Dubai: Just Add Money
In 15 years, Dubai has gone from a backwater refueling stop to a playpen for the rich, thanks to one of the grandest building schemes that the modern world has ever seen. But is there any reason for normal people to visit?
What about the rest of us? The mere mortals who don't have $2,000 a night to drop on a hotel room? The good news is that some of that opulence is within reach. I spent a blissful two hours being pampered to the point of embarrassment in the Oriental Hammam of the One & Only Royal Mirage Hotel. From the moment I arrived, I was attended to like some sort of empress, too precious and delicate to tie my own robe sash or dry my own dewy skin. I was escorted into the dressing room, helped into a cotton robe, then led into a humid marble chamber that echoed with the soothing sounds of splashing water. I lay on a warm marble slab while a woman named Leila scrubbed me with eucalyptus-scented Moroccan soap. After rinsing me with bowl after bowl of hot water, she led me into a steam room, rinsed me again, exfoliated my dry skin, and then slathered me in ghassoul, a mixture of clay and eucalyptus oil. She then applied a honey mask and a couple of cotton pads to my eyes. I was then led to a massage table scattered with rose petals and massaged for 20 bittersweet final minutes, dulcimers pinging quietly in the background. It was far and away the best $100 that I've ever spent.
A few days later, I had afternoon tea in the garishly colorful lobby of the aforementioned $2,000-a-night hotel, the Burj Al Arab. For $40, the Burj used to allow the hoi polloi to enter the hotel and take in its soaring 24-karat-gold-leaf columns and helipad. These days, however, the only way that nonguests can catch a glimpse of its infamous excess is to make reservations for afternoon tea or evening cocktails a week or two ahead of time. Guests at cocktail hour--or Indulgent afternoon tea, which costs $35 more than the Regular afternoon tea--get to sit in the Sky Bar and gaze out at The World, a man-made archipelago laid out like a map of the Earth, or at least the 90 percent of it deemed most desirable. Each island is sold separately, so the developers of The World have quietly eliminated countries that don't have strong marketing potential. Israel is nowhere to be found, and North and South Korea have been reunified.
I wish I could say that afternoon tea at the Burj was worth the $61 price tag, but as I sat perched on a fire-engine-red divan eating wafer-thin sandwiches and mediocre scones, listening to florid versions of Sting songs played on a grand piano by a woman in a long satin dress, and watching computerized colored fountains shoot 100 feet into the air, I felt like I'd been had. Sure, the admission price gave me access to the Sky Bar (if only for a five-minute post-tea glimpse), with its eight-foot-high picture windows, and the views of The World and the Gulf of Arabia at sunset were mesmerizing. But as I crept around the corridor of the mezzanine admiring the 22-karat-gold-flecked mosaic floors, I found myself wondering who in the crowd belonged, and who didn't. That guy flipping through a newspaper on the couch next to me? He seemed to belong. The ones taking a video of the escalator? Interlopers, just like me.
I was more than happy to go back to my lovely $160-a-night hotel, the Arabian Courtyard, which had no gold leaf, but no tourists ogling the lobby, either; it did have appealing rooms with hardwood floors and richly colored upholstery.
Even if I were staying at the Burj, I wouldn't want to spend my entire time in Dubai cocooned in a five-star hotel. After all, luxury in Dubai doesn't feel very different from luxury in Bali or Paris or Cabo San Lucas. Better to get out on the streets of Deira or Bur Dubai, the two neighborhoods that flank Dubai Creek, to experience the rush of a dozen cultures at once. Indian women jostle each other for sidewalk space at the Covered Souk, where bejeweled saris tempt them from the store windows. Men in white dishdashas and checkered head scarves lounge on the banks of Dubai Creek at the end of the day, sandals shed. Emirati teenagers gather at the local sheesha café, Blue Barjeel, the boys in baggy jeans, the girls in tight ones, all sipping Turkish coffee and smoking apple tobacco and flirting. Forget the malls: At the marketplaces along the creek, you'll find rose water from Iran, tea sets from China, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
But Dubai's heady brew of cultures is best experienced through your taste buds. Within its 22 square miles, I encountered tuna sashimi, enchiladas, tiramisu, tandoori chicken, flan, chili fries, pain au chocolat, and lots and lots of shish kebab and hummus. Much of it was improbably hidden away in hotels, which I typically associate with generic Euro-cuisine.
At the Park Hyatt, I approached The Thai Kitchen via lighted walkways graced by palm trees and candlelit staircases. The restaurant studiously emulates the casual openness of a Thai marketplace: In the three open kitchens, sous-chefs steam rice in bamboo baskets and grind herbs and spices into pastes with wooden mortars and pestles. No simple pad thai served here: The menu features odd and intriguing combinations of ingredients, such as spicy pomelo salad: segments of grapefruit-like pomelo and steamed prawns accented by sweet, crunchy shallots and tamarind sauce.