Desert Song: Singing the praise of a developing Dubai
"Do you like nature?" the flight attendant asks. "It depends on the place," I say.
We're 35,000ft above Eastern Europe, on an Emirates flight to Dubai. Like anyone visiting this Disneyland in the desert, I've packed my fair share of preconceptions. I don't expect much nature for one.
"Maybe," she smiles. "But for me, it's like travelling to the future."
Wham! In one seductive slap-down, she turns my attitude on its head. Of course Dubai is big, brash and bling-tastic. It's home to the world's tallest building, its largest shopping mall and its richest horse race. But there's something exciting about the way it tears up the rulebook too. Could that triumph of style over substance actually make it a truly original 21st-century city?
I want my mind bent straight away, so one of my first stops is the Burj Khalifa - at 828 metres, the world's tallest building.
Pulling up at the slick Armani Hotel in its basement, I ascend to the 122nd floor in the world's fastest elevator (what else?), and tuck into afternoon tea in Atmosphere (www.atmosphereburjkhalifa.com).
It feels weird nibbling fancy sandwiches with panoramic views over a downtown area that didn't exist six years ago.
In the Mall of Emirates, I watch kids skid around on toboggans in Ski Dubai (www.skidxb.com). Above them, chair lifts take skiers up to the piste, watched over by guests with slope-view rooms in the Alpine Lodge style Kempinski Hotel.
Is it surreal? Of course it is. Even more so when verses of the Koran are piped through the mall at prayer time. There's a similar vibe at the Dubai Mall, where 1,200 stores run the range from Baby Dior to Bloomingdales.
Tourists stand transfixed by the sharks and rays gliding about in one of Dubai Aquarium's IMAX-like tanks. A 155-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton stands by one of the entrances.
The sheer scale of the place takes me by surprise. Dubai sprawls along some 70km of naturally occurring coastline, with set-piece neighbourhoods like Downtown, Festival City and Jumeirah built from scratch in the sands. It's not just the Manhattan of the Middle East - it's the Kuala Lumpur and the Shanghai too. Factor in the heat, and you'll understand why nobody walks in this city.
"This is nothing," says my Platinum Heritage Safaris guide. "In summer it can be 45 or 50 degrees. I was in the desert one day and I had a headache. I went to the car to get some water. Then I saw the temperature. It was 59 degrees."
Holy Moly! Thankfully, the mercury is nowhere near that when I'm picked up for a desert safari (www.platinum-heritage.com; AED395/€78). We drive out into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve in a Mercedes G Wagon, pulling on Arabic headscarves and hopping into a 1950s open-topped Land Rover for some dune bashing in the Empty Quarter - the largest sand desert on earth.
It's not just sand, either. I think of my flight attendant friend as we spot the odd Arabian oryx and gazelle. Afterwards, we break at a desert camp for a camel ride and a traditional breakfast, before chatting with Hamad, a Bedouin man in a snow-white dishdash.
"Life is much better now," he muses. "Before, we had to dig for water. Now it comes from the tap. Before, we had camels. Now I have a four-wheel drive."
But this old man isn't the only trace of 'authentic' Arabian culture I find in Dubai.
Taking an early evening walk around Bur Dubai - which, along with Deira, is as close as it gets to an 'old' town here - I chance on the Dubai Museum. A warren of underground exhibits brings alive the Bedouins, pearl divers and craftsmen of another era through displays of mocked-up dhows, tombs, shops and tents... a lifestyle that changed utterly with the discovery of oil in the 1960s.
Afterwards, I set out to get lost in Meena Bazaar, wandering through souks and side streets for a few unscripted moments.
Stallholders throw pashmina shawls over my shoulders. The smell of shisha pipes wafts from a coffee shop. Wooden water taxis (abra) chug along the busy Dubai Creek. It's the first real travel tingle I get in the city - a fleeting sense of a churned-up crossroads, as opposed to a ritzy but rootless spectacle.
"Anyone who knows Dubai knows it is in pretty much a constant state of flux," says my guide on a neighbourhood food tour with Frying Pan Adventures (fryingpanadventures.com).
She leads our small group from street snacks like onion samosas with spicy green chutney to kulchas (stuffed breads) served up with chickpea curry and sweet-spicy tamarind chutney. With its tailors, chaat houses, honking horns and samosa joints, Bur Dubai reminds me of a neighbourhood in Delhi or Mumbai. It feels thrilling.
It's an intoxicating cultural immersion - all the more seamless for the fact that everyone speaks English, and the city is generally so clean and safe. Mash that up with snippets of Muslim life (shoes outside the mosque, a ladies-only carriage on the Metro), exotic snatches of Emirati women in jet-black abayas and customers from all over the world swanning into hotels, and it all feels breathtakingly exotic.
I guess that's what Dubai is now - one of the great global intersections. Say what you like about the transience of its population, the gold-plated iPads at the Burj Al Arab, the lack of soul or cultural scenes, but there's nowhere like it on earth.
I think we're warming to it, too. Irish travellers enjoy having their minds boggled and fancies tickled - but they also appreciate a quality resort. Dubai has no shortage of those, and it's working to expand its family and four-star offerings next year, along with boutique-style hotels such as the one I stayed at, the Vida in Downtown Dubai. For better or worse, it's like Sin City without the seediness.
My flight attendant friend had it spot on. It looks like we'll be travelling to the future for some time.
Need to know
GET THERE: Emirates (www.emirates.ie) fly direct from Dublin to Dubai seven times weekly (double daily from September 1). Return fares from €568 (economy) and €2,351 (business).
STAY: Pól stayed at the Vida Hotel (vida-hotels.com) in Downtown Dubai. A tasteful room, smart service, and shisha cabanas around the pool proved a nice alternative to the big beach resorts, and there's a super Japanese next door (toku-dubai.com).
SHOP: The Dubai Mall and Mall of Emirates rank among the world's largest malls, but the prices aren't as low as you might think. Look for deals in electronics and gold (quality is government-regulated at the gold souk in Deira), or consider the shopping festival in winter.
More info at definitelydubai.com.
Dubai isn't a city you can do on foot. It's too hot, too big and too full of traffic. Taxis and Metro are cheap, so make good use of both.
Travelling to and around Dubai is easy - visitor permits can be obtained on arrival, most people speak English, hotel water is safe to drink, alcohol is widely available in hotels and plug sockets are three-pin, which means you don't have to bring adapters. Having said that, bear in mind that Islam is the official religion. Beachwear is fine on the beach, but revealing clothes should not be worn elsewhere - err on the side of caution.
Avoid summer visits. Temperatures are in the 40s. Spring and late autumn are much better for mixing shopping and sun.