Dubai Part Three: Five Snapshots – The Good, the Bad-Ass and the Exquisite

It’s been far too long since my last post. The real world of content writing, subbing shifts and features pitches got on top of me in the last week and I was in writing hibernation, slowly digging myself out of my pit of emails, reviews and scribblings.

Now I’m back and can’t wait to finish writing about my jaunt around Dubai. I’ve already posted some images in Part One: Dubai in Pictures, so, as a condensed-down, easily-digestible whistle-stop tour of the what, when, how and where before I immerse myself in the nitty gritty, here’s my bonkers and beautiful Dubai in five snapshots.

Adrenaline High at Ifly at Magic Planet, Deira
iFly

“Who’s going first?” Asked the IFLY expert who, while wearing a leotard so tight it was verging on indecent, had just been flipping in a perspex tube a moment before. We glanced at each other, each trying and failing to blend into the wall behind us, before pointing out our Dubai guide as a designated lamb to the slaughter.

I watched him being manhandled by both the wind and the instructor who kept making bunny ear signals into his face, which had adopted a fixed grin of rigour mortis proportions. My borrowed suit was suddenly a lot more restrictive. I could smell the nervous flop sweat of a hundred wearers before me as we shuffled one by one towards the death tube and, as I lurched face first, arms across my chest like a sleeping vampire into the deafening roar of a wind turbine, I tried very hard not to cack my borrow pants.As the instructor grinned at me and told me to keep my head up and smile, something happened. I realised that I was floating, and it was bloody amazing. I managed not to scream as he pulled me up to the ceiling and dropped me in a semi-graceful corkscrew, spiralling to the ground. At least I’m maintaining I wasn’t screaming, over all that wind who could tell?For more information on Ifly, check the official website here.

Sun, Sea and…Snow? Ski Chalet at The Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Hotel

Living and Dining Area in Grand Ski ChaletRoaring fire, check. Chestnut polished wooden floorboards and beams, check. Alpine view, check. The faint sound of mall music, fake sky and a sun-flooded pool terrace out the back, check… wait a minute.This is no ordinary ski lodge, it’s a grand ski chalet in the Kempinski Hotel, slap bang in the middle of the Mall of the Emirates in sunny, snow-free Dubai. This three-bed, lavish chalet is an exercise in just how money and imagination can get you anything in Dubai. The two-floor apartment room has everything you’d expect from a luxury establishment with stand alone baths, monstrously big beds, chandeliers and dual aspect windows out onto the ski slope where hotel patrons and visitors alike take turns to shoop shoop down the slope or roll in Zorb balls.

Bedroom in Grand Ski Chalet

Apparently the glass, while obscured, isn’t totally peep proof as Elodie, who was showing me around, recounted. There was the time everyone on the slope got quite the eyeful through the chalet windows and an emergency staff member had to sprint up to the room to warn the occupants that they were on display.

Weird? Embarrassingly opulent? Magnificent or just plain bonkers, its just another amazing suite in the Dubai wonderland.

Bookings, prices and chalet information can be found on The Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Hotel website here.

Sticks at Dawn: Camel Polo at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club

Camel Polo Pros

Hit it! Hit it!” My jockey, Riaz, pleaded with me as I swung my arms backwards, shoulder screaming in protest and biceps like malnourished grapes straining to bring the leaden stick downwards onto the demon of a ball that had eluded me all morning.

The hammer connected with a thunk, shunting the ball all of two spectacular feet across the pitch. The thunk was followed by a crunch as I thwacked my mount, Moussiah, around the ankles. She swivelled her regal head towards me.

“Idiot.” Her liquid brown eyes said. “Bugger.” I said, aloud. Who knew a game of camel polo could be so difficult to master?

Moussiah the Camel

Very, as it turned out. Polo with ponies? Bah! Frankly you haven’t lived until you’ve lurched from side to side while swiping at an inflatable practice ball with a reinforced, six-foot broomstick.

