It's insular but also open. It's conservative, but also progressive. Dubai is a oxymoronic city of two faces: one opulent and distinguished for the upper class, and the other grimy and hidden away for the working class.
Suffice it to say, Dubai is really fun if you have cash to burn, which may explain its popularity with wealthy Russians and Arabs.
A lot of Dubai is man-made, which leaves little for surprise. Or uniqueness. Dubai is separated into the old and the new, the souks of yore and skyscrapers of the present respectively, both of which can be well seen within a long weekend of 3 days 2 nights.
Dubai is an oasis in the desert, so it can get unbearably hot at any time other than the "Winter" months. The best time to go is during the months of November to February, where temperatures hit a high of 24C and go down to a low of 18C.
Dubai's international airport is sprawling, being one of 3 major Middle Eastern hubs for transit. It's bustling, and cosmopolitan.
The Air France Lounge, a Krisflyer partner lounge, is inconspicuously tucked away in a little corner. The low-lit lounge is cosy, but the food was abysmal. Even the baked confectionery, which I'd have thought the French would take pride in doing well.
Best get a guide, and a driver, to bring you around, as Dubai citizens aren't exactly approachable. These guides are your conduits to the local populace and attractions.
Also, interactions between the different sexes are frowned upon, so refrain from approaching a local female if you're male, even if you're lost in a women's department mall. Same goes for the converse.
Most hotels offer scheduled shuttle services to popular tourists attractions, but be sure to get your hotel's full address, as many hotels have several chains in Dubai itself. For example, there are 2 different One & Only hotels, one on the mainland in the CBD and its sister property in the palm island.
If you're inclined to drive, bear in mind that it's a left-hand drive, and while roads are spacious and wide (up to 7 lanes in each direction), traffic rules are a little different from most other countries. And be sure to keep your vehicle sparkling clean, because despite the stormy desert sand, dirty cars are fined.
This was our guided car service.
Dubai's retail sector is largely facilitated by modern technology, so credit cards are accepted just about anywhere. Still, reserve about S$100 per person for shopping at those mom-and-pop establishments.
Dubaians are considerably insular, so don't expect to make friends with the locals here. Few locals work in the hospitality sector, so encounters with locals are few and far between anyway. There's a large expat community here, so you can find yourself meeting people from all over the world.
It may be a surprising revelation, but Dubai is arguably the most liberal city in the Arab world. Here's where the majority of Bahraini or Qatari come to let loose. You see a lot of clubs, bars, and a vibrant nightlife that'll rival Vegas on a good day.
That said, Dubai is still, objectively on a global level, conservative, so be sure to cover up. You'll notice that most Dubai men are garbed in white robes, comprising a kandura - the flowing robe, and argal - head scarf. Whereas the women wear abayas in black. White for men as a sign of cleanliness, and black for women because, functionally, it is the most opaque of colours.
Also, Dubai is very safe. Crime is severely punished, so many are law-abiding.
For the utmost in luxury, without being distastefully garish, best stay at the One & Only the Palm. We wanted an unobstructed view of the beach, however man-made, so we stayed on the Jumeirah Palm Island instead of the mainland property One & Only Royal Mirage. The full writeup's here.
City Tours - A guided city tour is best for getting a local perspective, and we were recommended Arabian Adventures, with whom we did a half-day tour. We were paired with a local guide Hassen, a gregarious local who provided most of the insights set out in this travelogue.
We skipped the sprawling malls and ski parks, all of which were generic and austere, in favour of the traditional sights of Dubai. Still, we were a little underwhelmed by the sights and sounds of "old Dubai"; these were a lot more commercialised than I'd expected.
Having spoken to friends who've also been to Dubai, I hear the only worthwhile attraction is out in the desert, visiting the sand dunes and hopping on a kitschy camel ride.
Gold Souk - the gold prices here weren't particularly competitive
Spice Souq - this reminded me a lot of Little India. One shop wasn't very distinguished from the next. Still, walk through just one shop and ask shopkeepers for local spices. If you love to cook, you may just be inspired to get a bunch of spices to cook up a Middle Eastern-centric meal.
Dubai Creek - this is the "lifeblood" water that runs through the city. It doesn't look it from the photos, but it smelled like a drain.
Junkboats still in operation for commercial activities.
Traditional abras, small motorized water taxis that are regularly used by locals to traverse the creek.
Dubai Museum - for some reason, this reminded me of the Images of Singapore Museum on Sentosa back in the 80's. Do a quick walk-through for a concise history of Dubai.
The open exhibit area on the ground level.
There's also an air-conditioned (a Godsend escape from the scorching sun above) basement level walk-through.
Burj Khalifa - one of 2 major landmark skyscrapers of Dubai.
Jumeirah Mosque - one of the most famous mosques in Dubai that's actually open to the public, for the Sunni Muslims, in traditional Emirati design. It's beautiful and serene, and the interiors are even more breathtaking than the already beautiful exterior.
Sunset Beach - Beaches in Dubai are seldom open to the piblic for sunbathing. There are dedicated beaches, all private clubs, for men or women exclusively. If you really need to work up a tan, get to the one inside your hotel. This is an expansive beach next to the Royal Summer Palace on the far right.
If you look closely at the above photo, there's the luxury yacht, which is royal property - the king bought it for his second wife, who's also the sister of Jordan's King Abdullah. Just look at how hugeeeee it is! I'd initially thought it was a cruise ship!
Random sights of Dubai - Closed-up bus stops, air-conditioned units for a respite from the desert heat
Regular housing rented out to foreign workers, not unlike our 3-room HDBs, where it's not uncommon to find up to 6 foreign workers squeezed into a little flat.
Spices - My policy is always to buy local flavours, and we got a jar of bzar spices, an Emirati mix of cumin, ground coriander seed, cardamon, cloves, nutmeg etc, which we use in stews or as a marinade for roasts. Rose water is also commonly used in Emirati cuisine, where fish is bathed in rose water before coating in spices and quickly pan-fried. The rose water gives a lovely, not artificial, fragrance to the food, and cures any fishiness.
Also, chocolate coated dates are quite a popular souvenir. I'm not a big fan of its sticky sweetness, but my colleagues surely are.
Dubai cuisine is largely cosmopolitan, a melting pot of international flavours to cater to the large expat community working in Dubai.
We ate, safely cocooned, in the hotel, and would highly recommend the fine-dining French institution Stay by 3-Michellin-starred Yannick Alleno, and 101 Dining Lounge.