Travel Special: December -Dubai

Though we had all been allocated seats for the 50-minute hop from Bahrain to Dubai, half the passengers formed an anxious queue. An hour before departure, they pressed together like toast in a toast-rack. The rest of us sprawled in the airport lounge, but we were the first to be allowed on the plane. We may all have been heading for the same place, but our destinations were very different. My wife and I had come for a spot of sun and sand in Dubai, like 650,000 other Britons each year. Our less privileged travelling companions, drawn from the Indian subcontinent, were there to put the place up.

On the following day, while I leisurely circumnavigated the vast pool of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, charting a course between the Scylla of the in-pool bar and the Charybdis of the bubbling waterspouts, my fellow travellers were working in what is possibly the world's biggest building site. It is hard to convey the scale of Dubai's relentless expansion. Its current population of 1.2 million will soon multiply many times over. Just one of the city's many developments promises to be in effect larger than Manhattan with up to 750,000 residents. A metropolis in bud, Dubai provides a fascinating, if disorienting backdrop to what would otherwise be a bog-standard holiday in the sun.

Half an hour away from the desert, you find yourself on a 10-lane highway indistinguishable from the Santa Monica Freeway. Inland from the city, a theme park called Dubailand, will measure 100 square miles. Near Dubai Creek, the inlet that gave the city its raison d'être, the first storeys of the Burj Dubai can already be seen. Destined to be around 750 metres (the final total is being kept secret), it was trumpeted as the world's tallest building, but was recently surpassed by a newly announced structure in Kuwait. If shopping is your idea of a great holiday, Dubai boasts 30-odd malls, including the Mall of the Emirate with the world's third largest indoor winter sports complex. Offshore, the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island shaped like a stylised palm tree is nearing completion. Nearby, two other, even larger Palms are underway. Beyond the Palms, the World is rising from the waves. This is a group of 300 artificial islands, five miles offshore, in the shape of the five continents.

Yet it is possible to have a holiday in Dubai and scarcely be aware of the explosive growth around you. Many staying at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, shaped like a giant wave, see little reason to escape its confines, since it boasts 20 restaurants and bars and the 23 rides of the Wild Wadi waterpark are bang next door. Yet, there is life in Dubai beyond the poolside. A small maze of narrow streets near Dubai Creek (actually it's the size of the Thames at high tide) is the sole remnant of the old city. Pullulating with activity, the Creek reminds visitors that Dubai always has been a nexus for goods from east and west. The items on sale in the Spice Souk cannot have changed for a thousand years. I saw an American (a rarity in Dubai) who had bought some saffron being pressed to buy more. "No, I'm good for frankincense," he protested.

We lolled on the beach, did a spot of shopping in the souks, enjoyed cuisine from around the world - Thai, Indian, Italian, Gordon Ramsay - and took in the sights. One night we went for cocktails at the Burj al Arab. An irresistible magnet for the eye, this all-suite hotel resembles the wind-filled sail of a dhow. But, the interior brings a surprise. Walking through the 180-metre-high atrium - a multi-coloured confection of fountains and restaurants - is akin to taking a potent hallucinogen. The bar on the 27th floor (in fact, it's the 54th floor since all the suites are duplexes) is like the villain's lair in a Bond film.

During my visit to Dubai, I reminded myself that I was actually in one of the more barren parts of the Middle East by reading Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger's wonderful account of crossing the Empty Quarter by camel in the late 1940s. "Arab taste is easily corrupted," Thesiger insisted. "New and hideous buildings planned by Arab architects are already rising in these ancient cities. My companions were deeply impressed: 'By God that is a beautiful building.'" Is Dubai beautiful or hideous? Possibly a bit of both, but it's undeniably amazing.

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