Each week, Yahoo Travel pits rival destinations against each other to determine once and for all which one is the best. Up this week are two desert playgrounds: Las Vegas and Dubai.
The Case for Las Vegas by Bill Fink
If you want it, Vegas has it. Twenty-four hours a day, a place where you can leave a nightclub at sunrise and go straight to a poolside cabana to plot out the next day’s agenda of gambling, entertainment, fine dining, exotic cocktails, and perhaps a leap off a tower or firing some automatic weapons.
But this isn’t some antiseptic shopping mall and prefab theme park like Dubai. This is Sin City, baby. Just about anything goes, as long as you tip right. In Dubai, it’s tough to even get a drink, while in Vegas, you look naked walking the streets without one. Built by schemers and swindlers, visited by dreamers and performers, Vegas has been the setting for dozens of movies for a reason: It has soul.
Population: About 600,000.
Elvis Presley (Photo: Getty Images)
Famous faces: Andre Agassi, rock band The Killers, porn icon Jenna Jameson, and baseball über-bro Bryce Harper were all born here. But it’s the famous faces of visiting celebrities that have made Vegas what it is. Performances on and off the stage by Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack; Elvis and his jeweled capes; multiyear “residence” concert series by Elton John, Celine Dion, and Britney Spears; and all the celebrities offstage at the high-roller tables, ringside at a prize fight, behind the velvet ropes at the top clubs — Las Vegas is the ultimate spot to see and be seen. In Dubai, you just get a sheik who thinks he’s a rock star. I’ll wager he can’t tap-dance anything like Sammy Davis Jr. could.
Party limo (Photo: Thinkstock)
Popular way to get around town: You’re not doing Vegas right unless you’re traveling in a party bus with a stripper pole. Cruising town in a limousine is also an acceptable option. For the rest of us, walking the Strip affords some great people watching. Taking the monorail cuts down on the surprisingly long time it takes to get from one massive casino to the next. In Dubai, you’ll just sit in traffic in a cab driven by a disgruntled “guest worker” from Delhi.
Great food that gets ridiculously long lines: EAT in downtown Las Vegas has people happily waiting in hourlong lines to savor their brunches, while Caesars’ Bacchanal Buffet helps you build an appetite for its great blocks-long food spread with a sometimes blocks-long line.
Joël Robuchon (Photo: Niall Kennedy/Flickr)
Fine dining: Long gone are the days of $2 steak-and-egg breakfasts and budget buffets. Las Vegas has become an epicenter for fine dining, with some of the world’s best and most famous chefs setting up shop. The Strip is littered with Michelin-starred restaurants, including Joël Robuchon at the MGM (rated as one of the best in the world), along with Picasso at the Bellagio, Guy Savoy at Caesars, and Wing Lei at the Wynn.
Why it’s fun to visit: Even if you’re some sort of sourpuss who’s not into gambling, nightclubs, cocktails, fine dining, music, stage shows, pool parties, or having any sort of fun, Vegas is worth a visit just to witness this unique cultural icon, a city-sized monument to American excess. As opposed to Dubai, which is basically just a giant duty-free airport store, a bland stopover on the way to somewhere else.
Cirque du Soleil: The Beatles Love (Photo: Gary Burke/Flickr)
Artistic pursuits: Unlike in Dubai, Vegas is essentially one big, fun performance art project. It’s in the costumed characters on the street and the dancing Bellagio fountains beside it, around the garishly decorated hotel lobbies, onstage at the Cirque du Soleil productions, and in the sweeping towers, pyramids, and canals of the themed hotels. Best of all, everyone around you is in on the performance: buttoned-up conventioneers transforming into wild-and-crazy party fiends, college students becoming calculating cardsharps, people taking on temporary roles in the spirit of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Yes, the Bellagio has its Gallery of Fine Art, but you didn’t come to Vegas to look at a painting, for God’s sake.
Residents: Las Vegas is a fully functioning, hardworking, diversely populated city outside of the casinos on the Strip. Many residents rarely, if ever, will brave the tourist hordes to plop down $30 for a cocktail at a crowded casino club. You’ll most likely see real Vegas residents at a happy hour in the burgeoning Downtown area, with a collection of reasonably priced restaurants, shops, and hotels. Almost like a real town. In Dubai, where over 85 percent of the population is expats, there essentially are no residents, aside from that sheik’s son who just whizzed by you in his Lamborghini.
Lake Mead (Photo: Kyoba/Flickr)
Fun things to do in the desert: Surprisingly, there is nature, actual nature, a short drive from the Vegas Strip. Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area offers up nearly 200,000 acres of serene beauty that seems a million miles away (and not the actual 17) from the neon casino chaos. Horseback riding, hiking, and camping can be an excellent way to detox. Houseboating in nearby Lake Mead also can provide a cool getaway from the Vegas scene. What do you get outside of Dubai? Sand.
The Case for Dubai by Jenny Adams
The last time you went to Las Vegas, did you go skiing indoors? Did you ride a roller-coaster indoors? Did you take a traditional abra sailboat over shimmering, crystal-clear blue water to a bustling souk filled with gold and spices? Did you pet a camel? No. No, you did not. The most cultural experience you had in Las Vegas was the fried rice at Benihana, and the term “exotic” only applied to that bar you hope your mom never hears you went inside.
