A Ski Chalet in the Desert: Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, Dubai
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If you want to stay at a chalet on the ski slopes, your options are limited: You can head to the Alps in Europe or to the Rockies in North America, and that’s about it. Or at least it was until 2006, when the Kempinski Hotel at the Mall of the Emirates opened right by Ski Dubai, possibly the weirdest ski resort in the world.
Opened one year earlier, Ski Dubai is an indoor resort, an artificially cooled giant building where you can walk in from a scorching desert climate and find yourself on the snow 10 minutes later. And for an even more incongruous twist, several of the hotel’s rooms are marketed as "Aspen Chalets" — very credible replicas, at least from the inside, of a well-appointed house you would find by the slopes in the American Rockies or the Alps.
During a stay in Dubai, we just had to check out what this uncanny juxtaposition looked like: a Swiss-style chalet, with the name of a Colorado ski town, set inside a shopping mall, within a bustling metropolis by the sea in the Arabian desert.
Kempinski isn’t part of a major hotel loyalty program such as IHG or Marriott. Instead, the 120-year-old, Switzerland-based chain is part of the Discovery program, along with 33 other mostly high-end brands. Since you cannot transfer credit card points to the program, my only option was cash.
So I booked on Orbitz, spending a hefty $852.41 for one night, more than double the price of a standard room. Those indoor slopes had better be insane, I told myself as I entered the number of my then-new Citi Prestige card. (I was working toward meeting the $7,500 spend within three months from account opening to get 75,000 bonus ThankYou Points.) The good news was that this stay got me 3x points, since Citi codes Orbitz as air travel. I earned $25 and change in Orbitz's own Orbucks program, too.
And how many Discovery points did I earn, you ask? None. That's right — the program does not award points. Instead, it merely grants status based on number of stays per year. I found this out later, after I enrolled in Discovery during check-in, by looking up my points balance and noticing it was a nice fat zero. Kempinski stays do qualify for frequent-flyer miles with several airlines, all European or Asian.
If you have a Platinum Card® from American Express, you should search within the Fine Hotels and Resorts program if you're looking to stay at a Kempinski hotel, as some do participate in the program. However, this particular property doesn't participate, nor do I have a Platinum Card, so that wasn't an option for me when booking this stay.
I called on the day of my arrival to inquire about early check-in — I was positively raring to go skiing. Not that you have to worry about slopes closing at sunset, though. Ski Dubai is open from 10:00am to 11:00pm, longer on weekends (and in May and June).
I was able to check in at noon, in the vast marble lobby just off the main level of the Mall of the Emirates — an enormous collection of shops just off Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's main artery.
The chalets include the services of a butler, and mine, a young man named Rizwan, came to introduce himself in the check-in area. After wheeling my bags to the chalet, Rizwan showed me around the property.
I asked that we begin from the Executive Lounge, as Kempinski calls it, where I wanted to grab a quick bite. The lounge was reserved for guests of the chalets, suites and executive rooms. I had the place to myself, and the tea and chocolate cookies Rizwan served me in the muffled atmosphere set a pleasant tone for my stay.
The chalets had their own entrance through a separate lobby and open lounge on an upper floor, which Rizwan led me through on the way down from the lounge. Like most of the hotel's common areas, it was quiet and smelled wonderful — a discreet, flowery fragrance that functioned as an olfactory signature throughout the property's indoor spaces.
The chalets were past another glass door, through a low-ceilinged area with a vaguely science-fiction vibe.
The chalet was in fact a large split-level space, with a hallway leading from the entrance, passing by the bathroom, followed by a living/dining area and then by a sleeping area overlooking Ski Dubai. This was the smallest of the four ski-chalet types available at the Kempinski.
The space was not very bright, as it overlooked Ski Dubai, a vast hangar with no openings to the outside, whose only illumination came from large floodlights.
"You can see outside, sir, but they can see inside too," Rizwan warned me, gesturing toward the skiers queueing for the lifts outside my window.
He also explained that the humidifier by the window was necessary to prevent fogging, because of the temperature differential between the chalet and the freezing indoor environment outside. I shut it off later for quiet, and the window somehow didn't fog up, so I kept it off.
If I got bored of watching people ski, there was a large TV-cum-internet monitor.
