Editor's note: This is the first in a daily series of reports by Shelby Hodge, CultureMap editor at large, from her week-long trip to Dubai.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Yes, it was incredible. No, I did not have to wear a hijab. Yes, adult libations were easy to come by. No, I did not go snow skiing, but I did indulge in apres ski cocktails overlooking the indoor slopes. And, of course, I went shopping.
It's amazing how much curiosity a visit to the Emirates gives rise to. This sand-hued Oz, sprung from the desert and pushing the shores of the Arabian Sea, is every bit as exciting and interesting as one could imagine. Picture the architectural crazy-quilt skyline of Beijing, combine it with the artificial grandeur of Las Vegas sans the sin, add the cultural conservatism of a tolerant Muslim populace and you then can only begin to imagine this place.
And, yes, it's all perfectly crafted from the imagination of those for whom money is no object.
For critics who might complain that Dubai is a totally manufactured metropolis mechanically hewn from the harsh desert environs, I say, "Of course, it is."
For Dubai is unashamedly what it is — a sheikhdom of modern delights ranging from some of the best shopping on the planet to sleek yet occasionally bizarre architecture to a Disney-esque flower garden to rival the Netherlands' Kukenhof. And, yes, it's all perfectly crafted from the imagination of those for whom money is no object.
In that, there is a kinship to Texas and its oil wealth. For Dubai enjoys all the possibilities that unlimited funds from free-flowing black gold allows.
While temperatures ranged from the 60s to mid-70s during my mid-January visit, which was hosted for a group of national travel writers by Emirates Airline, arrival day saw a rare weather phenomenon in this desert land. "It rained today. It's a miracle," enthused the young woman at the check-in desk at the JW Marriott Marquis, the tallest hotel in the world. It was such a rarity that there were hundreds of car accidents and several deaths on the water slick roads. Dubai has no drainage system. When we visited the beach two days later, water was still standing in the streets.
At the same time, water is at such a premium that it costs more than gasoline in this oil rich land. The public water supply comes from desalinization while the unimaginable quantity of water required to maintain the richly verdant parks, gardens and golf courses (including Tiger Woods' creation) comes from recycling waste water.
Dubai's Sky-High Living
The Marriott Marquis is billed as the tallest hotel in the world with rooms going as high as the 67th floor. I bunked on 47 and that was quite high enough, thank you. Surprisingly, the elevator ride was so smooth and fast, that I felt that we had hardly traveled more than a few floors.
When thunder and lightening broke up the silence on my first night, I shuddered thinking a radical Islamic revolution had broken out.
When thunder and lightening broke up the silence on my first night, I shuddered thinking a radical Islamic revolution had broken out. No such worries in Dubai.
The benevolent Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum maintains law and order in his sheikhdom where the well-provided for native Emiratis number only 150,000 of the 2.2 million population.
Foreigners who are convicted of crimes are quickly deported. Dubai does not grant citizenship to anyone other than Emiratis. The children of foreigners born in the Emirates are foreigners. There is no birth right for citizenship.
But life is good for foreigners with some 200 nationalities represented in the flourishing business and banking communities. With tourism growing, Dubai is striving almost daily to provide enticements that will beckon despite the long trip —14.5 hours going over, 15.5 hours on the return, non-stop Houston-Dubai-Houston on Emirates Airline. The luxury business class, round-trip ticket costs approximately $10,000.
Hotels from our comfortable and very social nest at the Marriott to the ultimate Burj Al Arab, considered by many the best and most expensive hotel in the world, come in all varieties including the family-friendly Atlantis on Palm Island and the sophisticated, Ottoman-inspired Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel, also on Palm Island.
So popular has Dubai become during the holidays that hotels must be booked as early as April for New Year's Eve.
The tourism push is succeeding. So popular has Dubai become during the holidays that hotels must be booked as early as April for New Year's Eve and the minimum nights requirement can mean a lengthy stay.
Part of the draw is the elaborate celebration. Dubai is said to have the greatest fireworks displays in the world. This NPR video proves just that.
Dubai boasts numerous superlatives including the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. At 2,716.5 feet and 164 stories, it also ranks as the tallest free-standing structure in the world with the highest outdoor observation deck in the world and is home to the elevator with the longest travel distance in the world.
The stunning building houses a first class restaurant, At.mosphere, the highest restaurant in the world, where our group of travel writers lunched midway through out visit. The food and the views were equally spectacular. The vertical behemoth is also home to the Armani Hotel Dubai, the Armani Residences Dubai, The Residences and corporate suites. It is surrounded by more than 27 acres of park that includes six water features. Think the Bellagio in Las Vegas, only bigger and better.
Our days were packed with activities under the leadership of Arabian Adventures and included everything from shopping the gold souk and textile market to visits to the world's largest malls to horse racing and camel racing. More on these and other Dubai attractions in days to come.
Next: Old world shopping in Dubai — gold and more gold.