Frankly, shopping isn't my thing. I've been to Dubai several times and never entered its fabled shopping palaces. When someone tells me Mall of the Emirates is one of the world's biggest malls, my reaction isn't amazed anticipation. Rather, I look aghast, like an Edwardian spinster confronted by a flasher.
Still, the best of travel should be about challenging yourself. If I can dune-bash to loud rock music and drink foul camel's milk, surely I can visit a shopping mall. If nothing else, I can stickybeak at how Emiratis spend their dirhams and leisure time. Perhaps I can get some airconditioned exercise before observing all this consumer madness from a cafe table.
This is what I tell myself when I discover my hotel is right beside Mall of the Emirates, which covers an area larger than the Vatican. It has 7000 parking spaces, 400-odd shops, 70 restaurants, a Magic Kingdom leisure centre, a 14-screen cinema and a community theatre. It has its own Metrolink train station. Australia claims about 6 million visitor arrivals a year; Mall of the Emirates gets 30 million.
In short, entering it quickly makes me feel like a tiny cog in the great capitalist machine. I need a map just to get around. Fortunately, maps are doled out by Filipino attendants who, savant-like, know directions to every single shop.
''Sunglass Hut? That is zone C, No 24, madam. Go along the corridor, turn left, descend the escalator, pass through the Galleria, turn left when you see The Body Shop. Then you will see the Carrefour and Sunglass Hut is opposite that. Would you like a map?''
I prick my ears when I hear about Carrefour. I don't mind a quick cruise through a foreign supermarket, where prices and products can inform of local lifestyles. I follow my map and enter a gargantuan space full of robed Emiratis, bare-shouldered expats and Indian workers in baseball caps.
Almost immediately, I find things I can't buy in the average supermarket, such as mobile phones and date-flavoured yoghurts. The washing powders smell different. A vast aisle is devoted to cooking oils.
At the deli, I spy kebbe, or meatballs, and dozens of varieties of tabbouleh. Customers shovel spices from hessian sacks: cumin and rosemary, basil and dried mint. I munch a marzipan-stuffed date from a tasting plate. Gourmet delicacies are flown in from around the globe: mussels from South Australia, halal foie gras from France, pickled plums from China. The fish counter offers kingfish, red snapper and prawns.
I start to enjoy myself but, fearful I'm not pushing my envelope, hurry away past Debenhams and Zara to the recently opened Fashion Dome, which has added 40 shops to Mall of the Emirates under a whopping glass dome that looks like a greenhouse on steroids. Just the place, I see, to drop $1363 on a Louis Vuitton laptop case or $19,000 on a hideous Boucheron sea-horse ring. The walls of the Paul Smith outlet seem eccentric, decorated with old record sleeves, scribbled envelopes and awful oil paintings. The windows of French shoe designer Christian Louboutin display signature red soles and killer heels.
I wander down to an outlet of the Parisian confectioner, Fauchon, beckoning with candied chestnuts and pistachio-flavoured madeleines. Eclairs come in flavours apparently exclusive to Dubai: orange-lemon, salty caramel or date. I have a modest macaron and an Emirati coffee, which is strong and thick. Around me, men sport spotless white dishdasha, while Saudi women lurk in black burqas whimsically edged with rhinestones.
I fortify myself with caffeine for the expected horror of Ski Dubai. Outside it might be 45 degrees but, inside one section of Mall of the Emirates, people are stuffing themselves into thermal coats to experience the big chill. Six thousand tonnes of snow create a 400-metre ski run and a startling sight: a winter wonderland behind huge panes of glass.
Soon I'm in rented boots and skis and taking a chairlift up the slope. Below, women in black are lurching around like penguins. The snow is sticky and it takes me all of 20 seconds to ski to the bottom but I'm euphoric with the sheer folly of the experience. I sit at the Avalanche Cafe and celebrate with mulled wine. Sans actual wine, of course: is there no end to this ersatz experience?
Maybe it's the placebo effect of my non-alcohol but I relax into the experience. I even make another couple of ski runs, just because I can. Really, this is more fun than I imagined. Fir trees are white with a dusting of frost and locals are throwing snowballs like wide-eyed children. Grown Saudi tourists giggle with incredulity and press ice against their cheeks.
Time for dinner. A skip away from Ski Dubai and I'm in Harvey Nichols, a piece of Little Britain selling Duchy of Cornwall jam and skinny clothes by Victoria Beckham. I head to its third-floor eatery, Almaz by Momo, a branch of London's hip Momo restaurant. You can't get more Dubai than an imitation London restaurant that already imitates an Algerian restaurant. Silver stars flash from the ceiling and green chandeliers cast teardrops on the walls. Sheesha smoke and Arab pop music float through the air as I indulge in a lamb tagine of pear and prune.
I'm rather pleased with myself: I've been in a shopping mall for an entire day. Better yet, a door leads out of the mall and right into my hotel, the Pullman Dubai. Who can resist a brand-new hotel? Everything is immaculate. The staff members are a little confused, as if still working out what they're supposed to be doing, but they try hard and have nice smiles.
The Pullman doesn't have all the amenities of Dubai's resort-style hotels. I like business hotels, however: they're often quiet and well run. It appears to have a sense of humour, too: its Soda Box recalls a 1950s soda bar in bright, Willy Wonka colours. Businessmen with loosened ties and self-conscious grins scoop up ice-cream and multi-hued cakes.
I opt for a last glass of Moroccan tea beside the rooftop pool, which has views all the way to the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. I feel happy to be here and reckon I can soon boast that I have spent 24 hours in a shopping mall.
In the morning, when I wake, I peer out of my window down on the vast roof of Mall of the Emirates, a patchwork of tar and airconditioning units. Ski Dubai sticks up like a giant metal elbow. Pakistani workers stagger in the scorching heat, fiddling with vast airconditioning units.
I'll just wait an hour until the mall opens for business. Then I'll nip down for another little look. Shopping isn't my thing but there's no harm in looking, is there?
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Emirates Airlines and Accor Hotels.
Mall of the Emirates on Sheikh Zayed Road is open 10am-10pm Sun-Wed and 10am-midnight Thurs-Sat. See malloftheemirates.com.
The five-star Pullman Dubai Mall of the Emirates has direct access to the mall, a floor of executive facilities and 481 rooms and suites, from $197 a night. Phone 1300 656 565, see pullmanhotels.com.
- Sydney Morning Herald