That was from my diary and was written just after a tension-filled, gruelling (read: relaxed, mildly strenuous) couple of rounds of camel polo, Dubai’s ultimate grass roots sport. These beautiful, preened and pampered beasts are available for brave tourists and corporate away days and a morning spent learning how to play this most elite of sports was honestly the most fun I had in Dubai.

one man and his camel

Gulf Ventures can organise city transfers, half day city tours and a camel polo experience like the one I tried. Visit www.desertadventures.com to book or for more information.

Round the World Eating at Spectrum On One, The Fair Mont Dubai
Fairmont-Dubai---Spectrum-o

Eating brunch – what’s known as THE brunch in Dubai, mind you – at The Spectrum On One I had Ariel’s Little Mermaid song about gadgets and gizmos going round and round in my head. Except that I wasn’t singing about whos-its and whats-its galore, I was thinking about food, glorious food because this brunch mecca serves a never-ending buffet of delights from almost every continent and country on the planet.I had pancakes and roast beef a plenty.
I had cheeseboards and shawarmas galore. 
You want steamed buns? I had some. 
But who cares, no big deal. I wanted more.I had duck rolls and tandoori chicken and pulled pork tacos followed by candy floss and cupcakes and Oreo cheesecake, all washed down with an endless supply of mojitos, that seemed to materialise by my elbow like magic every time my straw hit the ice at the bottom of my glass.And then I was gently tipped put of my seat and rolled towards the exit like a swollen Violet Beauregard. Well not really, but it took a few attempts to stand after this feast.

Brunch at Spectrum on One starts from £58 per person, or £76 including unlimited alcohol. See their website for details here.

How the Other Half Live: The Burj Al Arab
Inside the Burj Al Arab

Entering the seven-starred Burj Al Arab is like walking into a modern-day Disney palace. The doormen have IPads, there’s 24 carat gold paved on the mosaic floors and there’re suites so elaborate and discreet that they’re stored on security access only floors.

Through the glass doors, the concept of a ceiling is suddenly ripped away as you find yourself in a vast, echoing space and, as your eyes go up and up and up and UP, you soon realise that this hotel is possibly one of the most staggering and terrifying places that you’ve ever set foot in.

Burj Al Arab - Lobby

I managed to scrape my jaw off the floor and nod weakly as our guide, the impossibly pretty Nazila, explained that the inner atrium could fit two Eiffel Towers inside and the fountain used to spit all the way to the top floor, before it had to be tamed to save guests from death by drenching. I continued to be lost for words during an afternoon tea that started with shortcake as light as air and a waiter with the world’s most flamboyant champagne pouring style and ended with a cappuccino topped with 24 carat gold dust, which I prompted scattered into the air with one excited exhalation.

Burj_Al_Arab_-_Skyview_Bar_

Then Nazila walked us on a never-ending display of the delights of Burj’s inner sanctum. There were glass lifts that moved so fast your ears popped, rooftop restaurants with panoramic views of the man-made world islands, an underwater restaurant with its very own famous resident fish – George – and a Royal Suite with a revolving velvet bed and a shower covered in gold leaf.

Romantic dinner in Al Mahara

There were stomach-churning peeks over the ledge on the 25th floor, there were squeals of disbelief, of wonder, of sheer horror that anyone could afford to travel and live like this and of childish abandon in a place that disarms you with pomp and privilege, shocks you with opulence and ostentatiousness and galls you with riches and ritual. It’s gorgeous and garish, its mental and marvellous, it’s…it’s…It’s the Burj Al Arab, which says it all really.

Traditional afternoon tea at the Burj costs £75. Book on their website, here.

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Dubai Part Two: The Best Massage in the World at Raffles Dubai

“Breathe out Miss Emma, please. Three big breaths.”

I do as I am told, slowly and self-consciously.

“Is she looking at my spine alignment?”

“Is she monitoring my lung capacity?”

“Can she see my thighs wobbling under the crisp, white sheet?”

