In March, Emirates Airline inaugurated non-stop service between Boston and the United Arab Emirates, making Dubai a 13-hour direct flight away—although given the level of service on Emirates, it’s more like a magic carpet ride. If you can spring for first class (roughly $16,000), you’ll be pampered by flight attendants who can pour Dom Pérignon during the worst turbulence, but even economy class outstrips first class on most U.S. carriers. And before you know it, you’re landing in a city that many people mistakenly think of as the Miami or Las Vegas of the Middle East.
Unlike Vegas, Dubai forbids gambling, and its jaw-dropping displays of wealth make Miami look understated. A more accurate comparison might be to Chicago in the late 19th century, when the term “skyscraper” was invented and the World’s Columbian Exposition gave Paris’ 1889 World’s Fair—where the Eiffel Tower was introduced—a run for its money. It’s a city that relentlessly pushes the boundaries of engineering and ingenuity. As our guide, Alex, put it, “Dubai is all about BLT—the biggest, the longest, the tallest. Everything here is a superlative.”
And so it is. The Burj Khalifa—at 2,716.5 feet—is the world’s tallest building, and the Dubai Mall is the world’s largest shopping mall. The sail-shaped Burj Al Arab is widely considered the world’s most luxurious hotel, and in the Gold Souk, you can see jewelry so big it can’t possibly be worn, like the ring displayed in a window alongside a certificate from the Guinness Book of World Records.
The newness of nearly everything is obvious at the opulent Waldorf Astoria on Palm Jumeirah, a man-made archipelago shaped like a palm tree. The hotel opened at the beginning of the year, and in March, the contractor’s pencil marks were still visible on the marble stairs leading from the lobby to the beach.
Yet, amid the modernity, it’s still possible to find traces of the old Arab way of life. Dubai, “The City of Merchants,” originally grew up around the mouth of a saltwater “creek” that attracted settlers and traders. Clustered in this area are the majestic Grand Mosque, the spice, textile and gold souks, and the Shindagha historical district (where you can see the ancestral seat of the ruling Al Maktoum family as well as the Diving Village, which offers a glimpse of the pearl-diving trade that enriched the city for centuries). The Dubai Museum is housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, the city’s oldest existing building (circa 1787), and the narrow alleys of the Bastakiya, a residential area settled in the 1690s, features traditional architecture that now houses art galleries and cafes. Meanwhile, water taxis—or abras—will shuttle you across the creek, where the trading vessels known as dhows that still sail the Persian Gulf are tied up three deep.
For a taste (however Disneyfied) of the ancient way of life, you can also venture out into the desert. Emirates’ parent company operates one of the top outfitters, Arabian Adventures, which maintains a nature preserve where you can go sand-boarding and four-wheeling in the dunes, learn the history of falconry, take an obligatory camel ride and have dinner in a Bedouin-style camp that would serve as a nice setting for the season finale of The Bachelor. That same evening, you can be back in the city in time to go snow-skiing inside the Dubai Mall.
It’s this mixture of the ancient and the high-tech that makes Dubai so surreal. Like Venice, it’s a completely improbable place—one that has no real business being there. When you venture to the top of the Burj Khalifa, for instance, there isn’t that much to look at: Beyond the city, it’s pretty much desert on one side and water on the other. But the real point is printed on the admission ticket: “Get Ready to Enter the Record Books.”
This exuberance gives Dubai a seductive charm; it’s so over-the-top that anyone with a scintilla of imagination can’t help but be gob-smacked. The heady blend of Arabian romance and the latest innovations can feel like a 21st-century fairy tale (even if the darker aspects remain hidden from outsiders). And, like any good fairy tale, Dubai has its Prince Charming, in the person of Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the son of the current ruler. As with everything else in Dubai, the 31-year-old “Prince Cutie-pie” (a rough translation of his nickname in Arabic) outdoes his Western counterparts: Not only is he a sky-diving, race car-loving, equestrian poet, but he makes Prince William at his dreamiest look like chopped liver.
-Expats compose a majority of Dubai’s population, and non-Muslim customs are accepted—so ladies can feel free to wear bikinis on the beach (although you may be swimming alongside a woman in a burqa). However, public displays of affection, whether by heterosexual or same-sex couples, are deeply frowned upon, and respectful dress and conduct are expected in public places.
-Many things in Dubai are expensive, especially alcohol, which is heavily taxed. If you plan on drinking, buy a bottle for your hotel room at the duty-free shop. (Note that although imbibing is tolerated, public drunkenness is definitely not.) Taxis, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive because of the low price of gas.
Arabian Adventures | arabian-adventures.com
Burj Al Arab | Jumeira 3 | Dubai, U.A.E. | 877-854-8051 | jumeirah.com
Burj Khalifa | 1 Mohammed Bin Rashid Blvd. | 9-714-888-8124 | burjkhalifa.ae
Emirates | 800-777-3999 | emirates.com
Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah | The Palm Jumeirah | Crescent East | 9-714-818-2222 | waldorfastoria3.hilton.com