On my first morning in Dubai, I sat beside a stone fireplace, sipping hot chocolate and watching a video loop of a roaring fire. The fireplace was inside the St. Moritz, a re-creation of an alpine ski lodge, which is located beside a ski slope, which is located inside the Mall of the Emirates, one of the biggest malls in the world.
At lunch, I sat on the sandstone terrace of an Italian restaurant, Toscana, which was also located inside a mall, the Madinat Jumeirah, a re-creation of an Arab souk. I'd moved from hot chocolate to Amarone della Valpolicella, from ski boots to flip-flops. I ordered wild-mushroom risotto and watched water taxis ferry passengers along the narrow waterway between Tommy Bahama, Caviar Classic, and Cinnabon.
That evening, I sat on a bench in Heritage Village, which is not a mall but a re-creation of a traditional village in the United Arab Emirates. I watched a man in a flowing white head scarf and a woman in an abaya as they sat on a blanket in a very finite, very imported piece of desert--more like a large sandbox--pouring coffee from a samovar-like pot. I assumed they were picnicking until they offered me a cup, and I realized this was just one more Heritage Village demonstration. "Traditional Arabic coffee," the man said proudly.
Lying in bed that night, I wondered if I had been drafted into an elaborate game of make-believe. In order to grow a city from a fishing village to a convenient place to refuel a plane to the world's fastest-growing tourist destination--it now draws more than six million visitors a year--the architects of the new Dubai had to rely more than usual on the power of fantasy.
At some point in the early 1990s, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum determined that tourism was to be the cornerstone of Dubai's economy. He knew that one day the emirate's modest oil reserve was going to run dry. But Dubai didn't have the World Heritage sites, cultural attractions, or natural wonders to lure tourists. (There's an undeniable, austere beauty to the desert dunes, but that was hardly enough to build a good case for visiting, especially with competitors like the Sahara.) And so: What Mother Nature and the forces of history did not bequeath to Dubai, Dubai would have to create for itself.
Ever since, Dubai has been growing at a breakneck pace, every new project an attempt to outdo the last one. I imagine the sheikh assembling a sort of tourism think tank. I imagine his advisors sitting around and trying to figure out what tourists want, and coming up with a list: Malls! Waterslides! Spas! Theme parks! Gondolas! Sushi! River cruises like the Bateaux Mouches!
Dubai has all of these and more. It wants to entertain you; it wants to be all things to all people. Just as Vegas crams the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Roman Colosseum under one metaphorical roof, Dubai offers curious Westerners world-class chefs, family entertainment, and, for those who are so inclined, a thriving sex-tourism industry. It has also drawn comparison to Ibiza for its throbbing club scene and to Singapore and Hong Kong for its overnight evolution into a modern international trading center.
And yet, despite visitors' befuddled attempts to find an analogue for Dubai, it is, at base, an utterly Middle Eastern city, albeit an improbably tolerant one. Dubai gathers together all the lavish sights and sounds and tastes of Arabia and makes them safe and accessible for Westerners--many of whom aren't entirely comfortable traveling just anywhere in the Middle East these days. In Dubai, lovers of the exotic can indulge their Thousand and One Nights fantasies. At the One & Only Royal Mirage Hotel, they can recline on the silk pillows of a daybed and sip a Kir Royale in the Rooftop Bar, or lie naked and nibble fresh dates inside the hotel's spa. They can shop for Moroccan lanterns at Madinat Jumeirah, for sandalwood incense in the Perfume Souk on Sikkat al Khail Street, and for chunky 24-karat-gold Cleopatra chokers in the nearby Gold Souk. They can glide down Dubai Creek on a dhow at sunset, booked with Danat Dubai Cruises, the thick air vibrating with the voices of a dozen muezzins calling worshippers to prayer.
There are two ways to experience Dubai: first class and economy. As a first-class traveler, you will be indulged beyond your wildest dreams. At the Six Senses Spa, you can have your face exfoliated with crushed diamonds and emeralds. You can rent an $800 VIP pod at Trilogy nightclub, where you and seven of your closest friends will be suspended above the dance floor and plied with drinks by a gorgeous, impeccably coiffed waitress who knows full well that you laid out some serious cash to feel special. You can stay at the mainsail-shaped Burj Al Arab--dubbed the "world's first seven-star hotel" by a travel writer who had clearly been well cared for--where a white-gloved butler will hang up your clothes and plan your entire itinerary while you soak in an Hermès-scented bubble bath.
