DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - We could hardly believe we were moving. Several of the 57 elevators in the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, are dedicated to whisking visitors 124 stories into the sky to the observation deck and an airplane-eye view of this modern city thousands of feet below.
Spanning the world's longest travel distance for an elevator, the high-tech lifts speed upward at 10 yards a second, but any sense of acceleration, except for some ear-popping, is negligible.
The Burj Khalifa, completed in 2010, rises an astonishing 2,722 feet above the wide streets and dozens of skyscrapers in a city that's been described as "part Arab, part Indian and part Disneyland." The rulers of the United Arab Emirates wanted Dubai to become a city filled with the world's biggest and best (oil money talks!), and, to a great extent, they've succeeded. The population has doubled in the past 10 years to more than 2 million while the city continues to set astonishing world records. The iconic Burj Al Arab, the massive hotel shaped like a sail, was the world's tallest hotel when completed in 1999. Now it's just the fourth tallest (two others in Dubai rise even higher).
The marketing director at Raffles Dubai - shaped like a pyramid, it's one of dozens of smaller but imaginative hotels in the city - said that the government has not put any restrictions on creativity. "If you have a creative idea for a building, it will be supported," she said.
The world's best architects have come to Dubai because of the opportunity to improvise, and their work is evident in dozens of unusual, often quirky, building designs that add to the growth of a community that's already among the world's fastest growing. We stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton, a modest but still excellent hotel along the busy Sheikh Zayed Road. It was an ideal base for exploring Dubai and its remarkable growth.
The 2008 financial crisis caused that growth to go from supersonic to just sonic. Now, according to the locals (85 percent of whom are expats), that boom is edging back to supersonic.
In addition to a skyline filled with vertical vestiges of power and money, Dubai has developed artificial offshore islands, in particular The Palm Jumeirah, shaped like the fronds of a palm tree with an eight-mile crescent breakwater composed of 7 million tons of rock. The palm tree branches are made of sand, dredged up from the adjacent Persian Gulf. Reached by a causeway, the offshore complex is filled with apartments and luxury hotels, including the Thai-themed Anantara Resort (several suites are built over the water with a glass floor to observe the active fish life below). Entertainment venues such as Atlantis attract thousands of visitors weekly to its water park and aquariums, where 65,000 marine animals are on display
The aquarium theme even extends to Dubai's shopping centers. The Dubai Mall, the world's largest in total area, boasts 1,200 shops plus an ice rink and aquarium with the world's largest acrylic panel holding back the 2.64 million gallons of water and 33,000 marine animals. Despite the high temperatures outside, the world's largest indoor snow park thrives at Dubai's second largest shopping center, the Mall of the Emirates. With five ski and snowboarding slopes kept just below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the mall is called a "Shopping Resort" and attracts millions of visitors annually.
Although visitors are in awe of the "biggest and best" attitude of the city, we also enjoyed Old Dubai, with its narrow streets, frequent souks (markets) and quiet life along Dubai Creek. Unlike much of Europe and Asia, the first recorded settlement in Dubai was relatively late - in 1799. Then and now, the saltwater Dubai Creek divides the city into two main sections and was the prime area for fishing and commerce. For pennies, you can take a water taxi across the creek to the spice and gold markets.
An evening highlight is a dinner cruise along the creek on one of the dhows (pronounced dou) or traditional sailing vessels for cargo. Now converted into comfortable motorized supper clubs, dozens of these boats are available for a buffet meal and spectacular views of the busy waterway and sparkling skyline of Dubai by night. It's an ideal way to complete a visit to a city that's indeed a miracle in the desert.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.