The malls of Dubai: Skiing, scuba diving, and shopping

Dubai Malls

Every country has its own culture of shopping. Italy has the pedigree, with worn estate leather goods from Tuscany and glittering catwalks fueling Milan’s couture. America boasts 5th Avenue, the biggest week in fashion, and the cookie-cutter malls of middle-America. Shopping in Paris is as elegant as it is expensive, where visiting the temples of Chanel, Dior, and Hermes is like a Hajj for fashionistas. Getting fitted for a suit on Savile Row in London is a gentlemanly apex, one that is best achieved while gently pulling on a cherry-wood pipe and commenting on cheeky matters from a pink-tinged page of the Financial Times.

In Dubai, The malls are king. Vast expanses of high end extravagance, these oases from the draping emirate heat are stocked with Gucci, Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, and any other brand that peddles four-figure handbags to the jet set. Just as America brought the shopping mall to retail prominence, Dubai has perfected the art, blown it up, and put it all back together with megatons of glitter, pomp, and reckless luxury. But more so than brands and shine, the malls of Dubai also have other extraordinary features. A skating rink and a movie theater? That is so 20th century. How about scuba diving, snow skiing, and visiting the tallest building in the world? Welcome to the malls of Dubai.

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The Dubai Context
Dubai is a culture of shopping. From its historical role as a trading port, the city has grown out of the sand on the back of traders traveling from South Asia to the markets of Europe and beyond. With this came an understanding of the international ebb and flow of trade. It became a hub for the trading of gold, spices, and pearls. Many of Dubai’s souqs still operate as such, and wooden cargo ships from Bengal line Dubai Creek.

Dubai Malls

Still today, Dubai poses a dominating presence in international trade, and by 2013, little known Al Maktoum International Airport could become the busiest cargo airport in the world. With this sort of action, over time, any city will grow up. But a city like Dubai did so almost overnight. The malls are a symbol for this explosion of excess and success, however fleeting it may or may not someday be.

The Dubai Mall
At almost 12 million square feet (3.77 million square feet of retail space), Dubai Mall spreads out across downtown Dubai in the shadow of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. By total area, Dubai Mall is considered the largest mall in the world – a claim made all the more believable during long strolls through its massive never-ending corridors. With its size and elegant trappings, this is unmistakably THE mall of the Middle East and a temple to the newest religion of the region – shopping. This is where wealthy Emirati, Saudi, and Qatari women come to purchase the designer duds that remain cloaked under burqas. This is where the Middle-west meets the Middle-east.

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The mall boasts twelve hundred shops, the tallest building in the world, and a massive aquarium filled with sharks, tropical fish, and corals. The Dubai Aquarium is great to look at, but why stop there? For scuba divers, a mall dive site may seem contrary to the spirit of exploration. But, after suiting up and hitting the tank, the unique experience will win over even the most pessimistic diving purists. Flanking a reef shark while, just meters away, robed shoppers grasp Fendi clutches is a surreal exercise in atypical diving. A dive in Dubai Mall costs roughly $170. For a much cheaper and dry option, check out the Aquarium tunnel and underwater zoo for $14.

“At the Top” is a spirited jaunt to the observation tour of the stratospheric Burj Khalifa. Access to the attraction is located on the lower ground level of the Dubai Mall, and it costs about $27. After checking in (making reservations is hypercritical during busy days), the world’s fastest elevator rockets patrons to the 124th floor at 30 feet per second. The observation deck is only 55% up the Burj, but it hardly feels that way as you glance out at the curvature of the earth. The view is second to none, and just moments later, you can be back in the mall, at the food court dining at Hot Dog on a Stick, Fatburger, or any other of the random western eateries seemingly plucked from Middle America.

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Just outside the mall entrance is a daily impromptu car-show of Ferraris, Bugattis, Lambos, and Porsches, each representing offensive and loud corners of the rainbow. Of course, it is just a parking lot, but in a country where license plate numbers routinely fetch 7 figure payouts, the parking lots are more colorful than a Skittles commercial. Banana yellow, Qatari royal blue, and hellfire red are just some of the colors blasting eyes with candy hues. Indeed, Dubai is a place that appreciates fast Arab horses and faster Italian cars.

