Before 1950, Dubai didn't have an airport, telephone service or electricity, but the difference the last half a century has made is staggering. Old Dubai was known for pearl fishing and low duty rates that made it an important trading port. Oil was discovered here in 1966, and today accounts for about 6% of the Emirate's economy, having fueled and then been greatly surpassed by the real estate and construction boom that put Dubai on the map for intrepid travelers the world over.
Today, Dubai remains an important regional finance and commerce hub, but the city is best known for the man-made wonders that boggle the mind: the world's largest mall, the world's tallest building, an indoor ski slope, a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree, the world's most expensive hotel. Dubai offers these jaw-dropping attractions, luxury beach resorts, a glimpse of Islamic culture, and easy access to the natural wonders of the Arabian desert.
Like Las Vegas, Dubai was built in a desert from nothing, hugs a long strip, and ascribes to an over-the-top, bigger-is-better sensibility. Unlike Vegas, however, the city is conservatively Islamic, with modesty prevailing and overt sexual displays (gay or straight) are prosecuted. Homosexuality is technically illegal, but this does not seem to be enforced with great frequency and a vibrant underground gay scene is developing. With a large population of young professionals stationed in Dubai from all over the world, in fact, you will find one of the world's most multicultural and diverse gay communities here -- if you know how to find it.
Lay of the Land
Dubai is a sprawling city, mostly developed along Sheikh Zayed Road, a long highway that runs the length of the city. Many hotels and malls are isolated in development complexes off Sheikh Zayed Road, and little is accessible by foot. Count on renting a car, taking taxis or the soon-to-open monorail to get around.
Taxis are inexpensive and there are free shuttles from many hotels to the biggest malls, but traffic can be heavy at times and a trip from one end of Sheikh Zayed Road to the other can take an hour.
While prices in Dubai are comparable to most major cities, it's not known for budget accommodations. For luxury, the Burj Al Arab hotel (Jumeirah Beach; 971-4-301-7777; $1,600+) garners great hype as the world's alleged only 7-star hotel (including a helicopter for guests!), but the Park Hyatt Dubai (+971-4-602-1234; $470+) is Dubai's pinnacle of sophistication, with exquisite modern Moorish/Arabian design, an elegant pool and spa, and top-notch service. Its location, close to downtown, the airport and old Dubai makes it a convenient base for exploring.
If you'd rather be at the beach, choose the One&Only Royal Mirage (866-552-0001; $690+), a luxurious Arabian style resort on the Jumeirah strip. Moderate and budget hotels are few and far between in Dubai; the Four Points by Sheraton (Mankhool Road, 4C Street; +971-4-354-3333; $122+) in downtown Dubai offers good value and a convenient location for those on a more limited budget.
Most of Dubai's interesting restaurants are located within malls or hotels. For fine dining, Verre (Baniyas road; +971-4-212-7551; $50+) is Gordon Ramsay's restaurant in the Hilton Dubai Creek, and generally considered the best food in town. Al Qasr, (+971-4-346-1111; 25+) located in the Dubai Marine Resort, is the best Lebanese restaurant in town, also very popular for its Friday Brunch.
Some of the best Thai food anywhere in the world is found at Thai Kitchen (+971-4-602-1234; 30+), at the Park Hyatt. At the Burg Al Arab Hotel, you can dine in an aquarium at Al Mahara (+971-4-301-7600; $100+), or 200 meters above the sea at Al Muntaha (+971-4-301-7600; $200+). The view here is best by day, not at night). For the best views, check out Dubai's revolving restaurant, Al Dawaar (+971-4-317-2222; $50+) at the Hyatt Regency. For a surreal view, book a table at Karam Beirut (+971-4-341-2202; $80+). Located inside the Mall of the Emirates, it serves Lebanese food with a view of the indoor ski slope!
Part One | Part Two