Ski in the desert? It could only happen in Dubai
Two weeks ahead of its scheduled opening date of 2 December, we have been invited for a sneak preview. As the ferocious midday sun toasts tourists on nearby Jumeirah beaches, we're donning ski boots, gloves and thermal coats. Kitted out in full Scott-of-the-Antarctic style we approach the complex's colossal front doors, much to the amusement of the shoppers dressed in shorts and sandals in the adjoining mall.
As we pass through the entrance a rush of glacial wind pushes itself to the base of our lungs and we feel the alien crunch of fresh snow underfoot. Before us lies a scene ripped straight from a Christmas card. Two excitable young men pelt each other with snowballs, fir trees hang heavy with frost and a handful of black-coated visitors trudge up a steep, snow-white hill like a pack of migratory penguins. Central to this snapshot of wintry perfection are two Emiratis in white robes and chequered headscarves kneeling in eight inches of powder, letting snow run through their fingers and giggling at the sheer frigid insanity of it all.
Even in this endlessly ambitious town, taking temperatures of up to 45C down to below zero seemed crazy. But this is a city that refuses to be confined by such trifling matters as logic, physics or geography. It's currently engaged in a host of surreal superprojects: building the first ever underwater hotel, complete with performance hall for subaquatic operas; constructing a theme park (imaginatively entitled 'Dubailand') that's larger than the city itself; and erecting the tallest tower in the world (the Burj Dubai, whose height is a firmly guarded secret). Next year will see the opening of the first Palm Island project, a vast manmade archipelago stretching into the Persian Gulf. For Dubai, 'moderation' is a dirty word.
Ski Dubai juts out of the Mall of the Emirates - the largest shopping centre outside the States - like a giant metallic elbow. Just off the Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai's main thoroughfare, the tube-like structure is far from pretty, an unusual blip in this aesthetically conscious city. But inside it's a wonder. Craning our necks to take in the cavernous 22,500 square metre space (which allegedly holds over 6,000 tonnes of snow), we trudge around faux mountains and real igloos to the foot of the complex's five-slope arena. Unlike the snow park - the ski-free area at the foot of the hill - the slopes are not yet to open to the public and the sight of this pristine white carpet sweeping upwards and out of view is eerie and intimidating. As we trudge past abandoned snowmobiles and a colossal chairlift hanging with icicles, the feeling is more ice-age apocalypse than hot new resort. Yet within a fortnight this virgin snow will be being carved up by 1,500 skiers and snowboarders.
We reach the mid-point smiling but out of breath. It's home to the Zermatt-style Avalanche Cafe, a balconied chalet which will soon be warming weary skiers with fondue, hot chocolate and the somewhat dubious pleasures of non-alcoholic mulled wine ('our delicious home recipe of warm "Vimto" and spice-infused sugar syrup').
For now this is as far as we are allowed to go, but around the corner, at the very top of the 85-metre high building, lies Ski Dubai's longest run. Pitched as the world's first indoor black run, it stretches for 400 metres with a fall of over 60 metres - some way from the downhill terror of Portes du Soleil, and probably more of a red or blue route for any experienced skier.
Nearby, the quarter-pipe snowboard area - sadly lacking any kickers, rails or tabletops - and tame twin toboggan run won't be enough to satisfy adrenaline-chasing snow junkies.
But the kids' facilities - a 3,000 square metre ice cave, billed as the 'largest indoor snow park in the world' - are a child's fantasy of Dahl-esque ingenuity. Based beneath the slopes and already open to the public, they offer bobsleds, custom-built hills for tobogganing, a snowball shooting range and dedicated spaces for the construction of snowmen. Inside the 'snow cavern', chilly kids blunder their way around an ice maze, try to keep their balance on a wobbling 'ice-floe', and make friends with an enormous dragon constructed from large blocks of sculpted ice.
A veneer of education is provided by the snow cavern theatre which, according to our hosts, 'will be showing some entertaining as well as educational feature films ... Looking at penguins and polar bears and learning about climates and that kind of thing'.
Our tour of the facilities complete, we return to the warmth of a seat at the San Moritz Cafe, which overlooks the dome. Looking out across the plastic trees - the real things would constitute a fire hazard - and giant advertising hoarding proclaiming the virtues of Emirates Holidays, it's startling to see the sheer scale of engineering accomplishment on display.
Using technology similar to that found in the air-conditioning units that make the town habitable, the temperature has been lowered to -8C for this initial period of snowmaking. With the temperature at rock bottom, liquid water is atomised to create a cloud inside the building which is then sprinkled with tiny ice particles, forming snow that falls from the cloud as flakes - driven snow at its very purest. Thankfully, once Ski Dubai is open the snowmaking sessions will happen only overnight, with normal skiing sessions conducted at a far-less-ferocious two degrees below.
The luxury-jaded inhabitants of Dubai will no doubt swiftly come to view skiing at the height of the 45-degree summer as a run-of-the-mill activity. Nevertheless, Ski Dubai is making every effort to turn desert-dwellers into expert polesmiths. There are no fewer than 25 ski instructors on hand to give lessons, and a pair of Scandinavian expats has pre-emptively set up a Dubai Ski Club to organise social trips to the slopes. It already has a membership of more than 300. Once Dubaians have become addicted to this prestigious new pastime, they can invest in it properly, picking up Rossignol boards, Sidas boots and Barts jackets from the complex's Snow Pro store.
So what does the future hold for Ski Dubai? Could it start to encroach on the traditional Middle Eastern ski resorts of Lebanon and Iran? Susan Mikloska, the complex's head of marketing, believes so. 'It certainly has the potential,' she says, 'because Dubai now offers such a wide range of attractions for visitors and the opportunity to ski in the afternoon and be out on the sand or in the water the rest of the day is very attractive.' And can we expect the city's new slopes to create a Cool Runnings-style revolution among the sporting community? Mikloska's certainly convinced. 'In Europe a lot of the best skiers and Olympic athletes started out on hills smaller than ours, so we have a very good potential to build up good athletes,' she claims. 'Hopefully in a few years' time we'll be sending them on to some competitions.'
While Olympic glory may be a few years off, the locals are simply enjoying the novelty of feeling cold. 'It's very strange but wonderful,' says Raed Al Yousofi, marvelling at the sight of his first snowflakes. 'Now Dubai has everything, everyone will want to visit. Our children will be good skiers but I think maybe I am too old to learn.'