On busy Sheik Zayed Road, the highway running through the sprawling metropolis of Dubai that connects the old city with numerous under-construction neighborhoods-cum-high-rise-condo towers, a beat-up Nissan Sentra whistles past my taxi at 120 kilometers. On its bumper: "This vehicle stops at all bingo games." Is this Arabia? Or has Las Vegas been re-created, almost from scratch?
Right now it's a toss-up. To call Dubai brash, the biggest and most developed of the seven United Arab Emirates, is a bit of an understatement. This is a port city that lies on the Arabian Gulf, a gateway of sorts to all kinds of places that for most North Americans are tucked away in the encyclopedia as distant and oft-forbidden lands -- Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Dubai's most distinctive feature, these days, is its fabulously over-the-top hotels and shopping malls. Not to mention the multitude of construction cranes that hover above every part of the city. It's impossible to avoid the ongoing building boom (which, according to tourism officials there, will be completely finished by 2010).
In the meantime, Dubai, which as early as the 1950's was a small-time trading and fishing port, has literally risen from the sand. It's a mirage in more than one way. First impressions: A virgin Middle East visitor, arriving on the ultra-sophisticated Emirates Air at the also quite sleek Dubai International Airport, notices that all sign postings are first in Arabic then in English (and thirdly in German). You won't need to trot out your Arabic lessons here -- though attempting "shukran," for thank you, is always appreciated.
Dubai has already been discovered by Europeans, who are magnetically drawn by its resorts, gorgeous beaches and coast, and it duty-free status as a shopping mecca.
It's also, increasingly, a major port of embarkation -- if not port of call -- for cruise travelers embarking on increasingly popular Middle East itineraries. Dubai in 2004 attracted seven ships in this still-growing region (with QE2 being its biggest and luxury lines being most fervent fans); it expects to more then double that in fall/winter 2005-2006, with 16. The "season" runs, for the most part, from October through May.
One of the challenges of visiting Dubai -- at least in my case, when I was eager to experience my first exotic taste of the Middle East -- is to enjoy its quite contemporary appeal: the uber-elegant hotels, shopping malls that rival those in North America (in fact a contender to Minneapolis' Mall of America is under construction and will feature a snowboarding center) while also working hard (you have to) to find places where you can immerse yourself in its history.
Prior to packing for the trip, I worried a lot about "appropriate" wear. Sure, you'll see some women in burkas, and quite a few men wear headdresses, but for the most part anything -- literally and shockingly -- seems to go. On my part I packed lots of long-sleeved lines, tapered slacks and longish cotton skirts, and I felt comfortable everywhere.
As a first-timers' foray into the Middle East, Dubai, which straddles both the worlds of the West and the East, offers an easy transition. But for genuinely exotic otherworlds, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Dubai Quick Facts
Experience the city's history before you indulge in its present! Start at Khor Dubai, otherwise known as Dubai Creek, which runs through the heart of the city. It separates Deira, a business-oriented part of the city, from Bar Dubai, where many tourist attractions are located, from the Dubai Museum, a fabulous ode to the past that is built around the Al-Fahidid Fort, dating back to the late 18th century. The Hatta Heritage Village nearby offers more on its social and cultural history, as well as excellent insights into the city's Bedouin lifestyle. Adjacent is the Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum House, the one-time home of the current ruler's grandfather, and it gives an excellent look into the pre-oil times of the late 19th century. While in Bar Dubai, certainly don't miss the Gold Souk (which encompasses something like 1,000 different merchants) and the Spice Souk. What was also fascinating in this area was the "marina" for dhows. These rickety, canvas-covered boats sail to those aforementioned "oft-forbidden lands" carrying mostly cargo (everything from refrigerators and children's toys to stoves and cars). It's a Middle Eastern United Nations of a sort, and my one regret is not spending more time down here absorbing the scene.
Chic Jumeirah. You may have seen photos of the iconic hotel Burj Al Arab, which promotes itself as the world's only seven-star rated establishment (as there is no system for ratings above five we can't vouch for the claim, but can easily tell you it's the most glamorous and expensive hotel in Dubai if not the world). It's worth a visit if you can get in (tourists not staying there are not always welcome). The 27-floor hotel, designed to look like a sailboat's sail, has an underwater restaurant (you have to take a submarine to get there) and a foyer with water ballet fountains decked out in gold leaf. The best way to gain entrance is to make a reservation at one of its restaurants (note that there's a seriously enforced resort-casual dress code here). Beyond Burj Al Arab, nearby resorts cluster around Souk Madinat. This sanitized version of an actual souk elegantly showcases a variety of local treasures, ranging from home decor to pashmina scarves and bottles of "designer" sand. Bargaining was not encouraged. Beyond all this, Jumeirah has its own public beaches -- lovely and safe.
Arabic is the main language, but I literally spoke English with everyone I met (though some, it must be said, were more fluent than others). It's intriguing that Dubai, as a result of its almost-out-of-control expansion boom, has opened its gates to supplement its work force, and as such you'll meet Indians, Danish, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Filipinos -- or at least I did in my two pre-cruise days there. All spoke passable English.
Taxis, your best bet for a day visit, line up at the port. Plan to pay 75 dh -- about $20 -- to go to Jumeirah, an upscale area of hotels, shops, restaurants and beaches. Taxis to Bar Dubai, where most of the historic sites are located, will cost about 20 dh.
Where You're Docked
Dubai has embraced cruise travelers, and nowhere is it more evident than in its newly built cruise terminal. It's so lovely you'll want to do more than pass through. The Port of Dubai facility offers a coffee bar, a deli/lunch operation, and free -- can I repeat this? -- free Internet on five terminals in its business center. There's a currency exchange office, an ATM and a concierge who can set you up with day tours. The port terminal offers two free shopping shuttles, one each to Mercato Mall and City Center Drive. Departures leave on the hour.
Staying in Touch
The aforementioned port facility offers free access.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the UAE dirham (dh); $1 equals about 3.50 dh, but this fluctuates so check before you depart. Dollars are generally not accepted. Taxis take currency only (no credit cards), so exchange money at the airport or find an ATM. Note: While ATMs offered the usual markings (Cirrus, Visa, Mastercard), they tended to accept only a four-digit pin code. And here's a hint: Check with your bank before you leave about whether your credit or debit card will work; my success was very sporadic.
Alas, other than the port facility, you are located in the center of a cargo shipping port and so there's nothing else to do here. Carrefours, a French supermarket, is located just outside the port gates and is a good place to stock up on necessities, but you will have to take a taxi to get there.
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