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(CNN) — Dubai may be famed for its bigger, bolder, brighter design philosophy, but it's not all shiny buildings and alligator-skin Rolls-Royces. Dubai's origins as a small fishing settlement centuries ago remains within the cracks. When you're not withdrawing gold bars from the ATM or planning a stay at a giant Taj Mahal, the best of Dubai brings sand dunes to bash, souks to explore and seafood restaurants that'll put any limited expectations to rest.
Dubai has become a go-to career stop for tax-averse foreigners -- it's Arab at its core but capitalist at its edge. That means glistening shopping malls, outrageous hotels and a lifestyle that's been acclaimed by Mercer as the best in the Middle East.With a population of just more than 2 million (about 75% male), it's flashy and it's ostentatious. Let's get started:
"The Palace" of Dubai. Literally.
Al Qasr Hotel
Compared with the city's glitzy and unashamedly gaudy Burj Al Arab and Atlantis The Palm Hotel, Al Qasr, which translates as "The Palace," offers a distinctive Arabic flavor (Persian rugs and ornate oil lamps) without resembling Ali Baba's grotto. Step inside the lobby and the scent of freshly cut rose petals -- which are scattered into a center pool -- hits you square on, while rooms look out onto Arabesque waterways and the Persian Gulf.
One&Only Royal Mirage
In Dubai, one One&Only isn't enough.
One & Only Royal Mirage
Despite the name, there are in fact two One&Only resorts in Dubai, both within a couple of miles of each other. Celebrity favorite Royal Mirage is the more worthwhile of the two. Guests have included Michael Jackson and David Beckham, who've slept within the Arabian architecture, immaculately cultivated palm tree gardens and probably lounged on the crisp white beachside cabanas. It's also a great place for water sports -- expert South African instructors offer wakeboarding and wakesurfing lessons in the calm waters right off the beach.
One of your few chances in the Middle East to wake up with a penguin. Kempinski Mall of the Emirates Not only is this five-star hotel a shopper's dream (it's attached to Mall of the Emirates), it looks out onto the most bizarre scene in the desert -- Ski Dubai, one of the largest manmade ski slopes on the planet.
The hotel has crafted its suites accordingly, with chalet-style decor, Molton Brown hues and fake fireplaces. From the bedrooms and dining room, visitors can see the piste, tobogganing track, chair lifts and even a gaggle of penguins flown in to live in the 22,500-square-meter fridge.
Amwaj Rotana Jumeirah Beach
Siren call to drinkers. Mind the rocks.
Jumeirah Beach Hotel
Though in the moderate range, you still get five-star accommodation at the Amwaj Rotana. For half the price of the luxury resorts you get a room on JBR Walk, the area where locals show off their souped-up Jeeps and million-dollar Ferraris. Here you can also kick back with a shisha pipe in the dozens of al fresco restaurants along the beachfront. Unlike most areas of the city, you can actually walk around.
Citymax Al Barsha
Cheaper than some and in a good location 20 minutes from all areas of Dubai, these digs are small, new and squeaky clean. Each room comes with international TV channels, fridge, kettle with tea and coffee, Wi-Fi and cleaning services. You have to buy your water from the vending machine down the hall. The bottles in the room aren't replenished after check-in.
Don't stay here for the decor; stay for the lively American-themed rock bar on the ground floor, where a blonde bombshell singer (often in white Lycra) belts out everything from Nirvana to Cranberries covers.
Fire & Ice
A hypertrendy loft space complete with NYC-style brickwork, Fire & Ice is set in one of Dubai's most unusual architectural feats -- Raffles Dubai, a 19-story pyramid tipped with gold that's worth the journey alone.
This carnivore's Eden is as elaborate inside -- the meat is singed in pans at sub-zero temperatures. Prime cuts are served alongside beautifully presented minimal veg and flavored foam. Beef eaters can challenge themselves to identify each of the imported slabs of meat on the sampler plate, which comes with mini-cuts of Irish Angus, Aussie Angus and wagyu beef.
Prettiest tables outside of Vegas.
