Think Vegas without the sin, Disney without the mouse. Dubai, one of the seven Emirates (like a state) of the United Arab Emirates, is just a bit bigger than reality.
Actually, most everything here is “the biggest.” There’s the world’s tallest building, the world’s largest natural flower garden, among the world’s biggest shopping malls and, for $6,800, the world’s most deluxe spa experience, which includes a 24-carat-gold facial. Plus, soon to come — the world’s biggest Ferris wheel. And also on the way, a 68-story, wind-and-solar powered building whose individual floors will rotate so that the actual tower will seem to writhe before your eyes.
Yet, none of this existed 40 years ago. And, yikes, it’s still growing. So think of Dubai as a trip into the future, but also into the past. Here, amid the glass and steel spires, are folks who remember living in goatskin tents with rugs on sand floors.
The modern city of Dubai gleams and sparkles with buildings of glass and steel that soar, lean, bulge, twist and fold, often seeming to defy gravity. It looks like pictures from the world’s fair of 1964 that showed cities of the future. All that’s missing are the jet packs and hovercraft.
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It’s not a walking city. You really need wheels to get from here to there — and the “here to there” stretches for 40 miles.
But there’s also the desert, the camels, the henna tattoos, the hookahs, the culture. Scratch the surface and the past is not far beneath.
What makes Dubai more visitor friendly than many places in the Middle East is the fact that around 90 percent of the population of more than two million is not Emirati. A huge number of the folks who live here are corporate types who work in those glass spires and live well. There are also numerous men from Asia who work building those spires.
So Dubai has learned to be more open to foreign ideas and more welcoming.
All of which starts with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, an absolute must-visit.
“There is no such thing as an embarrassing, offensive or stupid question,” said Khulood Atryat, who led the question-and-answer sessions when I was in Dubai a few years ago.
“There were many misconceptions on both sides,” Atryat continued. “Outsiders thought we were all religious fanatics and that our women were virtual prisoners. We thought outsiders were just here to make money, take our money, disregard our culture and leave.”
Inevitably our group wound up talking about dress. Of all the colors, in the hottest country, why do women wear black? Well, for reasons rooted in history. Black cloth “was the cheapest and the most convenient in the day,” Atryat said. It made women invisible for travel at night. It also completely concealed them by day, which, trust me, the white men’s robes do not. And it didn’t show dirt.
“Abaya,” which means shield, is the robe many women wear. Today it is often a fashion statement, covered with crystals and gems by the rich at parties and special events.
During my most recent visit to the center, our host, Nasif, led us through the center’s recreation of a village, explaining that narrow alleys not only provide shade but funnel cooling breezes. And he said Dubai’s location at the edge of the Arabian Gulf provided one of its most lucrative resources: pearls. Lacking the oil resources of its Middle Eastern neighbors, pearl diving, fishing, camel herding and trading were Dubai’s chief sources of income.
Tourism now accounts for 20 percent of Dubai’s income. Visitors went from 3.6 million in 2001 to more than 10 million in 2012. There are 82,000 hotel rooms, some 20,000 more than just three years ago.
Dubai is still a crossroads. Today, some 1,800 cargo ships dock there each month.
Which brings us to the commercial side of Dubai — the malls. There’s the Mall of the Emirates with its 285-foot-high mountain with five ski runs and live penguins. But for total wow, you can’t miss Dubai Mall, with 1,200 shops and six million square feet of, well, you name it, along with 65 million visitors a year.
Start with the 80-foot long dinosaur skeleton at one of the entrances, then continue on to the four-story-tall waterfall and the amusement park where kids can choose an occupation (doctor, airline pilot, teacher, policeman), dress accordingly and try their little hands at it.
But it was the aquarium that brought me to a standstill. It has (of course) one of the world’s largest acrylic viewing panels, along with a shark tunnel. It has more fish than I’ve ever seen in one place — huge schools of this and that, threading around manta rays, giant groupers, sharks and the occasional diver.
Yes, you can scuba dive the Dubai Mall aquarium. You need proper dive certification, of course. And had I known in advance, I would have been first in line, dive card in hand.
