I dreamed of celebrating a milestone birthday, the big 3-0, lounging under the shade of palm trees far from central Europe. That September, we landed in Dubai, eager to experience the decadence of this desert paradise.

If you’re considering a Dubai holiday, make sure these adventures are on you wish list:

Book at a Beachfront Hotel
Dubai’s beachfront resorts promise alcoholic beverages, relaxed dress codes and luxuries like private beaches, pools, traditional hammans and exclusive restaurants. A dip in the Persian Gulf sounded refreshing until we discovered that the water was 90 degrees. We spent afternoons cooling off and rehydrating at the swim-up pool bar of Le Royal Meridien.

Tour Mega Malls
Hanging at the mall isn’t only for preteens anymore. The shopping centers here are entertainment hubs for all ages and have unexpected amenities.

The Dubai Mall is the largest in the world (based on total square footage) with 1,200 shops, 120 eateries, and the SEGA Republic theme park, as well as one of the largest aquariums worldwide; a dive in the shark tank is optional. Because of our schedule, we did not reach the Dubai Mail. But we did observe people bundled in cold-weather gear ride a full-size, four-person chairlift and parallel down perfectly groomed runs — while it was 100°F outside — at Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates.

The market of Madinat Jumeirah resort was surreal. The entire resort is like a Hollywood movie set depicting a romanticized old-world Arabian village. Visitors can even ride a pristine abra (traditional wood boat) across a manmade waterway, though there are fleets of abra ferries just beyond the resort.

Admire the Seven-Star Hotel
At the over-the-top Burj Al Arab resort, guests face dilemmas like choosing to arrive by Rolls Royce or helicopter. Rooms start at 1,000 euros a night and feature personal butlers and 24-karat gold iPads.

To set foot inside this exclusive establishment (without a room) requires dining reservations, so we booked my birthday dinner at the Al Mahara seafood restaurant. We tried a variety of dishes garnished with gold flecks; sipped from precariously tall, stemmed wine glasses; and watched fish swim round and round the central aquarium. It was the most expensive meal I may ever have and certainly one of the most memorable.

Have a Fabulous Friday Brunch
I had read that Friday brunch was the thing to do and couldn’t wait to have my favorite meal for the first time in what felt like an eternity. My expectations were surpassed by the quality and selection at Traiteur Park Hyatt. In the open kitchen, chefs served customers as they ordered grilled lobster tails, eggs Benedict, pan-fried foie gras and pineapple, oysters on the half shell … the list went on. An entire room — I called it heaven — was devoted to desserts. Staff stood by to cut slices of ornate cakes and prepare crepes with all the fixings.

There was one serious miscalculation in our planning: we had finished the Al Mahara seven-course birthday dinner after midnight and were not hungry. Still, we rallied to consume several plates of seafood, sweets and other culinary delights. On many occasions, we’ve seriously contemplated a day trip to Dubai for Traiteur’s brunch.

Escape to the Desert
Desert excursions are fun, despite their label as tourist traps. For a reasonable fee, an expert driver took us off-roading in a 4x4, which was simultaneously terrifying and exciting. For an hour we wound up then slid down the dunes, spinning tires and spitting sand. At one point our driver rescued another jeep stuck in the sand, which gave us a few extra minutes of dune bashing.

We reached camp for dinner and entertainment. The food was plentiful, and the whirling dervishes were mesmerizing. I rode a docile camel named Champagne and posed for photos with a falcon. Before it was too late, our group clamored up a dune to sit silently as the setting sun painted the desert shades of copper and gold.

See Dubai from the Sky
The world’s tallest residential housing, tallest hotel, tallest building and the rest of Dubai’s skyline are best appreciated by seaplane, helicopter or the Burj Khalifa observation deck.

The haze covering the city in previous days dissipated the morning of our 15-minute helicopter ride. We hovered at 1,500 feet, half the height of the Burj Khalifa; I could not comprehend the enormity of the world’s tallest building as it towered over the rest of the city. I was less impressed by the World Islands, a manmade archipelago meant to resemble a map of the world from above. They looked like disorganized blobs of sand to me.

Shop the Souks
Tourists hunt and haggle for bargains on spices, jewelry, perfume and textiles at various souks (markets). At the gold souk, I coveted fabulous bling but didn’t make any purchases because we blew our budget on other incredible Dubai experiences … maybe next time.