This is the city where construction never sleeps.
Turn your back for a second and another skyscraper miraculously emerges from the sand, shinier and bolder than its neighbour, adding to the architectural fantasia that makes Dubai one of the most extraordinary man-made creations on Earth.
Imagine if the entire planet was wiped out, leaving only dust and we had to start again. Most likely, Dubai would be it, complete with a few reminders of the old world — a Big Ben lookalike, a couple of Chrysler buildings, London’s cheese grater. They’re all here.
Hot and unbothered: Mark describes Dubai as being ‘Vegas without the gambling, LA without the sex shops and Canary Wharf without the delays on the Docklands Light Railway’
Then there’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure, set to lose its crown in 2020 to The Tower in Creek Harbour a few miles away. Competing against itself is a way of life in Dubai.
A shopping mall to make Westfield look titchy? On its way, madam. Another highway linking the financial district to the Marina? Consider it done, Sir. A new water park with scary rides? Form a queue, children. Fancy eating in a Jamie Oliver restaurant one night, a Gary Rhodes the next, then a Jason Atherton and even a Diego Sanchez at Lima? Take a seat, your waitress will be with you shortly.
Dubai is Vegas without the gambling, LA without the sex shops and Canary Wharf without the delays on the Docklands Light Railway.
It’s been on a bender since the first high rise was built in 1979 and shows no sign of letting up, despite fears that one day the oil will run dry and the UAE will experience the mother of all hangovers.
No one seems to pay taxes — and yet the streets are Singapore-clean; public transport is Tokyo-efficient and crime is virtually Bhutan-absent (I like the story of the taxi driver who found a £780,000 gold watch in his cab and handed it in). What’s more, sunshine is pretty much guaranteed all year round.
How it all works is the unfathomable question that merely adds to the intrigue.
Desert: A camel-driver in traditional dress
I wouldn’t live here for all the camels in the desert but not to gape at the ambition is a dereliction of duty for anyone who takes travel seriously.
New players are arriving all the time.
The Versace Palace hotel (1.5 million tiles on its mosaic floor) has opened near the airport; the Armani hotel occupies pride of place at the foot of the Burj Khalifa; the futuristic Viceroy (spa on the roof, swimming pool practically in the lobby) is on a beach on the Palm Jumeirah, and now our very own Dukes Hotel (founded a century ago in London’s St James’s) has opened a 500-room branch on the trunk of The Palm.
St James’s to Dubai sounds farcical but it works brilliantly, right down to the martinis in Duke’s Bar, the private beach, the hand-picked staff from the likes of Claridge’s and Mandarin Oriental, and the first international franchise of Mumbai’s famous Khyber restaurant.
Khyber is on the 15th floor just above the ‘floating swimming pool’ on the skybridge that connects the hotel’s twin towers, high above the lavish lobby, where bemused members of the British aristocracy stare out from portraits on the walls.
It’s worth hiring a guide and driver for a whistle-stop tour of the city. Ours was a German married to a Mauritian, who, like so many expats, wasn’t quite sure how she ended up in a city where it rains only about eight or nine times a year.
She took us to the spice market where we bought stuff we will never use, and to the gold market where we would have bought lots of stuff if we could have afforded it.
We took an Abra boat taxi over the creek, had our photograph taken with a Bedouin and popped into the Dubai Museum, which gave us a crash course on the city’s history.
Dune-bashing followed by quad biking, camel-riding and a barbecue in the desert — with belly dancers providing the after-dinner entertainment — is almost obligatory. I had done it once before (too long and too touristy) and so this time we opted for a private visit to the desert courtesy of Planet Tours and arranged by Dukes.
At one point, we asked if we could take a walk in the red sand and trekked almost a kilometre. When we turned round, our tracks already had been erased — just as they are in those scary survival movies.
The temperature in the desert reaches 120f in summer — at least it does for now. Presumably, the powers that be will install some form of air-conditioning in the future. Anything seems to be possible here.
Emirates (emirates.com, 0344 800 2777) flies from Heathrow to Dubai from £479 return.
Double rooms at Dukes Dubai (dukesdubai.com, 00971 4 455 11 11) cost from £203 B&B.
More information at visitdubai.com.
Readers can get 20 per cent off Meet-and-Greet parking at Heathrow, using the code daily mail20 (maplemanorparking.net).