A team of eight men were constructing the steel-framed, 20ft Christmas tree 🎄 at 5am in our Palm hotel reception, an arrival time many hours later than expected due to various technical, sandstorm or Heathrow/Dubai fog issues depending on who was explaining the reasons for our delay. Pretty tired after a long travelling day we sank into one of the most comfortable beds we’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping on anywhere.
The Palm is a large sea reclamation project constructed offshore the Marina district and shaped, not surprisingly, like a palm. The fronds of the palm have long-since been used to build hundreds of luxury houses, apartments and international hotels, but there are still sky cranes on the horizon as a lot of building is still going on. The weather is a very pleasant and sunny 25 degreesC or so with a gentle breeze. We explore our low-rise ‘resort hotel’ which is attractively styled around a series of man-made lagoons where each ground floor room provides direct lagoon access for swimming.
The hotel doesn’t feel full nor busy but neither is it empty. As temperatures in Dubai go above 50 degreesC in summer now is a good time to visit. I remember being almost roasted when I last visited Dubai, a good many years’ ago, so that must have been midsummertime.
We rode the hotel shuttle bus to the ‘Mall of the Emirates’ the next day which is new, gleaming and vast. Three floors of almost every shop from every country you can think of including Bloomingdales, Seattle Coffee Company, Hamley’s and Boots. We had found everything to be expensive compared with the UK but without a MacDonalds immediately available to compare Big Mac prices we popped into M&S instead and estimated their prices to be about 80% higher than UK on the strength of a rather less than representative bra and a box of biscuits comparison. Later, I briefly researched the cost of living, off the Palm, to be reasonably aligned with London with a Big Mac meal costing 25 dirhams, around £6. So we shopped til we dropped but we didn’t buy anything more than a coffee and a Cinnabon. We did find the indoor ski slope where a king penguin show was under way but the shopping centre is a destination itself with literally miles of shops, acres of polished marble and everything bright, gleaming and sparkling. Amazing.
We got thoroughly confused on the Metro although we tried hard. The trains and stations are efficient and new but I purchased a two trip, one zone, two person ticket instead of a one trip, two zone, two person ticket and the gate wouldn’t let us out when we got to the Burj Khalifa stop, for the tallest building in the world. I can hereby vouch for the tower being very, very tall indeed (Wikipedia describes it as a ‘mega tall’ building but can any building be ‘tall’ at all, I wonder) because the transmitter on the top was in the clouds for much of the time. But for those interested in shillings and pence the tower stands 2,722 feet (that’s well over half a mile!), it cost USD1.5 billion, it opened in 2010 and contains 57 elevators. It is the very impressive centrepiece of the new Dubai Downtown development.
Beside the tower is yet another astonishing shopping centre. I never thought I’d say any shopping centre was astonishing but I can’t think of another suitable superlative. This one is simply called ‘The Dubai Mall’ and is the largest mall in the world (by total area). According to Wikipedia again, in 2012 it attracted over 65 million visitors, more than the number of tourists who visited New York that year which numbered only a paltry 54 million. It contains over 1200 shops over four levels and includes the most remarkable two storey aquarium, containing numerous full-size sharks, I’ve ever seen, even in Texas.
We met Geraldine & Rob at the marina for dinner and had a lovely catch-up evening together. Newly married, they’re on a wonderful, three-month, round-the-world tour and our paths crossed because we’re all journeying to Oz for Christmas. Although we’ve only recently met Rob we’ve known Geraldine for nearly 30 years and I always find it fun to watch the two girls immediately pick up their animated conversation seemingly from where they left off last time, as if they only last met yesterday, they are that close.
The following day, Friday, we have brunch booked at the Atlantis, a recommended location for this popular celebration of the end/beginning of another week. It seems that all the big hotels host a long boozy expat brunch on Fridays but a friend of Col’s recommended we go to the Atlantis, a vast new hotel at the top of the Palm, so we didn’t have far to travel from our own hotel. What an experience! OK, the music was loud and we were old enough to be the parents of almost every other guest but all the girls were dressed in their best, the boys as Santas and the room was rockin’! We went to a number of similar (Sunday) brunches when we lived in Singapore but we thought this one topped the lot. Was there any international dish one could think of that wasn’t available to sample? The longest queue was at the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding station, because, I guess, it’s unlikely Dubai expat youngsters have many other opportunities for medium-rare ‘Sunday Roast Beef’ on a Friday or any other day in this Muslim country. So, eschewing the roast, Paula and I eventually found an amazing seafood servery and this pretty-much formed the basis of our boozy lunch. Free flow drink is a feature at these events and wine, spirits and fizz were available free-flow all afternoon, again something I don’t believe is normally available outside the main hotels in Dubai. With hundreds of alcohol-unpracticed youngsters present we expected the afternoon would likely get pretty ugly pretty quickly but everyone seemed to be on their best behaviour and just ready to let their hair down for a few hours with their friends. The cost was similar to eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant back home but the experience and the food was similarly amazing. We were buzzing as we left!
So Dubai city has changed enormously since I was here last. The sheiks are diversifying Dubai away from oil to tourism, business and finance. The new infrastructure, including a new Metro and trams, marina, shopping centres, international hotels, the Palm and new roads are world class. Its skyline was just starting to change when I last visited but now it’s astonishing. Religion is very evident with many new mosques, the burkas and very limited alcohol availability and no alcohol advertising but Dubai is very tolerant compared to other Middle East countries. Everyone speaks good English. It’s a very new, very young, very modern city with a largely hidden, limited, trading-port history. Literally billions of dollars and dirhams have been spent over the last 10-15 years but I don’t believe even a previously oil-rich state can easily afford what’s here now, as we’ve been reading about since the financial crisis. With the oil almost run out I guess they have to change or decline. I’m also not sure what its expats do here when they’re not at work or at school, but we’re coming back at the end of our trip for a few days again to try a different Dubai, this time in the desert. For now though, au revoir Dubai, Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road awaits.
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