Thoughts of a travelling impostor in Dubai

05Mar10

Dubai Familiarity Trip 26th Feb – 03 Mar 2010

Courtesy of DTCM, we were invited as guests of the Dubai Government, Arabian Explorers and Virgin Atlantic to spend four full days on familiarity visits in hopes to enhance our understanding Dubai as a holiday destination, in particular for families. Here is my rather long account (with funny bits) of what I got up to.

Friday 26th Feb

I left the office and made my way down to Heathrow after spending a morning drinking tea with great difficulty as my hands were shaking so much. I arrived at Heathrow two hours before the proposed meeting time at 6.15pm.

I met the group, a 15 strong herd of UK-wide travel agents including two of our Thomas Cook cohorts from London and South Wales, and we proceeded to check-in. Our two leaders from DTCM, Ian Scott and Kevin Vaghela were tasked with steering us through all the formalities and had the unpleasant and stressful job of waiting for late-comers. Unfortunately, as it is the busy season the flight was booked to capacity and we were not upgraded. My disappointment was assuaged, however, as we were given the chance to spend our pre-flight time in the Virgin Atlantic Executive Lounge where I cashed in on my experience by indulging in two glasses of wine, a plate of seared salmon, a copy of Hello, the Indie and Heat and all the sweets my carry-on could take courtesy of Mr Branson. This is where my affectionate nick-name of Light-Fingers may have begun to take root.

The flight was not the most pleasant, delayed by an hour and as two infants were seated behind us, one would switch manically between hysterical laughter and piercing shrieks of displeasure, the other vomited at every turbulent shudder. Still, one plate of sweaty pasta and half a film later I managed to sneak in two hours of sleep on the seven hour flight.

Saturday 27th Feb

Off the plane and onto our Arabian Explorers minibus for a short drive through Dubai to the beach. We were greeted onto the coach with the first of many yoghurt-pots of tepid water which were sipped carefully as the favoured style of driving in Dubai is one of a mentalist in a hurry. Still, this gave us a good first taste of the sprawling metropolis and traditional, flat-roofed houses were replaced by towering skyscrapers and great billboards depicting the Sheikh Mohammed in various poses. The developing metro line sweeps over the highways and the newly constructed metro stations fit in well with the otherwise sci-fi styled conurbation.

We arrived at the Oasis Beach Tower, or OBT, and were given two hours to power-nap, unpack, wash and recharge. I shared my luxurious apartment with three other girls from various small travel operators. The apartments covered a huge amount of floor space. Cool, tiled floors, squashy sofas, long dining table, a massive plasma in each room and a very complicated coffee machine (plus a kitchen that I now enviously covet) made up our little apartment. My room boasted a beautifully tiled bathroom with Elemis toiletries and the most enormous bed I have ever seen with two double beds pushed together to make a sleeping den fit for a queen. Too excited to sleep, I showered, pulled on my waffle dressing gown and sat on the balcony with a pot of Earl Grey and some plums from the welcome basket and watched the Gulf. Then I came back inside as the sand storm was ruining my little picnic somewhat.

We were given a tour round the 45 storey OBT by Jennifer Frank, a German expat who works for the Jebel Ali chain. We were given the opportunity to inspect all the facilities however, owing to a lack of sleep I find it hard to recall any of the tour so it is a good thing I actually stayed there for two nights. The tour was then followed by a hosted buffet lunch at the hotel, the first of many. After lunch we had free time before our tour and hosted dinner at the Ritz-Carlton and so a group of us girls got some towels from the pool and made our way down to the beach where we all promptly fell asleep for 2 hours.

