There's a fresh breeze blowing in from the Persian Gulf: Dubai. Consider all those cool young men in their biblical headdresses behind the wheels of their Corvettes, or the heavily veiled, Manolo Blahnik-shod women shopping at the gleaming malls, or the dhows reflected in the mirror glass of the futuristic skyscrapers bordering Dubai Creek, the inlet that divides downtown. These exotic images are not concocted for tourists. They represent a wealthy and enlightened Arab society heading into the future with remarkable confidence.
One of the seven sheikhdoms that form the United Arab Emirates, this city-state is progressive, dynamic, welcoming. Dubai's rulers--the Al Maktoum family--had the foresight in the past decade to look beyond the region's vast but not unlimited petroleum reserves and aggressively focus on attracting travelers.
Some critics point out that the brave new emirate, with its Middle East-modern architecture, its Sinbad the Sailor water parks, and its neo-Pharaonic shopping malls, is on its way to becoming the Great Arabian Theme Park. But it is precisely this offbeat edge that makes Dubai worth the journey (7,000 miles from the East Coast of the United States). After all, how often do you have a chance to go sand skiing, dune driving, and camel riding?Even watching television here is a trip, allowing you to surf the entire Middle East without leaving your hotel room--flipping from dour Iranian mullahs to Chanel-suited Lebanese anchorwomen to raunchy Egyptian soap opera stars.
One aspect of Dubai's confidence is its tolerance for other cultures and customs, a natural extension of the emirate's trading and seafaring traditions. It means that Westerners are permitted to order alcohol in the emirate's many clubs, pubs, and restaurants, and that you are treated with respect and are safe any time of day or night. Crime (and poverty, for that matter) is virtually nonexistent in this endearing little desert utopia.
The New Hotel Boom
Dubai has become a hotel junkie's heaven. For the past few years, the mammoth Jumeirah Beach Hotel, built to resemble a breaking wave, and the small, elegant Ritz-Carlton, were the hot properties. But in the last year three contenders opened, taking architecture and luxury to unheard-of levels.
Al Maha Resort is Dubai's answer to Africa's top game lodges and the posh Aman resorts: a compound of 30 tent-roofed bungalows that gives guests the chance to experience the Arabian desert close-up. Just 45 minutes from downtown, Al Maha feels light-years away, amid seemingly endless sand dunes broken only by the distant outline of the rugged Hajar mountains. Guests are offered the services of a personal guide, who will lead game drives to spot exotic birds, gazelles, desert foxes, and the nearly extinct Arabian oryx (thriving here thanks to Al Maha's efforts at reintroducing indigenous wildlife to its 1,550-square-mile preserve).
Other desert pursuits include horse and camel rides, falconry, bedouin barbecues, and overnights at campsites set up in nearby oases. But it's hard to beat your Al Maha tent, with its four-poster bed, its sandstone-and-tile bathroom, and a cool-water plunge pool on an expansive deck. The tents come with an easel, drawing paper, and pastels so you can capture the Lawrence of Arabia views.
Meals are served in an Oriental-carpeted dining pavilion, or on the deck of your tent--especially romantic as sunset fades into star-filled night. Overseeing everything at Al Maha is Tony Williams, formerly of the prestigious MalaMala Game Reserve in South Africa. For Williams, the allure of Al Maha is the desert itself. "It's an inspiring place," he says. "Until now, few people other than the bedouin could appreciate its glory. Al Maha shows off the desert and helps preserve it at the same time."