Dynamic Dubai

It had been at least ten years since I was last in Dubai and so I thought it was high time to get back. The city has grown and expanded so much in that short decade and some fabulous new hotel properties have opened up. Plus with the ever-expanding route network of the national carrier, Emirates, it is one of the most convenient connecting points to get to various places in the world. So we planned a three-night mother/daughter stop over on the way home from Africa to “do Dubai” and celebrate Abby’s birthday. The flight from Entebbe was just shy of five hours and we were met as we exited the aircraft by the “Marharba” welcome team, a VIP meet & greet service that is worth every penny. The sign (at my request) read “Happy Birthday Abby and Tarquin!” They whisked us through a diplomatic passport lane, arranged porters for the bags and handed us over to the Emirates car service for complimentary transfer to the hotel.

I could not believe the amount of traffic on the roads at 10 p.m. ! It took over 45 minutes to get to The Four Seasons Jumeirah Beach and after an entire day of travel logistics, I was very relieved to be there! We checked into room #525, a very spacious (753 sq ft) premier skyline room with two double beds, big outdoor terrace with a view of the downtown Dubai skyline and a huge bathroom. The contrasts to the tents (which we adored) but left earlier that morning cannot be overstated! I’d booked a table for dinner at Mercury, the hotel’s open air rooftop nightclub, which was hopping and the only venue still serving dinner this late. Feeling a bit like a fishes out of water in our safari travel clothes, we ate quickly and retreated to the room for some much needed sleep.

I wanted to try out some of the things we are often asked to arrange for clients, so we booked a sea plane tour of the city with “Seawings.” They offer 25 and 40 minute scenic flights in float-equipped Cessna Caravans and there is no better way to get a bird’s eye view of this 21st century city. We took off on Dubai Creek and followed the coastline to see the man-made cluster of islands known as The Palm and The World. We flew over the sail-shaped Burj al Arab Hotel and the tallest building in the city, the Burj Kalifa. Although the weather was slightly overcast, it was good fun and I’d highly recommend it.

We easily navigated the city in taxis and surprisingly, the fares were very reasonable – like $10 to go all the way across town, one of the few things in Dubai that seems reasonable – probably on account of cheap gas! We ended up at City Walk, a new-ish area with many shops and restaurants. We had a fabulous meal at Tartufi and Friends where absolutely everything is made with truffles (including the iced espresso!). We started with an artichoke salad and some of the best sautéed spinach that I’ve ever had, followed by tuna tataki and a classic bowl of pasta—all of the above of course embellished with shaved black truffles. What I’d forgotten is that only restaurants attached to international hotels qualify for a liquor license in Dubai so all of the restaurant options in City Walk were dry. They tried to make up for it with a creative list of “mocktails” and non-alcoholic wine list – all embellished with you know what!

Next, I was dying to see “Ski Dubai,” the indoor ski slope phenomenon that so many families want to experience when they are here. Located in the Mall of the Emirates, it caters to local residents and visitors alike. We swapped our sundresses for snowsuits, socks, gloves and boots and not being big skiers ourselves, we procrastinated the inevitable and opted to first try the “penguin friend encounter” which is a 40-minute interactive experience with Gentoo and King penguins in a chilly ice-filled environment. It turned out to be really interesting and at the end you can actually pet the king penguin for a photo op… yes, it is touristy, but the money goes to penguin research and conservation and who knew there were penguins in the desert!? The only thing that eclipsed our experience were the two families with screaming young children – would have been nice to either have it be an adult-only session or better yet, book it privately which I now know how to do!

We exchanged the snow boots for ski boots and screwed up our courage to hit the slopes! A bit of wine at lunch would have helped in this department! They have a quad-chair lift and a little chalet at the top called Avalanche Café where you can get a hot chocolate. We hopped off the chair lift at the middle station; the thrill seekers can continue up the summit for a steeper start. Lift tickets are sold in 2 hour increments or an all-day pass. It does not take very long to go down so cannot imagine how many runs one could get in for a full day! We had a blast and shot some fun pictures and it will provide cocktail party chatter for months to come.

