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Dubai: Oasis in the desert

Delight in the decadence of this rapidly growing emirate, Matt's fourth “Where in the World” stop. TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg highlights the region's hotels, food and must-see attractions.
/ Source: TODAY

Day four: Dubai
Dubai, probably more than any other destination, represents a country with an unlimited budget for growth that has somehow managed to exceed it! Having been to Dubai numerous times, I can only conclude that the government there — and the ruling family — has decided that nothing succeeds like excess.It also represents a unique transformation in the Persian Gulf, a petro-dollar rich location that thought beyond oil to a time when its economy could no longer be fueled by its oil reserves, and decided to invest instead in travel and tourism — and is now acting on that vision.And Dubai is still growing. So much so that current estimates — hard to verify — claim that there are more heavy building cranes in Dubai than anywhere else in the world.Just about every foreign airline flies to Dubai, where the expatriate community is also growing, almost exponentially.Some would describe the place as Las Vegas without the casinos, and they might just be right. Hotels are architectural icons, and there are huge luxury developments, engineering projects and condominia-mania — buildings are sold out before ground is broken.Want to go snow skiing in the desert? No problem. A gigantic water park? Done. And a massive airport that works.In this part of the world, ego rules, and it's all about experiential one-upsmanship. Even the country's airline — Emirates — is part of the over-the-top approach to everything. Its first class service is really first class. Passengers sit in extra-wide seats inside their own louvered-door pods. Inside, each passenger gets his/her own large flatscreen TV with 500 channels of on-demand programming, and their own minibar and makeup lighting. And, when passengers want to eat, they just pick up their phone and call “room service.”Emirates also offers nonstop service to New York's JFK airport. Dubai has also positioned itself as a major regional hub destination. Dubai International Airport serves 107 unique destinations with 317 direct flights, with more being added.

But the tickets on Emirates can be pricey. A coach ticket from JFK to Dubai averages $1187. So smart travelers buy something called a RTW (round the world) ticket instead, offering them countless destination combinations on multiple carriers — but on one round-the-world ticket —with a stop, of course, in Dubai along the way. Costs for a RTW ticket (one place to check: can be as low as $1800, but as long as you continue to fly in the same direction and complete your journey within six months, it's a great bargain, plus you get mileage — enough on one RTW ticket to create another round-trip ticket!

HotelsWant to stay at the Burj Al-Arab, where Matt hit golf balls from the helipad? Bring your wallet. Rooms there (actually duplex suites) run about $4,000 a night. Even if you don't stay there and want to just tour the hotel, it will set you back $70. ( hotels in Dubai? There are a few. The key seems to be to stick closer to the airport. To get downtown, your only option is to take a taxi, although there is a free shuttle bus to the Deira City Centre.Le Meridien Dubai, close to the airport, is surrounded by 38 acres of gardens, noted for beautiful grounds and excellent service. Note that the property is currently being renovated, so make sure to ask for rooms away from any construction noises. There are 383 rooms, a spa, health club and pool, and 15 restaurants and bars in the main hotel and Meridien Village. Rates are about $200-$335 a night. ( Bustan Rotana Hotel is also close the airport, and combines traditional Arabic style with modern conveniences. It’s a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, with 275 rooms, some of which are poolside. The third floor club rooms include a separate breakfast area, afternoon tea and cocktails. There are seven restaurants, including the famous Blue Elephant, which is supposed to serve the best Thai food in all of Dubai, and all-American Rodeo Grill. Contact Chief Concierge Shiva Kumar 971-4-282-0000 to book tours, dining reservations, etc.(

ToursIn Dubai, you can charter boats to go out into the gulf, you can hire land cruisers to go out into the desert and “dune bash.” But my recommendation: Get your hotel to hire you a car and take some friends with a guide and drive through the other emirates, two hours later you'll be in Oman and along the incredible Musandam Peninsula. There you can also hire dhows and take the boats out for day excursions, swim with dolphins and barbeque along the fjords and inlets.FoodDubai boasts more than 450 restaurants, and it’s practically impossible to have a bad meal there. Any cuisine is at your fingertips, whether you crave Japanese, seafood, Cajun, Italian or Middle Eastern dishes. (My favorite: a Japanese restaurant at the Dubai Marina called Cho-Cho.)For a fun note, there is what is considered the most expensive restaurant in Dubai — the Al Muntaha restaurant at the top of the Burj Al Arab. The experience begins with a three-minute mock submarine ride to the bottom of the Arabian Gulf into the restaurant where a huge aquarium awaits. You can spend about $150 per person on dinner, not including wine.

