I recently made a day trip to Dubai, dubbed by British glossy magazine Grazia as "Manhattan on speed" or "Las Vegas on Acid" or, by those who are less enamored by its temptations, as "the city of cranes." We drove 75 miles from Abu Dhabi, admiring some of the United Arab Emirates' 40 million irrigated palm trees, which line the eight-lane highway to Dubai. The speed limit is 100 mph, but the Ferraris and Lamborghinis passed us terrifyingly, sometimes on both sides of our car at once, at near double our speed.
The first stop of the morning was the world's tallest hotel, the Burj Al Arab, which at 1,053 feet is taller than the Eiffel Tower and only 196 feet shorter than the Empire State Building. The landmark and icon, designed in the shape of a billowing Arabian dhow sail, is a self-designated seven stars and is on a man-made island connected to a mainland beach by a guarded bridge.
Your reservation number is requested and then you are ushered to a gaggle of valets, who parked our rather less impressive car alongside the hotel's fleet of Rolls Royces. Or you could choose to land on the helipad where, famously, Roger Federer and Andre Agassi staged an exhibition match in 2005.
One floor below the helipad and 27 floors from the water, we indulged in brunch at the al-Muntaha (Arabic for "the ultimate" or "highest") restaurant and gorged ourselves on a cornucopia of exquisite local and world dishes, sweet and savory, including caviar and not to mention cocktails.
The chef, Zakaria El Hamdou, recommended the fresh thyme pie, which is easy to make at home but admits it's more aromatic if you use local fresh zaatar — a popular Middle Eastern herb and spice mixture. I was ridiculously fussed over since there is a profusion of staff — an eight-to-one employee-to-guest ratio — and I had unrivalled views of the world's three largest man-made islands (Palm Jumeirah, The Palm Jebel Ali and the Crescent).
Fancy Buying a Country?
And as if the Palm Islands were not enough, you can spy on the latest development, The World, a man-made archipelago of 300 islands in the shape of a world map, costing $15-45 million each. Seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher was presented with one of the islands by Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, on the occasion of his final Grand Prix in Brazil and Pamela Anderson, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are all rumored to have bought islands. However, the most grandiose idea yet is the world's first luxury underwater hotel, the Hydropolis, which will provide respite to the 122 degrees Fahrenheit of relentless summer heat.
A Desert Winter Wonderland
If you want the ultimate cool experience, then head to the Mall of the Emirates and sample the winter wonderland of the Dubai snow dome, which is the world's third largest indoor ski slope. You would never know you were in the heart of the sweltering desert as you sip steaming hot chocolate at the alpine chalet, whilst warming yourself under patio heaters – a bitter irony in our age of global warming.
People also make "retail pilgrimages" to this extravagant mall, as it is a veritable shopaholic's nirvana and is shamelessly dedicated to all things consumer. Despite being tax-free, I sadly didn't find it much cheaper or different from any Western high-street stores.
Another popular mecca to consumerism is the newly built Battuta souk, which looks like a Disney World portrayal of an ancient UAE market, with perfect little turrets and tents selling local gifts, gold, textiles, spices as well as any amount of expected tourist tat or prezzies for your friends and family.