Dubai is the picture-perfect melding of old and new
A study in contrasts, the UAE is a futuristic yet traditional destination
It is not hard to see why Dubai is the pride and joy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Surrounded by the desert, this metropolis of glass and concrete towers stands tall and proud.
The first thing one notices is how similar this futuristic city is to Singapore. Clean pavements and tree-lined roads, massive skyscrapers clustering in the city areas, and even the all-too-familiar heat of Singapore.
Although we visited last month, and not in the middle of summer when it can get a lot hotter than here, the relentless sun beat down from cloudless skies with temperatures of between 32 and 34 deg C.
Dubai is not just a city of extravagance but a study in contrasts.
It is fascinating and charming how it manages to preserve its rich heritage and culture in the midst of rapid modernisation, how the old thrives alongside the new. You catch glimpses of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, and the bustling, low-lying traditional markets.
Don't-miss desert experience
The Dubai desert is exactly what you imagine it to be - only better.
Driving the rustic-looking four-wheel drive through the pristine whitish-yellow sand, the tour guide pointed out wildlife that we probably would have missed on our own. We spotted two gazelles grazing from afar, and observed many Arabian oryx - the national animal of the UAE - up close.
After making a stop to watch a falcon show, in which a trainer demonstrates how the predator hunts for food, we made our way to the camping area. It is a place which bustles with activity, from free henna services to interactive traditional dance performances.
For dinner, we had injera, a pita-like bread made at the campsite. There was also a lamb roasted whole.
If you are adventurous enough, try the camel meat served alongside the usual beef and chicken dishes.
Any trip to the desert is incomplete without a ride on a camel. It stands at an imposing height of about 2.15m and the bumpy ride proved to be scary but thrilling at the same time.
My personal highlight was the sunset. At various points of the evening, the sky transformed from a deep purple to a vibrant pink, and finally a warm orange before it gets totally dark. The desert, in its totality, was an experience indeed.
Back in the city, we explored Alserkal Avenue, Dubai's emerging creative hub where creatives see their dreams become reality.
Featuring art galleries, unique cafes, a cinema that screens indie and Arab films, the only vinyl shop in the UAE and even a chocolate factory, it is a treasure trove for culture vultures.
I particularly enjoyed Kave, The Story of Things, a cafe-shop that advocates repurposing and zero-waste living. It sells customised bicycles by collecting discarded bicycle frames from landfills, repurposing and painting them, giving them a new lease of life. Unconventional workshops like those on toothpaste making, woodworking and weaving are also held regularly.
Skip the traffic jams in the city and ride the waves of history on the abra, a small boat and Dubai's oldest form of water transportation. You can take one across the creek separating Old and New Dubai for only 1 Dirham (S$0.37).
Old Dubai feels like another world. Traditional markets or souqs of almost every kind are filled with merchants selling pants, incense burners and handmade plates.
Emirati food is all about the spices and you can expect to find all kinds at the spice souq. From cinnamon and saffron to cardamom and cumin, the aromatics of every colour are displayed at the shopfronts. Follow your nose and bargain your way to the best deals.
End your trip at the biggest mall in the world. It has more than 1,300 retail outlets and more than 200 food options, so you'll probably need a whole day or more to cover it.
It has an indoor waterfall inspired by pearl diving, a common practice in Old Dubai.
Families can also have fun together at the Olympic-sized ice rink and the Virtual Reality park, but the most eye-catching was definitely the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
Surrounded by shops was a 51m-long tank at the Dubai Aquarium where hammerhead sharks and manta rays teem, while the Underwater Zoo - with the focus on conservation - provides a good learning experience for children as they explore the area with a 5m-long crocodile and other exotic creatures like piranhas and seahorses.