Monday, Oct. 13, 2008


Forget the seven-star property, the world's tallest tower, manmade islands, underwater hotels and buildings that spin like a Weeble with an inner-ear infection, what the city of Dubai really knows how to create is headlines. This little fishing-village-that-could has built an entire tourist industry out of piquing people's curiosity. Its unstoppable, finely tuned PR machine has managed to overcome every downside (how often do you hear that Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq are right next door?) to make the city a must-see location. And that's despite the fact that the region is full of sunny locales that have a lot more to offer — Jordan, with its millennia-old civilization, the Red and Dead seas, incredible desert landscapes and the glories of Petra — but generate a lot less interest.

That being said, Dubai has its virtues, so if you find yourself with 24 hours in the city, you'll have no shortage of things to do.

1. Cheap and Chic Eats

This is a city of the super rich and the super poor. You are unlikely to see a place where the divide between the "have nots" and the "have yachts" is so apparent. The local-born Emiratis, who make up about 12% of the population, are typically extremely wealthy, but the town was built on the backs of a huge working-class population predominantly from the Indian subcontinent and from less prosperous areas of the Gulf. Sitting between the two groups is a burgeoning band of expats, mostly from the West, who are profiting to varying degrees from the city's modern day Gold Rush.

The best way to experience these distinct social strata is through your stomach. At the top end is five-star cuisine of the highest order. British chefs Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsay have culinary outposts in the Grosvenor House Hotel and the Hilton Dubai Creek, respectively, both offering Michelin star–courting cuisine. They are joined at the top of the tree by the excellent Chinese restaurant Noble House in the Raffles Hotel. In any one of these gilt-edged places you'll sample sensational fare in a high-end setting surrounded by Emiratis and those who have benefited most from Dubai's economic boom, all paying about AED 500 ($140) per person for the privilege.

On the other end of the social spectrum lies Al Dhiyafah Road, Dubai's cheap-eats street. Here restaurants catering to the city's less affluent residents spill out onto the sidewalk so you can people-watch while feasting on food from Lebanon, Iran and the Indian subcontinent. On the northern end of the street lies Sidra, with zesty salads and a gut-busting mixed grill that gives you a taste of the Levant. On the other end of Al Dhiyafah Road, Pars Iranian Kitchen dishes out succulent lamb and fresh seafood straight from its outdoor grill. Opposite Pars (although you'll have to navigate six lanes of highway traffic to get there) is Pakistani spice-peddler Ravi Restaurant, one of the city's best regarded, if least presentable, curry houses.

Due to licensing laws, restaurants outside hotels can't serve alcohol, but if you're paying less than $25 for a meal for two it's hard to quibble.

2. Shopping Malls

The thing about shopping in Dubai is that the actual shopping is average, but the experience is intriguing. If you've shopped in New York or Paris, Dubai's malls will be a disappointment. Most of the shops are familiar and no cheaper (though you may find the odd bargain on electronics) than in other places in the world. But store trawling is only the tip of the Dubai shopping experience. Malls in this city are realizations of unrestrained fantasy, offering surreal attractions to lure you (and your credit card) in.

The Souk Madinat inside the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel, for example, boasts its own waterway to transfer people from its shops, bars and restaurants to the neighboring clutch of hotels. The gargantuan Mall of the Emirates has an indoor ski slope with real snow, should you fancy a quick slalom between shopping and hitting the beach. The recently opened Khan Murjan souk claims to be an example of "Islamic authenticity, unparalleled in the region"; it connects the Wafi Mall, home of Chanel, Marks & Spencer and Montblanc, with the brand new Raffles Hotel. All may be surpassed by the Mall of Arabia, slated to open in 2008 as the largest mall in the world at 10 million sq. ft., complete with a real-life Jurassic Park–like dinopark called Restless Planet (the beasts will be mechanical).

3. The Gold Souk

Dubai is known for really cheap gold — but you'll have to haggle for it. Whether or not you're ready to buy, a stroll through the dazzling Gold Souk is a must. The stores also offer platinum, diamonds and occasionally silver, and the government keeps tight control over the quality of all the merchandise, so rest assured that your purchases will be genuine. (The same cannot be said, however, of the street vendors outside hawking "genuine fake" watches and "Guuci" handbags.) If something in the window catches your fancy, be sure to barter — persistent protest capped with a walkaway will get merchants to drop their asking price by as much as half.

Less atmospheric, but even cheaper, is the Gold & Diamond Park, where you can find unique designs or get jewelers to recreate pieces for you at a fraction of the cost of the original.

4. Champagne Brunch

This is a Muslim state, but alcohol flows liberally. By law, it can be served only within the confines of a hotel, but with an estimated 450 hotels in the emirate, some with up to 26 bars, restaurants and clubs, you won't be left thirsty.

If your stay in Dubai takes in a Friday (the first day of the Arabic weekend) then you can experience first-hand the city's strange relationship with the bottle. While it is the holiest day of the week for Muslims, many of the city's restaurants throw their doors open for "champagne brunch." This brunch is not the sedate culinary experience it is elsewhere; in Dubai, it is an exercise in excess, with free-flowing booze and heaping buffets that would have even the most indulgent glutton begging for mercy.

Spectrum on One in the Fairmont and Le Meridien's Yalumba each offers unlimited champagne (Moët and Laurent Perrier, respectively) and tables straining under mountains of prime steak, oysters and prawns the size of Neptune's fist. Spectrum is the more civilized of the two, with Yalumba often degenerating into a dancing-on-the-tables affair with occasional bubble trouble as people overdo it. For those who fancy indulging alfresco, the excellent Mina A' Salam Brunch has outdoor seating, live cooking stations and a kids' club.

