I didn't think the $1 billion hotel considered 'the most luxurious in the world' could possibly live up to the hype. I was very wrong.
- One of the most decorated luxury hotels in the world, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, was recently named the "best hotel in the world" by the Ultratravel Awards. The Burj has frequently been called "the world's first seven-star hotel" and "the most luxurious hotel in the world" by travel writers and critics.
- I recently stayed at the hotel on a trip to Dubai to see if the Burj Al Arab could possibly live up to the hype.
- Adorned with more gold and marble than any reasonable person would choose, the Burj Al Arab impresses through the sheer force of its vision of luxury.
- A guest's every whim is attended to, the architecture and design astounds with colour, patterns, and vertigo, and extravagances like caviar and truffles find their way into numerous dishes at the hotel's restaurants. It's like living in the dream world of an Emirati royal or President Donald Trump.
If you've ever wondered what it's like to vacation like a billionaire, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai is likely the closest we normies will ever get.
Shaped like the sail of an Arabian dhow ship and built for $1 billion (R13.8 billion at current exchange rates), the hotel is full of extravagances like a Rolls-Royce chauffeur, a 14-piece set of Hermès toiletries, personal butlers - Burj says the staff-to-guest ratio is 6:1 - and 24-karat gold everything.
Since the hotel opened nearly 20 years ago, the Burj Al Arab has won accolade after accolade for its bonkers approach to luxury.
In just the last year, it was named the Best Hotel in the World by The Telegraph's ULTRA Awards and given a Five-Star Award by Forbes Travel Guide. When it first opened, a journalist was supposedly so enamoured with the Burj that she exclaimed that it must be a seven-star hotel, a rating that does not exist.
Gold-plated luxury usually makes me roll my eyes, making me think something along the lines of, This is what the richest people in the world waste their money on?
I certainly had that reaction when I stayed at the Burj Al Arab on a recent trip to Dubai, but I also found myself overwhelmed by the sheer audacity of the hotel's luxurious vision.
While I can't condone spending the $1,500 (about R20,000) a night minimum it costs to stay there, I can say that staying the night inside the dreamworld of an Emirati royal is a very interesting trip.
Keep reading to see what it was like:
The Burj's vision of luxury starts with its location. The hotel was built on a tiny man-made island a few hundred meters off the Dubai coastline. That means any would-be visitors must enter via guard-monitored bridge.
Most people arrive via complimentary chauffeured Rolls-Royce pick up. Your other option is to arrive in a private helicopter — to a private helipad, of course.
Compared to the rest of the Burj, the lobby is nothing to write home about, with low ceilings and a pared-back design. But that's by design. The lobby is mostly used to corral tourists coming to marvel at the structure, not guests.
Guests are whisked to a side room far from the clamour to be greeted by an attendant with a "Marhaba Welcome" or rose water, cold towels, dates, and Arabic coffee. The attendant takes your passport to check your booking and then brings you directly to your room.
I was a bit early for check-in so the Burj staff offered to set me up with some snacks in the atrium upstairs. I passed by one of the Burj's three aquariums on the way up.
A "cascade waterfall" lies between the lobby and the upper atrium. The fountain uses fibre optic lights, water, and mist to create a choreographed effect of water jumping down the stone steps.
The over-the-top grandeur of the Burj hit me as I entered the atrium. It's not just the gold, though there's plenty of that, but the deep colour of the saffron and ultramarine tiles and the ornate furniture.
The Burj has nine restaurants dotted throughout the property. Because my room wasn't ready, an attendant set me up at Sahn Eddar, a coffee and tea lounge.
Source: Sahn Eddar
They brought over a juice that tasted like straight puréed mango, olives, and a selection of spiced nuts fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Source: Sahn Eddar
The centrepiece of the atrium is a circular fountain with a geometric structure that appears to mimic Islamic tile art. It periodically shoots water 40 metres into the air.
The atrium is, according to the Burj, the tallest in the world at 180 metres. The kaleidoscopic colours produce a trippy effect.
What struck me as I walked through the hotel is how detailed every part of the hotel is. Each room feels like its own art piece. That's a tribute to interior designer Khuan Chew, who used a colour palette and design touches that harken to the Arabian Peninsula's history.
