Adrian Michaels, The Daily Telegraph, October 03, 2013
Things are looking up again in Dubai . The Emirate’s incredible boom came to a sticky end amid a burst property bubble in 2008. Bankers were said to be abandoning their Ferraris at the airport; there was unfinished construction everywhere. After hubris, debris.
But now you can tell matters have moved on. The inbound flights are full. There were almost 500 children (plus their parents) staying in our hotel. And though much of Dubai outside the hotel seemed to be a construction site, some was new, and far from abandoned.
None of these facts would seem an overly attractive reason for visiting Dubai. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one, are six hours flying time from Britain, and hardly cheap. But the flights are full because Dubai’s reputation for hassle-free, family tourism has never diminished. Our hotel seemed to have half a million children in it because it was big enough to swallow them with ease, and had laid on enough staff to cry over spilt milk.
As for the scenery, it is an issue if you leave the hotel and are looking for Italian lakeside panoramas or troops of bonobo monkeys muscling through the Congo forest. But to paraphrase Basil Fawlty: this is a hotel in Dubai; you can see the swimming pool, the beach and the hotel going up next door.
We were there because I had cracked. It had been four years since the family unit – harassed journalist, unimpeachable wife, two angelic girls never known to cause trouble – had been on a holiday that was not self-everything. We just wanted a few days of someone else shopping, cooking and cleaning. In February half term, with guaranteed heat the top requirement, this seemed the nearest option.
All this is a snob’s hand-wringing prelude to saying that we didn’t want to pile into a canoe in Madagascar, or a nomad’s tent in Tibet. Relaxing family breaks, oh guilt-ridden middle-class listener to Radio 4, can start and finish in a well-run hotel with a good swimming pool.
Even the journey was easy. We flew Emirates, and its economy package on long haul is exceptional: as much TV, music and video games as the children can handle. The airport in Dubai is a gleaming and efficient — and the children’s sighting in arrivals of men wearing robes and women with their features covered started the first cultural conversations of the trip. This is Middle East Lite, but it’s not totally without education.
At the hotel, as long as there’s a pool to chuck them in, and scoop them from a week later, really there is nothing else to it. We stayed at JA Resorts Palm Tree Court Hotel which is on the beach and actually has several swimming pools. Temperatures were a perfect mid seventies every day – and two of the many restaurants were varied buffets of discovery, so there was no queuing when a hungry child suddenly out of fuel needed intravenous chips.
Big resort hotels these days hit all the spots. Ours had a children’s club where they could be dropped off. There were babysitters for the evening and multiple other activities such as tennis, horse riding and golf. Thousands of deckchairs ranged across the huge grounds and vast sandy beach — although this abundance, resembling the Serengeti wildebeest migration, still didn’t stop a surprising number of people from putting beach towels over the chairs at sunrise each morning.
Do not make the mistake of assuming that all the restaurants in a big hotel will be of the same standard. Palm Tree Court sat in the same compound as the Jebel Ali Beach Hotel, meaning that guests were able to use the restaurants and facilities of both interchangeably. But it took us half the week to work out that the food next door was better. After that, we ended up eating there almost exclusively.
We went all-inclusive too. This is an extravagance that becomes absurd when you end up trying to convince the children to finish what is on their plate, to no one’s obvious benefit. Nonetheless it tended to take the edge off the third cocktail of the morning.
For tourists, Dubai is a fun theme park with plenty of diversion. I don’t know how many people actually left Dubai in the crash, but the place is still almost 90 per cent foreign national, I was told. We didn’t meet one true native in a week of travelling around. We were helped, guided, driven and entertained by people from all over the Indian subcontinent, Scandinavia, Egypt, Romania, the Philippines, New Zealand and everywhere in between.
Gulf Ventures took us on a “desert safari” where the hospitable driver was from Yemen and the evening meal’s entertainment was provided by an arresting belly dancer who might, for all we could tell, have come from Lincolnshire.
This was an interesting excursion: the concrete and skyscrapers do not feel as though they are on the edge of desert, so that makes the dune landscape all the more startling when you reach it within minutes. The rubble becomes scrub, and the scrub is soon sand hills in melting pastel shades. As you head inland they become an empty and curvaceous sunburnt red.
We went to visit some camels, who may have been from Dubai but stoically resisted interrogation, and we also went “dune bashing”. This is like skiing down sand dunes, but in a 4x4 with someone else driving, and it is nauseating. The desert safari overall, Skegness belly dancer included and in spite of traversing some beautiful desert, was about as Lawrence of Arabia as Streatham High Road. But then Dubai itself is closer to Westfield shopping centre than a Peter O’Toole epic.
Another vast shopping mall masquerading as a hotel is the Atlantis, an incredible construction at the end of a man-made island called – to reflect its shape — the Palm. You may have seen pictures of the place, but what they can’t convey is the scale of the island. The Palm’s trunk is a six-lane dual carriageway about the length of a short motorway junction, and its branches are substantial A-roads housing vast blocks of apartments. Like much of Dubai, it is hard to see how this counts as the lap of luxury.
