Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dubai's Armani Hotel. What a hotel. What a city.

Yesterday I spent most of the day in the area around the Burj Khalifa, Dubai's newest glitzy icon and the tallest building in the world. This area is certainly among the ritziest neighborhoods in the city -- ultra-modern, stylish, high-tech and extremely pretty. In general, I really like old-fashioned and antiquated areas because I find them full of charm; but for some reason, this area around the Burj Khalifa is my favorite place in Dubai. I guess this is because this area symbolizes the many successes of this Middle Eastern state with not much oil (at least not much, relative to its neighbors) but with lots of foresight and good management.


I arrived at the Burj Khalifa just in time for lunch at the new Armani Hotel right inside. It's ultra-luxurious and really private. When my car drew up to the security gate at the start of the driveway, a guard came out to ask me what my business was there -- whether I was staying or eating at the hotel. I guess you can't just go in if you just want to sightsee and ogle a few international celebrities. I understand almost all the big-name movie stars and musicians who pass by Dubai stay at the Armani.

The Armani Hotel is a mixture of a hotel and also very plush residences.

I met my friends at the lobby and we proceeded to the Armani/Mediterraneo, the hotel's Mediterranean restaurant. Typical Armani, it was done in a very minimalist way with lots of muted colors that encouraged calm -- a stark contrast to the heat and the hustle and bustle outside. And actually, the entire hotel is done in this manner, so in a way the entire hotel looks alike and it reminds me of one big Armani showroom. No wonder celebrities, design professionals and fashionistas love it.

I understand that Giorgio Armani was very hands-on in designing and choosing everything. Almost everything concerning the hotel's design had to pass through him, and proposals and drawings would come back with the initials GA scribbled on them if they were approved.


The hotel therefore is very simple and streamlined, but all the materials are incredibly luxurious. For example, the wall coverings are made of silk which is stretched very finely to almost be a sturdy type of wallpaper but with a beautiful sheen and patina; while the floors are made of a special marble. And just like much of Dubai, it's a hotel that feels like it stretches for miles and miles. I went up to the sixth floor to see one of the suites and there were very long corridors on either side that I couldn't see the end of.

Interestingly, the hotel corridors are very dark, which can be initially disconcerting. They're lighted up at the bottom and top with very small lights to resemble a runway. Apparently, Giorgio Armani wants all his guests to feel like they're supermodels walking down a catwalk -- hence the runway effect in the corridors.


My favorite restaurant here was Armani/Amal, an Indian restaurant that is reportedly among the most popular right now in Dubai. It had a very streamlined -- what else is new -- but cleverly done lobby with a 3D scene from a Jaipur palace in the lobby, created purely out of layers of textiles. In the center of the lobby too is a stage where Indian performers have a very sophisticated show every night. Unfortunately this restaurant is only open in the evenings and we'd already booked another place for dinner.


For lunch at the Armani/Meditteraneo, on the other hand, a buffet spread was prepared which was not lavish (Dubai residents are very big on buffets and brunch, so hotel buffets here are typically known to be very lavish) but extremely good. To start, I ordered a strawberry juice -- they literally ran a big bowl of strawberries though a juicer, I think -- which was so good that I had two glasses even before I headed for the buffet.

Then I began with the soup of the day which sounded so interesting I just had to try it in spite of the heat. It was a creamy soup composed of baby bone marrow and gorgonzola cheese. What a combination of richness. Amazingly, I could taste the bone marrow and the gorgonzola in every bite; and they were two distinct flavors rather than merged flavors.

For mains, they had Western and Arabic stations. Since I was in Dubai for a short time only, I opted for the Arabic food and got a couple of grilled meats with a lovely garlic sauce. All excellently done and especially wonderful with some hummus and assorted mezze. I know you're actually supposed to start with the mezze and work your way to the hot foods; but for some reason I really like eating hummus and other cold appetizers with the cooked meats.


Dessert was a killer. I've been quite good in Dubai regarding sweets, but I just could not resist Armani's dessert station which had an incredible cheesecake, lots of chocolate pastries, and home-made ice creams. The home-made ice creams were truly delicious -- you could taste the vanilla beans in the vanilla ice cream, and the high-grade chocolate in the chocolate ice cream.


After lunch, we headed over to the Dubai Mall next door for some serious retail therapy. The Dubai Mall is reportedly among the largest shopping malls in the world, and it certainly is among the glitziest and most beautiful ones. We're talking artwork and intricate design everywhere. And almost every single famous brand I could think of -- whether high-end or middle -- had an outlet here. No kidding.

