Don your darkest shades and prepare to be dazzled by Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. And it’s not just the glaring desert light or gleaming skyscrapers. Sure, you’ve seen the glossy images in the media: swish shopping malls, towering construction, and manmade palm-shaped islands (visible from outer space). But this Arabian Gulf metropolis is much more than a string of superlatives. Literally and metaphorically at the crossroads between East and West, the fastest-growing city on earth has skyrocketed from somnolent fishing village to a hot spot of global trade, transport, and finance.
Author Lara Dunston Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY ONE / Awake in your regal room at the One & Only Royal Mirage. You might think you’re in some Arabian fantasy, but you’ve checked in to Dubai’s most romantic hotel. Moroccan lanterns guide you around the palatial Moorish-style property with arched corridors, vibrant kilims (rugs), and furniture inlaid with motherof pearl. You can stroll to a white-sand beach, skirted by crystal azure waters, for an invigorating dip in the Arabian Sea. But that must wait. You’ve a busy day ahead.
The doorman sees that a taxi whisks you to Al Seef Road Park for splendid vistas of Dubai Creek and the city’s famously sleek architecture. In the morning, the glass buildings reflect magical visions of abras and dhows (old wooden trading vessels) cruising the shimmering creek.
Stroll the waterfront to the labyrinthine Bastakiya neighborhood. Established by Persian merchants from Bastak around the turn of the 20th century, the area features courtyard residences built from gypsum, sand, and coral. Note the houses’ intricate exterior decoration and wind towers, the old form of air-conditioning.
Drop by the nonprofit Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding for its 10 a.m. cultural breakfast (the hotel concierge can book it). Sheikh Mohammed, the country’s prime minister and the ruler of Dubai, is the patron of the center, where you get a rare chance to meet locals, who make up just 10 percent of Dubai’s population. Sitting cross-legged on cushions, enjoy an eye-opening chat about local culture over cardamom-scented coffee. Before leaving, book the Jumeirah Mosque Tour for tomorrow.
Next, hop the galleries of Bastakiya. XVA is in a beautifully restored building. Majlis Gallery, in a charming courtyard house, specializes in Arabian landscapes, maps, and Islamic calligraphy. Frazzled? Put your feet up in the leafy courtyard next door at Basta Art Café. Lunch is the fresh asparagus and halloumi (cheese) salad, accompanied by a thirst-quenching lime juice with fresh mint.
Next, get an engaging introduction to the city’s history and growth at the Dubai Museum in Al Fahidi fort. Life-size dioramas of old Dubai and an evocative use of audio and video re-create the pre-oil lifestyle.
Head down Hindi Lane near the Grand Mosque to Bur Dubai Souq. This vibrant textile souq, or market, existed long before the tourists arrived. Traders deal in textiles, Indian expats buy saris, and everyone bargains. Stroll to Shindagha, the site where, in 1833, the Maktoum tribe (the family of Sheikh Mohammed) settled Dubai. Shindagha is lined with grand courtyard residences,
such as the House of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, built in 1896, which boasts a compelling collection of black-and-white photos of old Dubai. The Heritage and Diving Village is a re-creation of a fishing and pearling village made up of barasti huts (built with palm fronds). Take in the action of Dubai Creek as you enjoy freshly squeezed mango juice and the aroma of sheesha (flavored waterpipes) at Kan Zaman; then hightail it to the hotel to refresh before dinner.
At the One & Only, the Oriental lanterns guide you to the cushioned banquettes at The Rooftop. Settle in with a cocktail and take in the sea views as a DJ spins Arabian lounge music in the background. Relaxed, head downstairs to Tagine, Dubai’s finest Moroccan restaurant. Enjoy the sweet and savory pigeon pastilla and a tagine of melt-in-your-mouth lamb and prunes. Afterward, recline on Persian carpets under palms outside in the enchanting courtyard.