On her homecoming trip to Dubai, our writer discovered that the Emirate’s sheen is an offshoot of its spunky spirit rooted firmly in humble beginnings. By Adila Matra

One of the vices of living in another country for 20 odd years is that you are unable to perceive it as anything but home. That country, for me, is the United Arab Emirates. So, whenever I am approached by friends planning a trip to Dubai, for itinerary advice, I am lost. Surely, I cannot recommend a walk by the creek or a picnic at Al Zabeel park—those are too pedestrian for a tourist. They wouldn’t want to scour a baqala (grocery store) for a pack of Spanish roll or stand by a fumy cafeteria where boisterous Lebanese men serve the best of shawarmas. Those are far from ‘touristy’. So, I send them packing with the banalest travel advice—malls, skyscrapers, and the beach.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
Atlantis, The Palm, as seen from a helicopter flying over Dubai.

An invite to explore the luxury offerings of Dubai seemed like the perfect opportunity to put an end to my conundrum. I was excited, to say the least, to delve into a side of the emirate that I was not at all privy to. Apart from a helicopter ride and the surreal show La Perle by Dragone, an ascent to the top of Burj Khalifa was also on the cards.

I land in Dubai on a pleasant autumn afternoon, to the silvery voice of the muezzin, calling for prayer. Just like its strong tie with culture, Dubai’s appetite for architecture never ceases to amaze. A new building or highway pops up on its landscape every other day. I spot one during the ride to the hotel—a gleaming silver oval building, with calligraphy engineered into its windows. “Museum of the Future,” says the driver as if reading my mind. “It is to be a museum for ideas and innovation. It’s going to be groundbreaking,” he adds. I nod in agreement. I had no doubt that the largest emirate in UAE, where even metro stations are a thing of visual wonder, could conjure up something as futuristic as this.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
Dubai Creek was a major landmark in the 1990s. It now extends to the Persian Gulf through the recently-opened Dubai Water Canal.

My stay for the brief homecoming is Address Downtown, located smack in the middle of the maze-like Downtown Dubai, the emirate’s veritable luxury address. It overlooks the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Mall—two other noteworthy landmarks. The receptionist smiles at me despite being bogged down by the flurry of travellers. Autumn is a busy time for Dubai; temperatures don’t go above 30°, making it perfect for pool and beach days.

Check-in rituals and a warm bath later, I set out in pursuit of lunch. Origami, in Dubai’s Festival City, doesn’t just offer the best sushi in town but also brings together Middle Eastern and Japanese cultures—zashiki seating with low dining tables is complemented by Arabic calligraphy on the walls. I start with the classics—calamari prawns and sashimi—and move on to specialities like the Japanese tuna pizza with truffles. By the time I get back, I am overwhelmed as much by the fierce flavours as the hospitality.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
La Perle, Dubai’s first resident show, fuses immersive artistic performance with high-end technology.

No travel tale in Dubai is complete without a mention of its high-end artificial wonders. The emirate receives equal flak and praise for them. Nevertheless, Dubai doggedly sees through unimaginable projects, including an ice land with sub-zero temperatures, a butterfly garden, and multiple man-made islands. The latest, and probably the most jaw-dropping addition to this list is an indoor rainforest called The Green Planet.

With a 900-square-metre bio-dome centred around a 20-metre-tall man-made kapok tree, Dubai has outdone itself. Spread over four levels— the Canopy, the Midstory, the Forest Floor, and the Flooded Rainforest—the structure disconnects me from the reality outside. The whoosh of the cars disappears, and I am left with the burble of streams, as they flow over twigs and gravel, and the crashing of waterfalls. Amazon parrots and toucans fly overhead, and stingrays and piranhas peek at me from behind glass enclosures. One hour later, as I head out, I find it difficult to let go of the chirp, rustle, hum, and squeak of the forest.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
A 20-metre-tall kapok tree greets you at the indoor rainforest, The Green Planet.

It is evening, and the walk has left me famished. I decide to drive to the end of the Dubai Marina for an out-of-the-world meal. One glance around the Bulgari Resort Dubai and I realise why it is ranked among the top opulent experiences in Dubai. Occupying a stretch on the horseshoe-shaped Jumeirah Island, it is dramatic in both appearance and service. The world’s first Bulgari Marina and Yacht Club overlooks a 46 boat harbour; my dinner begins with an enthusiastic violinist rolling out classic jazz numbers and ends with the sound of gentle waves.