At midday, the hotel is far from calm. The Burj is a big tourist attraction for Dubai and the only way to see it is with a reservation for afternoon tea at one of the restaurants. That means tour buses roll in with groups getting tea and a tour. I'd complain more, but if it wasn't for my job, I'd be in the same boat.
Step away from the atrium and the commotion disappears. If you're wondering, yes: Those elevator doors are covered in 24-karat gold. Nearly 557 square metres of gold leaf was used to adorn the hotel's interiors.
1,790sqm of 24-carat gold leaf was used to embellish the interior
I headed upstairs to my room. The Burj may be 56 stories tall, but each floor is a double-story, meaning that every room in the hotel is a duplex suite.
Every floor has a team of personal butlers (I'm not kidding) who are there waiting to attend to your every desire. Whoever is on duty will stand up as you approach and greet you by name. If you need anything — a dinner reservation, an Earl Grey tea brewed at 9 p.m. sharp, or, say, a bubble bath — they'll take care of it with gusto.
When it's time to check in, your butler will go through the paperwork at the personal office in your suite and then show you around the room.
The tour takes quite a while There are remotes for everything, from the blinds to the television to the climate control to the lights. And lots of places to recline ... because what else do you do in a $1,500-a-night suite?
There is, of course, an extensive and expensive mini-bar. But there's plenty of sparkling and mineral water to enjoy.
There was a selection of sliced fruits on the dining table when I arrived. The butler asked if there were any fruits missing that I would like to have sliced for later in the day. I asked for mango, but, I must confess, the mango never did appear.
There was a tree of delightful French macarons of various flavors and a gold-leaf-covered giant chocolate "bean" filled with more chocolates. Later, in the evening of Thanksgiving day, the butler returned with a tray of Thanksgiving-themed sandwiches and mini-pies.
The bedroom is in the upstairs of the duplex. You climb a swooping marble staircase to get there. I'm still pissed that I didn't try sliding down the banister like the cool kid in every teen comedy ever.
The bedroom is so spacious I couldn't get it all in one photo. The bed is a DUX mattress, which can cost up to $15,000 (about R208,200). The bedding is made of Eiderdown feathers harvested from the abandoned nests mother Eider ducks use to keep their eggs warm. There's a pillow "menu" of nearly a dozen pillows of varying degrees of material, thickness, and firmness.
Source: Duxiana Beds, Jumeirah Group
The bedroom has its own sitting room with plush furniture that looks much too nice to actually sit on.
The television was rather small for the room. But the sea view, which every room has thanks to the hotel's unique triangular design, is all the entertainment I needed.
The bathroom is fit for a sheikh. There's a rain shower with four additional shower-heads, his-and-hers sinks, and a Jacuzzi bathtub. The butler informed me he could draw a bubble bath in later in the evening, if I so desired.
The bathroom — and I'll remind you, this is the entry-level suite — comes with a set of full-size his-and-hers Hermès toiletries, including cologne and perfume. You best believe I took the bar of Hermès body soap and stuck it in my suitcase. All my clothes now smell like Hermès.
After thoroughly exploring the room, it was time to check out the rest of the hotel. One does not just stay at the "most luxurious hotel in the world." One runs around like he or she is a child in an amusement park and every hotel amenity is a ride.
The first stop on my whirlwind tour of the Burj was The Terrace, a new 10,000 square-metre leisure facility built by ADMARES, a Finnish company that specialises in floating construction. It was added to the hotel in 2016.
The terrace features two pools, 24 cabanas, and eight "Royal Cabanas," which feature butler service, air-conditioning, televisions, fresh fruit, an espresso machine, and a full bar, spa, and food menu.
Source: Burj Al Arab
The terrace also features a lounge called Shisha and Scape, a restaurant featuring California-inspired cuisine. I stopped in at Scape for a late lunch to figure out what exactly "Californian cuisine" is.
To start, I tried a cocktail called "The Living Legend (120 AED or about R450), featuring Ron Zacapa rum, Woodford Reserve bourbon, pineapple, lime orgeat, hazelnut syrup, and bitters. I should've guessed from the ingredient list, but this cocktail had a confusing, sickly sweet flavor. The pineapple dominated the flavor palette with the whiskey providing a smoky aftertaste. I set it aside after a few sips.
