Dubai’s hotel revolution
Children on the beach, with the Burj Al Arab luxury hotel in the background. (Associated Press)
How times change. When Dubai's distinctively designed hotel Burj Al Arab first opened back in 1999 it was dubbed the world’s first seven-star hotel. Its opening marked the start of this tiny emirate’s race to become the world’s most luxurious destination and the seven-star tag went a long way in driving the international press crazy and, as a result, driving room rates up.
Fast forward 11 years. When I met the current manager of the Burj he was keen to point out that his hotel has never been "seven star" - that the tag was a media-created myth. Playing down ostentatious opulence is now the order of the day here in Dubai and while there are still hotel options for those who prefer bling over B&B, accommodation offerings have become considerably more varied, to match today's value-for-money-obsessed mood.
A couple of years ago, in the very depths of the recession, Sol Kerzner's Atlantis opened on the Palm, with enough fireworks to celebrate the independence day of a small African nation. If you like your rooms big and your entertainment theme-park style then there is plenty on offer for you there. The location, out on the man-made Palm Island, may leave you feeling a little cut off from the shopping malls, beaches and indoor ski slopes but if and when the stalled development on the Palm is completed you may never need venture onto the mainland again.
For a contrast, follow one of the Palm "fronds" to its southern edge and you will find another of Sol Kerzner's hotels: the recently opened One and Only the Palm. Complementing its sister hotel, the Palm exudes chic European elegance against a backdrop of skyscrapers and sand. The feel of the place is a marriage between the old-style villas you would find along the French Riviera and traditional Spanish/Moorish architecture. It shows every sign of becoming one of Dubai's "Signature Destinations".
Dubbed Dubai's first "boutique" hotel, in truth it is a little too big and corporate to carry off that label convincingly, but it definitely feels a world away from the usual high-end high rises we have grown used to in Dubai. Although the bathrooms are still bigger than most people's living rooms, it is all done in an understated and elegant way, a million miles from the gold taps and acres of shag-pile which once defined Dubai.
If you really want to get away from the glitz, but not the glamour, than the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, approximately 40 kms from downturn Dubai, is the spot. Built at the heart of a huge conservation reserve, the hotel has won numerous awards for sustainability and wildlife protection over the past 10 years. It is the only place I know where you can dine out in the desert, underneath the stars while watching herds of wild oryx wander past.
If you are more keen to watch your pennies than counting stars, there are an increasing number of affordable (almost a dirty word here until a couple of years ago) options now available. The Bastakiya area of the old city, hidden among a warren of restored wind towers and traditional family homes, you will find the XVA Art gallery. Its dappled, covered courtyard provides a welcome relief from the midday sun and here you can browse the work of artists from the UAE and the wider Arab world. Upstairs are a dozen or so small rooms, cool, comfortable and all decked out in authentic Arabic style. Reasonably-priced and more of a guest house than a hotel, during the evening you will often stumble on a film or a talk by a local artist in the courtyard below, giving the place a unique cultured, laid back atmosphere.
Perhaps the most exciting innovation in Dubai is the launch of a number of hotels which, although they prefer not to class themselves as budget, are offering rooms at rates which would have been impossible just a couple of years ago. The newest kid on the block is the City Max Hotel in the Al Barsha district. Conveniently located just across the road from the huge Mall of the Emirates, this hotel is very much modelled on the Holiday Inn Express theme but with a quirky local twist (check out the Warhol-inspired camel portraits in the lobby!). Clean, safe and user-friendly, the rooms may not be huge, but thanks to clever design they use every last inch smartly. With a low price fixed room rate from around 250 AED per night you can now "Do Dubai" without blowing your travel budget for the rest of the year.