Levantine, The Palm
This restaurant may not offer the best Lebanese cuisine out there, but it does bring eclectic fantasy decor at Atlantis The Palm. On the outside you'll find salmon-colored walls and a casino-style spade shape in the center of the building. On the inside it's psychedelic, swirly patterned carpets, under-the-sea motifs on the walls and a ceiling-high blown-glass sculpture coming out of a shell-shaped fountain. At Levantine you can sit outside on the terrace and take it all in, while chomping on a selection of hot and cold mezze, grilled meats and Arabic breads.
Although the food selection here won't make your jaw drop -- expect shwarmas (chicken wrapped in bread with garlic paste), grilled prawns and vegetables -- the setting will. This sleek, outdoor restaurant does exactly what it says on the tin: serves you while you lounge around on poolside seats. There also happens to be a staggering view of the world's tallest building.
Aprons & Hammers
Set on a docked boat, guests at this novelty eatery get an apron and a variety of utensils, including lobster forks, claw crackers, hammers and tweezers with which to dismantle shellfish. There are a variety of buckets filled with cooked crabs, claws and legs, or lobster and shrimp.
The resort-like palm tree, swimming pool and beach backdrop make you feel like you're holidaying in the Bahamas rather than the desert. The menu includes simple Mediterranean dishes such as imported cold cuts, pomodorino salad with sun-dried tomatoes and chunks of orange and parmesan, salami-slathered antipasto and lots of pizza cooked in a stone oven.
In spite of the gritty canteen-style decor and plastic dishes, Ravi's is busy every night of the week. You'll find incredibly tasty Punjabi curries, such as spicy chicken jalfrezi, full of Indian vegetables. The haleem is a slow-roasted porridge-style dish with lentils and lamb. Freshly cooked rotis are served with a variety of tangy dips.
In the fishing village to the right of Umm Sequim beach you'll find plastic tables and chairs scattered around a car park, and a white Portacabin serving fish, fish and fish. At the counter, a selection of curry-slathered morsels is stacked high in a metal tray. Chefs fry snapper or hammour in front of you and serve it with a bowl of curry sauce, home-cooked paratha, rice and salad.
It's not easy to find this hipster Thai restaurant, which is hidden in a back street in the Jumeriah district. Look for the neon-mustached Mona Lisa sign on the outside. Inside is a creative medley of kitsch memorabilia -- walls covered higgledy-piggledy with picture frames and a pin board filled with Polaroid snaps.
In the corners there are tongue-in-cheek pictures of naked Thai girls with their bits covered by humorous phrases. Tables are adorned with place mats made of recycled magazine pages. Typical Thai dishes come with fun names such as "Masters Of The Universe."
Purple -- the international color of expensive.
One & Only Royal Mirage
This beach bar set on The One&Only Royal Mirage's private beach exudes cool. It attracts a young, professional crowd on weekends, who lounge around in their designer threads on the crisp white couches overlooking the sea and yachts, while listening to down-tempo beats and sipping expensive cocktails.
Base jumpers' bar of choice.
If you're looking to show off, get the elevator to the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa and take a seat at At.mosphere's bar. Though this place is predominantly a restaurant, it stocks rare whiskies and vintage wines. You can sip on them while enjoying a 360-degree view of the city while sitting 1,450 feet (442 meters) above ground level.
Nasimi specializes in beach beanbags and novel cocktails -- made from vodka, midori, fresh melon, lemon and sugar, the Nasimi Signature is worth a try. A roster of one-off events at this popular spot make it worth checking in on frequently. Chicane, Zero 7, 2manyDJs, Roger Sanchez and Pete Murray have all appeared for the series of daylong "Sandance" parties.
Set on the end of its own pier, hovering on Gulf waters, 360° is a hotspot for sundowners who love the views of the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, yachts pulling into the marina and the city skyline. It's got an Ibiza vibe, as the DJs play down-tempo soundtracks to the panoramic sunset cinema, then crank up the tempo at night for a club-vibe that inspires ravers to keep their sunglasses on.
One for homesick Europeans, the Irish Village pub is decorated to look like a friendly village shop, tobacconist and pub, all kitted out with wooden fixtures imported from Ireland. It has a pub garden, Guinness, roast dinners and Irish stew.