For seafood, seafood and more seafood, try the aptly-named Seafood Market at Le Meridien Hotel. It’s a large-scale restaurant, where freshwater fish tanks are lined up against the wall (guaranteeing a fresh meal). Fish, crab, lobster, oysters, clams and anything else you can think of are available, and you decide how you’d like it cooked to match almost any style — whether you want spicy Szechwan chili sauce, Japanese Tempura-style with light seasonings, healthy steaming or a light lemon sauce, it’s all there. You can also choose what will accompany your dish, i.e. garlic fried rice, udon noodles, plus a fresh array of vegetables prepared as you like. Next to the vegetable section is a huge selection of fresh fruits from around the world. About $80 per person. For a more casual, affordable, homey source of seafood with a Mediterranean twist, try Flooka (Arabic for “boat”) at the Dubai Marine Beach Resort. Grilled fish, fried fish, tender lamb, pomfret cooked in a tandoor oven, and served with tahini and chili, it’s a hit.

Part of the Dubai Aviation Club (a fitness and recreation center), The Cellar is a great place for continental dining — interestingly, the space looks like a medieval gothic chapel complete with stained glass. If it’s not too hot, have brunch on the terrace to overlook the lake filled with ducks. On Thursday and Friday night, have dinner with unlimited champagne. If you’re not done drinking after that, head to the nearby Irish Village pub for some of the best beers on tap in town.

For truly cheap eats, try Woodland Avenue, one of the best-value restaurants in town. South Indian cuisine is mostly vegetarian and almost always tasty — the décor leaves something to be desired, but it’s worth the price of about $20 a plate. ((04) 336 6632)Must-sees
Al Ain Camel Market in Abu DhabiThe city camel market is well known throughout the country and is the last of its kind. It provides the opportunity to see and hear traders discussing prices and listing the merits of their prized camels. The nearby animal souk is a similar experience, although it specializes in the sale of sheep, goat and other livestock.Ski DubaiFor about $75 USD you can buy a one-day adult ski slope pass. It includes a day pass, jacket, skis, snowboard, ski poles, trousers, ski boots, snowboard boots and disposable socks. It is covered with real snow all year round to the size of three football fields. The temperature is maintained at a comfortable -1º to -2º. There are five different runs of varying difficulty and length, longest run of 400 meters. There is a quad chair lift, tow lift, and there are even flying carpets. This is a bizarre experience, considering where you are, but the technology and engineering behind the ski area is amazing — 6000 tons of snow is manufactured a day.Archaeological sitesThere are three main archaeological sites in Dubai. They are located in Al Ghusals, Al Sufooh and Jumeirah. Al Ghusals and Al Sufooh have over 2,000-year-old graveyards. You can visit the excavation sites where you will find artifacts from the 7th-15th century. Contact: Off Road Adventures, 04 3432288The Grand MosqueThe Grand Mosque Dubai is counted among one of the largest mosques (with a capacity to accommodate up to 1200 worshippers) in United Arab Emirates. Originally constructed in traditional Islamic architectural style and opened in 1900 A.D. as a kuttab (Quranic school) where children learned to recite the Quran from memory, the Grand Mosque of Dubai was rebuilt (maintaining the style of the original Grand Mosque) in 1998 and now boasts a 70 meters (231 feet) high minaret, the tallest minaret in Dubai. Situated on the Bur Dubai side of the creek, near the Ruler's Court, the Grand Mosque consists of 45 small domes in addition to nine large ones, boasting stained glass panels, sand-colored walls and wooden shutters, making it a distinguished landmark and important place of worship.Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the mosque, but can go to see and take a few photos of the mosque and its exceptionally beautiful minaret.