On busy Sheik Zayed Road, the highway running through the sprawling metropolis of Dubai that connects the old city with its modern eye-catching skylines, a Ferrrari whizzes past at 75 miles per hour. It's a police car, a sign that Dubai -- a city often compared to Las Vegas -- has flash to spare.
The biggest and most developed of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as an oasis for cosmopolitan luxury travelers with money to burn. Yes, Dubai is a working port city on the Arabian Gulf, a gateway to places that, for most North Americans, are tucked away in the encyclopedia as distant and forbidden lands: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan. But the city's most distinctive feature is its pursuit of all things over the top, from "seven star" luxury hotels and shopping malls with ski resorts to manmade islands built in the shape of palm trees and continents.
As late as the 1950s, however, Dubai was a small-time trading and fishing port. (Pearl diving was a major industry until cultured versions came into vogue.) It's possible, although it does take some work, to find remnants of this uniquely Emirati history. A few savvy entrepreneurs are beginning to develop cultural tourism that highlights the country's Bedouin roots, as well as the melting pot that Dubai has become.
Yet still, it's the modern trappings you'll notice first, from the ultra-sophisticated Emirates Air planes that you no doubt arrived on to sleek Dubai International Airport to the fact that everyone speaks English. (You won't need to trot out Arabic here -- though attempting "shukran," for thank you, is always appreciated.) Although North Americans are somewhat scarce, Dubai has already been discovered by the elite from the rest of the world, who are magnetically drawn by its resorts, gorgeous beaches and coast, and its duty-free status as a shopping mecca.
That being said, Dubai -- and the United Arab Emirates in general -- is Muslim, and morality laws are alive and well. Public displays of affection are forbidden (no kissing your partner), and gay travelers are not welcome. (Homosexuality is illegal.) Alcohol is only served at hotels and restaurants with licenses, and many common prescriptions drugs are illegal. (Bring copies of your prescriptions from your doctor.) Although beachwear is appropriate at resorts, shorts and tank tops are uncommon; even some malls have a dress code. Pack long-sleeved tops, capris or long pants, and long skirts and dresses if you plan to visit mosques or do a lot of walking around.Despite its hardline stance on these cultural issues, Dubai remains a major port of embarkation -- if not port of call -- for cruise travelers on popular Middle East itineraries through the Arabian Gulf or around the Arabian Peninsula to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. (Even if your cruise doesn't begin or end there, you're likely to have an overnight.) The "season" runs from October through May and is particularly popular with European lines, such as Costa and AIDA. If you're looking for a view into the modern Middle East -- and want a guarantee that you'll have sunny, warm weather on your vacation -- Dubai is perhaps your best place to start.
Other than the cruise terminal, the port facility also handles cargo shipping, so there's nothing else to do there. Carrefours, a French supermarket, is located just outside the port gates and is a good place to stock up on necessities, but you'll have to take a taxi to get there.
Historic Dubai: Experience the city's history before you indulge in its present. Start at Khor Dubai, otherwise known as Dubai Creek, a river 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. The Dubai Museum is a fabulous ode to the past that is built around the Al-Fahidid Fort, dating back to the late 18th century. Exhibits here do a good job of explaining how Dubai went from a small fishing village to a world capital in just a few decades (Al Fahidi Fort, Al Fahidi Street; open Saturday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Friday, 2 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.). Not far is the Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum House, the one-time home of the current ruler's grandfather. It gives an excellent look into the pre-oil times of the late 19th century (Al Shindagha Road; open Saturday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday, 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.).
Burj Khalifa: The world's tallest manmade structure has an observation deck on the 124th floor that offers stunning aerial views of the city's other fantastical architecture. For those looking for a more exclusive experience (and in Dubai, there's always someone), you can go even higher to the 148th floor, which has the world's highest observation deck. Tickets can be purchased at the bottom level of the Dubai Mall (Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai; open daily, 8:30 a.m. to midnight, with the last tickets sold 45 minutes before closing).
Shopping Malls: Dubai's shopping malls are the largest and most luxurious in the world; tax free and containing fashion designers from the pages of Vogue, they are tourist attractions in their own right. Shopaholics can't miss the sprawling Dubai Mall, the world's largest, in Downtown Dubai right next to Burj Khalifa (Financial Center Road). In addition to designer shops and restaurants (including many familiar to North Americans such as the Cheesecake Factory), Dubai Mall boasts an aquarium and underwater zoo, the Waterfall (featuring life-size fiberglass sculptures of human divers), an ice skating rink and a manmade lagoon with the Dubai Fountains, which light up at night in a water show. Along Sheikh Zayed Road near the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), Mall of the Emirates holds Ski Dubai, an indoor winter wonderland where you can ski, snowboard and sled, as well as "zorb" (roll down a hill in a giant plastic hamster ball). Hop on, hop off buses stop at both, or you can take a taxi; many cruises and independent tour operators also offer shopping excursions.
