By Lisa Richards
While the purpose of inviting journalists and magazine editors onto press trips is to introduce them to fabulous new hotels and destinations so that they write glowing reviews and encourage their readers to visit, the end result is usually the same: wild nights drinking wine cellars dry and telling fantastistical stories about all the amazing places in the world they’ve been – for free – which always involve with them getting drunk, drinking wine cellars dry and working their way through the top-shelf spirits. All in the name of research, of course. A hangover of global proportions on the return leg of the trip is guaranteed, as are photographs from each trip picturing said journos sporting dark shades, pale skin and a pained expression as they’re dragged around on a tour of the city or through the conference centre in a hotel’s underbelly in order to be able to ‘experience’ all aspects of the hotel and its amenities – including the fax machines.
So, it was a daring (or some might say ingenius) move to invite myself and a handful of fellow respected journalists to visit the city of Abu Dhabi for a stay at the world-renowned Emirates Palace during the Muslim festival of Ramadam, where fasting takes place during daylight hours, with devout followers not even allowed to drink water in the scorching desert temperatures; it was going to be a very dry trip in more ways than one.
After a red-eye flight from a grey, drizzly London where winter was definitely taking hold, we arrived early in the morning on a magnificent Etihad Airlines flight to be met by temperatures already reaching some 30-odd degrees. As we began our languid descent into Abu Dhabi airport, the view was astonishing: vast plains of sand, with the sea dotted with oil rigs and refineries. As there was no sign of a building – or civilisation for that matter – the plane practically skimmed the sand for 30 minutes before we finally reached terra firma.
Despite being treated to fully-flat beds and goose-down pillows, myself and my companions had barely slept during the flight. On-command movies, a bar at the nose of the plane and free-flowing Veuve do not a restful night’s sleep make. Bleary eyed at the airport, having already had to undergo a long wait for our passports to be scrutinised and an interview by in-waiting BBC cameramen demanding to know how our flight was, we were near-jubilant to see a row of BMWs waiting to whisk us away to seven glittering stars of luxury, chéz Emirates Palace.
Some argue that the Emirates Palace has well and truly put Abu Dhabi on the map. This relatively young city was created from nothing more than fishing huts and sand just a few decades ago by the visionary Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Its first paved road was completed in 1961, three years after oil was first discovered. Before that, the city’s income had been generated by camel herding, date production and pearls. After the black stuff came, the rest – as they say – is history, combined with exponential growth and planning vision. Abu Dhabi, contrary to my preconceived views, is a truly cosmopolitan city, thanks partly due to its huge immigrant population – Americans, Brits, Europeans of all descriptions, Japanese and Indians – giving it a truly global feel. The soaring downtown area with Western-style skyscrapers has been re-built of late, as the first structures built there were created using sea water, and their licences only guaranteed them for 20-odd years. As is expected from this part of the world, land reclamation is taking place at an enormous rate, with whole new urbanisations and commercial centres being created on new islands – there’s even an Ikea, for goodness sake. The rich, lush suburbs boast palace after palace after palace – one for work, one for play, one for writing letters, one for entertaining guests, one for the children. As we raced along the four- and five-lane motorways, packed with high-specification hardware, we sped past mansions that the likes of Beverly Hills, Seven Oaks and Zagaleta could only ever dream of. The closer we got to the Emirates Palace, the more enormous the residences became, with the Crown Prince’s absurd diversity of palaces taking up the majority of plots near the sea. And there, just as we were being lulled into slumber by the American hip hop blaring out from the BMW’s car stereo, we saw it.
Shimmering in the distance, the true size of this hotel can only be understood when the main building, its two wings, the rich, lush grounds and its huge arch-like entrance (just shy of the Arc de Triomphe in height and topped with 20 kilograms of real gold) are spread out before you. Its plot, measuring some one million square metres, and the hotel itself, astonishingly, were finished in just three years. With 394 rooms/suites in total, the distance lying between one end of the hotel and the other is a staggering 1.5 kilometres. Forget your wallet or your camera on your way down to breakfast and you won’t get a taste of a freshly baked croissant or a Full English breakfast (with chicken sausages) for a good 30 minutes.
As you’d expect in a hotel of this enormity and this grandeur – the Abu Dhabi government, who own the hotel, allegedly spent some £2 billion on its creation – its lobby is awe-inspiring. A view of the Palace’s dome (pictured above) – which is one of the largest in the world and is one of 115 in the hotel – even after missing out on a few hours sleep is like a shot in the arm. As you look up at the dome (which gives you a kind of reverse-vertigo) on the highest floors you’ll spot black-suited gentlemen who are guarding the Rulers’ Suites – an area completely out-of-bounds for lesser mortals (unless you beg the Marketing Director, who then gives you a grand tour complete with Bath Butler floorshow), it’s where the royal families of the Gulf Co-Operation Member States stay. The suites are mind-bogglingly enormous. On the next floor down, where the Palace Suites live, you’ll be paying near on 12-grand in Euros per night for the pleasure. Superlatives abound. As does gold leaf, which is plastered onto anything that has remained still for more than a few seconds. Whilst the décor can only be described, politely, as opulent, there are some stylish touches within this grand gesture. The 1,002 bespoke Swarovski chandeliers are utterly gorgeous, and those within the Italian restaurant Mezzaluna look like they’ve just stepped off the pages of a modern interior design magazine. There is also beautifully weighty custom-made Cristofle cutlery (including some oh-so-stealable chopsticks. I didn’t, you’ll be glad to hear) and stunning Baccarat glassware. ‘No expense spared’ was obviously their designer’s mantra.
