Dubai is a Desert Fantasyland

A trip to Dubai is filled with Instagram sights, from the world’s tallest building to manmade waterfalls and ski runs

burj-khalifa

THE HEIGHT OF LUXURY The famous Burj Khalifa is the world’s tallest building, reaching 2,717 feet. Courtesy Dubai Tourism

Returning home from a trip to Dubai was like waking up from a dream.

On a 90-degree day, I had schussed down Ski Dubai, a manufactured resort with five runs and an actual ski lift. It’s built inside the Dubai Mall, which is so massive it makes the Mall of America look quaint and which also houses an aquarium where you can plunge into a 10-million-liter tank in scuba gear and come face-to-face with sand tiger sharks while shoppers pass by clutching Chanel bags.

That’s the kind of experience that makes Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, a desert fantasyland. (The country even has a minister of happiness.) Nearly 15 million tourists visited in 2016, and Dubai hopes to attract 20 million a year by 2020. Once a small fishing village, it offers plenty of draws: tax-free shopping, amped-up adventures and hotels (the Rosemont is currently constructing an indoor rainforest) and the Instagram gold you can capture from places like the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 feet. (My ears popped on the elevator to the top.)

During my weeklong trip, I stayed at the W Dubai, where chic suites come with DJ booths and Friday brunches are all-day affairs. Every morning, I watched from the window of my shower as the new Dubai Canal was filled with water. The now-complete $735 million project is the country’s latest “anything-is-possible” engineering stunt, complete with a waterfall, marina and boardwalk.

Already, Dubai has a series of man- made archipelagos that stretch out into the Persian Gulf and that I soared over in a helicopter. For a different perspective, I beat the sunrise the next morning and took flight over the nearby desert in a hot-air balloon, watching gazelles blitzing through the untamed sand.

Here are a few other must-do activities in this Middle Eastern destination that is constantly one-upping itself:

TASTE THE WORLD
The emirate has a cosmopolitan food scene, thanks in part to its unique demographic. Roughly 90 percent of Dubai’s population are expats, whose cultures complement traditional Emirati restaurants.

Paying homage to this unique culinary scene is a program led by guest chefs from countries including Turkey, Spain and Sweden at Enigma inside the Palazzo Versace Dubai, a lavish hotel with furnishings by the House of Versace. I’d also recommend breakfast at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, where you can learn about the local culture and sample Emirati dishes based on age-old recipes. One example: an Emirati pancake made with flour, eggs, sugar and spices like cardamom and served with date syrup. It’s served with a traditional Arabic coffee, a blend of lightly roasted and ground Arabic beans, cardamom and saffron.

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Skydive Dubai Courtesy Dubai Tourism

BE DARING IN THE DESERT
For a warm-up experience, soar 4,000 feet above the desert in a hot-air balloon, watch- ing the sun ascend over the rolling sand dunes below. Once you’re accustomed to being so high off the ground, it becomes a zen experience.

If the idea of skiing indoors sounds silly, try sandboarding, like snowboarding through sand. You can either clip into your sandboard or snub the clips and surf the sand instead. Or try para-motoring. It’s like a flying Go-Kart, whizzing you through the air in a metal cage with the help of a parasail, a motor on the back and a trained captain guiding the aircraft. Book through Skydive Dubai’s desert campus. You’ll cruise at 40 mph and could soar as high as 2,000 feet, spotting giraffes or antelopes below.

PLAY IN THE PERSIAN GULF
You may have gone paddleboarding or jet-skiing before, but flyboarding will make you feel as if you’ve gained superpowers. Jetpacks blast you up to a max height of about 30 feet. A guide with Searide Dubai will equip you with the flyboarding equipment and launch you from the water. Or delight your inner daredevil and go skydiving with Skydive Dubai, free-falling more than 120 miles per hour onto the Palm Jumeirah Island. Afterward, head to Kite Beach for sliders at Salt, which got its start as a roaming food truck and became so popular its hungry fans tracked it with the hashtag #findsalt. The Lotus Softie (ice cream made with lotus biscuits, which are crunchy and caramelized) is a must-try.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO Dubai doesn’t entirely shut down during Ramadan, whose dates change every year, but you aren’t allowed to eat, drink or smoke in public between sunrise and sunset during the religious holiday, and business hours are limited.

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