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Hotel Review: Desert Islands, Sir Bani Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

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Once the UAE ruler’s own private game reserve, the Sir Bani Yas Island about 200 kilometres to the south-west of Abu Dhabi has been skillfully transformed into a major tourist attraction with the opening of the Desert Islands Resort and Spa by Anantara last October.

In the 1970s Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan first decided to turn this barren island off the UAE coast into a green playground for thousands of animals, including the rare Arabian oryx. He planted more than two million trees and even irrigated a mountain in the centre of the island, turning it green.

Wildlife park

After his death it was decided to open this unique ecological experiment to visitors. It is a remarkable combination, part bush land, part zoo. There are thousands of gazelles, numerous species of deer, several hundred oryx, 40 giraffes, hyenas, eight cheetahs and a whole host of smaller birds and animals.

For the best sightings guests are conveyed in safari vehicles for a 7am drive. The island is also ideally suited for activities like kayaking, snorkeling and mountain bike riding, all included in the room rate at the excellent Desert Islands Resort and Spa complex.

This brand new hotel is built to the highest five-star standards with 68 rooms and six villas. Rooms are very spacious with all the usual luxury features and fine bathrooms. They also have private terraces and access to the swimming pool at ground level.

Service is very good at this boutique hotel and staff are soon addressing you by name. The pool area is beautifully arranged for privacy and relaxation with a substantial bar and restaurant, although the beachfront is presently cut-off by huge concrete breakwaters that will be partly removed in the future.

Great food

A second restaurant flows from the hotel interior onto a large ground floor terrace, and is pleasantly shaded. This restaurant offers a wide range of international cuisine both a la carte and from a buffet. Barbecues on the terrace are a specialty and very popular.

The hotel attracts quite a lot of local visitors from Abu Dhabi, who particularly like the lavish spa with its sea views from the treatment rooms; the double room even has a jacuzzi on the terrace. For the energetic there is a huge gym and tennis courts.

If you are coming from Dubai then the drive is over three hours and it probably makes sense to stay three rather than two nights. Fortunately at the moment the hotel is offering a three nights for the price of two package with buffet dinner and two activities. You can also fly from Abu Dhabi.

Written by Peter Cooper

March 28, 2010 at 8:09 am

Posted in Hotels, Restaurants, Travel

Six new Palm Jumeirah hotels over the next 12 months

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Dubai will open up to six new beachfront hotels on the Palm Jumeirah over the next 12 months, inevitably adding to room price competition and forcing down rates but securing the emirate’s position as the sunshine holiday capital of the Middle East.

The iconic Atlantis Hotel which opened 18 months ago is currently the sole hotel on The Palm Jumeirah Island. It is about to face some strong competition from new luxury hotels.

Luxury hotels

First to launch in the second quarter will be the 410-room Zabeel Saray by Rixos, a development that includes 38 residential villas. Then in October the 293-room, six restaurant Royal Amwaj from Movenpick will open with an all-in guest dining package available (pictured above).

Movenpick director of business development Guy Epsom told ArabianMoney the hotel had received a very good reception at the recent ITB hotel exhibition in Berlin with travel agents saying there was big demand for Dubai now that room prices are down.

The One&Only The Palm is also due to open in October, a 100-unit, Arabic-themed, low-rise development with an over-water restaurant and spa. Last hotel to launch this year will be the Jumeirah Al Fattan.

2011 openings

Still to come in 2011 are the 320-rooom The Emerald Palace Kempinski, opposite the Golden Mile and delayed for two years after the global financial crisis, and the massive Fairmont Palm Jumeirah with associated serviced apartments.

From a business perspective the opening of so many hotels in one location is clearly going to be a major marketing challenge. But at least the Palm Jumeirah Island is among the best known places in the Middle East and has already benefited from huge global publicity, good and bad.

Actually it is probably the European sunshine destinations that will feel the most heat from this competition. Dowdy old hotels with poor maintenance are struggling to keep pace with the super luxury offerings from Arabia, and can only compete on price which undermines their profitability.