All this was fun but the highlight of my trip was the desert safari. Okay, it’s a tourist thing but it’s still exotic, a peek at traditional Bedouin life and a total giggle.
My two friends and I were picked up at our hotel in a four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruiser for the hour drive into the dunes. Along the way, a procession of camels crossed our path, probably a hundred of them, loping down the street, heading for race training.
Several had a small box atop the saddle. Camels can’t race carrying a lot of weight, so in past years, they were guided by young children in the saddles, sometimes with catastrophic results. Laws were passed, robots invented and today, the camels race with radio-controlled machines that weigh around five pounds.
We stopped briefly at a camel camp with adorable camel babies as guide Yasir Ali explained a bit about camel farming and added, casually, “ Here camels have more value than humans.”
Then off to dune-bashing, an experience not for the faint of stomach. “I am quite experienced in this,” Ali said as we careened up, over and down the dunes, often sideways, while he seemed to defy the laws of physics with the car.
Sunset was glorious as a blood red ball slid behind the dunes. And then we were at the camp, a collection of divided cloth tents with pillows for seating and rugs for floors. We were greeted with rose water to wash our hands and Arabic coffee to perk us up, then off to try a hookah.
The hookah, an instrument for smoking flavored tobacco where the vapor is passed through a water basin, is ubiquitous in the Middle East. We even encountered it on the swimming pool deck of several upper-class hotels.
I had to give it a go, of course. But you can’t blow the smoke out of your mouth unless you inhale and produce bubbles in the device. My friends have a great shot of me turning purple and coughing my head off. So much for my smoking experiment.
Later that evening, we got henna tattoos and a chance to ride a camel. The most exciting part is when the beast rocks forward, then backward to stand, a motion that feels like the camel is turning into a Transformer toy under your rump.
As for the henna, for $5 I had an intricate design dribbled onto my hand. You leave the black mud on for 30 minutes, then scrape it off. To my disappointment, it left behind a barely visible, light orange design. But by the next morning, it had turned into a deep terra cotta that lasted for more than a week.
Then came the high point of the night, Larissa the belly dancer whose hips took on a life of their own as she twirled with scarf and knife in the dim light, much to the appreciation of a line of local men in their robes.
There was more in our trip. We indulged in a spa treatment, tried bicycle riding on the man-made Palm Island with its ultra deluxe hotels and an oddly Caribbean feel.
On one of our last nights, we attended the Dubai World Cup, horse racing with a $10 million purse (yes, the world’s richest). Everyone was dressed to the nines. There is even a published pamphlet on how to dress (think Wimbledon) with expensive suits, fancy dresses and extravagant Kate Middleton hats. The marching band is dressed in Arab robes. There are fireworks, food, booze. It is, in other words, Dubai’s top party of the year.
What did we miss in Dubai? Quite a lot.
There are tours where you can learn calligraphy and traditional dances, paint with a local artist, visit farms, prepare and share a meal with a fisherman, visit homes. There are themed hotels like in Las Vegas. There are places with swimming pools the size of small villages.
In the end, five days was just not enough.
Going to Dubai
When to go: The most comfortable time to visit Dubai is November through March. Nights then can be cool, dropping into the 50s.
How to dress: Visiting women do not have to wear a veil but they should dress with sense. There are plenty of women on the streets in jeans and sleeveless blouses, but halter tops with bare stomachs are not a good idea.
Currency: U.S. dollars are acceptable as are U.S. credit cards. But you need local money, the Dirham, in the souks (old markets).
▪ The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (www.cultures.ae)
▪ A desert safari
▪ The traditional souks in Old Dubai
▪ The Dubai Museum with life-size dioramas of the pre-oil era.
▪ A trip to the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (www.burjkhalifa.ae/en/)
▪ At least half a day in the Dubai Mall (www.thedubaimall.com/en/). Do not miss the dinosaur skeleton, the three-story waterfall or, especially, the aquarium.
▪ A dhow dinner, specifically the romantic and very gourmet Bateaux Dubai
Dubai: definitelydubai.com, visitdubai.info
Dubai World Cup: www.dubaiworldcup.com
Center For Cultural Understanding: www.youtube.com/watch?v=9XMF0KzDQUk
Camel Farm: www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOJMcQ6Sxh0