Escapism in Dubai? An analysis in three parts

I’ve never had a problem with escapism. We are the people who spent Christmas in Las Vegas. But it seems everyone has limits, and in Dubai, I found mine.

We arrive of an Emirates flight at 5 am. The airport is a shiny ghost town of shifting floors, ruled by men with GI Joe accessories and nonplussed faces.

Outside this city reminds me of a half chewed lolly bag. It’s sticky and dripping in pastels, with roads curling above and over each other like a tangle of jelly snakes.

Our immediate destination is a taramasalata pink confectionary castle of a hotel. We’d been angling for an upgrade to a ski chalet room at the Kempinski, Mall of the Emirates, overlooking the slopes of Ski Dubai, but swallow what we paid for. Our allocated resting place may not overlook a fake winter wonderland and be outfitted like St Moritz; but room 527 is understated yet sexy. It’s a muted rectangle gussied up with marble, polished floorboards and dark wood edgings. A mock chandelier and preponderance of mirrored surfaces nudge it towards narcissism. A turn down service which includes mood lighting, fluted music and a trio of jumbo coffee, raspberry and pistachio macaroons quickly hurls us into hedonism.

It’s easy to lose your senses in Dubai.

The 43 degree July heat is part of it. The air is limpid, like a steaming wet-one which sticks to you and tugs at your reasoning like a petulant toddler. After two minutes of standing in direct sunlight I could no longer muster the gross-motor skills to take off a t shirt and put on sunscreen. My floppy hands completely missed skin and applied the white goo all over my shirt.

I’ve been taught that a good evaluation framework takes into account social, environmental and financial factors. Now we’re up in the air, somewhere over Damascus, my senses have started to return. So here we go- is it really possible to escape and indulge in Dubai?

48 hours in Dubai- with a touch of the triple bottom line….


If Dubai is an alternate planet- the Burj Al Arab is the pinnacle of that displacement. The silhouette of this sanctuary on reclaimed sand dominates the coast, with its dow shaped tower standing out through the city’s haze of heat, and swirling concrete dust. It’s reputation precedes it; this is supposedly the only seven star hotel in the world. You can hardly blame people for wanting to have a peek. Except mere mortals can’t even gain access without a booking number. And you can’t get one of those without committing to a minimum spend in one of the restaurants or bars.

The skybar is where most tourists who get in take themselves. High tea will set you back more than $100, but buys you a seat next to floor to windows which show off the palms, and the ‘world’ that was being dredged out of the sea and sold off piece by piece before the financial hiccups of late. A trip to the skybar will let you look at a blue grey horizon that’s occasionally scarred by the wake of jetskis and jet boats and buy you a seat next to lobster pink English tourists and the cascading cleavages of Russian oil heirs who didn’t get the memo about what culturally sensitive clothing is. The cocktail menu boasts the world’s most expensive cocktail- at $7000, in a diamond encrusted glass.

We opt for the more simplistic margaritas and a Queen; a combination of Louis Roederer champagne, pear liqueur and apple juice.

they come with a level of obsequious service that ensures an accidentally dropped pashmina rests on the floor for no more than a count to three, and that on washing your hands someone ducks into your toilet cubicle to refold the toilet paper for the next visitor. It’s a level of service that I’m not comfortable with.
It’s also a common thread at the Burj. Our eventual destination is the buffet restaurant; Al Iwan. I figure if anyone is going to get value out of a seven star hotel’s buffet; The Hungry One is.

Water is offered as still, sparkling, room temperature, chilled, with lemon or without. It’s a mixed bag of a meal where the shining stars are takes on traditional Arabic dishes; steamed baby lamb; fattoush salad; hummous with pita and camel milk puddings scented with rosewater. Traditional French desserts of Opera cakes, truffles and fruit tarts are easy distractions; while oysters and half lobsters are fun; but nothing speaks of life in the dessert like the texture of defrosted sashimi.

But the food is second fiddle to the space. Jay Rayner described the interior of the Burj as from the ‘soon to be deposed African dictator school of decorating’, and he’s bang on. Add to that a touch of Hogwarts- with fake flames on the walls and red and gold swirling carpets and you get the idea.

