I should be gazing into Moonira’s eyes. We are celebrating our wedding anniversary, after all, and we’ve left our two-year-old son, Amedeo, in the hotel room to torment his babysitter. Dubai’s glittering nightscape, though, keeps drawing my gaze outward. We are on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The restaurant, suitably named At.mosphere, also ranks as the world’s highest, and below us – way below us – the world’s largest dancing fountain performs in front of the world’s largest shopping mall. Fortunately, as I force my eyes from the window I see that Moonira isn’t looking at me either.
I love travelling to the Middle East. I’ve walked the streets of Istanbul and Jerusalem, and lingered for days in the cafés of Cairo, Shiraz and Esfahan. These places link back hundreds of years to the early whispers of civilization and religion. The cities of the Middle East grant a traveller the long view of human history.
Dubai is still too young to claim the pedigree of those ancient places. The area has a history, of course. For centuries, Bedouins marched their camels, trained their falcons and raised their tents throughout the sur- rounding desert. Seafaring traders shuttled goods across the Arabian Gulf in wooden boats, and pearl divers held their breath to pluck treasure from the sea bottom.
The astonishing structures that define today’s city have risen here only in the last few decades. The dizzying shopping malls. The hyperbolic hotels. The peerless towers. Dubai no longer dives. It ascends. And if the weathered metropolises of the rest of the Middle East tell the story of our collective epic, I wonder then what we can learn about ourselves amid Dubai’s soaring glimmer.
Perhaps it is fitting that a city that reaches upward is best viewed from above. Leaving Amedeo to his nap the next day, we tour the sky over Dubai on a seaplane. I see the shining downtown and the Burj Khalifa from above. The tower’s design was inspired by the shape of a spider lily, a foreign flower that unexpectedly thrived in the harsh desert – an apt metaphor for the city itself.
The view from the sky shows what we are capable of when we com- bine our mortal ingenuity with a healthy dose of audacity. The most impressive example of this architectural boldness is the man-made Palm Jumeirah, a tree-shaped archipelago that blooms out of the shoreline and unfurls its fronds over the gulf. This vast, handcrafted landmass testifies to the heights of human invention while, at the same time, doubling the beachfront in Dubai. Now the city boasts a thriving resort scene to match its soaring metropolis.
The newly opened Fairmont The Palm occupies a superlative stretch of beach on the “trunk” of Palm Jumeirah. As I locate the resort from my seaplane window, I realize that my favourite thing to do there is simply to arrive. Each time Moonira, Amedeo and I step out of the desert heat and into the cool stone lobby with its modern arabesque design, an attendant in the welcome area offers us Arabic coffee and fresh dates. Amedeo always asks for one more date, and always gets it. As we pause there, aromas of rosewater, frankincense and bukhoor waft over and around us. Though the resort is brand new, the hospitality here feels like something ancient. Afternoons are spent relaxing on beach chairs overlooking our stretch of gulf, where staff proffer anticipatory rounds of cold towels and facial mist between dips. One can admire Dubai’s architectural achievements from a plane, but to experience its art of welcome, one must be on the ground.
On Friday, the Muslim day of rest, we have reservations for brunch at Fairmont’s other property, the downtown Fairmont Dubai. The expatriate population has redefined the word “brunch” in recent years. This midday meal now resembles a Dionysian extravaganza. As one of the first in the city, Fairmont Dubai’s brunch is particularly revered. For each meal, 25 chefs prepare hundreds of dishes representing almost a dozen ethnic cuisines. Today, staff make fresh crepes, roll sushi, carve roast lamb and mash avocado into guacamole. Bartenders pour wine, champagne and mocktails. My family and I sit on the edge of this bacchanal, overwhelmed.
But we don’t sit for long. We line up for sashimi, chilled lobster tails and oysters. I rarely eat dessert, but today I eat two. Amedeo downs six different kinds of shrimp and puts himself into a sort of crustacean coma before I lead him to the candy station like a bad parent. “Don’t get used to this,” I warn. It is good advice for all. To experience this city is not to get used to the lavishness it offers, but to surrender to it for a while. Dubai nourishes the need to indulge, then forgives us for it.
Perhaps the greatest indulgence that Dubai grants a visitor, though, is the chance to be childish – to give in to what we used to love, and prob- ably still do. We take Amedeo to the Wild Wadi waterpark. Slathered in sunscreen and let loose among the water guns, he is having too much fun to notice Moonira and I taking turns slipping away to the big rides: Tantrum Alley, the Burj Surj and the Master Blasters, where the water streams up the slides to propel riders to the top before they slip and scream back down. In Dubai, even the waterslides break the laws of physics.
Later we visit the Dubai Mall. We push the stroller past the Emirati families posing for photos in front of fashion boutiques and head straight to the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo. We see snakes and penguins and turtles and finish our visit surrounded by slow-swimming sharks and rays (behind a 270-degree window of 18-centimetre-thick acrylic, that is) in the walk-through Aquarium Tunnel. I turn to Moonira and say, “If I were a kid, I’d be losing my mind in here,” but the fact is, I am losing my mind. I gape at the sharks swimming around our heads and relive long-dormant fascinations born out of grade-school science films. Like the waterpark, the aquarium jars loose a childhood joy.
Later, at dinner, as Moonira and I stare past our chocolate cake – I’ve given in to dessert again – and out from the Palm into the city, I recall something else from childhood. The first thing we do with our building blocks is to make the tallest tower possible. Amedeo does this. So did I. This is part of human nature, this desire for grandeur. Dubai stands as the manifestation of that craving, writ large. Too new to show us our history, Dubai instead shows us the heights we can now achieve.
Visiting Dubai means giving in to the excess of tall towers, man-made archipelagos, midday feasts and water that flows uphill. I realize that we create these things not because we need to, but because we can. And because we can, perhaps we need to.
Originally published in Fairmont Magazine .
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