TRAVELS IN THE TIME OF CORONA
DUBAI - JULY 2021
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip to Dubai during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the endless journey from North America, there comes the moment when you exit through the sliding doors of Terminal One at Dubai International Airport. You’ve descended five escalators, ridden a train, walked possibly a half-mile along shiny marble concourses, traversed the vast immigration area and the even vaster cathedral of baggage claim.
And when those doors slide apart you are hit by a blast of heat so scorching that you look up to see where it’s coming from. Momentarily disoriented, you see no exhaust vents, no red-orange heating elements. Then suddenly it dawns on you. It’s 8 p.m. on June 30. It’s 101 degrees. It’s humid. It’s Dubai.
We are met by a courtly gentleman who escorts us and our obscene amount of luggage to an already air-cooled Mercedes mini-van. And we drive, and drive and drive through a landscape that, in many ways, could be another planet. We pass the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. We pass what seems like 100 other soaring skyscrapers, many of which are so unique in design and boldness and sheer immensity that it’s like we’re in a 21st-century version of a Jules Verne movie. The explosion of architecture is mesmerizing. As is the parade of car dealers we pass en route to our hotel: Bentley, Jaguar, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, and the vast but lowlier Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai, Chevy and made-in-China MG.
This is my third visit to Dubai—and my family’s first. Back in 2005, I was driven to Dubai from Abu Dhabi to inspect the stunning Hotel Burj al Arab, Dubai’s still iconic and extraordinarily expensive gilt and technicolored landmark hotel. The second time was in 2014 when I stayed at the One & Only Royal Mirage during the excruciatingly dreadful year my company represented that group.
This time we sweep into a circular driveway and under the porte-cochère of the Ritz Carlton. The van’s doors slide open and we are assaulted again by the heat. “Marhaba,” says the doorman, whose eyes are smiling atop his mask. We are ushered inside to the cool. It’s very grand, very plush, very decorated, very Ritz Carlton, yet here in Dubai where over-the-top is de rigueur, it seems totally appropriate.
A hologram takes our temperature and we pass muster. The check-in smooth-as-silk and utterly gracious. I estimate they are running at about 20 percent occupancy, if that. We are ushered along about a mile of carpeted corridors to our two interconnecting double rooms. They are very large, with couches, tables, desks, vast bathrooms and blissfully cool.
I open the drapes and step onto the balcony, only to be assaulted again by the heat. We open the single case we artfully planned for our two-day stopover in Dubai, we all shower, don shorts and make our way down to the pool. We dip a toe in the water. It’s perfect. We stroll through gardens to La Baie, where a Belgian waitress serves me scrumptious fish and chips, with mushy peas and a dark beer. We’re exhausted. We stroll the mile or so back to our rooms and within minutes we’re snoring.
Why are we even in Dubai? Three reasons. One is you have to connect somewhere to get from New York to the Maldives. The second is the sheer curiosity of my family to see what all the fuss is about. And the third, and by far the most important reason, is my 12-year-old son Liam. Since the age of six, he has been obsessed with the Burj Khalifa. It’s an obsession with which I can identify: As a kid in glum post-war London, I was equally obsessed with one day visiting the Empire State Building.
The Ritz Carlton’s breakfast buffet is monumental. In deference to the coronavirus, nothing is self-service. There are fleets of friendly waiters serving whatever you point at. It’s overwhelming and delicious. The staff is Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Belgian, Thai, Filipino and more. I begin to realize that the actual citizens of Dubai are the ones driving the Lamborghinis and Jaguars, and all the help is imported.
To deal with the jetlag, we had purposefully planned for today to be free. The pools of the Ritz Carlton are various and many—some for adults only and some “family.” The water is wonderful, the cabanas comfy, the gardens lush, and it’s the perfect place to adjust to a new time zone.
We lunch by the pool, delicious again, where we are cooled by exterior air conditioners. We swim, we nap. I make the big mistake (huge) of walking barefoot across the sand to sample the waters of the Persian Gulf. I’m only half way there, and the soles of my feet are already burning. Do I press on or turn back? I press on, hopping and limping to the water. It’s 95 degrees and like a salty bathtub. And now I have to skip and hop back to my shoes. I plunge into the pool and I swear my feet sizzle in the cool water.
Noa, my wife, is arrayed on a chaise longue, engrossed in a booklet describing what to do in Dubai. There are more malls than in California, more Vuittons than Paris, more Pradas than Rome, more Tiffanies than New York, more Bulgaris than Vegas. There are amusement parks, water parks, ski slopes (indoor of course), boat rides, and a Ferris Wheel so giant it makes the London Eye look like a frisbee. There’s parasailing, paragliding, parasurfing and bunjee jumping. The only thing that looks possibly appealing is a falconry trip into the desert. But we are here for one reason and one reason only: our noon reservation tomorrow to ascend the Burj Khalifa.
Tonight we dine at Splendido, the Ritz Carlton’s Italian restaurant, serving some of the most delicious fare I’ve ever encountered. Next to us is a family of Emiratis—father in long white robe and keffiyeh, mother in black robes that cover her head and several children in designer shorts, tee shirts and sneakers, lugging armfuls of Armani and Polo shopping bags. There’s also an Asian woman who I presume is the nanny. Their entire meal is consumed in silence—all seven engrossed in their iPhones.
