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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Titanic Burj al Arab

What to make of this imposing structure, an icon of Dubai? The Burj al Arab, shaped like a full, white spinnaker sail, carrying passengers where?, I wanted to know.  The hotel lures visitors as much for its whimsical design as for its exclusivity. Against the backdrop of the global Occupy movements and the attention they have brought to the growing, vast disparity in wealth between the 1% and 99% of the world’s population, the Burj seems alluringly out of reach, and perhaps antagonizing.
As my spouse and I prepared to visit Dubai, we struck up a conversation with a couple who had spent quite a bit of time in the emirate and grown to love it. One of their top recommendations was high tea at the Burj, which at 275 dirhams (or $75) per person was just within our reach, and the only way we were going to be able to set foot in the seven-star hotel whose least expensive rooms go for two to three thousand dollars per night.
This isn't the sort of place you can just walk into from the street and look around the lobby. When the much more modest family hotel where we stayed reconfirmed our reservation for tea, the concierge printed out the details, complete with the booking number, and advised us that we would have to show it to the guards in order to gain access to the purpose-built island, the perch of the yacht-looking hotel where, I'm told, the local police are not allowed.
Traffic was bottlenecked at the entrance to the island, but it didn't take long for the guard to view our documents and for us to proceed through the checkpoint. Our Toyota Camry pulled up to the entrance, amidst the latest models of Mercedes and Rolls Royce. It was like pulling up to Cinderella’s ball in a pumpkin. But we didn't mind. We were there, at last.
Inside, it is garish, resembling a casino or large cruise ship. The decor is intentionally over the top, with visual stimulation everywhere, such as the two-storey aquariums on either side of the escalators that transport visitors between the ground and first floors. In the middle lies a cascading waterscape, offering a constant show of captivating choreography.  But the aquatic piece de resistance presides at the top of the escalators, where the non-stop water show with somewhat irregular intervals (all the better to maintain the audience's rapt attention in a "what will happen next?" way) erupts with a majestic spray reaching nearly nine stories. I was startled the first time it happened, as I stood otherwise transfixed at the base of the grand fountain.
Tea was offered in a terrace opposite the water show, where the decor is as kitsch as the lobby. We plopped down on a red leather sofa and took in the view of the world's largest indoor atrium. Turquoise predominates on the lowest floors, and then gradually fades to green and then to yellow toward the top, where the most expensive VIP rooms are.
Large gold-colored pillars in the shape of palm trees are arrayed vertically around the lower floors, reaching four stories. They intersect with three wide rows of glistening chrome. Altogether, it felt the perfect setting for a Lady Gaga video.
But this monument to nouveau riche excess also offers examples of good taste. The service is courteous and helpful without being obsequious. Harkening to the times of vast country estates and attending butlers in Britain, of which Julian Fellowes and many of the rest of us are so fond, one's request is met with "right away; thank you, sir" in reply.
And after we finished a glass of champagne, as the sandwiches arrived, a four-piece chamber ensemble featuring mostly string instruments serenaded us with waltzes, swing and more contemporary melodies including Moon River.  The setting and the melody of the waltzes reminded us of that scene in Titanic when the ship’s orchestra played beautifully, calmly while the grand vessel sank.
Our 11-year-old nephew anxiously wanted to visit the restroom, about which he had heard that anything that looks gold is. I braced myself for a gaudy display and was pleasantly surprised by restraint. The heavy handle of the gold-colored sprayer adjacent to the toilet suggested it was the real thing. The kleenex cover also looked to be at least nine karats. But as a whole, the room was elegant, not ostentatious.
As we prepared to leave the hotel, gesturing all around, I asked my dining companions what it all meant. We weren't immediately sure. But as I thought about it more, it seemed a triumph of human ambition and ingenuity over the natural environment, much like the indoor refrigerated ski resort, the world’s largest mall and the world's tallest building, all nearby in this desert city. It also appeared to be a glaring triumph of the 1% over the 99%.  Can it last?

1 comment:

  1. Such a recounting of the experience speaks volumes. After reading Boomerang and Winner Take All, your first person, on site commentary on this icon of the 21st century's ruling class amuses and angers this reader.