Where Stars Like Cate Blanchett and Lee Daniels Hang Out in Dubai

Burj Khalifa__ - Getty - H 2016
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Hollywood has taken in the desert playground, where a Legoland just opened, luxury hotels and Michelin-starred chefs abound, and film festival guest Lee Daniels learned his "certain image of Arab culture" was dead wrong.

For Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Tom Cruise famously swung by a rope from the top of Dubai's most iconic structure, the Burj Khalifa, whose 2,700 feet of shimmering glass also were seen skewering London during the opening of Independence Day: Resurgence. Just around the corner, down the eight-lane main artery known as SZR (the Sheikh Zayed Road, where Justin Bieber racked up six speeding fines in one night driving a $400,000 Lamborghini Aventador), its business district had a cameo as an intergalactic star base in Star Trek Beyond.

It's fair to say that Dubai's architectural feats have caught the eye of Hollywood location scouts — "we came searching for the future and found it," says Star Trek producer Jeffrey Chernov — but the United Arab Emirates' multicultural hub (population 2.5 million; more than 90 percent expatriates) also has established itself as a destination for the long-haul vacationer (16 hours direct from L.A. on Emirates Airlines) looking for a safe entree into the Middle East. Under Dubai's largely liberal-minded government, it's about as common to see a miniskirt as a hijab, and alcohol is easily available. Winter temperatures hover in the mid-70s, offering a warm welcome during the Dubai Film Festival (Dec. 7 to 14), the biggest event of its kind in the region — Dev Patel, Michael B. Jordan, Emily Blunt, Owen Wilson and Lee Daniels are among recent guests. Now in its 13th year, the fest is set to welcome such stars as Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Longoria, with films including La La Land and Rogue One, which closes the fest two days before its U.S. release.

Viacom international executive Raffaele Annecchino, who has an office in Dubai's bustling Media City, relishes the city's many options. "If you want a swim, there are white-sand beaches and beautiful resorts; if you want to go shopping, you'll find some of the best malls you could imagine — where you can ski or skate, visit an aquarium and find any store you could possibly look for." Says screenwriter Max Landis, who flew over in April as a guest of the local Comic-Con, "It's literally unlike anywhere else in the world. You're out in the middle of nothingness, absolute nothingness, and someone had either the tenacity or simply the delusional stubbornness to build this glistening, impossible metropolis." Daniels recalls his visit as a "life-changing experience," highlighting how he'd been taught "a certain image of Arabic culture" that was wrong. A-listers' favorite haunts reveal secrets of the city that, as Landis puts it, "exists in defiance of reality itself."

Boasting a mere five stars is considered so ordinary in Dubai that one hotel had to give itself an additional two to stand out. That would be the landmark sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, with rooms from $1,460 a night, where Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner have dropped in via helicopter. This isn't a quiet, lo-fi hideaway, but a land of towering extravagance where lifting a finger often is frowned upon. But the Dar Al Masyaf (from $490) — part of the sprawling beachside Madinat Jumeirah complex, a tranquil resort of recently revamped Arabian-style villas, accessible by private "abra" boat — is where the film fest parks such star visitors as Cate Blanchett, David O. Russell and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Newer options include the W (from $245): Buzzed about for years, the shimmering spot opened its doors in the new Al Habtoor City neighborhood this summer. Sticking with Dubai's sky-scraping nature, reception is on the 30th floor, while 356 open-plan rooms offer truly exceptional views (only set to improve when the final phase of a major canal project is completed soon). Another luxury chain that took longer than most to make its Dubai debut, the grandiose low-rise St. Regis (from $350) is speckled with gold-leafed elegance (right down to the bar's precious metal-infused bloody mary twist, the golden mary). A Vegas-style aquatic theater — La Perle — by Franco Dragone, the man behind Cirque du Soleil's smash hit Le Reve, is set to take up residency in the same complex in early 2017.

Eva Longoria claims the best thing about Dubai is the multicultural mix, saying that she "can't walk five steps without hearing 10 different languages." There's no better reflection of this diversity than in the cuisine (notably Friday brunch, a Dubai institution offered by almost every eatery in town), with a constant stream of openings ensuring that buzz moves fast. Coya, a chic, award-winning Peruvian restaurant in the Jumeirah Four Seasons, is having its moment, with fans drawn to its ceviches and the langosta iron pot, with chunks of lobster.

The elegant La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie in the downtown neighborhood has topped La Petite Maison as Dubai's favorite upmarket French. "And the cocktails are to die for!" says Gianluca Chakra, head of regional distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment. The Maine Oyster Bar & Grill, set up by a Canadian "gastropreneur," is a fashionably laid-back brasserie serving Fine de Claire, Jersey and even Umami oysters (alongside fish tacos and Spanish mussels). And Michelin-starred U.S. chef Michael Mina has made a splashy Dubai debut with Firebird, a buzzy local twist on the 1940s diner — the local twist being a Wagyu steak and a $136 burger featuring foie gras and lobster tail.

The oft-used phrase "only in Dubai" can be underlined for ThEATre by Rhodes: a cinema-meets-private dining experience where sweaty hot dogs have been replaced with more refined offerings (foie gras panini) from Michelin-starred chef Gary Rhodes. "There's nothing better than eating gourmet food while watching a movie," says local filmmaker Majid Al-Ansari, whose thriller Zinzana became Netflix's first Arabic pickup this year.

For years, the chief activity in Dubai was a desert safari, a "dune bashing" adventure in a 4x4 amid the camels that's just a short drive out of town. While it's still something not to be missed — Simon Pegg and the rest of the Star Trek Beyond cast and crew enjoyed one, tacking on "dune buggy riding, a falconry demonstration and a traditional feast, followed by stargazing" — authorities recently have been spending hundreds of millions to keep the entertainment closer to town. The latest glittering addition is the 1,901-seat Dubai Opera, which opened at the end of August with a performance by Placido Domingo and has lined up such international shows as West Side Story and performances by Arabic singers.

Then there are the theme parks, with the number under construction likely to see Dubai soon rival Orlando. The $1 billion IMG Worlds of Adventure (no, not that IMG — this one stands for the Dubai-based Ilyas & Mustafa Galadari Group), billed as the "world's biggest indoor theme park," is among the first to have opened, featuring areas and roller-coaster rides based on characters from Marvel Comics and Cartoon Network. October saw the opening of Legoland, part of the vast Dubai Parks and Resorts complex, made up of six different zones, including the Hollywood-inspired Motiongate — with attractions from Sony, DreamWorks Animation and Lionsgate — where you can walk around the village from How to Train Your Dragon or ride the Hunger Games-inspired Capitol Bullet Train. There's also the new Green Planet, a "vertical rain forest" where visitors climb a spiral walkway past a giant banyan with real tropical birds. And, of course, there also are the long stretches of sandy beaches. "Jumeirah Beach is my favorite place in Dubai," says Hany Abu-Assad, the two-time Oscar-nominated director and film fest regular. "It's clean and quiet, and the colors are absolutely magnificent."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.