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Where modern meets ancient

For millennia a crossroads and trade center, the Arabian Peninsula barters its deep black gold for soaring ambitions

By Claudia Capos
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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DUBAI — As the desert sun burns through the morning haze, Peter and Alysha St. Germain admire the lofty 360-degree view of Dubai from the 124th-floor observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper. “This is really impressive,’’ says Peter, formerly of Westhampton, now working in nearby Abu Dhabi. “Dubai has done so many amazing projects to attract world attention.’’ Adds Alysha, “The view is awesome.’’

Piercing the heavens like a silver rocket, the half-mile-high tower, visible from 60 miles away, was formally dedicated in January, following six challenging years of construction. At 2,717 feet (and 162 stories), it easily topped its closest rival, the nondescript Tapei 101 Tower (1,670 feet). The Armani Hotel, which opened last month, is the first of many well-heeled tenants that will occupy space in this “vertical city.’’ Little wonder the Burj Khalifa has quickly become the new emblem of this dynamic city on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Far below the tower, Susan Ceukar stands on the outer edge of the Palm-Jumeirah, a manmade, palm-shaped island extending into the Persian Gulf. The 12-square-mile isle of artificial turf, built with sand and quarried rock, is the first and the smallest of three palm islands under development in what has been billed as the largest-ever land-reclamation project. Nearby, another ambitious island grouping is being constructed in the shape of the world.

Ceukar, from Melrose, marvels at Palm-Jumeirah’s luxury condominiums and hotels. “The changes that have taken place in Dubai over the last 12 years are incredible,’’ she says, though this is her first visit. “It’s hard to imagine that not so long ago this area was just desert and water.’’ The blend of ancient and modern architecture and traditional Arab culture fascinate her, but the city’s endless traffic congestion is another matter. “I thought Boston was bad,’’ Ceukar says. “Still, Dubai is very clean and safe. And the people are wonderful.’’

In a race to outshine the six neighboring sheikdoms that, with Dubai, form the United Arab Emirates, Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family, fueled by oil money, has accelerated its efforts to transform this former fishing village into the most modern, cosmopolitan city in the Middle East. Leading architects and deep-pocketed developers have erected ornate skyscrapers and hotels — notably, the sail-shaped, seven-star Burj Al Arab — that seem to defy gravity and design principles.

Internationally renowned artists have created colossal works, such as glass artist Dale Chihuly’s 30-foot-high sea-life tower, which dominates the lobby of the sprawling hotel Atlantis, The Palm. On Dubai Lake at the base of the Burj Khalifa, lighting technicians have created dancing fountains with a sound-and-light show that surpasses the spectacle at Bellagio in Las Vegas. International television crews are everywhere, dogging the footsteps of movie stars and sports celebrities here to see the sights.

For visitors, there is a price for all this extravagance. Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab, for instance, is $80 per person, by reservation only. Add a glass of champagne with hors d’oeuvres and the tab hits $100. Meals at fancy restaurants will put another sizable dent in a diner’s wallet, with lunch for two $30 to $100, for dinner $100 to $250.

An overnight stay in a luxury hotel can top hundreds of dollars a night. To enjoy the Gulf’s golden sand and calm waters, vacationers will want to book a room or suite at a seaside hotel, such as the Dubai Marine Beach Resort ($178-$329), the Sheraton Jumeirah Beach Resort ($288-$553), or the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah ($199-$1,034). Those who prefer to be within walking distance of Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa can stay at the Arabian-style Al Manzil ($162-$173) or the elegant The Palace-The Old Town ($136-$272).

Though accommodations are pricey, seeing the sights can be a bargain. The most economical way is atop the Big Bus. Double-decker buses with recorded commentaries circulate on two routes, allowing passengers to hop on and off at attractions. The newly opened Dubai Metro, an elevated light-rail line, offers a speedy, low-cost option for shuttling from one end of the city to the other. Taxis, driven mostly by Pakistanis, are widely available and good for short jaunts.

After camel racing and smoking “shishas,’’ or traditional tobacco water pipes, power shopping for gold jewelry and imported luxury goods seems to be the chief pastime in the city, appropriately dubbed “Do Buy’’ by pundits. Dubai’s early history as a crossroads for spice caravans and pearl trading established its reputation as a world bazaar. Marks & Spencer, Carrera & Carrera, Dior, Bulgari, Samsung, and other international retailers offer European fashions, high-priced baubles, and cutting-edge electronics at Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates. Art and antiques collectors will find Iranian carpets, Moroccan jewelry, and Yemeni silver-tooled swords at the Khan Murjan Arabian souk at the Wafi Mall. Tourist attractions like Ski Dubai, the world’s largest indoor snow resort inside Mall of the Emirates, and Dubai Mall’s ice rink and walk-through aquarium tunnel, make mall shopping a fun-filled experience.

