The best of Dubai

In just 20 years, Dubai has transformed itself from desert backwater to modern nation by becoming one of the world's hottest tourist destinations.

Indulgence is the ethos and the wealth and scale of sumptuous new hotels and monumental building projects are staggering. The most famous is the jaw-dropping Burj Al Arab landmark hotel, set in the sea with a billowing sail-shaped tower. Two outrageous islands - one shaped like a palm, the other like a globe - are also under construction just off the coast, and Giorgio Armani plans to open his first hotel here, too.

But it would be wrong to portray Dubai as an upmarket Las Vegas-on-Sea minus the gambling. There are plenty of activities to keep visitors occupied beyond the confines of the hotels - from deep-sea fishing to desert safaris. And the winding alleyways and lanes around Dubai Creek, off which wooden dhows still use ancient trading routes to India and East Africa, reveal that not everything has changed.

Best hotel

The Mina A'Salam (00 971 4 366 8888; www.jumeirah international.com) is a vast Arabian-style fairytale palace built around a series of waterways and a lagoon complete with abras (ancient water-taxis), which ferry guests around the resort. It has 292 huge sea-facing rooms, with deluxe doubles from £276 per night.

Best restaurant

Dining takes place mostly in hotels, because they are the only liquor-licensed buildings. Zheng He's (00 971 4 406 8181), on the lower ground floor of the Mina A'Salam, serves some of the finest Chinese food this side of Shanghai. The setting is minimalist. Expect to pay around £30 for three courses without wine.

For lunch go "underwater" at Al Mahara (00 971 4 301 7600) at the Burj al Arab hotel. This shell-shaped restaurant is entered via a submarine, and the mother-of-pearl main room encircles a massive aquarium with thousands of tropical fish, including sharks. Fish is central to the menu, too. A three-course set lunch costs £60 without wine.

Best cultural attraction

To see how rapidly the city has developed, visit the Dubai Museum, housed in the 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort, which includes a recreation of a 1950s souk and an Islamic school. The Jumeirah Mosque is the most beautiful in Dubai and is open to non-Muslims on Thursday and Sunday mornings, with guided tours at 10am.

Best shopping

Take an abra across the creek and stop off at the spice souk with its labyrinth of tiny alleys. The gold souk is bling city, with prices 30 per cent lower than you would find at home. Bargaining is the rule, so expect to pay half the asking price.

Best sightseeing

The Heritage and Diving Village focuses on Dubai's maritime past, showing the living conditions of the seafarers who harvested the Arabian Gulf for pearls and fish. A tented village staffed by potters, weavers and other craftspeople offers a glimpse into the Bedouin way of life, which remained unchanged into the 20th century. Alpha Tours (00 971 4 294 9888; www.alphatours dubai.com) offers desert safaris in four-wheel drive land cruisers, with dinner under the stars at a Bedouin camp. Price £35.

Best nightspot

Nightlife centres on eating and drinking. Because of licensing laws, nightclubs are situated in hotels. The current favourite is Zinc at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where a mixed crowd dances to great live cover bands and DJs playing everything from Arabic pop to Beyoncé. Expect to queue but there is no entrance charge.

Best way to get there

Dubai International Airport is 5km from the city centre. Emirates (0870-128 6000; www.emiratestours.co.uk) offers return flights from the UK from £402. A package is the best option. Seasons in Style (0151 342 0505; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk) offers five nights' b&b at Mina A'Salam from £835 per person, including return flights and private car transfers. International hotels offer complimentary airport transfers. Otherwise, a taxi costs around 30 dirhams (£5) and is metered. Taxis are also the best way to get around town. For further information, contact the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce (020-7839 0580; www.dubaitourism.ae).

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