There’s something about the way luxury powerhouse Bulgari opens hotels. To much incredulity, the traditional jeweller announced its intention to get into the hotelier business in 2004. Since then, the brand has successfully carved a niche for itself; however, in the last decade-plus, the brand has only opened five hotels: in Milan, London, Bali, Beijing and now Dubai. Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin calls each location a “genius loci” – like a rough stone waiting to be discovered, painstakingly cut and polished. Precious stones like these aren’t easy to find, nor are the most exceptional hotel locations.
Bulgari also has the luxury of time. Silvio Ursini, who is in charge of the brand’s hotels and resorts division, says the project is a “creative exercise.” Indeed, there’s no rush to build a sizeable hotel empire because it’s not Bulgari’s core business – and unlike a traditional hotelier, where service trumps everything else, the brand has taken a design-focused route. Renowned Italian architecture firm Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel has been the brand’s partner of choice since the beginning.
The Bulgari Resort Dubai, located on Jumeira Bay – a man-made island in the shape of a seahorse – promises to be yet another purely Italian gem and #legend was privileged to be among the first to see it.
We arrive in Dubai at the crack of dawn. Chauffeured in a Maserati, our driver points out the tallest, most outrageous landmarks as we zip through the city. The Dubai Frame is one of the first monuments we see; the two 150-metre-tall towers literally form a picture frame, connected by a 100-square-metre bridge at the top and a parallel hall on the ground floor that will serve as a museum when the structure opens. “It frames old Dubai on one side and new Dubai on the other,” our driver tells us. As we turn onto the bridge that leads us off the mainland towards Jumeira Bay, the dramatic skyline of Dubai shimmers like a mirage against the rising sun, the Burj Khalifa and its surrounding skyscrapers like shards of burnished glass jutting up towards the sky.
Before we know it, the Bulgari Resort Dubai looms into view. The island and the resort are just minutes away from the city, but it feels like a world away. Nothing about the architecture is too loud or too contemporary; what meets my eyes is something much more picturesque. Sunlight paints the white facade a pale gold, while the coral-inspired lattice canopy, like three delicate pastry layers on a mille-feuille, extends from the building to cast a mottled pattern over the pavement.
When Citterio and Viel saw the first master plan of Jumeira Bay in the making and began to visualise the hotel, they didn’t envision glitz and glamour – and certainly not the biggest, the tallest or the most outlandish design. But they knew they needed to do something spectacular. The end product includes not just the resort, but a residence, a yacht club and Dubai’s biggest marina, which can dock up to 50 yachts.
“Dubai is the kind of place where they do big things – huge things,” explains Ursini. “To do a small hotel like the Bulgari Hotel Milano, we would have disappeared. So we were looking for a place sizeable enough where we could make a statement. We wanted to make a statement of understatement.”
At a sprawling 150,000 square metres, the property is one of Bulgari’s biggest hotels that Citterio and Viel have designed yet. But it proved to be a fun challenge, as Viel explains: “More area means more complexity, more elements involved.” One thing the duo were adamant about was that nothing about the architecture should be stereotypical. In the last decade or so, the Middle East has become a playground for young design firms and starchitects, who come armed with bundles of creativity but tend to draw inspiration from just a select few cultural references. Undulating roofs and fluid canopies often allude to sand dunes and the sails of a traditional dhow boat, but nowadays border on the cliché.
Ursini wholeheartedly agrees. “We’re not making an Arabian hotel,” he says. “But we need to understand the culture first in order to do a better job in designing an Italian hotel. We are Italian, we have a long history and we respect history. So for us, it’s very different from other people who come to do a Middle Eastern hotel or a Chinese hotel. It’s not fake; it’s not cliché. We respect.”
With grand plans for Bulgari Resort Dubai, Ursini’s ideal scenario would see travellers staying in the rooms and suites, and locals coming to Jumeira Bay for food and use of the yacht club. He’s waiting for different restaurant concepts to join the ground floor of the residences, so the promenade can become Dubai’s top restaurant destination. “The Italian and the Mediterranean culture of socialising is very similar to that of the Middle East,” he explains. “We like to sit in a cafe and look at girls who pass by with a gelato – and the Middle East too! So we designed a place with all the restaurants, where you can see people, the way they dress, their shoes, their boyfriends, their girlfriends.”
Inside, Ursini and the designers use a subtle, sober palette of ivory, silver and sand, retaining the natural colours of the luxury materials they’ve used – marble, travertine, matte-finish black granite, and pale brushed wood are used all around the rooms and common areas. An almost all-Italian roster of furniture and furnishings from Maxalto, Flexform, Flos and B&B are complemented by wild-wool Beni Ourain rugs from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, as well as gold-flecked vases sourced from Bali. A favourite piece of mine is a custom-designed trunk mini-bar in our rooms, stocked full of Italian snacks, coffee, tea, alcohol and glassware.
It is a Bulgari hotel, after all, so the codes from Rome are overt, but not overdone. Shades and screens, a necessary part of the culture, are placed in popular spaces like the lobby and the restaurant areas, tastefully rendered in the pattern of Bulgari’s Griglia Pantheon, with alternating squares, circles and stars on a metal grid. The eight-point Stella star appears on the lobby floors (all roads lead to Rome) and are used in the modern interpretation of chandeliers at the yacht club, shaped like falling stars. The art is all from the brand’s archives, including vintage drawings of jewellery designs, while dolce vita photos of celebrities and glamorous fashion shoots from the ’60s deck the restaurants, the lobby and the suites. The house’s fan-shaped Diva pattern is created in a mosaic at the spa’s vitality pool – using real gold.
I spend the rest of my time at the resort exploring the spa – I’m told I’m the first customer to use the hammam, a striking room with walls made from whole slabs of green onyx from Iran. There, I’m scrubbed down, oiled up and washed for hours on end; I imagine this was how Cleopatra took her baths. I while away the time at the vitality pools and rainforest showers before hitting the beach club for a swim, where the mosaic tiles at the bottom of the pool are arranged like gigantic pieces of vintage brooches.
The food at the restaurant, by chef Niko Romito of three-Michelin-starred Reale in Italy, is absolutely delicious. A lot of our dining happens at Il Café, where gauzy pale pink curtains hang from the floor-to-ceiling windows and cast a soft pink filter over the entire restaurant. We befriend the delightful servers, who press us with more pastries, more dips, more bread, more pasta and more cheese until we clutch at our bellies and make a note to book an appointment at the gym the next day. All of the Bulgari hotel gyms are operated by Workshop Gymnasium, which has trainers on hand for classes including Pilates, circuit training, yoga and more. We end our stay with a sunset cruise, and watch in awe as the setting sun bathes Dubai’s skyline in shades of orange and molten gold. It’s hard to fault the location – there’s so much happening in Dubai, so much to see. If only we had more time!
What’s next for Bulgari Hotels and Resorts? Shanghai and Moscow are scheduled to open this year, bringing the portfolio up to seven properties. With the spectacular work Ursini, Citterio, Viel and their teams have done so far, we can expect nothing short of a 10 out of 10.