The hotel at the end – the Atlantis – is a Vegas-style development where, unlike Vegas, they have melded the hectic mall part and the quieter hotel part. For ordinary punters – those not staying in the £11,000-a-night Bridge suite for example – the effect is noisy and belittling. But for day visitors, particularly junior ones, it makes a terrific day out.
Atlantis the Palm resort
First the Atlantis aquarium – sharks, jellyfish and a six-foot blue Napoleon fish that wore an expression of unhurried indifference at total odds to his surroundings. Think Brian Sewell at a Who concert.
Then on to Aquaventure, a water slide park in the grounds that the children had already decided was the highlight of the week, long before we got there. One slide – Leap of Faith – was an almost vertical drop down the side of an ersatz Mayan pyramid. It’s all over in seconds, but my wife’s cries of anguish as she plummeted could be heard echoing round the park for some time. The best bit of Aquaventure was the dedicated area for smaller children, a large pool playground with water falling from every direction and lots of small slides, with no queues and plenty of attendants.
Later in the week we headed up the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. The observation platform on the 124th floor is only two-thirds of the way up, but gives unmatched views of the world’s largest construction site.
The story of Dubai, as depicted extremely well in the city’s small museum a few miles away, is of uneven progress. A small fishing settlement and trading post later became a thriving port. In the early 20th century, it was making a good living out of that and from diving for pearls – until the Japanese cultured pearl put an end to this in the 1920s. Then, 50 years ago, oil wealth arrived in the region and Dubai exploded by erecting a three-pedestalled temple of maritime trade, financial services and tourism.
Dubai Spice Market
One can still tour on foot what counts as the older parts of town – concrete blocks housing modern souks with traders hawking aromatic and colourful herbs, or immense golden jewellery creations for the Indian wedding market. But so much was constructed later as the city spread in the last boom, and so much was left unoccupied when the reckoning came. Even if the good times really are back, why are they are already building still more properties, islands and racetracks? The population is estimated at about two million while the emirate seems to be preparing for 10 million, and soon. Perhaps they’re right.
Downstairs from the Burj Khalifa is another massive mall. And there in its miles of indoor boulevards lurks a nightmarish glimpse of a future far, far worse than 10 million overpaid bankers by the sea.
KidZania is an indoor play area built to resemble a small town. Again there are echoes of Las Vegas in the fake narrow streets and permanent twilight lighting. On the fake streets are fake businesses from every walk of life. Guided by adults, the child visitors can become firefighters, garage mechanics, milkmaids, parcel deliverers, beauticians, DJs, biscuit manufacturers and on and on. They can play at many professions over hours, wandering dementedly from job to job like Munchkin management consultants.
The darkened streets of KidZania are lit by fluorescence and neon from the shop fronts, by the flashing lights of child-sized fire engines. There is a paracetamol-inducing constant din of sirens and horns, of public announcements, and of hysterical children running around in a chamber where the exits are hard to find. It’s like Bladerunner meets Bugsy Malone, a post-apocalyptic world run by small people. Sheikh of the Flies.
Naturally, the children had a great time, and the adults retreated to the coffee area.
After KidZania, Dubai suddenly seemed like a sun-drenched calming Eden peeled from the pages of Botticelli’s sketch pad. We retreated to the hotel for a swim up to the bar. KidZania – “Get Ready for a Better World” – comes to London in 2015.
Emirates ( emirates.com ) has regular flights from the UK with prices starting at £450 return
Where to stay
JA Resorts Palm Tree Court ( jaresortshotels.com ) has all-inclusive packages from about £1,100 per person for five nights, including flights. Packages are available through If Only (0141 955 4040; ifonly.net)
WHERE TO EAT
Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire If you only have one outrageously expensive gastronomic extravaganza in Dubai, make it a tasting menu at this gorgeous fine-diner presided over by French Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire. (00 971 4 701 1111, ichotelsgroup.com)
Almaz by Momo One of the best shopping-mall eateries, this casual place serves up tasty Maghrebi cuisine. There’s an atmospheric sheesha café, a corner selling T-shirts, books and kitschy-cool souvenirs for the hipsters, plus an elegant fine-dining restaurant attached. No alcohol is served, but delicious mocktails are on offer. (00 971 4 409 8877, www.mallofthemirates.com)
This casual Asian eatery is like Wagamama, only better. Busy open kitchens, communal tables, tasty South-east Asian food, Asian beers and good affordable wines by the glass all work to make this one of Dubai’s most popular, quick and informal restaurants (00 971 4 319 8088
Wear lightweight cotton and linen clothing to stay cool, but dress modestly to respect local customs – ie, women should wear skirts to the knees, sleeves to the elbows and no low-cut tops.
Men should leave their shorts at the hotel and wear long trousers – or the locals will think they’re naked.
Take a sweater, cardigan or jacket for restaurants and malls, which can get icy due to the air conditioning.
City tours, safaris and other trips can be booked through Gulf Ventures ( gulfventures.com ); Atlantis, The Palm is the site of the aquarium and Aquaventure water park ( atlantisthepalm.com ) KidZania is at the Dubai Mall, as is Sega Republic and a further aquarium ( kidzania.ae/en/ ; thedubaimall.com/en/section/entertainment-section )
Further information from Dubai Tourism ( definitelydubai.com )
Read our complete travel guide to Dubai