That evening we made our way through Dubai, down the twinkly-lit palm tree-lined marina boulevards towards the Ritz Carlton, however we made a detour to the Sheraton where Ian Scott bought us a round of drinks. They do excellent cocktails at the Sheraton (mine was a gin fizz) and their bar nuts are very tasty, however the indoor route to the terrace is not for the faint-hearted as you get a bit hot-boxed by the shisha smokers en route. At the Ritz-Carlton next door to our OBT which dwarfs the four-storey traditional-styled hotel. We were greeted with a glass of fruit juice and sugared dates. The impressive lobby was decorated with marble carvings and boasted a beautiful petal-filled fountain. We inspected all the different room types including the luxurious suites and then made our way down to the Splendido restaurant for our à la carte dinner. Our banquet was incredible, delicious wine (my glass was never empty as the waiters kept on giving me surreptitious refills) and a selection of canapés followed by delicious grilled octopus with celeriac purée to start, the main dish was a rare fillet of beef cooked to absolute juicy perfection and accompanied by frois gras and a medley of diced apricot brioche and portobello mushrooms. The desert could have killed me – a glossy chocolate cake with a tart pomegranate sorbet and a little pile of juicy poached strawberries. After lots of wine and a great deal of laughter (a running gag about what a Bath Butler may be that degenerated into a manifestation of a man in a Borat mankini with a KFC chicken drumstick between his teeth with a cigar and whisky on a tray) we all stumbled back to the OBT for a very good night’s sleep.

Sunday 28th Feb

Sunday began with a long shower in my OBT bathroom which could have happily housed several people quite comfortably. After some lazing about in my waffle bathrobe I joined the rest of the girls for breakfast. Owing to the lack of pork in Dubai (being a Muslim nation) I sampled the delights of their kind attempts at an English Breakfast including beef bacon and veal sausages. Also on offer were many different kinds of curry, aromatic vegetable stews and a lovely cake display. I opted for fruit and a light grilled breakfast followed by some cake and tea.

Then it was onto the bus again to meet Jennifer Frank at the Jebel Ali Golf Resort and Spa outside of the town equidistant between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We were met by a friendly peacock who, much to the amusement of the team, proceeded to follow me around the vast, marble entrance (I think he liked my skirt) until Jennifer took us inside to inspect the hotel. As Dubai’s only All Inclusive property the hotel cut a fine figure as a family resort enjoying beach and desert views and encompassing all the needs of an active family. The rooms were beautifully decorated with a large number of adjoining rooms for families. The rest of our tour was conducted via golf buggy. The Jebel Ali is famed for its golf course, marina and of course the spa whose flag-rock exterior and patio was occupied by a gaggle of peahens. The animal sightings continued as we made our way to the stables where the beautiful Arab horses lived. Tall, muscular and calm, I couldn’t help but stroke their long noses and hope I’d be offered the chance to ride one. I haven’t ridden a horse since I was a teenager but the urge was most definitely there. Being led towards the stables were two beige camels with the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. They were polo camels and so very well behaved.

Even though it was at full capacity during the most popular time of year, the resort never felt crowded, in particular by the poolside where there was plenty of space and plenty of free sun loungers. The inspection was rounded off with a sea-side three-course meal on a beautiful shaded terrace (not before I induged in a spot of falconry, naturally). We had a salad to start followed by fish and chips (where the fish was in fact the delicacy, John Dory and not chippy’s frozen haddock). We managed a little fruit then drove back into Dubai to get ready for the Desert Safari.

After a quick clothes-change we boarded three 4X4 vehicles and set off for the desert. After wrestling with the traffic out of the city (jam apparently caused my one random police officer stopping vehicles arbitrarily) we parked outside a tiny shop on the edge of the vast, red desert. After waiting for the other cars to rejoin the group we were off and hurtling up and down the steep dunes at break-neck speed only stopping at certain points to take pictures of the sunset.

Mohammed stopped me to inform me that a scorpion had climbed up my trouser leg. After screaming for help and frantically shaking and slapping my legs I realised it was a mean joke that they played regularly on gullible-looking travellers.

