DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - It's fun traveling to places where your expectations are totally blown away and just as exciting when your expectations are spot-on accurate.
Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, is a city almost exactly how I imagined it - large, Vegas-like with a Middle Eastern flare, cosmopolitan and kind of strange.
Dubai's display of money and lavishness begins as soon as you land at the airport, which is undergoing an expansion, in part because Emirates Airlines can't buy planes fast enough to meet its air service demands.
That's the thing about Dubai, which is known as the entertainment capital of the Middle East - it's big. Really, really big.
Like Las Vegas, Dubai is a city of consumption. There might not be alcohol allowed in public (bars, hotels and restaurants only), or any casinos or strip clubs, but there are shopping malls with the best designer fashions, big name chefs who have opened restaurants throughout the city and fancy cars - Maseratis, Ferraris, Lamborghinis - which are everywhere.
The city's skyline is massive, too. There seems to be a new skyline around every corner, as the major development areas in the city's various districts are now practically adjoined because the construction of buildings has bled out in every direction during the city's construction boom during the past 20 years.
Signs of hard economic times are visible, though. Dubai, once a fishing village but now a global hub for business and commerce, is full of cranes that were once working to build even more skyscrapers throughout the expanding city. Many of those cranes are still there, as are the half-finished buildings, but they're not moving and haven't been since about 2008, when America's financial crisis hit.
Empty construction sites are everywhere - practically right next-door to the bustling area of the Dubai Mall, which is also where the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, stands.
The view from the top of the Burj Khalifa is incredible but also telling. From 2,716 feet in the sky, you can look down and see the recession's aftermath blended together with glimmers of economic hope.
Dubai itself feels unfinished. What is this city trying to become? Will it ever happen?
City full of action
Dubai's struggles don't mean that its accomplishments aren't fascinating. In less than 20 years, the city has exploded from its much more humble and understated roots.
Beautiful beaches, a hot, desert climate and easy access to practically anywhere in the Eastern Hemisphere make Dubai an attractive place for tourists.
The shopping malls - there are seemingly hundreds of them - are interesting so-called attractions. It's strange because in Dubai I was interested in the malls, even though the last time I think I enjoyed being in a mall was when I was about 15 years old.
Dubai malls feature Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and every other designer name you'd find on Rodeo Drive, and plenty of other familiar stores and restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory (coming soon) and that obnoxious Rainforest Cafe chain found in malls all over America.
I went to the malls for the people watching -that and because in May the air-conditioned malls are a great place to escape the heat.
You'll hear about 100 languages while strolling around, and something I found beyond fascinating was watching the Arab women in traditional Muslim dress - many of whom wore the long black cloaks and head dresses with nothing more than their eyes showing - shopping in these stores for designer clothing and jewelry. I saw one woman purchasing what looked like a $100,000 necklace, yet not an inch of her skin was showing. Where was she planning to wear it?
One thing not to miss in Dubai is a desert safari. A driver takes you out onto the vast sand dunes in a Toyota Landcruiser, lets some air out of the tires for sand dune "bashing" and drops you off the sides of the rolling dunes going sideways and backwards, with every drop feeling like the car is going to flip over. It's thrilling and terrifying all at the same time, but the drivers have to go through an exhaustive list of training and tests before being licensed by the state, so that adds at least some comfort to the experience. Our driver, an Iranian man in his late 20s, was unbelievably good. You can also rent four-by-fours or a Yamaha Banshee for a self-driven thrill ride, and of course you can also ride a camel.
Other sites not to miss: Ski Dubai at the Mall of the Emirates (a $400 million indoor ski resort with five runs and the equivalent of three football fields covered in snow, which is made fresh daily); and a drive to Abu Dhabi with a stopover at the Yas Marina Formula One Circuit, where for about $410 you can drive an Aston Martin GT4 on the track for 20 minutes at speeds up to about 180 mph (I went about 135 mph and felt the experience was just brilliant).
The food in Dubai is also exciting. The options are endless - Lebanese, Indian, European, South American, Thai, Japanese - you name it. We ate Lebanese several times because it was just so good, but we also stopped by Richard Sandoval's Toro Toro for dinner for a hip, Dubai nightlife experience.
Sandoval, also the owner of Cima in Avon, designed a beautiful restaurant with Toro Toro. You walk up to a doorman who lets you into a dazzling, dimly lit hot spot. The dining room is loud because people are having a great time, and the upstairs bar and lounge is beyond happening. Toro Toro is also worth a visit because it's in a truly exciting area for Dubai nightlife, the Dubai Marina district. This area is hopping with exotic sports cars and cafes and bars where you can smoke shisha out of hookahs, a popular nighttime social activity here.
All in all, Dubai is an exciting city. I'm not rushing to get back there anytime soon, but if I find myself connecting through again sometime, it would be nice to stay for a few days to continue exploring.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.