By Gemma Sutherland

STOP over in Dubai and taste life to the extreme, writes Gemma Sutherland.

This has been an unusual 48 hours: I have stood at the top of the world’s tallest building; roasted in 40C heat; snowboarded in -3C; had 100 tiny fish eat dead skin off my feet; become stuck in a four-wheel drive on the edge of a sand dune; ridden a camel in a desert camp; and swum laps while the call to prayer blared in the background.

I also got lost in the world’s largest mall, saw several of the world’s most luxurious and expensive hotels and travelled in the world’s fastest elevator.

This is Dubai, a melting pot of cultures and the city that promises to be unlike any other in the world. Here’s what happened to Dubai, in a nutshell. About 10 years ago, they realised their oil wasn’t going to last forever; the city needed another way to sustain itself and got busy attracting foreigners by offering a tax-free lifestyle, plenty of land to develop and an ethos of bigger and better. It worked. Foreign businesses flocked, and the city is virtually unrecognisable from the small, sleepy town it was a decade ago. Think of the computer game SimCity, triple the speed at which the virtual cities are built and you have Dubai.

My tour of this mind-boggling metropolis begins at Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 828m.

“Don’t be afraid,” tour guide Ola tells us as we walk towards the lift.

“The lift goes at 64km/h, but you will not even feel it.”

Uh huh. We step inside and it’s akin to entering a Las Vegas magic show. Lights flash, music swells and my ears pop. But that’s the only hint that we’re on our way. True to Ola’s word, I’m not aware I’m moving. The doors open and we are greeted with one bizarre view: from this high up you can see exactly what they’re trying to achieve in Dubai with dreams, cash and cheap imported labour.

I feel as if I’m looking down on random Legoland. I’m sure it’s more technical than this, but it’s as if someone has had a lot of fun saying: “Hmm, let’s put a marina here; and let’s extend this creek to create an island; let’s put a twisty building over there.”

Dubai is home to Knowledge Village (for “human resource management and learning excellence”), Media City (a global media hub) and Internet City (for internet companies). Luxurious apartment buildings dotted with swimming pools and palm trees sprawl, and the new metro – complete with gold-plated stations – zips along silently. “Dubai is a blank canvas,” Ola says. “It is an architect’s paradise.”

The Burj Khalifa is next to Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, with 1200 retailers. It would take four full eight-hour days to window shop every store, so we go for some highlights, including the world’s largest lolly shop and an indoor skating rink with the world’s largest screen.

After lunch we visit the Burj Al Arab, the hotel that put Dubai on the map. Built 11 years ago, Ola almost dismisses it as being old. Only guests or those dining at the restaurants are allowed inside, but we have arranged a tour with concierge manager and expat Sydneysider Oscar. The hotel is opulent and over-the-top, and houses are restaurant in which you arrive at by “submarine”.

We spend the afternoon at Wild Wadi waterpark. Cultures collide: some women are in bikinis, others are fully covered with leggings, long-sleeved tops and swimming caps. Wild Wadi is home to Fisho Spa and it’s here we sit, having our feet nibbled at.

I shriek at first, and it takes determination to keep your feet in the water; it’s as though hundreds of little needles are prickling your skin but one you’re used to it, it is remarkably relaxing. The day finishes with a dip in the bath-like sea as the sun sets, and a cruise.

Day two begins with a trip to Palm Jumeirah, an artificial archipelago built on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm, complete with fronds. What’s the point of it? There isn’t one. They could do it, so they did. Ola the guide is back, and tells us Dubai wants to be the biggest, the best and the most luxurious at everything, so why not a palm-shaped enclave?

It is almost 35C degrees outside, so we head to the Mall of the Emirates for a spot of snowboarding. The indoor snow park is fitted out in true alpine style. I put long pants and a parka on over my summer clothes, get fitted out for a snowboard and am let loose in this giant walk-in freezer, taking a chairlift to the peak. It’s quiet today, which is a blessing. The snow is on the sticky side, and when I attempt to stop, it’s like being in glue. It’s not perfect, but it’s not bad, and given I’m essentially in the middle of a desert, I can’t complain.

Our group hits the souks (markets), and finally I feel as if I’m in the Middle East. We wander past the dazzling array of colourful fabrics, the air ripe with spices, fending off promises of “special prices for you”. They are half-hearted efforts, though, and they give up easily and politely. Be brave and barter your way to some spice bargains – it’s hard to find them this fresh.

Our evening consists of a trip into the desert in a line of shiny four-wheel drives. On the way to the dunes we pass Dubailand. Our driver says that when it is constructed, Dubailand will be a theme park twice the size of Disneyland, making it the biggest in the world. Who would’ve thought? Also on the way is the Mall of Arabia, which will supersede Mall of the Emirates as the world’s largest. I ask the driver who exactly Dubai is competing with, for there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of countries trying to win the title for biggest mall. He shrugs. “No one,” he says. “Dubai likes things bigger.”

We hit the sand and squeal with delight as the drivers get a bit fancy. Ours cranks dance music on the stereo as we skid through the sand and over dunes. It’s not long before we attempt a steep dune and are stuck, teetering on the top. Cue the rescue vehicle, and soon we’re back on our way.

A pause for another sunset before we reach the “desert camp”, which is essentially a tourist hangout. We’re promised a camel ride, but my visions of galloping freely are way wide on the mark: instead, we are led around a parking lot for four minutes.

Inside the camp there’s free beer and shisha. We find cushions on the ground; food is promptly served to the masses of visitors, and before long a belly-dancer takes to the stage. We head to the designated area to smoke the apple tobacco (shisha) through a traditional pipe (hookah). It’s relaxing under the stars, despite the ever-present tourist photographer fastening yellow wristbands to us. An announcement is made: it’s time for “lights out” so we can enjoy the stars. It’s a stunning sight, but we’re on a tight schedule, which is a shame.

Ever-conscious of its need to satisfy the tourist, Dubai strives to make everything as shiny and perfect as possible. It’s a place I’d like to return to, if only to see what it looks like in another 10 years.

* The writer was a guest of Emirates

The deal

Getting there: Emirates (, 1300 303 777) flies from to Dubai

Staying there: Jumeirah Beach Hotel;