As a modern icon, however, the Burj is unmatched. Although not much more than a decade old, the building’s instantly recognizable outline has already established itself as a global symbol of Dubai to rival the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the Sydney Opera House. Even the top-floor helipad has acquired celebrity status: André Agassi and Roger Federer once famously played tennis on it, while Tiger Woods used it as a makeshift driving range, punting shots into the sea (before ringing room service for more balls), and more recently it was turned into an impromptu green for Rory McIlroy to practise his bunker shots on.
The Burj is home to the world’s first so-called seven-star hotel, an expression coined by a visiting journalist to emphasize the unique levels of style and luxury offered within (officially, of course, such a category doesn’t exist). Staying here is a very expensive pleasure, and even just visiting presents certain financial and practical challenges. Fortunately the building’s magnificent exterior can be enjoyed for free from numerous vantage points nearby.Read More
Designed to echo the shape of a dhow’s sail, the Burj al Arab forms a kind of maritime counterpart to the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s “breaking wave”. Its sail-like shape offers a contemporary tribute to Dubai’s historic seafaring traditions, enhanced (as is its very exclusive aura) by its location on a specially reclaimed island some 300m offshore. The building was constructed between 1993 and 1999 by UK engineering and architectural firm W.S. Atkins under lead designer Tom Wright. The statistics alone are impressive. At 321m, the Burj is the third-tallest dedicated hotel in the world. The spire-like superstructure alone, incredibly, is taller than the entire Jumeirah Beach Hotel, while the atrium (180m) is capacious enough to swallow up the entire Statue of Liberty – or, for that matter, the 38-storey Dubai World Trade Centre.
The sheer scale of the Burj is overwhelming, and only really appreciated in the flesh, since photographs of the building, perhaps inevitably, always seem to diminish it to the size of an expensive toy. The Burj’s scale is tempered by its extraordinary grace and the sinuous simplicity of its basic design, broken only by the celebrated cantilevered helipad and (on the building’s sea-facing side) the projecting strut housing Al Muntaha (“The Highest”) restaurant and the Skyview Bar. The hotel’s shore-facing side mainly comprises a huge sheet of white Teflon-coated fibreglass cloth – a symbolic sail which is spectacularly illuminated from within by night, turning the entire building into a magically glowing beacon. Less universally admired is the building’s rear elevation, in the shape of a huge cross, a feature that caused considerable controversy among Muslims at the time of construction, though it’s only visible from the sea, and is almost never photographed.
Most of the interior is actually hollow, comprising an enormous atrium vibrantly coloured in great swathes of red, blue, green and gold. The original design comprised a far more restrained composition of whites and soft blues, but was significantly altered at the insistence of Sheikh Mohammed, who called in interior designer Khuan Chew (responsible for the colourful lobby at the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel) to jazz things up. The contrast with the classically simple exterior could hardly be greater, and the atrium and public areas look like something between a Vegas casino and a James Bond movie set, the casual extravagance of it all encapsulated by enormous fish tanks flanking the entrance staircase which are so deep that cleaners have to put on diving suits to scrub them out (a performance you can witness daily 2–4pm). For many visitors, the whole thing is simply a classic example of Middle Eastern bling gone mad (that’s not gold paint on the walls, incidentally, but genuine 22ct gold leaf). Still, there’s something undeniably impressive about both the sheer size of the thing and Chew’s slightly psychedelic decor, with huge expanses of vibrant primary colour and endless balconied floors rising far overhead, supported by massive bulbous golden piers – like a “modern-day pirate galleon full of treasure”, as Wright himself neatly described it.
Visiting the Burj Al Arab
Visiting the Burj Al Arab
Non-guests are only allowed into the Burj with a prior reservation at one of the hotel’s bars, cafés or restaurants. The cheapest option is to come for a cocktail at the 27th-floor Skyview Bar (see p.121; minimum spend 250dh/person), perhaps the best way of getting a good look at the hotel without going bankrupt. Alternatively, a visit for one of the Burj’s sumptuous afternoon teas (285–450dh) in either the Skyview Bar or at the Sahn Eddar atrium lounge is another possibility. Moving up the scale, the Burj boasts two of the city’s most spectacular (and pricey) restaurants: Al Muntaha and Al Mahara, and there are also two cheaper but significantly less appealing buffet restaurants: the Arabian-style Al Iwan or the slighty nicer pan-Asian Junsui (lunch/dinner buffets 360/410dh at both) – although you’d be better off taking afternoon tea or a drink. If you want to go the whole hog, try the novel “Culinary Flight” (lunch/dinner 800/1000dh) comprising drinks at the Skyview Bar followed by a four-course meal, with each course served in a different restaurant, rounded off with dessert at Sahn Eddar.