Friday, 19 December 2014

Arriving at the Atlantis on the Palm, Dubai...

Arriving in Dubai and The Atlantis on the Palm

It's only a short flight from Jeddah across Saudi to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, just over 2 hours, but Saudia Airlines managed to fit in a full on gourmet meal, newspapers and tea and coffee. Their in flight entertainment was also very comprehensive with a touch screen to scroll through what seemed like thousands of categories each with a plethora of multicultural choices.

Being the inquisitive soul I am I went straight for the most unusual (obviously not here) category, Islam... Inside was about 50 films to watch, some of them in Arabic, some in Arabic with subtitles and some that were English speaking. I clicked through and started to watch a couple of the English ones. They all took on the same format, interviewing Western people who had converted to Islam, moved to Saudi or Qatar or another Gulf state and started living their lives with the Qua'ran at the heart of the family. 

The films gave some impressive facts about the good Muslims do throughout the world. I learnt about the Hajj, a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia where a number of rituals are performed including spending 24 hours out in the desert as well as walking around, between and under religious landmarks. Some 3 million people are expected in the city over just a couple of weeks each year. Most interestingly of all is a pillar of Islam called Zakat.

From what I could gather Zakat is a sort of moral obligation to other Muslims. Should their financial situation permit, people who follow Islam have to donate a portion of their wealth to charitable causes. My Dad had experienced this living in Jeddah. He is friends with a Philippino woman who also lives on his compound. She has a modest wage working as a hotel chamber maid, however, she still finds enough money to contribute towards a young boy's education. 

The total monetry value given to charitable causes from Muslims following Zakat all around the world is reported to be 15 times that of similar contributions made by governmental organisations. 15 times! 
All of the videos took on the same tact towards the end... that guy in the middle of town screaming about the importance of this religion or that religion and that you should condemn your sins and follow this book or that book. I soon turned the TV over to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...

Mid way through the flight I noticed a lot less of the ladies were wearing abaya's (The compulsory  dress for women in public throughout the more strict Muslim lands) and instead were coming out of the toilet dripping in diamonds, wearing high class fashion and smelling divine every time they walked past me. Whilst Dubai and the United Arab Emirates is a Muslim state, there is a lot more lenience in upholding the customs. The abaya seems an oppressive dress code to me, but underneath, Arabic women really are beautiful.

We landed at the airport and was greeted by a Mercedes Limousine with enough electronics in it to go to space. If you could move it, it had a button to do it for you, window blinds, separate sun roofs, chilled cup holders with complimentary water. Every crevice in the door cards had a thin line of blue LEDs that stretched out to the foot wells. To adjust my seat I had no less than 8 different axis points to tweak so I was as comfy as comfy can be. I noticed a small orange triangle in the wing mirrors, but only at certain times. I asked the driver and he showed me, if he was in the right hand lane of the 6 lane motorway we were on and indicated left to change lane but there was a car in his blind spot it lit up the triangle. Then he asked me to put my hand on the steering wheel and as he started to turn, with the car still in the blind spot, the steering wheel vibrated to further tell him he was about to cave in a bright yellow Lamborghini. I drive a Ford Transit most of the time... I've put LEDs in that flash multicolours until you start to spin out or get a headache.

Our destination was even more lavish than this car. It took around 40 minutes driving parallel to the coast through downtown Dubai. Every building seemed to have at least 20 floors, and they were the small ones. It was all too much to take in really as the driver and my Dad were pointing out places of importance. I was transfixed by the funny shape the sat nav was telling us to drive on to. The Palm. 

The Palm is a totally man made land mass jutting out in to the Gulf sea on the Dubai coast. Dubai's fairly recent push to grab tourists, and the money they bring, is for a very good reason. Once rich in oil reserves that made Dubai what it is today, an oasis of wealth and pleasure in an arid desert, oil only accounts for 7% of the countries GDP today compared to over 80% 20 years ago. The booming tourism industry has stepped in and taken up the mantle of the oil fields. 

