Stephanie Smith finds the skyscraper-laden one-time pearl fishing village in the Arabian Gulf full of surprises.
Blessed with little in the way of natural beauty, other than sand, sea and year-round baking sunshine, Dubai is nonetheless a stunner, a city of smoked glass and mirrors, its pinnacles a glistening testament to humankind’s creative ambition – although some might argue that its sense of scale now borders on the hubristic.
This is, after all, home to the world’s tallest tower, the 828-metre Burj Khalifa, familiar to cinema-goers who have seen Tom Cruise scale it in the latest Mission Impossible film. Its final height was kept secret until the official opening in 2009, so no upstart could try to top its glory in the run-up.
An instant tourist attraction, there’s a 360-degree observation gallery at the top, from which you can look down upon the newly dwarfed skyscrapers, marvel at their decorative sapphire lagoons and emerald gardens.
Extend your gaze further and there are the city’s residential quarters, thousands of white dwelling blocks of varying sizes; and beyond, on one side, a turquoise-haze band of ocean, on the other, just desert, dust brown and stretching out as far as the eye can see. It’s actually very close.
Now a glistening crown of spires rising from the sands, Dubai was once a pearl-fishing village, its destiny transformed in the 1960s following the discovery of oil when the coastal inlet was deepened to allow commerce and design to fashion it into the hi-tech oasis we see today.
Much of the city has grown up over the past decade, and Dubai has the feel of a settlement in its infancy, or perhaps its experimental adolescence, with buildings, roads and the accessories of infrastructure startling, thrusting, shiny-new, but not quite joined up yet.
Witness the astonishing man-made archipelagos which sprout off the coast into the Arabian Gulf, the latest of which is The World, shaped to look like a global map from above, the idea being that “countries” can be bought and built upon. The recession has put on hold some development – a temporary blip, presumably. A visit to Dubai feels like a taking a voyage through the innards of a hi-tech piece of kit that evolves and upgrades itself around you as you travel and watch. It’s fascinating, and a little unnerving.
While Dubai is unmistakably a city that means international business (83 per cent of its inhabitants are ex-pats), it has also been making its mark as a tourist destination, thanks in part to its 21st century statement hotels, including the billowing sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab, described in blurbs as “the world’s only seven-star hotel”.
Dubai’s restaurant offering is out-of-this-world, too, and all the high profile hotels have classy restaurants to match. Shopping and spa breaks are encouraged, and there are regular “ladies’ nights”, where bars offer free entry and free drinks to female visitors (try the Westin hotel, and Atlantis The Palm, a favourite of Peter Andre).
The temperature in Dubai rarely dips below 30C and in August can reach scorching temperatures of 45C, which means that respite quite simply has to be sought within Dubai’s real main attractions – its shopping malls.
Beneath the Burj Khalifa lies the massive Dubai Mall, home to one of the largest tropical fish tanks in the world and a shopper’s paradise, with more than 1,000 stores, including High Street favourites Top Shop, New Look and Zara, plus a glittering wing devoted to the likes of Chanel, Versace, Dior, Jimmy Choo and Louboutin. There is a large Bloomingdales, but also souk-style shops for beads, carvings and stuffed camels, and a gift shop selling camel milk chocolate, a souvenir delicacy. Besides the malls, serious fashionistas should head to the high-end boutiques of Mirdif city centre, including Boutique 1, which has a coffee bar, sofas for weary bag-carriers and labels including Victoria Beckham, Elie Saab and Marchesa. It’s all rather Knightsbridge.
For an authentically Arabic shopping experience, there are lively souks for gold and spices, especially on the Deira side of Dubai Creek, which you can cross in a water taxi.
If there is a heart to Dubai, this surely is it. The sheltered waterway that branches in from the Gulf offers a welcome relief from the high rise. It’s green and tropically lush, with tiny birds tweeting and flitting between the palm trees. Visit the marina, the Dubai Golf Club and the Park Hyatt Hotel, whose cascading harbour-side bars and restaurants offer rare pockets of tranquillity from which to watch the huge amber sun set over the cityscape across the water. Cable cars run high above the creek until six or seven in the evening (not one for those who don’t like heights) and during the day, water planes take off and land from a small jetty.
You can drink alcohol in Dubai but really only in the hotels and their bars, restaurants and night clubs. Alcohol is rarely served at lunchtime and in the evenings excessive drinking is frowned upon, with an ordinarily decent bottle of wine costing around £50. At around £10, cocktails feel more cost-effective, and a lychee martini is delicious, especially when it comes, as most do, with salted almonds and stuff olives.
Although much of Dubai is expensive, a visit need not completely bust the bank. There are budget places to stay and eat, including MacDonald’s, and the public beaches offer an inexpensive way to pass the day.
Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates and, while considered comparatively liberal, it’s fair to say that they do things differently there. As well as drunkenness, public displays of affection, including kissing and holding hands, are also disapproved of. It’s illegal for unmarried couples to share hotel rooms, but you are unlikely to be investigated, and it’s quite normal there for married women to keep their maiden name. Daytime eating, drinking or smoking in public during Ramadan could lead to arrest.
That said, Dubai is said to be an extremely safe place, with little crime. Women are able to walk around freely all night, should they wish.
Swimwear is for the pool and beach, not for the street or shopping malls. Dress is comprehensively smart – even the casual is smart, with no denim, flip-flops or open-toe sandals allowed in posh restaurants, at any time of day, and certainly nothing that looks scruffy or dirty. This is a city that prides itself on appearance above all.
Exuberant, stimulating and slightly surreal, Dubai is a fascinating and altogether rather fabulous place to visit, its architecture alone prompting much thought and its hotels presenting opulent, inspirational studies in the harmonious blend of form and function. Some residents and frequent visitors must sicken of its grand designs and incessant refashioning, the mirrors and the shine, but there’s no whining here about a changing skyline – and that in itself is refreshing.
Stephanie Smith was a guest of Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing. For more information about Dubai, visit www.definitelydubai.com or call 020 7321 6110.
Emirates Tours (020 7590 1485 / www.emiratestours.co.uk) offers a four- night package to Park Hyatt Dubai from £799 per person (special offer includes 25 per cent discount on hotel accommodation), based on two people staying four nights in a Park room with breakfast daily, with return economy class flights with Emirates from Newcastle, meet and greet on arrival, and return private car transfers in Dubai (price from £989 per person when flying from Manchester). Valid for travel May 11-July 15 and August 11-September 1, 2012.
A half-day Dubai city tour costs from £31 per person in chauffer driven cars. (Gulf Ventures, visit www.gulfventures.ae). A Hedonist’s Guide to Dubai guidebook costs £10 from www.hg2.com.