So, this is the Orient? The mystical East, a land shrouded in legend, which produced characters like Scheherazade, Ali Baba and Sinbad. For first-time visitors to Dubai it is difficult, but not impossible, to find historical features and fairy-tale moments between the megamalls and eight-lane highways. Travel writer Angelika Schwaff knows where to look.
From up here in the air, Dubai actually makes sense. This is the thought taking shape in my mind as I circle above the city in a small seaplane and gaze down onto the gentle surf rolling onto the coast and the peculiar, man-made islands like The Palm and The World. At first, the magic of the Orient and its enchanting fairy tales are nowhere to be seen. Everything in Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf, is artificial. That is something you have to get used to at first. As the pilot is bearing down directly on the 830-meter Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and then maneuvers the small airplane around it with a graceful swerve, the sun is reflected in the glistening windows of countless skyscrapers and bathes the cityscape in hues of gold. That’s the magic of Dubai today.
The small plane touches down safely. On four wheels, we go from the boarding area straight back to the Burj Khalifa. The tinted car windows give the city a sepia sheen which, seen from the car, makes it look even more surreal. I think I can literally see the heat outside. The dry desert air has by now warmed to 39° Celcius, but thankfully the temperature inside the car is 13 degrees lower. “In Dubai even the bus stops are air-conditioned,” says the driver. Well, almost everybody here has a car; I hardly see anyone in the cooled shelters by the side of the road. But it is good to know that you would not have to suffer the heat if you had to rely on the bus. I stand in front of the Burj Khalifa tower in the classic pose for all tourists: head tilted back as far as it will go, and staring upwards. I am expected, up high on the 122nd floor, at At.mosphere, which is – how could it be any different – the world’s most elevated restaurant. I travel up the roughly 500 meters in the elevator in 58 seconds, and feel the noticeable pressure in my ears.
The restaurant is split into two sections: The Lounge and The Grill. The latter is a luxurious gourmet temple. If you would like to visit The Grill in the evening, making reservations a few weeks in advance is advisable. Those who dine here have something to celebrate: maybe sealing an important business deal, or possibly announcing their engagement. This being lunchtime, I see mostly couples who are holding hands, ordering from the opulent seafood menu and trying the fine wines. Every now and then they cautiously peer down from their tables near the windows, onto the busy streets of Dubai far below.
Another sign of the city’s obsession with the huge and the spectacular is located 122 floors down, and only a few meters away from the enormous Burj Khalifa tower: the tallest water fountain in the world. Every night, huge amounts of water are shot 150 meters into the air for 30 minutes, accompanied by dramatic music. Then the hustle and bustle in the surrounding restaurants, bars and on the air-conditioned terraces subsides. People fall silent, watch and enjoy. It might sound tacky, but I ended up getting goose bumps.
My search for a little bit of history, and for what I associate with the magic of Middle Eastern fairy tales, leads me to Dubai’s historic quarter. It does indeed exist, and has not been given a high gloss polish. It has, however, been renovated and feels a bit like a museum. Later on I find out that it really is an open-air museum. The Dubai Creek, a natural inlet of the Persian Gulf, divides the historic town center into the Bur Dubai and the Deira neighborhoods. At the southern end of the city is the Old Souk, or market.
Those who – like me – are romantic travelers will be happy here. Small sand-colored houses with shady courtyards and wind towers, which have provided ventilation in the houses since the old days, offer a glimpse into what the city may have looked like before the huge oil boom of the 1960s. Back then, when the small port city was mainly trading in pearls, nothing much happened here. Only a few of the original houses have survived the subsequent construction boom. The gold and spice markets have also long disappeared. You should not attempt to pass through the narrow streets without a great deal of serenity and inner calm. Any search for history dating back 100 years or more is bound to remain fruitless. The oldest building in the city is roughly 50 years old. Before that, it was desert.
But then came the oil and the money, and along with them developers, investors and architects. In Dubai, they found a vast playground in which to turn their most audacious visions into reality. The silhouettes of the buildings emit a certain uncompromising quality – that is to say: anything goes. Looking for ski slopes in the middle of the desert? No problem – there is an indoor one in the Mall of the Emirates. Want to sit in an ice bar, even though the outside temperature is 45°C? Sure, there is one of those here, too. Or get a room with a direct view onto an extra large aquarium? Of course, anything is possible!
At night, expats and business people from around the world meet in the chicest bars. They have moved to Dubai temporarily, either alone or with their families. This is a tight-knit community which likes to keep to itself. The bars in Dubai serve alcohol, of course. I sit at the trendy Jetty Lounge beach bar enjoying the soft breeze that blows in from the Persian Gulf. Chill-out music gently playing in the background gives me the impression of being in Ibiza, but I don’t stay here very long. Instead, I cross over to the remote One&Only The Palm island.
I have the great privilege of spending the evening at no other than Parisian chef Yannick Alléno’s place, or to be precise at his two Michelin star restaurant Stay. But before sitting down to dinner, I take a brief look around the One&Only The Palm hotel. The first suite already makes me feel like I’ve entered a sheikh’s living room. But there are bigger and more lavish places even than this: you can rent entire villas here – the pool and butler service are, of course, included.
The last stage of my quest for authentic Dubai takes me on a desert safari. In the daytime, you zip through the desert dunes in nimble off-road vehicles. In the evening, you return to one of the luxury hotels that has been constructed in a Bedouin style and which are usually surrounded by small oases. When – after a barbeque, or maybe after a camel ride or a sand boarding session – you enjoy smoking a shisha while sitting next to the fire, the elusive Arabian Nights feeling finally seems within reach.