By WALLACE IMMEN
After an event-filled two week cruise on Silversea’s Silver Spirit in the Middle East, I finally had the time to look at the photos I took in Dubai, where it all started.
And I did a double take– thinking that I must have shot a designer’s concept rather than anything that actually exists.
Few urban landscapes are as consistently striking as this forest of intriguingly shaped modern towers soaring skyward from the desert. But despite its showy and bigger-than-life modernity, I found the heart of Dubai is its people and its food.
While Dubai is not a walking town, it’s easy to get around by cab and the riding is cheap–with the local price of gas in the oil rich Emirates about a third of what it costs in the rest of the world.
Here are quintessential experiences I recommend you fit into your stay in the desert Emirate:
The most awe-inspiring panorama of the city and its record-setting skyscraper Burj Khalifa is from a spacious balcony of a room at the new Address Downtown hotel. The hotel feels residential with its lobby and halls filled with artworks and dramatic sculptures, features seven restaurants and a spa with a chilled multi-level surrounded by lush gardens.
And it looks out over the reflecting pool of the Dubai Mall, where an array of water jets that cost over $200 million to install does a dazzling sound and light show at regular intervals through the evening.
A Gourmet View
At 124 floors high, the Burj Khalifa is the tallest in the world and a round-trip on the elevator to get the view from the top costs an exorbitant 400 Emirates dirhans each– which at current exchange is about $100. But for the same price you can get a free ride and virtually the same view along with drinks and snacks at the world’s highest restaurant, Atmosphere, newly opened on the 122nd floor.
Scoring a table at Atmosphere takes a bit of logistical planning, though. First, you’ll need to have the concierge of your hotel book a reservation to be on the list. And then, even if you’re in the mall right below the Burj, you’ll want to take a taxi to the hard-to-walk-to and unmarked entrance for Atmosphere, whose keeper of the list sits as a desk in the corner of the ultra-modern Armani Hotel.
It’s worth the trip, as the kitchen is run by Dwayne Cheer, a 33-year-old north island New Zealander who makes the world’s highest restaurant a culinary experience rather than just a gimmick. Open daily from 3 p.m. to 11 the magic number is 971 04 8883828
Story time at the mosque
Yes, mosques across the Arab world are open to visitors, but the ornate Jumeirah Mosque is a must-see for its lavish architecture in the medieval tradition. Even more of an attraction are the cultural tours given by a group that seeks to develop better understanding of Islamic religious beliefs and practices.
English-speaking ex-pats offer hands-on explanations of everything from ritual foot washing to the best way to avoid the crush at a crowded prayer session. The hour and a half tours run every Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. Women must wear head scarves.
A look back
When I asked my driver to show me the old section of Dubai, I expected there would be an ancient walled town or souk, where traders traditionally brought their frankincense and myrrh on camel caravans. But in most of Dubai, old means a decade at most. The closest to a view of the past is the souk Al Bastakiya, a cluster of 60 restored stone buildings that may only date back to the 1890s but have a timeless quality with their narrow passages, spice shops, artist boutiques and perfume sellers.
Tastes like Beef
Not to be missed is the Local House restaurant. I thought it was just a joke when I saw the sign that said “Home of the Camel Burger” But it’s true and this restaurant is unique for its menu that features variations on “100 per cent pure lean low fat farmed camel meat.”
There’s the desert hot and spicy camel with jalapeno, the camel cheese steak and the classic mac and cheese camel burger plate. If you’re a vegetarian, there are salads, soups and wonderful home-made desserts served with thimbles of rich Arab coffee. Local House faces al-Fahidi Road near the Dubai Museum and reservations are a good idea: phone 971 04-3540705
Even though many of its stores are familiar names like Bloomingdales, Tiffany and Chanel, there’s something other-worldly about the sheer scale of the sprawling Dubai Mall and the dazzle quotient of its merchandise. You’ve never seen sandals as sparkling, gold pendants as large and there’s even an ATM machine that sells gold coins including Canadian Maple Leafs and Krugerrands at prices that change daily to reflect bullion prices. In the midst of it all there’s an ice arena and skates for rent.
A word about prices though: While Dubai has a reputation as a duty-free shopping zone, a recent survey found that on average prices of designer goods sold here were much higher than the same goods could be purchased in London or New York. That doesn’t stop locals from being among the most likely to spend in the world.