The curtain call of the day is Dubai’s first resident show, La Perle by Dragone. Every evening, the colossal aqua theatre in Al Habtoor City hosts a visual spectacle whose fame knows no bounds. And like Parisians dressing up for opera, Dubai lines up in front of its gate, babbling about the magic of Italian theatre director Franco Dragone—the mastermind behind shows like House of Dancing Water in Macau and Le Reve in Las Vegas—who visualised La Perle as a tribute to the spirit of Dubai. Soon, every surface becomes a screen, there are giant cycloramas and music resonating from the walls and the seats. Artistes dive 25 metres into an onstage pool at times, and at others, drive motorcycles that seem to defy gravity. And just when you think you have seen it all, giant marionettes and chariots appear and drive the audience into a frenzy.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
Address Downtown is a landmark of luxury situated in the centre of Downtown Dubai.

The morning after, I am still reeling under the magnificence of La Perle, when the driver points towards the Dubai Frame. It is an impressive structure that separates Old Dubai from the new, a gigantic frame that connects the emirate’s rich past with its magnificent present. I am overwhelmed by a bout of nostalgia, of watching the Frame come up from my balcony in Old Dubai. Being on the other side feels a little odd, a little amusing, almost like coming full circle—resident to tourist.

Speaking of a magnificent present, it is not every day that you get to be a bird on Dubai’s skyline, spotting the many tiny furrows on the vast sea below. HeliDubai Jumeirah Heliport is deserted when I arrive at 2 pm. After a quick briefing of the dos and don’ts, I strap in for my first chopper ride. Flying at a height of 457 metres, the helicopter skims past the Burj and hovers over the Palm Jumeirah. The pilot also points towards Dubai’s next architectural marvel—the World Islands. But the most spellbinding sight of all is the deep blue of Dubai’s beaches—it fills my eyes and heart.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
The observation deck on the 148th floor of Burj Khalifa.

Lunch is set at Shimmers, the Greek restaurant at Jumeirah Mina A’Salam, where beautifully plated souvlaki and tatziki compete with the frothy whites of the sea and the lofty Burj Al Arab. The waitress recommends shopping at the nearby Souk Madinat Jumeirah—a modern, air-conditioned take on the traditional Middle Eastern bazaar. At the entrance, a greying man is engrossed in sand art, and another one is busy weaving. Reminiscent of the souks of Old Dubai, this one, too, is long and winding. Stalls decorated with lanterns and carved wood sell spices and perfumes. Sentimentality takes over, and I cannot resist buying a pack of father’s favourite frankincense and a tiny bottle of my mother’s beloved itr.

From the shores, I head to the sea. Docked permanently at Dubai’s Mina Rashid port is a ship that has witnessed many wars, love stories, and musical soirées in the 50 years of its life on the sea until it retired in 1969. QE2, designed by the Cunard Line, for the transatlantic service from Southampton to New York, is now a floating hotel and retired ocean liner, with comfortable rooms and suites. Located on the quarter deck of this legendary ship, Lido offers an unmatched deal—an al fresco dining experience with an amazing view of the port. After a hearty meal of salads, sausages, freshly baked bread, and crisp waffles, I saunter aboard the QE2 and envisage its glorious days—when its patrons like Nelson Mandela, Elizabeth Taylor, Buzz Aldrin, and David Bowie engaged in light banter over a glass of their favourite drink.

Dubai Innovation Architecture
Shop for trinkets at Souk Madinat Al Jumeriah.

The last lap of the trip features a quick visit to the Expo 2020 site. Touted to be the largest event ever staged in the Arab world, the expo welcomes 190 countries and millions of visitors from across the globe, to exchange ideas in the field of art, science, and design. The guide takes me around the site in a sleek SUV, trying to describe the magnitude of the six-month-long event. “You have to come see it,” she says finally as if conceding defeat to the inexplicable phenomenon. I give up too, vowing to come back.

On the final night, I stand on the observation deck of the topmost floor of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, and take in the million glittering lights of Dubai. I am suddenly reminded of my glossy UAE Social textbook of grade 5, with sepia photographs of the emirate—a barren landscape with a few scattered fishing settlements, sand forts, and old fashioned ships—along with tales of courageous pearl divers and tenacious rulers, whose vision was to turn the desert into gold. And just like that, the homecoming feels complete.

GETTING THERE

Many airlines, including Air India and Emirates, offer daily direct flights to Dubai from Delhi and Mumbai.

STAY

Address Downtown is a landmark of luxury situated in the centre of Downtown Dubai. Doubles from INR 21,554.

Atlantis, The Palm is an upscale retreat offering a water park, a dolphin pool, and an aquarium, plus a spa and 23 restaurants. Doubles from INR 13,469.

Related: Art Lovers Rejoice As Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue Galleries Can Now Be Explored Online!