Let me be up-front from the outset about the fact that the seven-hour Emirates flight alone would have been holiday enough for me. In nine years of motherhood, a one-hour flight is the longest I’ve taken without herding, shushing and borderline physically restraining children.
There was leg room, there was a bit of wine and there were films, loads of them, which I could enjoy with two earbuds in place, instead of one out in order to attend to people’s needs. I even got to eat without anyone suddenly needing to get out and go to the toilet as soon as the flip-down table was full.
Once we landed in Dubai, I’d have happily got off the plane, let them clean it, got on again and flown back to Dublin, feeling like I’d had a wonderful holiday.
But I didn’t. I disembarked and stayed for four days. And, even better, I was glad I stayed. The seven hours mile-high were only the start of a wonderful wind-down, the kind that seems, in retrospect, like something I dreamt.
We arrived in Dubai at night and drove by taxi to our hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, located towards the far tip of one end of the crescents that encloses the “fronds” of the Jumeirah Palm Island. It’s an artificial archipelago on reclaimed land, with small hotels on the “trunk”, super-posh residences on the “fronds” and then spectacular large hotels, such as ours, on the enclosing “crescent”.
Dubai is initially tricky to compute. In order to relax, you have to accept that it doesn’t compare to anywhere you’ve ever been before. It’s this weird mix of Middle Eastern and European/American. It’s the beach, but it’s not the seaside. It’s a working city, but that’s not really for the tourists. There’s this mind-blowing shopping culture, with late-night malls and high-end boutiques, which speaks of a sort of hedonism, but then there’s no alcohol outside the hotels.
Dubai is a mass of contradictions, but if you can accept that, then you quickly see that it has everything and anything you’d need to switch off from your normal life.
Our hotel was incredibly comfortable, spacious and luxurious, with a huge swimming pool where mostly families congregated, and a beach of pale sand and barely any waves.
The people-watching is half the fun of the place, and the mix is quite something. I settled on some favourites to focus on when we hit the sun loungers on the beach or lunched in the pool-side bar. I couldn’t get enough of the Russians – in particular a woman who wore leather from head to toe in the baking heat. And then there was the family with the three nannies – one for each child, darling. And the man who looked like an ageing-well distinguished academic and whose wife had a face and body that were enjoying a Dorian Gray/portrait relationship.
Even if you are not an ardent shopper, the Dubai malls are an experience not to be missed. They are also where you can do your eating, as most have every cuisine and chain of eatery under their roofs. You quickly realise that wandering through the massive malls is the Dubai equivalent of spending the evening in a pub, or doing the Italian passeggiata.
We went to the Mall of the Emirates, where they have everything from high street to Chanel, and you can spend hours. We ran the gamut and ended up in the Carrefour supermarket, a huge branch where locals, ex-pats and holidaymakers mill around. We made for the American-confectionery section – because you never really forget the children, right? – buying Hershey kisses and Goldfish crackers, after spending some time horrified by how much the imported fruit and vegetables cost. The mall was sort of a sublime-to-the-ridiculous experience, and we were amazed when we realised we’d spent an entire evening there, shopping, aspirational window-shopping and eating.
If you want more shopping but you don’t want the super-huge malls, there is the Marina Mall which has the bonus of proximity to the outdoor Marina. You can find, in Dubai, that you’re either outdoors at the beach, or indoors in air conditioning and that dichotomy can be odd, not to mention a bit difficult to pack for when you’re only coming for four days. The Marina district is well worth a look, as you can stroll along in the open air and there are lots of eating options, from American chains to Middle Eastern fine dining. Many people will hop from their hotel to other hotel restaurants around the city, though, if they want alcohol with their food.
One treat we weren’t aware of in advance is the premium-level lounge that many hotels – ours included – offer, where you can have early evening drinks and nibbles, the latter coming from the very best on-site chefs. We partook of the bubbles and bites a couple of evenings at our hotel, sitting out on the lounge’s balcony and taking in the sunset, the speedboats below, the grounds of the luxurious residences in the distance. We were high up, but not so high as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper, a visit to which is recommended.
At the Waldorf-Astoria, you could have waterskiing and windsurfing lessons, or you could just rent paddleboards, kayaks and pedalos. We opted for the last of these one afternoon. The waters are calm around the crescent and we easily pedalled out towards the fronds, on the tip of which were houses like those out of the Nicole Kidman TV series Big Little Lies – all glass and desert-incongruous greenery and swimming pools that no one seemed to bother with. One house, we were told by a Nepalese beach boy, had been the holiday home of a prominent Pakistani politician. We didn’t pedal too close, but had a traditional Irish gawk from a safe distance. Steering around the warm waters, we pointed and pedalled towards the city for a bit, marvelling at how it soared above us like a wannabe Manhattan skyline.
Dubai is far from New York. Actually, it’s unlike anywhere else, and only seven hours of blissful peace away.
The Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah boasts a private soft-sanded beach, six distinct restaurants and lounges and elegant sea-facing guest rooms and suites.
Located on the iconic Jumeirah Palm Island, 35 minutes from Dubai International Airport, the 319 Deluxe Rooms and Suites reflect the tranquil surroundings and provide ample space for relaxation.
World-class leisure facilities include two temperature-controlled swimming pools and tennis court.