Dubai close-up | Desert city surprises | Arabian nights alfresco

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

From contemporary art to avant-garde fashion, gold-plated nightlife to shoes good enough to eat … Dubai plays on the unexpected.

Finally, time to spend a few days in Dubai and not just wave from the airport in transit. The Arabian emirate that has spent the past few decades growing like a garden someone finally remembered to water, pushes surprises at you like an Italian nonna does food.

These were some of them:

Gold on 27

The lobby of the seven-star Burj Al Arab  – you’ve seen it in the photos, it’s the sail-shaped construction that sits on an artificial island – is a destination in itself.  It’s almost impossible to know where to look – at the gold leaf (there’s 2000 square meters of 22-carat gold leaf detailing), the mosaic tiling, the multi-coloured carpets, the angel fish partying in the aquariums that, yes, line the staircases.


The gold-plated bar at the Burj al Arab, Gold on 27

You can’t just wander in, so book something. Like a cocktail at Gold on 27, a beautiful bar that glitters, as you’d expect with gold, from the light fittings to the bar stools, to the decor, to the dancing fringed installations that separate the booths. Cocktails, both with and without alcohol, are an experience, roping in foie gras cheese foam, oud oil and blackened truffle oil for effect. The Sabkha is a party of butter washed tequila, ruby grapefruit, Prosecco, acacia honey and pink peppercorns. They’d want to be memorable, with a price tag of between AED100 and AED140 (that’s $35 to $50)

On the way out, take a look at the new stunning tropical-style extension with its dinky walkway across one glam pool to an even more glam infinity pool. The 5000-tonne mini island which the new leire terrace sits on was designed and built in Finland and shipped to Dubai in eight pieces.  Nothing done by halves here. Opulence on steroids.


the Burj al Arab’s resort-style extension

Asia Asia

Tuesday night coincides with Ladies Nights, which are an institution in Dubai and when the first three drinks (if you get that far) are free. Asia Asia,  on Pier 7 (6th floor, Marina Mall), is a great way to experience the Dubai Marina life, a lively residential and visitor hub. Not to mention bites that are a happy collision of Far East and Middle East. Eat your way through chilli endamame, charcoal-grilled asparagus, crisp aromatic duck pancakes, designer sushi, 12-spice calamari, moromi miso black cod. Where has the watermelon and basil martini been all my life?


Dubai Marina from Pier 7

Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz

The Al Quoz section of town has been busy reinventing itself as an art hub in much the same way Beijing did with its 798 Now initiative. Behind the roller doors of the former industrial workshops of Alserkal Avenue all manner of artistic endeavour is taking place.

Big ticket item is Ayyam Gallery, celebrating its 10th anniversary with 10:25, which features all 52 artists who have had solo exhibitions at Ayyam’s various locations. The gallery was launched in 2006 as a multi-platform space for contemporary Syrian art.

The Cartel is an edgy curation of fashion designers (think Dover Street Market in London or 10 Corso in Milan), from emerging talents to more established names in territories from Croatia to Amsterdam to Denmark and Australia, all playing with shape, texture, colour and fabric, bringing energy and optimism to fashion. Among the labels: Chalayan, Lamat, Nicopanda, Dion Lee, and Salta.

A shop called  The Rug Company showcases rugs made in Nepal for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith.

Then, like an oasis in the desert on a hot August day emerges Wild & the Moon, a foodie pit-stop of organic, gluten-free bites – miraculous salads, shots of health-giving juices, dollops of avocado on seeded toast flakes as fine as parchment, and the Blue Moon – a jar of pure nutrition: pureed blueberries, kale, dates, vanilla and almond milk. The takeaway? A box of mushroom coffee.


Avocado scoops with blueberry chaser at Wild & the Moon.

Pre-loved luxury browsing

With all that money around the UAE, love affairs with handbags and shoes don’t last long. So they are rich pickings for Garderobe, a boutique on Jumeirah Beach Road, where almost-new designer handbags, shoes and clothes are exiled. So, if you are not fussed about being so last season, for about a third of the original price you can own a Chanel, Fendi, Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, or Dior handbag – you name it. Even if you don’t buy, it’s fun browsing.

Manolo Blahnik Collection Afternoon Tea

You’d expect a Raffles hotel to fly the flag for afternoon tea. Raffles Dubai rises to the occasion with the Manolo Blahnik Collection Afternoon Tea, which includes sweet morsels in the shape of shoes – for example  a peach praline chocolate stilletto. Carrie Bradshaw eat your heart out! First, there are delicate sandwiches including a lobster brioche and truffle egg pinwheels. The tea menu includes a rare unfurled silver nettle tea. Each pot comes with little timer to give you power over your infusion. Tea for two is AED249 (A$88), with Champagne AED449 ($A160). You go into the draw for a pair of MB shoes. Still waiting.

Let’s talk about shoes

Dubai is famous for its shopping, and being amongst the bustle of the malls late at night when many families and locals are shopping and dining is as much a cultural experience as retail therapy. Find the shoe divas, however, any time from 10am at Level Shoe District, a plush gallery in The Dubai Mall. It’s just under 9000 square metres of offerings from every designer name under the sun, from Sarah Jessica Parker, Moschino, Dior and Louis Vuitton to Nicholas Kirkwood Saint Laurent and Valentino. Slip out at some stage to see the dance of the water fountains.

Wafi Mall 

Raffles sits in the health and medical hub, 10 minutes or so from the airport. It’s attached to the similarly Egyptian themed Wafi Mall, which is quieter than the Dubai Mall and has some 150 cool authentically Arabian shops in the Souk Khan Murjan, a recreation of a 14th century Baghdad souk (or market).

The multi-level Salam department store, which covers more than 10,000 square metres, has a fashion curation of labels such as Versus Versace, Armani Jeans, Save the Queen, Just Cavlli, Paul & Shark, as well as accessories and camera equipment.  Nearby are Missoni and Royal Doulton, a large Marks and Spencer, many cool kidswear boutiques, restaurants, perfumeries and eyelash extensions salons.


Inside the pretty Wafi Mall atrium

And so to bed…

Housed in a 19-storey pyramid shape and blinking gold apex, Raffles Dubai is something of a landmark (albeit one among many, given the city’s penchant for architectural bravery). To call it grand is an understatement. Its vast marbled foyer must be one of the biggest in a town noted for big. Big, too, are the rooms – the beds, a beautiful deep bath with chunky candles at the ready, and the glass platter of chocolate treats that manage to outlast a three-day stay. A butler is part of your welcome should you need one. And a massage or blow dry is at hand in the Level 4 Spa. Beat the heat in the big outdoor swimming pool. Plenty of families do. Rooms from AED680.


Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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Copyright © Susan Skelly 2020.