They even had branches of small and exclusive brands like the perfumers Dyptique from Paris and Jo Malone from London -- which are two of my favorite perfume brands, by the way. You can imagine how happy I was to discover them here, especially as I was literally running out of my favorite Olene perfume from Diptyque last week, and I was just making a mental note to myself to pass by the store just off the Latin Quarter when I'm in Paris this September.


Perhaps the only famous brand not in this huge mall is the shoemaker Christian Louboutin, whose shoes I swear by. I've been buying his shoes from his little workshop off the Marais in Paris for many years now, and long before he became internationally famous. They're the only heels I can wear for hours and hours with no problems, so I always buy a couple of pairs when I'm in Paris. I was hoping Dubai would have them since they seem to have EVERYTHING, but so far I haven't found the store.


The best part about visiting the Dubai Mall yesterday was the fact that it's the start of the summer sales and so almost every store is offering discounts. I didn't really know this before landing in Dubai, so it was a real stroke of luck. Also, I never have time to shop in Manila, and I usually don't have much time to shop heavily elsewhere either -- I had something like 20 minutes to look at two stores in Sri Lanka in April, for instance, and an hour in Lisbon last month -- so it was pure heaven yesterday to just indulge myself in checking out the sales for an afternoon. I honestly forgot everything and everyone during those three hours at the Dubai Mall in between lunch and dinner -- except for my friend J, and only because I'd actually found the store he wanted me to buy a carpet for him in, in this mammoth of a mall.


On the day I was leaving Manila, J had half-jokingly and half-seriously bugged me about about buying him a silk carpet from Iran while I was in Dubai and we'd had a running BBM conversation about it until I left for the airport. I didn't think about this again until I accidentally found the store on my way to look for some houseware on sale. But by then, my luggage was full of lamps and I was in no mood to buy a carpet for anyone, myself included. But, yes, Dubai's the place to buy carpets outside of Iran, as most of the high quality ones make their way to where the money is. And if you can haggle your way to half price of whatever they were quoting initially, then you're in safe territory.


I'm a pretty good walker and when walking is combined with shopping, I can literally go on for days. But I almost gave up at the Dubai Mall -- that's how big it is. I had about three hours of shopping time before dinner and I was exhausted just trying to get around this city of a shopping mall. I was wearing my most comfortable shoes and still my feet hurt. Unfortunately, I don't think it did much to burn any calories from lunch.

Dubai Mall has everything -- including some of the best-known food and restaurant brands. In one little corner alone I saw Hediard, Cacao Sampaca, and Maison Kayser. But I tried to concentrate on stores and items that are hard to get elsewhere or else best to get in Dubai, as I'm traveling practically every week and so I don't need to really shop for brands or items that are available elsewhere.

So I first headed to the Arabic area of the mall which had stores basically catering to consumers in this part of the world. I didn't have anything particularly in mind but I just wanted to see what kind of goods were being sold here; but at one of the stores, a beautiful Arab dress caught my eye because of its gorgeous design and also its unusual cut: it was an Arabic dress but it could easily also be an unusual Western-style long dress. I just had to have it for some fancy event in Manila.


For a long time now, as well, I've been eyeing Arabic lamps for my house but I've never bought any even during my many trips to Turkey, as I've always either maxed my luggages or I was still heading for other destinations and buying bulky lamps just seemed too impractical. Well, this trip to Dubai was a perfect situation as I had adequate luggage allowance, almost no luggage (it's a very short trip), and it's direct flight to Manila. It was now or never, and the sales just sweetened the deal. I ended up buying two although I still don't know where I'm going to place them.


Finally my shopping spree was over and it was time to meet my friends for dinner. Most of them aren't really shoppers so they spent the afternoon at the bookstore in the mall. For dinner, we headed over to the adjacent souk which has a very good Lebanese restaurant with a perfect view of Dubai's famous fountains, which come alive every evening to classical music, Arabic music, and even Thriller by Michael Jackson.

We had the usual mezze and selection of kebabs, but I was really full still from lunch. So instead, I disappeared from the table every so often to go downstairs and check out the stores in the souk. On my second disappearance, I was found out because I returned to the table with another really bulky package containing another lamp and a gorgeous silver wall decor from Yemen.

By the way, the Dubai Fountains are something you definitely should not miss when you're in Dubai. I've seen lots of fountains before and was quite blase about it when someone mentioned it. But when it actually came on, just as we were having dinner at the Lebanese restaurant, I was completely mesmerized. What a show. What a city.



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