By Jim Byers

DUBAI — A series of manmade islands called The Palm stretch out from the southern part of this city into the Gulf, fanning out in the shape of a giant, tropical tree.

Up the road near the gloriously white, sail-like Burj Al Arab hotel, a more ambitious developer has built islands in the rough shape of the countries of the globe.

My local tour guide, Mirella El Munawar, tells me that not far away, a developer with an even bigger ego had plans to create The Universe, with islands that look like the sun and the planets, until the world financial crisis slapped him down.

“Alas,” says El Manawar with a wry smile. “The universe is on hold.”

Maybe it is. But this wild carnival ride of a city isn’t about to let a world fiscal crisis leave it stuck in neutral.

As she guides me down the canyon that is Sheik Zayed Road, El Munawar is pointing out the Fairmont Tower here and the Shangri La Hotel there and explaining plans for a theme park that will be double the size of Disney World and so many other projects that a reporter’s notebook is filled with enough numbers to resemble an Einstein theorem. There are angled buildings with fins, sand-coloured affairs topped with blue arches that look like those on the Chrysler Building in New York. There are gleaming silver buildings and round ones and crazy-topped, angular affairs that look like something out of director Tim Burton’s Gotham City. There’s been talk of an 85-storey tower with floors that would rotate independently from each other like a Rubik’s cube; giving your bedroom both a sunrise and sunset view if you so choose.

El Munawar tells me there already are 120 skyscrapers in the Dubai Marina district, with 78 more slated to go up across the road. All in the last five years. Or maybe it’s 87 already built and 210 to go. The city changes so fast, even the locals can’t keep up.

“It’s a phenomenon; no city on earth has changed this fast. It’s really a city of superlatives, and that’s the mindset of the ruler. He wants the tallest, the longest, the biggest.”

There’s a temptation to talk about this city’s old area as the authentic Dubai, and to dismiss the forests of skyscrapers as somehow artificial. But there’s still something remarkable about the place and it’s impossible not to leave without a generous dollop of admiration.

The massive Dubai Mall and the Mall of the Emirates, where Ski Dubai allows snow-lovers to caress their way down a 450-metre slope in minus-2 Celsius temperatures year-round (even when it’s 50C degrees outside) are remarkable paeans to the shopping gods, with everything from Bloomingdales’ home products to Mrs. Field’s cookies to Louis Vuitton to Coach. You’ll find Russian ladies with slinky dresses, as well as local women clad in black abayahs scarfing down Krispy Kreme donuts out of a green-and-white box.

For all its ultra-modernity, there are many charms to the city. The spice market is a shadow of its former self but you still can wander the laneways and spot boxes of frankincense, dried lemon and bright red-orange saffron, the local dealers egging you on. The gold souk is more garish and modern than the spice souk, but it’s a great place to scour for gold bracelets and diamond necklaces, as well as watching Indian men trudge about with what look like suitcases full of bling for the trip home.

“There’s nothing below 18 carats,” El Munawar explains. “And it’s all legit. Well, if they say it’s a Rolex it might not be, but if it’s gold or diamonds, they’re real. Everything comes with a certificate.”

The nearby Mina Bazaar in Bur Dubai, or old Dubai, is the Yonge St. of bazaars, with plenty of cheap shirts, cloth and toys.

“One nice thing here is the merchants don’t hassle you,” says El Munawar. “They’ll ask if you want something but they’re not pushy like in other cities.”

The overhead wooden archways, with lovingly carved details, might be the best feature. They shade the street during Dubai’s notorious summers, but there’s room between the arches and the rooftops for air to circulate. Similarly, in the area called Bastikiya you can gaze up homes with large corner towers that are built to trap cool winds and funnel them into the houses below. Large poles protrude from the buildings and out into the air above the street; remnants of the days when folks would hang wet laundry out to dry and, in the process, cool off passersby below. The area has been renovated with new walls that look more like stucco than they should, but there are lovely cafes and art galleries and boutique hotels with sumptuous, shady courtyards.

Nearby Dubai Creek is being extended and enlarged — naturally — but it’s still a great place to watch traditional dhows — trading ships used with India, Iran and Africa in the old days — ply the calm waters with packs of immigrant workers out for a day away from the dust and concrete.

Just minutes away is the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, where you can sign up for a lunch with locals who will explain their culture and the Islamic faith. Tours at the massive Jumeirah Mosque also are offered four times a week for non-Muslims.