Burj Al Arab: You may have seen photos of the iconic hotel Burj Al Arab (Jumeirah Beach Road), 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 it is one of the world's most glamorous hotels.) The 27-floor hotel, designed to look like a sailboat's sail, has a seemingly 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). A variety of high teas are available for a splurge.
Jumeirah: Beyond Burj Al Arab, in the chic Jumeirah area, 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 is not encouraged. Beyond all this, Jumeirah has its own public beaches that are lovely and safe. The city's most prominent mosque (and the only one open to the public), Jumeirah Mosque, is nearby with tours at 10 a.m. daily, except Friday.
Manmade Islands: For true beach lovers, Dubai has a handful of manmade island complexes that stand as audacious monuments to the city's culture of out-there development. Shaped like a palm tree, Palm Jumeirah is rife with luxury high-rises and world-famous resorts such as Sofitel and Atlantis. Come here for outstanding pool complexes and water sports such as standup paddleboarding and kayaking. Cruisers can purchase day passes. Even newer is The World, 300 islands shaped like continents making up a world map. While the islands are still being developed, The World has earned its space in Dubai's tourism pantheon as the focus of the city's helicopter tours.
Culinary Tours: Beyond the chain restaurants you can find anywhere else in the world, Dubai has a food culture that encompasses the entire Middle East and then some, thanks to the expat workers that make up the majority of the city's population. Access this foodie wonderland through Frying Pan Adventures, a tour company that focuses on street food. The company's five-hour tours lead you through the Deira, where you'll sample Palestinian, Emirati, Iranian, Syrian, Arabic and Egyptian specialties; shorter tours through Bur Dubai focus on the city's sizable Indian population, as well as the Emirati spice souk.
Water Parks: Waterparks are a sure bet to keep young ones entertained; Dubai's consistently warm weather makes this a no-brainer. The Wild Wadi Waterpark, next to the swank Jumeirah Beach Hotel, features 23 rides, some interconnected, and on really hot days the water is cooled. Atlantis Hotel on Palm Jumeirah also has a waterpark, as well as a Dolphin Encounter.
Sheikh Mohammad Cultural Centre: Designed to promote understanding between cultures, the Sheikh Mohammad Cultural Centre has a popular brunch where tourists (and a sizeable number of expats) can nosh on Middle Eastern specialties and ask native Emiratis questions about their lives. During our visit, volunteers took on everything from arranged marriages (common) to polygamy (not so common) to human rights (UAE follows Islamic law); detailed explanation was given to the crisp white tunics and detailed abaya/hijabs that Emirati men and women wear. The Centre also runs Heritage and Creek tours. (Al Musallah Road. Hours vary, depending on the meal)
Desert Safaris: Desert safaris are a rite of passage, especially if you arrive a day or two before your cruise (or stay a few days afterward). Tour companies, bookable both through your cruise and independently, drive you, in Toyota Land Cruiser 4 x 4 vehicles, 50 minutes into the desert, where the dunes look like hillsides out of "The English Patient." Part one of the experience is a mad ride up and down the dunes (bring your motion sickness remedy) with a handful of other Toyota Land Cruisers doing the same thing; we counted about 20 different cars on our trip. You stop occasionally for photo ops or when drivers get stuck in the sand. Afterwards, you head to a camp where you're feted with a barbecue dinner (Middle Eastern chicken, lamb, ribs, salads -- quite delicious) and given a chance to ride a camel, "snowboard" down a sand dune, have your feet henna'ed and watch an amazingly trim bellydancer. You can either stay overnight or be ferried back to your ship.
Horse Racing: The sport of horse racing is huge in Dubai; races are held at Meydan Racecourse from November through April. As you might expect in this hangout for the international set, polo is also popular; you can even take a 90-minute lesson at the Dubai Polo Academy on the grounds of the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club (Studio City; 971 5 887 9847). For something different, check out camel racing; it's held at the Al Marmoum track periodically during winter months.
By Taxi: Metered taxis line up at the port. They're your best bet for day visits to Jumeirah, an upscale area of hotels, shops, restaurants and beaches, or to Bar Dubai, where most of the historic sites are located. Fares to both places are reasonable.