It was dark by the time we got back to the hotel, leaving not a lot of time to change before heading out for dinner to the Billionaire’s Mansion, a restaurant in the Taj Hotel downtown. Highly rated by Trip Advisor, it looked like it would be a fun festive venue with “a show.” The menu was part Italian and part Japanese (provided by London’s Sumosan, an old stomping ground of mine) and we split four appetizers all of which were yummy: two great salads, wagyu tacos and the crispy fried rock shrimp were my favorite. It was part jazz club and part Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics and there was a Michael Jackson look-alike; we had a front row table. Apparently they have two seatings each evening at 8:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., and in hindsight think it would have been more fun at the later seating which is much more popular, but all in all it was a great evening.

On Day 2, the Four Seasons surprised us with the complimentary use of one of their super-swell pool cabanas as a gesture for Abby’s birthday. Fully air conditioned and complete with stocked mini-bar, big screen TV, bathroom and shower, it was a wonderful enhancement to the pool experience which then leads onto the beach. The free form pool had a swim up champagne bar – stocked only with top brands like Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon. I left Abby to enjoy the pool and went to take a look at the One & Only The Palm, a 90-room property which gets rave reviews. The sales director, Anna, gave me a great tour. They were fully booked so I could only see one room which was a Junior Suite #919 which was 100 sq m with big terrace and an amazing bathroom. Their couple’s suite in the Guerlain Spa was impressively large, complete with its own private hammam- would be great for honeymooners. This hotel enjoys a hefty repeat clientele and the idea is to feel like it’s a home away from home.

Abby and I went to lunch at “Atmosphere” in the Armani Hotel at the Burj Kalifa, the tallest building in the city at 828 meters high. A total of 57 elevators serve the 160 floors and they travel at an astonishing 10 meters per second. Our ears popped four times during the speedy ascent! The elegant restaurant is located on the 123rd floor and features floor to ceiling glass for a truly panoramic view. We could see for miles in every direction – all the way to the airport! We were seated by the window and attended to by a very solicitous waiter called Tim who was from the Ukraine. I started with a lovely pate followed by filet of halibut, both beautifully presented. As the crowning glory, they delivered homemade chocolates to the table in a mahogany treasure chest that had “smoke” (dry ice) oozing evocatively out of the box as you open it! Quite a show, I assure you and worth the hefty price tag.

We re-joined our guide, Loda, after lunch and drove by the Jumeirah Mosque and the Royal Palace on the way back to the hotel. Loda was full of fun facts and figures – like 80% of Dubai residents are ex-pats and that the first university in Dubai only opened in 1976. We returned to our cabana to catch the last few hours of sun, knowing we’d be returning to snow-covered landscapes tomorrow.

Our last night was something we were really looking forward to – dinner at Nusr Et, a steak house conveniently next door to our hotel, run by Turkish celebrity chef,  Nusret Gokce. The handsome, pony-tailed chef is often referred to as “Salt Bae,” known for the sensual way he handles the meat and the distinctively seductive flair with which he seasons his meat with sea salt flakes. I started with grilled prawns and then ordered what they call “spaghetti steak” which is super thin slices of beef accompanied with creamed spinach. It was superb! With over a million followers on Instagram and five branches of the restaurant in Turkey, we never dreamed we’d be so lucky to have the chef actually be in Dubai, but about halfway through our meal, we spotted him. He struts around the restaurant with a giant knife and personally carves his signature dishes tableside and then adds that special flick of salt. Although thoroughly satiated, we desperately wanted a personal encounter with the chef so we ordered another piece of meat – this time, “Istanbul Steak,” which we were assured would warrant a tableside visit. He was super personable and quite a ham for the camera—he caressed our steak then chopped it to bits and gave it a sprinkle.  We had a lot of laughs and I’m happy to say that my carnivore needs have been met for some time to come!

Dubai, in many respects, reminds me of Las Vegas – the climate is similar, great hotels, big airport with direct nonstop flights almost everywhere, people from all over the world, high end shopping, world famous restaurants, and so many fun things to do. For us it was the perfect stopover but for many, it is also an appealing destination.

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