Sunday, November 22, 2009

One day in the desert

The Burj Al Arab Hotel, Dubai


Dubai is a strange and amazing place. Here desert meets development, Arab and Western culture co-exist and anything seems possible. Our short stop-over in Dubai was certainly an eye-opener for me. I had previously heard from friends and relatives that Dubai was worth visiting, but I was skeptical. Until now. For US-based travelers en route to East Africa, Dubai is definitely worth an overnight stop, or even a couple of nights if you have the time. As good a place as any to get over jet lag, take in a few sights, and marvel at the amazing development in the desert. There were so many construction cranes to be seen all over the city, it looked like Houston in the late 1970's. Some construction had been halted - due to the worldwide recession - but definitely not all.

The view from the lobby of the Burj Al Arab Hotel. Tasteful? Not even close. Impressive nonetheless.

Looking up from the lobby. The average cost per night for a room here is over US$2000

Yet another look upwards, showing the balconies on each level

Entrances to some rooms at the Burj Al Arab Hotel

A rather odd design element on the roof of the lobby floor at the Burj Al Arab.

There is nothing that is not ornate at the Burj Al Arab. This is a table decoration in the lobby.

The Jumeirah Beach Hotel as soon from the Burj Al Arab

The Skyview Bar at the Burj Al Arab Hotel

Dubai boasts year round sunshine which is of course to be expected in the desert... What is not expected is an indoor downhill skiing facility complete with real snow, lush golf courses, international cricket tournaments, and a dizzying array of hotels, malls and office buildings. It is indeed a perfect getaway for shoppers, business people, families and adventure seekers as there is something for everyone.

One of several reception desks inside the vast lobby of the Palm Atlantis Hotel in Dubai

In true Dubai style, the lobby at the Palm Atlantis Hotel is also way over the top

A young couple signing in at the Palm Atlantis Hotel

From high up, a view over the pool and beachfront at the Palm Atlantis Hotel, Dubai

A view over the massive water park entertainment center at the Palm Atlantis Hotel

Dubai is one of the seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates. To say that it is a city of contrast is somewhat of an understatement. It is a very contemporary city against the backdrop of an ancient desert. For the casual visitor, there's not much to be seen in the way of tradition, unless you count the traditional white clothing. With few exceptions, such as the Mosques and a city museum area, nothing in Dubai looks more than a few years old. Some not so welcome recent developments include traffic: we were stuck in at least two solid traffic jams during our short stay-over. So leave enough time to get back to the airport!

This is not the place to get into Dubai's politics, which appear to be antediluvian in many respects. It is a classic oligarchy, with a handful of Emirati (less than 20% of the total population) ruling over a much larger yet politically impotent population of mostly guest workers who are not allowed to become citizens. There is no naturalization process. You can stay and work, but you can't vote. Ever. And you turn into a pumpkin at age 58, when your temporary residency expires permanently. How nice for Dubai, not having to deal with pesky older workers with their health-related issues - and costs.

Our hotel for the overnight stop - the Dhow Palace - was conveniently located and seemingly well run. Certainly my room (a massive suite) was spotless and well lit, and very effectively air-conditioned. On the morning of our departure to Nairobi, several of us had breakfast in the downstairs restaurant; in addition to the usual 'eggs to order', and other breakfast choices, there was beef bacon and an impressive array of breads, pastries, cheeses, cold cuts, a couple of vegetarian dishes and plenty of fresh fruit.

One of the interesting stops on our whirlwind city tour of Dubai: the indoor skiing facility

There are no half measures in Dubai. This is the Burj Dubai, the world's tallest man-made structure

A water side development with the Burj Dubai in the background

Another view of a residential complex near the Burj Dubai

Dubai Airport was massive, clean, and modern. It had plenty of shopping carts but not enough toilets. I bought a replacement gold wedding band on the way back to the USA (more about the way in which it was lost, later) and thought the price was good. Getting to and from Dubai, the logical choice is Emirates Air. As their guests, we were fortunate to be upgraded to business class on each of the 4 legs flown; in my case it was New York-Dubai-Nairobi-Dubai-Houston. I'm not sure if it is really worth paying as much as $9,000 per person for a round-trip business class flight from Houston or New York to Nairobi, but for the most part it was an enjoyable experience. Which of course is a lot more than can be said about the usual experience in coach. Business class on Emirates goes hand in hand with a very high level of personal service. Feel like a special vegan mini-meal between meals? Not a problem. The seats are luxurious and fold down into a flat mini-bed, mattress supplied on request. The vegetarian meals were excellent and judging by what I saw on some of the other trays, so were the regular ones. The array of entertainment options (music, movies, TV shows etc) was practically endless. I even listened to some opera. Bravo! Unlike Delta (who don't edit even R-rated movies as we saw on a recent flight from Atlanta to Jo'burg), Emirates is a complete nanny-airline, with some weird complex about swear words and nudity, amongst others. I have a real problem with censorship so this irked me somewhat. I suppose compared with some other things done in the name of religion in the past, excising f-bombs and nipples are relatively mundane. But really I am nit-picking. Every single flight was smooth and on time and I would fly Emirates again in a heartbeat. Even in coach.

A partial view of the Jumeirah Mosque in downtown Dubai

Old and new in the port of Dubai

Some large dhows in the Dubai harbor, they appeared to be residences as well

Mannequins in the Dubai souk

A small but well-stocked spice and herb store in the Dubai souk

As advertised, there was plenty of gold in the gold souk in Dubai

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