The world’s most gilt-edged stopover? Nowhere is it easier to luxuriate in the good life than in Dubai where food, opulent surroundings and self indulgence are the order of the day. Susan Skelly strikes gold
A digital board at the entrance to the gold souk in Dubai’s old Deira district displays the day’s trading price for 24-carat gold as AED148.5 per gram, or $52.58.
Gold prospectors are taking selfies in front of shopfronts that display neckpieces as enveloping as a medieval knight’s amour.
The bustling market is a pressure cooker of desire: every shape and shade of gold, from the delicate and discerning to red carpet wow. Perhaps madam would like diamonds with that? Proprietors here are more determined to close a deal than a sarong seller on a Bali beach.
Dubai’s dial is permanently set to lavish. Even more so as the emirate prepares for its Expo 2020 close-up.
This is the city of the gold chain-mail mask (Jumeirah Zabeel Saray). Of the cappuccino with gold leaf “froth” (Armani Hotel). Of the hotel interior that boasts 1,790 square metres of 24-carat gold leaf (Burj Al Arab). Of an ATM that dispenses gold bars (Souk Madinat Jumeirah).
In March, Atelier M at Dubai Marina’s Pier 7 launched a dinner menu of courses featuring 24-carat edible gold.
The emirate (one of seven that make up the United Arab Emirates) is big on bragging rights: tallest building, malls with ski fields and aquariums, sports cars that sell for north of US$4 million, theme parks on steroids, and a nighttime skyline to rival Hong Kong.
Not to mention the unique development that is The Palm, a precinct that sits on the “fronds” of a manmade date palm-shaped island in the Arabian Gulf.
But just as gold has a bling-to-heirloom hierarchy, so does Dubai. Scratch the surface and find a city of architectural bravery, layer upon layer of patterns, textures, fabrics and fragrances, a sense of derring-do that manifests as a commitment to the best of everything.
There are exotic diversions such as falconry, the art of perfume, the hammam culture, and all that is offered by the desert – spotting Arabian oryx in their natural habitat and sleeping in Bedouin-style tents.
Dubai is a now a hectic, sprawling city with more than 535 hotels, including several outposts of designer cred from Versace, Armani and, more recently, Bulgari.
Epitomising the gold standard is One&Only Royal Mirage which looks and behaves like a palace even if it wasn’t one. It oozes luxury, opulence and a sense of the home you’d own if money were no object.
George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Leonardo di Caprio stay there, as do Karl Lagerfeld and French shoe wizard Christian Louboutin. Tennis great Roger Federer checks in from time to time, even though he owns a penthouse just down the road. Jo Malone holds court with local beauty writers at the Royal Mirage when she’s in town.
The One&Only Royal Mirage, fronting the Palm Jumeirah, is 26 hectares of lush manicured gardens with hedges of scarlet bougainvillaea and garden beds of pink petunias. It has one kilometre of private beach, and siren turquoise swimming pools.
The hotel has three parts. The Palace (231 rooms) was the first, built in 1999. A couple of years later came the Arabian Court (172 rooms), and The Residence & Spa (50 rooms and a villa); the latter is part of the Leading Hotels of the World portfolio.
VIP guests at the Palace tend to lodge in the Gold Club, which has a private entrance and staff who anticipate your every move. Luxurious suites have an abundance of flowers: vases of roses, canna lilies and tiger lilies. All white and fragrant.
There are cute caramel leather trunks of sweet bites, tiers of luscious dates and dried figs; rich, colourful furnishings; and balconies with views to the beach and the sea, and to cranes presiding over the building of ever more residences and hotels on The Palm, which already boasts more than 15 five-star hotels.
The hotel encapsulates those signature elements of Arabic design: domes, tiles, curved, scalloped and pointed archways, polygonal shapes, rich curtains, gold detailing, bold colours, textures and intricate patterns.
Extra oomph comes courtesy of cushions, carved furniture, and elaborate tapestries and rugs.
And the lighting! No two rooms are the same: Lights cluster like girls’ night out, crystal beading turns up in chandeliers, metallic discs shimmer like oversized confetti. Huge shapely lights are suspended from multi-storey atriums; bronze, stencilled mask-like sconces line the hallways; and everywhere you look there are one-off lamps, and mood-altering lanterns. Even the humble candle is a partner in prime.