Source: Scape Cocktails
At the waiter's suggestion — he said it was Scape's specialty — I ordered the vitello tonnato (93 AED, or about R350), a classic dish of Piedmont, Italy. It features cold, sliced veal dressed with a mayo flavoured with tuna and chopped bits of beetroot. It is a marriage of strong and sometimes strange flavors that somehow work together, the sour of the beetroot cutting through the richness of the veal and the mayo.
The seafood salad (175 AED, or about R660) is likely what restaurateurs mean when they talk about Californian cuisine: light, fresh, with a focus on the ingredients. This featured chilled pieces of king crab, octopuses, prawns, avocado, and corn, in a yuzu dressing.
The waiter told me that Scape's chef, Edgar Obed Bedolla Villegas, is Mexican and that the Angus beef tampiqueña (255 AED or R960) is a dish close to his heart. Bedolla Villegas' tampiqueña is not traditional, eschewing the enchiladas, cheese, and beans that usually surround the tender strip of beef in favour of a delicate arrangement of fried onions and a chimichurri heavy on spicy peppers. The fries are cut into thick blocks and reminded me most of Peruvian yucca fries.
After lunch, I decided to lay on a luxury sun bed like a beached whale. The Terrace has a "beach" area, which is like an adult-sized sandbox on the edge of an infinity pool.
The infinity pool looks directly out onto the Arabian Gulf, which makes it the perfect spot for sunset Instagram photos. There's a hot tub embedded in the infinity pool.
Around sunset, every person I passed by was trying to get a nice photo or selfie of the skyline. Yours truly, included.
After a few hours lounging by the pool, it was time for dinner. The way to the restaurant brought me to this side lobby. I'm not kidding when I say that every room was like a finely crafted piece of jewellery. The turquoise-and-gold elevator looked like an Hermès enamelled bangle.
For dinner, I had a reservation at the Burj's flagship restaurant, Al Mahara. If it wasn't clear from the giant gold seashell that serves as the host stand, Al Mahara is all about seafood.
Like everything else in the Burj, the Al Mahara wine racks do, in fact, glitter with gold. It's in spots like this where my brain is caught between "Can only gold be a design aesthetic?" and "Ooh, sparkly wall!"
But Al Mahara, like the Burj, does nothing halfway. Witness this golden seashell entrance hallway to the dining room. There are a few places I've been to in my life that seem ripped from a Bond villain's lair. This is one of them.
The dining room of Al Mahara wraps around a floor-to-ceiling 984,200-litre aquarium filled with fish (not the ones you'll be eating). The staff have taken to naming the fish, like a goofy-looking Napoleon fish known as George.
After the cocktail debacle at Scape, I was determined to keep it simple. I ordered a Manhattan — my usual drink of choice — but asked them to make it with the Japanese whisky Nikka From The Barrel. It was precisely made — equal parts bitter and sweet, with the peppery, smoky, of-the-sea flavor I associate with Nikka.
Before I even had the chance to order, the water brought over an amuse-bouche —that's a small, complimentary hors d'œuvre — of butternut squash soup. The mellow soup was brought alive by smoked pumpkin seeds and slivers of briny codfish.
The kitchen at Al Mahara was taken over by British Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw in 2016, who is known for a "pared-down approach" to local, sustainable seafood. It was quite a change of pace from the original menu, according to The Telegraph's Lara Brunt, which tended towards complex French food. But we're still in the Burj, so you don't get regular butter with your bread — you get smoked salmon butter.
While Brunt described Outlaw's "pared-down" approach as intact at Al Mahara, the dishes I encountered, while delicious, were often as over-the-top as a golden elevator. For example, the crispy oysters (260 AED, or R982) were not only deep-fried, but then surrounded with a creamy oyster and cucumber sauce and topped with ... caviar.
Source: Al Mahara
The lobster cocktail (295 AED or R1,110) was packed with fresh, tender lobster meat brushed with an herby crème fraîche sauce and accompanied by a few leaves of Baby Gem lettuce that were topped with ... black truffle. Dishes like that seem designed underscore (as if you forgot) that you are eating in "the most luxurious hotel in the world."
Source: Al Mahara
The main courses find the pared-back footing. The salt-baked whole sea bass (980 AED, or R3,700) is both simple and theatrical, arriving encased in salt and filleted table-side. The fish is as fresh and tender as you'd expect from a dish the price of a smartphone.
