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TPG contributor Alex Schechter spent some time in the Dubai recently, so we asked him to write up a Destination of the Week on one of the world’s most intriguing cities – one that has fast shot to prominence as a center of finance, commerce and the finer things in life.
Dubai began exporting its oil 44 years ago, and ever since the government has spent a significant chunk of its fortune building the place up as one of the Middle East’s glitziest hubs – and with solid results. Tourism now makes up between 25%-35% of the city’s economy, and despite a brief setback during the economic collapse, a steady stream of epic, multi-billion dollar projects (like Taj Arabia, an upcoming $1 billion complex that will include a larger-than-life replica of the Taj Mahal) are continually announced as new skyscrapers shoot up like weeds out of the desert.
Travelers flying Emirates often opt for a 24-hour layover in Dubai to see the sights while en route to their final destination. This certainly works: in a single day, you can cross off most of the city’s “must-do’s”: ascend to the top of Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest free-standing building), stroll through the Dubai Mall (a more happening place than you’d assume), puff on a sheesha while enjoying the nightly Dubai Fountain display, and end the evening with a quick visit to One & Only‘s Jetty Lounge or Atlantis the Palm‘s Nasimi Beach, a few of the city’s more popular “beach clubs.”
Of course, the more time you have, the better. Dubai is made up of many different neighborhoods (some with unfortunate names like Healthcare City and Business Bay), but you can generally pick an area based on the type of activity you’re after. Scenic Dubai Marina, which connects to the upscale Jumeirah Beach Residence, is a haven for expats and Westerners and offers international eateries like Le Pain Quotidien, the Ritz-Carlton’s Splendido and two Richard Sandoval outposts (Toro Toro and Maya’s) scattered along a gleaming, high-end promenade known as ‘The Walk.’ From here, via metro or taxi, you can easily access the Palm, Jebel Ali Golf Resort or white sandy Jumeirah Beach.
Meanwhile, uber-trendy Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC for short) is the real city center, where you’ll find Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, and a neighboring warehouse district known as Al Quoz has recently witnessed a surge in art galleries. Pop into TheJamJar, ARTSPACE, Majlis or XVA Gallery to check out works by contemporary Emirati artists, and afterwards try out one of Dubai Mall’s myriad attractions (an aquarium, an ice skating rink and a cinema, to name a few).
One important thing to remember is that in Dubai, liquor licenses are issued almost exclusively to hotels. So naturally, that’s where you’ll find most of the nightlife action—from Neos at The Address Downtown, to Sublime, located in the basement of the Ibis Hotel. There are also plenty of high-quality restaurants, and though it’s difficult to travel on a budget in Dubai, meals at places like Al Nafoorah or Okku are well worth the splurge. If it’s just a classy after-dinner drink you’re after, you’ll find exactly that in any of the sparkling hotels along Sheikh Zayed Road, like the new Ritz-Carlton Dubai DIFC, the super VIP Armani Hotel (housed at the base of Burj Khalifa) or the iconic twin Jumeirah Emirates Towers.
Finally, there is Bur Dubai (literally, ‘old Dubai’), the humbler, less polished and frankly more Middle Eastern-feeling part of the city. Zigzag your way through Bastakiya’s narrow alleys and wind towers before reaching the Dubai Museum (housed inside the 18th century Al Fahidi Fort), the tranquil Grand Mosque and the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding—all within a ten minute walk from each other. Then, pay Dhs1 (just 26 cents!) for a scenic abra ride across the creek to the fabled spice, gold and perfume souks. Alternatively, private abras can be rented for groups of 4 or more (starting at around Dhs100, or $26), offering the chance to cruise up and down Dubai Creek at your leisure.
Dubai is such an international city that at times, with all the Italian, French and sushi joints catering to homesick expats, you can forget you’re in the Middle East at all. Make a point of visiting one of Bur Dubai’s quality Arabic restaurants—places like Al Mansour Dhow, Al Areesh and Local House all come highly recommended (especially the latter, for its juicy camel burgers!)—to get a taste for the native cuisine.
Dubai International Airport (DXB) is the third busiest airport in the world, serving over 145 airlines and 260 destinations worldwide. No surprise there, though: strategically located halfway between Asia, North Africa and Europe, Dubai is a natural connecting point between important hubs like Shanghai, Tokyo, Cairo, London and Paris. In 2012 alone, 57,684,550 passengers passed through.