While I admit that I wasn’t offered a Rulers’ Suite (give me time), my Coral Grand Room, with views of the sea, was enormous. Prerequisites included a vast swathe of plasma (50 inches), a huge marble-clad bathroom (I’m beginning to run out of words for ‘big’) and a balcony that looked out over one of the two pool areas – mine was the ‘adventure’ pool with tidal waterways, chutes and games, while the other is aimed at those seeking solace, cocktails (out of Ramadam) and a tan. The room itself boasted ‘22nd century technology’ and even for a self-confessed geek like myself, it took a few hours of knob fiddling to find BBC World and the music channels. Lighting was also controlled with the touch-screen tablet, as was air conditioning and wake-up calls. If you must.
One of my weaknesses, when staying in hotels, is an excitement surrounding breakfast. Strange, I know, but a fetish I’ve been able to sate all over the world. Despite the high thread-count sheets and the possibility of ordering breakfast in bed, if le petit-déjeuner is of the buffet variety, my alarm’s set for 7am. So far, my favourite breakfasting experience has been at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona (with a close second being the Ritz-Carlton Central Park): the Arts’s sunlight-flooded room with the ambience of a late-night bar (with as much Champagne-drinking taking place) served up the freshest fruit, home-baked breads, Japanese fish courses and a mean Eggs Benedict. The Ritz-Carlton group will, no doubt, be upset to hear that the Kempinski-managed Emirates Palace beat them hands down with Le Vendôme. The array of dishes on offer, the freshness of the produce and the levels to which each was prepared or cooked was staggering. Because, let’s be realistic: buffets aren’t kind to food. The endless heating, the hot lights and the prodding of guests do not – on most occasions – a delicious meal make. Not here. Dishes are constantly replenished, the muesli is homemade (delicious) and the cooked breakfast is the perfect antidote to a cracking mid-Ramadam hangover. I’m still not sure about those chicken sausages, though.
In terms of service – and when you’re splashing out at least 500 euros a night, this is the crucial bit – it’s faultless. From the concierge and door staff, through to reception and your own personal butler (I’d like to say I abused this part of the service, but no, I’m just too bloody English to ask someone to draw me a bath, open my curtains or pour me a glass of chilled water), this is where the Emirates Palace earns its extra mythical two stars. There are over 2,500 staff in total; if you do the math, that’s about four or so per guest.
One of this hotel’s biggest selling points is its stretch of perfect, white sand which is only open to paying guests. Step into one of Dubai’s high-price hotels and you’ll get barely a fraction of the Emirates Palace’s 1.3-kilometre beach. I’ve never splashed my feet into such warm, crystal waters and I’ve never been able to secure myself a sunlounger so easily. In the morning, from the breakfast terrace, look left and you might even catch a glimpse of a dolphin making the most of the clement temperature in this man-made, beautiful bay – which will be home to superyacht moorings in the coming months. Watersports activities are also available for those that like to tan whilst being active.
While I understood that the ‘seven-star’ accolade had been awarded by over-exuberant marketing folk and eager Public Relations trainees, I was rather shocked to find that – at the time of my stay back in November – there was no spa to speak of (it’s now open). But this vast hulk of a hotel is definitely a work-in-progress, and if there is an area of service lacking, the staff will make sure that your every whim is catered for. Masseuses are available, as are beauty technicians, until the spa area is complete. You can’t stay mad for long.
Food is key when you’re staying in this kind of hotel: I doubt that many of the guests – apart from the businessmen – venture out from its luscious limits, so everything that one could possibly need has to be under its enormous roof. OK, so you can do a desert 4×4 safari (pictured above) – too much fun and pant-wettingly scary at times – and a spot of shopping, but that’s really about it. In terms of meeting its guests hunger needs, the hotel is wonderfully equipped. And while I only experienced Le Vendôme at breakfast and lunch (there are clearly some very talented Indian chefs in the kitchen, as the lunchtime curries are to die for) and the Italian Mezzaluna in the evening (due to Ramadam restrictions), if these restaurants’ levels of food are anything to go by, then guests are staying in foodie heaven. Not a mediocre piece of food passed my lips for the duration of my stay, and despite Italian food being the last thing I expected to be dining on during a visit to the Middle East, the food was as good as any Tuscan or Roman eatery I’ve experienced. The selection of wine is definitely worthy of a mention (the MD had secured us a private room in the restaurant, so he could spoil us with fine Italian wines, grappa and various other naughty spirits and cocktails without insulting any of his Muslim guests). As well as the buffet restaurant and the exemplary Italian, there are restaurants boasting Middle Eastern food, Japanese (complete with Kobe beef) and a beautifully designed fish restaurant called Sayad; 18 restaurants are set to open in total. The cigar bar is also worthy of a mention: we bet the hugely experienced mixologist that he couldn’t mix us a mean mojito and he conjured up one of the best we’d all ever tasted (and, between us, we’d tasted a considerable number). Naturally, a few more rounds were swiftly ordered before dinner and we even managed to puff on the odd Havana.
Despite my trip being back in November of 2006, I can’t stop talking about my stay at the Emirates Palace. Strangely though, I’m not sure whether I’d go back – maybe as a stopover en-route to the Far East, the Palace would be a wonderful place to ease away the jetlag and spend a few days relaxing before heading off to the frenetic pace of Bangkok (Etihad fly there direct from Abu Dhabi). I can’t even suggest it would be to everyone’s taste – although my tastes are firmly in the modern, minimalist camp, I do adore over-the-top, camp opulence when I’m on holiday – but it’s definitely something I’d recommend you experience. The Abu Dhabi government hoped that the hotel’s opening would put the city on the global destination map. I think it was £2 billion well spent.
Tel: +971 2690 8888
Date of review: November 2006.
Lisa Richards stayed as a guest of Emirates Palace.