But tourists like beaches, and Dubai only had a modest 72 km of coast line. So the simple answer was to build more coast, out at sea. The construction takes advantage of the shape of a palm tree which adds an incredible amount of coast line compared to any other shape. And so it was set about, to build another 56 km of coast line in the shape of a palm tree. There is a very interesting documentary on Youtube you can check out here. It basically means battling mother nature for the rest of eternity as it tries to erode it away. And the Arabs have more plans for palm, earth and claw shaped manmade coastline islands that will give a total of over 1500 km of coastline!

So the Atlantis on the Palm, the shining jewel sitting 5 miles out to sea at the very top of the Palm is a hotel that's 2 km long, has 20 restaurants, 2000 odd rooms and 4000 members of staff. The aquarium puts the great barrier reef, let alone the Sea Life Centre, to shame. I have never experienced (and bet I never will) a more lavish place in my life. As we pulled in to the covered driveway each door was opened by a member of the concierge waiting patiently. We were welcomed in to the entrance lobby that plays host to a 15 metre high sculpture made out of individual pieces of Molino glass. We were ushered in to private concierge room to check in where the kind far eastern looking woman basically told us you can have whatever you want, just pick up the phone in your room, helicopter rides, boats to the Gold markets, jet skis and rental, by the hour or the day, of any of the 6 supercars parked prominently out the front. 
I was completely gobsmacked. It was a barrage to the senses. The opulence of the place, the people, everything. A middle eastern toilet attendant even handed me my personal towel to dry my hands after having a piss. Dad mentioned that he wasn't just in the toilet to hand out towels. You really can get whatever you want here... Whatever floats your boat!

We were shown to our room, which is used in the loosest possible way, as this place was not a hotel room but a full executive suite with all amenities. The bathroom was something to write home about (haha get it?) and had a massive roll top jacuzzi bath in the middle of the room straddled by his and hers sink areas all clad in bright marble. The living space in my van was dwarfed by this bathroom alone!

The view from the balcony was epic. Sat at the top most part of the Palm looking back towards the skyline of Dubai. And it was a comfortable 26 degrees in November.

We were told that we had access to the executive lounge where we would find soft drinks, teas and coffees as well as a range of alcoholic beverages. Well as soon as we were settled in we headed straight for the lounge and enjoyed unlimited mojitos, sex on the beaches, numerous whiskeys, beers and an array of bits to eat including sushi, smoked salmon entrĂ©es, onion bhajis, and exotic salad bowls. Then I spotted a mysterious wooden case sat on the side like something out of Jumanji. The cigar box! Containing 10 or so different cigars of all sizes. How tempting! But I was with my Dad and stuck with a couple of packs of Marlboroughs. 

At first I didn't know how to conduct myself. When I fly I try and just have hand luggage. I've managed to get it down to an art. One 20l rucksack from Tescos can fit enough for me to survive comfortably for an indefinite amount of time, as long as the climate doesn't change dramatically and I can wash my clothes somehow. So I'm stood in a hotel where every door is opened for you, the people walking around look like bronzed James Bonds and Miss Moneypennies and you can spend £3,000 on a cigar from a Jumanji box. All whilst I'm wearing my best 5 year old chequed F & F short sleeved shirt and a pair of stained khaki shorts with more holes than a bowling ball. And I'm so appreciative of everything. I thank the guy who calls us the lift profusely even though all he did was hit the button. I thank the Indian guys who clean our room every day. I've been him, I've cleaned toothpaste off of a guests mirror every day, I've scrubbed the toilets clean only to come back 20 minutes later to find soggy loo roll all over the floor. But no one else does. Everyone holds themselves with an air of … I don't know... arrogance? Sophistication? Suave? It's difficult for me to tell... I say my thank you's anyway. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia...