If you wish to stay near the Dubai Mall, the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa is a great though expensive option. The interiors are minimalist, the halls are spaceship chic, and the beds are cloud-like. Rooms start at a painful $454. For cheaper options, search aggregator sites like Kayak for a slew of sub $100 options in downtown Dubai. For an interesting and delicious dining option, check out At.mosphere on floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa.

Mall of the Emirates
The original Dubai super-mall is beginning to show her age, at least relative to the newer and larger Dubai Mall. Only in Dubai can a half a decade old mall look dated, but 5 years feels like 20 years in Dubai time. Fast change makes for faster obsolescence. But, the Mall of the Emirates has a weapon that even time cannot rob – a winter wonderland complete with ski slopes, tubing slides, and snowfall in a city that receives about 5 inches of rainfall per year. Here, Emirati children engage in snowball fights while their parents carve down man-made ski runs. This is Ski Dubai.

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It is easy to forget you are in the middle of the desert as you don a down jacket and boot up to hit the slopes. Complete with a ski lift and a mountain chalet, Ski Dubai is as strange as it sounds. Whether you are hypersensitive about 21st century water shortages or you run sprinklers mid-day in August, gazing out at the indoor slope will incite a WTF moment. It is surreal, magnificent, and, perhaps most surprising to your desert adjusted body, very cold.

Beyond the wintery attraction, the Mall of the Emirates boasts a ridiculous amount of high end shops. From Audemars Piguet to Brioni, the shopping center is no slouch in the luxury department.

Connected to Dubai Metro on the red line, the Mall of the Emirates is very easy to visit.

The Future
Dubai seems built to embrace the impossible. The buildings soar above clouds, islands magically appear just offshore, and the malls are built to the exacting standards of this patented Emirati creative indulgence. It is Disney meets Arabia, with just a pinch of batshit insane. In the book Alice in Wonderland, the Queen muses on impossibility, telling Alice “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” A similar approach to the impossible has carved the skyline of Dubai out of the rolling desert dunes. It will be interesting to see if shifting sands and global economics will allow these impossibilities to stand the test of time.

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All photography by Justin Delaney @justindelaney

Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.

Exploring the world’s tallest structure – the Burj Khalifa

burj khalifaThe tallest building in the world does not appear made for this earth. By day it looks photoshopped into its downtown Dubai surroundings, and by night, the hulking spire looks like a rocket bound for the furthest reaches of our galaxy. And like a giant middle finger to its predecessors in the tallest building club, the structure is a testament to the audacity of Dubai – an idea that, what they build is what they are, and they are going to try and build the best.

While the world economic markets receded, Dubai kept building the beast called Khalifa. At a cost of $1.5 billion and a height of 2,717 feet, it humbles the surrounding skyscrapers in downtown Dubai. It possesses at least fifteen world records. It has the highest restaurant, the most floors, and is also the tallest structure ever built. The Middle East has not been home to the world’s tallest structure since 700 years ago, when the Great Pyramid of Giza was eclipsed by Lincoln Cathedral in England.

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While said to be inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s plans to build a mythical mile-high tower called “The Illinois” in the fifties, the Burj Khalifa is very real, and very original. The foundation for the building is based on the petals of the Hymenocallis flower, and it took 10,000 people from virtually every country in the world to complete the construction project. Named after the president of the United Arab Emirates, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the engineering marvel took over 5 years to build, opening in 2010.

The Burj Khalifa is a mixed use tower with offices, residences, the Armani Hotel, and a restaurant called At.mosphere.

At the Top
The official visitor attraction for the Burj Khalifa is called “At the Top” and begins in Dubai Mall, next to the tower. The experience leads visitors through various multimedia presentations that trace the building of Khalifa. A travelator also cruises through a history of Dubai presentation in much appreciated air conditioning. After passing through some general Burj propaganda that includes the superimposing of the Burj Khalifa in a variety of cities, such as New York, one finally arrives at the elevators that ascend to the observation deck.

burj khalifaThe observation deck is on the 124th floor, and reaching it by elevator takes roughly one minute. At a rate of 59 feet per second, it is the fastest elevator in the world. From the 124th floor the view reaches for miles and miles. All of Dubai looks like some sort of Lego set made by giants, unfinished and reaching for open space. The streets head in no particular direction and other skyscrapers appear tame and arbitrary.

A 360 degree panorama is provided from the observation deck, providing epic views of the city, sea, and desert. On clear days, one can glimpse man-made islands floating in the Arabian gulf. If, by chance, a visitor finds himself aching to buy some gold at this height, thankfully an ATM that distributes gold bars is available. File that under Only in Dubai.

