Looking at my photographs from a recent whirlwind trip to Dubai, a friend commented that they were all pretty much the same: skycrapers, shops and souks. And that the city looked more like a building site than a luxury, city break destination.
Ah, yes, the cranes. I contorted myself into unspeakable positions for every outdoor shot in an attempt to get a picture which did not have a piece of building contractor's machinery dominating it. I mostly succeeded, but there is no denying there is a whole lot of building work constantly going on.
But Dubai is so much more than the half finished buildings, the artificial islands and the eye-watering displays of wealth and luxuriance. And despite being warned endlessly by pals before I went about their zero tolerance to drunken or bad behaviour or immodest clothing, I was still desperate to go. Yes, you have to temper your western ways and moderate your dress – even more so as I visited during Ramadan, so no public eating or drinking during daylight hours - but I managed, and encountered no problems at all. And, despite going there sans les enfant, I was surprised by just how geared up it is towards children.
I won't lie – it's not cheap. But for a special occasion – an anniversary or landmark birthday – it's totally doable. Iit just comes down to how luxuriously you want to do it.
I stayed in the Shangri-La, a 43-storey building on the Sheikh Zayed Road, just 15 minutes from the airport, and a short taxi ride from the shopping malls and tourist attractions. The hotel was by no means at the uber-luxe end of the scale but was pretty stunning nonetheless – my room was enormous with loads of hanging space, cupboards and drawers, free wifi (MOST important) huge TV, very well equipped bathroom (a notepad next to the loo for recording those all important mid-wee eureka moments) and – best of all – a plethora of L'Occitane toiletries. I was straight in the bath and in a Verbena fragranced, steamy paradise within minutes of arriving. In fact, I probably could have quite happily stayed in my room for the full four days I was there.
But I didn't. I did the sights – the Dubai Museum (complete with full sized taxidermy style camel and lifelike 'people') I took a water taxi across the creek (Watch your step. No, really, do, I could see me and that creek becoming one on both boarding and alighting.) and I wandered around the spice souks (but didn't buy anything – was too overwhelmed by the choice, and, to be honest, had no idea what I'd do with a huge glut of saffron anyway).
The sightseeing highlight though was Burj Khalifa. The world's tallest building at 828 metres (2,716.5 feet) and more than 160 storeys . Note: I do not like heights and I'm not normally that impressed by modern architecture, but by god, there was something sexy about that tower. Yes. Sexy. Despite my disappointment that you don't actually get to go right to the top as I was expecting (which, with hindsight was ridiculous – look at it!) but it was amazing nonetheless, particularly the grease lightning lift (the world's fastest at speeds of 64km/h (40 mph) or 18m/s (59 ft/s) ) which has you up to the viewing deck in a mere 60 seconds. That, and the camel milk chocolate souvenirs on sale in the gift shop at the exit made my visit. (Although the views weren't bad either...)
The shopping malls were beyond belief: whilst some might question the merits of a break spent wandering around a shopping centre which boasts brands you can get at home, I loved it. There was something quite surreal about visiting Waitrose in the Dubai Mall, and I found myself whiling away a good hour just checking out the vast displays of fruit and veg, the herbs and spices aisle, and, because I have a real thing about foreign pharmaceutical goods, the rows of toiletries. OK, so it was, in the main, all our usual brands, but I was intrigued by Pre-Date Skin Lightening Face Masks (not enough to purchase - was getting quite proud of my light golden tan).
As a veggie, I had worried endlessly before my trip as to what I would eat, though as my taxi sped me from the airport to the hotel, I saw Costa, various pizza restaurants and even a Wagamama just minutes from my digs, so I was never going to go hungry. But my veggie ways were more than catered for anyway - a slap up meal at the Armani hotel at the bottom of Burj Khalifa by no means disappointed, nor did a visit to Gary Rhodes 2010 restaurant a short drive away at the Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort (worth a visit just for the 'Purple Gangster' cocktails).
But the range of restaurants at my hotel totally backs up my claim that I could have quite happily stayed in situ for the duration of my stay – I lunched in their fab Shang Palace Cantonese restaurant on my first day, and had a full on Moroccan buffet blow out in the beautifully styled Marrakesh restaurant on my last night - both were exceptional, as were the breakfast buffets each morning: never before has my breakfast bowl seen pitta bread and hummus fighting for space alongside maple syrup drenched pancakes, but by God, it tasted good.
Although this break was a bit of a grown up treat just for me, I definitely want to go back with my son – there's is an absolute ton of stuff for children to do. I had to hide the brochure I got from the Sega Republic indoor theme park in the Dubai Mall when I got home – I would have been lynched for being within spitting distance of it without him! Likewise, I kept quiet about the afternoon I spent at the Wild Wadi water-park – the kind of place I would never, ever, dream of visiting in the UK, but which I absolutely adored in sun-soaked Dubai.
So it's fair to say I loved my trip there. I liked just chilling out in the sun around the pool at my hotel, and wandering around the deliciously cool shopping malls. I liked watching the traffic passing by like a Scalextric track from my 40th floor window. I liked the impeccable manners and hospitality of my hosts, and I liked people watching; gorgeous women in designer abayas, bedecked in jewels, beautiful men in traditional Arab dress.
So when my friends mocked my holiday snaps and the prevalence of cranes and concrete dust, I could only agree, that in parts Dubai is nothing more than an oasis of building works, but, from this holidaymaker's point of view, it's the most luxurious, must-see building site in the world.
For more information about Dubai call Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing on 020 7321 6110 or visit www.dubaitourism.ae
3 nights B&B at Shangri-La Hotel, including economy flights with Virgin Atlantic, from £839 per person. Valid for departures 21 Oct - 8 Dec 2010. Call 0845 050 5871 or visit www.trailfinders.com
Virgin Atlantic flies from London Heathrow to Dubai daily. Fares start from £357 including taxes and can be booked online at www.virginatlantic.com or by calling reservations on 08448 747 747
Half day city tour from £25 per adult / £12 per child. Al Abjar Tourism Adventures: email@example.com or www.abjartourism.com
A Hedonist's Guide to Dubai. £12 from www.hg2.com and all good book retailers.
Top 10 Dubai & Abu Dhabi. £6.99 from good book retailers.