The largest and most developed of the seven United Arab Emirates, Dubai has a well-deserved reputation as an oasis for cosmopolitan luxury travelers with money to burn. Yes, Dubai is a port city of work on the Arabian Gulf, a gateway to places that, for most Americans, are hidden in the encyclopedia as faraway and forbidden lands: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan. But the most characteristic feature of the city is its pursuit of all things at the top, from luxury seven-star hotels and shopping malls with ski resorts to artificial islands built in the shape of palms and continents.
Since the 1950s, however, Dubai has been a small commercial and fishing port. (Pearl diving was an important industry until cultivated versions became popular.) It is possible, even if it takes some work, to find the remains of this unique story in the Emirates. Some experienced entrepreneurs are beginning to develop cultural tourism that highlights the country's Bedouin roots, as well as the melting pot that Dubai has become.
Yet, it is the modern traps that you will notice first, from the ultra-sophisticated planes of the Emirates Airplanes, which undoubtedly arrived at the crowded Dubai International Airport because of the fact that everyone speaks English. Although North Americans are a bit scarce, Dubai has already been discovered by the elite from the rest of the world, who are magnetically drawn by its beautiful villages, beaches and coastline and its duty-free status as a shopping mecca.
That being said, Dubai - and the United Arab Emirates in general - is Muslim, and the laws of morality are alive and well. Public kissing is not allowed, and gay travelers are not welcome. (Homosexuality is illegal.) Alcohol is served only in licensed hotels and restaurants, and many common prescription drugs are illegal. (Take copies of your prescriptions from your doctor.) Although beachwear is appropriate in most places, shorts and tanks are unusual; even some malls have a dress code. Pack long-sleeved t-shirts, or long trousers, and skirts and long dresses if you plan on visiting mosques or taking walks.
Despite its cultural issues, Dubai remains an important port of embarkation - if not port of call - for travelers cruising on popular Middle Eastern routes through the Arabian Gulf or around the Arabian Peninsula to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. (Even if your cruise doesn't start or end here, you'll probably have a night.) The "season" runs from October to May and is particularly appreciated by European lines, such as Costa and AIDA. If you are looking for a vision in the modern Middle East - and you want a guarantee that you will have a sunny and warm time for your holidays - Dubai is perhaps your best place to start.