I won’t lie. I was quite fond of Mohammed, it was hard not to find a little place in your heart for him. Sadly it was never to be. Plus, it would have confirmed all of my partner’s suspicions that I would run off with a devilishly handsome Arab, and I was never going to give him the satisfaction of being right about that insulting and utterly unfounded presumption…

By nightfall we were parked outside the Bedouin camp in the heart of the desert. We were greeted by two camels and a delicious plate of dates. We found low seats and cushions under one of the tented areas and helped ourselves to more yogurt water. Mohammed took me to get some henna done and I am now the proud canvas for a very beautiful flowing pattern of roses and thorns from my left index finger up to the middle of my arm. Food was served, a massive barbecue of kofti lamb, chicken kababs and beef skewers (all variations on the common shish kebab) and mountains of salad, tabbouleh and flatbread. I found this part tricky as my henna was still drying.

After dinner, a quick trip to the shisha tent where after some considerable peer pressure I had one go and ended up spluttering toasted marshmallow-flavoured smoke all over myself. The smoke smelled so lovely but I was left with a hacking cough for the rest of the night. Asthmatics and non-smokers beware – shisha isn’t the key to looking cool and exotic in the desert although watching the locals and regulars puff little smoke rings and look all dreamy and relaxed was nice to be involved in.

After coughing up a lung and pretty much destroying my image of being a well-spoken, elegant British girl to all within the camp, Mohammed included, I decided to redeem myself by going on a camel ride. She was beautiful. I couldn’t stop myself, I had heard all the horror stories about camels smelling bad and spitting but I didn’t care, I was stroking her nose and neck and wrapping my arms around her because she was the most lovely thing on four legs that I had ever seen. She must be used to having people around because she was very receptive to me giving her a little cuddle before I jumped aboard. She stood up quite quickly which gave me a shock! I never thought they were so tall but you certainly feel high up when they reach their full height. After a short trot around the camp (and one sudden moment where she decided to sit down again) it was over and I went to find my next challenge – sandboarding.

Basically, sandboarding is snowboarding except easier and warmer. After a cardiac-arrest-inducing climb to the top of a very steep dune I decided to wimp out and sit on the board which then ground very slowly to a halt about a quarter way from the bottom. Much to the hilarity of my audience. After that I stood up and went much faster. I recommend it to everybody.

We drove back to the Barasti Bar in the Marina for a quick tipple courtesy of DTCM which then developed into gatecrashing Buddah Bar at the Grosvenor (residents only and black-tie preferred) fully aware that there was more sand in our hair than in the desert and our rough-and-ready clothing was a little scruffy compared to the collection of Armani suits and Balenciaga purses we elbowed past to get in. A late night taxi-ride later and we were home and having our last night at the Oasis Beach Tower.

Monday 1st Mar

An early start with a brisk check-out followed by another beef bacon breakfast, then into the minivan for a ride down the Marina to Atlantis the Palm. Dubai is not a town that accommodates the avid pedestrian or cyclist well as the only route to the Palm seems to be that of a suspended highway not dissimilar to Spaghetti Junction. Passing rows and rows of mansions and beautiful flat-topped homes, we veered into the massive grounds of Atlantis and got a sense of the true scale of the building with its famous Arabic archway.

Luckily we were allowed in through the lobby which is normally a residents-only area, where we awaited our guide. We then were whisked up to the famous Bridge Suite which encompasses the entire archway connecting the two halves of the striking building and featured on last year’s X-Factor. I have never seen such a beautiful suite. Each room was like a cathedral in size, massive ceilings, beautiful decoration, ornate sculpture and towering doors. You could actually smuggle yourself in there and never have to leave even if there are guests in residence as there are so many rooms you need never come across one another and live blissfully as ships in the night.

After that, the standard rooms should have been a bit less impressive however I was equally taken aback by the care taken into the décor as well as the size and fabulous views overlooking the Palm and its many fronds as well as Aquaventure and the vast Gulf.

