Bright, shiny and thoroughly pulsing with energy, Dubai has become the very definition of a modern, urban metropolis.
A metallic oasis in the desert, it’s a tidy mass of gleaming skyscrapers, glitzy marinas and a spiralling highway network with more boy racer twists and turns than a Scalextric toy set.
Constructed with an open mind and an equally limitless wallet, anything is possible: air-conditioning bites like an Arctic breeze through malls heaving with thousands of designer stores; caretakers skirt sun loungers to comb sand on the beaches of man-made islands; and even refreshing rain can be produced on cue through cloud seeding.
Brazenly artificial, it’s a highly habitable and convenient city constructed in a place where it shouldn’t be that easy to live.
Dubai is in heady spirits when I arrive. The temperature is a comfortable 25C, making swimsuits permissible and jackets unnecessary at night. Smiling friends are sipping cappuccinos beneath pastel café awnings, malls are selling a plethora of non-essential items, and women are in salons getting their hair cut.
Although the population of the UAE’s cosmopolitan city is largely expatriate, foreigners were still subject to strict coronavirus restrictions. Lockdown was fierce: leaving the house, even for exercise or dog-walking, was forbidden. Police permits were required for collecting groceries or medical prescriptions. Refusing to wear a mask could result in a penalty of £600.
Indulgence is Dubai’s forte, but there’s space for peace and slow contemplation, too. Surrounded by 65 acres of landscaped lawns, woozy palms and a stretch of private beach, the One & Only’s palatial Royal Mirage is a Garden of Eden in the heart of the high-rise frenzy.
Jetsurfers and paddleboarders skim across the water, while bikini bathers relax beneath parasols, as a parade of waiters deliver drinks from the bar. Drinks from a bar, I sigh. It’s the simple pleasures in life we miss most. That afternoon, I visit the hammam, a cavern of marble surfaces and soft lights. As the therapist sloughs away dead skin, I can feel the last few months of lockdown stress and worry peel away.
Dressing up for dinner at the waterside 101 Dining Room that evening feels like a treat. Chef Yannick Alleno’s menu is outstanding: a full steamed artichoke comes with every juicy leaf intact, and the tuna is so tender.
Along with dining and sun worshipping, the Drift’s adjoining beach club is a hub for fitness classes. Instructor Sophie Malpass leads sessions popular with residents and visiting celebrities, such as former Miss Universe GB Amy Willerton, who was photographed balancing on a floating platform.
Nailing squats, burpees and crunches on an unstable object is as hard as it sounds, and I end up woman overboard several times. “But it’s fun,” squeals Sophie.
At the Atlantis, The Palm, at the tip of the Palm Jumeirah archipelago, there are faster ways to lose weight. A three-minute cryotherapy session at the Shuiqi Spa (about £70) promises to burn up to 800 calories simply by standing in a chamber with liquid nitrogen and cold air.
It’s a good counterbalance for the volume of restaurants on offer, where buffets overflow with oysters, roast meats and a chocolate fountain towering higher than the Burj Khalifa. Options. We don’t have many of those back home, either.
The challenges of keeping a hotel of 1,539 guest rooms Covid-free are high: attendants wipe lift buttons after every entry and exit, and all glass surfaces of the on-site aquarium are scrupulously cleaned. But it creates a sense of reassurance without dampening playful spirits in any way.
One morning, I wake to watch the sun rise from my high-rise room, its rays ricocheting across a ridgeline of steel and concrete.
Dubai is glowing with optimism; good moods are infectious and promise brighter days ahead.
P.S. Downtown Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world. Completed in 2009 at a cost of £1.1 billion, at 163 stories high, and measuring 2,722ft, the world’s highest skyscraper can be seen from as far as 60 miles away.
abercrombiekent.co.uk offers six-nights in Dubai from £3,350pp.
emirates.com offers return flights from Heathrow from £359. All overseas travel is currently banned. Check gov.uk and gov.scot for more advice.
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