Diamond in the rough

With lavish hotels, unrivalled hospitality and exclusive experiences, the Middle East is a top sell when it comes to luxury. Peter Ellegard suggests four high flyers

For those wanting the height of luxury in Dubai, the only way is up – 555 metres, or 1,820 feet, up to be precise.

That’s where I’m looking out from on the outdoor terrace of the exclusive At the Top Burj Khalifa Sky lounge, set on the 148th floor of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa – which towers 828 metres above the upmarket shops and restaurants of Dubai Mall and Downtown Dubai.

The stunning 360-degree panorama takes in the emirate’s eponymous city of superlatives to the desert sands beyond and the Arabian Gulf coastline, where opulent hotels adorn fanciful man-made islands.

Skipping long queues, my travelling colleagues and I are greeted with refreshments in the Sky lounge. We savour them and the amazing views from comfy chairs through floor-to-ceiling picture windows before venturing onto the terrace. Dubai is famed for its skyscrapers but from this heavenly eyrie they resemble miniature LEGO towers far below.

Our VIP ticket costing from around £110 includes entrance to the main At the Top observation decks on the 124th and 125th floors that we also visit.

For an even more uplifting experience, sip a bubbly sundowner or a cocktail under the stars in the VIP Lounge, the world’s highest lounge spanning the 152nd to 154th floors, a giddying 585 metres high.

In Dubai, the sky’s the limit!

Here to impress

For breaks with a touch of class, the Gulf is the go-to region for 2023.

From established favourites Dubai and Abu Dhabi to more recent contenders Oman and Qatar, a wealth of top-end hotels and experiences suit clients looking for getaways with pizzazz.

More are constantly being added, among them Dubai’s new, ultra-luxurious Atlantis The Royal resort.

The Gulf is proving a hit with upscale clients. According to Elegant Resorts’ newly released 2023 trends report, The Future of Luxury Travel, early bookings for 2023 place Dubai “firmly back on the map”, moving into its top five destinations and showing the largest annual growth in bookings of any destination.

Dubai is also a star performer in luxury specialist Carrier’s global 2023 luxury trends report, along with the rest of the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE was its fourth-best performer in 2022, up 48% year-on-year, while Oman was another hot spot, seeing bookings rise by 38%. For 2023, the UAE is maintaining its popularity at number five in Carrier’s top 10.

Jenny Basham, Carrier’s Arabia Product Manager, says the operator saw an influx of enquiries in early 2022 for Arabian twin-centre trips including city and desert, or city and mountain combinations, with Oman capital Muscat generating a lot of interest.

“Clients were keen to experience the razzle-dazzle of Dubai, topped off with languid desert and/or mountain days. This trend shows no sign of slowing.”

Kerry Golds, Abercrombie & Kent Chief Tour Operating Officer, says: “The region offers a plethora of options for travellers looking for bespoke luxury experiences, from high-end shopping and dining to exhilarating adventure activities.

Golds adds: “The Gulf region has been witnessing an influx of new luxury hotels, attractions and experiences each year, and clients are returning to try out the latest places and things to do.
The region is also attracting sport-lovers with a year-round calendar of events. “Sporting events such as the World Cup, high-profile golf tournaments, and Formula 1 races have become an integral part of the region’s luxury tourism offerings,” says Golds.

Dubai

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A Grand Reveal Weekend extravaganza with a star-studded guest list and a finale Beyoncé performance heralded February’s opening of Atlantis The Royal, proclaimed as “the most ultra-luxury experiential resort in the world”.

Resembling a giant Jenga puzzle, the 795-room hotel soars 43 storeys high on Palm Island, close to sister property Atlantic, The Palm. It offers 17 restaurants, eight by celebrity chefs, a 22-storey-high infinity pool and a striking fountain show combining water and fire.

According to Elegant Resorts’ trends report, Dubai’s popularity could be partly down to social media and traditional marketing driving client engagement to “one of the most anticipated openings of the decade”.

Among other luxury openings are The Address Grand Creek Harbour, Vida Dubai Marina & Yacht Club and NH Dubai The Palm besides the reopening of chic desert retreat Bab Al Shams after renovation, with activities including falconry, camel riding and desert treks, and JA Lake View Hotel now offers private plunge pools on its one-bedroom terrace suites and outdoor jacuzzis on its luxury two-bedroom suites.

Others coming in 2023 include SO/ Uptown Dubai and The Lana, Dorchester Collection.
Golfers can combine playing championship courses with stays at on-course hotels such as the Park Hyatt Dubai at Dubai Creek Resort, named World’s Best Golf Hotel in the 2022 World Golf Awards.

