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High Camp in Arabia


“A sumptuous oasis of golds [sic], reds and blues provides a visual treat – in the strands of the hand-tufted carpet, highlighted by the gold shells housing concierge and guest service staff, and all illuminated by an intricate crystal chandelier overhead.” So say the self-aggrandising marketing and promotions gods of the Burj Al Arab, Dubai’s premier hotel. They believe such absurdly elaborate descriptions will actually entice foolish souls to part with sums of money close to the Gross National Product of a small country. And they’re right.

Absurd, vulgar, insane are just some of the words that could describe this epic monument to Arab excess but the one that sticks with me is ‘silly’. If you have aesthetic sensibilities prepare for a full-frontal assault. I could say, “from the moment you enter the doors of the hotel, you are struck by the luxury (and I do mean that in the Eighteenth century pejorative sense)” but I would be lying. The grandeur of the Burj Al Arab is an experience you encounter from the moment you exit the air-conditioned confines of the recently refurbished Dubai International Airport. Upon admitting your destination, a team of baggage men hungrily pounce upon your luggage, emitting low growls in the direction of anyone who tries to steal their quarry and directing you towards your waiting chauffeur.

Now I’ve had complimentary chauffeur transfers before. A smartly dressed and extremely polite man calls at your door, delicately hauls your precious luggage up the drive and gently deposits it in a middle-aged metallic blue Volvo 940. This was not a Volvo. For three people, the Burj had sent two white Rolls Royces. Despite the profusion of corpulent men staying at the Burj, this was not intended as an insult to our anticipated size. No, we quite happily settled ourselves into one Rolls Royce, soon realising that our battered old Kipling bags were enjoying their own solitary half-hour ride to the Burj in the other car.

The pace of change in Dubai is breathtaking. Where 20 years ago there were only a few fishermen’s huts, these days a string of luxury resorts prepare to welcome wealthy visitors from around the world. The Burj itself only opened in December of 1999. The Burj does not lie, like the other hotels, on the swathes of sandy beach or amid the bustling central district of Dubai. It is a half hour drive from the airport, some 15km south of the city of Dubai. An imposing sail-shaped structure, it stands 321 metres (making it the world’s tallest hotel) above the Arabian Gulf on its own man-made island, connected to the mainland by a 280m bridge. And should you not be residing at the Burj but fancy a sneaky peek, prepare for a shock. It will cost you a rather ungenerous $20 just to pass through the checkpoint onto the bridge.

The Burj does not have hotel rooms. It declares itself to be an all-suite hotel. We stayed in the cheapest grade of suite, which ranges from $1350 in high season (winter months) to $820 in low season (in summer when it can reach a skin-blistering 48 degrees Celsius). If you are feeling really flush you can stay in the Royal Suite for just $6800 a night, but for that you do get a revolving bed, private cinema and lift within your suite. The Burj provides butlers for every room, who are on call 24 hours a day to satisfy your every need, including in-suite check-in, room service, tips on local sites of interest and shops, currency exchange and restaurant reservations.

Our one bedroom deluxe suite was the biggest hotel room I have ever seen. For a start it had two floors. On the ground floor there was a small bathroom, business centre with laptop and fax-machine, dining table and bar and a massive lounge area with sofas, chaise longue and 42-inch plasma television screen set in a monstrous gold surround (presumably to accord with the profusion of gold that covers the rest of the suite like an unstoppable growth of algae).

Up the spiral staircase you find a dressing area, massive bathroom with jacuzzi, shower, two sinks, bidet, lavatory and oddly enough a bench with a tilted mirror above it. If the mirror perplexes at first, a journey into the bedroom helps to clarify. After being wowed by further chairs, sofas, large television screen and fabulous view overlooking the Gulf, you notice the bed. It’s big. And it has mirrors. One behind the headboard and rather worryingly for those with self-image problems, one full-length mirror above the bed. Discreet as always, your butler tends not to point out the mirrors or describe the reason for their existence. He seems much more keen to point out the communication facilities and décor. He tells us that there are ten telephones scattered around the suite and that the marble that covers walls and floors is (I kid you not) “the very same stone from which Michaelangelo [sic] created his sculptured masterpieces”.

If you are a committed foodie then the hotel offers a choice of seven different restaurants and bars. And if that’s not enough choice, the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, overlooked by the Burj and a short walk away, offers a further 19 eateries ranging from German to Argentine to Pacific Rim cuisine. My favourite of the Burj’s restaurants is Al Mahara, the seafood restaurant, not for the food so much as the bizarre method of getting there. There is a two-minute simulated submarine ride to the restaurant, essentially a sort of horizontal lift with added U-boat décor and computer graphics circa late-eighties, a little like being trapped inside that fish-tank screensaver. The Al Muntaha, suspended 200 metres above the sea, is good for the view but the food is unexceptional. The Iranian food at the Al Iwan is spectacular, although the restaurant does not compare in location to the other two, though it is right next to the large and somewhat hyperactive computer-controlled fountain in the lobby. So perhaps only for the strong of bladder. The fatoush salad is especially good as is their seafood selection, with prawns large enough to intimidate a chihuahua. The star of the show is the baklava on offer for dessert – crunchy and slightly chewy, not sodden and gloopy.

You might be forgiven for thinking I hold some animosity towards this hotel. But the truth is I love it. As a connoisseur of the ridiculous I am overjoyed by the campness. It is a truly fantastic and fantastical place. You can relax in your palace of a room or by the pool, where attentive waiters ply you with icy water and ice-cold towels for removing that annoying suntan lotion scum that is the natural enemy of the serious sunbather. Should you wish to be slightly more virtuous there is the Assawan Spa and Health Club, where I had the best massage of my life. The Spa has two swimming pools, a gym, saunas and even a library and bar. There are also a number of shops within the hotel ready to take your hard-earned cash in exchange for reassuringly expensive and stunningly taste-deficient merchandise.

Dubai is becoming ever more popular as a smart shopping destination for the well-heeled traveller, eager to obtain some winter sun and a few bargains. It is a curious city, where everything is new and buildings keep popping up to house even more shops and internet cafés. The gold souks and shopping malls offer great bargains if you can drag yourself away from the surroundings of your hotel. Though when you are staying somewhere like the Burj that can be surprisingly difficult. Apart from a couple of trips to the shops and some bargaining for Tanzanite rings in the gold souk, we spent most of our four days enjoying the facilities offered by the Burj. There is no hotel I have relaxed into so quickly or enjoyed laughing at so much. Dubai is a wonderful place but the Burj really is a destination in itself.

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