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Find out for yourself what all the fuss is about and discern the truth from the clichés. For starters, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are nothing like Las Vegas. There are no colossal neon-lit signs, no impersonator shows, no showgirls, and certainly no casinos. In fact, gambling is illegal, even at the world’s richest horse race, the Dubai World Cup. Dubai is much more like Shanghai, with its audacious architecture, spectacular skylines, obsession with fashion and style, and flourishing contemporary art scene. Contrary to rumours, Dubai does have a rich culture, though most of it is intangible, rooted in Bedouin heritage and traditions of storytelling, poetry, song, dance, and falconry, there are plenty of opportunities to experience it.
For all Dubai’s futuristic appeal and abundance of western entertainments – a sleek metro that zips through the sky like something out of Blade Runner, sumptuous shopping malls, an indoor ski park, and countless bars – there is just as much fun to be had in the simple pleasures of “the Orient”: haggling for gold and frankincense in the bustling souqs, savouring the sunset from the back of a camel, inhaling from a fragrant sheesha pipe on the fairy-lit deck of an old wooden dhow.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi is steamy and sweltering most of the year. Best time to visit is November-March, when temperatures are moderate, though in the past few years, January, once considered the optimum month to visit, has been overcast and rainy. If you’re heading here for sun, sea and sand, spring and autumn are ideal, when you can bronze your body by day and cool down after dark in the air-conditioned restaurants, bars and shopping malls. Summer, while blistering, is proving increasingly popular with budget travellers and families for the bargains that can be found – it’s the cheapest time to visit, but note that from June to September the average daily temperature is well over a scorching 40 degrees Celsius. Plenty of sun cream is a must during the hot summer months.
Where to stay and what do in Dubai?
Dubai is the place where you get to see the famous mind-blowing skyscrapers towering into the blue skies, and on this visit, I get an opportunity to stay at the second tallest hotel in the world – JW Marriott Marquis. Ear-popping glass-panel lifts race up and down the 72 floors, making the most of the panoramic ocean and city views. Surprisingly subdued interiors in neutral tones remind you that this is primarily a business hotel, while the restaurants inject a bit of fun and colour. This sleek encompassing 1,608-room property, split between two symmetrical 355m skyscrapers, has a futuristic jagged design inspired by the trunk of a palm tree and offers sensational views and an enticing array of restaurants.
Towering over the 16-lane Sheikh Zayed Road and the newly inaugurated Dubai Water Canal, this Business Bay property is just a 10-minute drive from the Dubai Opera, Burj Khalifa and The Dubai Mall (hop on the free shuttle) and a 10-minute walk to the Metro offers easy access to old and new Dubai. The airport is a 20-minute drive away. As the tower itself is pretty tall, it is easy to underestimate the timings for the lifts – they do NOT appear quickly. For those of an impatient nature, please note that the elevators can take a while, due to the sheer number of floors to descend before reaching the lobby. As the glass-fronted elevators head skywards for those on the higher levels, once you reach the top, the spectacular view over Dubai is most definitely worth waiting for.
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I enter my spacious Deluxe Corner Suite, which features cloud-like beds, a work desk, dressing table, a walk-in wardrobe (that easily accommodates a whole months worth of outfits), a huge marble bathroom with stand-alone tub and Aromatherapy Associates toiletries, and floor-to-ceiling windows framing the futuristic skyline or turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf. Plush suites boast cosy living areas and Bose surround–sound systems while Executive rooms come with bonus perks, including complimentary drinks, hors-d’oeuvres and afternoon tea in a dedicated lounge.
There’s plenty to do at the JW Marriott Marquis, with its numerous restaurants and its unique feature, the tallest bar in town. The Vault is located high on the 71st and 72nd floor of the hotel, allowing panoramic vistas of Dubai. The world-class design of Vault, its fine selection of renowned cigar brands, its elegantly designed prestige menu and the expertly edited array of premium beverages all cater for every need of its elite clientele.
The world-class Saray Spa tucked away behind ornately carved doors, is a health and wellness haven at the heart of the world’s tallest hotel. True to its name and drawing inspiration from the historic Caravanserais located along the silk trade routes of old, Saray Spa offers a personal experience of restoration and renewal through rituals that have withstood the test of time. Ancient healing techniques and locally sourced natural ingredients are all combined to pay homage to its Arabian heritage. All products used in these treatments come from an exclusive line only found at the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai in the UAE and are available in their luxurious Saray Spa Boutique.
As many of you will already be aware, Dubai is especially well known for its numerous tall skyscrapers, the largest shopping mall in the world and priceless hotel surrounds. However, there is one certain skyscraper which rears up out of the pitiless desert where, a generation ago, there was only wind-blown litter.
This city-state confected from subsistence has now witnessed the opening of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa, steel-ribbed, glass-clad and completely sustainable. The 828m (2,717 foot) skyscraper boasts the world’s highest swimming pool and mosque and is said to contain enough glass to cover 17 football pitches. Not since 1311, when the spire of Lincoln Cathedral first topped the Great Pyramid of Giza, has the tallest structure in the world been located in the Arab world.
Aerial spectacles include the sail-shaped seven-star Burj Al Arab, surreal man-made island with developments such as The Palms and The World, the skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road, and the world’s tallest tower building, Burj Khalifa, with its head in the clouds. A high-speed elevator delivers you to the ‘At the Top’ observation decks at level 125 (456 metres above the ground) or for something even more exclusive, a special elevator whisks you up for the crowning experience. At 555 meters, you can now access the world’s highest outdoor observation deck and enjoy the breath–taking views as you bask in the luxury of its lounges. Witness a pioneering concept in interactive experiences with a life-size screen that envelops you as you explore different corners of the Emirate and floor-to-ceiling glass provides 360-degree views of the sea of skyscrapers below. You could get a similar experience in your very own hotel room, while you order an in-room breakfast and with a view of Burj Khalifa.