To capture the authentic flavor of old Dubai, visitors will want to explore the ancient souks along Dubai Creek, which separates the historic settlements of Bur Dubai and Deira. A stop at the Dubai Museum inside the massive 1787 Al Fahidi Fort on the Bur Dubai side helps put the city’s history, culture, and modern development in perspective.

Civilization started here well before the Egyptian pyramids were built. Pottery shards unearthed in the Hatta tombs date to 3,000 BC. For millennia nomadic Bedouin tribes roamed the desert, living in tents and raising livestock. In 1833, tribesmen led by Maktoum Bin Butti put down roots along Dubai Creek and began exporting pearls, shells, and dried fish. By the 1930s, the local population numbered around 20,000.

Sheik Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who ruled from 1958-90, orchestrated Dubai’s emergence as an important trade center. The discovery of oil in the 1960s fueled massive growth, and, by the end of the decade, most of the infrastructure for the modern city was in place. Dubai has been hard hit recently by the global economic downturn, which has left construction cranes idle and buildings unfinished.

From the Dubai Museum, it is not far to the Grand Mosque, where chanted prayers echo from loudspeakers day and night. Behind the mosque, a narrow walkway leads down to the bustling textile souk. “What color do you want? This one is very nice,’’ shout Indian merchants, selling bright sequined dresses and T-shirts, as well as traditional “kandouras,’’ the long white robes worn by Emirati men.

Steps away, the boat landing teems with passengers waiting to board small wooden “abras’’ that will ferry them across to the spice and gold souks in Deira. The five-minute ride, for one “dirham’’ (less than 30 cents), offers a fascinating juxtaposition of East and West. Battered wooden “dhows’’ transporting goods across the gulf from Iran bob on the water in the shadow of gleaming steel-and-glass high-rises.

Once across, passengers scramble out as the abra thumps against the dock and follow Old Baladiya Road to the souks. In the oriental souk, Iranian shopkeepers entice passersby with large sacks of exotic spices that fill the air with aromas of frankincense, ginger, and curry. Several blocks away, an inscription on a high wooden portico proclaims “Dubai City of Gold.’’ Here shop windows lining the wood-roofed gold souk dazzle the eye with rows of 22-carat bangles, full-length arm cuffs, and necklaces resembling miniature chandeliers.

Prices in the souks typically start high, so shrewd bargaining skills are essential. “I make a special rate for you, if you buy today,’’ promises Rupesh, a clerk at Sona Jewellers, displaying a selection of gold bracelets at an inflated asking price of $137 per gram.

Warm, sultry nights are part of Dubai’s allure, and there is no better way to enjoy an evening than to take a dinner cruise along the creek on a luxury dhow. Smiling waiters greet passengers as they mount the gangway of Rikks Floating Restaurant and escort them to candlelit, red linen-covered tables in the boat’s polished wood interior. In the bow, the chef has set out a sumptuous buffet dinner featuring such Indian and Middle Eastern dishes as lentil soup, lamb curry, and hummus with flat bread.

After eating, guests ascend to the open-air top deck to view the city lights. In the distance, the slender form of the Burj Khalifa is barely visible. Up and down the creek, the procession of gaily lighted dhows casts a kaleidoscope of colors on the rippling water, a spectacle that rivals the glitz of new Dubai.

Claudia Capos can be reached at capocomm@sbcglobal.net.

If You Go

Where to stay

Al Manzil Hotel

Burj Dubai Boulevard The Old Town

011-971-4-428-6888

Boutique hotel with attentive service, near to Dubai Mall, $162-$173.

Atlantis, The Palm

Jumeirah

011-971-4-426-1000

www.atlantisthepalm.com

Grandeur coupled with an indoor sealife marina, panoramic seascape views, water park, and 17 restaurants, bars, and lounges. Deluxe doubles from about $849.

Where to eat

Margaux

Souk Al Bahar, The Old Town

011-971-4-439-7555

The bistro’s premier tables overlook Dubai’s dancing fountains, about $32-$120.

What to do

Burj Khalifa

The Old Town

011-971-4-888-8124

www.burjkhalifa.ae

The Burj’s At The Top ticket office and entrance are located on the ground level of Dubai Mall on Sheikh Zyed Road. Plan to purchase tickets several days in advance. Adults $28, ages 4-12 $21, under 3 free.

Dubai Museum

Al Fahidi Fort, Al Fahidi Street

011-971-4-226-0286

Tour the watchtower, then descend into the underground museum where exhibits depict the evolution of Dubai. Adults less than $1.

Dhow Dinner Cruises

Dinner cruises as well as other excursions, such as desert safaris, city tours, and fishing trips, which can be booked through a hotel concierge desk or directly with the company.

Planet Tours & Safaris

011-971-4-347-3746

www.planettours.travel