The illusion of being cozily ensconced in an avatar of snowy Swiss-ness was maintained by the cookbooks placed on the kitchen counter...
... but not by the white and rosé wines in the well-stocked minibar, which suggested a summer afternoon in the South of France rather than an Alpine winter. They were a 2015 Chablis from Domaine Laroche, a 2015 Côtes de Provence rosé from Château de l'Aumerade and, a bit more befitting the intended atmosphere, a dessert wine: a Domaine de Coyeux Muscat 2007. They were, however, chilled to perfection.
A Sony Playstation PS4 was nestled in a closet by the window. Nice touch, but I did not try it — I had just a little more than 24 hours in the chalet, and there was real-world fun to be had right outside my window.
Speaking of the window: The curtains opened with electric controls one could operate from the bed, located between one of several international power outlets and central controls for the lights.
In the bathroom, marble abounded.
The main area was flanked by a large shower with a marble bench (stylish, but with very sharp, hard corners) and water closet.
There were Hermès toiletries in the shower, which had perfect water pressure and temperature adjustments. It easily passed the famous TPG shower test for very tall people.
The Hermès toiletries instantly became my favorites. "Green Orange Water" may not seem like an inviting name for a line of toiletries, but it sounds better in French — and they smelled amazing. A bottle of L’Ambre des Merveilles (for women) and Terre d’Hermès (for men) perfumes were available to take away, and made for excellent gifts.
Looking outside left no doubt as to what Ski Dubai actually is: a manicured indoor illusion. But I was itching to try it.
So, What Was the Skiing Like?
Ski Dubai’s site promised a black diamond run. Spoiler: It was not black. While it wouldn't be a piece of cake for a beginner, the steeper side of the “mountain” was nowhere near the kind of challenge that a real, open-air resort would call black. It was still an enjoyable quick run, though, if you considered where you were.
Even for a rusty skier like me, getting to the bottom was a 30-second affair. There wasn’t any scenery to stop and look at, and a series of slalom gates placed on the steeper slope provided an irresistible invitation to try and imitate one’s Olympic idols. The snow wasn’t exactly powder, but it did a passable job — again, considering that I was skiing indoors on the Arabian Peninsula.
From the chairlift, you could go left to the steeper course or right to an easier one. In the middle there was a snowboard course with jumps. On the far left edge was a platter lift, faster than the chairlift.
But what Ski Dubai lacked in technical difficulty, it made up for in cosmopolitan flavor. There aren't many places where you hear Arabic, Hindi, German and English spoken all at once while queueing for a ski lift.
The price of admission to Ski Dubai itself was reduced as part of the chalet package. Instead of the usual 210 dirhams ($57) for a two-hour pass including unlimited chairlift or ski-lift rides, I paid 50 dirhams, less than $14. I could have bought an all-day pass one for a little more, but I found two hours to be plenty of time. You could also take ski lessons, if you were so inclined. TPG Points & Miles editor Sarah Silbert, in fact, learned to ski here.
All the equipment you needed could be rented on the premises, included in the ticket price. I brought only a hat and gloves from home — those couldn't be rented, only purchased at a discount — and got pants, jacket, boots, disposable socks, skis and poles from Ski Dubai's well-stocked rental shop; all were in excellent condition. The skis and boots were both from Rossignol.
You could choose brand-name clothing for 150 dirhams ($40), but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the generic combo I got, bearing the Ski Dubai logo. You changed in a semi-private area, which wasn't an issue — the pants and jacket were baggy enough to fit over street clothes. Lockers were provided for what you didn't need to take with you on the slopes.
The only thing that bothered me about Ski Dubai was a nagging feeling that what you were doing — skiing in the desert, at sea level, a hair north of the actual tropics — was unnatural and wrong. And, on a more practical level, not bringing a scarf was dumb. While fresh mountain air on one's neck might have been pleasant, the brutal air conditioning required to keep a giant icebox cold enough for snow in triple-digit heat was not.
As for the other skiers, most were decked out in rental gear, but some, like the one below seen at the bottom of the facility, had brought their own.
If you were feeling hungry or thirsty après-ski, you had a few places to choose from, with or without a view of the slopes.
