Packed tightly into a 14-person elevator, I started to panic. I’m claustrophobic and wondered how long the journey up to the Burj Khalifa’s 124th-floor Observation Deck would take. I took a deep breath and reminded myself I was in Dubai, a destination that enables visitors to tackle impossible tasks like a leisurely stroll in the desert. In a feat of engineering genius, it turns out scaling the world’s tallest tower in a supersonic shuttle takes a mere minute (and yes, your ears do pop).
For the past 10 years, Dubai has been near the top of my bucket list, purely out of fascination. How can structures that put the “sky” in skyscraper rise out sand? How can rock and sand can anchor a man-made island larger than 800 English soccer pitches? To me, these feats are miraculous, especially given Dubai’s rags-to-riches roots. (Locals recount how “35 years ago there was one tall building and the streets had no name.”)
Knowing Dubai and decadence go hand-in-hand, I wanted my visit to reflect the city’s Champagne wishes and caviar dreams—even for a few days. Serendipity struck, and the next thing I knew, I was eating Godiva chocolate in business class aboard Emirates on a direct flight from Seattle to Dubai (one of the world’s busiest air hubs).
Viewfinder Tip: Dubai is massive. To combine sightseeing and relaxation, split your stay between a hotel near a Dubai Metro stop and a resort on the Gulf Coast.
Fifteen hours later, I caught a transfer to one of my greatest fascinations: Palm Jumeirah, an island in the shape of a palm tree surrounded by a circle. I’ve seen a lot of mega monuments in my travels, but this is on another scale, increasing Dubai’s shoreline by a whopping 320 miles. Just driving down the trunk took 15 minutes.
Nearing the island’s western crescent, I spotted my hotel, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, from a mile away. The scale, sizzle, and stature of the 2011-built, 405-room resort sent me into a Nirvana-like state with every glance—and that was just after seeing the lobby.
Up in my room, I encountered my first brush with royal life. The bed was like a throne, backed by gold-leaf wallpaper and an ornate wooden cutout. I went to sleep wondering if an attendant would appear to feed me grapes. Surprisingly, the bathroom was the room’s most regal feature, namely because of the white marble bathtub—so grand, it had two stairs to enter and was big enough to wash a baby elephant.
Burj Al Arab
The next morning I woke up with a stroll along the private beach and continued my adventures in opulence at the on-site Talise Ottoman Spa, one of the largest and most luxurious spas in the Middle East. While there are more famous places to live it up in Dubai—in the world’s only seven-star hotel, the Burj Al Arab, or watching water soar 50 stories high at The Dubai Fountain—the spa is the most soul-soothing treat.
Usually big spas turn me off, yet this one achieves intimacy with its winding hallways, secret snow rooms, and heavenly hammam. Take note: I’ve had hammam treatments all over the world, and the Turkish treatment at the Talise Ottoman Spa is the finest from start to finish, ending in a relaxation chamber with a spread of nuts and a salted yogurt drink to replace your electrolytes.
Fully relaxed, it was time to let loose, so I partook in a transplanted tradition known as “the boozy brunch” at the Fairmont Dubai’s Spectrum on One. While it’s forbidden to drink in public or even walk around tipsy, the global locals love their Friday brunch with benefits (the local workweek runs Sunday to Thursday). Forget bacon, eggs, and a mimosa, Dubai’s version takes it to the next level serving free-flowing flutes of Moët & Chandon and more than 200 dishes from every corner of the globe.
Back atop the breezy, glass-encased Observation Deck at the Burj Khalifa, I saw Dubai’s big, bold, and blingy record-breakers disappear into the vast desert landscape, and realized there’s still room for the seaside sophisticate to grow up, out, and away.
What highfalutin activities do you recommend for visitors to Dubai?