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Sand and Slopes: Skiing in Dubai

Ski Dubai Offers the Hottest Slopes in the Desert Heat

by Michael Skorulski

Adventurers bash over sand dunes in four-wheel drives, capering on camels in the searing sun until their lips blister and peel. However, I sip a cappuccino in five-star comfort at the Kempinski Hotel as I descend in the lift to the lobby. An instant later, I glimpse the snowy trails of Ski Dubai. Not once, do I venture into the sizzling 110 degree Fahrenheit caldron of the middle-eastern desert.

Ski Dubai Interior
Ski Dubai Interior

As I look around I see, jaunty Japanese women in skimpy, summer frocks pose for photos in front of a wide expanse of glass; their huge grins glistening. On the other side of Ski Dubai, children in snowsuits and helmets fly down white inclines on inflatable tubes. Skiers and snowboarders hover overhead in chairlifts. They scrutinize flurry fiends below, twirling acrobatically or tumbling into undignified heaps and sprawls.

Though I enjoy the view of the expansive glass domes that belong to the 12-acre Mall of the Emirates— the largest shopping complex outside North America— my destination is on the other side of the transparent divide in Ski Dubai. The refrigerated realm of one of the world's largest indoor snow resorts provokes my curiosity. From the desert floor, a complex network of cables raised the 4,000 tons of cylinder-shaped stainless steel comprising that makes up Ski Dubai. The shiny metal tube dominates surrounding structures and is visible for miles. Inside, 6,000 tons of artificial snow covers the man-made ski runs to a depth of 18 inches.

I slip past the deserted St. Moritz Cafe on the mall's ground floor and see men in full-length white shirts and head gear and veiled women swathed in black, chatting animatedly. Their playful children romp among the crowds. The excited children shell out 60 dirhams—approximately $16 U.S. dollars— a piece to toboggan down man-made hills, build a snowman and frolic on the Snow Park's climbing towers.

When I hit the slopes myself, I find a barely meet the requirements necessary to ski. I can link turns rarely, controlling my speed by falling on my tush and stopping safely only if latched on to stationary objects. From time to time I can get off a lift without careering out of control and causing a pileup. I pay about $44 for a plastic keycard granting me two hours on the hill, use of a locker, board, boots, trousers and jacket.

The Snow Pro— the center's equipment shop— provides a full line of Burton and Rossignol gear and garments for any extras you might need. I purchase no-name fleece gloves and a hat emblazoned with the resort's logo. At almost $11 total, they offer the cheapest possible warmth.

Ski Dubai's Main Slope
Ski Dubai's Main Slope

Inside Ski Dubai, women are slipping thickly-padded black parkas over their dark clothes and fleece hats over their headscarves. I collect myself a wide board with bindings that can be set easily to any stance angle. I clamp myself into the plank on the marble floor.

"The board looks fine," a voice says. Mohammed Karami is an expert snowboarder "But those boots. Forget them. You've got to bring your own footwear here if you want a good time."

I stare longingly at his new pair of Burton Rulers. Mohammed has sliced the slopes in his native country of Lebanon, as well as Switzerland and Aspen, Colorado. He rates Ski Dubai as a genuine boarding experience not just an amusement park novelty. His young sons donning their helmets take lessons once a week.

"In a hot climate, you try to stay cool," Karami said. "Local people dream about pine trees, ice and snow— which they have never seen. If you have enough cash, you can manufacture the environment for yourself. Most Emirates have a skating rink. Now they have snowball fights and skiing too."

According to Karami, the resort fits into Dubai's overall plan to diversify and become an international tourist destination as well as a leading oil producer.

"Just take it easy on those weak shoes," he says, as I limp to the entrance. I am not reassured as my two hours on the hill commence.

I ascend an escalator to a revolving door, push it round. The frigid air devours me. I enter an 87-yard-wide, 24,500-square yard walk-in freezer. I shiver as the T-shirt under my thin jacket is laughable. The ski resort's lighting is subdued, making it look like an ice cave at twilight.

Ski Dubai is so well-insulated that no outside sounds intrude. I can barely make out the muted echo of snow addicts calling to each other in a variety of different languages. They tear down the gradient, clinking through the turnstile. The experts ride a tow lift to the summit past patrons munching on steaks at a nearby TGI Friday's. I trail less talented skiers through a gate onto the four-seat chairlift.

I share a bench with Debbie Pritchard, 13, and her friend, Adrienne Cook, 14, who attend school in Al Ain. They say they slice the snow at the Ski Dubai twice a month.

"I've never actually snowboarded anywhere else," Pritchard says. "I learned here and this is where I practice. But I'm still not very good."

We raise our planks quickly as the chairlift reaches the first stop at the Avalanche Cafe. Novices disembark here for a gentle run down. We stay on and whip round a sudden 90-degree curve headed for the peak.

I've boarded at a few places in Scotland," Cook volunteers. "But I need a lot more training too."

At the top, a smiling attendant slows the lift down. I blunder down the gentle runoff, remaining vertical. Buoyed by my success and the girls' admission of inexperience, I switch into showoff mode. Ratcheting on my bindings, I dash to the incline's edge and stop short. The trail, at 430 yards long and 25 stories high, is frightening for the faint-hearted.

On the right is a gradient designated for experts only, the world's first indoor black run. I meander left, determined to show off my turning skills. For an instant, I perform fine, my body weaving from side to side like a sloppy samba dancer. Then, before I know it, I find myself face forward in the artificial snow, arms flailing madly. The young girls sail by snickering.

"Thought I'd take a closer look at the snow. Sure does look real," I call unconvincingly at them.

Subdued, but undamaged, I traverse the wide slope at a more leisurely pace. At the abrupt right turn near the Avalanche Cafe, the incline levels off, causing me to run out of momentum completely. I frog hop futilely, but in the end, I take my back foot out of the binding and skate to the hill's lip.

Ski Dubai Snowboarding Lessons
Ski Dubai Snowboarding Lessons

I push off down the final 200 yards, discovering some unpacked snow for my edges to grip. On the right there are small moguls and a tiny jump, while on my left, the bunny hill beckons. I watch as beginners ride up a gentle incline on a moveable walkway, the ski instructors coaxing them down. Directly in front, shutterbugs click photos as skiers and boarders glide by. One aims her camera in my direction and snaps. As I stop, she dashes up and clamps a plastic bracelet around my wrist. She tells me it identifies my photo, which I can purchase at Snow Pro.

Countless enjoyable runs later, my body remains an icicle, though I totally warm to the resort. Finally, as my two hours run out, I push through the resort’s revolving door back into the warmth.

Inside the mall, bargains beckon. Shoppers flit from pillar to post, lured by dozens of discount signs. Stroking my aching shins, I dash into a sports shop hoping to find comfortable board boots at a good price. Outside, it's warm enough to fry fish on my car's hood. But inside, I hunt for my new winter gear. Not so odd perhaps. Dubai — a moneyed magician— changes trails to sales in the wink of an eye.

If You Go...

Where to Stay
Kempinski Hotel
Sheikh Zayed Road, Al Barsha
United Arab Emirates
+971 4 341 00 00

Oasis Beach Hotel
PO Box 26500
United Arab Emirates

Villa 47 Dubai
+971 4 286 8239

Where to Dine
+971 4 399 888

Al Qasr
+971 4 346 1111

T.G.I. Friday's
+971 6 555 4545

Chop Chop
+971 4 341 3618