Travel: Alternative Arabian nights
By Catherine Wylie (Press Association)
As I look up at the beautiful mosaic ceiling, I sigh indulgently as the masseuse pours silky suds all over my freshly exfoliated skin.
I’m having my first ever Turkish hammam and I like it, a lot.
Afterwards, as I’m given a fluffy bath robe and tucked into a cosy, cushioned alcove, I think to myself: “This is the life.”
In Dubai, where historical landmarks are in short supply, the spa takes centre stage as part of the daytime activities in a girls’ getaway.
I’ve come to the emirate with a group of friends to discover whether or not a long weekend here is worth the six-and-a-half-hour flight.
We arrive feeling remarkably alert after a flight with Royal Brunei; the airline’s Dreamliner service uses a special climate control system which circulates more oxygen - which means less headaches - and LED lighting to help passengers seamlessly adjust to different time zones. Great for a short break when you don’t want to waste time recovering from jet lag.
Almost immediately, I discover the stories I’ve heard about Dubai’s excess and over-the-top luxury are true. Home to the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel, this is a destination that takes both customer service and grandeur very seriously.
But I also learn that a lot of the preconceptions people have about supposed strict laws in this man-made city aren’t entirely accurate.
In fact, I find the blissfully serene experience at the Talise Ottoman Spa in the gold-encrusted Jumeirah Zabeel Saray hotel on the Palm Island, to be the calm before the hedonistic storm.
On arrival at the hotel - where Hollywood stars including John Travolta and Susan Sarandon have stayed - we are instantly made to feel like VIPs.
My fancy hotel room has a view across the sea, and in the morning, speedboats and yachts float past my balcony as the sun twinkles on the still water.
In the bathroom there’s a marble tub that would easily fit four people and a gold sink epitomises the excessiveness of a city where there are no limits on how far the decadence can go. The ultimate display of tailored luxury is the dressing gown folded up on my bed which has my name sewn on.
Mornings are spent taking a dip in a pool lined with palm trees, followed by a stroll along the private beach in front of the hotel.
As lunchtime draws closer, excitement grows; one of Dubai’s key attractions is undoubtedly the variety and quality of the food - with truffle and foie gras a daily offering.
In pursuit of memorable eats, we book into the famous Friday brunch at the hotel’s Imperium restaurant. It’s a whopping three hours of culinary self-indulgence.
Lebanese dishes, sushi, trays of roast meat, oysters, pies, breads and a whole lot more take pride of place on beautifully decorated tables in a huge dining room lit by chandeliers. With a live band, and people dressed in their best, this feast is quite the event.
As digestion sets in, we struggle across town to get a taste of what it’s like to stay in the city itself, moving into the Jumeirah Emirates Towers.
Here, from my bed, I have the pleasure of looking out at the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, though an enormous floor to ceiling window.
Now we’re in the city, it’s time for some retail therapy. Dubai and consumerism go hand in hand, which is why any girls’ trip is bound to involve some mooching around the mall, or in my case, the souks.
After haggling for a good price, I come away with a cerise pink pashmina and a very cool handbag, bound to score fashion points at home.
For research purposes only, a friend and I venture into the fake designer black market, hidden away in buildings near to the souk. But after being escorted through various doors, up a flight of stairs and into lifts, we decide no designer copy can be worth so much hassle, so we make our excuses and leave.
To get a feel for the more traditional side of Dubai, we go on a Platinum Heritage desert safari and have breakfast with a Bedouin man who claims he doesn’t know what age he is or how many children he has.
We travel in an open-top vintage Land Rover through the Arabian sands, before arriving at a camp where we’re served noodles with oregano-soaked bread.
After a quick puff on the strawberry-flavoured shisha, it’s time for the obligatory camel ride, with all of us in Arab headscarves, taking to the animals two by two, prompting giggles aplenty.
For a totally different daytime activity, and one associated much more with the new Dubai than the days of old, we take to the skies for an afternoon of sightseeing on a helicopter ride. To add to the glamour, our Helidubai pilot tells us he’s currently working on the latest Mission Impossible film with Tom Cruise.
From my bird’s eye view, I can confirm that The Palm really is shaped like a palm tree, and the Burj Khalifa sparkles just as much from above.
So, having furiously haggled for a bargain and shared an aircraft with one of the stars of a Hollywood blockbuster (sort of), it’s time to sample the city’s nightlife. But given our preconceptions about culture and society in Dubai, we’re all stumped about what we should wear.
Demure dresses below the knee, and strictly no cleavage, is the order of the night.
However, when we arrive at the exclusive supperclub restaurant and club, we encounter a wild liberalism which we weren’t expecting. Sparkling wine and cocktails flow like tap water, and women wear tight revealing dresses that show more than just a little thigh.
Outside, lining the street like a trophy cabinet is an array of cars including a Rolls Royce, a Porsche, a Maserati and a Lamborghini.
When the kitchen stops serving food, the venue turns into a playground for party people where anything goes.
If the trip had a theme tune it would be Madonna’s Material Girl, because there is no doubting Dubai’s worship of materialism, money, exclusivity and luxury.
With dreamy spa treatments, excellent food and hedonistic parties, our girlie group returns home happy with a whole new perception of what it means to enjoy Arabian nights.
:: Travelbag (www.travelbag.co.uk; 0845 543 6615) offers two nights at the five-star Jumeirah Zabeel Saray on The Palm (half-board) and two nights at the five-star Jumeirah Emirates Towers (half-board) from £779 per person, including direct flights with Royal Brunei from London Heathrow. Book by June 30 for travel in July 2014.