The Royal Mirage’s sister property One&Only The Palm is all scale and light, its centrepiece an 850 square metre pool. There’s a Guerlain Spa, and a restaurant with dramatic black and white decor called Stay, overseen by Michelin-starred French chef Yannick Alleno.
One&OnlyThe Palm, too, has waterfront villas, mansions and a private marina. On the marina is the popular 101, a tapas bar and restaurant that provides a ringside seat to the electric Dubai skyline across the bay.
Dubai has been working on its food scene. The emirate has several other Michelin-starred chefs with projects in the region, including Alain Ducasse, Greg Malouf, Gary Rhodes, Jason Atherton, Vineet Bhatia, Nathan Outlaw, Zheng He, Gordon Ramsay and Nobu.
Last year’s Dubai Food Festival highlighted an evolving food truck culture, a burgeoning cafe scene (thanks, Australia!), and a fresh market and organic produce push.
The portfolio of restaurants across the two One&Only properties exemplifies Dubai’s cuisine diversity, from the Moroccan bunker that is Tagine in the Palace; to Nina, a temple to Indian spice in the Arabian Court; to The Dining Room in the Residence & Spa, where French chef Frédy Foued Fahem creates the most elegant lobster and artichoke dish imaginable and a Pina Colada-inspired dessert that diffuses the Dubai heat by one degree per spoonful.
If eating is a popular pastime in Dubai, beautification is even more so. Eyebrows, face, nails, hair and skin are tended to religiously.
A Dubai ritual is the hammam, an Oriental steam bath that owes its appeal as much to its DNA – marble, mosaics, domes, saunas, heated communal marble slab – as to the treatment which sees clients steamed, sluiced, soaped, exfoliated, massaged and moisturised to within an inch of their lives. Shedding the old skin? Literally.
Some hammams are Moroccan, some are Turkish, the main difference being that the Moroccan hammam uses steam and a creamy black soap (think of kneading dough with truffles!) and the Turkish is more focused on water and massage with oil.
The Oriental Hammam in the Residence & Spa’s Health and Beauty Institute is Moroccan and claims to be one of the first authentic hammams in Dubai.
Much lauded, too, is Talise Ottoman Spa, a Turkish hammam in the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, and purveyor of the gold chain mask facial. They claim gold conducts ions which stimulate basal skin’s cellular growth and provides a tightening effect. Of course, some might consider the AED 25,000 (A$6800) it costs put to better use at the gold souk.
Perfume is a part of the beauty regime for both men and women in the Middle East, typically as alcohol-free oils layered on throughout the day, to take into account the vanishing of volatile molecules of perfume in the heat. Oud is the building block of personal scent here, along with musk and frankincense.
Wander through the perfume souk or specialist shops in the malls and ask to try them out. Have favourites decanted into small bottles for very reasonable prices. Oud, one of the world’s most expensive oils (it can cost up to AED77,000 ($A27,192) per kilogram, comes from the resin of particular agarwood trees in Asia. India and Cambodia, the perfumers in the souk tell us, are regarded as the best sources. Niche brands such as Amouage, Francis Kurkdjian, Serge Lutens, and Kilian have some fine oud perfumes in their ranges.
Back at the gold souk, the salesman at Hemendra Jewellery is explaining the ins and outs of gold as a pair of loop earrings is examined this way and that.
“The top-of-the-range 24-carat gold is too soft for other than coins or gold bars,” he says. “Mostly we use 22-carat gold for chains, bangles and rings and 18-carat gold for diamond rings and jewels with other semi-precious stones.”
The price of gold on the day should make up 80 to 90 percent of the price of a piece of jewellery. A labour charge will reflect the intricacy of the design. Negotiation is acceptable – and indeed expected.
Non-negotiable, however, is a rendezvous after a hard day’s shopping with a plate of fresh Arabian seafood and a glass of Chilean chardonnay at the Palace’s Beach Bar & Grill or perched at The Palm’s marina-side 101 bar, wrapped in the warm Dubai dusk.
Rooms at One&Only Royal Mirage and One&Only The Palm range from $423 to $883 per night during low season (June to September) and from $635 to $1412 per night during high season (September to May). Details: www.oneandonlyresorts.com