Dubai’s accomplishments in urban planning are revolutionary, and it seems the city is only just getting started. There are man-made canals and archipelagos, skyscrapers that spiral 90 degrees (Cayan Tower), and of course, the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa). There are driverless trains, and a helicopter taxi recently took its first test flight. Cloud engineering is responsible for rain showers and experts want to tow an iceberg from Greenland for water. This emirate is growing at such an exponential rate, it might look like a sci-fi movie setting sooner than you think.

The United Arab Emirates has been a trading centre for centuries, reckon historians, and business is still what attracts a lot of foreigners today. From a traveller’s perspective, it’s more than just a boardroom city, though. Dubai is deeply multicultural. People from over 200 different nationalities call the UAE home. A boulevard walk in Dubai reveals individuals of all backgrounds, lifestyles and ethnicities. Most are young. They burn the candle at both ends, working hard and rewarding themselves, rubbing shoulders with other global citizens just like them. Dubai might very well be the world’s most cosmopolitan city.

That high-calibre worldliness is on full display at Dubai Mall, the largest mall ever by area. Spanning 502,000 square metres (to put that into perspective, more than twice the size of Central World), it’s bursting at the seams with a mix of local and international brands. Navigating the dining directory is like a foodie jetset around the world: in the food court, there’s Middle Eastern, fast food from America, the Philippines, Britain and more. Regional dining concepts include the USA’s The Cheesecake Factory, Italy’s Eataly and France’s Galerie Lafayette gourmet market.

As in Thailand, mega-malls are air-conditioned refuges to escape from the sweltering heat. With the UAE’s strict rules on alcohol (it’s mostly only hotel F&B concepts and high-level restaurants that are permitted to serve it), and a large population of locals who do not drink, Dubai’s shopping complexes make for important hangouts. Dubai Mall stays open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and during the Dubai Shopping Festival in January, when big discounts entice browsers, even as late as 1am!

This promises a lot of great people-watching. The shoppers are as multicultural as the shops: you might see Middle Eastern women with big hairdos, some with headscarves, or those with only kohl-lined eyes peeking out of niqabs. Regardless of whether they wear abayas or not, these women love designer labels, so expect to see plentiful sparkly bling and plush handbags hanging off wrists. Western and Asian tourists, and foreign workers from all over the world, round out a well-blended crowd. Those used to a Thai shopping experience will feel right at home while getting new kicks.

In recent years, expats have complained about a lack of cultural venues in Dubai’s rapid development, so there’s been a big push for more globally minded arts and entertainment in downtown Dubai. New Dubai is a backdrop for bold innovation, but not much creative flair up until recently, especially when it was compared to the art galleries and historic sites in the older parts of town.

When the Dubai Opera House opened in 2016, that was considered a major turning point. It is one of the most futuristic and high-tech performing arts theatres in the world. The lobby overlooks the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain through wraparound glass. A chandelier comprised of 2,900 LED lights can shake up the ambience at a button’s push. Modern hydraulics allow the building’s 2,000-seat capacity to transform into different setups like theatre, concert hall, and flat floor, while a state-of-the-art acoustics shell made of towers and reflectors offers exceptional sound. Dubai Opera hosts ballet performances, concerts, theatre, comedy gigs and more.

Dubai also recently took a page out of the Las Vegas playbook, and opened its first resident theatre show. ‘La Perle’ opened in September to rave reviews, and is the artistic vision of prolific Italian-Belgian director Franco Dragone. If you’ve ever seen or wanted to see his other live productions, such as Cirque du Soleil or Celine Dion’s first Vegas residency ‘A New Day…’, ‘La Perle’ will be a real treat.

The 90-minute performance is a non-stop adrenaline rush of acrobatic, aerial and aquatic stunts, swiftly unfolding one after the other. About 2.7 million litres of water turn the stage into an underwater realm of waterfalls, torrents and rain showers, all indoors, anchored by a 12-metre-deep pool in the stage centre. Performers dive from trapezes as high as 25 metres into the sparkly depths, or even emerge from beneath the stage in it.

A Chinese dragon leaps around on impossibly tiny platforms. Motorcyclists pull off the ‘Globe of Death’ – a circus stunt where multiple riders zoom around inside a rooftop-hanging sphere. 3D projection mapping transforms the theatre, purpose-built exclusively for the production, into so many different planes and time periods you’re sure to lose track (and for that matter, also storage space on your smartphone).

The storyline gets a little diluted in all the aqua tricks, to be frank, but it won’t much matter as you soak up all the elaborate costumes, erratic dance movements and every big splash. There are two showings of ‘La Perle’ nightly from Wednesdays to Sundays at the theatre in Al Habtoor City, interconnected with the W Hotel Dubai.

New hotels are always popping up in Dubai too, and the standard of hospitality and service here is simply the best. The industry is highly competitive, and tastemakers are always aiming to outdo themselves, and each other, with cutting-edge concepts and unique designs. Money is often no object in pulling off architectural feats and swanky opening soirees.

