Forgive me for my brutality, but as a travel destination, Dubai is the urban version of an answer to a question no-one appears to have asked.
A collection of gleaming skyscrapers that have been magicked up out of the dust for no reason apparent to the casual visitor other than to provide a sun-worshipping destination for European holiday makers, a high-end shopping spot for Saudi Arabian visitors and a geographically-convenient stopover for weary Australian travellers making the trek to the European continent.
I have no doubt that Dubai exists for a very important reason – and the purpose it serves doubtless has much to do with its convenience as a hub for the “financial services industry” – whatever that may mean.
But as a travel destination, the city’s raison d’etre is a whole lot more muddied.
In recent years, Dubai has asserted itself among Aussie travellers as a viable alternative to the traditional European stopover destinations of Singapore, Bangkok and Tokyo. And never more so than since the announcement last year of a code-share alliance between our national carrier Qantas and the local airline, Emirates.
The result of this tie-in is 98 flights a week from various Australian capitals to Dubai, and onwards to such European destinations as London, Paris and Frankfurt. And faced with the opportunity of testing out a new sun-soaked stopover destination while enduring the 24-hour flight to Europe, Aussies are taking up the new proposition in droves.
So what does Dubai offer the Australian traveller en route to Europe? As a stopover destination, what can the average traveller expect?
First up, you can expect a neat-ish divvying up of that awful journey. Thirteen hours from Sydney to Dubai, then seven hours from Dubai to London.
Let's be honest: there's nothing inherently pleasant about spending 20-odd hours on a plane. It's an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed.
If you are lucky enough to be travelling in business class aboard one of Emirates brand-spanking new A380s, you're in for about as smooth a ride as its possible to get.
The state-of-the-art flat-bed seats, the wide-screen LED entertainment systems, the excellent service: they are all dished out with the airline's trademark beige-and-red-uniformed style.
The A380s are deceptively quiet, somehow managing to lug their several hundred tonnes worth of weight through the atmosphere with a minimum of whine, bump or effort.
Down in economy class, which your correspondent also had the distinct pleasure of experiencing, the journey is markedly less comfortable – as is the way of these things.
The newness of Emirates' fleet and the relative space afforded each economy-class passenger in an A380 helps to soften the blow, but twenty-something hours on a plane is twenty-something hours on a plane, no matter how you dress it up.
On the day we flew home from London to Sydney in economy class, it was the end of the school holidays, the planes were overbooked (according to the check-in clerk) and the ground staff and cabin crew were either too stressed out or too poorly trained to offer anything in the way of either politeness or service: an area the airline is going to have to work hard to rectify if it is going to continue to attract return custom and compete with a dizzying array of other inter-continental flight options.
The verdict then on the Emirates experience? Business class cannot be faulted. Economy, could try harder.
Which brings us then to Dubai itself. To say that Dubai has no culture would be unfair. It does have culture. It's just that it's hard to discern through the ubiquitous dust clouds and refracted glare from glass-encased tower blocks.
As a stopover destination with a raft of comfortable hotels with pools to laze by for a day or two while the worst excesses of jet lag work their way through your system, Dubai is tops. Just don't roll up expecting to be immersed in world of fascinating cultural difference.
There are glimpses of the Arabian culture that preceded the skyscrapers, but you have to be determined to seek them out.
Arabian Adventures, Emirates' land-based Dubai tourism operator, offers excellent half-day city tours of Dubai (whose staff are uber-efficient, welcoming and very well-informed) and a very well-organised desert and dinner experience (including camel rides, belly-dancing, a display of falconry and a half-hour of four-wheel driving through the sand dunes) which comes highly-recommended - even if you occasionally feel as if you’ve inadvertantly stumbled onto the Arabian Culture ride at Disneyworld.
It's Arabia dished up in bite-sized chunks, served in mostly air-conditioned comfort by – rather confusingly - an agreeable army of Pakistani migrants.
And then of course, there is the famed shopping. The malls have to be seen to be believed. At the flagship Dubai Mall, the rows of high-end and high-street stores are punctuated here by an ice-skating rink, there by a four-storey aquarium.
Prices on most goods don't appear much different to those you would find at home. But to stand with a bag-full of shopping in the shadow of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, is to marvel at human ingenuity.
Ditto to look upon the elegant Burj Al-Arab hotel and its distinctive spinnaker design, or indeed the enormous indoor ski-slope (complete with its own flock of penguins).
Say what you like about the place, but if nothing else, Dubai is a kind of Disneyland for fantasy architects and anyone interested in how a metropolis can be built in complete opposition to its environment.
One thing that cannot be faulted is the range and quality of accommodation on offer in Dubai. Whether it’s a simple bed for the night - somewhere to rest your weary head after multiple hours on an airplane - or the complete five-star hotel experience you want, Dubai has it covered.
The jewel in the city's hotel crown is the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray. Located on the outer-ring of Dubai's famous 'Palm' chain of man-made islands, the Zabeel Saray is the last word in hotel elegance. From its grand, sweeping lobby to its extensive breakfast buffet and sprawling, palm-fringed swimming pool, the Ottoman-themed property is the splurge the long-distance traveller treats themself to for a couple of days of sustained, indulgent jet-lag recovery.
The rooms are finely appointed, the bathrooms are good enough to live in, the five separate restaurants cater to every taste and the round-the-clock cinema offers a dark, air-conditioned respite from the oppressive heat outside. Hotel employees patrol the lawns around the swimming pool handing out ice-cold water, and refreshing glasses of mint and lemon juice are proferred at every turn (it is, after all, the little things).
Special mention must be reserved for the hotel's spa, where possibly the best post-flight massage ever encountered is on offer. After thirteen hours on a plane, there is little more welcome than an expert pummelling in the most tranquil of surrounds.
So, Australian travellers: would a Dubai stopover be recommended? No more so than the other traditional routes, it has to be said. Despite its best efforts (and the locals could not be making a more concerted effort) – Dubai feels like it is trying too hard to be something it fundamentally isn’t. That said, the city is perfectly located for a convenient breaking of that awful flight to Europe. And as Emirates continues its ascendancy among international carriers (and hopefully improves its service along the way), the offering may just be too good to refuse.
HOW TO GET THERE
Emirates to London:
Emirates offers fares from Australia to London, one of 35 European destinations, from $2164. Emirates operates 84 flights per week from Australia to Dubai, with eight onward direct flights to London daily, on a range of the very latest aircraft, including the Emirates A380. Guests enjoy one of the world's most generous baggage policies, with 30 kg of checked luggage per passenger in Economy Class, 40kg for Business Class and 50kgs for First Class travellers. For flight information and bookings contact Emirates on 1300 303 777, visit your local travel agent or go to www.emirates.com/au
Emirates Dubai Stopover Packages:
Emirates Dubai stopover packages allow travellers to enjoy special rates on a range of hotels. For Emirates Dubai stopover information and bookings contact Emirates on 1300 303 777, visit your local travel agent or go to the Emirates Dubai stopover site.
Emirates – Qantas Global Aviation Partnership:
Emirates and Qantas now offer a combined total of 98 flights a week between Australia and Dubai and share frequent flyer benefits. From Dubai, passengers are able to connect to 65 one-stop destinations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel:
This hotel is the jewel in the city's accomodation crown. For more information and to book, visit the hotel's website.
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