Direct contact with Dubai’s Bedouin past is possible through adventures like desert camping. Photo courtesy Visit Dubai Courtesy of Visit Dubai
Direct contact with Dubai’s Bedouin past is possible through adventures like desert camping. Photo courtesy Visit Dubai Courtesy of Visit Dubai


From shimmering sand dunes to glimmering skyscrapers, everything blings in Dubai

By Jenny B. Davis

Special to the Star-Telegram

July 17, 2017 12:36 PM

It’s surprisingly peaceful on top of the world. Posh, too.

There are sleek, white sectional sofas, circular Oriental carpets and silver trays laden with French macarons. People speak in hushed tones as they take in the sunset through the floor-to-ceiling windows that surround this luxury lounge perched 1,821 feet in the air.

Really, it’s impossible not to be reverent while watching the rose-gold sun sink slowly behind vast swaths of skyscrapers into the shimmering surface of the Persian Gulf.

Located on the 148th floor of the Burj Khalifa, a mega-tall skyscraper that’s the pride of the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai, the At the Top SKY lounge and its glass-walled open-air balcony comprise the highest observation deck in the world.

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The Burj is — for now — the tallest building in the world. It is accessed via a ground-level entrance in Dubai Mall, the largest mall by area in the world. Outside the Dubai Mall, visitors gather to watch regularly scheduled water shows at Dubai Fountain, possibly the largest choreographed fountain system in the world.

These aren’t the only destinations in Dubai that boast of being the first, the tallest, the biggest or the best in the world.

This is a city that seems to revel in world records: It’s received Guinness Book nods for the largest freestanding hotel (the Burj Al Arab), longest driverless Metro system, largest candy shop (Candylicious at the Dubai Mall), largest automated car park and many more.

Also worth mentioning (and visiting) is Ski Dubai, home to both the world’s first indoor black diamond run and a penguin population that lives in what is deemed “the most sophisticated habitat in the UAE.”

The question of which came first, the best or the wealth, may never be answered, but there is definitely plenty of wealth in Dubai. Indeed the city seems set up to cater to the rich — there’s no income tax or sales tax, crime rates are low and the atmosphere is multicultural and cosmopolitan thanks to a population mix that is about 90 percent foreign.

Global business also booms here, thanks to tax-free zones, pro-growth government incentives and the city’s geographic position at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa.

Strolling the wide, pristine boardwalk along the always-bustling Jumeirah Beach Road, a major thoroughfare that stretches from the entrance to the famed Palm Island to the Dubai Marina, every language of the world can be heard. Every manner of dress is on display, too, from bikinis to burkas.

While almost everyone speaks English, the common language is definitely luxury. No translation is needed for Chanel, Louis Vuitton and the like.

No matter race, religion or nationality, everyone mingles and moves together, perusing chic boutiques, cheering on soccer teams at open-air hookah lounges and partaking in gelato — with flavors such as date, pistachio and camel milk — from vendors set up just off the entrances to the white sands of Jumeirah Beach.

Luxury cars are so prevalent here that it takes a glittering gold paint job to make one stand out from the packs of run-of-the-mill Rolls-Royces, Maybachs and Maseratis.

Dubai’s unofficial nickname is the City of Gold, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Gold Souk.

This densely packed shopping district is dedicated entirely to gold merchants. Unlike other Middle Eastern marketplaces, Dubai’s Gold Souk seems upscale — streets and sidewalks are clean, there are minimal street vendors or buskers, and the shops are modern, organized and incredibly well stocked. Gold jewelry is stacked so high in shop windows that even Aladdin would feel overwhelmed.

The Gold Souk district stretches along the Deira side of Dubai Creek, a navigable waterway that is the heart of old town Dubai.

Of course, “old” is a relative term in this town. The area along the creek wasn’t developed until the 1800s, and industry was mostly limited to fishing, shipping and pearl diving (until the advent of cultured pearls tanked the market in the ’30s). The discovery of oil in the mid-1960s, however, utterly transformed the region.

The city erected its first high-rise in 1979 and never looked back.

From either the Deira or the Bur Dubai side of Dubai Creek, forgo the modern bridges or tunnels and make the crossing on an abra. These rustic wooden water ferries not only transport passengers from coast to coast, they seem to travel back in time to the days when Dubai was a one-horse — or rather, a one-camel — town.

Pay the captain directly with a 1 dirham coin (about 27 cents) for the one-way trip and settle in to an available spot on one of several benches for a no-frills yet delightful ride.

