Monday, April 4, 2011

Dizzying Dubai - 3

Oryx and Sheikh (apologies to Margaret Atwood)
Leaving the bustling cityscape behind, I headed to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and the Al Maha Resort, an unusual combination of raw nature and extreme luxury. We turned off the main highway and drove along a small sand-blown road until in the distance I saw a clump of trees with tents scattered among them. After check-in, a golf cart drove me to a villa with a large sail of a canvas roof. Inside, I was greeted by a king-size bed, Arabian antiques and bathtub in which you could launch a ship. Outside, wooden decks and a personal infinity pool offered long views over the desert. I felt guilty as hell, but it was absolutely, deliciously decadent.

The resort with its pools attracts a variety of animals and birds, an oasis in the middle of a dry, hot desert. I went for a drive with a naturalist in the afternoon as the sun turned soft orange. An endangered oryx posed against the sky. Delicate little Arabian gazelles gazed shyly at us. On spotting us, a sandfish lizard disappeared into the dune in a flurry of sand. The dunes were like art with sculpted ridges and rich shadowy ripples.

This piece of desert offers a good-news conservation story. The oryx, an antelope with long sharp horns, was declared extinct in 1968. The Sheikh organized a breeding program in Arizona using a number of captive oryx. In 1998, about 50 oryx were returned and released in the reserve. With government protection, including a fence around the 225-square-kilometre reserve, the population prospered and has grown to over 400 today.

Later, I mounted a camel and we rode for 20-minutes into the desert. We dismounted and walked among the dunes in bare feet, sipping sparkling wine as the sun set in a brilliant giant orb. Then we mounted up and rode back to our modest villas and a sumptuous dinner at the Al Diwaan restaurant.

Next morning I rose for an early swim and then lazed by the pool with a coffee listening to an avian orchestra of coos, chirps and warbles. I never imagined the desert would be so, well, luxurious and comfortable.

More Information:
+ General info:
+ The Desert Conservation Centre:
+ Tours:

Dizzying Dubai - 2

A filly, several actually, drew me to Dubai. I came to see the World Cup horse race, the richest in the world with total purses exceeding $26 million US.

A gala Arabian Nights evening preceded the race by two days. We drove along a modern highway and soon were in the desert. We passed the Outlet Mall, an enormous structure surrounded by miles of empty sand, and a sign that the recent financial crisis has slowed Dubai’s incredible boom. A camel train wandered past.

A roofless arena that looked like an old fort loomed out of the desert. We entered along a row of Persian carpets laid on the sand. Inside, the arena tiers were set up with elegant tables, glistening glasses and cutlery. We wandered around in the sand-floored centre enjoying displays of Bedouin crafts and foods. As the sun set in a blaze on the western horizon, we went to our al fresco table. We tucked into sumptuous Arabic style cuisine, washed down with, surprise, copious quantities of wine. Then the show began. We were entranced by music, including an Arab band playing bagpipes (!), and horses doing intricate manoeuvres and stunts. The Sheik was present and I got to within about 30 metres. The evening closed with a dazzling fireworks display. Arab hospitality is fabulous!

Two evenings later we fought through thick traffic to get to the big show, the World Cup race. What a party! It’s the social highlight of the year. Beautiful ladies in hats, stiletto heels and ample curves and cleavage paraded back and forth, occasionally contrasting with local women totally encased in black. The new state-of-the-art Meydan stadium, the largest and most opulent horse-racing venue in the world, was crammed with over 60,000 exuberant, happy people. Sheik Mo was in attendance, constantly followed by a coterie of sycophants, all dressed in flowing white traditional robes. Oh, yes, and there were eight horse races. The Godolphin Stables, owned by the Sheik, who else, was the big winner, with three triumphant horses. A magnificent show of dancing, lights and fireworks preceded and built up the suspense for the final race, the Dubai World Cup with a purse of $10 million US. In the thundering charge down the final straight, horses from beleaguered Japan came in first and second.

Late in the night, we fought our way hotelward through thick traffic. I closed my eyes and wondered. The evening had been spectacular, and it had delivered a clear message: the Sheikh is pushing hard to make Dubai a world-class destination. Only time will tell if the initial enormous growth will continue.

More Info:  + General info:
+ Tours:

Dizzying Dubai - 1

The plane touched down in the Emirate of Dubai after midnight. En route to the hotel, I groggily watched an ultra-modern city pass by: high-rise towers, parks with flowers, modern multi-lane roads and, even at this late hour, plenty of traffic. The only clues that I had landed in an exotic Alice-in-Wonderland were road signs in both Arabic and English and frequent mosque minarets pointing skyward.

Next morning, I strolled through Dubai Mall, one of the world’s largest with over 1,100 shops. An elevator sped us to the observation deck of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (828 m). The fantastic view showed clusters of skyscrapers stretching to the Arabian Sea, where a group of man-made islands in the shape of the world shimmered in the heat. I tried to imagine the immense construction boom that created this amazing cityscape, for only two decades earlier none of this was here. Furthermore, this instant city — just add water and petrobucks — is one of superlatives: tallest building, most luxurious hotel (the Burj al Arab, 7 stars), huge cruise-ship port, best horse-race track and to top it all off, an indoor ski hill. How could a world-class city rise so quickly from a barren desert? And would the recent financial crisis halt this frenzied growth?

I wandered through the Atlantis Hotel on the famous man-made Palm Island (Tiger Woods and other famous people have villas here.). Incorporating an enormous aquarium and water park, the hotel epitomizes the over-the-top attitude of Dubai. The Lost Chambers suite, for example, stretches over three stories with its own elevator. The bedroom and bathroom windows face onto the aquarium with sharks and manta rays lazily floating past. Pleasant dreams.

At the Mall of the Emirates the indoor ski hill was busy with snowboarders and skiers — outside the temperature was 30°C! A woman, enclosed in a long black abaya, carried her little son’s snowboard.

The portrait of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum adorns many walls, a not-so-subtle reminder that Dubai is governed like a benign dictatorship. Not only is Sheik Mo incredibly wealthy with over seven palaces, several wives and 21 children, but he also has the ultimate power in the Emirate. Under his visionary direction this patch of sand has transformed into the thriving commercial and tourism centre of the Arab world, a cross between Singapore and Las Vegas.

I had heard that foreign workers, who form about 80 per cent of the population, are not treated well. But those I spoke with — all in the tourism business — had kind words for the Sheikh. I saw little trace of discontent or fermenting revolt. A dark note though: a critical article about Dubai had been cut out of every issue of Vanity Fair on newsstands.

That afternoon I went on a dune bashing tour in the desert aboard a huge Hummer. I walked barefoot, soft sand squishing delightfully between my toes. The dunes were like artwork with delicate ridges and ripples. The more adventuresome tried sand boarding. Then we sat on cushions on rugs on desert sand and enjoyed an Arab meal under the stars.

My favourite part of Dubai was the gold and spice souks. It was refreshing to wander through crowded, narrow old alleyways savouring the smell of spices, instead of in sanitized malls. The adjacent creek was jammed with dhows, reminders of historical trade routes.

I removed my shoes and entered the coolness of Jumeirah Mosque, one of about 500 in the city. A lady clad completely in black described the five pillars of Islam and its gentle and peaceful culture. These principles are reflected in the city, which for tourists is safe, with little alcohol and no gambling or beggars.

The social highlight of Dubai is the World Cup horse race, described in my next blog.

More Info:
+ General info:
+ Tours: