Paris, New York, Tokyo…Dubai?
Posted Thursday, July 05, 2012 6:06 PM
Dubai is a city of contrasts, sitting along the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a dichotomy in every sense of the word: there’s the old-world charm, Arabian architecture and Islamic culture countered by modern glitzy skyscrapers and Western influence. Both lifestyles have become intertwined here.
In recent years, and much media ballyhoo, Dubai has emerged onto the world stage as a top destination for travel, attracting people from all over the world. Dubai has embraced this reputation, establishing itself as a hotspot for shopping, partying, beaches, sports, fine dining and luxury. This is Dubai’s focus; it screams, we are the London, Tokyo, and New York of the Middle East. It even has similarities to Las Vegas –-sans the sin — and has become a playground for the super rich. Dubai is constantly expanding and boasts bizarre structures and buildings -- like a ski mountain inside a mall. The Mall of the Emirates is where you can find this marvel.
Perhaps, this is part of the attraction of Dubai, this attitude that there is nothing we can’t and won’t build, and if someone else did it, we’ll do it better. Enter the Burj Khalifa, the new symbol of this progressive city. This is the tallest building in the world. The building would pierce through the clouds if there were any in Dubai --the desert sun radiates here with a constant fervor. You might remember Tom Cruise climbing the outside of this building in “Mission Impossible 4,” and an exhibit pays homage to the Hollywood film at the entrance.
The design of the building is magnificent, and it sits in the square opposite the five-star hotel, The Address. Between these two landmarks, on Burj Lake along the promenade, is the world’s biggest water fountain show. At night, hundreds of people gather around the lake and watch the water show choreographed to classical and modern songs.
Upon first visiting Dubai and driving along Sheikh Zayed Road, visitors will notice the skyscrapers stretching out of the desert sand and at closer look, the architecture will astonish onlookers. There’s the Etisalat Tower with a huge golf ball on top, the Bank of Dubai called the “pregnant lady,” another with a giant lantern, one with a real palm tree showcased in the middle of the building, and another that twists like a spiral. But these are just a few of the building spectacles.
Alcohol is not available in every restaurant, so it’s best to stick to resorts and hotel bars in this regard. The city still embodies its Muslim values. Public affection, public drunkenness and offering alcohol to a Muslim are illegal. However, Dubai has the largest immigrant population in the world; the city relishes the opportunity to be a place that accepts who you are. It is also one of the safest cities in the world.
To first understand the soul of Dubai, you have to understand Islam. So begin your journey to the Jumeirah Mosque, the only Mosque open to non-Muslims in the UAE. Here you can enjoy a guided tour of the mosque, watch a prayer ceremony and learn more about the religion.
Then cruise across the street to the incredible Jumeirah Beaches, open to the public. The soft white sand is a nice break from the city streets and a dip in the Persian Gulf will be refreshing from the heat. While cooling off, turn around and take in the incredible view of the city skyline with the Burj Khalifa towering into the stratosphere and down the beach, the world-famous seven-star hotel, Burj Al Arab, shaped like the sail of a ship as it juts out on its own man-made island.
The Burj Al Arab is worth the visit, a symbol of excellence, with a fleet of white Rolls Royces that line the entrance and a staff of on-call butlers. But you can only get in if you have a reservation at one of the restaurants, so if you’re looking to splurge, make one at the Al Muntaha restaurant on the top floor. From the top, Atlantis, another hotel landmark, is visible and houses an aquarium and waterpark where you can even swim with dolphins. If you have deep pockets, you can stay in an underwater room where the walls double as aquariums. From here you’ll see that the hotel sits out on a group of man-made islands called The Palms, designed to resemble a palm tree.
Before heading to the Atlantis Hotel, a stop at the Mandinat Jumeirah complex is in order, which is walking distance from the Burj Al Arab. It has a large selection of restaurants, bars, hotels and shopping (one of Dubai’s foremost activities). The Souk Mandinat is a market offering everything, including souvenirs.
Tourists can find every name brand store lining the malls. But once again that great old-world charm will come through as Dubai has many Souks (markets) that showcase local goods, souvenirs and more affordable goods. And in old Dubai, you can find the two most famous Souks, the Spice Souk and the Gold Souk. Here, gold vending machines can be found throughout the city with the prices updated every 60 seconds. The Gold Souk is at the mouth of Dubai Creek where a boat cruise will take you around old Dubai and Deira.
Two malls have made their claim on Dubai and the world, the Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall. Both are enormous, with the latter being the largest mall in the world. These malls showcase hundreds of international brands. The Mall of the Emirates houses Ski Dubai where you can escape the scorching temperatures and ski, sled or have a snowball fight. But, one relatively unknown gem of this mall is the tea ceremony at the five-star Kempinski Hotel, delicious and elegant.
Then there is the Dubai Mall, adjacent to the Burj Khalifa. Here you’ll also find an ice-skating rink and the Dubai Aquarium, which in 2010 held the record for the world’s largest aquarium viewing panel, home to 30,000 fish.
No visit to Dubai would be complete without a visit to the desert. So after a day of exploring the city, it will be time to enjoy Dubai’s other treasure, the Arabian Desert. Here you can trek on the back of a camel. Sand-board down the dunes like a snowboarder. Ride a dune buggy, quad or in an SUV with an expert desert driver and go dune bashing, a rite of passage on a journey through the Arabian Desert.
Abu Dhabi (Dubai’s sister city) is only an hour away and offers extra sites to visit, including Ferrari World -- a theme park dedicated to the ultimate sports car. Everything Ferrari is here, including dozens of vintage Ferraris and the world’s fastest roller coaster shaped like…you guessed it, a Ferrari.
Many of the world’s finest restaurants are located here as well, including the renowned Nobu; there are also dozens of chain restaurants throughout the city. But it’s best to sample some of the delicious Arabian fare, like shawarma, hummus, falafel, and fresh seafood.
To complete the Dubai experience, visitors can relax with a true Arabian tradition, smoking shisha through a hookah, a tobacco and molasses blend that comes in flavors like mint, lemon, and grape. The sweet smoke will ease you into the Arabian night.
Stephen Delissio is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: Stephen Delissio; Andrey, Creative Commons, Flickr; Misphan, Creative Commons, Flickr.