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A modern Disneyland, a fake city, a star studded hospitality firmament, the tallest, grandest, biggest, most luxurious of everything. Dubai is one of those places which provokes. Nobody has a neutral reaction when I say I lived there for 5 years. Five years! Most people inquire, in disbelief, how could I?
We all have images and preconceptions of the Desert Queen some of which are true, others founded on short superficial trips or the never ending list of sensationalist articles which focus only on those obscenely over the top experiences.
But Dubai is simply a luxury destination for grown-ups. A playground for the rich and for the wannabes. If you are looking for an indulgent getaway and some quality “Me” time Dubai is a worthy destination. Or maybe you just want to see what all the fuss is about. Here a few luxury and obscenely grotesque activities you can do in Dubai if you had an unlimited bank account. Your facebook will be on fire.
Dubai Travel Guide: Luxury stays
The city has no shortage of exclusive properties catering to your every whim. Here a selection of the best.
For the fashionista
If you prefer designer elegance the Armani Hotel is the right choice. Located at the heart of the recently built Old Town this is the fashion guru’s ultimate expression. Grey tones, clean lines and elegance in every detail. Also, the hotel is inside the tallest tower in the world, Burj Khalifa, for those extra brownie points.
To show off your resort wear
The One & Only on either its Royal Mirage Jumeirah location or on The Palm is the perfect destination for a beach getaway. Think sun loungers, sprawling gardens, Arabian courtyards, relaxing pools and fabulous island-style restaurants. You can’t go wrong with the experts in beach luxury. Bonus: You can tell everyone you stayed at the largest man-made construction ever, on The Palm.
For those looking for something special consider Al Maha Desert Resort, two hours away from the city. You will sleep in the quiet surroundings of the dessert, in your private Bedouin tent with its own pool among the orange sand dunes, like a true Arabian Princess.
For rare kitsch
The ultimate in Arabic hospitality is the world’s first 7-star hotel. The Burj Al Arab is the kitschy expression of Arabic design and luxury. Golden appliques, chandeliers, rare marbles, personal butlers and gold-and-velvet décor. Set on its own private island off shore the hotel can arrange private helicopter or Rolls Royce transfers. Beware, its look and feel is not everybody’s cup of tea. Think rare green marble coupled with red velvet curtains, golden chandeliers and blue sofas. It is like an Arabian fantasy of floating carpets and ornate royal harems. Definitively not my type of hotel.
Dubai Travel Guide: Luxury shopping
Bring out your credit cards for a world tour. Dubai’s extreme summer temperatures have turned the Emirate into an indoor shoppers’ paradise. A few malls are a highlight. And no, there isn’t any shopping to be had outside the malls, Dubai is not a city made for walking.
The world’s largest mall is located across from the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai’s Downtown area, my favourite part of Dubai. You will find just about any international brand available as well as Galerie Lafayette and Bloomingdales. The Dubai Mall receives more visitors than New York city at about 65 million in 2012, that is almost as much as the World’s 3rd most visited country, Spain. A testimony to Dubai’s reputation as a shopping mecca.
Every shoe lover will lose sight at the world’s largest shoe emporium, Level Shoe District, with 96,000 square feet of curated shoes from all major designers.
The Mall of the Emirates
The original home of luxury in the Emirate this used to be the place to go before they opened the Dubai Mall and it still is a major destination after it was fully revamped to be more exclusive. The Mall of the Emirates also hosts Ski Dubai, the indoor ski slope and the chance to see penguins. There are two hotels attached to the mall, the Sheraton and the Kempinski, for added convenience. You can transport yourself to the French Alps at Apres-ski.
Check out Boutique 1 and S*uce for the only local luxury shopping experience in Dubai.
Dubai Travel Guide: Luxury dining
The choice is unlimited. Dining is Dubai’s second most important sport, after shopping.
Do as local expats do and enjoy a lavishly long brunch on Friday at one of the oldie but goodie options. Go to the Park Hyatt’s Traiteur for that mix of Arabian charm, Mediterranean sailing breeze and delicious buffet spread. If the weather is good, sit outside and enjoy the view over the sailing club’s boats and yachts anchored in front.
For a livelier choice sample Al Qasr’s huge outdoor display of options in any of their three water-side restaurants complete with live music and mojitos galore. This is how Fridays go by in the Emirate, with cocktails and a food comma. There isn’t much else to do after all. Then have a siesta and wake up ready for dinner. And repeat.
Dubai is not included in the Michelin Guide but I bet it would have a few stars if it was. Since the Emirate does not offer a lot of alternatives for wealthy expats to spend their hard earned tax-free salary on expensive dining is an easy way to waste some of it so options abound.
For fine cuisine head to Pierre Gagnaire’s Reflets (update: permanently closed). Fantastic French dishes and the best service plus an ambiance to match that romantic dinner with velvet covered booths and dimmed lighting.
