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High Tech Meets The Arabian Nights

Dubai’s iconic Burj Al Arab hotel sets the bar for luxury worldwide.

It’s not as if this much coddled traveler hadn’t stayed in the finest hotels—like Le Bristol in Paris. I was always amazed when three attendants jumped up to twirl the revolving door for Madame, so burdened was I by my shopping bags from designer boutiques along the Rue du Faubourg Saint- Honoré. And a hotelier I’d never met actually greeted me by name as I stepped onto the dock of the Heyman Island Hotel at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (the ship’s mate had discreetly radioed a description of each new arrival). But even such niceties pale before the personal service that made the Burj Al Arab (Arab Tower) in Dubai, the first seven-star hotel in the world—even though official international hotel ratings stop at five!

Even if you’ve never set foot in Dubai, you’ve seen photos of its pale, pristine exterior, curved to recall the unfurled sail of an Arab dhow. Rising some 600 feet into the desert sky, this architectural treasure stands on its own island just off shore in the lively Jumeirah resort area. A private bridge connects it to the mainland. If you choose to arrive at the hotel by helicopter, like the Emirates royals, you will land on the flat round helipad disk you see jutting out from the rooftop. My friends and I, on a short must-see stopover, just grabbed a cab from the airport. But later we could not resist touring the city in one of the hotel’s fleet of chauffeured white Rolls-Royces.

By day, its soaring walls gleam in the perpetual desert sunlight. By night, when we arrived, this stunning hotel’s exterior drew gasps with a changing light show of rainbow hues, echoing the jewel tones of its dazzling interior. If ever I felt like the Sheika herself, it was on entering that glittering world of Middle Eastern glamour, where gentlemen in Arab robes or Savile Row suits and bejeweled women in designer gowns, or evening kimonos, saris and abayas, chattered away in at least 10 languages on their way to dinner.

Just inside the massive glass doors beneath the tallest hotel atrium in the world, stood our lineup of official greeters. Men in white robes and headscarves offered cooling wet towels, platters of plump, creamy dates and thirst-quenching drinks, along with welcoming smiles. An impeccably groomed host (each guest has his own) soon whisked me up the steep lobby escalator past a tiered fountain of spectacular dancing waters on one side. On the other, was the glass wall of the hotel’s famous two-story aquarium with hundreds of exotic inhabitants of the Arabian Sea darting in and out of a swaying reef. Then it was into an elevator with golden doors to a small period desk, where the sixth floor concierge stood up to greet me with the two sixth floor butlers. (Since it’s unseemly for a Muslem man to unpack or pack a woman’s suitcase, there is a male and female butler for each floor.)

Eager to lay down my head after a long flight from Los Angeles, I reached for my new key card and headed toward my suite. But my butler outraced me. As he held his own card up to the electronic lock, he explained that each butler knows the name and room number of each guest, and that saves the guest’s fumbling for the key. “It’s also for safety,” he assured me. “You can leave your diamond tiara on a table, and it will be there when you come back.” But later he did show me how to operate my in-room safe. And then how with a touch of a button, to open the blinds on my floor-toceiling panorama windows. How to buzz in a guest at the door, after checking his face on the big flat screen TV. How to work the subtle lighting system in the bedroom (which I never really mastered). I timed this orientation lecture: Thirty-five minutes.

The Burj Al Arab is an all suite hotel (each suite is two stories) with one-bedroom suites at 1,800 square feet, the size of an average family home in the States. From there they graduate up to 8,000 square feet for the massive royal and presidential apartments on the highest floors.

Since there is no such thing as a room and bath for single travelers, I had to make do with a palatial suite, its grand marble staircase and gilded rococo balustrade straight out of Versailles. And it was love at first sight for the cunning marriage of trendy European design and Arabic grace in my elegantly furnished parlor.

In one corner, on the well stocked bar, was the management’s welcome gift–a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck in a silver ice bucket. Next to it was a small state-ofthe- art office area with a laptop open on the desk and ready to go. Nearby, my dining table held an assortment of Middle Eastern sweets and nuts and an oversized bowl of peaches apricots, bananas and grapes, each fruit at its peak of perfection. Every evening, a fresh platter of exquisite Continental pastries would be waiting. On various smaller tables and nooks around the room stood designer flower arrangements, a huge pompom of red roses, a row of single blooms, each in its own square vase. All with every petal intact, due no doubt to the daily care of a hotel genie.

My large, comfortable bedroom at the top of the stairs held an inviting oversize canopy bed. My bathroom was a private spa with its glassed-in rain shower and a double Jacuzzi with more controls than a Lamborghini. On the richly veined marble counter stood full sizes of hisand- hers Hermes lotions, creams, scents and sprays (no sample sizes here). “Do take home whatever you don’t use of it,” urged my butler, adding a colorful gift beach bag filled with necessities for sand and poolside. Before leaving for the airport, I weighed my loot on the bathroom scale. At more than five pounds, it almost put my bag over the limit.

As I wandered back to the bedroom to select from a pillow menu with l7 different choices, I was startled by something I never expected to see at this level of grandeur. Under the ornate canopy over my bed was a large framed mirror. With Dubai’s unrestrained, sometimes wild architecture, relaxed liquor laws and forgiving tourist dress code, it’s no wonder that they call this city the Vegas of the Middle East!

One benighted member of our party had come along nursing a broken arm. “I admire your pluck,” a kindly fellow guest had remarked, while admiring the lovely curlicues of Arabian henna that covered her cast. “Plucky?” she later told me. ”What was that man thinking? My butler appears instantly whenever I buzz for him to…

My butler appears instantly whenever I buzz for him to unscrew a fresh bottle of drinking water. (Try doing that with one hand!) He popped the cork on my Champagne with the savoir-faire of a sommelier. He peels my fruit and draws me a scented bath. He even typed out my emails in perfect English. If I had Aladdin’s magic carpet, I’d fly him home with me.”

Between excursions to Dubai’s eyepopping gold market, its exotic fragrant spice souk, over the top luxury shopping malls, graceful Palm Islands and the famous indoor ski slope with a working chairlift and real snow flurries, I wandered wide eyed around the hotel. With a selection of international restaurants, sophisticated cocktail lounges, one of the most beautiful spas in the world, a private beach and all the other services and features of an ultra luxury hotel, some guests will tell you they hardly go out.

And no wonder. More than 8,000 square yards of 22-carat gold leaf and over 24,000 square yards of marble in exotic patterns went into the interior. And miles of mosaics, Murano glass, stained glass, Swarovski crystal, graceful pointed arches and Islamic star patterns adorn this fairyland. A land, I should add, with an unusual sense of humor.

Perhaps the most talked about places to dine in the hotel is the elegant “undersea” seafood restaurant Al Mahara. Its tables are arranged around a huge aquarium like the one in the lobby above, and getting there is half the fun. We never did find out whose attack of whimsy may have hatched this bizarre plan, but guests actually come to dinner in a submarine.

A uniformed captain manages a straight face as she ushers her passengers aboard and takes the controls to navigate the sub for a bumpy three-minute descent. While the astonished guests can’t help a giggle or two, a parade of fish swims by the cabin windows (or was it on film?) without cracking a smile.

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