A World Apart

Dubai offers ultramodern resorts, luxury shopping, international cuisine and a lively nightlife

Everything you’ve heard about Dubai’s unbridled extravagance is true. Well, at least most of it is. (I’d been told that most taxis I’d hail would be Mercedes and with luck even Lamborghinis. Turns out, that wasn’t quite true.) However, this city–technically an Emirate–perched on the Persian Gulf is considered the most expensive in the Middle East. It is the flashiest sister of the United Arab Emirates, where the moneyed class from around the globe comes to experience the best and often brashest aspects of modernity.

Everything you’ve heard about Dubai’s unbridled extravagance is true.

I ensconce myself on Dubai’s most famous parcel of land, the manmade Palm Island at Atlantis, a glammed-out property that affords access to some of the city’s most unusual experiences. High rollers can book the 10,000-sqauare-foot Royal Suite, where the soap is flecked with solid gold, or the Neptune Suite, where the walls face the aquarium. Mere mortals (like myself) book spacious rooms with views of the Dubai skyline and the waterfront.

You need not be an overnight guest in order to delve into the resort’s activities such as the waterpark, dolphin and sea lion encounters, the Lost Chamber Aquarium (home to more than 65,000 marine animals), and high-end shops. You can snorkel, Scuba and PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certify in the property’s lagoon. And, this just may be the only (safe) place to hand feed sharks and stingrays after sunset.

For me, the highlight was the resort’s ShuiQi Spa, a two-story oasis with a trickling water wall and a celestial domed ceiling. I booked a 30-minute ZeroBody floating treatment that promised to ease jetlag, which after a 14-hour flight, I desperately needed. I lay on a water mattress pulsing with LED lights from which I was guided into a meditative state. The treatment was said to stimulate circulation and perhaps it did, but its other claim to fame–relaxation–was evident.

One of Dubai’s most extraordinary restaurants, the glowing underwater Ossiano, is one of the big draws at Atlantis. The menu naturally nods towards the sea, which can make you feel just a touch uncomfortable as you watch your dinner’s brethren swim past. The night I dined here, it didn’t take long before a 600-pound grouper fixed an intense and persistent stare at my dining companion.

To experience the essence of Dubai, though, you will have to resist the gravitational pull of Atlantis and head a few miles into downtown. The city is known for its steady march of high-rise towers, which dazzle and disorient, like the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, which soars 2,722 feet. Because Dubai is poised to host the World Expo in 2020, the skyline continues to be populated with construction cranes.

As for the famed malls of Dubai, these temples of retail don’t disappoint. There are dancing fountains, a huge array of boutiques from Chanel to local silk shops, and if you hit the Mall of the Emirates, an indoor ski slope. The malls are your best chance to brush elbows with locals: men in kanduras, ankle-length white cotton shirts, and women in everything from black burqas to daisy duke shorts.

You can still discover pockets of traditional Arab life near to the new downtown. Take an abra, a traditional wooden boat, for the most atmospheric transfer across the Dubai Creek, and land at the docks steps from the souk. As you navigate the warren of narrow lanes that weave through the souks, the kaleidoscope of scents that waft from the stalls stand testament to a time not so long ago and prior to the oil boom when this was a thriving regional center, well regarded for its perfume and spice trades throughout the Arab world.

After exploring the souk, I hail a taxi back to my home base at the Atlantis. As I’m sped along the fast new highway, the frenzy of the traditional neighborhood of squat buildings and dusty intersections gives way to the orderly new downtown with its gleaming skyscrapers. As we pull onto the dramatic drive that leads to Palm Island, I spot a Lamborghini, this one canary yellow. It zooms past my dinged up taxicab, and I can’t help but smile as the driver’s white ghutrah (headscarf) flutters in the wind before the car disappears as if a mirage.