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Dispatch from Dubai, Part 1: Getting There

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Silver Camel DubaiPeterGreenberg.com’s Karen Elowitt recently flew to Dubai for a more in-depth look at the city she once covered in a day.  

Often referred to as Disneyland for grown-ups, or the Vegas of the Middle East, even this glittery getaway is feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Elowitt will report daily on her discoveries, and figure out whether the glitz and glamour is just a façade, or whether there is a real city with a real soul residing within the myth.

Even the most seasoned jet setter will let out a grunt of dread when contemplating a trip from the West Coast to the Middle East. No matter what route you take, or which airline you fly on, it’s a damn long way.

It takes 15 hours to get to Dubai from my departure city of San Francisco, so I was somewhat relieved to find out I’d be flying on Emirates Airlines because as far as I’m concerned they are one of the best airlines around.

A comfortable seat on a quality airline can make all the difference between arriving at your destination exhausted, cranky and possibly homicidal, versus arriving a little worn out but otherwise okay.

I had flown Emirates once before and was struck by how polite and gracious the flight attendants were, how clean and well-kept the interior of the plane was, and how good the food was. Not to mention that I love the elegant hat/scarf contraption that the female flight attendants wear.

Burj Dubai from AboveMy first Emirates experience was so much more pleasant than flying the average American carrier, which is usually an exercise in extreme endurance. It’s kind of a given that domestic flights are the pits, but even on international routes I have found U.S.-based airlines to be far inferior to foreign ones. It seems that the Americans have lost the instinct for customer service.

This time was no different. In addition to the usual great service, the bells and whistles of business class helped ease the trip immensely. After I boarded, the cabin crew gave me a little orientation to make sure I was aware of all 900 (or so it seemed) features of the seat, plane and entertainment system.

The seat was not only adjustable about 35 different ways, but stretched out into a completely flat bed which helped me sleep for several hours. The seats are far enough apart that no one can kick the back of your seat, or use it as leverage to hoist themselves up at 2 a.m. and wake you from a sound sleep.

The entertainment system had what seemed to be 20,000 movies, games, TV shows and travel guides, and the privacy screens made me feel like I was in my own little oasis. I didn’t even pick up either of the books I brought with me—I just caught up on my movie watching before eating a meal of leek-filled chicken chased by white chocolate mousse, then settled in for a good five-hour sleep.

Considering the excellent service, it’s no wonder that Emirates is expanding at a time when many other airlines are struggling financially. In fact, they fly non-stop to Dubai from five North American cities, and about 100 other places around the world from Asia to Europe to Africa. Though Emirates is known primarily to American business travelers for now, I hope more and more leisure travelers get turned on to the company.

But I digress.

Dubai @ nightAfter touching down in Dubai a day after leaving San Francisco, I actually felt pretty decent. The shut-eye, plus some funky herbal jet-lag pills that I was test-driving, left me surprisingly refreshed and alert when I finally arrived. Of course I looked like I had just been run over by a truck, but that’s nothing a little makeup and change of clothes can’t fix.

It was a treat to disembark at the massive, cavernous new international terminal, which was built to accommodate the upsurge in visitors to the Emirate. Dubai has seen an increase in visitors every year for the last two decades—and continues to even with the current recession. Terminal 3, which opened in October 2008, is a whopping than 1.5 million square meters, and serves Emirates Airlines.

After breezing through passport control in 30 seconds flat, I realized just how massive the terminal is when I still hadn’t reached the baggage claim area after 20 minutes of non-stop walking down endless corridors. Maybe they will install some of those people-conveyor things when they retrofit some day.

The place seemed way overbuilt considering the scant few visitors I saw milling about waiting for their bags, but during peak night period between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., the terminal does get busy as dozens of flights disembark simultaneously.

The 11-hour time difference meant that even though it was 9 pm local time, it was only 8 am according to my body clock, so I was wide awake. I decided to spend a while exploring the marvelousness of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers (JET).

Dubai buildingsLike everything else in Dubai, JET is over-the-top. The complex consists of two architecturally innovative skyscrapers situated directly opposite the Dubai International Financial Centre. One tower is occupied by the hotel, and the other by offices. In between the two lies a glittery shopping mall, one of dozens in town.

The hotel has won at least 44 awards since its opening in 2000, mostly for excellence as a business hotel. The state-of-the-art facilities include a card-key activated secure elevator system, a women-only floor, a men-only spa, and a massive conference and business center.

All that is well and good, but since I wasn’t in town to strike a deal or attend a convention I was more interested in the unique little touches. Like the “Arabic breakfast” on the room service menu (scrambled egg shakshouka with halloumi cheese and foul medames), and the arrow on the ceiling of every guest room that points to Mecca, so that observant Muslims will know which direction to face when they pray.

When I opened the welcome packet provided to all guests, I noted that I had access to the Towers’ 12 bars and restaurants, fitness center, spa, and the pool … but most importantly, the Wild Wadi Water Park!

Now that’s more my speed—and very characteristic of Dubai. Though many come here primarily to do business, they always leave time to enjoy the carnival-like attractions that have earned the Emirate a reputation as the Las Vegas of the Middle East— minus the gambling.

Can’t wait to finally catch a few zzzz’s so that I’m rested enough tomorrow to start my own exploration of Dubai. Is it really just a desert Disneyland for adults, filled with over-the-top amusements for those with money to burn? Or is there more to it than that?

Get the next installment with Dispatches from Dubai, Part Two: Visions of the Future.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

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