Monday, July 4, 2011

Love at second sight in Dubai

Yesterday, I landed in Dubai at 4 AM after an extremely comfortable eight-hour ride on an Emirates 777 jet from Manila, that left at midnight. Onboard there was Emirates' award-winning ICE inflight entertainment system, which just won the 2011 Skytrax World Airline Awards this week as the "World's Best Airline Inflight Entertainment." In case you're wondering, ICE stands for Information, Communcations and Entertainment.


On offer on ICE were 1200 entertainment channels and literally hundreds of movies including a couple of Tagalog ones. And if you're through with the movies and prefer to work, they actually have a system on board most of their long-haul airplanes now which allows you to keep your mobile on and make calls and receive BBMs and texts up in the air. I'd never seen this on another airline before, although it will probably become the norm in a few years. How wonderful for workaholics like myself.


But I was so exhausted from my busy week in Manila that I had a glass of champagne and then immediately turned my seat into a flat bed after takeoff. No conversations with seatmates and no movies for me. The cabin steward spread a comforter on my seat and gave me a couple of wonderful fluffy pillows, and it was off to la-la land for me in ten seconds.


When I woke up, it was about 50 minutes to landing and I was ravenous. Thank goodness Emirates had a great breakfast spread -- the usual business class breakfast spread of fresh fruits, warm bread and yoghurt, plus a truly delicious daing na bangus with garlic rice. What a treat to have this thousands of miles up in the air. Most of the staff onboard, too, were Filipinos so there was lots of Philippine hospitality onboard as well.

Dubai's airport is massive and even at the ungodly hour of 4 AM there were so many people lining up at immigration. Again, thank goodness for the Emirates' immigration fast-track service for business and first class -- before landing you're given a card to show at a special line with so much fewer people that I was out of the airport in only a couple of minutes.


My first views of Dubai were pretty mixed as, frankly, Dubai is a place that takes getting used to if you don't travel to the Middle East very often. It's basically a desert with a prosperous community that sprung out of nowhere and thrived on it, so the scenery -- particularly in the district of Deira where the airport is -- is all about low buildings, heat and dust. It reminded me of some trading outpost in the middle of nowhere.


But it's definitely a place that you can fall in love with once you've grown accustomed to it. Just like people, some places you like instantly but then eventually tire of; while other places can't be placed in the love-at-first-sight category, but they definitely grow on you over time. Dubai for me is in the second category. It's my third morning here by now, and I must confess I like the place a lot. It's fun and exciting, and the mix of cultures and very obvious prosperity create great stimulation.

Dubai's like the girl who's been able to maximize everything she's got to wow everyone who meets her. She's larger than life. Vibrant, exciting, continuously re-inventing herself and therefore forever interesting and unforgettable.


Yesterday, for instance, we spent much of our time at the Atlantis Hotel, at the very tip of the manmade and very luxurious Palm Jumeirah Island fronting the Arabian sea. Like many things in this part of Dubai, it's literally larger than life. It's colorful and vibrant and so full of people, and getting anywhere takes lots of exercise as the complex is really too huge for words. It's even got a full-fledged theme park attached.

Being at the Atlantis Hotel is like checking into a great big theme park with something for everyone. The adjoining water theme park is truly amazing and worth spending a couple of days, or even a week, if you're a family with kids on holiday. I also liked the giant aquarium off the main lobby that you can enjoy observing on your way to one of the hotel's restaurants.


Speaking of restaurants, this is a hotel that takes its food seriously. We were spoiled for choice as they had a total of 17 restaurants, including the Dubai branches of many famous restaurants like Nobu, Ronda Locatelli and Rostang. We decided to go for French at the very authentic brasserie restaurant opened and run by Michelin-starred French chef Michel Rostang (two stars) as his Dubai outpost, and we were not at all disappointed.

From the outset, the restaurant was outfitted so much like an upscale Paris brasserie that I became so psyched for a really good meal and ordered everything delicious and unhealthy from the menu. I began with a lobster bisque, which our waiter recommended, and a terrine of foie gras with all the trappings. Then for my main course, I ordered an entire roast chicken basted and baked in Dijon mustard that was supposed to be the Rostang's specialty. It was also supposed to be for 2 persons but no one wanted to half one order with me, and I just couldn't leave Rostang without having this. So I ordered one and placed half in the middle of the table for everyone else to try.

Of course I was stuffed for the rest of the day and feeling guilty about having eaten so much -- especially as I could not walk off that stuffed feeling, no matter how many humongous Dubai shopping malls I visited.


In the evening, I did a very touristy thing which is to ride a dhow (a traditional Arabian boat) along the Dubai Creek for about two hours while having dinner. It was extremely enjoyable, actually, to be sailing up and down the picturesque creek (which is really more a river than a creek by the way) in the evening, when the lights of Dubai set the whole city twinkling and you appreciate the juxtaposition of ultra-modern with the old fashioned.

In particular, the old town and neighborhoods of Dubai, as seen from the dhow cruising along the canal, is very pretty indeed. My boat had a lower floor with strong airconditioning for those who don't like the evening heat -- it's summer, so even evenings outdoor remind you somewhat of a sauna session -- and an al fresco upper floor for those who wish an unencumbered view of Dubai.

I tried to have very little dinner to make up for my mammoth lunch at Atlantis, so after a few spoonfuls of curry and a lot of crushed ice, I headed to the upper deck to enjoy the view. As it was a really hot evening, few people were being as insensible as me, so I basically had the whole upper deck to myself. It was just me and my iPod.


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