If you are looking for a different class of exhilaration, then I would suggest you try the Arabian Adventures – a trip out to the desert to watch the sunset over the sand dunes. After getting picked up from our hotel, our driver drove about 45min to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve where we met up with several other Arabian Adventurers to watch a falconry display, meet our first camel friend and enjoy some refreshments. Then it was time to deflate the tires in preparation for our hair-raising dune bashing adventure.
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What came next, I was not prepared for, a virtual roller coaster ride that was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-wracking. Our very experienced driver managed to make us squeal with delight whilst we held on for dear life as he drove the car over huge sand dunes. At times, I felt slightly weightless as the vehicle crested the dunes, and when one of my fellow passengers commented “I don’t know whether to laugh or vomit!”, I think that quote summed it up perfectly! It was a ton of fun and I did ask for more, crazy aren’t I? More surprises followed as the beautiful Arabian sun began to sink over the desert, in a heavenly haze, allowing us to admire and photograph the perfect sunset in the enhancing light. Then, it was time to head over to the camp for dinner and some entertainment.
Where to stay and what do in Abu Dhabi?
Whereas Abu Dhabi is Dubai without the bling, it is the coolly sensible desert kingdom that is rich enough to have bailed out its glitzier neighbour. Owning nearly 10 per cent of the world’s oil and gas reserves, it has poured the money into exuberant architecture and is slowly becoming a world-class centre for the arts, culture and sport. Abu Dhabi is beginning to rival Dubai for its hotels, shops and things to do. There are brand new, sky-high hotels, while the city now has luxury shopping malls and is recruiting world-class brands. Yas Island, home to the Formula 1 Grand Prix, now also boasts Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, the world’s largest indoor theme park, and Yas Waterworld, a Florida-style theme park. The best season for a visit from November to the end of March, when you can walk around the city without sweating.
Soon I arrive at the glitz and glamour of The St. Regis Hotel, Abu Dhabi. The hotel boasts the most opulent interiors, such as the dual staircase and glass-blown chandeliers in the lobby – the epitome of grandeur. There are no check-in counters insight upon entry, just a rich, palatial space designed to blend elements of The St. Regis’s flagship New York hotel with those of the Arabic culture. The colour palette reflects the desert landscape and the luxury Art Deco approach is complemented by calligraphic artworks and Islamic geometric motifs.
Nestled in this grand reception hall is the hotel’s tea lounge, complete with an exquisite tapestry depicting a pearl diving scene – symbolic of the natural resource-based economy of Abu Dhabi’s past – and low-hanging Arabian lantern-inspired chandeliers.
The bedroom itself is classically decorated with chandeliers, luxurious linens and statement furnishings. The beds are divine, and the bathrooms feel like sanctuaries, with their marble finishes, sizeable tubs and double sinks. There is even an inbuilt television in the vanity mirror. I stayed in a Superior Seaview room, which differs from the Superior category only by way of its vistas. The hotel’s 283 well-appointed guest rooms – including 55 elegant suites offering panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf, the Corniche and the city skyline and The Abu Dhabi Suite is the grandest option of all – it has its own entrance, three bedrooms and as many bathrooms, two powder rooms, and 360-degree views. Whether you have booked a deluxe or suite, The St. Regis is renowned for its complimentary butler service.
Once I have settled in, it’s time to hit The St. Regis Bar. Comprising three integrated spaces—the library, the main bar, and the Cigar Lounge— The St. Regis Bar presents a lively, atmospheric space for socialising or celebrating in the tradition of New York’s Gilded Age. Flanked by its own 200–metre stretch of pristine beach, overlooking the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf, you might prefer to enjoy the Nation Riviera Beach Club, sipping champagne till dusk.
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There are a number of attractions to visit such as Louvre Museum, Ferrari World and many others. However, one attraction I particularly recall is the most beautiful mosque in the world –Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, completed in 2008. The building is spectacular, with a mix of Mughal and Moorish styles, 82 marble domes of various sizes, minarets up to 351ft high, the world’s largest carpet and chandeliers incorporating millions of Swarovski crystals. On the third floor of the northern minaret is the mosque’s state-of-the-art library containing more than 50,000 rare books and manuscripts, with an excellent view of Abu Dhabi island in all directions.
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Visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is not merely a visit to a cultural landmark or a massive city-based building; rather is it a journey to the roots of the tolerant and Islamic culture, and a trip through all the historical eras that distinguish this culture. For the construction of the Mosque, Sheikh Zayed was very particular about specifying that the materials used should be sourced from nature, such as marble, glass, stones and semiprecious stones. The numerous embellishments along the length and breadth of this architectural masterpiece are handcrafted. The unique design, drawings and themes on the walls, columns and elsewhere throughout this magnificent structure are exclusive to the Grand Mosque. This mosque is one of the most exquisite buildings you will ever see and comes with free entry, most unusual for a visit to a grand mosque.
After an exclusive experience in Dubai and Abu Dhabi along with sunny weather, everlasting cocktails and memorable attractions, this is what you’ve been waiting for! Go and pack your suitcase, Dubai and Abu Dhabi is waiting to welcome you aboard.
Photos by Robert Morgan