And adventure options include a desert safari in luxury 4x4s or vintage open-top Land Rovers with Platinum Heritage, followed by falcony displays, camel rides and a Bedouin camp feast with traditional music and dancing.

Jameela Ahli, Head of Region for the UK, Ireland, and Italy, International Operations at Dubai Tourism says: “A major appeal for Dubai is that guests from the UK can experience traditions, unique terrain and a culture different from the norms of everyday life back home, whilst enjoying the incredible attention to detail when it comes to hospitality standards.”

Stay: Travelbag offers a five-night stay at the five-star JA Ocean View Hotel from £879pp. The price includes direct return flights and return transfers and is on a half board basis. travelbag.co.uk

Oman

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Oman’s popularity is steadily increasing due to its unique natural beauty, fascinating culture and exceptional luxury experiences, says Golds.

Capital Muscat blends fascinating history and enduring heritage in a mountain-backed Gulf setting that includes numerous luxurious hideaways, among them The Chedi Muscat, W Muscat, Al Bustan Palace – originally built for visiting dignitaries and now a Ritz-Carlton – and the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, as well as newcomer Jumeirah Muscat Bay, set on a secluded bay half an hour from the city. Early 2024 will see the arrival of the Nikki Beach Muscat Spa & Resort, sandwiched between mountains and the sea and encircling a marina.

For true get-away-from-it-all indulgent escapes, clients can get close to the edge staying at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar, an Omani fort-styled retreat perched 2,000 metres above sea level on a mountaintop overlooking a deep canyon two hours south of Muscat. Or they can enjoy isolation in style at beach resort Six Senses Zighy Bay, an oasis of indulgence cradled by craggy peaks in the Omani enclave of Musandam at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Stay: Abercrombie & Kent offers a seven-night Ultimate Middle East trip from £19,999pp, with stays at Oman’s The Chedi and the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar following a stay at Dubai’s Atlantis The Royal with a helicopter tour of the city, and business Emirates flights. abercrombiekent.co.uk

Abu Dhabi

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“Wherever you go, luxury is all around you in Abu Dhabi. Whether you’re looking to relax on the shores of the sea or connect with nature in a luxury glamping resort in the desert, under the stars,” says Abdulla Yousuf, Director of International Operations at the Department of Culture & Tourism Abu Dhabi. “We have a number of five-star hotels including the luxury Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, a plush oasis just 200km from Abu Dhabi city, Telal Resort Al Ain that is set amidst the Arabian oasis on the outskirts of Al Ain city, and Abu Dhabi’s iconic landmark and an urban oasis that offers the true essence of luxury Arabian hospitality, Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental.”


For luxury travellers, Zaya Nurai Island offers five-star accommodation, powder white-sand beaches, lush landscapes and endless Arabian Gulf views just a 15-minute boat ride from Abu Dhabi city.

New openings include private luxury resort LXR Hotels & Resorts – Nawras Island, Rixos Marina Abu Dhabi and desert glamping retreat Bateen Liwa Resort.

Al Maryah Island, a 13-minute drive from Abu Dhabi, is home to newly-refurbished mall The Galleria, featuring many designer stores and upscale dining.

Stay: Seven nights at the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental costs from £2,250pp with Elegant Resorts and includes an upgrade to half board, a Louvre Abu Dhabi tour and an Abu Dhabi City Tour, economy flights, private transfers and lounge passes. elegantresorts.co.uk

Qatar

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The Gulf state went on a building spree of top-end hotels prior to hosting football’s World Cup at the end of 2022, an event that attracted over a million visitors and helped boost its international profile.

“Qatar is one of the safest destinations in the world, centred around the generous hospitality characteristic of the local culture. The best hotel brands, restaurants, spas, and shops have created an oasis of luxury in the heart of the Middle East,” says Berthold Trenkel, Chief Operating Officer of Qatar Tourism.

New high-end hotels include private members’ club The Ned, Rixos Gulf Hotel Doha, the St Regis Marsa Arabia Island, The Pearl-Qatar, Waldorf Astoria Lusail and twin hotels Raffles Doha and Fairmont Doha, featuring a design inspired by the crossed scimitars of Qatar’s seal.

New restaurants include SUSHISAMBA Doha, Alba by Enrico Crippa and Malaki, while the Corinthia Yacht Club in The Pearl-Qatar is a private membership club.

The online agent training Qatar Specialist Programme includes a luxury module.

Stay: A Qatar Formula 1 break in early October with seven nights at the Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara, breakfast and three-day grandstand tickets costs £1,989pp from Premier Holidays, with Qatar Airways return flights. premierholidays.co.uk