Farther down Dubai Creek, Bohemian charm transforms into global chic. The creek is being extended to the shores of the Persian Gulf to provide waterfront real estate to new luxury developments. The hautest spot along this extension is Culture Village, anchored by the Palazzo Versace Dubai.

This ultra-luxury hotel and resort was modeled on a 16th-century neo-Classical Italian palace, and Donatella Versace herself directed the design, from the gold-gilded ceilings and opulent mosaics to the custom furniture and fabrics. She flew in for its November 2016 opening, presiding over a grand event attended by the editor of Vogue Arabia, top models, sheikhs and princesses.

Also new is the Trump International Golf Club Dubai, the jewel in a newly developed district called Damac Hills. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump were in town in February to host the opening celebration of the 32,000-square-foot clubhouse, which includes a luxury spa and five restaurants, and an 18-hole course designed by Gil Hanse, creator of the course used for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Damac Hills is also home to 100 villas designed by Ivanka Trump and located in a gated community. All villas come equipped with a personalized golf cart. Another Trump-branded course, with Tiger Woods heading up the design, is set to open next year.

While Dubai’s focus is trained on its opulent future, there are also plenty of ways to explore its past — in Dubai-style luxury, of course.

The Al Maha Resort is within the boundaries of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an 87-square-mile slice of the Arabian Desert that is home to oryx, gazelle and wild cats. Every stay includes two complimentary desert activities, and the property offers a range of ways to explore the environs, ranging from four-wheel drive rides to Arabian equestrian mounts. It’s also possible to simply watch the wildlife from the edge of the temperature-controlled infinity pool.

Platinum Heritage’s overnight desert adventure also focuses on the flora and fauna of the desert, but with an added emphasis on the culture of the region’s indigenous Bedouin nomadic tribes. For its overnight desert safari, guests are picked up at their hotels and brought to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve.

Here, guides wrap guests’ heads with traditional scarves — a necessary protection against the wind and sand everyone will face while being whisked across the undulating sand dunes in the company’s fleet of pristinely restored 1950s-era Range Rovers.

The road trip breaks for a falconry demonstration in which a trainer showcases the flying skills of this majestic bird of prey, one of the most revered symbols of the Middle East. Today, falcons are so highly prized that they hold their own passports so that owners can take them to competitions and on hunting safaris around the world (hunting is prohibited in Dubai), and it is not uncommon for falcons to fly first class on some airlines, sans cage.

But falconry isn’t simply the “Sport of Sheikhs.” Hunting with falcons dates back centuries in this region, and it’s such a part of Middle Eastern culture that it has been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. Bedouins would catch the birds as they migrated across the desert by using rope traps baited with a live pigeon.

The falcon trainer explained that Bedouins would catch the birds of prey, then patiently train them to hunt rabbits and other small mammals. But the hunting assistance never lasted — once the weather started heating up, it became dangerous for the falcons to remain in the desert, and they were released to resume their migration.

Overnight accomodations are a well-appointed yet traditional Bedouin camp. Here, lavishly draped fabric tents are arranged inside low stone walls surrounded by palm trees. The center of the camp is dedicated to the evening’s activities, which include a generous buffet of local fare, including plates of dates, native breads, chicken and vegetable kebabs, and even the chance to try camel-meat stew, a Bedouin staple.

There is a collection of camels sitting in the sand, ready to ride; a henna artist to adorn arms and hands with intricate designs; and a row of hookahs for post-dinner puffing. (There’s also a thoroughly modern community bathroom on site — this is Dubai, after all.)

Before the lamps are extinguished for the night, however, the Platinum Heritage hosts suggest an optional morning activity: Rousing slightly before 5 a.m. to watch the sun rise from atop a nearby dune.

It’s well worth it, for watching a new day dawn across the desert floor is just as incredible as watching the sun set from the peak of the Burj Khalifa. Everything is illuminated as far as the eye can see, and here all that glitters is definitely gold.

Dubai details

What to do

Burj Khalifa Observation Deck Tickets

Ski Dubai

Inside Mall of the Emirates

Sheikh Zayed Road

Platinum Heritage Luxury Tours & Safaris

123 Oasis Centre

Sheikh Zayed Road


+971 4 388 4044

Where to Shop

The Dubai Mall

Financial Centre Road

Where to Stay

Palazzo Versace Dubai

Culture Village, Al Jadaf


+971 4 556 8888

Al Maha, A Luxury Collection Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai

Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Dubai — Al Ain Road


+971 4 832 9900