I am very fortunate to have received a once in a life time trip to a normally closed-to-tourist country in the middle east called Saudi Arabia. It's host to the home of Islam in the name of Mecca, and somewhere that I would never have dreamed of visiting.

My Dad has recently taken up full time residency in the country and is benefiting from a tax free salary. Bliss some may say, but to his friends he calls it Jail-ddah. I was able to experience all of the best bits. I was only there for a mear 3 days, but I know I have to visit again.

The adventure didn't start in foreign lands though. Upon getting to Heathrow I became very aware that we were headed to the far right hand side of Terminal 5, the club, business, party, first class of airline travel end of the terminal. And low and behold, club class travel had been organised... Just stepping in to the pre-flight lounge was an experience, You are greeted by name, sat in a lounge where you can shower, drink, eat, lounge and are generally waited on hand and foot for, in our case, hours before your flight (because you turn up to the airport early when you have lounge access!)

I took it upon myself to try each and every one of the 6 scotch’s on offer in the complimentary bar, we enjoyed sky television, a buffet of hot and cold foods, cheeses, beers, a mini cinema, and a whole raft of that days newspapers, articles and niche magazines on offer. When I left to meet the plane I was stuffed and pissed!

When I got on the aircraft I was blown away even more.. The seats looked like nothing you've ever seen before. Space craft materials and design. The plane was nearly empty with my family sharing club class with 3 others. We had the hosts undivided attention and with that came unlimited and rellenteless whiskeys. I opted for the Lamb Birhiani and was amazed that that quality could come out of a microwave at 33,000 ft. I started watching the latest film release on my personal touch screen entertainment system but was too mullered to complete more than 30 minutes and feel asleep on my fully reclineable airplane bed. Shoes stowed in the special shoe drawer.

Arriving at Jeddah airport my sister, Ellie, had to don the sexiest of attire, a Saudi custom is for all women to cover themselves with a, normally black, head to toe garment called an Abaya. From what I could gather it is used for men to protect against other men from looking at their women in a lustful manner.

Driving in Jeddah is the most fascinating and at the same time terrifying thing I have ever experienced. There is all of the infrastructure, its like a normal road, all be it a 4 lane carriageway but we have those in the UK yeh? However, here a 4 lane carriageway has no rules, we witnessed a few of the following:

  • A bus doing a U-turn in a busy 4 lane, 8 way carriageway
  • One chap reversing down the 'slow' lane of the carriageway for what looked to be an indefinite distance
  • 'Dangerous diversion' signs notifying you of a dangerous diversion they have constructed across another 4 lane, 8 way carriageway.
  • People in the far left lane of the carriageway wanting to turn right at stationary traffic lights, what happens when they turn green is hilarious

Ironically you will see numerous 2 - 4 year old cars with their factory installed door bump foam stickers, windscreen protective films, internal dash plastic protectors and plastic wrapped headrests in the vague attempt to keep a car nice when it's not been cleaned since its inception and has picked up enough bumps, dents, dings and scratches to warrant an English man taking it to the scrap heap.

I'd like to describe jeddah in one, hyphentated word, Oxy-moron. The cold water comes out of the tap at 45 degrees C, if there is a queue on a roundabout drivers just drive round it the other way, there are 4 person families crammed in to the front 2 seats of a micra and there's a La Senza in a country where women have to wear a big black sheet in public. But there are plus sides. It costs my Dad £3.20 to fill the fuel tank of his car... and with that he gets two packets of tissues and a litre of drinking water. Water is literally more expensive than fuel and the local desalination plant burns the oily black stuff to make drinking water.

Dad lives on a compound. There are a number of them dotted around Jeddah and presumably the whole of Saudi. These are places of safety for western people. As you enter the 10 metre high walls of the compound by car you are slowed to a creep with concrete fortifications, everything looks scary and miliary like. There are armed guards supplied by the Saudi National Guard and on one compound we visited, a 50 calibre gun trained perminantly down the entrance road. Yet, in true Saudi custom we were subjected to the most stringent of security measures as a man walks the length of our car holding what looks to be an old CRT TV antenna empedded in to a piece of wooden dowling. Apparently this is a bomb detector and I instantly feel much much more safe!

