SLS Dubai hits new heights with a towering opening for the city’s hotel scene

To find the reception you have to board the high-speed elevator to be whisked up to floor 71 where you emerge into what looks like a lobby from the afterlife.

Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazilian architect considered to be one of the key figures in the development of modern architecture, once wrote ‘surprise is the key in all art’.

Nowhere is this more true than in one of Dubai’s newest hotels, SLS Dubai, still box fresh from its April 2021 opening.

SLS flips many conventions on their head, surprising you from the moment you walk through the doors. You are looking for the reception, instead you are greeted with a huge stain-glass mural and the cozy Ellemia coffee shop (great macaroons).

After a smooth check-in you find yourself in the lift again for surprise two, not going up to your room but down a few floors, a small change to the norm, but it’s refreshing how this feels like a step away from convention – something that seems to be stamped into the hotel’s DNA.

You’ll find your room modern in design – Gen Xers like me might be tempted to call it funky (my apologies to the designers), an updated creative twist on pop art of old. It comes complete with two big bonuses, firstly a spacious balcony appropriately staring out at Dubai’s design district. The second is the marble white bathroom, bathed in light with the freestanding bath from which you gaze out at the city through more floor to ceiling glazing. Stunning in the daytime, but at night as the electric circus many floors below comes to life, it’s perfect for watching the streams of light weave their way round the urban landscape.

Surprise number three – the memorable Ciel spa, which literally elevates the concept of ‘me time’. Again this is a portrait in clean white marble, this spa in the sky is staffed by skilled therapists waiting to welcome you. During our couples’ massage I opted for a more robust treatment to kneed out rigours of working life, and full credit to my therapist, I left in much better condition than when I walked in.

Another jewel of the Ciel spa is the Jacuzzi and steam room areas. These are separate for men and women, which initially seemed a shame, but then we both agreed that it gave each of us time to be perfectly alone and connect with our own thoughts, or indeed think nothing at all. Both areas also feature outdoor decks which again give incredible views of downtown and the Burj Khalifa.

Talking of which, that iconic structure features heavily in surprise number four – Privilege – the infinity pool at the top of the 75-floor hotel, which gives a panoramic vista with the world’s tallest building right in the heart of the view, delivered in what must be one of the highest pools in the world. It’s a glamourous spot that no doubt will feature in many an Instagram feed.

For those with children SLS also has an expansive outdoor pool complex on the 12th floor, also with good views. But I’ll confess, this is a hotel to arrange a sleepover for your little one with friends, as this is the perfect place for parents to remember they are couples.

Surprise number five – Fi’lia, which means daughter – the entirely female-run restaurant that celebrates food and identity. Super light, again with incredible views as standard, this eaterie stood out amongst many in the city, combining delicious Italian cuisine, bright and creative design and a brilliant message and tone set by the talented head chef Sara Aqel and her team. Girl power here translates into a memorable dining experience, and one which you’ll file in your mental locker as a “must come back”.

I shan’t turn this into a food review but the cheese fellow – crunchy phyllo dough, three cheese, aromatic herbs, almond, pine nut, marinated zucchini, caramelised onion – and the pappardelle with veal ragu – braised veal ossobuco, tomato, orange gremolata, pecorino – demand attention.

Surprise number six, Carna (pictured below), award-winning Italian butcher Dario Cecchini’s contemporary steakhouse. Being honest, I walked in with guarded expectations having eaten at many lauded steakhouses only to be left unmoved and a shade disappointed.

But Carna, now here is a venue that steps up to the plate (so to speak). Firstly, before you’ve even eaten a bite, it is fun, the décor is intimate and yet irreverent and the excellent DJ softly spins background music of remixed classic that has you almost out of your seat at times.

Of course, the main show is the food (well that and the service). I will say that my USDA Prime Filet Mignon was sensational, cooked just so and rubbed with Dario’s signature specialty salt Profumo Del Chianti, which gave the meat a delicious exterior crunch before enjoying the moist texture. However, as good as that was it was overshadowed by the Il Bollito di Dario – a surprising serving of slow-cooked veal tongue, beef cheek, veal belly and ox tail which was utterly delicious.

All served together Carna is a heady mix for fun and food which we struggled to leave (and will confess a visit to the steam room in the morning was required to reset for the day).

Dubai, with its boundless choice of hotels, can be a daunting challenge for new entrants to make their mark, but SLS Dubai manages it by serving up a surprise in the sky with distinction and style.

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