According to Airports Council International, Dubai International Airport handled nearly double the passengers of Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport last year. So, to say that the two cities are competing for the same jet-setting travelers might be an antiquated proclamation these days. Yes, the United Arab Emirates has an overwhelming sheen of glitz and grandeur reminiscent of the Strip, but the region, particularly Dubai and capital Abu Dhabi — the two cities are roughly a two-hour drive apart — is so much more than that. For every shiny Ferrari you see on the road, there’s a fabulous art gallery not too far away. For each mega mall with an H&M and a Victoria’s Secret, there’s also a local souk filled with scarves and spices. The UAE melds tradition with ambition quite well. That’s one of the most important things to remember as you plan your trip to the region. But it’s not the only key to understanding the cities. The area is also doing some amazing things within the hospitality industry, dining scene and cultural space worth knowing about, too.
Those 19 million travelers mentioned earlier are coming from all corners of the globe, and they’re bringing their appetites with them. Some will be content knowing that McDonald’s has delivery service in Dubai and Mall of the Emirates’ food court is so massive it should have its own zip code, but other visitors will call for a bit more ingenuity in the kitchen. Luckily in this city of dreams, whatever you crave can be consumed — even if it doesn’t have a pinch of Middle Eastern influence. Desire some shrimp quesadillas? Try Maya Modern Mexican Kitchen and Lounge at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort & Spa. In the mood for something different? Stop by Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah’s Lao for sticky rice and other Lao cuisine, which is influenced by Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. But what if you’re craving down-home barbecue with all the fixings? Dubai does that, too. With U.S. license plates and neon Budweiser signs on the wall, the Madinat Jumeirah’s Perry & Blackwelder’s Original Smokehouse might look like a bit of a caricature at first glance. But take a whiff of the grilled chicken coming from the kitchen and a good look at the smile on your waiter’s face and you’ll quickly realize you’re in a place that takes pride in its people and potato salad.
When it comes to hotels, the property directory for the UAE almost reads like a high school yearbook, full of superlatives and overinflated egos. In this never-ending game of Who Can Top This?, resorts race to boast that they’re the biggest, tallest or most expensive. And while gawking up at Armani Hotel Dubai, which sits inside the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is a fun distraction, the best hotels aren’t necessarily the ones aiming for a page in the Guinness World Records. On the contrary, when you analyze the properties we’re most excited about right now, they appear much more concerned with design (the Culture Village district’s Palazzo Versace Dubai) and decadence (2016’s Four Seasons Hotel Dubai International Financial Centre and Four Seasons Hotel Abu Dhabi) than silly designations.
Another hotel where that’s especially true is Rosewood Abu Dhabi. With 189 rooms and suites, and nine restaurants and lounges (including the divine Lebanese-style Sambusek), this Al Maryah Island winner is far from a boutique property. But where the subtly stylish Rosewood separates itself from the big names is with the details. Four falcons hanging in the lobby are a delight from a distance, but when you realize Ran Hwang’s Empty Me is actually made out of pins and buttons, the work ascends into something magical. Every room comes with a 55-inch flat-screen TV, 24-hour butler service and Roja Parfums toiletries from England. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the mood for a swim (Glo poolside lounge), signature massage (Sense, A Rosewood Spa) or a cigar (La Cava), Rosewood Abu Dhabi offers everything you want without making much of a fuss, a rare treat for the UAE.
Just as tourists immediately associate the majestic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with Abu Dhabi today, the city’s aim for tomorrow is to be globally respected in the arts world. Since it can’t compete with the long creative traditions of New York City and Paris without some help, the city is drawing up the next best logical play — getting the Guggenheim and Louvre to open massive, multimillion-dollar outposts of their esteemed museums in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District. Louvre Abu Dhabi, which resembles a bleach-white spaceship that has just docked, will open in December 2016 with ambitious galleries featuring works from Paul Gauguin, Giovanni Bellini and countless other luminaries. The Guggenheim has a bit longer to wait before its launch — the Frank Gehry-designed mega structure that looks like a loose pile of geometric shapes is aiming for a 2017 debut — but it has already gotten artsy types giddy through a satellite exhibit called “Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection” earlier this year at Manarat. Combine those upcoming super projects with yet another one, the 410-foot-tall Zayed National Museum (opening in 2016), and it’s obvious that this part of the globe has its heart squarely set on becoming one of the world’s next great cultural meccas.