It’s like Vegas without the hookers and the gambling,” was how one of my friends had described Dubai. As a self-confessed Yankophile I was intrigued, but I wondered if this man-made metropolis would be enough to satisfy my adventurous appetite.
If you crave culture, historical sites and bargain shopping, Dubai is probably not for you. But, even though those three things usually top my holiday wish list, I still fell under the spell of this Middle Eastern melting pot. As long as you arrive with an open mind (and plenty of money) you can taste the celebrity lifestyle with a trip to the city. Apart from the sweltering heat, the first thing you can’t fail to notice is how clean it is. The city quite simply glistens under daily sun-drenched blue skies.
The second thing is how modern, built up and man-made the surroundings are. And visiting Dubai is like leafing through Guinness World Records.
It is home to the biggest shopping mall, the biggest dancing fountain and the largest indoor ski slopes. The world’s most expensive diamond is proudly displayed in one of the most popular tourist shopping areas and there is the world’s only seven-star hotel. You get a feeling everything here is larger than life – and if it isn’t, you sense someone will soon replace it to make sure it is.
A good place to start when you arrive is the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world (of course) and the unmissable and magnificent centrepiece of Dubai. Travelling up to the restaurant area takes just seconds – well, you do go up in the world’s fastest lift.
You don’t quite get to the top of the 160-storey (828m high) skyscraper – but feel on top of the world all the same.
The 360-degree view is breathtaking. On one side you see what Dubai is – a fast-paced metropolis of steel and glass. On the other side you see the edge of the city slowly give way to the views of the mighty desert and its miles of untouched sand. It is a stark reminder of how Dubai has been created, mostly in just the last decade or so.
Amid all the pristine and sparkly modernity, I discovered you can seek some culture within the city, but you have to delve deep to find it. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding hosts a two-hour session for visitors in which they can learn all about the city and its people. While tasting a “traditional” Middle Eastern lunch you learn that two in five people who live in the city were born there. And, that despite western influences, many of them still live a very traditional lifestyle. Yes, some people do still own and travel on camels, and many women still choose to wear the black abaya (an ankle-length black gown).
The chat is very informal and no questions were taboo. The staff are friendly, welcoming and very honest. Another draw is the camel’s milk chocolate on sale here. At around £4 a bar it is not cheap but it certainly made for fun presents for my family and friends. And it was delicious.
Culture vultures would be missing a treat if they did not head to Dubai Creek, where traditional abra boats carry a kaleidoscope of tourists (at the cost of one dirham (about 8p) side by side with immaculately dressed locals over to the best souks (markets) in the city. This is the place to come for pashminas, gold, spices and diamonds.
With rows of colourful shops, an array of exotic and enticing aromas and the smiling faces of eager traders it is a fascinating place. Haggling is a must and there are bargains for those who can hold their nerve.
If you’re more of a mall rat you’ll prefer the downtown area of the city, home to several malls oozing with designer shops and classy cafés. Huge sparkling indoor waterfalls and exotic flowers line the space, which is frequented by wealthy locals and tourists.
Dubai Mall is home to Kidzania, a huge centre aimed at under-16s who can dress up and pretend to carry out a range of jobs for the day – from clowns and chefs, pilots and fire fighters. They get pretend money which they can take to pretend banks, where they learn about ways to make their millions. It is Dubai after all.
Indeed, families are one of the target groups for tourist officials who are keen to promote the city as a child-friendly option. There is certainly a lot on offer, including a colourful aquarium and nearby gigantic waterpark.
Family rooms are becoming more common in a number of the city’s more affordable hotels and a handful of them offer all-inclusive packages. These include all meals in a variety of themed restaurants, and shuttle buses to the glistening (man-made) beaches which fringe the city. Be warned though, with an average 364 days of sunshine, and summer temperatures that can melt plastic, it is often too hot to be outside for more than a few minutes.
I found there was plenty to keep me busy for the four days I spent there. To indulge in a final superlative I have to say I saved the best until last as I rounded off my stay with a desert safari.
Picked up in a 4x4 by a charming guide, we were driven an hour out of the city to take part in a thrilling journey. Yes, it is touristy and, yes, you are part of a very long convoy of thrill-seekers. But as you are shoogled about and literally lifted inches off your seat as the vehicle surges up the sand and plummets back down the other side you can’t help but giggle.
Our driver had an awesome sense of humour and insisted on taking us over the highest dunes at the fastest speed. Racing deeper into the desert you come across a range of wildlife and we were lucky enough to see eagles, hyenas, ibex and wildcats.
The drivers find secluded spots for you to get out, lie on the soft sand and watch the sun go down. Stunning is the only word to describe the views. Our tour ended with a visit to a large, makeshift Bedouin-style tent where we feasted on a barbecue, got to ride camels (yes, they stink), smoked shisha pipes, had our arms and legs beautifully “tattooed” with henna and dressed up in local costumes before watching some traditional dancers. The feeling of chilling out in the warm desert as the sun makes way for the night’s stars was, for me, enough on its own to make the trip to Dubai worthwhile, and left me glowing with Middle Eastern magic.
Fly Emirates from Glasgow to Dubai from £481.80 return, or £1762.74 for a return business class flight www.emirates.com. A four-night package including flights and transfers is available from Glasgow from £1,046pp through IF ONLY (0141-955 4040, www.ifonly.net; this offer is valid for departures from 11 May to 20 June 2013.