Here you'll find hundreds of expats of the Aussie, Kiwi and South African variety, who come to relax with a shisha on the sand, dance to the cheesy bar band on the wooden decking against the night sky. Drinks are reasonably priced and it's always packed, but call ahead in case of special events on weekends. Promoters often bring in international DJs or artists such as N-Trance, The Streets and Sister Sledge.
This is the world's largest mall, with 1,200 shops and a retail floor area of more than half a million square meters. It's also filled with more luxury designer brands than you can shake a credit card at -- Gucci, Dior, Prada, Burberry and so on. When it comes to outrageous, Gold Souk takes the gong. The most amazing thing about this place is the fact that there's seemingly no one guarding the large amount of precious metal behind its regular glass shop windows.
Attached to the adjacent Jumeirah Beach Hotel, this labyrinth of high-end market stalls selling everything from expensive shisha pipes to antique furniture and jewelry is Dubai's take on a Middle Eastern souk. There's no hustle and bustle, no dirty corridors or fake goods.
Instead shoppers can browse in perfumed, air-conditioned corridors and rest in between stress-free shopping at one of the many bars or restaurants in the complex. Unsurprisingly, locals and expats don't shop here, although it has become a social hangout, and visitors can pick up a well-made gift at an inflated price if they're so inclined.
Ironically, this high-end mall is set in a poorer area of Dubai, yet it houses Cartier, Bvlgari, Versace and Louis Vuitton outlets as well as mid-range brands Guess and DNKY. Despite the staple luxury goods, this mall has a different feel than the other mega indoor complexes, with outdoor gardens to explore in between earth-shattering purchases, a rarity in Dubai.
Ibn Battuta Mall
Well worth a visit, this mall not only offers a selection of familiar stores, including Top Shop, Next, H&M and Accessorize, it also sports off-the-wall decor inspired by the travels of 14th-century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta. Here you'll find a giant model of a ship and an elephant, plus displays telling the story of Battuta's travels. The "Persia" section of the mall has an incredible hand-painted dome; the "Egypt" section has walls covered in hieroglyphics.
Bur Dubai Souk
Parallel to the Creek in Bur Dubai, the souks in this area sell pashminas, dishdashas, spices and gifts. It's a touristy area, but a good place to try your haggling skills with friendly shop vendors. The end of the souk offers a fascinating glimpse into the local community. Here you'll find the Shri Nathje Jayate Temple and a Hindu lane, where hawkers sell flower garlands, Indian sweets and incense. Holographic Shiva pictures and packets of bidis go for a couple of dollars.
Bur Dubai Souk, behind the Grand Mosque; off of Abi Talib Street
If you feel the need to launch yourself out of a plane over the Palm Jumeirah and hurtle toward the ground from 12,000 feet (3,660 meters), Skydive Dubai would love to have you. It's one of the busiest jump zones in the world, with bird's-eye views of Dubai's skyscrapers, the Gulf coastline and desert in the distance. You can even train for a paragliding license here on one of the Skydive Dubai courses. When you've completed it you'll be qualified to jump solo anywhere in the world. If you'd rather watch, the annual Dubai International Parachuting Championships is held during winter.
Wild Wadi Waterparks
At Wild Wadi Waterpark you can surf the 10-foot (three-meter) flow-rider (artificial wave machine), zip down the largest freefall water slide outside of the United States or fall though a plug hole.
Or you can try Aquaventure Waterpark where you can drift around on the lazy river or experience the 90-foot (27.5-meter) near-vertical drop, called the Leap of Faith, which propels your body through a see-through tube inside a shark tank.
Desert Safari by four-wheel drive
Twice daily, convoys of Jeeps hurtle around an area called Big Red in the desert close to Dubai. Dozens of companies take cars of up to six people over the distinctive orange-tinted dunes. Tell your driver the kind of adventure you're looking to have, whether it be dune bashing or a relaxing drive, and he'll oblige. Afterward, guests are taken you to a mock Bedouin camp for a feed, Arabic dancing, henna drawing and camel riding.
The best time to ride a traditional Abra water taxi is at sunset. Cross the river in Bur Dubai for photo ops of the protruding domed mosques against the red skyline. Local boat drivers also offer longer scenic tours for tourists up the river and out to sea. Dinner cruises are also available.