If you're just in the mood for an evening tipple, the places to head are the open-air 360 Degrees, an out-to-sea rooftop bar within spitting distance of the famed Burj Al Arab; Bar 44 in the Grosvenor House with its dizzying views of new Dubai or Le Meridien Mina Seyahi's Barasti, puzzlingly the shorelined city's only real beach bar.

5. Burj Al Arab

Truth is, there's no such thing as a seven-star establishment; you can't officially go higher than five. The Burj Al Arab's seven-star rating may be an urban myth that got out of hand, but nothing dominates the Dubai skyline and tourists' imagination quite like it. It's the world's tallest hotel, and probably its least subtle — gold-leaf is applied as liberally as undercoat, there's a fleet of white Rolls Royces on the forecourt and dancing fountains in the foyer, and fireworks launch from the bridge to announce the arrival of VVIPs (very important doesn't cut it here) — but nobody ever came to Dubai in search of understatement. The only way to get inside without paying for a room is to book a table at one of the hotel's costly eateries. Al Muntaha is on the top floor but its bafflingly bright interior prevents you from seeing the views outside; Al Mahara is an expensive fish restaurant with an aquarium larger than most people's apartments; and Sahn Eddar serves afternoon tea. Best of the lot is the beach-based Majlis Al Bahar. From here you can admire the Burj's impressive exterior (the hotel's beauty is on the outside) before instructing the maître d' that you'll be taking your nightcap in the top-floor cocktail bar, where you can gaze at the city's garishness.

6. The Traditional Dubai

While vast swaths of the city have been demolished in the relentless drive toward the future, one neighborhood harks back to the quiet fishing village that once was. The Bastakia Quarter, which squeezes itself between the Dubai Creek and the buzzing Bur Dubai district, is a mini maze of wind-towered buildings, a clutch of which have been transformed into art galleries and cafés. Start your tour at XVA Gallery, which specializes in contemporary art from across the Gulf region. Continue your appreciation of Middle Eastern art at the Majlis Gallery before lunching on hearty salads and a refreshing mint-and-lime juice in the neighboring Basta Art Cafe's sun-dappled courtyard.

Once refreshed, weave through the textile souk — where you'll find magnificent bolts of fabric, along with less inspiring tat — and on to the Creek where you can either join the commuters for a AED 1 ($.30) abra (water taxi) ride across the water or hire your own boat for a scenic tour of the waterway. Back in port, head to the small but interesting Dubai Museum to see how oil and ambition mixed to make this modern oasis. If you get hungry again, check out Bastakiah Nights, an atmospheric Lebanese restaurant with a great rooftop area.

7. Man-Made Islands

The most audacious of all of Dubai's megaprojects is the collection of reclaimed islands just offshore. First came the palm-tree shaped Palm Jumeirah, which the city bills as the eighth wonder of the world. And there are two more islands, Jebel Ali and Deira, in varying stages of development. In an outlandish stroke, Jebel Ali will feature a breakwater that spells out a line of poetry by Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum ("It takes a man of vision to write on water"). Last, but certainly not least, is The World, an archipelago of islands that forms a world map in miniature; the islands are for sale, so if you can afford it, you can buy a "country" for yourself.

Unless you're one of the few who bought property on early on, you'll have to wait for hotels to open in 2009 to set foot on the reclaimed land. In the meantime your best views are by boat. A number of companies can get you out into the Gulf: Try Dusail, Bristol Marine or Art Marine, all of which offer stately yachts, motor boats and speed boats. It's not often that you can claim to have sailed around the entire World in an afternoon.

8. The Beach

You'll definitely want to see the shore while you're in town. The posher beach hotels have partitioned off the majority of the sand, so if you're not staying on the Jumeirah beach strip, your best bet is Al Mamzar, a public beach near the neighboring emirate of Sharjah. The clogged artery of a road that connects the cities means it's frustratingly inaccessible during the work week. Other good alternatives are Jumeirah Beach Park with its small coffee shop and AED 5 ($1.30) entrance fee, or the free stretch of sand running the length of Umm Suqeim, known as Kite Beach due to its popularity with the city's kite-surfers. If you insist on a more luxurious beach experience, then a few hotels will allow you to sit on their sand for a fee: Try Le Meridien Mina Seyahi (AED 250, or $70).

9. The Desert

A visit to the desert isn't as peaceful as you'd think. The desolate Sahara this is not. The easiest way to get at the dunes outside the city is on a four-wheel-drive safari. The tours are incredibly popular, but your enjoyment will depend on your tolerance for a) being thrown around the sand in a Jeep, b) touristy BBQs in the desert replete with a belly dancer and henna painting services and c) lots of other tourists. If you can handle all three, then Blue Banana has a number of expeditions on offer. The same outfit also has hot-air balloon flights over the sand at sunrise — a statelier desert experience. If you just want to see some sand without vertigo or nausea, then head out to the plush desert escape Bab Al Shams. Here you can sit on the rooftop and enjoy a cocktail as the sun dips below the dunes.

10. Golf

Golf is an obsession in Dubai. If you want to rub elbows with celebrities on the green, try the courses designed by Colin Montgomerie and Ernie Els. Better yet, head to the city's most famous course, the Emirates Golf Club, which hosts the annual Dubai Desert Classic (total prize money is a cool $2.5 million). It's a stunning course, whose 18th hole has one of the finest approaches in the world. Almost as impressive is the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, which boasts a challenging par-72 course along with a fun "pitch 'n' putt" course, plus an impressive clubhouse whose architecture echoes that of the Sydney Opera House. Tee times go quickly, so you'd be wise to book in advance, especially if you want to be among the first to take a swing at Tiger's tees: the first holes designed by Woods — the Tiger Woods Dubai, a private golf community and resort — are due to open in September 2009.