From Dubai with Love
Sebastian Dollinger, creative director of revered luxury menswear brand Eton, finds a kid- and parent-friendly oasis (and an escape from Sweden’s chilly autumn) in the Middle East.
I’ve been traveling close to 100 days per year for the past 15 years, so when I go on vacation, I just want to relax and eat well. For my fall trip, my wife and I wanted to take our 18-month-old daughter someplace where we could catch some sun (we live in Stockholm, which can be quite cold by autumn) without traveling too far. Dubai is a six-hour flight from Stockholm with almost no time difference, and it guaranteed sun and a warm sea. We were sold.
We flew Emirates, and I purchased an entire row of seats so that we would be comfortable (and, frankly, for the well-being of the passengers around us too). We will be arriving late (11 p.m. Dubai time), so we prebooked a car with a child seat, and thankfully it’s waiting for us when we land. After a smooth 30-minute drive we arrive, around midnight, at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai.
It must have been under three minutes from someone opening the door of the car to when we find ourselves in our room. I faintly recall a good-looking reception area, but since it was late and we had been traveling for 11 hours, I honestly could have dreamt it.
When we awaken, we open the curtains to reveal an impressive pool area and a beautiful beach. Breakfast is nothing short of amazing — delicious dishes served in a lush garden area. The staff is attentive and, as we sit down, we notice a child’s seat had already been placed at the table.
The first part of Day 2 is spent in the pool, but only after a delay — my wife had forgotten her swimsuit at home, so off we go to The Dubai Mall (thedubaimall.com). (For the record, I’m still not sure if my wife forgetting her swimsuit was planned so that we had to go shopping or if it was an honest mistake.)
The Dubai Mall isn’t really a mall; it’s a shopping palace! I’ve worked in fashion my entire life, and I’ve never seen anything like it. You could spend a full week inside and still not see everything it has to offer. There’s everything from a hockey rink to a kids zone, which is actually a small town where kids can pretend to be princesses, chefs or anything else they can dream of. There’s even an aquarium and an underwater zoo.
Luckily, the fashion brands are all here too, from high end to high street. When we have everything we need (plus some), we head to dinner at Asia Asia (Marina Promenade, Pier 7, asia-asia.com), the Pan-Asian restaurant overlooking a marina filled with luxury yachts lined up side-by-side like Volvos in Sweden.
We spend the next day relaxing at the hotel, making good use of the Ritz Kids area, which our daughter loves. There are a number of different pools, and all serve free snacks all day long.
After the pool, my wife and I are both ready for some time at the spa. The signature treatment is a journey into ancient Arabia using ingredients such as camel milk, frankincense, rose water and fine sand from the Emirates. After a foot scrub, I lie face-down for my full-body massage. My therapist melts a candle made of argan oil from Morocco and frankincense from Yemen to rub into my skin, using medium strokes over pressure points to relieve the tension knotting my muscles. We agree that my back is where the attention should be, and I ask him to describe how bad my back and shoulders are on a scale of 1 to 10 — he says 8. We decide that he should use everything he has to annihilate as many knots as possible. It pretty much turns into a battlefield. This guy knows what he is doing. An hour later I’m in an interesting juxtaposition of joy and feeling like I have been hit by a small car.
The next day, I feel like a new man, and my wife and I are already discussing how we should have a massage at least once a month when we get back home. Our late afternoon is spent looking at the Star Wars-like sunset with a glass of champagne, accompanied with sand bucket swinging and shoveling with my daughter on the beach. It’s just perfect.
I’ve been invited to tour the local fish and spice markets with Chef Rami, head Arabic chef at the hotel. We’re whisked away in the morning, and our first destination is the Spice Souk (26 34 St., near Al Ras Metro Station). Rami is originally from Syria, and we soon realize that we are more or less the same age, in the middle of our careers, and each have one child about the same age. Rami has a friendly face and big, bold glasses, and he tells me how he has worked in palaces in Saudi Arabia and his plans for Amaseena (ritzcarlton.com), the restaurant he helms at the hotel.
Before we know it, we arrive at the market. The first thing I note: It’s hot as a furnace outside. We immediately head for cover within the souk. Spices are everywhere, and the touts are beckoning you into every shop. The aromas and people are intoxicating. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
After the spice market, we head off to the fish market inside the Waterfront Market (Al Khaleej Road, Corniche Deira, waterfrontmarket.ae). The atmosphere is partylike inside, but the market is remarkably clean. There are fish from every corner of the world, and I ask Rami about everything I see — “What’s this?” “What’s that?” ”What’s the best way to cook this?” Rami is kind and answers all my (likely irritating) questions.
After walking through the colorful fruit and vegetable market adjacent to the fish market, I head to the car and I’m met by a gigantic indoor playground. This sight sums up how child-friendly this country is. Where else in the world would you find an indoor playground next to a fish market?
A few hours later, back at the hotel, my wife and daughter and I are on our way to Blue Jade (ritzcarlton.com), the Thai restaurant at the hotel. My wife is half Thai, and not only have we traveled Southeast Asia extensively, but we also eat incredibly good Thai food at home. So we are tough customers to please. Well, Blue Jade blew us away. The black pepper beef and the ginger lotus sea bass were mind-blowingly good. And my daughter ate an entire adult portion of Vietnamese fried rice, looking as happy as she does eating at her grandmother’s house.
On our last day in Dubai, all we want to do is hang out together. We play at the pool, we play in the room, we visit the Ritz Kids corner. We drink smoothies by the beach and watch the camels pass by, which my daughter thinks are horses.
We spend our final evening at Amaseena, where Chef Rami has promised to guide us through the entire menu. The restaurant is built like a bedouin camp. Middle Eastern music is being played and, to my surprise, there’s a buffet. Now, people who know me well know that if I see a buffet, I turn around and walk away. Of course, that would be rude so I’m not going to do that here. Thankfully, this is not your ordinary buffet.
We are greeted by Rami, and he takes us through the freshest and most extensive Middle Eastern menu we could have imagined. We drink Lebanese wine and try dish after dish. The crowd is a mix of hotel guests and locals who have come to dine. Suddenly, a belly dancer appears and my daughter’s eyes light up. She begins dancing to the music and I follow her lead. When we head back to the table, Rami insists I try the grill. My stomach insists I leave immediately, but I stay and eat anyway. It’s the best Middle Eastern food I’ve had in my life, so I’m glad I did.
Waking up the next morning, I realize I don’t remember what happened after we finished our food. And I don’t remember going to bed either! It’s not because I overindulged in food or drinks. Rather, I think I experienced a state of euphoria. A storybook ending to a magical trip with my family.
Thank you, Dubai. We’ll be back.