By Christine McCabe

A DESERT oasis generally conjures images of palm trees, camels and Bedouin tents. In the United Arab Emirates, it has come to mean something rather more modern: a surreal, 21st-century city where the sky is by no means the limit.

Armani Hotel Dubai
Armani Hotel Dubai

Dubai is an improbable place where it feels a little like falling down the rabbit hole, particularly if you arrive, as I do, during a storm and there’s nought to be seen but swirling sand and cowering trees.

But, as the dust settles, a gleaming mirage begins to compose itself, rather like a computer-generated image taking shape: gleaming sky piercers (not scrapers), including the world’s tallest building, the 828m Burj Khalifa, immaculately clean souks and immense fountains shooting water 50 storeys into the air.

These dancing fountains fume from a blindingly blue 12ha lake, at the heart of downtown Dubai, home to the Burj Khalifa and the giant Dubai Mall, and centre, it seems, of much of the action these days. It’s a pleasant place to stroll in the cool of the evening, as expats and tourists congregate in lakeside restaurants and cafes.

After all, shopping and eating are Dubai’s principal attractions (making it a good stopover option) and the city has attracted a slew of celebrity chef-endorsed outposts. Gordon Ramsay began the trend a decade ago when he opened Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek, today headed by his protege Scott Price.

Nobu Matsuhisa, Marco Pierre White, Gary Rhodes and Giorgio Locatelli all have a presence here and each March the city hosts an impressive food festival, Taste of Dubai. The 100-mile diet does not loom large as a food concept, however. Not much grows in these desert sands so chefs must source produce from across the globe.

Best dinner with a view: What else would you expect from the highest restaurant in the world? Located on the 122nd floor (at 442m) of the Burj Khalifa, the aptly named At.mosphere affords dizzying views (vertigo sufferers, beware) and great food courtesy of New Zealand chef Dwayne Cheer. The venue is split into two: a lounge serving snacks and the world’s highest “high teas” and The Grill, where seafood and prime cuts (including Australian sirloin and saltbush lamb) are on the menu. But the view’s the thing. It’s not often you can see forever, in this instance to The World islands and beyond to the Arabian Gulf. More:

Best bar: The very cool Address Downtown hotel houses a handsome bar on the 63rd floor. Which seems positively stratospheric until you pop across the way to At.mosphere. Nevertheless there are thrills aplenty at the stylish Neos sky lounge where the decor is moody deco, the expat crowd rowdy and the dusk views — as the city lights come up and the desert sky softly fades through pink to blue to black — are heavenly. The margaritas aren’t half bad either. More:

Best cooking class: Many hotel restaurants schedule cooking classes, a natural adjunct in this food-obsessed destination. Nobu hosts classes the first Saturday of every month at Atlantis The Palm hotel (one of the city’s prime dining destinations, with 17 outlets and a quartet of Michelin-starred chefs). Small groups tackle Japanese classics and the program might include a sushi master class. More:

Best sushi: If you’re hankering after a spot of sushi, Takehiro Ito, director of sales for The Address Hotels & Resorts, recommends Kisaku on the 10th floor of the Al Khaleej Palace hotel (popular with Dubai’s Japanese community) and the Hyatt Regency’s Miyako, where private teppanyaki tables are an expat favourite.

Best new resort: Sister property to the One&Only Royal Mirage, the recently opened boutique Palm, with 94 rooms and suites and a private marina, is one of the loveliest hotels to be found in the sprawl that is Dubai. Located beachfront on the Palm Jumeirah, the resort offers low-rise mansion digs and private beach villas. The elegant rooms feature restrained Arabesque detailing and all have an outdoor terrace or private pool. After dark, the lantern-lit lobby and pool area are magical. More:

Best big resort: Al Qasr is the 229-room centrepiece property of the Madinat Jumeirah accommodation, shopping and lifestyle complex (madinat means city). It is indeed a princely Arabian citadel, with three hotels, 29 summer villas (with traditional cooling wind towers, private pools and courtyards) and 3.7km of shallow waterways plied by canopied boats that whisk guests to myriad facilities, including the Talise Wellness Spa, surrounded by groves of bamboo and frangipani and with a thumping 26 treatment salons.

There’s 1km of beach and 40ha of gardens; adjacent is Wild Wadi Waterpark (complimentary access for hotel guests) with 30 adrenalin-pumping rides, including an aquatic roller-coaster. Next door is a marketplace-style maze of intersecting alleyways, 75 shops, abundant barrow stalls and 30 cafes, bars and restaurants. More:

Best shop: Make that shops – all 1200 of them in the world’s (you guessed it) largest shopping mall, which boasts 40,877sq m of retail space (representing practically every leading label on the planet). Dubai Mall’s retail wonderland is complemented by a world-class aquarium, Olympic-sized ice rink and the highly popular KidZania.

If you’re travelling en famille, park the kids here for an afternoon. While you shop they get to play grown-ups – as doctors, pilots, bank managers and chefs (not celebrity, we hope) – in a world re-created down to the very last detail. Expat parents tell me kids can’t get enough of it. More:

Best listings guide: Pick up a copy of Time Out Dubai, which lists theatres, galleries, restaurants, day spas and events, everything from dog shows to food festivals. It’s indispensable.

Best souks: The gold souk, on the Deira side of Dubai Creek, is a tangle of covered lanes lined with shops, their windows lustrous with jewels. The price of gold is set by the government: it’s the additional costs for craftsmanship and intricacy of design that should invite spirited haggling. In the nearby spice souk, wander past pyramids of intriguing red and gold powders, rose petals and wrinkled chillis, breathe musk incense and ponder the claims of herbal medicines.

Best desert dreaming: Former Emirates property Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa is now managed by Starwood, but very little has changed. This luxury encampment is about 45 minutes from the city, in the Dubai desert conservation reserve, and features 42 tented suites with pools amid the seemingly limitless dunes. Choose from safari excursions to spot more than 33 mammal and reptile species, falconry displays, nature walks, sunset camel treks, dune-bashing and bird-watching. More:

Additional reporting: Susan Kurosawa

ARMANI Hotel Dubai, pictured, is a beacon of all-black chic amid the city’s glitz; all is understated and unruffled, with staff gliding like models in slim Armani uniforms. Fashion maestro Giorgio Armani has dubbed the hotel’s Ristorante as “the best restaurant in Milan”, which sums up the undiluted Italian flavour of it all.

The 160-room hotel opened in April last year next to Dubai Mall and occupies floors ground to eight and levels 38 and 39 of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. As Dubai was slowly recovering from its debt crisis, the hotel’s opening provided important evidence of renewed investment confidence in the destination.

Black, white, grey and beige rule unopposed here; the only gold leaf adorns the hand-sculpted desserts at Ristorante. There are 11 room categories, all featuring sleek and shiny decor (“minimalist opulence” is the official tag), the latest in techno-wizardry, and bowls and bowls of white roses (Giorgio’s favourite flower, apparently).

Even if not staying here, try fancy Indian at the hotel’s Amal or Japanese at Hashi, which has sit-up counters and a sake bar as well as more formal seating. Views? Many rooms face the planet’s biggest dancing fountain (they don’t go in for anything squib-sized in the United Arab Emirates) or soar up to Burj Khalifa’s observation deck on gasp-inducing level 124. More:

Susan Kurosawa