Shhh! I hiss at my subconscious as I breathe so deeply and thoroughly – scraping the depths of my woefully unexercised lungs – that I make myself light-headed. I open my eyes on the third breath like a naughty child to sneak a peek at what this ninja-footed, softly spoken therapist is up to only to realise that all she’s doing is letting my own breath warm her hands in preparation for my spa treatment. Oh.

I’ve always had this problem with spas. I have never reached that nirvana moment of happy gormlessness where your body and mind melt away leaving only the basest of instincts functioning: touch and sensation.

I’m always firmly in the room, listening to the plinky plonky music, worrying about the tension in my neck and anticipating the next painful jab as the masseuse digs their thumbs into my shoulder blades in a vain attempt to undo years of slouching in front of computers. I always leave scolding myself, berating myself with mantras: “I will sit up straight. I will go to yoga. I will stretch five times a day.” All forgotten, of course, the next time I’m on a deadline and hunched like a skeksis from the Dark Crystal, my face glowing a sickly ivory from the low light of my old laptop screen.

But then I have clearly never been to the right spa.

Raffles Spa Garden RetreatThe Raffles Dubai Spa was different. The setting was familiar, dimly lit, five-star reserved luxury, the air filled with the smell of mysterious unguents and the halls filled with clients, padding around in pristine dressing gowns like contented ghosts.

Sari, my tiny masseuse, had hands that felt like the inside of a lily. When she poured various oils into my palms to help me tailor-make my massage and later held and kneaded my fingers and wrists, it was like holding hands with an exquisite, finely-made doll.

I was about to have a hot stone massage with an oil that I had hand-picked and that smelled vaguely of oranges, frangipani and almond blossom. Sari told me I had chosen a relaxing oil and it was a good choice. Phew, good. First intimidating spa job done.

I had never had a hot stone massage before and had always thought that it looks and sounds silly – all those women in the pictures, blissfully face down with a line of rocks on their backs,  it never looked like my idea of a decent massage. What I stupidly didn’t realise is that they don’t actually sit lines of stones along your spine. It’s actually a far more physical and tactile experience where stones are heated and rubbed into your prepped and oiled skin and kneaded deep into the muscles like pushing flint into dough.

Sari started to move along my neck, which was rigid with a familiar tension, the tendons stretched like strings across a banjo, ready to snap at any moment. But Sari had fingers of granite and, despite saying she was going for light to medium pressure, pushed her hands into my screaming muscles, taking me to that embarrassing point when you’re about to release an inadvertent squeak of pain before easing off. If this was her light to medium pressure her hard must be like Medieval torture.

So far so expected. As she moved down my body, performing that strange but chaste massage striptease, revealing one limb at a time from the full body shroud, that irritating voice piped back up again.

“When did I last shave my legs?”

“I bet her last client was that supermodel with legs like Gisele Bünchen that’s sunbathing by the pool.”

“I hope she isn’t offended by my wonky big toes.”

Then I heard the clink of the stones and the first burst of contact heat spread across my neck like wildfire, blossoming into a rose-tinted glow as the warmth slowly faded and the stone continued its arc down the curled wing of my shoulder blade.

It was like touching a match to paper, singeing it and watching the heat eat away at the surface and slowly fade away. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was a sort of controlled pain that took me to the edge of wincing every time a new stone was applied and left me exhaling deeply as the fire dimmed. I had to remind myself that Sari was holding the stones, so they couldn’t possibly be as hot as I thought they were. But with my eyes closed, face down and blinded, I felt everything more.

All this might sound like I was straying into 50 Shades territory, but somewhere in the mixture of those hot stones and oil and Sari’s steely fingers, something remarkable happened. I stopped thinking about the slight bend in my spine. I stopped wondering if she could see any cellulite on my thighs. I almost forgot to breathe as I slipped into mindlessness.

