DUBAI: From Desert to Metropolis

By Richard Varr

Dubai is a 21st century city.   It’s where the world’s tallest building towers over a metropolis within a desert and coastline panorama, where skiers traverse the world’s only indoor ski slope, and where arguably the world’s most luxurious hotel is located.  My visit to Dubai was a one-day, whirlwind stopover tour while on my way to Thailand, but it was a day worth every rushed minute.

Dubai Skyline. Photo by Richard Varr

Dubai’s glittering glass towers and expansive shopping centers literally rose from the desert within the last two decades.  Shining skyscrapers, modern business centers and new communities, including those constructed on manmade islands such as Palm Jumeirah, have sprouted throughout the cityscape, many within the last several years.  Although the global recession has apparently slowed down’s Dubai’s racing development, construction continues on new projects.  The world’s largest building, the Burj Khalifa, opened in January 2010.  With 160 floors, it was built in just over five years and stands 828 meters or 2,717 feet tall.

Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. Photo by Richard Varr

Dubai's Manhattan-like Skyline. Photo by Richard Varr

Dubai’s commercial history begins at Dubai Creek – a once shallow waterway that was the base for trading.  It’s where the city’s pearl industry flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The creek was dredged starting in the 1960s, allowing large ships to enter the port and thus increasing trade.   Along the creek is the Bastakiya District – Dubai’s old town of sorts with narrow streets and with stone buildings that now house art galleries, museums and a cultural center.

Dubai Creek with abra. Photo by Richard Varr

One of the highlights of my visit to this area was my ride across the creek on a water taxi or abra.  It’s a wooden, walk-on-and-sit open-air boat, taking only minutes to get to the opposite shore, where I walked through the Deira Old Souk (market), including the spice souk, antique souk and adjacent gold souk.

Deira Spice Souk. Photo by Richard Varr

In the spice souk, I walk by sack after sack of dry lemon, sunflower seeds, dried chili, sage hibiscus, oregano and bay leaves.  The sweet smell from elongated cinnamon bars wafts towards me. And I see natural frankincense and myrrh.  “Burn it in the fire and it smells like church,” a vendor tells me.  In the gold souk, the shinning metal glimmers in storefront after storefront, filled with bracelets, rings, watches and other jewelry.

Storefronts along the Gold Souk. Photo by Richard Varr

Burj Al Arab at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Burj Al Arab:  The World’s Most Luxurious Hotel

Burj Al Arab, atrium with lobby below. Photo by Richard Varr

There’s a lot of truth to the above headline. I stayed in the sail-shaped, 28 double-story hotel (double story because each of the 202 suites has two floors) for two nights.  Its reputation echoes through the tourism and business circles as a “seven-star” property with world class, high-end service that’s second to none.  Unfortunately, because of work commitments and touring, I had little time to enjoy the plush living room/dining room/kitchen areas and “upstairs” sleeping quarters, all serviced by a personal butler.  And all of this comes with an extreme price tag – standard one-bedroom suites can run up to $2,000 USD a night.

Burj Al Arab suite. Photo by Richard Varr

“We give personalized service for the guest – whatever they request,” says my butler, Rafeeq Chandanath, upon my arrival.  “We’re making it like a home for them,” he adds, while offering to unpack my bag and tend to my every concern.  “We’re making the ‘wow factor’ for the guests when they come.  If they like white wine, we’ll put it on priority for them so they’ll feel the wow factor.  If they like only mango, we’ll put it in their fruit basket so they’ll see the preference for them.”  I asked him not to unpack my luggage by the way, since I would have virtually no time to repack with this whirlwind stop and 7am departure time on my last morning.

Butler Rafeeq inside my suite. Photo by Richard Varr

The first thing I noticed when arriving at the Burj Al Arab was the white Rolls Royces outside – one of the largest fleets in the world for hotel guests.  The hotel sits on its own manmade island 280 meters from the Jumeirah coastline.  It boasts the world’s tallest atrium of more than 180 meters high, a cascading waterfall in the front lobby and 24-carat gold leaf emblazoned within the interior.

"Submarine ride" to the Al Mahara restaurant. Photo by Richard Varr

The property has eight restaurants and bars with particularly notable features.  The Al Mahara (Oyster Shell) offers fine seafood cuisine with enormous aquariums surrounding the circular dining areas.  What caught my attention was the three-minute simulated submarine voyage to the restaurant, with a submarine like interior, mechanized sounds, and rumbling and vibrations.  I believe the journey was simply riding on an elevator of some sort to reach the lower level restaurant.  I must admit, however, the “ride” was a small adventure for me!

Richard at the Burj Khalifa.

Getting there:

Emirates Airline flies directly to Dubai from the North American hubs of Houston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto.

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