I imagine that after Alice fell down the rabbit hole, her initial reaction was similar to mine as I step through the entrance gate at the Dubai Miracle Garden: a healthy dose of disbelief, with a side of intrigue. Disbelief that a 2,000-square-metre garden could exist in the middle of the desert. And intrigue that something like this could exist outside of a post-communist country. There's a definite element of "Soviet chic" to it all, from the Disney-style fonts used on signs to cars emblazoned with the faces of slightly disconcerting cartoon characters. And yet, here I am. Standing at the entrance to a place that can only be labelled as wonderfully bizarre.
To be fair, the backstory is not so much bizarre as practical. Home to 150 million flowers and situated adjacent to Dubailand, Dubai Miracle Garden is the brainchild of the engineer Abdel Nasser Rahhal, and is meant to act as an outdoor attraction for residents and tourists alike. A haven, if you will, where people can come and enjoy nature, away from the pollution of the city and stale air conditioning of the malls. According to official figures, it attracts up to 30,000 visitors on weekends.
There’s no doubt that the striking colours, fresh air and floral smells make for a pleasant day out with family and friends. But what truly catches the eye are the quirky flower-covered structures that seem to have been placed at random around the garden. The giant peacocks, an oversized clock and an upside-down house are three of the more memorable, Wonderland-esque features. But it’s the brilliant, flower-covered hearts leading into the main area of the garden that really leave me expecting the Queen of Hearts to come bounding out from behind the bushes screaming “off with her head”.
The garden first opened in February 2013 and is currently in its first phase of development. Its various features include the Flower Falls, an area consisting of giant flowerpots and flowers, designed to give the impression that the flowers are pouring out of the pots; the Cars Zone, a mind-bending section that consists of colourfully decorated cars sticking up out of the ground, as though they’ve sprouted overnight; an 18-metre-high replica of the Burj Khalifa, covered in flowers; and a lake and fountain area featuring a giant tap (with running water) suspended in mid-air.
After being closed for the summer period, the garden recently reopened, bringing with it new floral designs and colour schemes. I’m informed that past visitors will be pleasantly surprised to find that this latest manifestation is very different from previous versions. At present, there are 45 species of flowers in the garden, including petunias, marigolds and calendulas, which are shipped in from all around the world, from Egypt to the United States.
In any climate, it would be safe to assume that it takes a fair amount of water to maintain 150 million flowers. Nonetheless, I’m unprepared to learn that this particular area uses 200,000 gallons (757,082 litres) per day. Still, Rahhal maintains that the garden has a positive effect on the environment as a whole. “The air is different from other places; it’s cooler,” he explains. “Usually, when it’s hot out, it’s a bit cooler in the garden itself. There’s always this breeze. And when there’s a sandstorm, the trees and flowers stop the [sand].”
While phase one is now complete, a second phase of the garden is mere weeks away from being unveiled. Of the new areas, the Butterfly Garden is one that’s sure to attract plenty of attention. This particular addition will consist of nine domes, each varying in colour and design. “Each dome will contain a different species of butterfly,” Rahhal explains.
Butterflies in the desert may seem unlikely, but I’m assured that the domes offer a temperature-controlled environment, not only allowing the butterflies to live in optimum conditions, but also meaning that this area of the garden can be open year-round. In addition to the Butterfly Garden, visitors can look forward to the opening of a souvenir shop, with butterfly- and flower-related products to remind them of their journey down the rabbit hole.
Other areas that are due to be reopened in the coming weeks are the aromatic and edible plants gardens, which are seasonal spaces filled with aromatic and medicinal plants, as well as fruits and vegetables. Guests are invited to create their own teas, salads and fruit dishes from the plants, with seating areas set up for this specific purpose. In this way, the garden will also help to educate visitors about healthy options and “mindful eating” (knowing where your food comes from and what’s in it), presenting an alternative to the sweets, crisps and sweetened nuts that are currently on sale at the various eateries dotted around the garden.
The Dubai Miracle Garden is certainly a welcome addition to the city’s outdoor spaces. On my short visit, it’s clear this isn’t only a great place for families – I even spot a few adults who are using the attractions as an alternative place to entertain prospective business clients. So there’s something here for everyone, whether you’re 6 or 60. It brings an unexpected touch of Wonderland to the desert, and offers a healthy, outdoor alternative to your standard weekend trips to the shopping mall.