Glittering towers of a desert oasis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 August, 2011, 12:00am


Not so long ago, it was just a barren desert divided by a saltwater creek, dotted with a few fishing, pearling and trading communities.

Fast-forward 30 years and skyscrapers have sprung up everywhere, in every shape and size imaginable. Lush green trees line the 10-lane boulevards, and the streets are spotlessly clean.

Welcome to Dubai: the commercial centre of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Some would argue that Dubai is nothing but concrete and steel- and it's true, there isn't much in the way of natural beauty. So if you're a naturalist, my advice would be to stay away. But if you're into architecture, be prepared for the time of your life.

Quite simply, the city has some of the quirkiest, boldest, most innovative and stunning buildings in the world. Chief among them is the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. Its three-lobed design is inspired by the Hymenocallis flower and, although the tower narrows as it ascends, its sheer height makes it visible from all over the city.

A trip there wouldn't be complete without a visit to the 124th-floor indoor/outdoor observation deck. But a word of warning: the view isn't quite as breathtaking as one might expect. Perhaps it's the brown, barren patches of sand between the buildings below- or maybe, as I later found out, it's the fact that the Burj Khalifa doesn't have the highest observation deck in the world (that honour goes to the Shanghai World Financial Center). Nevertheless, it's still recommended.

Something else that is well worth a try is a seaplane or helicopter tour of the city. From an aircraft window, the city looks truly different: you can see the entirety of Palm Jumeirah (a development built on a reclaimed, palm-tree-shaped extension of the coast) as well as The World (a collection of man-made islands shaped like a world map).

Don't forget to visit some of the hotels for a quick peek. Dubai hosts some of the most luxurious hotel complexes in the world, the most famous of which is the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab. Security is extremely strict, though, and you're likely to be turned away if you don't have a hotel room or restaurant reservation.

However, the nearby Wild Wadi Water Park- complete with exciting slides and pools- is open to the public, as are some beaches. So pack your swimsuits or you'll miss out on the crystal-clear waters of the Persian Gulf.

The less adventurous can take a stroll around Dubai's gigantic shopping malls, such as the Dubai Mall- allegedly the world's largest. It's part of the Burj Khalifa complex, and its 1,200 stores and 160 dining outlets should satisfy even the most picky shopaholic. Another place to visit is the Dubai Museum, located in the restored Al Fahidi Fort. It is small, but the realistic, three-dimensional exhibits make it well worth your time. And if you wish to learn more about Islam, the Jumeirah Mosque would be a good place to start. As one of the few mosques in the UAE that is open to non-Muslims, the Jumeirah Mosque holds English talks on the religion several times a week.

Many visitors opt to take a dinner cruise along Dubai Creek, enjoying the sights and sounds of the old riverside souqs (markets) while dining on delicious Western cuisine.

Yet I wouldn't recommend this to anyone impatient- that includes most teenagers like myself; the incredibly slow pace of the boat may become annoying after a while.

If you find yourself running out of things to do within the city, venture beyond it. For adrenaline junkies, off-roading across the sand dunes on a Hummer or Toyota jeep is a good choice. Once the jeep has taken you through the desert (by which point you'll be at least slightly nauseous from the bumpy ride), there are usually more activities to enjoy at the jeep companies' 'base camps'- including camel-riding, sand-buggy driving and traditional dance performances, accompanied by Arabic cuisine.

Further afield, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, is only 90 minutes from Dubai by car. It has its own host of attractions- the gleaming white Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the world's fastest roller-coaster at Ferrari World... but that's another story.



Most nationalities require a visa. For holders of the Hong Kong SAR passport, a free single-entry visa will be granted upon arrival.

Health and safety

It is considered unnecessary to receive vaccinations when visiting the UAE. According to the authorities, tap water is safe to drink, but many residents rely on bottled water.


The currency of the UAE is the dirham, with Dh1 equal to HK$2.12. Credit cards are accepted.

Weather and climate

Dubai has a warm to hot climate, with summer temperatures peaking at nearly 50 degrees Celsius in July and August. Winter temperatures hover around the 20s.


As the UAE is a Muslim country, dress modestly- avoid sleeveless T-shirts, miniskirts or shorts.