Up to now, if you weren’t a paying guest at the hotel or dining at one of its restaurants, your Burj Al Arab experience was likely confined to snapping photos of the structure from the adjacent public beach.
But from October 15 this year, the Burj Al Arab’s secretive doors are finally sliding open with a promise to offer visitors a glimpse inside.
Showers embellished with 24-carat gold tiles. Duvets filled with eiderdown harvested from abandoned duck nests in Iceland. These are just some of the luxuries that await at Dubai’s Burj Al Arab, one of the world’s most exclusive hotels.
For almost 22 years, the Burj al Arab has been standing proud on its private island just off the Jumeirah seafront, instantly recognizable with its design modeled on the shape of a billowing sail.
Its cantilevered helipad suspended 210 metres above the water, has played host to many headline-grabbing events over the years. Andre Agassi and Roger Federer knocked a tennis ball around in 2005. David Coulthard spun donuts in an F1 car in 2013.
In February 2021, with the world in lockdown, DJ David Guetta used it as the stage for his “United at Home” livestream event. And in August 2021, as part of Dubai Tourism’s glitzy new campaign, Hollywood duo Zac Efron and Jessica Alba skydived off it.
So why allow public access now? Andy Nicholson, general manager and experience director of Inside Burj Al Arab, points to 2021 being the 50th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates and the recent opening of Expo 2020 Dubai, the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East.
This year “the spotlight is really on Dubai, and it seems like the perfect time to open up one of the city’s icons to visitors,” he says. “It’s a glimpse of the original home of luxury in Dubai,” he adds.
So what exactly will visitors experience when they enter these rarefied spaces? Starting from a new welcome center, the 90-minute tour begins with a buggy ride over the 340-metre bridge that connects to the private island on which the hotel stands. But there’s a pit stop to make first.
“We noticed that most guests come and stand on the bridge to take photos of the hotel,” says Nicholson. A new platform has been created to let visitors have the perfect vantage point.
On arrival at the Burj Al Arab, after a traditional welcome with a sprinkle of rosewater by Emirati hosts, you enter the cavernous atrium, at 180 metres, the tallest in the world, and the tour proper begins.
Without the context of other skyscrapers flanking the building, it’s hard to grasp its scale, but at 321 metres in height, it’s three metres shorter than the Eiffel Tower (including tip) and 60 metres shorter than the Empire State Building.
The atrium manages to feel modern and retro at the same time, an Arabian Nights-meets-Jetsons setting, with layer upon layer of curves and color shades that become lighter the closer they get to the sky. At the top of the escalators, that glide upwards past twin aquariums, a fountain dances to the rhythms of traditional Emirati dance before shooting a final plume, geyser-like, 42 meters up into the air.
Original sketches by interior designer Khuan Chew are on display, as is the napkin on which British architect Tom Wright sketched the first draft of his proposed structure in October 1993.
Prior to coming up with the now instantly recognizable shape, Wright considered various symbols of Dubai’s culture and history for inspiration. But he came to a clear conclusion, if the building was to become an icon of a city that was boldly looking to the future, it should not be rooted in the past. Rather, it should be moving forward, and thus the sail-shaped building was born.
It took five years to build the Burj Al Arab, two years to create the artificial island on which it stands, and three years to build the hotel itself. When originally announced, the location was considered an unusual choice by many due to the fact that it was around 15 kilometres from what was the center of Dubai at the time. But its seaside backdrop on Dubai’s loveliest beach is one of the reasons it has become such an icon.
The interior of the Burj Al Arab is perhaps even more jaw-dropping than the exterior. Now that the doors are open to visitors, is there a chance that the hotel’s guests might be a bit miffed to be sharing their space?
“Our atrium is the biggest in the world, and we definitely have space for everyone,” says Nicholson. Each group is limited to a maximum of 12 people, and most of the experience takes place on the 25th floor which is reserved exclusively for visitors to Inside Burj Al Arab. In-house guests can take the tour too. “This is a working hotel, open 365 days a year,” continues Nicholson, “and the new tour offers a glimpse behind the scenes, bringing to life 21 years of amazing stories about the hotel and its people,” he adds.
Visitors won’t be asked to vacate the premises immediately after the experience, either. A new outdoor lounge, Uma, has opened exclusively for Inside Burj Al Arab, and each of the hotel’s restaurants can be booked by non-guests.