The cost of admission varies. Since this is Dubai, there is an expensive option in addition to regular admission. The “immediate entry” choice costs four times regular admission, but one will be able to skip the line. This option is 400 AED ($108), and regular admission is 100 AED ($27). If time is greater than money, then the “immediate entry” preference is for you. Hours of operation are 10:00am to 12:00am daily. Booking in advance on the Burj Khalifa website is extremely wise.

The Armani Hotel
The Armani Hotel offers hotel rooms and residences in the Burj Khalifa. The first hotel named after fashion magnate Giorgio Armani minimizes all unnecessary aspects of hotel operations, delivering a sleek experience from end to end. The check in desk has been abolished, instead light conversation guides the process along. The desk in a “Classic” guestroom is a cube that one must slowly unfold, opening up an expanse in which to write love letters to minimalist designers. While Giorgio may or may not be a fan of desks, the point is minimalization, and it works wonderfully.

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The colors are neutral, the lines are clean, and everything feels easy. This easiness translates to a feeling of being at home – even in bustling downtown Dubai with the pretension of a designer hotel in the world’s tallest building. To cut through that thick ostentation and provide comfort first is a noteworthy accomplishment. (Also of note, free pencil sharpeners and erasers, festooned with “Armani Hotel Dubai,” are there for those that open the guestroom desk.)

The beds in a hotel named for a fashion designer known for his legendary hand in selecting fabrics better be exceptional. And they are. They may be the most comfortable hotel beds in Dubai, perhaps Asia even. Surely, many morning meetings are missed due to the excessive coziness provided by the floppy soft comforter and cushiony mattress. Long after checking out, two memories linger in the mind of the traveler – the bed and the view. The view is exceptional, especially on the fountain-side. It is definitely worth splurging for a fountain-side room and watching the nightly Dubai Fountain show erupt beneath.

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Pricing for rooms starts at around $450 (after taxes) if booked through an aggregator site like Kayak. The top-end Dubai Suite costs thousands more. The hotel boasts 5 stars, and has an Armani branded on premise spa as well as dining.

At.mosphere
The tallest restaurant in the world is located on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa. This den of gastronomical excellence known as At.mosphere is helmed by Chef Dwayne Cheer. Due to safety issues with cooking at such a height, no gas can be used in the kitchen. Instead, a binchōtan charcoal oven is used. The oven is utilized expertly in preparing amazing dishes such as pan fried fois gras with espresso reduction and amaretto foam as well as seared diver scallops with cauliflower puree and grapefruit grenobloise. At.mosphere was profiled last week here at Gadling.

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The Dubai Fountain
The brilliant designers behind the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas lent their extraordinary talents to a fountain complex directly beneath the Burj Khalifa’s menacing spire. Considered the largest dancing fountain display in the world, the Dubai Fountain covers a distance of 900 feet and shoots water up to 500 feet in the sky. Nightly shows occur every 30 minutes from 6:00pm to 10:00pm on weekdays and until 11:00pm on weekends. The accompanying light show is so bright it can be seen from space. The elaborate fountain cost over $200 million to build.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.

Seven courses at the highest restaurant in the world – At.mosphere in Dubai

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Dubai is a city of realized hyperbole. It has the tallest building in the world, man-made islands shaped like the world’s continents, and a restaurant high high above the towering skyscrapers below. At.mosphere, a restaurant in Dubai’s towering Burj Khalifa, provides a dining experience with a view reminiscent of glancing out the window of a plane. It is preposterously thrilling to savor a plate of foie gras 122 floors above what appears to be the world’s largest game of Sim City developing below, spreading out into open desert.

Reaching At.mosphere involves a few steps absent from most dining arrangements. First, one must enter the tallest building in the world, approach a sleek metal elevator, and make a very important choice that is really no choice at all. Only one option exists in the elevator – floor 123. With no stops to make on the way up, the elevator travels with a speedy transcendence that feels just a few technological steps removed from teleportation – 33 feet per second. In the time it takes a middle school graduate to read this paragraph, the doors swing open to reveal a spiral staircase leading to the restaurant one floor below.


