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Opulent and unabashedly artificial, Dubai could be a genuinely refreshing post-lockdown break


One&Only The Royal Mirage

One&Only The Royal Mirage

Press Association Images

One&Only The Royal Mirage

For all its opulence, I've never cared much for Dubai. But with the slate wiped clean by Covid and fresh perspectives demanded by rapidly diminishing travel options, there's an impetus to find out what's on offer. Which is how I've ended up in the UAE, one of the last remaining countries granted an air corridor with the UK - although with new lockdowns in place, many of us will now have to wait.

I'm not alone. More than 200,000 overseas visitors descended during the Christmas period, according to Gulf News, including a host of reality TV stars and football player Cristiano Ronaldo - who came to collect an award, soak up sunshine and hit the gym with his pal, the Crown Prince.

The emirate's New Year celebrations were speculated to be the most expensive yet, with tables in restaurants costing up to 1K per person, and a spectacular seven-minute fireworks display setting the entire Gulf alight. Meanwhile, we sat indoors watching an effigy of Captain Tom flicker above the empty Thames.

Dubai is in heady spirits when I arrive. It's winter, and the temperature is a comfortable 25C, making swimsuits permissible and jackets unnecessary at night. Smiling groups of friends are sipping cappuccinos beneath pastel cafe awnings, malls are selling a plethora of non-essential items, and women are in salons getting their hair cut.

It feels like a world from a distant memory; a parallel universe far removed from the dystopia I've left behind. The scene reminds me of a religious Doom painting, where the chosen ones are upstairs on clouds eating caviar and grapes, while we're writhing in a basement of fire and brimstone, waiting for Deliveroos.

Of course, it hasn't been an easy ride for Dubai. Although the population of the UAE's cosmopolitan city is largely expatriate, foreigners were still subject to strict laws. Lockdown was fierce: leaving the house, even for exercise or dog walking, was forbidden, and police permits were required for collecting groceries or medical prescriptions. Refusing to wear a mask could result in a penalty of £600.

But strict measures have delivered successful results; and although the virus hasn't completely disappeared, the 1,590 new cases recorded on January 3 are a blip compared to the rest of us.

Firstly, every traveller must present a negative PCR test to enter the country, although anyone entering the UAE from Britain can do their test on arrival for free.

There are no queues, it takes less than 30 seconds, and results are delivered within 24 hours.

Emirates, whose sanitised planes create a bubble-safe start to the holiday, have also introduced an industry first multi-risk travel insurance, offering Covid medical cover alongside all the standard provisions of travel disruption and loss of belongings - all included in the airfare price.


The lobby interior of Atlantis The Palm

The lobby interior of Atlantis The Palm

Press Association Images

The lobby interior of Atlantis The Palm

Indulgence is Dubai's forte, but there's space for peace and slow contemplation too. Surrounded by 65 acres of landscaped lawns, woozy palms and a stretch of private beach, the One & Only's palatial Royal Mirage is a Garden of Eden in the heart of the high-rise frenzy. Jetsurfers and paddleboarders skim across the water, while bikini bathers relax beneath parasols, as a parade of waiters deliver drinks from the bar. Drinks from a bar, I sigh. It's the simple pleasures in life we miss most.

That afternoon, I visit the hammam, a cavern of marble surfaces and soft lights dancing from Moorish lanterns. As the therapist sloughs away several centimetres of dead skin, I can feel the last nine months of lockdown stress and worry peel away.

It's the start of a much-needed self-pampering session.

Dressing up for dinner at the waterside 101 Dining Room that evening feels like a treat, even if I'm dining alone and the only person I'm setting out to impress is me.

But even in ordinary times, Chef Yannick Alleno's menu is outstanding: a full steamed artichoke comes with every juicy leaf intact, and the tuna is so tender I wonder if I've eaten my way up to those seraphic clouds.

The Royal Mirage was fully booked for the Christmas period, I'm told, with some guests begging to extend stays as news of new lockdowns emerged.

"The UAE will be the last country to close its doors to Britain," insists Olivier Louis, the resort's managing director, when he joins me for lunch at the property's Mediterranean-style bistro, DRIFT. It's a hand of friendship the Middle East has been extending for some time, and perhaps a reflection of the region's increasing dependency on tourism, as the riches of an historical oil industry fade away. "We want people to come."

The challenges of keeping a hotel of 1,539 guest rooms Covid-free are high: attendants wipe lift buttons after every entry and exit, and all glass surfaces of the on-site aquarium (this is the lost sunken city, after all) are scrupulously cleaned.

But it creates a sense of reassurance without dampening playful spirits in any way.

One morning, I wake to watch the sun rise from my high-rise room, its rays ricocheting across a ridgeline of steel and concrete.

Dubai is glowing with optimism; good moods are infectious and spreading at a rate that's pleasingly high.

As dawns go, it's surprisingly beautiful and uplifting; because in that golden orb lies a promise of brighter days ahead.

Belfast Telegraph