Terminal 3, which was completed in 2008, is used exclusively by Emirates Airlines, the government-owned and controlled international carrier that Dubai founded in 1985. The airline continues to expand its reach with frequently announced new service routes—Warsaw, Tokyo and Algiers are all set to launch this year. Currently, there are eight direct service routes to and from North America (New York, Washington DC, Seattle, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto).
Emirates has also maximized Dubai’s strategic location by building partnerships with several international airlines like easyJet, Japan Airlines, JetBlue, Korean Air and TAP Portugal. In the case of Qantas, which was announced toward the end of 2012, the partnership offers a combined 175 destinations to members of both airlines’ loyalty programs, as well as the chance to earn, accumulate and redeem frequent flyer miles through both Emirates Skywards Miles and Qantas Frequent Flyer. DXB airport is only a 30-minute ride to central DIFC area via the Red Line Metro, which connects most of Dubai. For US-based flyers, don’t forget that you can now redeem your Alaska Mileage Plan miles on Emirates for awards as well.
As one of the world’s major business hubs, Dubai has no end of hotel options, many in the luxury category. Though prices are high, that means plenty of opportunities for earning and redeeming hotel points in your program of choice.
Radisson Royal Dubai: One of Radisson’s newest properties is a reboot of the old JAL Hotel, and its location along Sheikh Zayed Road makes it convenient for business travelers. Located next to the World Trade Centre Metro stop, the sleek 51-story tower offers a rooftop pool, spa, Royal Club Lounge and three restaurants (including a popular Japanese restaurant, Icho, with private dining rooms and a 51st floor cocktail bar). The hotel’s 471 rooms all feature free WiFi, large flatscreen TVs and remote-controlled curtains opening onto views of Burj Khalifa, depending on which way you’re facing. Rates in March begin at 1000 AED ($272 USD) or 50,000 Gold Points per night.
Radisson Blu Dubai Deira Creek: This 271-room hotel sits on the banks of Dubai Creek, offering easy access to the gold souk as well as pretty waterfront views. The spacious rooms offer free WiFi and balconies overlooking an outdoor pool downstairs. The hotel’s 15 restaurants and bars—including the 24-hour Boulvar, the award-winning Fish Market and Boulevard Gourmet, a pastry shop—makes it a popular hangout for locals and visitors alike. Amenities include a tennis court, two squash courts, a sundeck and a fitness center. Rates in March begin at 700 AED ($190 USD) or 44,000 Gold Points per night.
Hilton Dubai Creek: This waterfront Hilton offers 150 rooms and suites, all with ergonomic desk chairs, floor to ceiling windows, marble bathrooms and 32-inch flatscreen TVs. The sleek rooftop pool deck is fantastic for gazing out over Dubai Creek, while the hotel’s farm-to-table restaurant, Table 9, showcases the talents of two award-winning chefs, Scott Price and Nick Alvis. Hilton HHonor members who are upgraded to Executive Suites enjoy wraparound balconies, free airport transfers and access to the stylish Executive Lounge. Rates in March begin at 1,175 AED ($320 USD) or 50,000 HHonors points per night (Category 7).
*Points figures are quoted in Hilton pre-change category requirements. These are available before March 28, 2013.
Park Hyatt Dubai: Situated on the far side of Dubai Creek, about a fifteen-minute cab ride to the big malls, the 225-room Park Hyatt Dubai is a sprawling luxury resort complete with a full-service spa, 25m outdoor pool, four jacuzzis and plenty of Moroccan-inspired decor—best of all, it offers direct access to the neighboring Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club. All rooms are large and come with balconies, as well as Nespresso machines, walk-in showers, 42-inch flatscreen TVs and DVD players; for a slightly higher rate, Spa King rooms are situated close to the pool and come with a steam room, private patio, separate living room and the option for in-room massages. Of the hotel’s nine restaurants, Traiteur and The Thai Kitchen are the two stand-outs. Rates in March begin at 1,975 AED ($540 USD) a night. This is a Category 5 property and requires 18,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points for a free night redemption.
Grand Hyatt Dubai: Popular with families, this 674-room property has plenty to keep guests busy during their stay: a Technogym-equipped fitness center, spa, indoor pool, 3 outdoor pools and a 450m running track. Rooms are plain but spacious, with free WiFi, marble bathrooms and generous work areas. Most of the hotel’s 14 restaurants (ranging from Arabic to Italian to seafood) are accessed from a giant circular lobby landscaped with lush palm trees, waterfalls and small streams connected by bridges. The Japanese sushi bar serves up a mouthwatering bento box for lunch, while an ample breakfast spread features fresh-baked loaves, pastries, a deli counter, gourmet cheeses and a hot buffet. Rates in March begin at 1,050 AED ($285 USD) a night. This is a Category 4 property and requires 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points for a free night redemption.