Opened in November 2017, The Renaissance Downtown Hotel Dubai is one of the latest hotels jockeying for recognition. It aims to cater to business travellers who want to smoothly get their work finished, but also enrich their Dubai experience with art, cool architecture and foodie discoveries off the clock. The hotel offers a special ‘Navigator’ concierge service, a local expert who’s dug deep into Dubai’s landscape and the surrounding Business Bay district, and as such is able to offer genuine insider tips. He or she might recommend a buzzy nearby chai tea shop, or a Persian restaurant hidden inside a parking garage, delivering recommendations that are truly tailored to guests’ preferences with that element of surprise yearned for by the modern adventurer.

This Marriott property offers accommodation that digital nomads and millennial business travellers will be sure to fancy. Smart TVs easily connect to YouTube and Netflix, smart lighting is controlled on a wall touchpad, while there are plentiful USB and power sockets spread out around rooms and suites. ‘Indoor balconies’ offer dramatic sky-high views of Dubai Marina from floor-to-ceiling windows, providing the perfect spot to cosy up with a laptop and a cup of espresso.

The Renaissance is also home to the newly launched Six Senses Spa Dubai. Thai resort-goers are surely familiar with this bespoke wellness resort and spa brand, particularly its offerings in Koh Samui, Koh Kood and Koh Yao Noi in Phang Nga Bay. But the Dubai spa, only opened in January, offers a truly original concept that places the portfolio on another niveau.

Each of Six Senses Spa Dubai’s six treatment suites is dedicated to a different sense: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and the elusive sixth sense, intuition. The Sound Suite contains a lounger that uses healing sound vibrations to ease stress and muscle tension, providing the sensation of lying within a Tibetan singing bowl. There is also an interactive hanging chime feature, a steam shower and a sauna where guests can choose from a range of relaxing music and sounds to space out to.

The Sight Suite enhances the visual senses using colour therapy, projected using digital images, inside a steam room. A relaxation area offers circadian rhythm lighting that was originally developed for NASA astronauts, while sleep-improving LED lamps help to regulate the body’s natural melatonin, heightening natural alertness, energy and focus. Colour and spectrum settings are controlled by guests via a smartphone app, while on-board sensors are hard at work monitoring air quality to improve breathing and set the right mood.

The mysterious Beyond Suite offers a soothing wild card. Skilled experts guide guests through simple yoga, stretching and breathing techniques, singing bowl meditation and chakra balancing, according to their needs and wishes.

This desire for Dubai establishments to always be trendy and cutting edge has also put it at the forefront of the global fashion scene. Dubai is such a favourite of powerhouse fashion designer Donatella Versace that she has even opened her own hotel there.

The Palazzo Versace Dubai, of which Donatella is artistic director, is the influential fashion house’s second property in the world after Australia’s Gold Coast. Opened in late 2016, it’s not the first Italian couture brand to open a five-star retreat in Dubai. The Armani Hotel Dubai set the stage in 2010 with lavish rooms in the iconic Burj Al Arab building, and it was the first luxury property designed and developed by Giorgio Armani.

Not to be outdone, the Palazzo Versace is a neoclassical Italian palace towering over the developing Dubai Creek area. The 130,000-square-metre building is extravagantly framed with shimmering lagoon pools, al fresco dining areas and big leafy palms.

The interior is truly a sight to behold: the patterns you’ve seen on willowy runway models are splashed across sofas, pillows, bedspreads and curtains. Hallway sketches of Atelier Versace gowns hark back to history.

The grand foyer makes a lasting first impression. Red and gold bursts across the brand’s signature Medusa head and Greek key motifs. Staff wear silk ties and blouses in fabric that match the décor to a tee. The lobby café and lounge has a floor made of over a million pieces of mosaic and marble, while the ceiling, hand-detailed in gold, dangles a humongous chandelier – decorated in a Versace floral pattern and 3,000 kilograms of hand-blown Bohemian glass. Everywhere that you look is a statement that’s sultry and exorbitant, which is certain to be just the way Donatella intended it.

The Palazzo Versace is proud of its exotic import status, literally wearing its Italian heritage on its sleeve. Despite this, the hotel also takes great care to ground itself in the local culture. Subtle Arab touches, such as horse motifs on pillows and classic geometric architectural patterns, can be spotted throughout. Most of the dining concepts serve authentic Mediterranean and Italian cuisine, except for Enigma, a pop-up concept serving a rotating menu of ethnic cuisines. A few months ago it was Turkish, and now Michelin-starred Executive Chef Mansour Memarian is sharing his Iranian background in ‘Tastes of Persia’.

According to some estimates, only 10 per cent of UAE residents are native Emirati. But the local culture and history is firmly interwoven into all that multiculturalism. When the Dubai Fountain dances throughout the day, shooting up 500 metres into the air in an LEDladen spectacle, it does so to songs in Italian, Swahili, by Michael Jackson, Adele and Édith Piaf, but also from Emirati artists and in Arabic. The Dubai Opera is shaped like the bow of a ship, and the Burj Al Arab like a sail. As futuristic as this city is, it can of course be very traditional. So although Dubai is always changing, you can always count on the scenery to cherish where it all started.

Text and Photos by Barbara Woolsey
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