Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Welcome to fantasyland

Everything's BIGGER & BETTER in Dubai

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Dubai is a country with no past and a seemingly limitless future. Its very existence is improbable: the land is carved from the sea; desert greenery glistens under an oppressive sun and most of the skyward-stretching buildings are less than a decade old.

It's an eye-popping playground for the über-rich. When Dubai discovered oil in 1966, its future as a leader in luxury was set. The oil is drying up but aluminum smelter and tourism guarantee the dirham keep rolling in.

Dubai could only exist in the imagination of the extraordinarily financially advantaged. It takes chutzpah to believe you can build islands in the shape of a palm tree out of nothing. The Palm Islands are an artificial archipelago now chockablock with residences, hotels and office towers. Contractors dredged the Persian Gulf to create the land mass.

So pleased were leaders with the results they declared them the eighth wonder of the world. After completing the three Palm Islands islands, construction began on the world. Two hundred-and-ninety-nine smaller islands shaped like countries were designed.

British mogul Richard Branson snapped up England three years ago. It was rumored Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought Ethiopia but they deny it. There are no bridges linking the islands to the mainland. It is assumed owners have their own helicopters or yachts.

Everything in Dubai is man-made and intended to be described in superlatives. It has to be the tallest, largest, biggest and most expensive to get a toehold in this Arabic country. Where else would you find an indoor ski resort in the desert? Or the world's largest shopping mall?

The Dubai airport will soon surpass London's Heathrow as world's busiest. To call it busy is like calling the Vegas strip a little bright. Many visitors use a stopover in Dubai as an excuse to spend a night or two exploring the country.

The Dubai marine district is known as "the Manhattan of the East." One hundred and twenty skyscrapers were built there in six years. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, called "The Visionary" here, has ordained there will be no more building cranes by 2015. He wants the country complete. It will be.

The population of Dubai is expected to reach 4.5 million by 2015. More than 90 per cent of those will be foreigners, who come to work on a contract. Most are the serving class, staffing the limitless hotels and restaurants.

A Croatian tour guide recites a list of the city's attributes. There are no taxes. It is one of the safest cities in the world, she says. There is virtually no unemployment. Begging is not allowed. The bus shelters are air-conditioned because the temperatures soar to 48 or 50 degrees in the summer.

Emerati-born citizens are courted by their leaders. In order to "keep the bloodlines clean," says the guide, newlyweds are entitled to free homes, medical care, education for their children and often cash as an enticement. If an Emarati marries a foreigner, there's no deal.

Families pay hefty dowries to strike a good marriage. While camels may still be on the table, cars, jewelry, cash and real estate are common bargaining tools.

There are rules visitors cannot break. Dubai has a zero tolerance drug policy. Women are advised to dress modestly in the Islamic country. Swearing and making obscene gestures can result in arrest. Public displays of affection, including hand-holding, are banned.

The guide reluctantly takes tourists to the gold and spice souks. These are attractions no resident would patronize, she said. Abras, traditional flat-bottom boats, ferry tourists and locals across the muddy slow-moving creek. It's no more than a five-minute ride. Genevieve Picard, an expatriate Québécois, says one of her favourite Dubai moments is timing an abra ride to coincide with the sunset for a moment of peace and reflection.

No matter what the surly tour guide says, the guileless should spend a sweaty hour or two gawking at souk windows filled with jewelry, all of it glinting a promise of pleasure. Bartering is expected. If you take no pleasure in a good haggle, you should shop in the hotel gift shop. The fun is in the looking and wondering who could afford a diamond the size of an ostrich egg.

Ignore the whispers from men who offer to sell you back-alley Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags and watches. The purchases are illegal.

The spice market is a truncated version of its former self. Men hawk saffron, cardamon and herbal Viagra from large wooden barrels. The scents blend provocatively in the dark alleys. Will you get a bargain? Likely not, but you'll have a stack of evocative snapshots and a story to tell with your next curry.

If you don't want to hire your own cranky Croatian, there are hop-on and hop-off bus tours to take your around the city.

There are mosques on nearly every corner but churches and temples are relatively common. Stop when the Muslim call to prayer hauntingly fills the air, the ancient rhythms filling the air. It's a singular reminder not everything here is new.

The skyline, riddled with building cranes, is jaw-dropping. Buildings soar impossibly high. The sleek Armani Hotel (designed down to the doorknobs by Giorgio) is housed in Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. The Burj stands 828 metres and is more than 160 stories. The owner refuses to give a precise number, purportedly because he wants to keep the record.

The view from the top of the building is a popular tourist attraction. If you manage to book online, you'll pay roughly $25. Show up unannounced and it's $100 if they manage to find you an available time slot. Smart visitors head up to Atmosphere, the hotel's 122nd floor bar for a signature drink and a look at beautiful women in their finery.

The Armani is dimly lit, minimalist and playful, with hallways designed to resemble fashion show catwalks. There are 160 rooms and suites, with Armani condos accounting for floors 9-16. The hotel just celebrated its second birthday.

The Ambassador Suite, large enough to house a village, comes with a "lifestyle manager" to customize your itinerary. A night will set you back approximately 15,000 dirhams or $4,000.

But it's the Jumeriah Zabeel Saray that is the current crown in Dubai's competitive hotel market. All rooms have balconies and sea views. There are 11 room categories. Deluxe rooms feature Ottoman-inspired furnishings and a marble bathtub large enough to hold a synchronized swimming practice.

Subtlety has no place here, for if you wanted understated you wouldn't be in Dubai. It's gorgeous in a swivel-necked way.

Shoppers will want to spend several houses in the Dubai Mall, a lush tribute to materialism. It's conveniently located next to the Dubai Fountain, which can spray 83,000 liters of water in the air at any moment.

Dubai isn't for everyone. It seems oddly soulless, with everything competitively fabulous. But for an overnight stopover it's a garish fantasyland that can't be beat.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 D1

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