What about the rest of us? The mere mortals who don't have $2,000 a night to drop on a hotel room? The good news is that some of that opulence is within reach. I spent a blissful two hours being pampered to the point of embarrassment in the Oriental Hammam of the One & Only Royal Mirage Hotel. From the moment I arrived, I was attended to like some sort of empress, too precious and delicate to tie my own robe sash or dry my own dewy skin. I was escorted into the dressing room, helped into a cotton robe, then led into a humid marble chamber that echoed with the soothing sounds of splashing water. I lay on a warm marble slab while a woman named Leila scrubbed me with eucalyptus-scented Moroccan soap. After rinsing me with bowl after bowl of hot water, she led me into a steam room, rinsed me again, exfoliated my dry skin, and then slathered me in ghassoul, a mixture of clay and eucalyptus oil. She then applied a honey mask and a couple of cotton pads to my eyes. I was then led to a massage table scattered with rose petals and massaged for 20 bittersweet final minutes, dulcimers pinging quietly in the background. It was far and away the best $100 that I've ever spent.
A few days later, I had afternoon tea in the garishly colorful lobby of the aforementioned $2,000-a-night hotel, the Burj Al Arab. For $40, the Burj used to allow the hoi polloi to enter the hotel and take in its soaring 24-karat-gold-leaf columns and helipad. These days, however, the only way that nonguests can catch a glimpse of its infamous excess is to make reservations for afternoon tea or evening cocktails a week or two ahead of time. Guests at cocktail hour--or Indulgent afternoon tea, which costs $35 more than the Regular afternoon tea--get to sit in the Sky Bar and gaze out at The World, a man-made archipelago laid out like a map of the Earth, or at least the 90 percent of it deemed most desirable. Each island is sold separately, so the developers of The World have quietly eliminated countries that don't have strong marketing potential. Israel is nowhere to be found, and North and South Korea have been reunified.
I wish I could say that afternoon tea at the Burj was worth the $61 price tag, but as I sat perched on a fire-engine-red divan eating wafer-thin sandwiches and mediocre scones, listening to florid versions of Sting songs played on a grand piano by a woman in a long satin dress, and watching computerized colored fountains shoot 100 feet into the air, I felt like I'd been had. Sure, the admission price gave me access to the Sky Bar (if only for a five-minute post-tea glimpse), with its eight-foot-high picture windows, and the views of The World and the Gulf of Arabia at sunset were mesmerizing. But as I crept around the corridor of the mezzanine admiring the 22-karat-gold-flecked mosaic floors, I found myself wondering who in the crowd belonged, and who didn't. That guy flipping through a newspaper on the couch next to me? He seemed to belong. The ones taking a video of the escalator? Interlopers, just like me.
I was more than happy to go back to my lovely $160-a-night hotel, the Arabian Courtyard, which had no gold leaf, but no tourists ogling the lobby, either; it did have appealing rooms with hardwood floors and richly colored upholstery.
Even if I were staying at the Burj, I wouldn't want to spend my entire time in Dubai cocooned in a five-star hotel. After all, luxury in Dubai doesn't feel very different from luxury in Bali or Paris or Cabo San Lucas. Better to get out on the streets of Deira or Bur Dubai, the two neighborhoods that flank Dubai Creek, to experience the rush of a dozen cultures at once. Indian women jostle each other for sidewalk space at the Covered Souk, where bejeweled saris tempt them from the store windows. Men in white dishdashas and checkered head scarves lounge on the banks of Dubai Creek at the end of the day, sandals shed. Emirati teenagers gather at the local sheesha café, Blue Barjeel, the boys in baggy jeans, the girls in tight ones, all sipping Turkish coffee and smoking apple tobacco and flirting. Forget the malls: At the marketplaces along the creek, you'll find rose water from Iran, tea sets from China, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan.
But Dubai's heady brew of cultures is best experienced through your taste buds. Within its 22 square miles, I encountered tuna sashimi, enchiladas, tiramisu, tandoori chicken, flan, chili fries, pain au chocolat, and lots and lots of shish kebab and hummus. Much of it was improbably hidden away in hotels, which I typically associate with generic Euro-cuisine.
At the Park Hyatt, I approached The Thai Kitchen via lighted walkways graced by palm trees and candlelit staircases. The restaurant studiously emulates the casual openness of a Thai marketplace: In the three open kitchens, sous-chefs steam rice in bamboo baskets and grind herbs and spices into pastes with wooden mortars and pestles. No simple pad thai served here: The menu features odd and intriguing combinations of ingredients, such as spicy pomelo salad: segments of grapefruit-like pomelo and steamed prawns accented by sweet, crunchy shallots and tamarind sauce.