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At.mosphere is not a large restaurant, but floor to ceiling windows exaggerate its humble boundaries. It feels as though the entire sky is yours. Designed by Adam Tihany, the space strikes a fine balance between opulence and simplicity, allowing the view and the food to inspire diners unobstructed by unnecessary appointments. The lacquered mahogany walls and white tablecloth tables combine to create an elegantly modern aesthetic without being too pushy or over-extravagant – an issue that seems to surface frequently in Dubai.

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Holding diners’ attention with such a world class view is a challenging proposition. Chef Dwayne Cheer is up to the task and delivers inspired dishes with ingredients as globally sourced as Dubai. Vegetables from Provence, bush lamb from Australia, and lobsters from Maine round out an unlikely cast of characters to be found in the Middle-east. Due to a safety issue of cooking at such a lofty height in a confined space, using gas in the kitchen is not possible. The Chef and his team side-step this issue by employing the “Mighty Josper” – a BBQ oven that utilizes Binchōtan charcoal to grill tender vessels of deliciousness. The Josper Oven is a Spanish invention and has enjoyed tremendous success throughout Europe.

The food is worthy of superlative, and the occasional joy-filled expletive. While the a la carte menu boasts many intriguing selections, the set menu provides a tantalizing flight around the world. From first to last, each dish inspired. Like a man with no issues regarding his expanding waistline, I took to each plate with a reckless abandon, devouring seven in a row while putting back no less than three mocktails. I felt like an imperial Epicurean, conquering all foods into the empire of my stomach. At the end of the feast, as sugar coursed through my body and the taste of wagyū lingered on my palette, I was ever thankful for Chef Cheer and his mighty Josper oven. Here is how I reached this point of culinary nirvana:

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Course One: Asparagus soup with king crab, pea shoots, and gold

at.mosphere dubai

Course Two: Seared diver scallops with cauliflower puree and grapefruit grenobloise

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Course Three: Pan fried fois gras with espresso reduction and amaretto foam

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Course Four: Pan fried whitefish with lemon balm in mangosteen broth

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Course Five: Wagyu Beef with baby veggies, potato puree, and smoky pepper jus

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Course Six: Fromage frais with raspberry sorbet and fresh apple

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Course Seven: The Gianduja – gianduja mousse with bitter chocolate sorbet and caramelized hazelnut, topped with gold

Every dish stole my heart. The fois gras tasted delicate and extremely sweet, challenging my taste buds with its complex dichotomy of flavors. The wagyu beef fell apart with each bite, its tenderness lending an ephemeral quality to the storied Japanese beef. The Gianduja almost changed my religion. I contemplated worshiping only food after the third bite.

In the end, I felt like an upmarket Adam Richman, exhausted from this crippling conquest of food and drink. Without a doubt, when in Dubai, visit At.mosphere. The view is unparalleled, the food is exquisitely concocted, and while the name is a bit on the contrived side, it is the one thing that is undoubtedly forgivable in a restaurant. At.mosphere is a special restaurant, and as the highest in the world, it will remain one of Dubai’s most popular establishments.

Eating there: At.mospere is located in downtown Dubai in the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. Reservations are a must and can be made by emailing a reservation request to reservations@atmosphereburjkhalifa.com. The restaurant side of At.mospere, known as the Grill, is open for lunch from 12:30pm – 3:00pm and for dinner from 7:00pm – 11:30pm. The lounge portion of At.mosphere is open from 12:00pm – 2:00am. An a la carte menu can be viewed here. Offerings range from 110 AED ($30) to 590 AED ($160).

On a budget, but want to take in the view and atmosphere? Stop by the At.mosphere lounge for an adult beverage or mocktail.

All photography by Justin Delaney

Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.

World’s highest restaurant opens in Dubai

Highest RestaurantWant to get high? It won’t be illegal if you do it at Burj Khalifa’s At.mosphere, which surpasses Toronto’s 360 Restaurant as the world’s highest restaurant. The downtown Dubai restaurant strands at 1,350 feet high (that’s level 123, for those who care).

The restaurant seats 210 guests and offers both a dining and bar area. Both emphasize fresh products and healthy, simple cooking – all food is availalbe grilled, broiled or baked.

Adorned in mahogany walls and ceilings, Adam Tihany furnishings, and floors of cafe au lait limestone and hand-tufted carpet, At.mosphere reflects Dubai’s position as a luxury destination in the Middle East.

Want to know more? Check out what our friends over at Luxist have to say.