Long before Dubai began showing up at the bottom of fashion advertisements along with Paris, New York, and Tokyo, it was all sand and ambition. It was once simply desert and an idea. An “if you build it, they will come” on the most massive scale. Build it, they did.
As the years piled on, Dubai transformed. The skyscrapers grew like weeds in an untended lawn. Any doubt that the city was primed to be a world class destination was responded to with the sonic roar of hundreds of buildings rising from the ground almost overnight. Ready or not, here it comes.
Today, the hotels in Dubai have more stars than the milky way. The roads run smooth and are stocked with fluorescent hypercars and murdered out Mercedes Gelandewagens. Construction cranes sway in the gentle Arabian breeze next to impossibly tall buildings. The malls have ski slopes and aquariums with neat little Guinness World Record plaques. Man-made islands shaped like palm trees maximize beach front real estate just offshore. It is a place where the compendium of engineering knowledge has been plundered, nudging the limits of man-made extravagance into open space. Engineers come to Dubai to test the pliability of steel, the outrageous whims of architectural imagination, and the possibility of solving impossible problems.
And it all began with one building – the Burj Al Arab.
The Burj Al Arab was, at its time of building in the late nineties, the tallest hotel in the world (At time of writing, it is the fourth tallest hotel in a top six of exclusively Dubai hotels). Of course, the lofty distinction of being the tallest ceased to be enough for the boundless ambition of those behind the sail-shaped structure. Like a bold traveler who spins the globe only to find his finger in the middle of the ocean, Dubai entertained the notion of heading for open water. They built the hulking structure almost 1000 feet into the Arabian Gulf.
Built to resemble the sail of a dhow, the Burj Al Arab encountered bleeding edge engineering issues with erecting such a large structure (over 1.2 million square feet) on a man-made island. It took over two years to just build the foundation, which included placing large rocks in a honeycomb pattern and setting deep foundation using hundreds of 130 foot foundation piles. Creating an icon, it seemed, would take years and years of dedication.
The project took over five years to complete with over 3,000 companies involved in its construction. Under the urging of Sheikh Mohammed, the Burj Al Arab needed to reflect the ambitions of modern Dubai, and it did. The ancient trading port had global aspirations and needed a global icon to prove that it had something to prove in the first place. The structure is unlike any other building in the world, erupting up out of the sea like a psychedelic space armadillo – solitary, odd, beautiful, and massive. It is representative of Dubai in the same way The Sidney Opera House or the Guggenheim of Bilbao have altered the psychological conception of those cities in the minds of the world. It is with few hands that you can count the great architectural icons that have become synonymous with their cities of residence, and after over a decade of existing just offshore, The Burj Al Arab has proved inclusion on that very short list.
With over 17,000 square feet of gold plated surfaces and a media conjured seven star rating, the Burj Al Arab provides an onslaught of opulence. It is at once superfluous, tasteless, beautiful, modern, offensive, and insane. And very gold. It is what Vegas would look like if it was a real place and not just a corporate facsimile of fame and luxury. The Burj Al Arab is the real deal, an expansive unapologetic version of luxury that shouts in a world of whispers.
The entry lobby boasts fountains that rhythmically mimic the clapping of hands, a 600 foot tall atrium that appears plucked from an alien galaxy (above), and enough glam to assault eyeballs to the brink of bad taste and back in the name of good fun. Like trespassing in another world, the Burj offers a foreign sense of decadence created for the Sheikh in each of us.
Pricing, Rooms, and Amenities
The nightly rates start just north of $1000, and by the time you have checked all the boxes and splurged for the Royal suite, the price can reach the cost of a mid-sized sedan, per night, making it one of the world’s most expensive rooms. For that much cash, you better believe the rooms come with some serious amenities.