By Bus: A hop-on, hop-off bus leaves right from the port. Free shopping shuttles head to Dubai's major malls from the port, as well.
By Metro: Dubai is a sprawling city, but many of its downtown sights are easily accessible by Metro (alas, not from the port). Tickets are sold based on how many zones you'll cross. "Ladies cars" are available for women traveling together or with children.
Sitting firmly at the crossroads of East and West, Dubai has every type of cuisine you might imagine -- and then some. Native Emirati dishes borrow heavily from Arabic Bedouin culture; mezzes with hummus, baba ganoush and fattoush may taste familiar, while main dishes might be lamb curry or a bowl of lentils, chicken and rice cooked in a blend of spices known as bezar. Yogurt and cucumber sauce are usually served as sides. Dates served with cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee are a traditional symbol of hospitality. Alcohol is not served in most Middle Eastern restaurants.
Even in Dubai, native Emiratis make up only 14 percent of the city's population; the majority of people who live in the city are foreign workers, and the food culture reflects this diversity. Indian cuisine is popular, both in small curry houses and fancy hotels, and you'll find steakhouses, sushi bars, shisha lounges, celebrity chef outposts and nearly every chain restaurant on the planet across Dubai. Hotels are the easiest options for a nice lunch or dinner (especially if you want wine or a cocktail). As in most Muslim countries, Dubai's weekend starts on Friday, and elaborate brunches and barbecues are often served all day on Friday and Saturday.
Hotels are the easiest options for a nice lunch or dinner (especially if you want wine or a cocktail).
Downtown Dubai: Near Dubai Mall, the Armani Hotel has a three-course Friday brunch menu in its Deli restaurant that looks nothing like any deli you've ever seen elsewhere. Your three-hour nosh includes unlimited visits to the "pork room," as well as masterful salads/starters and a decadent dessert bar. Oh yeah, there's a main course, too. (Armani Hotel, Burj Khalifa; open daily, noon to 11 p.m.)
Jumeirah: Souk Madinat includes the ultra-casual Dome for coffee and sandwiches, and restaurants whose themes vary from Persian to steakhouse. Restaurant hours within the mall vary. For familiar fare, consider Bikers Cafe, a motorcycle-themed eatery on Jumeirah Road that's reportedly a favorite of Sheikh Mohammad. (Jumeirah Beach Road, Jumeirah 1; open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.)
On the Creek: It can be pleasant in the cooler months to nosh alongside Dubai Creek, which is big enough to be a river. Creekside Cafe, which is also an arts co-op, melds Western and Eastern flavors, and also offers breakfast until 3 p.m. (Baniyas Street/Creek Road; open daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
Dubai has embraced cruise travelers, and the Port of Rashid is expanding at a rapid pace; there are now three distinct terminals. The Port of Dubai facility offers a coffee bar, a deli/lunch operation, souvenir shops and free Internet on five terminals in its business center. There's a currency exchange office, an ATM, a post office and a concierge who can set you up with day tours. Several major shopping malls also offer free shuttles from the port.
Although Dubai looks freewheeling on the surface, the United Arab Emirates is still a strict Muslim country. Women should cover their shoulders and knees, even while sightseeing; coverings are a necessity for visits to mosques or other religious sites, and malls have a conservative dress code. Displays of affection in public are forbidden, especially between unmarried or same-sex couples. Also avoid photographing Arabs or Emiratis in their native dress without asking permission.
The currency is the UAE dirham (dh); check xe.com or oanda.com for current exchange rates. Dollars are generally not accepted. Taxis take currency only (no credit cards), so exchange money at the airport, or use an ATM.
Arabic is the main language, but everyone speaks English. As a result of its expansion boom, Dubai has opened its gates to supplement its work force. (However, these expats, who make up the majority of the population, cannot become citizens and, as such, have fewer rights.) You'll encounter Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Russians and a plethora of other nationalities -- all of whom speak passable English.
This is a city that loves shopping; there's even a monthlong festival dedicated to it. Designer goods of all kinds are available in shopping malls such as Dubai Mall (the world's largest) and Mall of the Emirates.
If you're looking for something more traditional, gold in almost any form is a terrific remembrance, particularly coupled with the experience of visiting Dubai's old souk (marketplace) on the Deira side of the creek. Traditional coffee pots -- known as dallah and sold in sets with small cups -- are also great gifts. Dubai is the place to stock up on gorgeous scarves, many in luxe fabrics with elaborate beading.