That day was spent by a surprisingly pleasant pool complex. The compound caters for nearly every interest, offering a barbers, supermarket, bowling ally and no less than 3 swimming complexes. 

That evening saw us and a few of Dads friends piling in to a couple of taxis and making the treacherous journey to a different compound where a French guy was hosting a party. His lounge had been transformed in to a mini night club, disco lasers, smoke machine and full on pole dancing pole in the centre. A group of approximately 30 people turned up over the course of the night and my dancing got even more crazier as the music got louder... until the Tomorrowland 2013 aftermovie soundtrack came on.... BAM .... I'm up and going some! Managing to hold myself upside down on the pole with my feet on the ceiling.

I had averaged 3 hours sleep a night since leaving home and tried desperately to get some kip on the closed off Westernised beach complex but to no avail. We got some take away chicken that evening and settled down for a good nights sleep as we were booked in for a snorkeling trip in the Red Sea the next day.

6am rise and a less hectic drive to the dive centre base on the creek. We joined a couple of Dads work colleagues and an assortment of proper divers with tanks and regulators etc and sped out of the creek towards a couple of coral reefs 23km off the coast in the Red Sea on a fairly large boat. Wealthy Arabs joined us to jump and do stunts off of the boat's wake on their high powered jet ski's, I didn't realise the height some of them could get and was even scared for them when it looked like they may flip over.

Once the skipper had dropped anchor and explained where we could go in relation to the reef in front of us I was first to strip off and take the plunge from the top deck of the boat. It is roasting hot after all! 36 degrees during the day! The water was lovely, not cold, and perfectly clear. I donned my snorkel and was opened up to a completely unknown world. I'd been snorkeling before in harbours and off of beaches, but never had I seen anything like what was on this reef. 
The colours were spectacular, the coral swayed as the waves made me bob like a cork. Fish swam literally everywhere. It was incredible. I was very envious as the 6 proper divers plunged in near the boat and I saw their decent clouded by bubbles.

The day on the boat was very pleasurable. We alternated between floating in the salty sea, taking in the different sea creatures, fish and corals, to soaking up the sun on the boat, refreshments and snacks included. We had seen a school of flat nosed dolphins on the way out. The skipper turned the boat in a big circle so they could play in the wake. Dad and I were floating near the boat when a Polish guy, in Saudi to map the reefs from an aircraft at night, nonchalantly shouted that there was some Dolphins. Dad and I turned around to see the ominous sight of dorsal fins sticking out of the water a little way out from us. I've got to be honest I was a little scared, I'm a good swimmer, but not compared to a 8m long shark. My fears heightened when the fins simultaneously turned towards us and slowly descended under the water. I didn't have my goggles on and couldn't see where they had gone.

Every now and then the Dolphins would come up for air, surprising us as they circled around, one getting within reaching distance of my Dad. It was a truly spectactular experience, and one I craved more of! The fear had gone and I wanted to spend the whole day in that luke warm sea. Through out the day the Dolphins came back to the boat 3 more times. Each time I jumped back in eagerly with my video camera, trying desperately to get close enough for a good shot.

A storm was brewing in the distance, the coast guard had warned us of it when we left the creek, but the Dolphins returned just one last time. I grabbed my mask and camera, jumped in and managed this awesome shot.

It was a really incredible moment. I turned around and nearly everyone from the boat was in the water. Even the Sri Lankan skipper had shed his clothes and was in with us.

Who needs Sea World when you can see wild, bottlenosed Dolphins in their natural habitat. I listened eagerly as we sped back to avoid the storm. The divers had seen Baracuda, Manta Rays and Moray Eals. I need to get my PADI open water license!