When travelling, the occasional disappointment is something that has to be accepted. Things are rarely as good as the imagination makes them out to be; words in a travel brochure or tourist guide generally manage to do a better job of conjuring up a dream destination than its creators do in actually building it.
But sometimes the opposite happens: a place turns out to be much better than you imagined.
I was never one of those people labouring under the impression that Dubai was nothing more than desert and a bunch of camels. I had been through the fantastic airport, I had flown on the brilliant airline, I had read the stories about the world’s tallest hotel and seen the pictures of new islands being built in the shape of palm trees. So I was aware that there was something amazing going on there. But I was unprepared for just how exciting the place is.
Restaurants and bars of every description. Incredibly beautiful architecture. A disorienting level of hipness in the venues, the stores, the newspapers and magazines, and the people. Definitely the most glamorous collection of cars on the road that I have ever seen. And a feeling of incredible energy and ambition in the air which is nothing short of intoxicating.
I recall being disappointed by the Sydney Opera House when I first saw it. Nice as it is, it somehow looked a bit small and unspectacular compared to the photos.
When I drove towards the Burj al-Arab, the iconic sail-shaped hotel built on its own island off the coast and linked to the mainland by a curving white causeway, however, the opposite occurred. No photo I have seen, however expertly taken, does justice to this construction. Its elegant beauty, its simple lines on such a huge scale: I literally felt faint at the sight of this monumentally beautiful building. Riding up sixty storeys in the elevator with its view of the sea, the coast and the Palm island taking shape a kilometre south, I defy anyone not to feel a dizzying euphoria at the sheer immense beauty of the surroundings.
The Burj al-Arab is the most recognisable of Dubai’s spectacular mega-projects. But by no means the only one. Construction everywhere is on a massive scale. There seems to be no limit to the Emirate’s ambition or imagination.
Madinat Jumeirah, the beautiful hotel built as a traditional souk with canals transporting guests to their rooms, is, quite literally, the size of a town, stretching for miles and miles. Emirates Towers is taller than any building in Europe, and is about to be dwarfed by the Burj, the world’s tallest – and, for a change, perhaps the most elegant – building. Towards Jebel Ali, hundreds of 50-storey blocks are being built to the horizon, making for what has to be the world’s most spectacular construction site.
Cars on the roads go a long way to defining the atmosphere of a place. Most parts of Asia, with their ridiculous levels of import tax, only succeed in lowering the tone of their cities and making their citizens feel like proles by clogging the roads with bland Japanese and Korean models. But in Dubai, with its zero import tax on every kind of four-wheeled transport, the roads ooze glamour; as a result, the whole city feels more exciting, and I’m sure levels of happiness are much higher among the car-owning classes. It must be hard to be too unhappy when there are a couple of Porsches in the driveway.
Indeed, Porsche Cayennes seem to be the vehicle of choice, with the second family car being either a BMW X5 or Toyota Prado. Failing that, a Porsche 911 can be had for about the same price as a Toyota Camry in Singapore.
A typical day out for a Dubai resident would be: go rollerblading or jogging along the beach for an hour in the morning. Shower, then jump in the Landcruiser with the two dogs. Head down to Dubai Marina for a Mocha Ice Blended at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf by the water. Hop onto the boat for a quick go off the coast. Get in the groceries at any branch of Spinney’s, a truly superb supermarket. Do a bit of shopping at Boulevard, the mall attached to the breathtaking Emirates Towers hotel, then maybe sausages and mash at Scarlett’s with a couple of Kronenbourgs. Work it off with swimming at the Jumeirah Beach Club, then watch the sun go do down at the beach bar. Later, dinner at some appropriately gorgeous and beautifully-lit rooftop Arabic restaurant, then on to a club to hear some DJ freshly flown in from London man the decks until very late indeed.
Time Out Dubai, the listings magazine originating from London, is packed – to a quite incredible degree – with things to do and places to go, and had me shaking my head and wondering if this was not in fact the London edition. Pick up a copy from your hotel, peruse the day-by-day suggestions, hire a car for ease of transport – driving is easy, and parking is never a hassle – and you’re set for one of the best holidays of your life. And if you really enjoy it, stay. Work permits are given out freely; join the tens of thousands of expatriates, mainly British and South African, who have already made Dubai their home and are enjoying the sun, the cars, the glamour and the tax-free salaries.
With Dubai being only five or six hours from both Europe and Asia, making long weekends in either continent an easy matter, living there is I’m seriously thinking about.