After breakfast the next day we repair to our rooms where, after each morning and turndown visit from the butler, we find towel sculptures on our beds—one time a swan, another a dog, an elephant, a dolphin—surrounded by rose petals. It’s COVID-test time for our onward trip to the Maldives. The nurse is Filipino, who photographs our passports, and we sign forms. She tells me we’ll have the result back in 24 hours. I’m alarmed. I tell her “no, we are leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning!” Ah, she responds, “you want express service,” and makes out an invoice, and charges 2,400 United Arab Emirate Dirhams on my credit card, a not insignificant sum of $650 for the four of us. Hers is a very gentle swab, a quick swirl in one lower nostril, each popped into a test tube, and she is off.
Now is the time for the highlight of our visit to Dubai. The driver who had brought us from the airport is back, and he weaves us along expressways to the Burj Khalifa. We emerge from the Mercedes and enter a vast cool lobby. Velvet-ropes and stanchions map out a zig-zag of lines to the reception desk, but it’s the Time of Corona and there are but 10 of us. Just Liam and I are ascending, while Noa and vertigo-prone Zoë will shop in the inevitable immense mall that includes a giant aquarium where you can snorkel with the fish.
I present the tickets I had purchased online a month earlier in New York. The immensely polite masked (black mask with silver borders and a silver Burj Khalifa logo) check-in clerk asks for my phone. He thumbs expertly through the emails to find the Burj Khalifa email with the all-important QR code that will give us access to our ascent. Clearly, he’s done this before.
We are ushered to an elegant marble-clad reception lounge where we and the other eight are seated and welcomed. We enter elevators and ascend in 90 seconds to the 125th floor. Unlike the elevators at the Freedom Tower, these don’t wobble. There is actually no feeling whatsoever of movement, other than our need to keep swallowing to clear our ears.
We emerge into a windowed lobby whose black marble walls contain niches fitted out with postmodern bud vases, each containing an orchid, a tiger lily, a bird of paradise so perfect and so uniform that I have to touch a couple of petals to see if they’re real. They most assuredly are. We see a large souvenir area, but for now we are on the 125th floor merely as a prelude to the next elevator ride that quickly whooshes us to the 148th floor.
Now we are in the final pointed tower of the Burj Khalifa. It’s not massive, but it’s surrounded by 360-degree floor-to-ceiling windows from which we gaze at Dubai, the Persian Gulf and the desert. Everything down there looks like a toy, and I’m sadly reminded of pre-9/11 visits to the Windows of the World on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower—except this is almost 50 percent taller.
Liam is thrilled and I am thrilled he’s thrilled. We take pictures. We go through a revolving door onto an exterior terrace where it’s hot and windy. Back inside we walk down an elegant stairway to the 147th floor where a Filipino photographer guides us to the spots on the floor where he photographs us in front of a wall mural of the nighttime view of Dubai. He bids us pose. We pose. Moments later we are at a counter where our photographs are displayed and, of course, we buy an 8-by-10 glossy for some ridiculous sum. The Filipino ladies tap my credit card onto a screen and insert the photograph deftly into a shiny cardboard souvenir cover to be displayed in Liam’s bedroom.
We return to the 125th floor to buy Liam a steel model of the Burj Khalifa. It comes in an elegant black box lined with cushioned black silk. This whole adventure has taken not more than 20 minutes, but the excitement on Liam’s face was worth flying half way around the planet. Our bucket-list entry checked, we whoosh back down to ground level.
Tonight, our last in Dubai, we decide that we really don’t need to spend a thousand dollars at Nobu of New York or Maxim’s of Paris, and we return to La Baie. Our cheery Belgian waitress recognizes us and shows us to a table where we have a wide-screen view of the 2020-postponed-to-2021 European Cup soccer championship.
Phalanxes of ex-pats swill beer and cheer as Spain plays Switzerland in St. Petersburg (no, not the one near Tampa) and the game ends in a friendly 1-1 draw. Here we are, four Americans—two born in New York, one born in Tel Aviv, one in London—in the United Arab Emirates, watching two western European countries compete against each other in Russia. We are truly part of a global village.
We need to be packed, coffee’d, showered, breakfasted and checked-out in time for our 7:30 a.m. departure tomorrow for the airport. We return to our rooms for an earlyish night. On the table, there is a large envelope from which I extract our negative COVID test results. The doorbell rings. Two of our towel-sculpting butlers are at the door. They want to wish us goodbye as we are leaving early. Their sweetness and deference is endearing. We all know why they’re here and I happily part with a sheaf of Emirati Dirhams that will soon, of course, be transmitted back to their families in Dacca or Bangalore.
The spokesman of the pair hands me a card on which their names are inscribed and bids me grade them on Trip Advisor. We bid farewell, and I do their bidding, of course giving them top marks, although I despise Trip Advisor. Someone once told me it reminded them of a line of customers at a pharmacy, earnestly debating which medications they should take for their gout, instead of asking the pharmacist. We shower for the ninth time today. Good night room, good night moon, good night Dubai.