All-in dining package

Movenpick is being clever by offering an all-inclusive dining and beverage package – Club Gulf rather than Club Med. This will go a long way to counter the impression of Arabian hotels as overcharging for food and drink. But doubtless all this new competition is going to force down bar and restaurant prices in the future.

For holiday makers there are going to be some great deals as the Dubai hospitality sector takes another leap forward, albeit not such a profitable one as in the boom years.

Written by Peter Cooper

March 24, 2010 at 8:39 am

Alcohol back on the menu in Dubai restaurants

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In a rapid U-turn the Dubai Municipality has reversed a ban on alcohol in food served in local restaurants and said there had been ‘a misunderstanding’. On Sunday an official had told several local media that the ban was being enforced and the story made headline reading in Dubai.

Now there has been a clarification that states only that restaurants are required to declare the presence of alcohol in food on their menus in Arabic and English, and that regulations necessitate the separate preparation of such foods in kitchens.

Lunchtime investigation

Hotels were certainly confused by the news stories. ArabianMoney ordered a red wine sauce on a steak in the Rib Room at the Emirates Towers Hotel and met with no problem. The manager said the hotel had not received any order to stop serving food made with alcohol and would not do so until it saw a written instruction.

Chefs led by Uwe Michaeel, president of the Emirates Culinary Guild and director of kitchens at the Radisson Blu Dubai Creek where he has been working for over 15 years, objected to having to prepare dishes without alcohol. This is a standard ingredient for many famous Western and Asian specialties and would have limited the range of Dubai cuisine.

As it is Dubai is a multicultural melting pot with Indians probably just in the majority. The local population is 90-95 per cent expatriate and diluted further by the presence of large numbers of tourists. Dubai vies with Egypt as the region’s biggest tourist destination.

Multicultural city

Even regional tourists choose Dubai for its relaxed and tolerant lifestyle, and the reaction to the alcohol in food ban is a reminder that the city has built its wealth and reputation on its multi-cultural approach.

The official religion of Dubai is Islam but only a minority of residents are Muslim. This helps to explain why Dubai remains such an open and tolerant, multicultural society and has become the hospitality centre of the Middle East as well as the location of choice for multinational companies and banks.

Having spent hundreds of billions on its infrastructure over the past decade Dubai is not about to risk its future prosperity for the sake of a ban on boeuf bourguignon or any similar misunderstandings.

Written by Peter Cooper

March 23, 2010 at 9:43 am

Dubai tightens up on public morality with no alcohol in food

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Dubai restaurants have been banned from using alcohol in cooking, even when the existence of alcohol is warned on the menu, in the latest minor tightening up of public morality in what remains a Muslim society despite the overwhelming numbers of non-Muslim expatriates and tourists.

On the same day that this story surfaced, The National also reported that no new licenses are to be issued to massage parlours until further notice after ‘dozens were found engaging in illegal activities’. In Dubai it is already illegal for women to massage men – something quite normal in Doha and Abu Dhabi which might be seen as stricter cities for public morality.

Revolting chefs

The chefs of Dubai are up in arms at the restrictions on the use of alcohol in cooking which is common for many popular European and Asian dishes. They hope the ban might be relaxed in return for better labeling.

It is hard to say whether sterner public morality is some kind of condition for financial support from more conservative neighbors, or just a normal reaction to deteriorating moral standards. It could be just a reflection of a harsher economic climate and less tolerance for others.

The notorious Cyclone Club was closed several years ago, for example, when its lewd reputation became an intolerable embarrassment. Then again the opening of a new mosque in the Meadows and Springs this month is just a normal part of city life, not the start of a shift to militant Islam.

Delicate balance

However, in a multi-cultural society the harmony of the local community requires a delicate balancing of moral standards. There is no question of imposing one religion on all citizens and the rights and beliefs of everybody have to be taken into account.

The rules on behavior in public places have been in focus recently with a non-married couple jailed for one month for kissing in a restaurant at 2am in the morning. It is always difficult to draw a line on public morality but many Westerners thought the penalty inappropriate. They wondered about the woman who reported the incident, out with her young children way past their bedtime.