Raffles Spa - Treatment Room

My brain went dark. Not blank, exactly, but as though someone had turned down the dimmer switch and all I could concentrate on was the slow swish of those stones, wait for the first pulse of heat and the feel of the heavy air on the rapidly cooling skin after the stone had carved its path on my flesh. For the next twenty minutes my whole world was the clink of changing stones and the soft padding of Sari’s feet across the tiled floor.

She cradled my head, supporting what must have been, by that point, a cannonball of dead weight as she pushed the remaining stones against and under my shoulder blades and draped a dark cloth across my eyes. Then, too soon, or it could have been hours later, she coughed delicately.

“Miss Emma, the massage is finished. I will leave the room while you get dressed and take you to the relaxation room.”

“Hmmm waaa? Yaaaa.” Was my articulate response.

And for the first time that I can remember I had to concentrate on reminding myself how to move my legs. It was like being half awake, in that space of sleep purgatory when your mind is active but your limbs haven’t quite caught up. Except this time there was no panic, no jolt, there was just liquid bones and a mind that was moving at the rate of a two-legged tortoise. Or Joey Essex on a good day.

Raffles Spa - Relaxation RoomAs I levered myself off the bed, I honestly thought that I might melt into a pool on the floor the moment I touched the ground, like a scene from Alex Mack. I didn’t, rather disappointedly, and was perfectly able to struggle into my clothes, even managing to remember how bra hooks worked, before floating and across the hall into a curtained room with nothing but tea, loungers and dried fruit.

I was given a about ten minutes to scoop my thoughts together before the absurdly handsome spa manager came to tell me that my friends were out and the chef was sending something to my room for afternoon tea. All I could manage was a wide, moronic smile and a heavy-headed nod, which probably made me look like a narcoleptic.

Raffles Spa - TherapistsNo words. I didn’t want to speak yet because I was scared that words would break the only spa spell I have ever been under and I wanted to hold onto it, just that little bit longer, before the world came rushing back in.

Raffles Spa focuses on rejuvenating treatments that are inspired by Asian, Middle Eastern and European traditions and is set within the Raffles Dubai Hotel in the Raffles Botanical Garden. The seven soothing treatment rooms, including a couple’s suite with private whirlpool and an outside retreat are open to guests of the hotel, members and non-members by appointment. See a list of the treatments on offer on their website here.

I had a 60 minute Traditional Hot Stone Massage, which costs £78.

For more information call the spa on +971 4314 9870 or Email spa.dubai@raffles.com.

The Montague on the Gardens, Bloomsbury

MT_Lounge_001_S

Sandwiched between the million pound houses on Montague Street in Bloomsbury, bordered by the cultural juggernaut of The British Museum and a secluded, secret garden, The Montague started off as the venture of a ‘crack-brained, addle-pated fellow’ called Christopher Monck in the 17th century and, after burning down and being rebuilt a few times, became a hotel in the 1920’s.

MT_Conservatory_009_S
You can forget minimalism, stepping into the four-star Montage feels like you’ve wandered into a Victorian Gentlemen’s club, complete with chandeliers, tapestry and brocade. The Montague is famed for its exceptional afternoon tea and was given a sought after Award of Excellence’ by the prestigious Tea Guild in 2013.
IMG_1251
You’ll get more than just tea and cakes here – the signature selection of tea blends come with a special timer to ensure the perfect brew, the scones taste as if they were made by angels and the cakes include some confectionery delights like caramel panna cotta and tiny meringues filled with a decadently dark chocolate ganache. There’re also mandarin macaroons, delicate fruit tarts, crisp éclairs and smoked salmon sandwiches to charm even the tea purist. The perfect way to escape the January rain.

