On busy Sheik Zayed Road, the highway running through the sprawling metropolis of Dubai that connects the old city with its modern eye-catching skylines, a Ferrari whizzes past at 75 miles per hour. It's a police car, a sign that Dubai -- a city often compared to Las Vegas -- has flash to spare.
The biggest 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 working port city on the Arabian Gulf, a gateway to places that, for most North Americans, are tucked away in the encyclopedia as distant and forbidden lands: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan. But the city's most distinctive feature is its pursuit of all things over the top, from "seven star" luxury hotels and shopping malls with ski resorts to manmade islands built in the shape of palm trees and continents.
As late as the 1950s, however, Dubai was a small-time trading and fishing port. (Pearl diving was a major industry until cultured versions came into vogue.) It's possible, although it does take some work, to find remnants of this uniquely Emirati history. A few savvy 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 still, it's the modern trappings you'll notice first, from the ultra-sophisticated Emirates Air planes that you no doubt arrived on to sleek Dubai International Airport to the fact that everyone speaks English. (You won't need to trot out Arabic here -- though attempting "shukran," for thank you, is always appreciated.) Although North Americans are somewhat scarce, Dubai has already been discovered by the elite from the rest of the world, who are magnetically drawn by its resorts, gorgeous beaches and coast, and its duty-free status as a shopping mecca.
That being said, Dubai -- and the United Arab Emirates in general -- is Muslim, and morality laws are alive and well. Public displays of affection are forbidden (no kissing your partner), and gay travelers are not welcome. (Homosexuality is illegal.) Alcohol is only served at hotels and restaurants with licenses, and many common prescriptions drugs are illegal. (Bring copies of your prescriptions from your doctor.) Although beachwear is appropriate at resorts, shorts and tank tops are uncommon; even some malls have a dress code. Pack long-sleeved tops, capris or long pants, and long skirts and dresses if you plan to visit mosques or do a lot of walking around.
Despite its hardline stance on these cultural issues, Dubai remains a major port of embarkation -- if not port of call -- for cruise travelers on popular Middle East itineraries through the Arabian Gulf or around the Arabian Peninsula to the Red Sea and Suez Canal. (Even if your cruise doesn't begin or end there, you're likely to have an overnight.) The "season" runs from October through May and is particularly popular with European lines, such as Costa and AIDA. If you're looking for a view into the modern Middle East -- and want a guarantee that you'll have sunny, warm weather on your vacation -- Dubai is perhaps your best place to start.