The multicultural staff make every effort to increase your comfort; cushions are brought to buffer your seat; there are offers to create plates if the effort to walk to the buffet is to onerous. But nothing can help dissolve the feeling that all of this is just too, too, too much.


Atlantis Aquaventure

Entertainment options in Dubai aren’t for the faint hearted. Day one sees us scurrying over to Atlantis, the Palm before the sun lobs too far overhead. It’s musk pink tower on more reclaimed sand. This lot forms the fronts of a palm, to maximise water frontage for lego-land style apartment complexes. Atlantis forms the heart of the palm, so to speak. As the name would suggest; this castle in the desert is all about water.

For the purposes of disclosure; Atlantis’ Aquaventure water park holds the following appeal. 1) It’s really hot and we’ve just got off a 14 hour flight. Being in the water will be nice. 2. There’s a lazy river with torrents and rapids to float down on inflatable rings-the novelty value of that can’t be underestimated. 3) There’s a series of waterslides, including two which whisk you through a tube a tank filled with fish and sharks. Enough said.

Tips for young players; a rash vest and decent hand eye coordination to apply sun cream is essential to avoid getting burned to a crisp. Ditto are flip flops for your feet. Despite the pavements being periodically sprayed with water and mist, they burn. Apart from that everything is hilarious and fun. The only waterslide which is scary is the one that looks it. Basic survival instinct tells you that anything called the ‘leap of faith’ that comes down 130 metres at near vertical drop is going to be a little nervy. You know I’m really scared when I don’t make any sound at all. Don’t forget to keep your legs crossed at the ankles as you go down.

Ski Dubai

The amount of water and environmental impact of Atlantis is probably outdone by one other attraction- Ski Dubai. It’s essentially an enormous slanted freezer.

Here’s how it goes. You step in from the mall. You buy your tickets; either for two hours or a full day. You line up for boots, skis, airline socks, jackets and pants. You congratulate yourself for bringing ski gloves and beanies and not having to purchase them. You try and avoid the hoards of 11 year old Emirati boys milling about and yelling at each other. You step on an escalator, collect your stocks and step through a revolving door into a winter wonderland. It’s set to a constant temperature of minus 2 degrees. There’s a snow park for those not up to tackling the slopes.

For those who are there’s a quad lift that takes you to the top of a 450 metre run. Half way down it divides into a green and a pale blue style run. The snow is freshly groomed, the trees are fake and the ‘Avalanche cafe’ half way up the slope smells of wet socks. The children that abound are united in their anarchism- hurtling down the hill with arms flailing and cheeks rippling. Those in the know come later in the evening when they’re all in bed; the slope doesn’t shut until 11pm. Not that you’d know the time; inside this giant freezer in the dessert it’s a constant snowy day.

They’re both the kind of hilarious, one off activities that you undertake only once. They’re environmental bulimia- you binge and mildly hate yourself for enjoying yourself so much. The purging comes later- when your guilt means you try and figure out how in the hell to properly carbon offset the indulgence.


For all its attempts to hermeneutically seal itself from the outside world, Dubai is where it is. And while I like to think I can play the cultural relativist game as well as the next, there’s a part of me that isn’t at ease indulging in a water park or shussing down the slopes while women with black cloths completely covering every inch of their faces are led around by their polo t shirt wearing husbands, or left to sit on the sidelines.

In order to really indulge, you have to be comfortable- and as distracting as the lights and shiny things of Dubai are- I never got there.

48 hours was enough. We fly out to Rome, and we don’t look back.

  1. I think this is an excellent summary of why I shall never go there!

    Hope Rome is superb xxx

  2. 'A giant freezer in the dessert' – yes, you really are a food writer 😉

    As for the $7000 cocktail…I take it you get to keep the diamond glass??

    I'm with you, I doubt I'd be able to fully indulge in such an environment. Perhaps I'm just not a 7 Star kinda gal.

    Have a gelato (or two or three!) in Roma for me xx

  3. I'm so excited for Rome and El Bulli! Can't wait to read all about it.

    Hope you guys are having a great time.

  4. Fantastic article Tori! I wanted to experience the indoor skiing but didn't quite have the time. For me, Dubai was quite surreal but I enjoyed it. It's very over the top though I do agree (but perhaps there's a part of me that is a bit over the top too hehe) 🙂

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