Travelling into the Palm Jumeirah feels disappointingly… normal. I mean, here we are, driving onto a manmade island in the shape of a palm tree, an island whose engineering is something of a technological miracle. And it feels as though we were going down any other Dubai road, smooth and lined with painstakingly pruned greenery on either side.
Well, it is just another Dubai road, I’m reminded by my family. Albeit built on reclaimed land in the shape of the giant trunk of the giant palm in the middle of the Arabian Sea.
The aerial shots on the National Geographic documentary made it seem much cooler, I grumble.
Then I see the road signs, and my disappointment lifts. Because, you see, on Palm Jumeirah, you don’t have street names; you have frond names. Signs all around us read ‘Frond A to G’ or ‘Way to Frond D’, and it dawns on me (to my delight) that all those turns off to our left and right are actually the fronds of the giant palm. With perfect little houses on them. Finally, I declare, I’m feeling it – I really am in the middle of the world’s only island in the shape of a desert palm (or any other tree for that matter).
There’s more to come, as our laconic Malayali driver unexpectedly reveals himself to be a treasure trove of island gossip. These aren’t just any old frond-street houses, he tells us conspiratorially. That one, he points, belongs to none other than King Khan himself, and that one to football superstar and metrosexual extraordinaire David Beckham (I’m suitably impressed and make a mental note to Google for further goodies.)
The fronds are where the bulk of the (ridiculously expensive) independent homes are – the main road is where the action is, or at least is supposed to be. Right now, the tall, elegant buildings that line the road wear a rather forlornly empty look. The economic downturn has hit the Palm project very hard, and the road that ought to be jumping with happening hotels, restaurants, clubs and stores lies still and quiet.
One joint that really is buzzing is the magnificent – there’s no other word for it – Atlantis at the heart of the island. The outrageously over-the-top hotel that was launched with much fanfare a couple of years ago is a rhapsody in beige and aquamarine, all soaring arches and towers. A thematic hotel based on the legendary Lost City of Atlantis (how fitting that it’s on an island that arose out of nothing in the middle of the sea), it boasts of a huge aquarium with an assortment of marine wildlife (65,000 animals in all), a maze of underwater tunnels and halls, décor that’s just the right mix of the mythological and the surreal, and of course, tons of water sports for the adventurous. (It’s so popular, in fact, that on this holiday, some of its public areas resemble a fish market more than a mysterious underwater kingdom.)
In the evening, we take a ride on the monorail shuttle that runs through the island. At every turn, the sea glints at us in the moonlight, and every building on the silent main street is beautifully, subtly lit. We’re confused by a stop that seems to have nothing there, until the monorail conductor explains it’s the site of what’s going to be the biggest mall in Dubai. It’s already the most amazing, he quips – it’s invisible. Like so many other ambitious projects on the island, this one too is stalled. In some ways, by nightfall, the Palm begins to resemble a ghost town, humbled by the worldwide recession. Then we see the Atlantis sparkling in the midst of it all, and it seems like perhaps there’s hope for the lost island of Palm Jumeirah.