How the Dubai Seven-Star Hotel Works

Dubai Image Gallery Dubai's Burj Al Arab towers over the Persian Gulf. See more pictures of Dubai.
Photo courtesy Jumeirah

­A glistening glass­ yacht rises out of the Persian Gulf. It's the jewel of Dubai -- the talle­st hotel in the world. Luxury cars ferry people across an ocean causeway to the hotel's own man-made island. Helicopters with VIP guests land on a suspended helipad, a disc hovering far above the sea. Fireballs burst at the entrance and a fountain shoots jets of water into the cavernous, gold-filled atrium. Ushers welcome guests­ with rose water, dates and coffee

while escorting them to two-story suites manned by personal butlers. Welcome to the Burj Al Arab -- Dubai's seven-star hotel.

Of course, the Burj Al Arab, which opened in 1999, is not really a seven-star hotel -- there's no such thing. There's not even a six-star rating. The property, run by the resort company Jumeirah, bills itself as a deluxe five-star, the highest existing hotel ranking. But the Burj's sheer opulence, coupled with its outrageously attentive service, has garnered the hotel a seven-star reputation.

Guests at the Burj look out of their floor-to-ceiling windows onto a city dotted with fantastical high-rises and countless cranes. Dubai,­ an emirate of the United Arab Emirates, has seemingly g­rown up overnight -- it was once a sandy bedouin town of pearl divers and fishermen, and, more recently, a drab and dusty oil state. Oil, in fact, is the force behind Dubai's race to become one of the world's great cities -- but not in the way you might expect. Dubai's oil is running out. It should be completely gone in the next 10 years. And with the source of its original wealth dwindling, Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has pushed his country into a more modern business: tourism.

In the next section we'll learn how the Burj Al Arab rose out of the Persian Gulf.

The Burj Al Arab Hotel

The Burj Al Arab architects hoped people would recognize the hotel's distinct shape from a thirty second sketch.
The Burj Al Arab architects hoped people would recognize the hotel's distinct shape from a thirty second sketch.
Rabih Moghrabi/AFP/Getty Images

In 1993, ­the resort ­compa­ny Jumeirah International delivered its vision to Burj Al Arab architect Tom Wright. Jumeirah wanted something iconic -- a building that could stand among the world's great landmarks. Price was not a factor. As Wright and his firm, W.S. Atkins & Partners, started planning, they used a "Pictionary test." Could a person recognize the Burj from a 30-second sketch? In a spectacularly creative nod to Dubai's fishing past, the architects adopted the distinctive shape of an Arabian dhow, or yacht's sail.

Jumeirah also wanted its luxury hotel built off the coast so that it would stand apart from surrounding development. Jumeirah did not want the monolithic tower, just 197 feet shorter than the Empire State Building, to cast a shadow on its other beach resort. So, all parties agreed, the yacht hotel would fittingly rise out of the Persian Gulf, connected by a causeway that would be crossed only by the hotel's Rolls Royce fleet.

But reclaiming land from the ocean is extremely difficult. It took two years to create an island that sits on a foundation of sand held in place by friction. Workers drilled steel piles into the seabed to support the massive building and armored the island with precast concrete "shed" units -- specially designed hollow blocks made to minimize the force of waves. Workers then filled the structure with sand dredged from an offshore seabed. The island, however, is no simple sandcastle bolstered by concrete. It not only supports a 1,053-foot building but also three levels of basement carved out from the sea.

­­Even after the completion of a sandy island 919 feet out in the Gulf, architects and engineers still had to design a building that could withstand strong gulf winds, seismic tremors and a corrosive atmosphere. The Burj consists of a steel exoskeleton, highly reflective glass, a mast and the defining fabric sail. The exoskeleton bows out in a V-shape, framing the contour of the sail. Two layers of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric stretch over pre-tensioned arches and connect to girders on two floors. During the day, the fabric softens the light that filters into the atrium. At night, the scrim serves as a projection screen for a colorful light show. The mast, which is not part of the exoskeleton, rises 197 feet above the top of the building.

Two structures jut out past the straight line of the mast and curved sail. The Sky View Restaurant perches on the side of the mast, 656 feet above the ocean. On the other side of the building, a circular helipad seemingly hovers in front of the sail.

But much of the magic of the Burj Al Arab magic happens inside the hotel. In the next section, we'll learn about the atrium, the suites, the service and the gold.

Inside the Burj Al Arab

The Royal Suites at the Burj Al Arab have formal entrances and marble staircases.
The Royal Suites at the Burj Al Arab have formal entrances and marble staircases.
Photo courtesy Jumeirah

Enter the Burj Al Arab's towering atrium and you might think you're in a palace, a lavish, undiscovered tomb or some sort of futuristic Star Wars senate chamber. The atrium takes up about a third of the hotel's space and soars 590 feet above the lobby. The lower floors have ocean-blue undersides that fade to an atmospheric light green as they approach the atrium's ceiling -- blurring the line between inside and out. Doors to the suites line layers of scalloped white balconies. Hefty pillars gilded in 22-karat gold stretch up several floors, and gold spandrels leap and crisscross between them. Every half hour, a jet shoots a stream of water 138 feet into the open atrium.The Burj Al Arab doesn't clutter its softly lit atrium with a mundane check-in counter. After a personal greeting and presentation of cool towels, coffee and dates, ushers escort guests to their suites. There, guests meet with a personal butler and privately check in to their lodgings.

The Burj Al Arab has only suites -- two-floor suites with marble staircases, full-size Hermès toiletries and 13-selection pillow menus. The Burj Al Arab's most humble accommodations, a misnomer if there ever was one, start at 558 square feet. They include the luxury features of a five-star's most lavish suites: living room, lounge, private bar, king-size bed, dressing room and Jacuzzi. Guests select their butler-drawn bath from a menu and can pair it with champagne, caviar and strawberries.

But the Burj Al Arab's accommodations only get more luxurious. Two Royal Suites take up the entire 25th double floor. Leopard print, gold and marble swathe the 2,559-square-foot space, and a rotating canopy bed holds court in the master bedroom. A private elevator and cinema lets Royal Suite guests avoid the extremely wealthy riffraff staying in lesser accommodations.

If guests care to venture out of their suites (and they don't have to -- butlers can serve elaborate room service), they have six restaurants and bars to choose­ from. The under-the-sea-themed Al Mahara restaurant includes a simulated submarine ride and a dining room surrounded by aquariums. Guests can also relax in the tiled spa or head out to Jumeirah's Wild Wadi Water Park to soak up some of Dubai's scorching sun.

To learn more about Dubai, hotels and money, browse through the links on the next page.

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