Travel: FROM DESERT TOA DREAM WORLD; University Education in Wrexham NEWI Gregg Fray in Dubai, the Jewel in the Crown of the United Arab Emirates
HURTLING along Sheikh Zayed Road, necks craned to stare in awe at the hundreds of skyscrapers that punctuate the skyline, it's difficult to believe this place was just a desert 50 years ago. As we make our way into Dubai from Abu Dhabi, you can almost taste the dynamismthat has transformed the United Arab Emirates into the tourism and business capital of Asia.
Grand waterfront hotels, futuristic skyscrapers that New York would die for, massive tax-free shopping malls and even the world's largest indoor ski complex - complete with real snow despite the 35deg heat outside - can be seen whizzing by the window of our coach.
This is a place that gets things done.
Headline-grabbing plans for the future include the construction of the world's tallest tower and a network of reclaimed islands in the shape of the globe.
The reason for its continuing success is a can-do attitude to development and a keen eye for what tourists want.
You can easily lose yourself in the Dubai dreamand live like a millionaire at a reasonable cost. You can have a relaxing break filled with pampering on the tranquil shores of the Gulf, which enjoys year-round sunshine. Or you can soak up history and ancient culture in the pockets of old Dubai still in existence.
My partner and I decided to do all of this and more, in possibly the best 10 days of our lives.
We began with a day at the Mina Seyahi hotel and beach club. Perched on a sunlounger where white sand meets inviting blue sea, sipping on an iced drink, it's hard to see how life could get much better.
While Dubai is a Muslim country, alcohol is permitted (in fact, seemingly encouraged) at any place attached to an hotel. This permission/ encouragement extends to the private beach at the Mina Seyahi, where between sunbathing, swimming and watching a host of watersports being enjoyed nearby (actually taking part seemed far too strenuous), we worked up quite an appetite by mid afternoon.
A wonderful meal at the attached Barasti Bar outdoor restaurant, elevated to overlook the sea, saw us while away the rest of the day. The level of service was enough to make one feel like royalty - a quality we would later learn is to be found across Dubai's service sector.
By night the Barasti comes complete with live music and a true party atmosphere. The "exclusive" beach club experience is replicated by waterfront hotels throughout Dubai. For a day-long pass, expect to pay anything between pounds 20 and pounds 30 - and prepare to be spoiled, particularly at the top-end establishments.
Next day at the Umm Sequim public beach, in the shadow of the imposing Burj Al Arab, things could not have been more different. An expansive shoreline laps up against Dubai's most famous hotel and then extends off into the distance.
We placed our towels in the sand a few hundred metres from the Burj - there's not a sunbed in sight - and relaxed. Small waves rolling in from the sea provide the only sound, the sand left moist in their wake instantly dried by the Arabic sun.
This is the place to go if you don't fancy the airs and graces of beach club life, and don't mind occasionally sharing your space with the odd Indian construction worker on a break from building yet another skyscraper nearby.
That said, for me it was difficult to take my eyes off the Burj Al Arab, glass-fronted and shaped like a surf sail and housing billions of pounds of grandeur.
Tomorrow, we decided, we will go to the Burj for afternoon tea. Our research told us that for two people it would cost pounds 100. A handsome sum, but if you want to get inside one of the world's most famous buildings that's the minimum price you pay (I didn't even ask the cost of going for a meal in the Burj's underwater restaurant, to which you are chauffeured... by submarine).
At noon the following day we arrived at the Burj by taxi, a decent and cheap mode of transport in Dubai. …