The Lost Chambers were to follow and after laughing hysterically at the scuba cleaner inside the huge aquarium who was pulling faces while he scrubbed the windows, we were led inside the aquarium and viewed the different tanks of fish. I was not a fan of the jellyfish. I have had a fear of them since I was a girl but for the sake of taking a decent photograph I braved the glass only to shriek and scamper away as one billowed itself up onto the glass by my face. Call me a wimp. I am.

After the Lost Chambers we toured Aquaventure and the fantastic vertical drop flume carved into a replica Aztec pyramid. We watched several children plummet like falling stalactites all stremlined and swift – then they were followed by a gangly man who proceeded to scream with terror as he plunged with arms and legs flailing only to come out of the other side of the tunnel at the bottom (through the shark aquarium) with his head and feet and the wrong ends.

After a short trip to the gift shop we piled back intot he minivan and drove a short way down the beach to the Jumeirah Beach passing the Sheikh’s wives’ palaces in different themes as well as the Black Prince’s palace (completely black marble, obviously).

At Jumeriah Beach we were met by Mohamad and Maricon (Mohamad being Jennifer from Jebel Ali’s husband) who took us around the family hotel’s lovely rooms and suites. The grounds are undoubtedly very beautiful and the atmosphere was extremely playful with the executive children’s lounge making a particularly impressive impression. We were led into the beautiful buffet for a high-piled fest of hoummus and flatbread, salad, sushi, curry, grilled meat and topped off with a selection of dainty little puddings, I myself partook in the dolly’s tea party apple cake, two scoops of ice cream and a little chocolate truffle.

Then it was back on the battle bus to the luxurious Madinaz where we were treated to a guided tour around the unique, luxurious tiled interiors and the amazing suites. After deciding to live in one of the suites’ sunken bathtubs, I was removed from the building and put onto an Abra, a water taxi and we chugged along the turquoise creek past bars and houses to the Al Qasr villas on the water’s edge with private jetties.

After an abra ride back to the Madinaz, we said our farewells to Mohamad and Maricon and bundled back on the bus to the Burj Al Arab. Here is where Light-Fingers did her best work. After having our hands sprinkled with fragrant rosewater and watching the playful water display on the fish-scale staggered fountain, we were greeted by the hotel’s spokeswoman who gave us a brisk tour of one of the suites. A shower big enough for a rugby team, mirrors over the bed and enough gold to make Solomon blush (to paraphrase a great comedian). I couldn’t help myself but take the opportunity to swipe some freebies – a Hermes shoeshine sponge and a Burj Al Arab emblazoned bar of soap and a couple of branded pencils to name but some of my bounty. And after a whistlestop tour and a brisk ushering into another cosy lift, we were back to the Qamardeen to dress for The Palace, Old Town.

A hotel representative met us in the grand lobby area and proceeded to take us upstairs to view their entry-level rooms and suites. The theme of old-style elegance permeated the building and happily, we were led outside to a private balcony to view the fountain show on the water stretching from the Dubai Mall to the Address, the Palace and the Burj Kalifa. Unfortunately, due to a storm warning the fountain show was postponed and we made our way down to the restaurant for another buffet dinner.

I helped myself to hoummus and flatbread to start, delicious grilled jumbo prawns, kofti lamb, curried cauliflower and tasty pilaf as a main and to finish I indulged in two big scoops of pistachio ice cream which, I was told by the head chef as he handed me his card, went excellently with cola bottle gummies. I obliged and was pleasantly surprised and slept exceedingly well to prepare myself for the final full day.

Tuesday 2nd Mar

After opening my curtains to discover that Dubai was experiencing the same weather you would expect from Fort William only 10 or so degrees higher, our trip to Wild Wadi Waterpark at Jumeirah Beach was regrettably cancelled.