Dubai offers a cultural abundance for those who want a true Middle East experience, but you also get the benefits of Western culture, woven in carefully and creatively. You can visit the souks during the day, shopping for mysterious spices and exquisite gold jewelry. After the sun sets, Dubai’s nightlife scene has more international mixology and music talent than 90 percent of American or European cities — Las Vegas included.
It’s a myth that you can’t drink in this town or that women must be completely covered in public. Only 30 percent of the population here is Middle Eastern. When visiting, you’ll hear dozens of languages being spoken in a single hotel, because Dubai is an international gateway to the world. The locals just ask that you respect their culture when visiting and act like a responsible grownup. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and that thankfully includes the absurd, lewd behavior you commonly find there. Plus, who wants to be a drunken mess? That means you can’t drive your rented Lamborghini back to that swank island you’re staying on that’s shaped like an enormous palm tree. It’s called Palm Jumeirah, Las Vegas. And yeah, you don’t have one of those, either.
Population: 2.1 million.
The Beckhams (Photo: Getty Images)
Famous faces: This town has a lot of appeal to those with limitless budgets. Victoria and David Beckham have a house on Palm Jumeirah. Roger Federer trains in this tropical oasis and keeps an apartment here, too.
Popular way to get around town:
Orange Enzo Ferrari (Photo: Axion23/Flickr)
The unofficial slogan of Dubai is: “If your Ferrari is six months old, it’s time for a newer model.” If you’ve got the budget, shell out for a dream ride while you’re visiting. If not, the taxis are plentiful, and the wide, open freeways make this sprawling desert city pretty easy to navigate. If you’re visiting the Creek, hop aboard a traditional abra boat to the souks.
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Great food that gets ridiculously long lines: Eating in Dubai is a sport, and every nationality is a player in the game. The Blue Marlin Ibiza’s brunch is a thing of legend, with a menu that fuses Asian and Mediterranean cuisines, all served beachside. Better book that reservation here before you even book your flight.
(Courtesy: The Oberoi Hotel)
Fine dining: At Ananta, inside the Oberoi hotel, you’ll enjoy exquisite plates of Northern Indian cuisine from the kitchen and a live show, thanks to street-style small bites prepared tableside in the dining room. They also have a fully curated water menu, with a selection of the finest natural mineral waters from across the globe. The Goseong East Sea water is obtained from a few thousand feet below the ocean’s surface. Also check out the Southeast Asian cuisine at Laos, Latin tapas at the incredible Izel supper club, or the brand-new Café Belge, where you can escape to 1920s Europe inside the Ritz-Carlton.
Why it’s fun to visit: This city’s got the best ways to stay cool. You can go snow skiing or ice skating inside the mall, or visit the Sega store, which has an indoor roller-coaster. Sailing and waterskiing are options at the Madinat Jumeriah, or you can get more aggressive via the water slides at Atlantis The Palm Resort. Their Aquaventure offers over three square miles of incredible water slides. While Las Vegas keeps insisting you can’t get a cocktail in Dubai, I will go ahead and refute it yet again. The bar scene is epic here. Craft mixology bars are abundant, and the club scene is alive and thriving. The cool kids are all at the Act, People by Crystal, and the brand-new Chinawhite club. By the time you’ve read this, they will have moved on to newer locations, no doubt. Just be advised that public intoxication can get you arrested in Dubai. Last I heard, the same rules applied in Las Vegas.
Jumeirah Mosque (Photo: xetark/Flickr)
Yes, Dubai is famous for glitz and glamour, but it’s also home to several incredible museums. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (or SMCCU) is a nonprofit organization operating under the banner of “Open Doors. Open Minds.” The SMCCU strives to remove barriers between people of different nationalities and raise awareness of the local culture, customs, and religion of the United Arab Emirates. Programming includes cultural meals and heritage tours of Jumeirah Mosque and Al Bastakiya. The Dubai Museum was originally the Al Fahidi Fort, built in the late 1700s. It was renovated in 1971 for use as a museum and now has colorful life-sized dioramas vividly depicting everyday life in the days before the discovery of oil.
Residents: There was a financial crisis in 2008, but the city is once again rising up, thanks to some help from the neighboring Emirates. According to a study by the global firm Mercer, Dubai was ranked as one of the best places to live, and while oil accounts for some of the business here, the largest sector is real estate, followed by hospitality.
Fun things to do in the desert:
Camel safari (Photo: Stephen Bugno/Flickr)
Well, you’ve been whizzing down water slides, driving expensive Italian sports cars, having tea in the world’s tallest building, and shopping for gold sunglasses in a souk. You’ve been doing fun things in the desert the whole time here (as opposed to Las Vegas, where you had to drive out to the actual desert and pass a house of ill repute to get there). However, if you need more desert, Dubai is happy to oblige. There are several tour companies that will whisk you off for ATV tours of the dunes, camel safaris, and fine dining on oriental rugs, under the beautiful Arabian skies.