Editor's note: CultureMap contributor Jane Howze is flying around the world in 17 days. Here is her first report, from Dubai.
Our trip to Dubai was a means to an end — a way to get to Sydney, Australia, to celebrate New Year's Eve with friends. Believe it or not, it is cheaper to fly around the world than to fly non-stop to Sydney. Of course, any savings will be eaten up with expensive hotel rooms. But even so, off we went to Dubai, with stops scheduled in the Maldives, Phuket and finally Sydney before returning home via Los Angeles.
It is much easier to get to Dubai than you would think. On United, it is about a 13-hour flight from Dulles, with our flight leaving at 6:30 p.m. and landing at 4.30 p.m. the next day. (And you can fly non-stop on Emirates from Houston for a much more expensive fare). Count on eight hours of sleep plus time for dinner. Once you get to your hotel — shower, eat and sleep again. The Dubai airport and Emirates Air deserve their own column. One sentence cannot describe how spectacular they both are and hopefully U.S. airports and airlines will take a look and learn a lesson or two.
Dubai is clean, vertical, vast and very new-looking with cutting-edge architecture. It seems like a mix of New York, Miami and Las Vegas. High rise after high rise — most at least 70 stories high. All styles of dress — burkas on some women while others sport cut-offs with boots. Anything goes here. Men wear everything from suits to caftans and not all of them are the traditional white ones you expect. I saw a man in a beautifully tailored khaki caftan.
Dubai is a city of naked materialism but also of mystery.
December weather is delightful. Some Americans stereotype Dubai as being hot all year. Not so. Like Houston, it is intolerable for three to four months of the year and temperate the rest. It reminds me of Los Angeles or San Diego, though not so cold at night.
The people are unfailingly polite. Most of the hotel employees and cab drivers are from other parts of the world — India, Oman, Russia and Pakistan. Many have come to Dubai to support their families back home.
We headed to the Dubai Mall — no surprise, it is the largest in the world in terms of total area. I’m no stranger to large malls, but the size of this one is jaw-dropping — the equivalent of 50 soccer fields long. Although it does not have the indoor ski slope that the more well-known Mall of the Emirates has, this 1,200-store mall has an ice skating rink, one of world’s largest aquariums and elevators what will whisk you to the 124th floor of the tallest building in the world, Burj Dubai.
There is an entire wing — think the size of a normal shopping mall — just for electronics and another wing just for watches. But not one item is on sale.
There is an entire wing — think the size of a normal shopping mall — just for electronics and another wing just for watches. And the food — not just PF Changs and California Pizza Kitchen, which along with every other casual restaurant chain are here — but high-end chains from Europe and Asia with a total of more than 150 options for dining. The stores themselves include every luxury brand in the world, plus Bloomingdale's and French department store Galleries Lafayette. But there is not one item on sale.
As we ate lunch at one of the many food courts I was fascinated by the many women in their head coverings and burkas. I wondered how are the women in burkas able to eat? And why were these women buying clothes and underwear from Victoria’s Secret? I feel pretty ignorant not understanding the cultural subtleties.
The new metro between the beach area where our hotel is (the Marina) and downtown site of the Dubai Mall is sleek, fast and efficient. It is relatively new — like everything else in Dubai.
On our last night, we joined a former colleague and his wife for Christmas festivities at Madinat Jumeirah, a resort comprised of two hotels and hundreds of restaurants and shops and five kilometers of waterways that link everything. It is designed to resemble an ancient Arabian village — mysterious and exotic. My colleague’s wife is one of the most senior women executives in Dubai. They and their 11-year-old son love it here, though they admit it takes a little getting used to for their weekend to be Friday and Saturday rather than Saturday and Sunday.
No one does Christmas like the people of Dubai.
In the main amphitheater, we were treated to Santa Claus, a train giving rides to children, man-made snow along with an area to build snowmen, and a six-foot-high ginger bread house. It's total sensory overload. Interestingly there were women in burkas and men in robes and headdresses enjoying the Christmas music—some of which was religious. Christmas to them must be a pagan event rather than one of spiritual significance—or maybe they didn’t understand the words.
And no one does Christmas like the people of Dubai. Christmas trees galore, carols playing loudly, competing with each other to be heard. The trees are tasteful, with garland, balls, big star, Santa sitting by and beautifully wrapped presents….in other words—over the top. But there are few nativity scenes.
We were not expecting to be so intrigued by Dubai. There are so many paradoxes here—wealth beyond all comprehension against a backdrop of conservative religious, anti-women views. It is melting pot of nationalities and cultures with virtually no crime. A city of naked materialism but also of mystery. So many questions and two days is not enough time to explore all the subtleties.
Next stop: Maldives