That Dubai appears to be undergoing a slight reversion to conservatism might be welcomed by many appalled by some of the excesses of the economic boom. But the city has made its wealth from tolerance and diversity and nothing should be allowed to threaten this legacy. Getting chefs to change their menus is a step backwards.

Written by Peter Cooper

March 22, 2010 at 10:49 am

‘Road to $5,000 Gold’ published on Kindle

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ArabianMoney editor and publisher Peter Cooper announces that his latest book ‘Dubai Sabbatical: The Road to $5,000 Gold’ is now available as an e-book from the Kindle Store (click here).

Written by Peter Cooper

March 19, 2010 at 8:13 am

Restaurant Review: Fine dining in the desert at Qasr Al Sarab

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In the days of the famous British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger dining under the stars in the Arabian desert must have been an unforgettable experience, albeit a menu limited by the availability of natural ingredients and camp site surroundings of modest comfort.

Come to the Qasr Al Sarab 150 kilometers into the Abu Dhabi desert and you will see how things are done in modern Arabia. This is fine dining of a kind that would not be out of place in London or Paris skillfully transposed into a beautiful hotel in the middle of the desert.

Future award winners?

It was Sir Wilfred who first made these dunes a literary event with his celebrated books. But it will be the chefs of the Qasr Al Sarab who achieve similar fame in terms of cuisine.

Head straight for the signature Suhail restaurant for a la carte fine dining on a splendid terrace overlooking the desert valley below. The menu is small but offers real gourmet flourish.

Our starter of duck fois gras ravioli with sliced black truffle on top was sensational. My wife instantly dubbed it the best starter ever in the UAE.

You are also not left short of choices on the wine list, and for once the house wine is a good one and not expensive by local hotel standards. If you are feeling more adventurous there is a walk-in wine cellar with a great selection of champagnes and vintage wines.

The main course of Beef Parmentier featured Wagyu beef, flown in like the fresh seafood from some distant corner of the globe to be served where the desert explorers once sat with their dates and rice. Portions are not enormous so there is plenty of room for a desert dessert.

Again straight out of a Parisian salon the chocolate and cherry creation was something to die for. You also cannot fault the service or even the range of freshly cooked breads. Everything is exactly comme il faut. Suhail chef Nicolas Herbault is a man to watch out for as is executive chef Eric Martinet.

Other options

If you are staying longer than one night then the Al Waha buffet restaurant is an opportunity to sample the myriad of delights that come out of this hotel’s kitchen. This ranges across Arabic, Asian and European fare. Salads are especially good.

Then for a mid-day snack or late lunch by the huge pool area the Ghadeer restaurant is the place for a light nicoise salad or grilled fish with Mediterranean influences.

Years ago I met the late Sir Wilfred and we discussed his eating habits. He would not have liked the restaurants at the Qasr Al Sarab at all, but that would be very much a minority view.

Written by Peter Cooper

March 15, 2010 at 9:07 am

Posted in Hotels, Restaurants, Travel

Dubai Sabbatical: The Road to $5,000 Gold

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Now available from Amazon.com click here.

Could the price of gold really top $5,000 in the current bull market? ArabianMoney editor and publisher Peter Cooper became convinced that the gold price will reach this price within the next few years during a year of sabbatical travel after selling out of his Dubai dot-com.

The reasons for this prediction are in the final chapter of his latest book, ‘Dubai Sabbatical: The Road to $5,000 Gold’ published today and available exclusively from Amazon.com and through the link below.

ArabianMoney readers will be familiar with his conclusions. But for anybody considering investment in precious metals there is plenty of new meat in this analysis, and it would be a very useful summary to read before taking the final plunge.

But this is primarily a travelog about a year of traveling in some style through Asia, Australia, South Africa, Europe and of course the Middle East, and you might also find some excellent ideas for holidays as well as investments.

The places visited include: Doha, Hong Kong, The Maldives, Cape Town, Hermanus, Plettenberg, The Gold Coast, Melbourne, Victoria, Sydney, Ayer’s Rock, Perth, Moscow, St Petersburg, Wiltshire, Cornwall, London, Florence, Venice, Petra and Luxor.

Life is also about having fun, not just making money!

Written by Peter Cooper

March 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm