(Sept 13, 2009)

Sun-Herald There’s the steady ping ping of electronic musak, reminiscent of Popcorn, that staple of nineteen-seventies children’s television while, on the screen in front of me, a series of images flicker across a dark, sandy background. Men in desert robes lope across the sand, camels drooping behind them while the sand clouds out in bursts. Beneath the men, a flash of white writing: 1830’s – Settlement. Now the men are by the creek which gives Dubai its name, their feet slipping through the water. The white titles slide across the screen – 1955, Pearl Divers and all the while, the unexcited elevator music pings underneath. Suddenly, the music shifts to a rapturous choral Ooooooooooooh, and the image on the screen changes: a large metal shaft thrusts forcefully into the ground. All that’s missing is a few soaped up bikini girls. As black liquid begins to spurt and the choral rapture swells, the words slide exultantly across the screen: 1966 – DISCOVERY OF OIL.

Housed in the old Al Fahidi Fort, a square of red stone, the Dubai museum provides a retreat into a Dubai removed from the oil-rich, fast-paced emirate. Still, it is this moment, the discovery of oil, which marks the climactic moment in the museum’s photostory, and in the lfe of Dubai. Under Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum the discovery marked a period of manic growth. Buildings sprang up overnight, hotels stretched beyond imaginable heights. In Dubai, big was no longer big enough, luxurious a mere stepping stone to uber-luxury. In Dubai, five stars was no longer enough for a hotel.

Curious about this modern wonderland, and tired of taking two weeks to recover from long haul flights, I’ve stopped over for two nights on a flight from Australia back to the UK. I’ve spent the morning wandering the rooms of my apartment, looking out over the deathly image of the building sites below me, all frozen, it seems. Like a peculiarly modern ghost town, although Dubai swarms with people – tourists, visitors, expats – now, in the midst of the (whisper it) Global Financial Crisis, building sites are left half-formed, cranes paused mid-swing. Workers only come out at night, the hotel porter tells me, because of the heat. Still, this image of a city trying to draw breath, to re-gather, persists. I scoff the fruit platter left in my suite and stare out at the cranes. The phone rings. A breathy voice informs me my spa therapist is waiting for me downstairs.

The spa room is muted with sheeny black curtains and the smell of honey and lavender. There are two young women in the changing room; they live in Dubai, they tell me. The American has been here for four years, the Italian for three. “Have you met any Dubai nationals in that time?” I ask. They look at me blankly. The American bares her perfect teeth at me: “I don’t think there are any Dubai nationals.” She loves living in Dubai, she gushes, “I have a spa treatment twice a week.” Pondering the level of shallowness required to happily go for a spa treatment so often, I don my gown and head off to the embrace of the treatment room.

I’ve chosen a sort of ‘everything you can lay on me’ treatment in the hope that I’ll not experience any jetlag at all. As soon as the ‘therapist’ lays a hand on me I begin snoring. I wake up to find my body covered in a grainy rub. Something hot is laid across my feet and I almost weep with pleasure. While my feet sing, the masseuse moves to my face and smooths cream across my cheeks in fluid strokes. To borrow a phrase from my daughter: OMG. Please don’t think I’m shallow but it is – bar my wedding day and the birth of my children – one of the most sublime experiences of my life. Twice a week? Heck, I’d go twice a day.

I’ve signed on for the Dubai Old City Tour which is an easy afternoon of being ferried about in air conditioned comfort. We drive through the new city, with its sheen of brilliance – light bouncing off buildings, skyscrapers looming at each other – and into the otherworld of Old Dubai. Amongst the seemingly endless development sites, we pass the headquarters for DubaiLand, the theme park under construction which will have indoor ski-ing, bengal tigers, a dinosaur theme park, a sea world and the ‘world’s largest shopping complex’. The whole of new Dubai seems a little like a theme park to me, I confess: OilWorld, perhaps. Or GlobalisationLand.