We piled into the coach for a trip to the Dubai Mall, the biggest in the world. We rocked up to the side-of-a-Tesco-sized viewing panel of the aquarium opposite a very tempting sweet market and watched the gigantic fish sucker the glass and glide about, trying to quell thoughts of how it made the news last week owing to a tiny crack in the glass. We were met by Oksana, a formidable yet petite spokeswoman for the retail paradise who took us through the aquarium to view the terrifying dead eyes of the sharks in the dark cavern at the beginning to the swirling schools of fish in the lighter areas. Then upstairs to the sealife zoo where we got a tour of the otter and penguin enclosures and got the chance to see the aquarium’s surface. Then we trekked across the huge concourse to Sega Republic, a small theme park and games arcade all under the mall roof. We sampled a lot of the rides free of charge and unfortunately I got the (now wholly undesirable and embarrassing) reputation for being a screamer. I just like screaming, what can I say? Finally we toured Kidzania. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what Kidzania was but it starts by checking your child in to a miniature Emirates Airlines check-in desk and following them in to a very respectable plastic mini-world full of real-life shops in miniature where your child can participate in the running of a business or be involved in a little industry all the while earning Kidzania currency and learning thanks to the enthusiastic staff who shuttled them about. Seriously, a miniature television station, hair salon, Waitrose, HSBC and Emirates Airlines were only a few of the many many places your kid could stumble into and have a whale of a time.

After the Dubai Mall we went to Al Manzil, sister of the Qamardeen for a brief tour and lunch, the last hosted lunch of the trip. Hoummus, flatbread, curry and ice cream followed by peppermint tea rounded off my free gourmet dinners and we went back to the Qamardeen to get ready for an afternoon of shopping.

We found ourselves in a funny little market place full of people waiting for you to stop so you could be approached. Now we were warned about this market and apparently it is all kosher (pardon the inappropriate use of Jewish lingo regarding a Muslim custom but the word fits). Basically what happens is this, you are in the market for a good counterfeit Fendi bag, right? So you are approached by a man who has your Fendi bag and leads you behind a curtain, through a locked door, relocks the door and you browse his wares. Scary? No. Weird? Yes. These shops packed to bursting with contraband are labyrinthine in design with book cases on hinges leading to other rooms so as to ensure maximum shelf-space. Staircases down, down and down with no exit besides the way you just came, and full of highly dodgy but very lovable Arab salesmen. I have never seen such a convincing, if slightly dusty, specimens of highly tailored fake goods. I coveted a patent, red and pink floral Chanel clutch however bottled out of making a purchase because the haggling process is a little daunting. Basically the rule is you are told the price. 570dh. No. You go down to 10% so 57dh. Sounds ridiculous but generally you both argue away until you reach between 45 and 60%. If your salesman goes quiet or shows you the door, you have gone too far. As long as he keeps talking you know he’s willing to be pushed. One of our number was given the deathly silent treatment followed by a swift frogmarching to the shop door after a bitter battle over a tea towel. I can’t handle that kind of pressure.

Five postcards, a wall hanging and a stuffed camel later I was in a taxi hurtling back to the Palace for the fountain show. We sat and had a drink and some bar nuts before going back up to the balcony to watch the show (after being showed upstairs by a very smart and adorable Clark Kent lookalike). I think we all wanted to enjoy that fantasy but unfortunately our evening was coming to an end and we all needed to get some food and blitz the mall before the inevitable packing debacle that would follow prior to our 5.30am wake-up the next morning.

Wednesday 3rd Mar

The final morning and after a great deal of squashing, breaking and sitting-on, I got my full suitcase downstairs, checked-out and joined the girls for breakfast.

On the bus to the airport we gave our hosts, Ian and Kevin our present (matching T-shirts emblazoned with the trip title and Bath Butler to commemorate our hilarious dinner at the Ritz-Carlton) and we made our way to the airport.

I returned to Peterborough weighed down with duty-free gin and chocolate at 5.00pm that day where a kind man carried my suitcase all the way from platform three for me. I wept with gratitude.

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