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Dubai has all the razzle and dazzle and none of the hassle. Rowena Marella-Daw rediscovers the city's delights as it morphs into a futuristic wonderland

Bold and brash, Dubai is a sprawling metropolis of steel, concrete and glass monoliths. When I first visited in 2005, the second largest of seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates was a rising star. Dotted along the coast were old and new luxury resorts, with the Burj Al Arab dominating the skyline like a sentinel watching over the Gulf and beyond. Arriving at the airport six years later, the gleaming gold pillars I had expected to pass through at arrivals were nowhere to be seen; nothing looked familiar. Apparently, I had landed at the new Al Maktoum International Airport, named after the late Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum, former ruler of Dubai.

Dubai reminded me of many places: the skyline and glitz of Manhattan or Hong Kong, the playfulness of Orlando, the efficiency of Singapore and the sprawl of Los Angeles. The emphasis here is on fun, sun, beach, shopping, dining, partying, mall-hopping and more shopping. Families, couples, hens and stags come here to celebrate and marvel at its otherworldly character - the Atlantis Palm Jumeirah is a perfect example. The marina area is now a throbbing social hotspot where a pedestrianised street gives way to revellers strolling past rows of eateries, cafés, shops and swanky hotels. The atmosphere is electric and even the crowds seemed different - younger, spirited and confident.

The sky's the limit


In Dubai they don't do things by halves. The Burj Al Khalifa, so far the tallest building in the world, stole the glory from the Burj when it launched - and launch it did like a rocket. Architecturally it is awe-inspiring, and looking up at the structure gave me a feeling of reverse vertigo. The building is home to the Armani Hotel, and fronting it is a man-made lake with a dancing fountain.

Beyond the glitz


There is no shortage of things to do and explore outside the city, so forget the shopping and head for the desert. Trek along the rugged slopes of the Hajar Mountains and its countless boulders and rock pools - it's how I imagined the moon's landscape to be - stark, dry and jagged, yet dramatic and mesmerising. Prepare for an adrenalin-inducing desert safari on a 4WD riding the crest of towering sand dunes. At sundown witness the horizon turn fiery red behind the golden sands, then join in a Bedouin-style celebration in an encampment, dining under the stars as these tribes have done for centuries.

Beneath the city's razzle and dazzle lies an ancient culture that defines its true character. The Deira district along Dubai Creek is a maze of narrow alleyways and old buildings. At the gold souk, haggling is the norm. Follow your nose towards the spice souk and its myriad spices, herbs and dried flowers. Hop onto an Abra (water taxi) and cross the river where a constant flow of vessels send endless ripples. Disembark on the opposite side where the Dubai Museum's impressive life-size dioramas take you back to Dubai's past.

Dubai is a fantastic place for couples who simply want to have fun and adventure. It's also ideal for a two- or three-day pit-stop en route to a dream destination, whether it's the Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka or the Far East.


Burj, Khalifa



An oasis of calm


Start your honeymoon as you mean to go on - in style. Let your personal chauffeur take you to Desert Palm, situated between the airport and the heart of the city. After a 15-minute drive, you arrive at a private enclave obscured by rows of palm trees. Herein lies the luxury boutique hotel, dignified and understated - the antithesis to the city's new sprawling resorts.

Outside the lobby a water feature with a modern sculpture of a horse's head takes pride of place. Apart from the boutique character of the hotel, what really sets this place apart are the four championship polo fields, a riding school and stables dotted around this expansive, lush estate.

The lighting in the lobby is subdued, and the décor imbibes a contemporary yet intimate ambience, suited to newlyweds who want to avoid crowded, noisy hotel lobbies. There are 38 Polo Suites facing the polo field, and the rooms are massive, you could jog around them. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows let plenty of sunshine in, but there are electronically-controlled blinds to provide total privacy.

Dining is an unhurried culinary treat at the Rare Restaurant. Like the rest of the hotel, the mood is romantic, and the menu is modern international grill. There is a show kitchen from which the chef produced the most succulent, tender steak in memory. The restaurant's homemade red pesto dip was also hard to resist.

If you don't mind the heat, dine alfresco at The Gourmet Market next to the infinity pool, or stay cool inside the air-conditioned restaurant, which has a menu of hearty dishes as well as healthy juices and shakes. Within the restaurant is the Epicure takeaway deli for guests who prefer to eat in private. The Red bar and lounge is a good place to chill out for a pre- and post-dinner tipple.

After a six or seven-hour journey from the UK, you'll be well prepped for an indulgent treatment in the Lime Spa, where an aromatherapy massage will revive and recharge. There are six spa suites and a large relaxation room. This sanctuary feels more like a private club, and after a day of exploring the city, the spa is a welcome treat. To find out more, visit www.desertpalm.peraquum.com


Desert Palm infinity pool

The Gourmet Market