Once we cross the bridge into Old Dubai, though, everything changes. Here, the buildings are squat and square, many with traditional wind towers providing a hint of cool. We call into the Al Ahmadiya School, the first school in Dubai, and sit beneath the wind tower sipping tea while I pore over grainy photographs of eager students. On the creek, traditional dhow boats float back and forth in the 40 plus degree heat; the gold souk is across the creek, but it’s the spice souk that wins me over. A few narrow lanes smelling of saffron and cardamom, I wander alone, sniffing handfuls of spice, tasting fat, fresh dates and cursing the fact that I can’t buy a stack of saffron to take home with me. Driving back through the new city, I count off the abandoned building sites. I ask the guides whether they’ve noticed a downturn in Dubai since the, ahem, change in international financial fortunes. There’s an uncomfortable pause, then a chirpy, “The traffic used to be terrible. Now, it’s great, we can get across town in half the time.”

There’s a cocktail hour at the hotel bar, and travellers are getting into the swing of it, but I’m desperate to be outside. I ask the concierge for directions to the beach less than a kilometre away. Startled, he says, “A map? You just get a taxi.” No, I explain, I want to walk. “Walk? To the beach? No. You get a taxi.” In Dubai – or at least, in New Dubai – people don’t walk. I take a taxi.

Jumeira Beach – the very one where the British citizens were recently arrested for indecency – is a stretch of white sand along the Persian Gulf, lined with hotels. I’ve covered myself with a drab kaftan but there’s not a sign of anxiety around bikinis or immodest cocktail drinking. By the time my feet touch the smooth sand lanterns have been lit along the path from the Hotel le Meridien. The water is electric turquoise – for a moment, I wonder whether it’s artificially coloured (it isn’t) – and with the heat blaring down on my shoulders, even as the sun begins to dip, the small waves are fabulously inviting. I peel off the kaftan and jog down to the shore, ready to dive into the cool touch of the sea. More shetland pony than gazelle, I leap across the sand, and throw myself into the water, anticipating a refreshing shock. The waves roll gently in, the sea looks oceanic enough – and I do get a shock. The water is the temperature of a hot bath. Feeling as though my senses have been pleasantly jumbled, I lie on my back in the salty hot water, giggling. The sky is reddening, reflecting off the skyscrapers teetering around me. Everything seems heightened and strange and glorious.

It’s almost dark when I come in, but I can read the sign on the beach advertising windsurfers for hire. I send a text home saying I’ll be windsurfing in the morning on a hot sea. Except – now you’re really going to think I’m shallow – in the morning, I can’t stop thinking about that spa treatment. The heat on my feet. The vanilla on my face. I send an embarrassed text saying I cried off being active in favour of being pumelled.

That night, I take a trip into the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a sponsored reserve covering ninety kilometres of sane dunes, and protecting oryx, gazelles and the shy Arabian hare. As sunset begins, we roll up and down across the dunes to a reconstruction of a bedouin camp. Outside, there’s a line of camels, covered in brightly coloured cloths, gurning at me. Families and couples climb onto the padded blankets, squealing as the camels stand with their lopsided, backside-first gait; a camel trainer leads them on a quick twirl toward the nearest sand dune, and they smile for a photo. Cheesy, yes, but there’s a stack of families and groups here who are loving the cheese and asking for more. Inside, I plonk myself on a cushion and sift the sand – as fine as flour – through my hands. The stars, meanwhile, are beginning to show their sparkle, and – after a mezzeh dinner – the belly dancer who competes with the night sky brings a bit of Broadway burlesque to the desert. The crowd hoot and cheer as innocent diners are pulled to their feet for a quick wiggle. After such raucousness, when the lights and music switch off, with an invitation to notice the stars, the silence is shocking and profound.

In the morning, I skip breakfast in favour of – yes, now you know how shallow I am – a spa treatment at the airport. This one is hands and feet with water dripped onto my skin. You know how the first one was the best experience ever? I take it back: this is.

I leave Dubai exfoliated to within an inch of my life. For the first time ever, I board the plane feeling gorgeous: smelling of vanilla, smooth-skinned, gleaming. And here’s my shameful little secret: I haven’t stopped thinking about that water-drippy-facial-footy-amazing spa treatment and wondering how on earth I can get there again.