Peace Eye Guest House, Pokhara, Nepal

Peace Eye Lounge
We arrived in Pokhara during a thunderstorm, were dropped on a tarmac-covered bus station and ushered into one of the waiting taxis, through the urban sprawl and onto the lake front of Pokhara proper. We put our faith in the Lonely Planet and headed for their pick of the guesthouses: Peace Eye.It became a magical place for us, a home away from home for wanderers, a refuge for nomads and the travelling Diaspora. The rooms were cute, the location was fine, but it was made exceptional by the hospitality. We spent our days sitting in Peace Eye eating plates of home-cooked potato and cheese flat bread, steamed dumplings in soy bean soup and mugs of creamy hot chocolate that never seemed to make it onto our room bill.

Peace Eye was our rose-tinted bubble in the rains. I felt like the Lady of Shallot, observing the passing world beyond the wooden-framed windows.

I can’t promise that if you ever find yourself in down town Pokhara on a rainy morning that you’ll have the reception we did, but I emphatically urge everyone to visit, just for a day, to sit on the low-slung cushioned chairs by the brick kiln fire and try some freshly baked walnut bread and masala chai.

Image: Peace Eye

The Baglioni Hotel, London

The Brunello Restaurant

‘An Italian heart beats in the heart of London.’

This luxurious haunt has an undeniably Italian flavour. That’s not to say that when you arrive you’re surrounded by Italian stallions calling you amore mio and trying to persuade you back to the family pad for a bit of how’s your father before mama comes home, more that the service here comes with a Mediterranean twinkle.

The Brunello restaurant is flanked by an impressive fireplace, statement bar and is strewn with plush velvet chairs, Murano glass candelabras and more gleaming gold and platinum than Harrods’ jewellery counter. Yet it’s all done with exquisite taste – think more Versace than Nancy Dell’Olio.

The cocktail list has everything, from a French 75 and a mean Bellini to bottles of Italian sparkling wine crafted in the same way as Champagne. Drinks were punctuated by a flow of delectable finger food: charcuterie, fat green olives, chunks of crumbling parmesan and ribbons of lightly-fried squid and courgette, all delivered as smoothly and as slick as top quality olive oil. Ok, so I’m running out of Italian references now, but if you ever feel like escaping to Rome but can’t afford the flight, then The Baglioni is a safe London bet.

Hotel Pheonicia, Malta

Hotel Phoneicia

The Hotel Pheonicia is the jewel in Valletta’s crown. The first five-star hotel to open in Malta’s capital city under British rule in the thirties, Phoenicia has retained a quintessentially English flavour that pervades the property, from the cavernous Art Deco piano bar to the marble ballroom where the then Princess Elizabeth danced in 1949 and the afternoon tea on offer at the Palm Court Lounge.

Relax in impossibly deep leather chairs in the exclusive confines of The Club Bar, sip an expertly made Negroni and peruse the vintage photographs or saunter through the seven acres of kitchen and tropical gardens – a rarity on such a small island – to the Bastion Pool Deck to survey the coastal delights of Marsamxett Harbour.

Palm Court Lounge (art) (1)

The centre of Valletta and the bus station are a stone’s throw away and the staff, who manage to be personable without being stuffy, are on hand 24 hours a day for information on anything from transport to restaurants and local tipples. I stayed in a standard room, which was perfectly comfortable and well-proportioned. More cash gets you a room higher up with a better view and your own balcony. Rates start from £150

Pool

Painswick Court, The Cotswolds

The Court House
In an impossibly pretty village perched in a picturesque valley along the Cotswolds Way stands The Court House Manor. Carved out of honey-coloured Cotswold stone and saturated with history from the musket hole in the Game of Thrones-style oak door and the original panels in the old court room to the ghosts (King Charles I and his armoured guards if you’re wondering)  that wander the manicured gardens after dark, The Court House is all quiet elegance and pure escapism.
The new owners might have given the old place a facelift with a gleaming kitchen, sauna and cinema room and the Maharajah TV tent on the terrace but this bed and breakfast has what the weekend, country traveller craves in spades: luxurious bedrooms, period features and enough nooks, crannies and secret corridors to keep the average couple entertained for hours. All rise who fancy a retreat at this manor, I know I’m certainly guilty as charged.