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Inside the Burj Al Arab Hotel and why I prefer camping

I'll never forget my first sight of the Burj Al Arab hotel, standing on the former public beach to the south, now part of the Madina Jumeirah hotel. It was like a dazzling apparition from the set of a sci-fi movie. The Burj Al Arab has become a symbol of Dubai and has been named as the best hotel in the world. But what is it like inside? Read on to find out.

First of all let's check out the rates. Looking on the website in August 2007, discounted rates were 8000 dirhams per night room plus breakfast, 7200 room only. The non-discounted published rate was 15000 AED. That's 1093, 984 and 2050 pounds, 1614, 1452 and 3026 euros, or 2178, 1960 or 4083 dollars respectively. Why would anyone pay that kind of money to stay in a hotel?

In early 2000, just a few months after the Burj Al Arab Hotel was opened, it was possible to make a day visit by paying 100 dirhams (around 18 pounds) which could then be spent inside the hotel. It was an opportunity to see inside the building and get an idea of what you would be getting for your money.

After receiving our voucher, we made our way across the bridge to the hotel, which is built on its own artificial island.

The main entrance is just like any other hotel, with door staff, luggage trolleys, cars and minibuses outside. You canít help looking up at the fabric facade which extends the full height of the building.

We approached the doors, feeling slightly out of place, but were welcomed with smiles by the door staff.

Once inside the lobby, your eyes are again drawn upwards, as the interior atrium stretches right up to the top, with rounded, gold-covered balconies on each floor. This vertical view plays tricks with the eyes, which will never have seen anything like this before. It's like looking into a tunnel going upwards.

The next thing that caught our attention was the fountain with its jets of water which come on and off at intervals. The water makes a splashing sound in the style of Arabic music.

Extravagant

As part of our visit, we were entitled to a guided tour of certain areas of the building. A female member of the hotel staff took us in the lift for the journey up to the Al Muntaha restaurant.

The lift ascended the tower quickly and we emerged on an intermediate floor where we walked to another lift. Here it was possible to see some of the interior decor - opulent carpets which appeared to be hand-made and designed especially for the hotel.

Many of the interior features were covered in a layer of gold, the floors, walls and ceilings were made of shiny marble, and other stone, there was rich and colourful design everwhere, a touch of Arabic style here, overtones of art deco or African there. To say that no expense was spared is an understatement.

Emerging from the lift at the top of the tower, we entered the Al Muntaha restaurant, which is contained in a pod which juts out above the sea. I noticed a theme of computer circuit boards and other modern elements. It was like a set from a space movie. Our visit was just to see the interior, not to taste the food, so no food reviews.

As a connoisseur of cityscapes, I certainly found views appetising, whether out over the Gulf, north towards the city and the skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road, or south towards Jebel Ali.

In 2000 the area to the south was as yet mostly undeveloped - it seems difficult to imagine now. There were only villas to the south of the Burj Al Arab, and that still accessible public beach. Just a few years later, the Madinat Jumeirah hotel appeared, along with everything else that has sprung up out of the desert. I'm glad to have been able to capture a glimpse of the coastline as it was.

After our brief visit to the Al Muntaha restaurant, we were taken back into the lift for the quick descent to the lobby, where we lounged around for a while admiring the fountain with its clapping sounds, trying to guess which countries the arriving or departing guests were from.

We needed to spend our as yet untouched voucher, so we went for breakfast in the restaurant on the ground floor to the side of the main lobby.

The breakfast was what you would expect of a hotel of this class. The plates and cutlery were impeccably shiny, the staff, who looked mostly Indian - were very attentive and ultra-polite. Despite all this the food wasn't entirely the way I like it - the eggs just slightly runny, the tea made not quite in the right way. Everything else was fine, but nothing I couldnít have prepared at home

We spent our remaining dirhams in the gift shop before walking back across the access bridge and onto the mainland, looking back along the flower-lined bridge for one final look.

So after my brief taster of the opulent life inside the Burj Al Arab hotel, would I be willing to spend over a thousand pounds to stay here for a night?

No, I definitely wouldn't.

However sumptuous the interior, however attentive the staff, however luxurious and exclusive the ambience, the Burj Al Arab hotel is, all said and done, just that: a hotel. According to the dictonary: a place of lodging. Of course there are plenty of other things to do at the hotel, but they are essentially things you can do at any other top rated hotel. They are just somewhat more opulent and extravagant at the Burj Al Arab hotel than anywhere else.

And you can be assured that while you are fast asleep in suite, the surroundings are quite a bit more luxurious and impressive than if you were fast asleep in a lesser hotel.

The fact is, I just don't need this level of extravagance. There are other things, not found at the Burj Al Arab Hotel, which stimulate my senses more. And I am uncomfortable with the fact that one night's accommodation is approximately the monthly salary I was earning as a teacher in the UAE in the mid-90s, and several times more than the salary of a typical construction worker in the UAE.

Deserted

One time around 1994, during our second Eid holiday from my English language teaching job, I camped out with a few of my colleagues and their families on a stretch of beach around 4 miles (6km) south of where the Burj Al Arab hotel is. That beach is now overlooked by the sprawling Dubai Marina district and its multiple skyscrapers.

When we were there, it was far from the city, an area of open grassy dunes with a long, deserted sandy beach. After going for a swim in the sea, we watched the pink sun descend over the horizon of the Gulf, and had a cook-out with a barbecue. Later we gazed up at the stars before turning in. With the breeze and the exercise we slept well. In the morning after an improvised breakfast including plenty of hot steaming tea for me, we had another swim.

I think I enjoyed that camping trip just as much, if not better than a night in the Burj, and the rate was a lot cheaper, in fact it cost nothing.

If you have the means and opportunity to stay at the Burj Al Arab, and you are into luxury hotels, by all means go for it. A night or two there will be an unforgettable experience. But I think I will be staying somewhere else - unless I get it for free!

The official Burj Al Arab website can be found at www.burj-al-arab.com.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-08-18

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