle by trekking into the desert just outside the city limits with the Sundowner tour by Arabian Adventures. An hour's drive deposits you in the heart of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, where you can marvel at the shades of sand, watch the sun dive at dusk, and glimpse how Dubai appeared before the building craze forever altered the landscape. Adrenaline junkies will enjoy whizzing over sand dunes in a four-wheel drive. The expedition ends with a candle-lit dinner in an encampment with henna painting, belly dancing, camel rides and shisha. From $95 per person. +971 4303 4888
How do Emirati men keep their kandoras so white? Are arranged marriages still the norm in Islamic nations? What are the benefits of eating dates and drinking cardamom tea? There are no questions too naïve to be posed at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. The centre is located in a traditional wind tower house in Bur Dubai, and opens its doors to bolster awareness of local customs. The centre also hosts meals for visitors. SMCCU's general manager is Nasif Kayed, Dubai's answer to Jerry Seinfeld, who will debunk Muslim customs with patience, insight and wry humour. "I carry a bleach pen!" Kayed says, when asked the laundry question. You can also attend an enlightening tour of Jumeirah Mosque, the only one open to the non-Muslim public.
Aromatic body scrubs, caviar facials, even chakra balancing - Dubai's decadent spas have it all. At the Talise Ottoman Spa in the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel, the interiors resemble a sumptuous hammam with intricate marble, elaborate mosaics and murals, while the invigorating treatments include a Turkish coffee scrub. The Moorish-inspired Amara spa at the Park Hyatt offers a spate of lavish pampering treatments including "The Ceremony of Rose", a three-part, rose-scented indulgence. At the glitzy Assawan Spa in the Burj Al Arab, the owners have upped the ante with caviar, gold and even platinum facials by La Prairie.
The new "Falcon route" will see Emirates and Qantas fly 14 times a day from Australia to Dubai, and beyond to four continents. Business passengers on Emirates enjoy lie-flat beds, the ICE in-flight entertainment system and a generous luggage allowance. For flight information and bookings contact Emirates on 1300 303 777 or visit your local travel agent. The airline has also just opened its world-first dedicated A380 terminal, Concourse A.