Before the Burj Khalifa made it’s record breaking debut, the iconic image of Dubai we saw across the rest of the world was the Burj Al-Arab. Completed in 1999, the sail-shaped hotel is 321m high and houses 60 floors. Rumour has it that the lobby is so high, you could fit the Statue of Liberty inside. If you want to go and measure it for yourself, make sure you’ve saved up some dirhams. The hotel is only open to private guests and paying customers at the restaurant and bar, where there is quite a hefty minimum payment. Happily, walking along Jumeirah beach and seeing the outside of the hotel at sunset is completely free. Whether the architect intended it for perfect photographs or not, the building sits on it’s very own island 300m out from the shore.
Further along the coast is my favourite neighbourhood in Dubai. Jumeira Beach Residence, or JBR for short, is the closest that Dubai comes to having an arty neighbourhood. The Walk at JBR was built in 2008 for the 20,000 people that live there, and is the first outdoor shopping and dining promenade in the city. The 1.7km walk is a great mix of restaurants, shops and food stalls right on the beach.
Not content with stunning sandy beaches, great amenities, luxury hotels and resorts, a choice of watersports and even a beach library, developers in Dubai of course have to go one better. As if it’s not impressive enough to build a 60 storey hotel on it’s own island, they have been extending the waterfront property potential even further.
As the name suggests, The Palm is an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree. The trunk is 2km long, and there are 16 fronds that are kept in place by an 11km long crescent-shaped breakwater. It took 1 billion cubic metres of dredged sand and stone to build the island, the centrepiece of which is the Atlantis – The Palm Hotel. As well as the standard Dubai transport options of driving and catching a taxi, there is also an elevated monorail between Gateway Towers and the Atlantis. Apparently there were plans to connect the monorail to the metro line, but sadly this hasn’t happened so far. Which has led to the running of one of the most bizarre transport connections I have ever seen, it that it doesn’t really connect anything. As you have to drive to get to Gateway Towers anyway, most people just drive the whole way. Once I’d managed to explain to my confused taxi driver that I specifically wanted to catch the monorail and not just have him take me to the Atlantis, he dropped me at the station after Gateway Towers. I honestly thought the monorail must have been abandoned in between my guidebook being written and me visiting Dubai. I was in the middle of a huge housing estate, and I could see about 3 other people. The monorail station looked like it was closed, and it was only when I walked right up to the automatic doors and they opened that I thought maybe I was in the right place. Inside, one lonely attendant sat in the ticket booth next to shiny new automated machines that apparently don’t work. I think I might have been the only person he served that day, possibly that week. Thankfully, once the monorail arrived, I wasn’t the only person aboard. I think that would have completely freaked me out, but there was a group of tourists I assumed had been dropped off at Gateway Towers. The monorail gives you the best view of The Atlantis. I caught a taxi back from The Palm, and my lovely taxi driver kindly stopped on the highway so I could take a photo of the hotel from the front. However, it was nowhere near as good at the vantage point you get from the elevated monorail. There are also a lot fewer cranes in the way. From the monorail you also get an idea of how The Palm is designed, which is very difficult when you are on the ground simply because the island is so huge. Out of every attraction I visited whilst in Dubai, The Palm was the biggest disappointment. Aside from the monorail journey, which once I got on it was a great experience, I found the island quite boring. I’m sure I would have a different opinion if I was staying at The Atlantis, but as a day visitor you are very restricted as to which areas you’re allowed in. There is a waterpark and aquarium at The Atlantis which are both open to the public, and a small shopping mall that you can wander around for free. Other than that, all you get to see is the back of the hotel and the breakwater. You can hire a bike and cycle along the breakwater, one of the few places in Dubai where you are allowed to cycle, but it’s far from the most interesting coastline in the world.
The Palm has been plagued with problems. Construction began in 2001 on what the developers envisioned to be a mixture of luxurious hotels and high-end beachfront villas, high-rise apartment buildings, marinas and malls. As the completion date was pushed back further and further, the number of buildings on the island increased and building quality dropped. Many hotels that were planned have never opened. There has also been a huge environmental impact. The breakwater interfered with the natural tides, and gaps had to be cut into it to prevent smelly, stagnant water and algae growth. There are also reports that the island is sinking by 5mm per year, although this has been denied.
Further north construction is underway on another group of islands in the shape of The World, although construction has also been delayed on this development and it currently just looks like 300 piles of sand.
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