Port of Dubai
On busy Sheik Zayed Road, the highway running through the sprawling metropolis of Dubai that connects the old city with its modern eye-catching skylines, a Ferrari whizzes past at 75 miles per hour. It's a police car, a sign that Dubai -- a city often compared to Las Vegas -- has flash to spare.
The biggest and most developed of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as an oasis for cosmopolitan luxury travelers with money to burn. Yes, Dubai is a working port city on the Arabian Gulf, a gateway to places that, for most North Americans, are tucked away in the encyclopedia as distant and forbidden lands: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan. But the city's most distinctive feature is its pursuit of all things over the top, from "seven star" luxury hotels and shopping malls with ski resorts to manmade islands built in the shape of palm trees and continents.
As late as the 1950s, however, Dubai was a small-time trading and fishing port. (Pearl diving was a major industry until cultured versions came into vogue.) It's possible, although it does take some work, to find remnants of this uniquely Emirati history. A few savvy entrepreneurs are beginning to develop cultural tourism that highlights the country's Bedouin roots, as well as the melting pot that Dubai has become.
Yet still, it's the modern trappings you'll notice first, from the ultra-sophisticated Emirates Air planes that you no doubt arrived on to sleek Dubai International Airport to the fact that everyone speaks English. (You won't need to trot out Arabic here -- though attempting "shukran," for thank you, is always appreciated.) Although North Americans are somewhat scarce, Dubai has already been discovered by the elite from the rest of the world, who are magnetically drawn by its resorts, gorgeous beaches and coast, and its duty-free status as a shopping mecca.
That being said, Dubai -- and the United Arab Emirates in general -- is Muslim, and morality laws are alive and well. Public displays of affection are forbidden (no kissing your partner), and gay travelers are not welcome. (Homosexuality is illegal.) Alcohol is only served at hotels and restaurants with licenses, and many common prescriptions drugs are illegal. (Bring copies of your prescriptions from your doctor.) Although beachwear is appropriate at resorts, shorts and tank tops are uncommon; even some malls have a dress code. Pack long-sleeved tops, capris or long pants, and long skirts and dresses if you plan to visit mosques or do a lot of walking around.
Despite its hardline stance on these cultural issues, Dubai remains a major port of embarkation -- if not port of call -- for cruise travelers on popular Middle East itineraries through the Arabian Gulf or around the Arabian Peninsula to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. (Even if your cruise doesn't begin or end there, you're likely to have an overnight.) The "season" runs from October through May and is particularly popular with European lines, such as Costa and AIDA. If you're looking for a view into the modern Middle East -- and want a guarantee that you'll have sunny, warm weather on your vacation -- Dubai is perhaps your best place to start.
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Where You're Docked
Dubai has embraced cruise travelers, and the Port of Rashid is expanding at a rapid pace; there are now three distinct terminals. The Port of Dubai facility offers a coffee bar, a deli/lunch operation, souvenir shops and free Internet on five terminals in its business center. There's a currency exchange office, an ATM, a post office and a concierge who can set you up with day tours. Several major shopping malls also offer free shuttles from the port.
Other than the cruise terminal, the port facility also handles cargo shipping, so there's nothing else to do there. Carrefours, a French supermarket, is located just outside the port gates and is a good place to stock up on necessities, but you'll have to take a taxi to get there.
Good to Know
Although Dubai looks freewheeling on the surface, the United Arab Emirates is still a strict Muslim country. Women should cover their shoulders and knees, even while sightseeing; coverings are a necessity for visits to mosques or other religious sites, and malls have a conservative dress code. Displays of affection in public are forbidden, especially between unmarried or same-sex couples. Also avoid photographing Arabs or Emiratis in their native dress without asking permission.
By Taxi: Metered taxis line up at the port. They're your best bet for day visits to Jumeirah, an upscale area of hotels, shops, restaurants and beaches, or to Bar Dubai, where most of the historic sites are located. Fares to both places are reasonable.
By Bus: A hop-on, hop-off bus leaves right from the port. Free shopping shuttles head to Dubai's major malls from the port, as well.
By Metro: Dubai is a sprawling city, but many of its downtown sights are easily accessible by Metro (alas, not from the port). Tickets are sold based on how many zones you'll cross. "Ladies cars" are available for women traveling together or with children.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the UAE dirham (dh); check xe.com or oanda.com for current exchange rates. Dollars are generally not accepted. Taxis take currency only (no credit cards), so exchange money at the airport, or use an ATM.
Arabic is the main language, but everyone speaks English. As a result of its expansion boom, Dubai has opened its gates to supplement its work force. (However, these expats, who make up the majority of the population, cannot become citizens and, as such, have fewer rights.) You'll encounter Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Russians and a plethora of other nationalities -- all of whom speak passable English.
Food and Drink
Sitting firmly at the crossroads of East and West, Dubai has every type of cuisine you might imagine -- and then some. Native Emirati dishes borrow heavily from Arabic Bedouin culture; mezzes with hummus, baba ganoush and fattoush may taste familiar, while main dishes might be lamb curry or a bowl of lentils, chicken and rice cooked in a blend of spices known as bezar. Yogurt and cucumber sauce are usually served as sides. Dates served with cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee are a traditional symbol of hospitality. Alcohol is not served in most Middle Eastern restaurants.
Even in Dubai, native Emiratis make up only 14 percent of the city's population; the majority of people who live in the city are foreign workers, and the food culture reflects this diversity. Indian cuisine is popular, both in small curry houses and fancy hotels, and you'll find steakhouses, sushi bars, shisha lounges, celebrity chef outposts and nearly every chain restaurant on the planet across Dubai. Hotels are the easiest options for a nice lunch or dinner (especially if you want wine or a cocktail). As in most Muslim countries, Dubai's weekend starts on Friday, and elaborate brunches and barbecues are often served all day on Friday and Saturday.
Hotels are the easiest options for a nice lunch or dinner (especially if you want wine or a cocktail).
Downtown Dubai: Near Dubai Mall, the Armani Hotel has a three-course Friday brunch menu in its Deli restaurant that looks nothing like any deli you've ever seen elsewhere. Your three-hour nosh includes unlimited visits to the "pork room," as well as masterful salads/starters and a decadent dessert bar. Oh yeah, there's a main course, too. (Armani Hotel, Burj Khalifa; open daily, noon to 11 p.m.)
Jumeirah: Souk Madinat includes the ultra-casual Dome for coffee and sandwiches, and restaurants whose themes vary from Persian to steakhouse. Restaurant hours within the mall vary. For familiar fare, consider Bikers Cafe, a motorcycle-themed eatery on Jumeirah Road that's reportedly a favorite of Sheikh Mohammad. (Jumeirah Beach Road, Jumeirah 1; open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.)
On the Creek: It can be pleasant in the cooler months to nosh alongside Dubai Creek, which is big enough to be a river. Creekside Cafe, which is also an arts co-op, melds Western and Eastern flavors, and also offers breakfast until 3 p.m. (Baniyas Street/Creek Road; open daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
This is a city that loves shopping; there's even a monthlong festival dedicated to it. Designer goods of all kinds are available in shopping malls such as Dubai Mall (the world's largest) and Mall of the Emirates.
If you're looking for something more traditional, gold in almost any form is a terrific remembrance, particularly coupled with the experience of visiting Dubai's old souk (marketplace) on the Deira side of the creek. Traditional coffee pots -- known as dallah and sold in sets with small cups -- are also great gifts. Dubai is the place to stock up on gorgeous scarves, many in luxe fabrics with elaborate beading.