The extravagances offered at the Burj Al Arab span from the expected to the extraordinary. The hotel offers airport pick-up service in one of its many Rolls Royce sedans. But lets face it, a fleet of pearl Phantoms is not enough to be outrageously over the top, so the hotel also offers helicopter service from the airport to the hotel’s rooftop helipad. This makes sense. Common roads are too proletariat for the traveler with grand canyon pockets.
The rooms are an extension of the lobby. There is gold, some tasteful badges of affluence, and dizzying displays of horrible choices – like mirrors on ceilings above beds and bathroom murals that include modern skyscrapers among the vestiges of old Arabia. It is in these examples of cheesiness that the traveler recalls the flaws inherent in even the most simple of human decisions. Beyond these slivers of horrible, the rooms are impressive suites filled with comforts and worthy of their reputation and cost. All suites boast two levels, a living room, dining area, private bar, guest washroom, and dressing room, along with a large bedroom and bath that includes a jacuzzi tub. The suites start at 1,800 square feet at the entry level and expand to a spacious 8,400 square feet at the top.
Each floor has its own guest services desk which provides check-in, butler, and concierge services. A lengthy in-room pillow menu offers a ridiculous variety of pillows and blankets for even the most discerning of guests. The bathroom is like any normal bathroom, until you throw in complimentary full-size Hermes products and a bath menu offering a variety of butler-prepared bath salt concoctions.
The hotel also provides a private beach, personal shoppers, yacht charters, and unlimited access to nearby Wild Wadi Waterpark.
Restaurants and Bars
The food offerings run the gamut from Far Eastern to Arabic with many excellent restaurants. Al Muntaha dwells at the top of the Burj Al Arab and offers unreal vistas of Dubai and the nearby Palm islands. Al Mahara lurks at the bottom of the hotel where dining feels like one has stepped into an underwater world with floor to ceiling aquariums.
Since rooms start around $1500, making a restaurant reservation is one of the most economical ways to see the peerless Burj Al Arab. The hotel is essentially blocked off to outsiders, but a reservation gives you access to the private road that slithers up to the front of the hotel. Below is a listing of restaurants and the links provide pricing and information. All prices are shown in AE and dividing by four gives a ballpark estimate in U.S. dollars.
Al Iwan, Al Mahara, Al Muntaha, Bab Al Yam, Junsui, Majlis Al Bahar, Sahn Eddar, Juna Lounge, Skyview Bar
Cheapest way to visit the Burj Al Arab
Obviously, spending over a grand on a hotel room is not a common practice. Luckily, there are cheaper ways to explore the iconic Burj Al Arab. With a reservation for lunch, dinner, drinks, or tea, one is allowed access to the hotel. Since the hotel is on a man-made island, a checkpoint controls all inbound traffic on the lone road leading to its front door. With a reservation, your name appears on a list at said checkpoint.
The cheapest way to visit the hotel is to make a reservation for a “Skyview bar package” which costs about $40 per person. Also, several dining options exist for under $100 per person, and the food is superb. Among the cheaper meals to be had is breakfast at Sahn Eddy for $50. For a truly Burj experience, splurge for a meal at the underwater feeling Al Mahara followed by drinks at the Skyview Bar.
Other Dubai hotels
Dubai has roughly 75,000 hotel rooms. From $30 hostels to ten-thousand dollar private villas, lodging can be had at all price points. For an amazing stay with many of the luxuries of the Burj Al Arab, book at one of its sister properties in the Jumeriah family. The Al Qasr Madinat Jumeriah is the Burj Al Arab’s next-door neighbor and starts at around $350. It is situated on Dubai’s top beachfront stretch with a vast canal system offering free boat service to all guests around its manicured Arabian grounds. The Al Qasr resembles a Sheikh’s summer palace, and the plush bedding and Arab appointed rooms make the hotel a Dubai favorite.
The Jumeriah Zabeel Saray is a beach hotel located on the fringes of Palm Jumeriah – man-made palm shaped island. With a stunning pool and large rooms, the hotel offers royal amenities for a few hundred dollars per night.
Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.
All photography by Justin Delaney