At the Hyatt Regency, also in Deira, Shahrzad serves Iranian food in a shamelessly opulent atmosphere of heavy silver cutlery and brocade-upholstered chairs. I ordered only one dish, something called a polo--saffron rice cooked with chicken or lamb and a blend of fragrant, subtly merged spices. But after the waiter discovered that I was new to Iranian cuisine, food and drink began materializing at my table every few minutes as if I were an honored guest: olives and yogurt dip and a basket of delicious warm flatbread; sparkling water and lemons; a woodsy amber tea presented on a gold tray; and finally, for dessert, iced vermicelli flavored with rose water, which tasted like I imagine perfume might taste, only sweeter and less acidic. During the meal, I watched a keyboardist play a sinuous melody over the insistent beat of a dumbek drum, while a singer in a series of ever-slinkier evening gowns crooned what I presumed were Persian standards, moving her nimble pelvis in a manner that challenged all of my preconceptions of Muslim modesty.
As exciting as I found the cultural smorgasbord, at a certain point I began craving something indigenous to Dubai. One afternoon, I set off for the Bastakia, Dubai's oldest neighborhood. I started with a cappuccino at Basta Art Café, a lovely old house with a tent-shaded courtyard. Then I wandered the quarter's narrow alleyways, brushing my fingertips across the cool walls of the coral-and-gypsum houses. I wandered a few hundred feet, anyway, until my reverie was foiled by a rudeconfrontation with an asphalt parking lot. I turned around and headed down another alley, but that one, too, ended abruptly, cut short by a boulevard heaving with traffic.
Hoping a trip to the sand dunes would provide me with a glimpse of the real Dubai, I signed up for a desert safari with Lama Desert Tours. I piled into a Land Cruiser with a posse of oil com-pany executives, and 60 minutes later we pulled up to the edge of the dunes, which glowed pink in the late-afternoon sun. I had dreamed of something simple: a camel ride at sunset, dinner cooked over a fire and eaten under the stars. But you don't go to Dubai to commune with nature--or to enjoy something simple, for that matter.
The safari started with dune bashing, which involves careening along the sides of the 100-foot-high dunes and feels a lot like riding an improvised roller coaster. (Our driver pointed out that there were barf bags in the seat pockets.) An hour or so later, we were deposited at the desert camp, which featured small booths where people in bedouin costumes gave demonstrations of Arabic culture. A man in bedouin costume offered five-minute camel rides, and another taught curious tourists how to smoke a sheesha. One woman painted henna tattoos on the freckled shoulders of Germans and Americans and Brits, while another cooked traditional flatbread over an open fire. Nearby, a man served (yet again) traditional Arabic coffee. I could have been in the Arabian pavilion at a World Expo.
We ate at low tables, and after dinner, a creamy-white Russian woman performed a belly dance, pulling shyly eager middle-aged men off their cushions and taunting them with her gyrations before inviting the whole audience to join her.
The next day, I gave up my quest for authenticity and decided to go to another mall. On the way, I passed long rows of billboards advertising gated "lifestyle communities" that promised days filled with yachts and tennis and poolside mai tais. The horizon was cluttered with construction cranes as far as the eye could see, like outsized dragonflies hovering between columns of scaffolding. More than 100 major development projects are to be completed within the next three years, each one bigger or wider or more luxurious than the last.
The mall I visited, Ibn Battuta, is divided into countries, like Epcot. The Persia section has faux-faience domes and Ibn Battuta, a puffy Ali Baba--like character who entertains children; the China area features pagodas and a massive sculpture of a wooden junk keeling to one side; the Tunisian wing is designed to resemble a 14th-century outdoor market, sky and all.
While I was roaming through the Egyptian wing, I came upon a kiddie attraction called the Magic Carpet Ride. A British woman deposited her toddler atop a mechanical Persian rug undulating a few feet off the ground. The little girl, perfectly adorable with her blonde braids and rosy complexion, was dressed in a short velvet coat and an Aladdin--style cap. An Arabic melody began to play, and the attendant turned on a video camera to capture the moment.
"You're going to wave at me, Beatrice, right?" her mother asked, in anticipation of her daughter's starring role. Beatrice waved and beamed and wriggled around happily. On the monitor before her, the mother could see Beatrice sitting on the carpet, which appeared to be whizzing through the air, weaving among glass-and-steel towers in a virtual-reality tour of Dubai. People began to gather around to watch lovely little Beatrice and wave at her. Beatrice gamely waved back. More people gathered, until there was a crowd of about 30 pressing in on her, laughing at the spectacle of Beatrice zooming around the city on a carpet.
Then Beatrice stopped smiling. Her tiny, perfect features warped and contracted, and she began to cry. "Keep waving, sweetie!" encouraged her mother from the sidelines. "You're all right!" But Beatrice had had it with the waving. She had had it with the music and the vibrating carpet ride and the laughing crowd. She scooted herself toward the edge of the carpet. "Be careful, darling!" her mother yelled.
On the screen, we watched Beatrice clamber off the carpet and disappear. And then there was only the magic carpet, zooming emptily through the skyscrapers of Dubai.