Lay of the Land
Dubai is one of the seven different emirates—Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al Quwain are the others—that form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With an area of 1,510 square miles, Dubai is the second-largest of the emirates; the largest, Abu Dhabi, accounts for more than three quarters of the country. Within Dubai, most of the historic area and old souks hug the two sides of the Creek (a nine-mile stretch of water lined with wharfs) known as Deira (the eastern side) and Bur Dubai (the western side). The glitzier, newer malls, restaurants, and resorts are west of this downtown area in a wealthy suburb on the coast called Jumeirah and on the skyscraper-bordered Sheikh Zayed Road (misleadingly named, as it is a main eight-lane highway that cuts through the city and connects it with Sharjah in the East and Abu Dhabi in the West). The Dubai Marina, one of the largest man-made marinas in the world, located toward Abu Dhabi, farther west from Jumeirah, is also becoming a major tourist hub with its sparkling new hotels and destination restaurants.
WHEN TO GO
Dubai enjoys year-round subtropical sunshine. The perfect time to visit is from November to April, when temperatures hover at around 80 degrees, but be prepared for occasional showers. From mid-June to mid-September, when temperatures soar into triple digits and the humidity becomes oppressive, open-air venues shut down and life revolves around anywhere with AC. You will find bargain hotel rates in May, which is still hot (high 90s) but not suffocating.
If you visit during Ramadan (the timing depends on the lunar calendar, so you need to check the dates with the tourism office), be aware that restaurants, bars, and cafés close from dawn until sunset, although hotels usually have certain venues open for guests, and non-Muslims shouldn't eat, drink, or smoke in public areas. Once the sun goes down, however, things get quite festive, especially in the run-up to Eid, the last day of the fasting month. Hotels erect large tents where locals gather to smoke fruit-flavored sheesha (water pipes), eat traditional snacks, and drink copious amounts of Arabic mint tea. Hotel prices are usually discounted during this time, too.
Dubai is also a city of festivals; you might want to plan your trip to coincide with the Shopping Festival, when shops slash prices and hold regular raffles (with prizes including cars, jewelry, and apartments). The dates change yearly, but it is usually toward the beginning of the year—check with the tourist office or on www.mydsf.com).
HOW TO GET THERE
There are currently 112 airlines flying to Dubai International, located in the east of the city close to the Creek, (971-4216-2525; www.dubaiairport.com) from more than 165 destinations. Emirates Airlines operates three nonstop flights daily from JFK. A service to Houston will begin in December 2007 (800-777-3999; www.emirates.com/usa). There are also plenty of connections, particularly via London.
Forget about walking; there are no sidewalks, walkways, or footbridges. Nor is there a subway or suitable bus service—although a $15-billion project is underway to build a four-lane light-rail network to provide trams on the main Jumeirah Beach and Al Sufouh roads. The first trains should be running by summer 2008, with the whole network being completed three years after that (www.dubaimetro.info/en).
The beige Dubai taxis are cheap and safe and can be hailed everywhere; you will be hard-pressed to pick a route that costs more than $25. Most drivers speak basic English. Dubai does not operate on addresses; everything is located with the aid of major landmarks (i.e., opposite the Burj Al Arab, near the Mall of Emirates). You can also order a cab by phoning Dubai Transport Corporation (971-4208-0808; dtc.dubai.ae). Avoid expensive, unmetered cars, even if your hotel tries to organize one for you. You can hire a Diamond Lease car with a local driver to chauffeur you around town by the hour; the hotel cars generally charge you per journey and are super-luxury (top end Mercedes, BMWs, even Bentleys) so they charge a premium rate (971-4885-2111; www.diamondlease.com). Parklane Car Rental offers premium cars with or without drivers by the hour (971-4343-5090; www.parklanecarrental.com).
If you can, avoid weekday rush hours: Traffic from Sharjah, an Emirate to the East of Dubai (where a lot of people live and commute from), causes gridlock on the roads, especially the main highway of Sheikh Zayed Road, between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and in the opposite direction as people head home after work between 3:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Avoid crossing the Creek at all costs during these times.
Drivers here tend to see themselves as racing drivers in the making. People drive fast and recklessly; we advise that you avoid getting behind the wheel. But if you insist, the major rental companies all have Dubai branches.
25 W. 45th Street
New York, New York
Tel: 888 584 7070 (toll-free)
Tel: 212 719 5750
Tel: 971 4223 0000
Visitors Information Bureaus are located in all the main shopping malls, as well as the airport (971-4224-5252; open 24 hours a day), Baniyas Square (971-4228-5000), and Sheikh Zayed Road (971-4883-3397).View United Arab Emirates Factsheet