I had warned Rizwan that I would be back after a couple of hours of skiing, and when I got to my room I found a delicious assortment of chocolates and fruits waiting for me, as well as marshmallows for hot chocolate — and a box of dates. We may have been in make-believe Switzerland inside the weird world of Ski Dubai, but I very much liked this concession to the undeniable fact that outside was the United Arab Emirates.
When I called him to the room later — using a dedicated button on the phone — to have my clothes pressed, Rizwan inquired affably after my impression of the skiing. I told him that I had grown up skiing in the Alps, and he observed that the hotel often had Swiss guests, who tended to go (not surprisingly) for the pool chalets instead.
Food and Beverage
I chose a room-service dinner while working rather than going to the hotel's main restaurant, the modern Arabic Olea, one of several options at the Kempinski. Room service included Middle Eastern, European, Asian and Indian selections, and I would have loved to find something typically Swiss among the European options — rösti, say, if not a full-on cheese fondue or raclette.
But that's nitpicking. I got a very un-Swiss chicken kabsa (a classic Saudi dish with rice) and cream of mushroom soup. And since I was working, I drank San Pellegrino sparkling water despite having a good wine list to choose from.
I appreciated the speed of delivery and the quiet efficiency of the server who brought and later removed my dinner.
The kabsa was definitely the first I had eaten by a ski slope, and it was quite good.
The next morning, I could have had coffee, tea or pastries in the lobby at Aspen by Kempinski, an intriguing hybrid of European café fare and Emirati opulence, and then I could have proceeded directly to do some shopping by walking right through the glass doors opening onto the mall.
I felt like more substantial fare, so I headed to the lounge on the 11th floor for a sit-down breakfast.
A breakfast buffet had been set up, and I was the only guest taking advantage of it at 10:00am. I had a bowl of blackberries and cantaloupe from the buffet and an excellent plate of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon that I ordered from the waiter, who gladly consented to my request even though salmon was not on the lounge menu. In the course of a half hour, a few more people came in, but the lounge's quiet atmosphere was not disturbed in the least, and service continued with the previous day's unobtrusive yet attentive tone.
Unlike inside Ski Dubai, air conditioning in the common areas of the hotel was not cranked up to freezing, which I liked, and the free in-room Wi-Fi was slow, which I did not. A speed test showed a measly download speed of 3.87 Mbps and, mysteriously, an Internet provider in Qatar.
From the lounge, I had a view to the south including the pool, which put me in the mood for a swim, since I had no appointments to keep that morning.
The pool's only drawback was the proximity of busy Sheikh Zayed Road. Otherwise, the water was warm — it pretty much always is in Dubai except in winter — and the atmosphere pleasant.
A couple of hours of reading, swimming and drinking lemonade brought to my deck chair by a pool attendant were a delight, only slightly marred by noise from the nearby road.
The Metro running by the pool wasn't as bad a nuisance as one might heave feared. It was certainly quieter than the traffic on Sheikh Zayed. The sail shape of Dubai's trademark Burj Al Arab hotel was a reminder that, Swiss vibe or not, we weren't really in the Alps. Or in Aspen.
Back in my room, I called Rizwan, who appeared with my freshly pressed clothes and a warm smile. I asked him to arrange a late checkout for me at 3:00pm, which he gladly did.
Later, when it was time to head to the airport, he packed my bag and led me to checkout, asking on the way how I had liked my my stay. I said that I had very much enjoyed it, and would love to return.
"Inshallah!" he replied, beaming — "God willing."
Rizwan suggested that I get to the airport using the hotel's Lexus instead of Uber or a taxi, which he advised me would be the same price, 105 dirhams (about $28). The ride to the airport later turned out to be payable, weirdly, in cash only, which could have been a problem. Fortunately, I had enough local currency left in my pocket.
Tipping in the Emirates is not expected, but there was no way I would let Rizwan’s spot-on mix of efficiency and friendliness go unrecognized, and I tipped him 120 dirhams ($30) as he saw me off with a bow.
It’s hard to find fault with the room and the service at this Kempinski hotel. Its location is perfect for skiing at Ski Dubai or shopping at the Mall of the Emirates, and if you want to do either or both, the Kempinski won’t disappoint. Too bad about the decidedly subpar loyalty program.