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Dubai at dusk

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Whenever I mention I’m going to the Middle East, there’s a hushed silence that fills the air. Americans have this long-standing fear of Islamic radicals. Say the word "Dubai" to the same group and fear can quickly turn to curiosity. Many people don’t realize that Dubai is not a country in itself, but just makes up a part of the UAE. United Arab Emirates doesn’t sound nearly as exotic or safe as Dubai or Abu Dhabi, so you’re less likely to see it on the tourist brochures. So why do many of us have the desire to visit a country right in the middle of, well, the Middle East? Is it safe to go there? Should you want to go there?

After traveling to Dubai half a dozen times, I have this to say: If you’re thinking about going, do it! (But if it’s summer, don’t! It’s hotter than hot and you won’t want to venture outside.) Dubai has established itself as the poster child for tourism in the Arab world and it’s done well at bridging the gap between Arabs and hedonistic westerners. In a country made up of seven individual kingdoms, it’s the most relaxed of the Emirates when it comes to our western lifestyle. Alcohol is not verboten nor is it easily accessible. Dubai has created laws that allow hotels to serve liquor as well as restaurants that observe a few guidelines. You’re also allowed to drink your duty-free liquor you brought with you, either in private or any place (usually attached to a hotel) that has a license. You’ll undoubtedly pay more than most places and some restaurants will even require that you sit inside if you’re going to consume alcoholic beverages. No one wants you being a bad influence on the devout teetotalers, after all.

Customs regarding alcohol consumption and public affection are the biggest differences you’ll find in Dubai. The people of Dubai have a relaxed attitude about western dress. No one is required to cover their head. Women’s shoulders and knees must be covered in most of the Arab world, and while it’s not a bad idea to do this in public places like a mall or office, no one is going to be offended by a pair of shorts and flip flops in Dubai. There is also no topless sunbathing or running around public in a bikini. Keep from kissing your boyfriend or girlfriend in public, hand-holding and acting romantic in general. You might get away with it, but if someone complains, you may not. 

So, now you know what you can’t do, why should you go? Dubai has the tallest building in the world. It also has the highest restaurant in the world. There’s not much to see once you pass the buildings other than sand, but standing on the highest structure in the world is a great feeling.  You need to do a little research before you arrive, because you need a ticket and a reservation.

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This is a mall in Dubai.

The other big draws are the hotels and the malls. Wait—the mall? Why would you travel around the world to go to a mall? The malls in Dubai are something unique. One has a ski resort built inside, complete with lift and man-made snow, where skiers can amuse themselves while temperatures outside the mall hit 125 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also get up close and personal with emperor penguins. I once did a trip all the way to Antarctica and wasn’t able to access the penguins like I was able to in Dubai Mall.

Then there's the Burj Khalifa, which has been described by some sources as the only 7-star hotel anywhere. It also sports the highest aerial tennis court in the world. While unlikely you’ll be playing there, it will certainly stand out as a patch of green in an expanse of chrome buildings and sand if you decide to skydive (another popular activity in Dubai).

If you’re staying at the Burj Khalifa (or if you're able to con your way into the lobby), you’ll find the hotel amazing, with a unique design that makes it one of the most recognizable hotels in the world. The Burj is one of many buildings that have been built on artificial islands, such as the nearby man-made Palm Islands created by engineers from sand from the sea. From the air, two of these islands of reclaimed land appear to be shaped like palm trees. One acts as a foundation for some amazing upscale homes as well as the Atlantis Hotel, another amazing place to visit if you can get past the front door. Its giant aquariums and water park make it one of the most entertaining and nicest hotels in the region.

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We found Atlantis; it's in Dubai along with everything else.

Dubai has positioned itself as one of the world’s most luxurious destinations. There are restaurants that feature every possible type of cuisine, some of the nicest hotels in the world and several of the most amazing malls you’ll ever see. You don’t have to stay in a $1,000-a-night hotel though. There are plenty of moderate hotels and if you’re willing to stay in the old part of the city, you’ll find a completely different side of Dubai. Dubai Creek is the old center of town and this is where you can find the spice market, the gold market, and have an option of taking an old fashioned boat tour down the creek (which looks more like a river than a creek). You’ll also find normal sized buildings and more likely to see locals here than in the tourist areas. You’ll see more of an Arab influence than you will in the touristy Jumeirah Beach area.

If you want the true Arab experience, you can book a tour that takes you out to the desert, ride camels, drive a quad or experience a camel market. Nearby Abu Dhabi has one of the most photogenic mosques in the world, a new branch of the world-famous Louvre museum opening soon and Ferrari World. This mostly indoor theme park dedicated to Ferrari history has some great rides including a roller coaster that’s so fast you’re required to wear goggles. I didn’t think they were necessary—but they are. Forget trying to hold onto a camera or anything else. The ride is fast. Really fast. It is the fastest roller coaster in the world.

One of the highlights of Dubai is taking in the view on your return from Abu Dhabi. As the city looms ahead, one can’t help but think of the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. The buildings are somehow symmetrical, yet somehow impossibly shaped. The 1960s sketches of what the future would look like someday, could have been the model for Dubai architects. Drive to the Burj Khalifa and visit the fountain area where the Arabs have created their own Bellagio-esque water show to an international soundtrack. Try to take a picture of a building so tall, that you have to use your panoramic feature on your camera sideways to capture the image. Visit one of the chic hotels nearby such as The Armani Hotel, which actually smells like Armani cologne when you walk through the door. If nothing else, Dubai is the ultimate showcase for what can be accomplished with money, innovation and a desire to create challenging buildings and artificial islands in a place that used to be nothing but sand and sea. This isn’t a city of 2,000-year-old buildings and ancient statues; this is an exhibit of man conquering nature.

But what about safety? Dubai is extremely safe. It’s easily accessible via a decent metro system and a great airport that can quickly connect you to nearby Kuwait, Qatar, Oman or Bahrain if you’re feeling adventurous. Sign up with Emirate Air or other websites like Travelzoo.com for the latest deals to this amazing place.

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