Gordon Ramsay’s Verre is a fixture in celebrities’ agendas. For more Michelin starred chefs try Gary Rhodes’ Rhodes W1 at the Grosvenor House. Although less romantic and going more with the bright atmosphere the food is excellent.
The special and unique
If you are looking for a once in a lifetime foodie experience Dubai has got you covered. For a fabulous afternoon tea and a chance to set foot on the Grande Damme book at the Burj al Arab, both the first level lobby and the top level restaurant are worthy experiences.
Arabian living Watch the sun go down in the desert at Al Hadheerah, located in Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa (45min from downtown Dubai), it is a beautifully romantic setting on a rooftop in the calm and quietness of the endless desert. One of my favorites.
For the highest views, at.mosphere on top of the Burj Khalifa, will set your heart racing at the vertigo inducing views. The Most romantic restaurant, in my opinion, continues to be long-standing Pier Chic, set on stilts at the end of a pier from where you can see the Burj al Arab and Jumeirah Beach. The best, the walk through the hotel’s beach walkways and gardens to reach the hotel and, of course, the walk along the pier, ditch the golf cart ride.
At Burj al Arab’s Al Mahara you can enjoy a magical, albeit pricey, underwater voyage of fresh seafood and their live counterparts to match. If you prefer a beach setting, the hotel also offers dinners on its private Beach Club at casual Majlis Al Bahar.
Dubai Travel Guide: What to do
I said there is not much to do in Dubai. That is particularly true when you live there but less so if you are visiting. Here a few of the interesting activities to indulge on.
Sand dune driving, desert diner on a Bedouin camp under the stars, belly dancing, camel rides, falconry and Arabian delights. A perfect evening out and about enjoying the beauty of the desert. Do it in style and avoid the tourist trap that some of the outfits have become by joining Platinum Heritage Safaris. More info here.
Dubai is well known for having one of the most expensive horse races in the word, the Dubai World Cup. When you live in the Emirate you are attending every year. Not for the horses though, whom the majority of the visitors don’t even see, but for the social extravaganza and, let’s be honest here, because every girl wants an excuse to wear a hat. At the end of the evening hats are off, heels are off and everything else is barely on, debauchery Dubai style. As a visitor you can join a tour of the Meydan stables from September to April. Make a booking here.
Hot air balloon
Beautiful view from above the sand dunes at sun rise. You will feel like Aladdin as the balloon quietly glides past gazelle and oryx, the very few species surviving the desert conditions. Find out more here.
It is true, you can ski and pat penguins at Sky Dubai. The slope is not very long and you’ll soon get bored but it is a true architectural feat to build a sky slope inside a mall when the temperature outside hits 50 degrees. Good luck with the pasteurization you’ll go through.
The best way to cool down if you happen to make the very bad decision of visiting in the summer months is to spend the day in the refrigerated pool or at Aquaventure in the Atlantis.
Even in the hottest months I had friends who ventured to the green for some golf action. Dubai has some of the best Golf courses in the world, of course. You can also simply go on the driving range and hit some balls at Emirates Golf Club where they will even lend you the clubs. It’s a fun afternoon out surrounded by greenery, so rare in Dubai.
Dubai Travel Guide: The utterly ridiculous over the top experiences
The above does not make the cut for you? Are you looking for some uber ridiculous luxury?
There are a few other I-have-too-much-money activities Dubai caters for. The tiny Emirate has become extremely good at extravagant and borderline comical activities on offer, trying to outdo anybody else at the business of catering to the rich.
You’ve seen the many photos of the Dubai police Larmboghini cars which, by the way, are real, and you wish to give it a try yourself. Most expats splurge on a Porsche or above as soon as they land. Cars are so cheap that for the price of a Golf back home you can get a Porsche in Dubai. So renting a supercar for the day is quite easy. The hard decision? Which one of them you’d like to break the bank on. Check out Lane.
If you are looking for the extra special desert safari, Platinum Heritage also offers private safaris that end with a private dinner under the stars serenaded by an opera singer and a piano. On top of the sand dunes. What about this for an unforgettable evening? They can even drop you in the desert by helicopter so you don’t have to “endure” the beautiful ride through the dunes.
Since shopping is such an important part of “leisuring” in Dubai consider a personal shopper for the most efficient day out and about in, erm, the mall. Dubai Mall being such a huge maze of floors and alleys you may want your own personal guide. Check out Style with Orla here.
Spending a day at the spa is another great way to pass time and burn significant amounts of money. Fancy a gold or caviar facial or body treatment? The Burj al Arab Talisse Spa is not only going to give you that, it will also pamper you at its 18th floor facility and treat you to a great view over the Dubai coast. How about a lap on its infinity pool or relaxing time in the Jacuzzi?