Source: Al Mahara
The star of the meal wasn't even one of the dishes, but the sauce that came on the side. The vividly orange Porthilly Crab sauce, a classic concoction used at all of Outlaw's restaurants, tastes like a buttery seafood bisque. If it wasn't for the confines of social niceties, I would have poured the sauce in a cup and drunk it like a milkshake.
After a meal like that, I was in need of a long walk. I stopped by the atrium, where a string trio was performing string renditions of songs from the 1980s, like the Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes duet "Up Where We Belong."
My final stop of the night was to the 27th floor of the hotel for the Burj's lounge, called — you guessed it — Gold On 27. I have to commend the waiter who greeted me by name when I entered the bar despite my lack of reservation. When I asked him by what magic he knew who I was, he said he tries to memorize the name and face of every hotel guest each night. He confessed later that he doesn't always get it right.
Source: Gold On 27
With atmospheric jazz playing and a view overlooking the Dubai skyline, Gold On 27 is a snazzy place. The cocktail menu is pages long and includes inventive recipes with local, unusual ingredients. I ordered The Scent of The Souk (115 AED or $31), a fruity, smoky gin drink that featured dried apricots and figs and arrived at the table with a lamp flowing with oudh oil, a fragrant wood used as a perfume in the Middle East.
Of course, I had the butler draw a bubble bath before I went to sleep. As we millennials say, YOLO. Note the rose petals. When I came back from dinner, the entire suite was covered with them. Good thing I'm not allergic!
I woke up early the next morning determined to check out the last few rides (err ... amenities) in the hotel before the clock struck noon and my carriage turned back into a pumpkin.
I headed down to the 18th floor to check out the Talise Gym and Spa. There's a separate gym, spa, and pool for men and women. The space was a quiet as it looks. You could hear a whisper from the other end of the hallway.
The entrance to the men's section looks like this. There are a few couches to lounge on before getting a massage in one of the 16 treatment rooms, working out in the gym, or going for a swim.
Nothing like starting the morning with a glass of watermelon and blueberry-infused water.
The gym looked like a gym. The spa area, however, was wonderful. There was a hammam steam room, a sauna, and an icy cold plunge. I spent more time in here than I did working out.
The sauna looks out to the Arabian Gulf, the Palm Jumeirah (the world's largest man-made island), and the Dubai skyline. Not bad for a schvitz.
My favourite room in the entire hotel had to be the infinity pool in the spa. The multi-coloured mosaic columns were made even more beautiful by the morning sunlight pouring in. I suppose this is what $1 billion (or R13.8 billion) buys you.
There is an open-seating area next to the pool that mimics the style of the columns. If I had more time, it would have been nice to spend the day there.
My last stop was the open parlour outside the spa. There didn't seem to be any purpose to the space other than being another beautiful place to admire the surroundings. It was similarly bathed in natural light.
It also had a great view of the hotel's triangular interior. Look up and you see the rainbow colours merging into triangles of blue. Look down and you see the United Arab Emirates flag unfurled down to the atrium 36 stories below.
The final touch of my stay was a private breakfast. While the Burj's restaurants do offer breakfast, the butler told me that most people opt for breakfast in their suite. Of course they do.
The in-suite breakfast was Eggs Benedict and smoked salmon topped with caviar (duh), as well as a selection of pastries, yogurt, toast, fruit, and coffee. I suppose this is what the Sheikh's life looks like every day.
Before I left, I had to get one last look at the Burj's scalloped interior and the gentle cascade of vibrant greens and blues. So, does the Burj live up to the hype? Absolutely.
I've stayed at many five-star hotels at this point. The Burj is undoubtedly a class above them all.
The staff members seem to take the hotel's reputation as "the most luxurious hotel in the world" very seriously and pride themselves on answering your every whim before it even comes into your mind.
The interior, for all its extravagances, is truly a sight to behold. I may not want all-gold-everything in my house, but for a night at a hotel built around excessive luxury, it makes sense.
Is the Burj worth the R20,000 ($1,500) a night it costs for a room? Honestly, I was surprised the price wasn't higher, considering you get a room the size of a large apartment and a set of Hermès toiletries.
The question of whether it's "worth it," depends on your budget. If you're super rich, the price likely seems like nothing, anyway.
But if your income level, like mine, falls into middle class, there's a lot more worthwhile things you could spend $1,500 on.
In my normal life, I'd be far more likely to book afternoon tea at one of the restaurants just to see the architecture.
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