Hyatt also operates the Hyatt Regency Dubai at the city’s northern end.
JW Marriott Marquis Dubai: Dubai’s newest Marriott is also the world’s tallest hotel at 1164 feet, with a prime location along Sheikh Zayed Road. The property overlooks the city’s popular Safa Park, which features a lake, paddle boats and plenty of picnic spots. Though only one of the hotel’s twin towers is currently open (the second won’t debut until 2014), that still amounts to 804 guest rooms, nine restaurants, five bars, a spa, an outdoor pool and 24 meeting rooms. Modern, sophisticated rooms offer floor to ceiling windows, desks with built-in electrical outlets, iPod stations and master room control tablets. A 24-hour Executive Lounge offers complimentary snacks, afternoon tea and cocktails in the evenings. Rates in March begin at 800 AED ($220 USD) or 30,000 Marriott Rewards points per night (Category 6).
Ritz-Carlton, Dubai: A major expansion project is still ongoing at this luxury beachfront property. After completing a new 6-story wing with 150 rooms, the hotel plans to close off the existing 138 rooms for renovation. Other planned additions to the hotel include a new outdoor pool, Asian fusion restaurant, a Club Lounge and a ballroom. Backing up to a 350-meter stretch of private beach, the secluded gardens are interspersed with waterfalls and offer plenty of quiet, shaded lounge areas and private cabanas. Inside the hotel, Splendido offers gourmet Italian food, while the garden-facing Lobby Lounge is a high-ceilinged hall with fresh-baked pastries, scones and cakes. Rooms face either the Arabian Gulf or the pools and come with private balconies, walk-in wardrobes, marble baths, separate showers and toilets, and twice-daily housekeeping service. Rates in March begin at 1,800 AED ($490 USD) or 50,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards points per night (Tier 3).
Marriott’s other Dubai properties include JW Marriott Dubai, Marriott Executive Apartments Dubai Creek, Ritz-Carlton DIFC, Dubai Marriott Healthcare City, Marriott Executive Apartments Dubai Healthcare City, Dubai Marriott Harbour Hotel & Suites, Courtyard Dubai Green Community and Marriott Executive Apartments Dubai Green Community.
InterContinental Dubai Festival City: Located near the airport, this iconic hotel on the banks of Dubai Creek offers 498 rooms and suites, all featuring rich wood accents, large bathrooms and fully-equipped desks. Beyond the hotel’s four restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire) is Vista, a stylish cocktail bar with views over the Creek and piano music tinkling in the background. A 24-hour gym, outdoor pool, and full-service spa are also available, though because the hotel connects to the Crowne Plaza and Festival Centre, it offers access to even more shops, restaurants, and attractions. Rates in March begin at 1,350 AED ($370 USD) or 45,000 Priority Club points per night (Category 8).
Other IHG properties in Dubai include InterContinental Residence Suites Dubai Festival City, Crowne Plaza Dubai Deira, Crowne Plaza Dubai, Crowne Plaza Dubai Festival City, Holiday Inn Bur Dubai, Holiday Inn Downtown Dubai, Holiday Inn Express Dubai Jumeirah, Holiday Inn Express Dubai Airport, Holiday Inn Express Dubai Safa Park, Holiday Inn Dubai Al Barsha and Holiday Inn Express Dubai Internet City.
Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa: Built along Mina Seyahi Beach directly opposite the Palm, Le Royal Méridien Beach Resort & Spa features 220 all-white rooms with purple accents, Cinq Mondes toiletries, signature LM beds and ocean views. The property boasts its own private beach, four tennis courts, a fitness center and every imaginable water sport (water skiing, kayaking, windsurfing). The entire hotel was renovated in 2012, including all guest rooms and public spaces, and Le Meridien’s signature dining concepts The Hub and Latitude Bar were added. The hotel’s most well-known venue remains Barasti, a bi-level beach club with live music, a restaurant, a bar and a pool. Rates in February begin at 1,800 AED ($490 USD) or 20,000-25,000 Starpoints points per night (Category 6).
Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort: This 256-room property sits directly on Jumeirah Beach, at the southern end of busy Dubai Marina, and offers easy access to The Walk, a popular mile-long restaurant and shopping complex. Guests can visit Armonia Spa, which features its own Turkish hammam, plus a Sheraton fitness center, a pool, and an adjoining garden planted with over 200 palm trees. Dining options include Peacock, Al Hadiqa, Ciao Ristorante, Azure Beach Bar, Moods Bar and Bliss Lounge. Rooms come with Sheraton Sweet Sleeper beds, coffee and tea makers, interactive LCD TVs and mostly ocean views. Rates in March begin at 1,650 AED ($450 USD) or 12,000-16,000 Starpoints per night (Category 5).
Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai: One of the crown jewels in Starwood’s Luxury Collection, this deluxe all-suite property is situated in the middle of an 87 square-mile desert reserve (it takes an hour by car from Dubai center) and the decor features wooden gazelle carvings, Omani doors, Bedouin oil jugs and antique writing desks. Each of the 42 suites comes with a private pool, as well as private decks, in-suite dining, custom-made king-size beds, walk-in showers and unobstructed desert views. On-site activities include wildlife tours, Ghaf tree walks, horseback rising, guided nature walks and desert safaris, while Al Diwaan serves up traditional organic Arabic cuisine. Rates in March begin at 5,400 AED ($1,470 USD) or 30,000-35,000 Starpoints per night (Category 7).
Starwood’s other properties in Dubai include Le Méridien Dubai, Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina, Le Méridien Fairway, Four Points by Sheraton Downtown, Four Points by Sheraton Bur Dubai, Four Points by Sheraton Sheikh Zayed Road, Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel & Towers, Sheraton Deira Hotel, Sheraton Dubai Mall of the Emirates, Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina and Grosvenor House, Dubai.
Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a loyalty program for Amex Platinum cardholders who receive special benefits at participating hotels such as early check-in and late check-out, complimentary breakfast, room upgrades, and other perks.
Raffles: Located at the eastern end of Dubai Creek close to the airport, this unusual pyramid-shaped hotel flanks the Wafi mall, a popular shopping and entertainment complex that houses Khan Murjan Souk. Though it’s not centrally located, the hotel offers eight restaurants and bars (including the hip, Asian-inspired RED Louge), plus an outdoor swimming pool, spa, fitness center and a botanical garden featuring more than 129,000 different species of flora. Spacious rooms come with private jacuzzis, walk-in closets, separate toilets, living room areas and balconies, many of which offer views of the Burj Khalifa. Rates in March begin at 3,895 AED ($1,060 USD) a night.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards, Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
Burj Al Arab: Dubai’s most renowned hotel – notable for its sail-like shape – sits apart from the coastline so that you need to drive over a small connecting road to reach it. Guests are spoiled with personal butlers, a yacht charter, a private beach and a fleet of Rolls-Royces. The hotel’s 202 duplex suites are fitted with spiral staircases, dining tables, Hermes toiletries and jacuzzi tubs. Dining options include Al Iwan, Al Mahara (which has its own aquarium), Al Muntaha, Bab Al Yam, Juna Lounge, Junsui, Majlis Al Bahar, Sahn Eddar and Skyview Bar, located at the tip of the sail-shaped building. Rates in March begin at 6,741 AED ($1,835 USD)a night.
Jumeirah Emirates Towers: Jumeirah’s iconic twin towers face each other along the side of bustling Sheikh Zayed Road. A favorite among business travelers, this 400-room hotel neighbors the Dubai International Convention Centre, the World Trade Centre and DIFC, and offers easy access to the nearby metro station. A rooftop swimming pool, a spa and 15 restaurants and bars (including the popular Rib Room, Tokyo@thetowers and the 51st floor Vu’s) are a few of the hotel’s main attractions, and rooms come with floor to ceiling windows, free WiFi and Nespresso machines. Rates in March begin at 1,350 AED ($370 USD) a night.
Other Visa Signature properties in Dubai include Raffles Dubai, InterCon Dubai Festival City , Desert Palm, The Palace, Old Town, The Address, Dubai Marina, Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, Al Qasr Hotel Madinat Jumeirah, Park Hyatt Dubai, Mina A’Salam Hotel Madinat Jumeirah and Dar Al Masyaf Madinat Jumeirah. The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.
The American Express Platinum card has some of the best perks out there: cardholders enjoy the best domestic lounge access (Delta SkyClubs, Centurion Lounges, and Priority Pass), a $200 annual airline fee credit as well as up to $200 in Uber credits, and mid-tier elite status at SPG, Marriott, and Hilton. Combined with the 60,000 point welcome offer -- worth $1,140 based on TPG's valuations -- this card is a no-brainer for frequent travelers. Here are 5 reasons you should consider this card, as well as how you can figure out if the $550 annual fee makes sense for you.