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What to expect from the most hyped tourist destination

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 quickly turns 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 like Islamic world? Is it safe to go there? Should you want to go there?

I’ve been to Dubai half a dozen times and all I can say if you’re thinking about going, go! 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 of 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 in tolerating Westerners’ lifestyles. Alcohol is not verboten, nor is it easily accessible. Dubai has created laws that allow hotels and some restaurants to serve drinks provided they observe a few guidelines.You’re allowed to drink your Duty Free liquor you brought with you in private or you can buy a drink at any place (usually attached to a hotel) that has a license. There’s even an area called Madinat Jumeirah that has several restaurants and bars clumped together catering to non-Arab tourists. You’ll undoubtedly pay more than most places and some restaurants 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.

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. You’re not required to cover your 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’s no topless sunbathing or running around public in a bikini. Keep from kissing your boyfriend or girlfriend in public, hand holding and acting romantic. 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 on the horizon past the buildings other than sand, but standing on the highest structure in the world is a great feeling and Dubai is chocked full of amazing buildings.  You will need a ticket and a reservation to get on deck, so do your research before you arrive. The other big draws in the area are the hotels and the malls. Malls? 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 into the mall. Complete with lift and man-made snow, skiers can amuse themselves on the slopes all day while right outside the exit door the city is roasting in 125 degree temperatures. 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. they even bring the penguins out to the ski slopes periodically for  photo ops.

The Burj Khalifa has been described by some sources  as the only 7 star hotel in the world. It sports the highest aerial tennis court in the world. Even though it’s unlikely you’ll be playing there, if you decide to skydive in Dubai, it will certainly stand out as a patch of green in an expanse of chrome buildings and sand.  If you’re staying at the Burj or able to con your way into the lobby, you’ll find the hotel amazing. It’s unique design makes it one of the most recognizable hotels in the world. The cheapest room is usually over $1000/night. The Burj is one of many buildings that have been built on artificial islands. Nearby, the man-made Palm Islands are probably the most famous of these islands created by engineers from sand from the sea. From the air,these two of these islands appear to be shaped like palm trees. Besides luxury homes on the larger island, you can also see the famous Atlantis Hotel. The Atlantis Hotel is another amazing place to visit if you can get past the front door. It’s giant aquariums and water park make it one of the most entertaining and nicest hotels in the region.

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/night hotel though.  There’s 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 traditional 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. Yes, 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 1960’s 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 2,00o year old buildings and ancient statues. It’s a monument of man conquering nature.

But what about safety? Dubai is extremely safe.  It’s easily accessible through 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.