Stunning hotels, golf courses, and designer shops are making this city-state the gem of the Persian Gulf
Stéphane Frances/ Hémisphéres

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."

On Jumeirah Beach, Dubai's burgeoning resort strip, camera crews from all over Europe covered the December opening of the Burj Al Arab (the name is translated as "Arabian Tower"). On its own island, the mind-boggling 56-story structure is the world's tallest dedicated hotel building; despite its height, it contains only 28 actual floors, since all 202 suites are on two levels.

Conceived to pamper and amaze people who already have everything--zillionaire sheikhs, mega-moguls--these massive suites are provided with sweeping Carrara marble staircases, gilded chaises, brocaded sofas, 42-inch plasma televisions. The lobby looks like a futuristic Radio City Music Hall, with its monster aquariums, golden columns, mirrored balconies, and dancing fountains. The twin health clubs (one for each sex) have mosaicked columns and infinity pools.

It's all grander than anything ever imagined, much less built, by Hollywood in its heyday. More James Bond than Old Hollywood is the glass-walled restaurant suspended from the top of the tower, not to mention another restaurant submerged under the gulf and reached by submarine. The chicest guests arrive via helicopter, landing on the top-story helipad; the rest of us make do with the hotel's fleet of white Rolls-Royce Silver Seraphs.

A mile up the beach, the Royal Mirage Hotel is the first foray into the Middle East by Sun International, known for creating fantasy resorts such as Sun City in South Africa and Atlantis in the Bahamas. "We chose to move into Dubai since it's not only a city with a worldwide reputation for excellence," says Sol Kerzner, the company's visionary CEO, "but one that represents the warmth and generosity historically associated with Arabia."

The 250-room Royal Mirage is a dream of Moghul arches, Andalusian courtyards, sculpted wooden doors, and domed ceilings. The sprawling grounds--landscaped with palm trees, pools, and fountains--recall those found at the great Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur or La Mamounia in Marrakesh. At night, the entire place is lit by 2,000 lanterns and candles.

Shopping Mecca
Historically a city of traders and bazaars, Dubai's funky souks and sleek malls have turned the emirate into paradise for shoppers. Near the creek in downtown Dubai, the Gold Souk is a vast covered bazaar with incredible deals on jewelry, watches, coins, and unfinished ingots sold by weight. A word of advice: haggling is essential. Nearby, Deira Tower is one of Dubai's best spots to bargain for carpets, with some 40 different shops hawking rugs from Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Yemen, Oman, and India--all in an unprepossessing office building on bustling Bani Yas Square.

A major meeting point for locals is Deira City Centre, a 25-acre mall worth hitting for the people-watching as much as the shopping. In the enormous Continent Hypermarket, the staff goes about on roller skates. At the posh Wafi Complex, one of Dubai's most fashionable malls, the rich and the chic dress their children from no less than a dozen shops that carry pint-size outfits by Versace, Fiorucci, YSL, and Timberland. Adjacent to Wafi, Pyramids is a bizarre little building in the shape of an Egyptian temple, full of bars, restaurants, and shops. Most fun: Sphinx, where the décor and the costumed waitstaff are straight out of Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments. Most luxurious: Cleopatra's Spa, with treatments from the Middle East and Asia.

And if you're a serious bargain hunter, you have to hit the Karama Centre on the left bank of the creek. The souk-like maze of shops and stalls specializes in fabulous knockoffs as well as authentic and heavily discounted designer overruns.

The Sporting Life
With everything from go-carts to camel racing, Dubai prides itself on being the sports capital of the Middle East.

A well-regarded golf destination, the emirate has four championship courses. Best known is the Karl Litten-designed course at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, site of the annual PGA Dubai Desert Classic. The clubhouse is a stunner--multiple roofs soar like great white sails. Near Jumeirah Beach, Emirates Golf Club has 36 challenging holes and a clubhouse that resembles a cluster of bedouin tents. Golfers in search of something a little different may wish to try the Scottish-style links at the Dubai Golf & Racing Club--especially at night, since it's entirely floodlit. The most unusual experience is the all-sand course at the Dubai Country Club, where players carry their own piece of artificial turf to use for fairway shots.

Besides its beauty, the desert offers challenges for active travelers. Dubai's adventure travel companies present it in a number of ways. For the daring, sand-skiing--riding a snowboard-like mono-ski down steep-sided dunes--is the number-one attraction. A close second is dune-rolling, which puts you behind the wheel of a 4 x 4, bouncing around sand mountains. If soft adventure is more to your taste, there's horseback riding, camel treks, hiking trips, and birding odysseys.

For those who'd rather watch than participate, Dubai's spectator-sports calendar includes world-class soccer and rugby, tennis, sportscar and motorcycle rallies, regattas, even camel racing at the Dubai Golf & Racing Club's Dubai Camel Race Track. Part of the excitement is watching trainers urge on their beasts from the inside track aboard four-wheel-drive vehicles. Dubai's toniest event is the Dubai World Cup, held in March at the Nad Al Sheba Racecourse. The Thoroughbred competition has the biggest purse in the world, but betting on horses isn't permitted. Still, visitors can win big by taking part in a pool. The top prize: a Rolls-Royce. Only in Dubai.

Address Book HOTELS
Al Maha Resort Off Al Ain Hwy.; 971-4/303-4222, fax 971-4/343-9696; doubles from $630, including all meals and activities.
Burj Al Arab Jumeirah Beach Rd.; 971-4/301-7777, fax 971-4/301-7000; doubles from $902.
Royal Mirage Hotel Jumeirah Beach Rd.; 971-4/399-9999, fax 971-4/399-9998; doubles from $195.

Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club Al Garhoud Rd.; 971-4/295-6000.
Emirates Golf Club Sheikh Zayed Rd.; 971-4/347-3222.
Dubai Golf & Racing Club Oud Metha Rd.; 971-4/336-3666.
Dubai Country Club Ras Al Khor Rd.; 971-4/331-1155.
Nad Al Sheba Racecourse Three miles southeast of Dubai; 971-4/332-9888.