There’s been an unexpected development at Dubai’s Burj Al Arab.
Self-billed as one of the world’s most exclusive hotels and with rates starting from €1,370 a night, the sail-shaped landmark is now welcoming more or less everybody to roam its spangled interiors on ‘Inside Burj Al Arab’ tours. In addition, included in the not-so-princely price tag of €62, visitors are even allowed access to the Royal Suite.
It’s an unusual initiative from one of the world’s most expensive properties and famous hotels — set just off Dubai’s coastline on its little private island and with security guards manning its gates 24 hours a day.
Still, there was never any doubt that a receptive audience would appreciate the opportunity. When the hotel opened in 1999 it immediately asserted the emirate’s appetite for audacious architecture, subsequently consolidated by the 2010 opening of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and last month’s inauguration of the oval-shaped Museum of the Future.
One of the world’s most photographed buildings and with over one million followers on Instagram, the Burj Al Arab, like the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, is genuinely iconic.
That’s not to say it’s to everyone’s tastes. I’ve stayed in the Burj, as everyone calls it, on a couple of occasions. Spread over two floors, entry-level one-bedroom suites are mammoth. Bathrooms are stocked with full-sized Hermès amenities, including his’n hers aftershave and perfume, and there’s a butler on standby to help with quibbles and queries.
Interiors, however, are… characterful. Suites are vibrantly decorated in gold and purple, mirrors are suspended over the beds. When I’m there, I surrender to it: with so many of Europe’s more modern luxury hotels playing it safe in greige, it’s oddly refreshing to see an alternative approach delivered with such conviction. It’s paying off too: the hotel has remained packed all these years. Occupancy was at 85pc during my late-February stay.
With demand so high, guests on Inside Burj Al Arab tours won’t see regular guest rooms, nor the hotel’s various restaurants and beach club which can also be booked by day guests but at significantly higher rates and with less availability. Surprisingly, however, they’ll be guaranteed access to the hotel’s Royal Suite.
Before being incorporated into the tour’s itinerary, this suite secured average rates of €23,000 a night. But occupancy could be sporadic and repurposing the suite has proved lucrative: accommodating up to 12 people, tour groups depart every 15 minutes between 9.30 am and 8.30 pm daily. I was told up to 700 people a day signed up during the peak winter season, though more typically the number is somewhere around 500. At €62 per person, that still equates to about €31,000.
That’s a lot of visitors, though the groups remain surprisingly inconspicuous to overnight guests (before joining myself, I hadn’t noticed the tours taking place). That’s because participants enter the property through a side entrance where they’re briefed on the Burj before wandering through the lobby, past one of the hotel’s huge aquariums, and then up a designated elevator to the 25th floor. Here, there’s a chance to pause en route to take pictures of the showstopper atrium — one of the highest in the world at 180m. But other than that, tour groups and hotel guests remain apart.
Upon that higher level, a besuited butler introduces all 780sqm of the two-bedroom Royal Suite. For better or worse, this is where the Burj meets expectations. The carpet lining the grand staircase is leopard print; at the touch of a button, one bed revolves; the original design of the majlis-style sitting room was rejected for being insufficiently pink.
Catching my gawps, my butler surmised visitors’ usual response to the décor: “Many of the Inside Burj Al Arab guests prefer softer shades and aren’t necessarily big fans of these colors, although when I ask if they’d be happy to stay here, everyone says yes,” he tells us.
After exploring the suite, the tour concludes in an adjoining zone packed with artifacts and heirlooms relating to the Burj’s history. There’s the napkin upon which architect Tom Wright scrawled his original design for the hotel. Nearby stands the F1 car that David Coultard did donuts in on the hotel’s cantilevered helipad. Through the windows, there are clear views down below to the World, a map-shaped archipelago of artificial islands, and a sprawl of other ambitious luxury properties that belong, like the Burj, to the UAE’s Jumeirah Group.
It’s a fitting finale before tour groups are brought back down to earth (via a small outdoor café and bar, and a gift shop where you can pick up Burj-branded souvenirs including small boxes of chocolates for €41).
Six ways to do Dubai on a budget
Had the pioneering Burj Al Arab not set such an enduringly successful precedent, it’s possible the surrounding city would have evolved very differently. But today, Dubai is a dab hand at providing extravagant distractions for privileged travelers. Experiencing the very best of the city’s luxury offering will never come cheaply, but similar to this tour, there are ways to enjoy what’s on offer a bit more economically. Here’s just a small selection…
Dubai is chock-a-block with luxury hotels, and many host lavish weekend brunches that grant visitors a taster of what’s on offer. Often unlimited drinks are thrown in and the spreads can provide unexpectedly good value. At the newly opened canal-side St Regis Downtown, Dubai, for example, the buffet-brunch concept sees chefs from the hotel’s restaurants serve signature dishes at tables indoors and out, so it’s possible to experience its full culinary offering in one afternoon. Dishes might include black truffle and porcini tagliatelle from Italian restaurant Basta, top-tier sushi, and desserts galore. There’s live entertainment, kids under 13 dine for free, and the spread is so generous you should skip breakfast (you might also end up ditching your dinner plans).
Do it: Brunch costs €88 inclusive of soft drinks or €112 with alcohol. John was a guest of St Regis; marriott.com.
Hire a Supercar
Dubai’s spotless metro is frequent and reliable, but the Ferrari and Lamborghini dealerships you’ll spot when traveling on it are reminders that this is the city of the supercar — even the police fleet includes an Aston Martin. While buying a Bugatti might not be viable, it’s possible to hire all manner of outlandish automobiles — some by the hour if you just want a quick photo.
Do it: Among the city’s many supercar-rental specialists, oneclickdrive.com offers Maseratis from €260 per day.
Go (Beach) Clubbing
Endlessly sunny weather means Dubai’s beach clubs do a roaring trade with locals every weekend. But on weekdays they often cut their rates to lure holidaymakers. High-end Drift overlooks a one-kilometer beach and offers an infinity pool, excellent Mediterranean restaurant, and beautiful skyline views. Do it: Access costs €62 during weekends but various discounts otherwise await, including a ‘ladies’ day’ offering on Tuesdays that sees women pay €25, including a welcome cocktail. driftbeachdubai.com
Some people like shopping, and many of them are in Dubai. The city’s colossal malls are attractions in themselves, while this constant consumerism has also precipitated the emergence of discount outlets selling lots of ‘last-season’ wares.
Do it: If that sounds like fun, try Dubai Outlet Mall (for discounts on the likes of Burberry and Marc Jacobs; dubaioutletmall.com); Garderobe (pre-owned products from Chanel and Celine; garderobe. ae) and Brands for Less (which includes beauty and homewares alongside clothing from Calvin Klein and Adidas; brandsforless.com).
One of the world’s best airlines, Dubai-based Emirates offers excellent business- and first-class lounges (it also flies direct to Dubai from Dublin). Unusually, those facilities are also available to economy-class passengers who pay a premium to access them. If flying economy to Dublin, it’ll cost you €95 to use the business-class lounge for up to four hours. That includes unlimited dining and free-flowing champagne. emirates.com
Find more information on Dubai and its latest Covid-related restrictions on visitdubai.com.