On the day I visited, a pair of British-born women talked about their connection with the creator, pointing out how Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet of God and how the decision to wear abayahs or niqabs is purely an individual one and how many women, themselves included, find that cover-up clothing shields them from men’s prying eyes and makes them less self-conscious about their body shapes.

“You never know what we might have on underneath,” one of them explains with a twinkle in her eye. “It might be yoga tights … or Winnie the Pooh pyjamas.”

The biggest surprise for some visitors might be the beaches, especially Jumeirah, which stretches on for several perfect kilometres of fluffy sand — allegedly brought in from Hawaii. My first morning in Dubai I was staying at the Mina A’Salam resort at the Madinat Jumeirah complex and made a quick, 6 a.m. dash for the beach. The light was wonderful; a mix of indigo and orange and grey, and the light on the towering, sail-like Burj Al Arab on the waterfront kept subtly changing as I strolled a shell-covered beach that was shockingly deserted. In half an hour on a perfect morning, there was only one other tourist in sight, plus a lone kayaker furiously working his way up and down the emerald sea, back and forth and back and forth in the soft light.

In a sea of modern hotels, the Mina A’Salam features a traditional look with Arabic arches and soft colours and rooms with enormous wood furnishings, most with wonderful views of the gulf and the man-made lagoon that links the property with the nearby Al Qasr Hotel as well as an extensive, indoor market or souk and the 40-odd restaurants, bars and outdoor cafés. It’s hugely popular with Europeans on holiday from the cold Russian winter or gloomy British fall. The souk isn’t an ancient one, but the crafts are real enough; from intricately woven red and gold rugs to local musical instruments, exotic teas — and a Tommy Bahamas store.

The hotel at the Burj Al Arab is way over the top, but that’s the fun of it. One of the restaurants is basically inside an aquarium, with sharks and rays and colourful reef fish in blue and yellow. There’s 1,200 staff for the 202 suites, not to mention butlers.

It still might be the most familiar symbol of Dubai, but Burj (which translates as tower) Khalifa has grabbed attention lately as the tallest freestanding structure in the world, weighing in 828 metres with the world’s first Armani Hotel and a killer viewing platform on the 124th floor that includes high-tech viewing equipment to get a close-up of buildings miles away; something the CN Tower might want to try.

It’s a huge treat for old and young alike, as is the Wild Wadi waterpark in Jumeirah, where they don’t want anyone to have to trudge up a hill with an inner-tube so instead give you the tube at the bottom of the ride and send you speeding up the slide courtesy of enormous water jets that will have grown adults grinning like idiots. You know you’re in Dubai when you see women covered head-to-toe in modest swimwear paddling alongside teens in bikinis that South Beach might deem too small.

Abdullah bin Suwaidan, deputy director of overseas promotion for the Dubai Tourism and Commerce department, shows a visitor a slide of the city’s first hotel, back in 1958. It’s a sad, two-and-a-half storey affair that looks like, well, a 1958 motel. Now there are said to be 365 hotels in the city, offering top-notch spas, designer restaurants by top international names and sleek décor.

The Metro system is said to be the largest automated system in the world, covering 70 kilometres and 55 stations. They stage the world’s richest horse race every March, the Dubai World Cup, as well as the Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament in February. There’s a Manchester United soccer school. And a Harvard University medical centre, not to mention an island shaped like Saturn.

On my last day, I’m thinking about how crazy it can all seem when I stroll outside the massive Dubai Mall, in the shadow of the world’s tallest building, and see a shop. There’s a bright purple sign that simply says, “More.”


Just the Facts

GETTING THERE: Emirates flies three times a week direct on the remarkable Airbus A-380.

WHAT TO DO: Arabian Adventures offers everything from market and boat tours to trips to memorable desert retreats.

WHERE TO STAY: The Madinat Jumeirah offers villas as well as Al Qasr and the Mina A’Salam Hotel. The latter is a gem for kids, with a playground, a wonderful beach and small boats that patrol the manmade lagoons. The Wharf serves $12 fish and chips with mushy peas for all the Brits on holidays, and shops at the on-property souk are open until 11 p.m. Rooms can be found for about $450 and up.

The Address at Dubai Marina is a sleek hotel not far from the Mall of the Emirates and just opened a new Veuve Clicqout bar called The Yellow Lounge, the first of its kind in Dubai. The hotel also is connected with the new Colin Montgomerie golf course. Rooms recently were listed for about $350 and up.

The Ritz Carlton has a very Miami-looking terrace bar on the beach, with plenty of white and tiki torches to light up the night. Rooms were recently listed at more than $500 per night.